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7 July 2009 : Column GC179

Grand Committee

Tuesday, 7 July 2009.

Welfare Reform Bill

Main Bill Page
Copy of Bill
Explanatory Notes
7th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
14th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights
9th Report from the Constitution Committee

Committee (9th Day)

3.30 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton): Good afternoon. We are now on the ninth Marshalled List of amendments to be moved in Grand Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill. Before calling the first amendment, I must remind Members that if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Schedule 6 : Registration of births

Amendment 178ZC

Moved by Baroness Crawley

178ZC: Schedule 6, page 93, leave out lines 28 to 35 and insert-

"(6) The Minister may by regulations provide that, except in such cases as the regulations may prescribe, where the mother is required by subsection (1) to give information relating to the father-

(a) the mother's duty under section 2A to sign the register is to have effect as a duty to sign a declaration in such form as may be so prescribed,

(b) the registrar is not to register the birth of the child until such time as may be determined in accordance with the regulations, and

(c) the entry in the register is to be taken for the purposes of this Act to have been signed by the person who signed the declaration."

Baroness Crawley: This amendment and those grouped with it are technical amendments necessary to effect new Sections 2B, 2C and 2D in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. These sections cover the processes to be followed in cases where unmarried parents are acting separately because they cannot or will not register jointly in the usual co-operative way.

The need for these amendments came to light as we worked through the detail of the process with the General Register Office and practising registrars. The amendments take us back to our original intention that the changes in the Bill to the registration process should not be onerous.

Under the joint birth registration provisions, most parents will register together, as they do now. However, in exceptional cases, parents may provide information separately because they cannot or will not register the birth together. In some of these cases, the mother will give the registrar her required information in advance of the father providing his details. At this time she will also give details of the father to the registrar so that the registrar can contact him and require him to co-operate with the registration process.

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The amendments ensure that the mother will not be required to return to the register office to sign the register once the father has been contacted. Instead, she will discharge her duty to sign the register by signing a declaration when she first attends. Therefore, when the birth is registered, once the father's information has been obtained the entry will be considered to have been signed by the mother.

It is important that no unnecessary steps are built into the joint birth registration provisions. That would undermine the policy intention of removing barriers to joint birth registration. We wish to ensure that we do not place any unnecessary burdens on either registrars or parents, and these amendments fulfil our intention to make the exceptional processes for joint registration as streamlined as possible. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: It is with some regret that I have to issue a small warning to the Minister: if I do not like her responses to my questions on this block of government amendments, I reserve the right to say no when the Question is put. In that event, as I am sure she knows, the amendments will have to be carried forward-if the Government still want to move them-to the next stage of the Bill, because we have to reach general agreement in Grand Committee. That is why I have spent days and days withdrawing a whole series of amendments. I knew perfectly well that no agreement would be forthcoming.

Amendment 178ZC refers to the "Minister" making regulations. This I find confusing for two reasons. First, I would have expected the Secretary of State rather than the Minister to lay regulations, as that is what happens in all other parts of this Bill on welfare reform. I note that subsection (6) of proposed new Section 2B, which is to be replaced by Amendment 178ZC, also refers to the Minister. This government amendment has prompted me to look again at Schedule 6 to ensure that it is at least consistent, but that does not answer my question. Why is the word "Minister", who is given the power in the regulations, littered throughout Schedule 6 rather than the "Secretary of State"? Either I or my noble friend should have put down an amendment to leave out "Minister" wherever it occurs and insert "Secretary of State". I regret that I did not do so.

The second reason I am confused is that, so far as I can see, Section 39 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, which gives order-making powers to the Registrar-General, remains on the statute book. I learnt only this morning that, among other things, the Registrar-General has previously provided for the situation where a birth occurs on a hovercraft, which rather surprised me. Surely Section 39 should be excised either in Schedule 6 or Schedule 7, which covers repeals and revocations of the 1953 Act.

I also find Amendment 178ZE rather curious. The Minister's regulations are to cover inter alia the position where the alleged father is not required to sign the register and it is to be taken as if he had. I did not hear an explanation from the noble Baroness about this, but it would be helpful if she could expand on the matter. The same applies to Amendment 178BB, which appears to be a repetition of the same proposal, although for the different purpose of covering the

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confirmation of parentage information given by the mother. Ideally, as the noble Baroness said, this information will be confirmed by the father, but the whole point of great chunks of this schedule is to provide for where this is impossible under new Sections 2A and 2B.

Lord Northbourne: I should like to follow the noble Lord in asking for more detail on Amendment 178ZE, because it is difficult to understand. I want also to point out the lack of read-through from Part 3 to Part 4. One of the things this legislation is about is increasing the uptake of child maintenance, but another is increasing the number of births registered by both parents. When the father is called upon to give his details and to accept registration, is he told that whether he does so or not in no way alters his liability to pay child maintenance? I suspect that many fathers think that they can get off paying child maintenance by not establishing their paternity through signing the register and that they might not sign it for that reason.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: Briefly, Part 4, Clause 46 and Schedule 6 are different. They have absolutely nothing to do with welfare reform, social security law or anything else, and are tagged on for the convenience of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and nothing else, so far as I can see. As well as answering important and detailed questions, will the Minister recap the justification for having the clause and the schedule at all? I guess they mean that the child maintenance commissioner will much more efficiently track down people and realise payments for children who deserve them. In so far as that works, that is welcome, but what is the impact assessment of all this? What is the calculation of the extra maintenance that will flow from making these new arrangements? What is the business case? How many extra parents over the period will expect to be brought into the child maintenance system in future?

It is important that the Government make a case for having this clause and this schedule at all. They must have had some directions and guidance from the child maintenance commissioner. So that the context for the questions asked by other noble Lords who have spoken in this important little debate are properly understood, it would help certainly me if no one else to get a feel for what Clause 46 and Schedule 6 actually bring to the important question of generating more maintenance in the future. If it is a big number, the inconvenience of the clause may well be worth having. If it is not, it will not.

Baroness Crawley: I thank noble Lords for their questions. A number of noble Lords raised a number of issues. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked about the Minister making regulations and about the reference to "Minister" throughout the amendment. We are simply following the standard wording of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 by using the term "Minister". The rest of the Bill amends later social security legislation, which refers to the Secretary of State, so the amendment follows the wording of the 1953 Act.

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The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, also asked about the amendment being different for fathers than for mothers. Unlike an unmarried mother, an unmarried father is not required to sign the register under the 1953 Act. Therefore, an equivalent amendment is not necessary for unmarried fathers. Instead, this amendment ensures that it will be possible for an unmarried father to be considered to have signed the register if he signs a prescribed declaration. We will consider the circumstances in which this may be helpful as we develop details of the regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked a question about child maintenance. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, also referred to this. Child maintenance liability is completely unrelated to birth registration. Not being on the register does not absolve a father from child maintenance liability.

3.45 pm

Lord Northbourne: I realise what the Minister has just said, but my question was: will the man be informed of this? If not, it might discourage him from signing.

Baroness Crawley: The registrar would not mention or deal with child maintenance issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, also asked about the child maintenance regime. The child maintenance commissioner can use the birth register as a source, but that is not the primary aim of the legislation. As the noble Lord is well aware, the legislation is about encouraging parental responsibility beyond the purely fiscal element. I hope that I have covered noble Lords' inquiries.

Lord Skelmersdale: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I recognise that, as she said almost in her opening sentence, we are talking about fairly technical regulations. My major grouse is on the subject of "Minister" and "Secretary of State", which I explained to the noble Baroness when I first responded to the amendments. The only reference to "Minister" in the Births and Deaths Registration Act that I can find is in Section 39, which states:

"The Registrar General may, with the approval of the Minister, by statutory instrument make regulations",

for two purposes-it does not matter what the purposes are. For the noble Baroness to say that the schedule has been drafted to be in conformity with the 1953 Act is difficult to accept. Will she therefore have another go at answering my question?

Baroness Crawley: I hope that the following additional information will reassure the noble Lord. The "Minister" is defined in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 as the Secretary of State in Section 41, headed "Interpretation".

Lord Skelmersdale: With the greatest respect, that is not correct. The "Minister" is defined in Section 41 as the Minister of Health, which is no longer applicable. In any case, in this day and age the "Secretary of State" covers any Secretary of State, including the Secretary of State for Health.

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Baroness Crawley: Perhaps we are talking about different versions; the noble Lord may have an older version of the Act. Section 41, headed "Interpretation", states:

"'The Minister' means the Secretary of State".

Lord Skelmersdale: From what is the noble Baroness reading?

Baroness Crawley: From the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, amended as per Welfare Reform Bill, introduced 14 January 2009.

Lord Skelmersdale: That makes me even more confused, although it is not worth prolonging this argument now. However, I suspect that the noble Baroness is about to press the amendment. I regret that, in the circumstances, I have to say no.

Baroness Crawley: In those circumstances, I am happy to withdraw it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 178ZC withdrawn.

Amendments 178ZCA to 178ZE not moved.

Amendment 178A

Moved by Baroness Thomas of Winchester

178A: Schedule 6, page 94, line 34, at beginning insert "Save where subsection (1A) applies,"

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group but, before doing so, I thank the Minister for listening to our earlier concerns and for agreeing to bring forward an amendment at the next stage exempting victims of domestic violence from the requirement to look for work for three months. It is extremely welcome to have that spelt out in the Bill. While I am on my feet, I also thank him for the other concessions set out in the letter that he gave us and in the speech that he made last Thursday. They almost took us by surprise but are most welcome, and I thank him very much for listening to our concerns. However, I do not think that that means that we will not have a lively Report stage.

We reached the clauses concerning joint birth registrations late last Thursday, when the problem of domestic violence was raised but only very briefly during the short debate on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. As the Minister's amendments in the previous group were technical, it may help if I recap what my amendment refers to in this part of the Bill.

At present, 84 per cent of all births outside marriage are jointly registered. As we heard last Thursday, just 7 per cent of all births-around 45,000 cases-are solely registered, and this proportion is on a downward trend. The DWP's own research suggests that in around half of cases where a child's birth is solely registered-about 23,000 cases-the mother is not in any relationship with the father at the time of the birth. Around 40 per cent are aged 20 or under, with the research indicating that they face high levels of disadvantage.

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This part of the Bill introduces compulsory joint birth registration for all unmarried parents. We on these Benches endorse the principle of joint birth registration and wish fathers to take as active a role as mothers in bringing up their children where this is possible and safe. Any child has a right to know the identity of his or her father, and that is why we believe that joint birth registration should be positively encouraged where it is safe to do so. Those who have briefed us on this part of the Bill are also keen to make it clear that they are not opposed to the principle of joint birth registration and emphatically do not want to weaken these clauses. These organisations are primarily Gingerbread, which speaks for one-parent families, the NSPCC, Family Action, Women's Aid, Refuge, the National Family and Parenting Institute and the Fawcett Society.

So what is the problem and why do we need this amendment? In, I stress, a small minority of cases, we believe that without adequate safeguards vulnerable women and children could be put at risk because of a loophole in the Bill. Under Schedule 6, the mother does not have to provide crucial information enabling the father to be contacted by the registrar if she has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if steps are taken to contact the father requiring him to register. As we know from last Thursday's debate, if a mother registers the birth alone and does not know the whereabouts of the father so that he cannot be contacted, the father cannot be registered, even if the mother knows his name, because no data can be considered which cannot be verified. The Minister made that very clear. However, what happens if a father himself approaches the registrar either before or after the birth asking to be on the birth certificate? If the mother confirms his paternity, the father then acquires parental responsibility for the child in all circumstances.

The first group of amendments covers the situation where the father approaches the registrar before the birth, while the second group deals with a situation where the father comes forward after sole registration has taken place seeking a re-registration of the birth to record him as the father. The amendments seek to ensure that, in these circumstances, if the mother declares to the registrar that the father poses a danger to herself and her child, then the father's name is not recorded on the birth registration. It might be possible for it to be recorded elsewhere by the registrar, but we know that the Government are not keen on that. It would, however, be open to the father to apply to the family court under Section 4 of the Children Act for an order allowing him to have parental responsibility. If the court so ordered, the registrar could then enter the father's name on the register as the father of the child. Even if the court did not order that he should have parental responsibility, it could still record that he was the father of the child. I gather that this happens now.

Parental responsibility gives the parent the right to have a say in the major decisions in the child's life, including on their name, religion, education and medical treatment and on where the child lives. It also enables a parent to apply for a passport for the child. Parental responsibility gives fathers a right to approach agencies, such as schools and hospitals, for information about

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the child. NSPCC practitioners have encountered cases where schools have allowed dangerous parents to collect children from school because the parent has parental responsibility, so this is not only a theoretical problem.

When the White Paper on joint birth registration was published last year, the Government accepted that there were certain circumstances, such as where a man had been convicted of rape or violence against the mother or was on the sex offenders register, where it would be unsuitable for a father's name to go on the birth certification. Paragraph 29 states:

Why is this condition omitted from the Bill?

Studies show that 30 per cent of domestic violence starts during pregnancy and that the period immediately after the birth can be a time of particular tension. The Bill gives no protection to a mother from a violent and abusive man who wishes to gain access to the woman or child through the misuse of the parental responsibility that he has acquired in relation to the new baby in a situation where she might be trying to get away and escape that control. Research evidence shows that violence and victimisation of women and children can continue, and even escalate, after the relationship has ended and the parents are separated. There is another very worrying statistic: it is estimated that between 30 and 60 per cent of children whose mothers are subjected to domestic violence are also being abused.

To sum up, the amendments simply seek to prevent a small minority of dangerous men gaining automatic parental responsibility in relation to a child as a result of their names having to go on the birth register without the proper scrutiny of a family court. If the family court orders that the father should have parental responsibility, the birth of the child can be re-registered including the father's name. If the Bill acknowledges, as it does, that the safety of a mother and her child is a potential issue when compulsory joint registration of births is implemented by the registrar, why does it offer protection only when the mother approaches the registrar and not when the father separately approaches the registrar? In the former situation protection is given; in the latter situation it is not.

I repeat that there are no exemptions in the Bill to protect mothers or children from a father who has previous convictions and a history of violence, or even rape, against the mother and/or other children if that father independently contacts the registrar. I urge the Minister to consider these amendments. I beg to move.

4 pm

Baroness Meacher: I shall speak to Amendments 178C and 178D, which seek, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, to rule out the entry of the father on the child's birth certificate if the mother makes a declaration stating that she has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father acquires parental responsibility. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the

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amendment because it provides an opportunity to debate the importance of engaged fatherhood to the well-being of children in almost all cases and the need to avoid risk to a child, while at the same time ensuring whenever possible-I repeat, whenever possible-that a father is engaged with a child from birth.

Of course I agree with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has said, but I shall try to put a different point of view which I think is an important perspective. We need to consider the considerable social consequences of the loss of engaged fatherhood for the child and the importance of the registration process in ensuring the involvement of services where that is necessary to deal with problems where possible, or to go through the courts if absolutely necessary in order to deal with a father who has irreparable problems or problems that cannot be resolved through the involvement of services.

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