|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
We know that regularly paid maintenance is not only good for children in the signal that it sends from fathers about being committed to their children's lives, but that it can be the payment above all-all the Alan Marsh research shows this-that lifts a lone parent with a couple of children from below the poverty line to above it. It can be transforming. It is like privatised, old fashioned family credit if it is paid and paid regularly. It will be so paid only if it is established early, and that means through a statutory system in which good behaviour allows you to go on to the voluntary path. I very much fear that in going down the path not just of voluntarism but of trying to get rid of CMEC, which at least was trying very hard to ensure that money was paid to children, we will lose the real benefits that are available to children through the poverty objectives and we will be overcome by the structural problems of seeking to reduce costs. That is highly unfortunate.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I apologise for not being here the whole time. I had to chair quite an important meeting on stalking, but that is another matter. I had not realised until just now that the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to which I have put my name, is in this group.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for introducing this group of amendments and acknowledge his long-standing interest and expertise in issues of child maintenance. Like him, I pay tribute to the staff of the CSA and CMEC who, over many years, have stuck with the various iterations of child maintenance that they have had to deal with and sometimes struggle with.
My noble friend Lady Hollis gave us a brief history of child maintenance. It is right that one of the problems and the reason why the first of these amendments in particular-I support them all-is so important is that along the way the CSA has sought to be different things and to achieve different objectives. In 1991, it
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC51
I agree with the analysis made by my noble friend Lady Lister. Generally, parents with care are overwhelmingly women and non-residents parents are overwhelmingly men. Sadly, too many non-resident parents do not see it as their obligation to support their children. In one particularly extreme case, a file crossed my desk in which a non-resident parent was arguing about an assessment. He was self-employed and said that if he had to pay at the level he was asked to pay in support of his children he would have to keep his Rolls-Royce for a second year rather than change it. I kid you not. That actually happened.
As we have heard, Amendment 113B would introduce into the Child Support Act 1991 a clear statutory objective identical to the objectives we set out for the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. In short, it would maximise the number of children for whom effective maintenance arrangements are in place. We know that the demise of CMEC is planned under the Public Bodies Bill and that its function will be taken on by an executive agency of the DWP. Once CMEC is abolished, its objectives and functions will no longer be set out in primary legislation. Unless the Minister can direct me otherwise, the 1991 Act, so far as I am aware, does not have that as an objective. The Government have launched a consultation on their proposals to abolish CMEC and to transfer its functions to the DWP, but it would seem from the draft order that there is no intent to transfer the objective of the commission. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that and, as my noble friend Lady Sherlock said, tell us why.
As has also been mentioned, the 2008 Act contained two subsidiary objectives: one to encourage and support the making and keeping of voluntary arrangements, the other to support the making of applications under the statutory scheme and ensuring compliance therewith. Our debate at the time of the 2008 legislation was whether one of these subsidiary objectives took precedence over the other. We took the view-and continue to take the view-that where voluntary arrangements are appropriate, they should be encouraged and supported as they are typically more sustainable. However, there was a clear recognition that there should be an unfettered
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC52
These matters are important in the current context because, whatever the debate at the time about the balance of the two measures, the thrust of this Government's proposals will clearly pushig people away from the statutory system. The proposals for charging, the gateway, the NRP's veto and the migration proposals from the old and current to the new system will obviously be debated in subsequent amendments. However, there is concern that, overall, these proposals will mean that the opportunity for maximising maintenance arrangements will be lost, particularly to the most vulnerable. In these circumstances, to have the explicit objective of maximising the number of children benefitting from maintenance arrangements should be supported, particularly for the reasons given by my noble friend Lady Sherlock.
We know that child maintenance can make a huge difference to the quality of a child's life. We have heard also about the progress that has been made in recent years but there is still much to do. What will the abolition of CMEC's main objective mean? A number of questions arise from the abolition of a clear and transparent obligation on the part of CMEC as an agent of the Secretary of State to apply the powers and functions available to it, with the clear overall objective of maximising the number of effective child maintenance arrangements. Although the Government have said that they will continue to have such a commitment, in practice that commitment may come under threat at a time of considerable pressure to reduce the statutory case load in order to reduce DWP expenditure.
As we have heard, the Minister told the Public Bill Committee that child maintenance was only one issue facing separating families. There is a risk that, by choosing to focus on the wider range of issues that affect families on separation, the Government could lose sight of the primary objective of the commission: getting money to children. The Government are confident that they will actually increase the proportion of children receiving child maintenance by creating a new infrastructure of family support services to enable significantly more parents to make and maintain collaborative, family-based arrangements. However, as yet this is very much work in progress with few detailed plans or investment details published.
We also support Amendment 113C, which calls for a regular report from the commission that looks at a range of information that should in effect underpin the approach of pushing people away from the statutory service and towards private or voluntary arrangements. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, we are thoroughly supportive of the proposal to build an integrated model of relationship and family support services that will help families to make their own lasting agreements, but given that engaging with such services is the gateway to the statutory system, and given the charging proposals, which will deter parents from accessing the statutory system, it is vital that we understand the level of need and the scope and capacity of the family support
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC53
As for Amendment 113D, the Bill will require an applicant to the statutory system to take reasonable steps to establish whether it is possible or appropriate to make a private or voluntary agreement. However, this will require the engagement of the other party. We know how difficult it can be and, sadly, the lengths to which some will go to avoid their responsibility to children, which puts the onus on the PWC. That is not right. We support the right of automatic access to the statutory service if the other party does not engage. However, I wonder whether the 14-day period is a little too short.
We also support Amendment 113F. I think the original plan was that by 2013 there would be one statutory scheme based on the gross income of the NRP, with most of the information obtained directly from HMRC, as I said a moment ago. Presumably that could be real-time information now or very shortly. It is now proposed to close all CSA cases over a two-year period. They will be given three months and will have to go through the gateway. Some 1.2 million families currently in the system, plus new ones coming into it, will be affected by this. What is the capacity of gateway services to cope with these volumes? How is it to be structured? There is a suggestion that only those who cannot reach a family-based arrangement need apply to the statutory scheme, and there will be a fee structure to encourage this. Is that the same fee structure that it is proposed will be applied generally, or is this a special separate and specifically targeted fee arrangement? If so, what is it? This seems to us to be another example of seeking to force cases out of the statutory system.
The gateway will be in its infancy. Who will make the judgment and what will be the process? Will there be an appeals process or will people be forced out with no right of redress? Will someone who is denied access be able to start the process again and, if so, within what period of time? If family arrangements do not work, how long will it be before a fresh application can be made to the statutory scheme? As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, cases may have been around for a very long time and this approach could revive old conflicts. Will both parents have to engage with the gateway? How long will that process take? We have no problem with advice, but at the end of the day people must have a choice as to whether or not they enter the statutory scheme.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, it might be helpful, if noble Lords will allow, if I spend a little time setting the scene for this group and the next two groups of amendments. As noble Lords have mentioned, they are closely interrelated.
Let me say at the outset that one thing on which I am sure we can all agree is that the really vulnerable people in all this are the children. They are the people we most want to protect. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and others who have made similar comments. It is our strong view that the best outcome
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC54
Previously parents had to choose between the courts, the CSA, trying to work out how to set up a voluntary agreement or having no arrangement in place at all. All too often-in fact for half the children concerned-it has been the last of these. For the first time we will be offering real help to families to consider whether they can collaborate and establish a more effective family-based arrangement without heavy state involvement. We of course understand that reaching a voluntary agreement is not always going to be possible, although we think it could be achieved much more often than it is at present. Where it is simply not possible, there has to be a fallback option, and that will remain the statutory system.
The last Government introduced, through the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008-to which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, referred-the concept of charging, and we turn to this in more detail in the next group of amendments. I take this opportunity to say that we agree with the last Government that the concept of charging is acceptable, but if people are to be asked to pay they are entitled to ask for a better service. That is why we will radically improve the statutory system with a stronger, more reliable IT system and a strong suite of enforcement measures.
The first part of Amendment 113B seeks to place an objective on the Secretary of State through the provisions of the Child Support Act 1991 to maximise the number of effective maintenance arrangements for children who live apart from one or both parents. This is the current statutory objective of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. The commission also has a number of statutory functions, one of which is to provide the statutory service currently delivered by the CSA. When the commission is abolished, its functions will transfer to the Secretary of State exactly as they now stand. Its statutory objective will not, however, transfer to the Secretary of State as the objective was specific to the commission in a way that the functions are not. So the issue that noble Lords are raising is what will happen when the commission is abolished and its functions transfer to the Secretary of State.
The Government's position is unequivocal, and I am glad to have this opportunity to reiterate for the record our commitment to the objective of maximising the number of effective maintenance arrangements for children who live apart from one or both parents. I hope that that satisfies my noble friend's request for a strong assurance. When the delivery of functions has been given to an arm's-length body, as is presently the
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC55
The second part of the amendment seeks to place a duty on the Secretary of State to make and lay a report before Parliament twice a year giving details of progress made in achieving this objective. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is currently considering the measurement and reporting of success, which we agree is vital. In particular, we are developing plans for monitoring the number of effective arrangements across the whole population of separated families, including those who do not use the statutory service. I do not believe we need to impose this requirement by statute.
My noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked about the progress of the Government's response to the Select Committee report. The Government believe that the strategic vision for the child maintenance system should place positive outcomes for families and, in particular, children at its heart. The Government are therefore determined to listen to and review all the inputs made by a range of stakeholders representing families and children as they shape final policy. All the questions raised by the Committee need to be answered fully, and the Government wish to produce an informative response from a strong position. The delay reflects this.
My noble friend asked when we will publish the draft regulations. I can confirm that that will be by Christmas. He also asked about progress with the IT system. We are determined not to repeat the problems of the past by introducing a new system when it is not ready. It is important to get a new system right before it goes live. We are not developing a system from scratch. We will use tried and tested commercially available software packages. We have learnt from the experiences of the CSA and aim to provide a system that puts the client first and provides value for money for taxpayers. We are confident that the new system is on track for its 2012 launch.
Let me now turn to Amendment 113C. This seeks to ensure biannual reporting on a range of issues relating to parents who are unable to establish effective arrangements and the services that might help them achieve this. Let me emphasise that we are fully committed to evaluating the impact of the reforms. The estimated impacts will be set out in the impact assessments that will accompany the draft regulations on charging and CSA case closure that will be consulted on next year. Evaluation could involve the use of current household surveys or the commissioning of specialist surveys aimed at the child maintenance population alone. However, these are very expensive to run. An annual survey could cost around £1 million. One large determinant of cost is frequency and another is sample size. The more we look for disaggregated results covering particular subgroups, the larger the sample size has to
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC56
If the underlying intention behind the amendment is concern about those children who are not covered by an effective arrangement and whose parents need some support to be able to establish an arrangement, then perhaps I can offer further reassurance. Prior to the commission, parents had only three choices: to use the CSA, to use the courts, or to go it alone. The commission introduced the child maintenance options service to provide information, support and signposting to other services. We want to build on this so that parents can reach their own family-based arrangements without having to go it alone. The options services will be replaced by the family support service and the gateway. The result will be an increased level of advice and support for parents building on the experiences learnt from operating the options service and taking on board recommendations from the expert steering group put together to advise on such matters.
Baroness Sherlock: I thank the Minister for explaining what will happen to the options service. I confess that I have had the opportunity to listen in to the options service in action in a previous role and, as I understand it at the moment, when a parent with care phones the options service to ask for advice and information, it would steer her towards making an arrangement-because that is the objective-but it would not try to steer her to make it in one direction or the other; it would give her the information she needed to make a choice. Is it the Government's intention that these replacement services will steer that parent with care away from the statutory service and to another service, irrespective of whether the best interests of herself and her child might be served by it?
The purpose of the "gateway" clause is to give all parents the opportunity fully to understand their range of choices and the support that is available to overcome barriers to family-based arrangements. It is in no way intended to prevent them accessing the statutory service if that is the best option for them. We simply want that to be a considered choice. Parents can come back to the statutory service at any time if a family- based arrangement does not work out.
The "gateway" will take the form of a telephone conversation with an agent who will simply explain the available maintenance choices to the prospective applicant and signpost them to any associated help they might need. At the end of that conversation, if the parent feels that the statutory service is the best option, they will be transferred to the statutory service to begin the application process. We will develop an analogous approach for parents wishing to apply online.
We are also aware that a variety of support services for separating families already exists in the voluntary and community sector. However, we all know that there is a multitude of complex issues to be addressed during separation and it can be difficult, especially at a time of distress, for parents to find the information and support that they need. The gateway will also help signpost parents to such support so that if, following the conversation with an agent, they decide that they want to try to establish a family-based arrangement, we can help them find the support they need to do so.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: Will the Minister explain the difference between what he has just described and the current options service, other than the related charges that come through? The charges will need to be explained before somebody can make an application but, apart from that, in terms of the support and information that are given, how does the new arrangement differ?
With the right support in place to help parents collaborate better, more children will be able to benefit from effective family-based maintenance arrangements. Outcomes for children across a range of measures are almost always best when parents work together. We want to make it easier for parents to access support by ensuring that it is available in a more co-ordinated way.
We want the people who know families best to shape these plans. That is why we asked a steering group of academics and voluntary sector experts to help us develop proposals for better coordinating support at a local and national level and as to how most appropriately to measure success. I am pleased to be able to say that we will look to act on this advice and to commit increased funding as detailed proposals emerge. This could include, for example, a web portal or a helpline that would provide an entry point to the wide range of services which are already available but parents may not be aware of. The helpline might, for example, offer a "triage" conversation to help parents identify their priority issues and obstacles and then advise on how and where to get support on them. The web portal would provide a framework to help co-ordinate the wide variety of online services already available, ranging from interactive advice and support from experts to forums where parents can talk to others in the same situation to share learning and information. The steering group will also consider how best to co-ordinate face-to-face local services to offer help and support. We will also look to test which interventions are most effective in helping parents overcome any obstacles to collaboration. This will be critical in helping us to decide where best to direct funding.
Amendment 113D would appear to create a period within which the prospect of an application being made to the statutory service against the non-resident parent would act as a stimulus to the NRP to engage in conversation with the commission. The conversation would encourage the NRP to consider taking action towards a family-based arrangement. This is a welcome intention, but one drawback is that it would impose a
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC58
The commission also has the objective of promoting financial responsibility. It should not be only the threat of an application to the statutory service that forces non-resident parents to be mindful of their obligations. The commission will continue to work to produce the cultural change outlined in the Green Paper so that the statutory service is the last resort rather than the default option. This will not happen overnight but this rebalancing of approach away from state intervention to parental collaboration must be the right approach.
Amendment 113F would exempt existing CSA clients from the need to take reasonable steps before applying to the new statutory scheme. It is just as important that these parents consider the possibility of reaching a family-based arrangement as parents entering the child maintenance system for the first time, particularly as they will be treated as if they are making a fresh application. Research tells us that 51 per cent of CSA parents with care feel that they would be likely or very likely to make a family-based arrangement were they to receive the right help and support. In addition, many CSA clients were compelled to apply to the CSA as a condition of applying for benefit.
Therefore, it is surely right to give CSA client parents who feel that they can make an arrangement and who may have been required to use the CSA the scope to consider whether a family-based arrangement could work for them. I challenge the view that the only way to have an effective arrangement is to have the state manage it. That approach has been shown not to work. Our proposals will provide more support for family-based arrangements and more options for reaching effective arrangements.
My noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked about the costs of transition, which will be effected over a three-year period. Estimates of cost will accompany consultation on the regulations covering case closure and charging, which will set out the spending profiles. The policy has not been finalised, so costs have not yet been firmed up.
In the context of Amendment 113D, my noble friend Lady Tyler referred to there being no charge on the NRP, to which I will turn when we deal with the next group. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked how the gateway is different from options. The conversation is basically the same. The difference is that we would expect applicants to have the options conversation before applying to the statutory service. At present, they go straight to the CSA. Earlier, I mentioned that we want to make the statutory service more effective. He also asked whether there is capacity to cope with case closure and how support will be structured. Yes, there are no concerns about capacity and support will be structured along similar lines as CM options.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also asked whether the same fee structure would be applied generally and, if not, what it will be. There will be one application charge only. He asked whether there would be an appeals process, if I understood him correctly. I think there is no need for an appeals service because the gateway is simply a phone call. He asked whether, if access is denied, an individual can apply again. Yes, they can. He asked how soon they can get on the statutory scheme. The answer is immediately. He asked whether both parents need to interact with the gateway. No, it requires just one telephone call, which generally is from the parent with care but both parents are free to seek advice.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I am sure that the Minister wants the Committee to make progress. I have to confess that I am disappointed that we have not been able to get a quantification of the costs for the maintenance and support system to which the Minister referred. If I have understood what he said- I will read his words carefully tomorrow, as I am sure we all will, and I am grateful for his reply-it looks to me as if we are going to get to Report stage and the later stages not knowing what investment and what timescale we will be dealing with in terms of the proposed support systems in this new iteration of the Child Support Agency. We still do not know whether the families and relationships funding scheme from the Department for Education will be replaced in 2013. That involves a substantial sum of money, £30 million. If we do not get at least £30 million and then some, it could be construed as an effective cut.
This is very important stuff. If we do not get some comfort in terms of what we can expect in the roll-out and the resources invested in a system which presumably will last for the foreseeable future, then I do not think that any of us can really be confident that this change in legislation will do the job that it sets out to do.
"(3) Nothing in regulations under subsection (1) shall impose a liability on a parent with care for the payment of fees to the Commission where that parent has taken all reasonable steps to establish whether it is possible or appropriate to make a maintenance agreement (within the meaning of section 9 of the Child Support
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC60
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, in view of the Prime Minister's speech, to which the noble Baronesses referred, I thought it right to write to him to give notice of the amendment which I am moving. I copied the letter to the Secretary of State, to Maria Miller and to my noble friend Lord Freud. I got a very substantial reply from Maria Miller quite recently, explaining to me first, that the Government's point of view was to try to get people to reach agreement; secondly, that various improvements were to be made in the system for getting money off the recalcitrant parent; and thirdly, that the amounts likely to be charged to the parent in question in my amendment would be rather small. Unfortunately, on the main point the letter appeared to hold to the previous position, which is why I am moving this amendment.
Unfortunately, experience has shown that there are some people with an obligation to their children who are not willing to make such an arrangement. When I first became Lord Chancellor I distinctly remember receiving a number of heart-rending letters from people who had obtained decrees in the magistrates' court and the defendant had disappeared. The people writing could not do anything about tracing the defendants. They did not have the necessary resources. It is difficult enough for a large international group to trace somebody who wants to hide. For a lady on her own-and usually it was a woman who was writing, although that does not necessarily follow-to try to find somebody who wants to hide from his obligations is an impossible task. That was one of the motivations I had in supporting, with my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree, the 1991 Act which set the CSA on its rather troubled course.
The principle of it was perfectly reasonable. The only difficulty was to implement the full policy, because some additional policy considerations were put on to it, which made the formula and its application rather difficult. The situation we are in now is that the Government are supporting the view that, if possible, parents should reach agreement about their children. As I say, I entirely support that. It is the principle behind the Family Law Act 1996, which I was responsible for bringing to Parliament and which went on the statute book, but so far, as far as this part of it is concerned, remains unimplemented. I entirely agree with that. However, when a woman, as a typical example, has taken all reasonable steps and done all that she can to reach an agreement but cannot manage it, I do not agree that she should be charged by the CSA for her application. I entirely agree with the power given in the 2008 Act to require fees to be paid-that was
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC61
In her letter, Maria Miller mentioned that they were raising the level of child support. So be it, but the last thing you would want to do with the enhanced level of child support-which, I assume, is considered necessary for the support of the child-is to use it to pay a fee to the CSA. I do not understand how this can be justified. It is purely a matter of justice and fairness and nothing else. It is a short point and very easy to state. With that, I move my amendment.
Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I know other noble Lords have attached their name to this amendment but I crave the indulgence of the Committee for a few minutes. As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay said, we were in cahoots on this 20 years ago. We are in cahoots on it today and I support him totally in what he has said and what he is proposing.
At one stage I thought it was a pity that this group of amendments had not been placed with the next group. I did not agree with everything that was said on the previous group, but I do not have the courage to say who I disagreed with and so I will keep my head down on that. I should like the Minister to explain to me sometime-not tonight-the overarching coalition philosophy that links the Public Bodies Bill proposition that Ministers should take all decisions and the NHS Bill philosophy which says that Ministers should take no decisions. He can think about that and come back to me at his leisure-which might be in about three years' time.
I, too, am grateful to Gingerbread for some helpful briefing. I wish to cover some historical points, one of which indicates that I have some sympathy with one of the noble Baronesses facing me-namely, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. My noble and learned friend has used characteristically more emollient language than I, but the original CSA proposals were made difficult by two things: one was that the Treasury wanted too much money out of it too soon; the second-and there have been echoes of this in the discussions today-was that the political classes, and I include myself in that, did not understand what they were dealing with.
There are four people in this Room who are former MPs-one of whom is in a Trappist position because she is the Deputy Chairman-my noble friend the former Member for the Cities of London and Westminster; my noble friend the former Member for-I forget what it was called but it was the Borders.
Lord Newton of Braintree: Yes. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley-he was lurking-and the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. I am sorry. I had looked only at the Front Benches and included myself. They may care to chip in. If their experience was anything like mine when the CSA came into effect in 1992, for a lad who came from a middle-class 1930s family, it was a real eye opener. There are signs that one or two people who have been pontificating on the subject have not realised that this is a much more complicated world than they thought.
There are still those who seem to think that it is all a matter of feckless youths going out on a Saturday evening, or feckless male partners deserting women as single parents irresponsibly. It is hugely more complicated than that. I remember people coming to my surgeries who had children by multiple fathers and often did not know who they were, or were living in fear if they identified them. I seem to remember that Edwina Currie got into trouble for talking about a woman who had children by five different fathers. She made some critical comments. I do not know whether they went down well or not but they certainly struck a chord. We have to realise that it is much more complicated.
I have not too many more points to make. I share the general view articulated by my noble and learned friend, and earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that it is much better to come to an amicable arrangement. I probably ought to acknowledge that I have been divorced and I came to an entirely amicable arrangement with my ex-wife 25 years ago, or more. It ought to be possible and it was possible in my situation, but there are many situations in which it is not possible which I have already touched on, and to which my noble and learned friend has referred. The notion that such an arrangement was either feasible or reasonable to expect in some of the cases in my surgery, and no doubt in others in the mid-1990s, is to live in a dream world. It is totally ridiculous. The proposition that my noble and learned friend is getting at, that if it is not practicable, people should be charged for getting justice and reasonable support for their children, is bordering on the indefensible.
That is about all I want to say but a question was put into my mind by what the Minister said. If there is to be no appeal against these decisions, which on the basis of what he said will be Secretary of State decisions, what kind of world are we living in? Did he say that there will be no appeal system? That stirs up all the worries I explored last week-unsuccessfully in the event-about the Government's attitude to administrative justice and fair dealing between the citizen and the state. That needs looking at again or we shall have more trouble. I know that the Minister cannot answer all these questions tonight but I hope that he will look at them, otherwise he will have big trouble on Report.
The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his amendment and for this group of amendments. Noble Lords will know that the Church of England has for many years keenly supported a just welfare system as one of the key building blocks of a civilised society. We have always been concerned to ensure that the welfare of children is maximised in any system of benefits and I believe that that must include times of economic challenge.
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC63
It is very easy for us-I say, with respect, particularly for those in the south-to forget just how desperately poor some of our people are, and are increasingly becoming. In my own diocese, which covers virtually the whole of Lancashire, between 2007 and 2010 the proportion of areas falling in the most deprived 10 per cent in the county rose from 15 per cent to 17 per cent, the gross median weekly wage in most of the county is some £40 per week below the national average and, even more frighteningly, one-quarter of children live in families where the income is 60 per cent less than the average income. Something like £10 a week in maintenance for these families can be, unbelievably, a lifeline. My newspaper bill is nearly £16 a week, but £10 a week will make all the difference to these families. If a parent has to pay the Government up to 12 per cent of this simply because the other parent refuses to pay their maintenance, once again children will be deprived because of the unreasonable behaviour of the non-resident parent.
"What people need to remember is that this is money for children-for their uniform, books, toys. People seem to think it is some form of alimony. It isn't-it's for a child who deserves better and the government is letting us down by putting through these charges".
If the average single parent family spends £43 a week on food and is asked to pay a £20 up-front fee and a further £30 application fee, where is it going to find that £43 to feed the family? As they say round our way, you must be having a laugh asking for that money. I think that that is the case. Such charges cannot be right. We must have a system that will safeguard the most vulnerable and not one that succeeds in discouraging low-income single parents, and those where the amount of maintenance likely to be paid is
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC64
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I was more than happy to put my name to this amendment because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, seemed to be making the right point in this amendment. I am only sorry that my noble friend Lord Northbourne is not in his place because the important parenting responsibility of fathers is one of the areas which he has been pushing for years. As has been stressed, sadly, we are really talking about single parents, 97 per cent of whom are mothers, who are in this position. There was a hope that the citizenship classes which the previous Government introduced would be about your responsibilities to your future children, not about sorting out disputes between you and your own parents, and thinking that the responsibilities of parents ought to be shared.
I am not going to repeat everything that has been said, but I agree that it is wrong in principle to charge single parents, mainly women, who have no alternative, when the other parent refuses to pay maintenance. That is not only unjust; it is, as has already been said, indefensible.
Gingerbread has given us a considerable number of quotes. As the right reverend Prelate said, they are very moving. I shall end by quoting a letter that Gingerbread sent to me, for which I am grateful. The writer was clearly quite sympathetic, in theory, to the Government.
"While I can understand many of the government's cuts and tax rises-a number of which will directly affect me-I cannot understand these proposals. If only you knew how driven single parents have to be to even apply to the CSA. When I first turned to the CSA five years ago I eventually gave up. It was in such hopeless disarray ... Fortunately, a judge laid out maintenance in my divorce agreement and my ex-husband paid up. But two and half years ago he stopped paying and I was forced, with many misgivings, to turn to the CSA. Luckily for me it had been reorganised and was able to progress my claim second time around, although it still took months. When the payments finally started coming via the CSA-you cannot imagine the weight that was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt I could plan ahead for school trips, clothes and other essentials. The relief has been immense. The truth is that the proposals will only penalise the children the CSA is meant to help. Women generally only turn to the CSA when they have exhausted all other avenues. It's an act of desperation. Those in government who preach about mediation and private agreements mean well, but they have no idea how difficult some ex-partners can be-some years ago, I would never have believed it myself. My message to the government is this: you will be hurting the very people you are trying to help. And, I fear, partners who only receive small payments will just give up altogether. It will be their children who will suffer. For me it will mean the worry returns-I will have to cut back and I already know that negotiating with my husband is an impossible task. So I will face having money intended for my children taken from me by a government which I trusted to come to my aid, and incurring his wrath over the fees he in addition will have to pay".
That says it all. It is sad indeed that, although so many of us around this table and outside, would agree "Yes, let's get everybody to sort out their own arrangements if humanly possible", there really are situations where it is not going to happen. Until we get education on early intervention going in the way that
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC65
Lord Wigley: My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in what seems to be one of the most important amendments that have come before this Committee in our long hearings. If it is not successful tonight-and no assurance is given-I very much hope that we will return to it on the Floor of the House on Report.
As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, said, those of us who had to deal with some of the Child Support Agency cases in the 1990s will know how desperately searing they were. It was not just one or two, but dozens, and sometimes even hundreds. I used to try to sort out problems with the local officers, either in Caernarfon or in the office that was administering the CSA in north-west England. It came to the point where I started writing to the Minister about each case because I thought that was the only way in which the message would get home. Poverty was referred to a moment ago. If one quotes the figures for the difference between south-east England and other parts, the average GVA per head in Kensington and Chelsea is over nine times that in Anglesey, and that is an average figure. Within Anglesey, there will be poorer people, as of course there will be in Kensington and Chelsea. It does not really matter where they are; it is what they are suffering. We want a system that can be sympathetic towards them; we certainly do not want a system which prevents people making appeals when things are going wrong. It must be our responsibility as a Committee to get that sorted out; if we cannot, then it will be decided on the Floor of the House.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, my noble and learned friend has produced a very cunning amendment indeed. It is cunning because it follows and detracts, just slightly, from the worst effects of the Government's policy announcement. However, is the Government's policy announcement the right one? Who is the sinner in this situation? It is the absent parent. My noble and learned friend is absolutely right that to fine the parent with care who has done everything possible to get to an agreement is quite wrong. The real sinner in all this is the absent parent. Surely the charges ought to be reflected on him and it ought to be for the state to chase him, which has always happened through the CMEC arrangements. That would be my preferred solution.
Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, I convey my thanks-and I suspect those of many other noble Lords around me-to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for having brought this before the Committee and having done so in so eloquent, powerful and almost irrefutable a way.
I want to add only two things. One is a question to the Minister. We have talked a lot in this Committee about behavioural effects. I want to understand the point of this charging. If we think it through rationally
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC66
"Government too must be concerned to see parents accept responsibility for their children. For, even though marriages may break down, parenthood is for life. Legislation can't make irresponsible parents responsible, but it can and must ensure that absent parents pay maintenance for their children".
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, will recognise that that was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, in July 1990 to the 300 Group at the Savoy hotel. She went on to explain why the Government were setting up the CSA in the first place and pointed out that only one-third of lone parents were getting any maintenance at all and that most of them were not getting it regularly, as I was aware from other sources. We have all heard lone parents say that if they could do private arrangements they would. The whole point of the agency is to deal with people who cannot make private arrangements. Therefore, if charging them 12 per cent of the money that currently goes to children and handing that over instead to the state does not deter them, what will?
I must in all conscience speak briefly to the amendment in my name in this group, which is specifically about exempting parents with care who have experience of domestic violence. I hope that this amendment will never be necessary because I hope that nobody in this position will be charged in any case. I simply give the Minister the opportunity to set out in his response some of the questions that have yet to be asked. The amendment was tabled to do three things. First, the Government have previously said that they will exempt from the initial charge parents who have experienced domestic violence. Can the Minister explain how the Government intend to define victims of domestic violence? I commend to him the definition in the amendment, which is the one used widely across government. If he does not like it, perhaps he could share another.
Secondly, will he explain-I am happy if he writes to me before Report-what parents with care will have to do, show or prove to obtain an exemption? Finally, will he explain why an exemption will be from the initial charge only and not from the charge for using the collection service? Having said all that, I hope very much that this is not necessary and that the considerable wisdom expressed around this Committee prevails.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, just for completeness I shall speak to Amendment 113E. I will be grateful if the Minister will respond to the prospect
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC67
Baroness Tyler of Enfield: My Lords, I would like briefly to add a few comments to those that have been made so powerfully around this Committee. We have heard some moving quotes today, but the one I want to give is not from someone who has been part of this process as an end user but from Sir David Henshaw who, back in 2006, came up with the report that is often cited as being the genesis of the idea of charging. We have heard his name referred to on a number of occasions as his policy has been explained. Sir David Henshaw himself recognised the limits to charging when he said:
We know, because DWP estimates tell us, that about half of all eligible families have no child maintenance arrangements at all. The danger is that even more children in poorer families will go without child maintenance as a result of the proposal to charge the parent with care. This is my final point, which I want to link to the one I made on the previous group of amendments. Not only will the children be worse off-we have heard some graphic and moving accounts of the real hardship that some children could be in-but more will grow up without a role model of a father who contributes, however modestly, to the cost of raising his own children.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, like all noble Lords, I am indebted to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for tabling the amendment. His being in tandem with the noble Lord, Lord Newton, is an irresistible combination. I do not envy the Minister having to reply.
There have been some powerful and moving contributions. I should start by putting clearly on the record where we are in relation to charging. It has been suggested that what the Government are bringing forward is just based on the previous Government's proposals, but that is not so. It is absolutely correct to say that charging is permitted under the 2008 legislation, which is supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. But that is enabling legislation like so much of this Bill. It certainly did not envisage proposals such as those advanced by the coalition Government. It should be recognised of course that there were charging arrangements under the original 1991 legislation, but I believe that that was stopped in 1995 because the CSA was not delivering.
Our position on charging is clear. It is reflected in the White Paper entitled, A New System of Child Maintenance, dated December 2006. It cites in part what the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, has just said and makes reference to Sir David Henshaw. Paragraph 5.48 states:
"We recognise the importance of having a charging regime that does not dissuade vulnerable and low-income parents with care from seeking maintenance in the first place. Therefore, the
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC68
Those provisions were not debated particularly extensively when we considered the Bill in 2008, although there was some discussion. At that time, we made it clear that it was for CMEC to advise and recommend to Ministers the detail of any charging regime but that such advice would be subject to CMEC's overarching objective of maximising the number of children benefiting from effective maintenance arrangements, a point made by my noble friend Lady Sherlock a short while ago.
Although the clear focus on any charging should be on the non-resident parent, CMEC was not precluded from considering a small application fee to both non-resident parents and parents with care where voluntary arrangements might be more effective for them. We also made it clear that any charging structure should not commence until the service was fit for purpose and that this would not be before the launch of the new scheme then planned for 2010, which I think is now planned for 2012.
The Government have proposed a range of charges, including an upfront application fee of £100, which would be reduced for parents on benefits, and an ongoing collection charge on both non-resident parents and parents with care. The latter would be avoided for each if maintenance direct were used. However, whether maintenance direct is a secure and sustainable method of payment is wholly dependent on the non-resident parent. The Government's proposals for charging fall foul of our criteria in a number of respects. An upfront fee of £100 is bound to act as a deterrent for lower-income households. It is payable not only in circumstances where a voluntary arrangement might be possible but in circumstances where it is not, for whatever reasons. That seems highly likely to increase the prospect of circumstances where no maintenance arrangements are entered into. Penalising parents with care with a collection charge, which depends on the NRP acting responsibly, is wholly unjust. The proposals allow for a reduction in the case of those on benefits but there is no exemption. Neither is any relief proposed for the collection charge.
That is why we are fully supportive of the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord. In short, it states that there will be no fees charged to parents with care where they have taken all reasonable steps to enter into a maintenance arrangement and it is not possible or appropriate to do so. There may be a multiplicity of reasons why it is not possible or appropriate to do so, some of which are particularised in later amendments. My noble friend Lady Sherlock has just spoken to one, as indeed has the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. In such circumstances, the only prospect of obtaining arrangements is the statutory system. There should be no charge which precludes this, which is what the noble and learned Lord's amendment seeks to secure.
Amendment 113E, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, seeks to introduce a reduction or waiver of fees where the income of a parent falls
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC69
Amendment 113EA has been spoken to powerfully by my noble friend and sets down circumstances where voluntary arrangements would clearly be inappropriate. The Government, I am sure, will be sympathetic to this given that they already acknowledge that individuals experiencing domestic violence will by-pass their new gateway.
Government Amendment 114 prompts me to raise questions relating to issues of enforcement. Can the Minister give an update on the various measures contained in the 2008 Act, including the use of deduction-from-earnings orders; regular deductions from accounts; lump-sum deduction orders; orders preventing avoidance; administrative liability orders; disqualification for holding or obtaining travel authorisation; curfew orders; and disqualification from driving? Can he say which of these are in force? If it is about getting sensible arrangements, it is also about making sure that those people who are responsible non-resident parents meet their commitments. We put in place a raft of enforcement measures which should have facilitated that and I would be grateful for an update on their progress.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I start by addressing my noble and learned friend's Amendment 113DA. This would exempt from any charges parents with care who have taken all reasonable steps to make an arrangement outside the statutory scheme. In the debate on the previous group of amendments I said that we are seeking to promote collaboration between parents and to encourage them to consider their child maintenance options instead of taking the statutory service as the default. Research shows that more than half of parents with care in the Child Support Agency say that it is likely that they could make a collaborative arrangement with the right advice and support. We believe that it is generally in people's best interests to focus on developing family support services for separated parents to enable them to consider their options and access help in overcoming barriers to collaborating where this is possible.
The introduction of charging is fundamental to our reforms to encourage parents to consider their options. Of course, not every parent will be able to make a family-based arrangement and so some parents will need to use the new statutory scheme. We believe that it is reasonable to ask them to make a contribution to the cost of the service they receive. We have spent some time considering the issue of value for money in the context of an application and it is worth pointing out that the average yearly Child Support Agency maintenance award is around £1,800 and an average case can be expected to last nine years. This equates to more than £16,000 of child maintenance. It is also worth pointing out that, unlike the situation until quite recently-the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, mentioned this in the debate on the last group of amendments and I pay tribute to the previous Government for changing it-the receipt of maintenance does not now result in a reduction in benefits. I can confirm
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC70
Noble Lords will, I hope, be able to see that, in the long-term, making some contribution towards the cost of the application in order to expedite this will be a good deal for parents given the significant on going financial benefit of child maintenance and the support offered if there should be any cessation of payment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked whether the application charge will be used to discourage people from using the service. No. Our aim is that where relationships break down, both parents continue to take responsibility for the welfare of their children. This includes collaboration on issues of finance and, where appropriate, on going involvement of both parents in their children's lives. We feel that it is fair for those parents who use the statutory service to reprioritise some of their spending towards the cost of their application and ongoing maintenance collection.
However, if people are asked to pay, they are entitled to expect a better service. The new statutory scheme will utilise HMRC tax data to help prevent non-resident parents delaying accurate calculations of maintenance. There will be annual reviews of cases to keep them up to date. These changes will be supported by new information technology which will deliver general improvements to the service.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Could I therefore ask the Minister a question to which his noble friend responded on a previous amendment? If he is making a power to impose charges, would he at the very least agree that it would be unwise-as well as indecent, as some of us might think-to introduce them for at least two years or so, until the new system has settled down?
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I take the general point that they should not come in immediately. We are in fact proposing to introduce the new service and run it for six months before we introduce charges.
The behaviour that my noble friend's specific amendment would take into account on the part of the applicant is consistent with one objective of the application charge-pursuing alternatives to the statutory service before applying to it-so in that sense it is consistent with our thinking. I would argue, though, that there would be difficulties in collecting hard evidence to show that a parent with care had taken reasonable steps without an inappropriate degree of intrusiveness. However, the amendment does focus our attention on the fundamental issue of access to the statutory service for those who need it.
Baroness Sherlock: The Minister thinks it will be very hard to get evidence as to how an applicant had made reasonable steps. New subsection (2A) of Section 9 of the Child Support Act 1991, as inserted by Clause 131(1), says:
I said earlier that I agreed with the last Government that it is acceptable to charge for the statutory system. I am, however, very sympathetic to the concerns that have been raised today and I have listened very carefully to noble Lords' views. What is critical is the amount that the applicant is charged to access the service. Concerns have been raised about the figure that has been mentioned. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, in the last debate, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, in this debate, mentioned a figure of £100. Both of them suggested that that figure is too high. I sympathise with this view, so I undertake to the Committee to have discussions with my ministerial colleagues and to make that point very vigorously. I thank noble Lords for their contributions today because they will strengthen my hand in those discussions. I also remind noble Lords that we will also consult in due course on our charging levels and debate the regulations in Parliament.
Amendment 113E explores the idea of relating the waiver or reduction of fees to the level of a parent's income. In a simple way, this is already built into the proposed application charges, with a different, lower rate for those applicants on benefit. Rather than attempt to build further complexity into the IT system, I would prefer, as I have said, to take another look at the overall level of the application charge.
I understand that the matter of an ongoing collection charge is also a concern. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn referred to this. I will take this opportunity to point out to noble Lords that such a charge will be incurred only if maintenance is actually being received; by definition, therefore, people will have to pay for a service only if it is working. I have explained some of the improvements that we plan to make to the service. I am sure noble Lords will agree that it badly needs improvement.
Furthermore, collection charges can be avoided at any time if maintenance direct is selected. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked whether victims of domestic violence will pay collection charges. I will come back to victims of domestic violence in a moment, but in the context of collection charges I must say that I do not think it is unreasonable to levy a charge for a service. What is important is the quality of the service and the level of the charge. I hope that I have gone some way to demonstrating that the service will be an improvement on what it has been.
Turning to victims of domestic violence, I reiterate that, as outlined in the Green Paper, Strengthening Families, Promoting Parental Responsibility: the Future of Child Maintenance, we are committed to exempting victims of domestic violence from the application charge. I reiterate that we will honour this commitment.
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC72
To assist them wherever possible to move into maintenance direct and so avoid collection charges and recognising that applicants in these circumstances will not want to have direct dealings with their ex-partner, we are developing a payment support service so that payment can be made outside the collection service without the parent with care having to divulge any personal details to the non-resident parent.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about the definition of domestic violence. The commission has been working with the Home Office, which has the lead on domestic violence across government. In 2004, the Home Office replaced the 14 previous definitions of domestic violence used across government with a single cross-government definition. We will, of course, be using that definition.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 114. In the current child maintenance schemes, the Government have the ability to collect child maintenance by deducting it directly from the benefits of non-resident parents, which is an effective method. The purpose of this amendment is to enable us to continue to do this upon the introduction of universal credit. The amendment will allow, where necessary, for deductions in respect of child maintenance to be made from a non-resident parent's universal credit award.
We envisage allowing most non-resident parents in the new statutory scheme the opportunity to pay their child maintenance directly to the parent with care-that is maintenance direct, which most noble Lords are familiar with. This should mean that in most cases use of the collection service and deductions from universal credit will be necessary only if the non-resident parent fails to pay by this method. In the current scheme, the ability to make such deductions is limited to where the non-resident parent is liable for the flat rate of maintenance, which could potentially rule out this option for a significant proportion of universal credit claimants who could be liable to pay more. The amendment will remove that restriction.
The amendment also makes clear the position in relation to charging. In the new child maintenance scheme, it is proposed that ongoing collection charges are payable by non-resident parents on top of the maintenance due where it is necessary for the maintenance to be collected using the collection service. The amendment ensures that any charges payable by non-resident parents can also be deducted directly from their benefit payments or universal credit, where this is appropriate. It also allows arrears to be deducted.
My noble friend Lord Newton asked about the appeals system. I should clarify that when I said there was no appeal with the gateway, it is because no one will be stopped from applying to the statutory service, so there is nothing to appeal against. The parent with care just needs to make a phone call and will be granted access to the statutory service.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked for an update on the powers taken in the 2008 Act. The Government remain committed to pursuing arrears and will continue to use all their expanded powers to this end while the Child Support Agency schemes remain open. We frequently use deductions from earnings orders, lump sum deductions and deductions from accounts. Parents who fail to pay now face tougher sanctions, including having money deducted directly from their bank account or having their home seized. Primary powers enable the Government administratively-without application to a court-to disqualify a non-resident parent from holding a driving licence or passport where we are of the opinion that the non-resident parent has wilfully refused or culpably neglected to pay child maintenance. These powers are not yet in force. Prior to any final decision being made to commence them, there would need to be public consultation on the detail of how they would work. If the noble Lord so wishes, I can write to him detailing exactly what powers we currently use and what we still plan to bring forward.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: This is Grand Committee and therefore there is no other option open to me at present. However, I must confess to not understanding how it is thought to be just that an absent father's neglect of his obligations to his children should be paid for to any extent by the children, which is ultimately what it amounts to. That is unfair in principle. I raised it with the Prime Minister-I could go no higher than that-as going against his own speech. As has been said, that speech was very clear. As I understood it, the Fathers 4 Justice people were inclined to think that it was extreme, but I think that its kernel was entirely justified. I cannot see for the moment-I expect to remain of this view-that it is fair to charge the children when one of the parents neglects his or her responsibility. The other parent is left with the children, looking after them, I am sure, to the best of their ability. I cannot see why they should be charged once they have complied with the Government's new condition of going to the CSA.
I accept entirely that that is a very useful condition and I think that it is very reasonable. However, once it has been complied with, I cannot see that the person who has complied with it should, on behalf of her
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC74
"(c) the non-resident parent has not agreed to collection arrangements by the Commission under subsection (2A)(a), but has subsequently failed to make full payment of any maintenance due to the parent with care by the date it was due to be paid.
(2B) Where subsection (2A)(c) applies, the Commission shall forthwith (and within no more than seven days from the date of notification of non-payment by the parent with care) make arrangements under subsection (2)(a) for the collection of the child support maintenance payable."
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I still have the will and resolve to continue. Amendment 113G seeks to get fast access to the collection service when the non-resident parent fails to pay. I have a series of questions, which I hope the Minister will help us with, about what happens in these circumstances-they are clearly set out in the amendment-if the non-resident parent fails to pay. The suggestion is that the statutory system would kick in within a seven-day period. I think the Government accept that there could be a gap if that situation was not addressed with dispatch. Seven days might be too high a target to set by way of getting a quick response. Certainly there is concern that a gap, which could be as much as a month, would have a serious impact on the family's circumstances. Indeed, the Work and Pensions Select Committee noted that,
I have three basic questions. How quickly does the Minister think that the commission will intervene in these circumstances? What verification of non-payment will they require, which is an important question? Finally, how will disputes be resolved where the non-resident parent argues that payment was made? They are not of the same order as the amendments with which we dealt earlier but it would give some assurance to colleagues if the Minister can say what the Government plan to do in these circumstances. I beg to move.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, turning first to my noble friend's Amendment 113G, the Government are determined to ensure that non-resident parents meet their child maintenance responsibilities. That is why we have already committed to bring cases into the collection service as soon as we have evidence that payment has not been made through maintenance direct. Where a parent with care informs us that payment has not been received and the non-resident parent is unable to provide evidence to the contrary, such as a bank statement showing credits to the parent with care's account, we will swiftly move the case in to the collection service and act quickly to ensure payment is reinstated.
This could include the use of enforcement tools where necessary, such as deduction from earnings orders, where maintenance is deducted directly from an employed non-resident parent's earnings, and deduction orders, which enable deductions to be made directly from a non-resident parent's bank account. Where the parent with care alleges that further payments have been missed during the maintenance direct period and there is no evidence to the contrary, we will ensure that these arrears are also paid when we bring the case into the collection service. It is unacceptable for non-resident parents to neglect their child maintenance responsibilities and build up arrears, which the Government are determined to tackle. To that end we will take a more robust approach to collection and enforcement in the new scheme and will use all avenues available to us to ensure outstanding arrears are paid and new arrears are not allowed to accrue.
We will not give up on cases. Following the introduction of the new scheme, the commission will continue to pursue non-resident parents for any arrears of maintenance that they may owe, which will include arrears from the schemes currently in operation. Where arrears have been accrued prior to the introduction of charging, no charges will be payable by either party in relation to these amounts.
On victims of domestic violence, as raised under Amendment 113H, let me put it on the record that we are committed to ensuring that victims are protected. They will be fast tracked into the statutory scheme; they will not be expected to make a family-based arrangement; and will not be required pay an application charge. Clause 132 provides non-resident parents with the ability to choose to pay their child support maintenance by maintenance direct within the statutory scheme. When designing this provision we considered carefully how to protect victims of domestic violence. Therefore, we will provide a service to enable direct payments between the parties without the need for any direct contact to be made or any personal information to be disclosed. This will be known as the payment support service. We will also provide appropriate support to help clients to use this service effectively where necessary.
We believe that the provision of this service and the support we will provide to clients in using it will ensure that victims of domestic violence are able to use
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC76
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: Perhaps my noble friend will expand on one detail. The amendment seeks an expeditious response within a seven-day period whereas the Government seem to be working to a four-week response time. Is there any way in which I can persuade the Minister to think about at least setting some targets? A month is a long time in a challenged household. It is a gap that we have identified and it will exist. These things will happen. I might be being too ambitious with seven days but my noble friend is being very complacent if he is sticking to 28 days.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I shall be brief. I have a question that we should have asked on the previous group of amendments. What moneys do the Government expect to collect as a result of the £100 fee?
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, in answer to my noble friend's question, given the admonishment of my noble friend Lord Freud in an earlier debate I can hardly utter the word "target". I do not know where he got the figure of 28 days from-it is not familiar to me-but I will answer his question in more detail in writing.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I was going through the impact analysis statement on the changes in CMEC and I cannot find the figures anywhere. We should have asked this on the previous group-it is our fault-but can the Minister tell us how much the Government expect to garner by way of the £100 charge?
In section 43 of the Child Support Act 1991 (as substituted by the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000), for subsections (1) and (2) there is substituted-
"(1) The power of the Secretary of State to make regulations under section 5 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 by virtue of subsection (1)(p) of that section may be exercised with a view to securing the making of payments in respect of child support maintenance by a non-resident parent.
(a) arrears of child support maintenance, and
(b) fees payable under section 6 of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008.""
The Deputy Chairman of Committees: Again, there is a technicality here in that Clause 136, on which the question will be that it stands part, has been grouped with Amendment 114B which, according to the instructions of 15 September, comes after Clause 136, so Clause 136 stand part cannot be grouped with that amendment. The question therefore is that Clause 136 stand part of the Bill.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I am going to apologise because I think that I now stand between the Committee and what I gather is the custom that the Minister buys drinks for the whole Committee at the end.
Despite the late hour, this is a really important issue that needs raising, but I fear that because of the hour we may need to return to it later. The Child Poverty Act 2010, which established the Child Poverty Commission, was passed with cross-party support, and we believe that there is now similar support for the
28 Nov 2011 : Column GC78
I am going to raise the main points. The main point is the duty. The potential rise in child poverty over the coming years makes the work of this commission essential. The debate about its function-whether it is simply going to help count numbers or whether it is going to give advice about the impact of the numbers-is crucial. If we look at the role of the commission, one of the most important things has been the proposal that it should have a duty to advise Ministers, but this is now to be taken out. It will therefore have no duty to advise Ministers on the preparation of their strategy. It has meant that this is only the responsibility of government.
Surely the commission should not just look at technical issues around the measurement of poverty and social mobility, but should also look at advising on the results of that measurement-to advise the Government on its role. If it was only measuring it, the commission itself would neither attract a high level of membership nor would it be able to do its role properly. We therefore ask why should there not be a requirement that it advise Ministers on the policy itself? Also, how can it be that this commission could be put together without a requirement that people so appointed should be expert in its field? The final question is that it should have to have the ability to get its own research otherwise it would be dependent simply on research from the Government, which it is meant to be scrutinising. I beg to move.
Lord Freud: My Lords, I will speak first to Amendments 114B, 114C and 114D, which would require the Government to consult the commission on the development of child poverty strategy, and for the commission to provide advice to the Government on eradicating child poverty.
We believe that unelected public bodies should be established only in cases where there is a clear need for their role to be carried out by an arm's-length body rather than within government. The new commission, with its remit to objectively assess government progress towards improving social mobility and reducing child poverty, is just such a case. A commission established to provide advice is clearly not. There are already a variety of consultation mechanisms by which the Government can obtain independent advice on child poverty and social mobility policy. Indeed, the consultation on the current child poverty strategy received 280 responses. Moreover, it is a fundamental principle of this Government that Ministers are accountable for the policies and strategies they put forward. These amendments put this principle at risk. They offer a degree of scope for Ministers to shrug off responsibility for any lack of success of their strategy.
Amendment 114E requires that the Government publish a response to each of the commission's reports. By giving the commission the power to publish annual reports, we are actively ensuring that progress on social mobility and child poverty remains a priority for government. The legislation requires that the commission reports be laid before Parliament, providing the opportunity for parliamentary debate.
Amendment 114F reintroduces the requirement from the original Child Poverty Act that the commission should have a particular balance of child poverty expertise. This requirement has been removed because it is clear that the new commission will require a different balance of expertise. It will monitor progress towards both reducing child poverty and improving social mobility, meeting the child poverty targets and implementing the child poverty strategy. I can assure you that Ministers are fully committed to creating a commission with the right combination of expertise. To ensure that this is the case, the recruitment process for all members of the commission, including the chair and the deputy chair, will be carried out in accordance with the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
Finally, Amendment 114G would give the commission the right to request Ministers to commission research on its behalf. It would also require Ministers to provide a reason if they decide not to meet the commission's request. We do not believe that this provision is necessary. This is because the commission's new role means that there will be no need for the commission to be able to access new research as it will not be responsible for developing new policy or strategy. Instead, the commission will produce annual progress reports, and we would expect the vast majority of the evidence needed to fulfil this role to already be available either in the public domain or from the Government. If the Government need more and need to access new research to fulfil their duties, the new legislation already enables Ministers to provide the commission with such resources,
The question of whether any new research is needed will be a matter for private dialogue between the commission and Ministers. This approach is absolutely appropriate for a public body. We believe that no family should be trapped in poverty and that all children regardless of background should have the opportunity to succeed in life. In the social mobility and child poverty strategies that we published earlier this year we set out our vision for a fairer society. To realise this vision we must ensure that the right accountability structures are in place. The Child Poverty Commission, established in law by the previous Government was an attempt to do that. We support it, and still support the concept of an arm's-length body that can provide an external and independent challenge, but we do not believe that the commission, as provided for in current legislation, can adequately perform this role. That is why we are making the amendments, and I urge noble Lords to withdraw theirs.
As I shall probably not talk for very much longer, I wish to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this Grand Committee. I have been deeply impressed and I am grateful for the astonishing level of commitment, experience and sheer intellectual firepower that has been brought to bear in the 17 sittings. Some extraordinarily powerful speeches have been made-quite a few of them have made me think seriously on particular issues. If anyone asks me now what is the point of the House of Lords, I will tell them to read the Committee debates in Hansard and what we have been talking about in these past 17 sittings. Thank you all very much. I might even get you a drink.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: The noble and learned Lord withdrew his amendment and said that he had no choice in Grand Committee. Because of the time, I will also have to do that. We will come back on Report as we have not made the case, particularly about the duty and the need to respond to the annual report.
Can I just say that it has been one heck of a learning experience for me? This is the first Bill I have worked on, and I shall take a moment's indulgence to thank our leader. Being led by my noble friend Lord McKenzie is an extraordinary experience. In addition to thanking the Minister for his incredible patience at times, through him I thank the Bill team. They have been here night after night, day after day. We have had written briefings but also oral briefings-probably a bit above and beyond the call of duty. We thank them for that. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"( ) section (Calculation of working tax credit) (calculation of working tax credit);"
"( ) section (Calculation of working tax credit) (calculation of working tax credit);"
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|