Draft Child Support Regulations 2000

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Angela Eagle: I shall do my best to reassure hon. Members and answer points made in the debate.

The hon. Member for Beckenham made a general point about the detail of regulation not appearing in primary legislation, hampering our efforts to have even more in-depth discussions on the provisions in the Act than we did in Committee. I think that debate has been detailed. In what, admittedly, has been a short time as a Minister, I have never come across a Department that can write its regulations at the same time as it writes primary legislation. It is unlikely that the legal drafting would be available to allow a debate of the detail of today's.

Mrs. Lait: I may have been misunderstood. I was suggesting that, instead of regulations, the measures should be in the Bill so that we can debate them properly.

Angela Eagle: I was coming to the point that I thought that the hon. Lady might be making—the one that she has just reinforced. We have that debate endlessly in Committee; you, Mr. Benton, must hear it all the time. Measures that become part of an Act—primary legislation—are more inflexible in their application than those introduced in secondary legislation. As Members of Parliament, we all know the difference between primary and secondary legislation and the flexibilities offered by each. Obviously, primary legislation needing to be amended would lead to greater calls on parliamentary time.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Drop the fox hunting Bill then.

Angela Eagle: I am not sure what that has to do with child support.

It would be far too inflexible to put such detail in a Bill. It would be far more difficult to change measures that did not work in practice or needed tweaking. We could end up with inferior provisions that we did not have the time to remove. Those in the Law Commission would tear out even more of their hair deliberating the accuracy and effectiveness of our primary legislation. Naturally, I believe that we have the balance about right, but, obviously, people draw such lines in different places. The hon. Member for Beckenham might notice—or, indeed, remember—that the 15, 20, 25 per cent. formula was in the 2000 Act. Although we have not provided the level of detail that she requires, I believe that we have got it about right.

I accept hon. Members' teasing about the top limits. We are always ready to listen, and I suspect that that was an example of our doing just that.

We had long discussions on intervention in private court agreements, and Opposition Members and I shall have to agree to differ—and watch developments. I believe that the provisions are workable, but I am not exactly surprised that the Law Society is not happy with them.

We also differ on the issue of driving licences. The hon. Member for Beckenham regards the provision as draconian; I regard it as another attempt to ensure compliance. Evidence from other countries suggests that the threat of losing a driving licence concentrates the mind and helps to ensure compliance and payment of child maintenance. We must remember what is at issue. Some non-resident parents evade their responsibility for their children by refusing to pay any maintenance. The original attempt made in the 1991 Act, which came into effect in 1993, to prevent that has not been as effective as many people would like, for reasons that we could debate for a long time—complexity and difficulty in applying the maintenance formula being one of the main ones. The driving licence sanction is designed to provide, via the courts, another string to the bow of attempting to ensure that maintenance is paid. Time will tell how effective it is.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful for the Minister's implied acceptance that the provision's effectiveness will be reviewed. However, having spent last Friday morning out with the police, who apprehended at least one person driving while disqualified, I wonder whether the Department of Social Security plans to put some money into the Home Office to help the police to apprehend such people, of whom there are many, who may also be evading paying their child support—a point made in a slightly different way by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley).

Angela Eagle: All I can say is that at this stage we are making the law rather than enforcing it. The enforcement of the law is a matter for other parts of the system. We shall ensure in co-operating with the Home Office that the effect of the new provisions is monitored, so that we can judge whether they work. Events in other countries have demonstrated that a driving licence sanction can be effective. That is why we have introduced it here. Again, time will tell whether the effectiveness of the driving licence sanction will be as useful in this country as it has proved in some other countries.

The hon. Member for Beckenham asked whether, if the driving licence sanction does not work, the Government would consider introducing a curfew. We discussed the matter in great detail in Committee, and I explained in some detail some of the issues relating to European convention on human rights compliance that are involved. All I can say is that we shall keep the regulations under review to examine whether they are working or require any additions. There is no doubt that, if the sanctions do not work, the tightening of them might be an option for the future. We want measures to be effective so that we can ensure that non-resident parents take responsibility for their children. That is what the regulations are designed to achieve.

The hon. Lady discussed the confused terminology between the old Act and the succeeding Act. Indeed, she made a good argument for never changing any Act. However, the Act is failing children, and it is failing parents with care, many of whom are left attempting to care for their children on extremely low incomes. Therefore, when we entered government, we concluded that change was necessary. It would have been equally difficult if we had not changed the terminology, but had altered the definitions. For example, if we had not changed ``departure'' to ``variation'', how would one distinguish between the old ``departure'' and the new ``variation'' orders? The new rules are different—for example, the ``variations'' in the new scheme are narrowly drawn compared with the old ``departures''. Clearly, we must distinguish between the old and new systems, especially as there will be a period when they will run concurrently.

The hon. Lady anticipates that changes in terminology will cause confusion. I think that using the same terminology in two different schemes that will run concurrently—albeit briefly—would create greater administrative confusion. We must communicate the details of how the new system works, how it differs from the old system, and what people can expect when their cases are transferred to it. All those issues revolve around the practicalities of transfer. We are planning for the agency to write to existing cases ahead of their transfer, to let them know their liability under the new system and when the change will occur. The scheme comes into effect after 2002, and I hope that we can be administratively proactive as the transfers happen.

The hon. Lady also mentioned training. Clearly, the relationship between staff training and the issues of transition lies at the heart of a successful switch. Some training, especially with regard to the early commencement of parts of the Act, is already happening. We are preparing for the switch in a variety of ways, including preparatory data cleansing our existing information. This will not be a big-bang change; we are preparing in a timely way. The early commencement of some of the powers that I announced today will help the transition from the old scheme to the new. The hon. Lady will note that changes that have been made relate not to the percentage rates but to issues that will be likely to crop up in both the old and new systems, such as inspectors' powers, paternity and the offence for lying to the CSA—how could that have been missed out in the first place? All those issues are relevant to both schemes, and can be introduced safely in preparation for the changeover.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked about statutory indexation, which we do not propose to introduce. However, we shall review that in the light of experience and circumstance because we do not want to end up with £103.45, or figures such as that. I can confirm that we shall not be indexing the figures. However, we have taken powers to enable us to alter the rates of liability, if that is appropriate. That is easier when those powers are included in secondary legislation, rather than on the face of the Bill. Although he did not grace us with his presence on the Committee considering the Bill, his Liberal Democrat colleagues constantly told us that we should put everything on the face of the Bill. This is a case where it is better to keep the regulations flexible.

The hon. Gentleman also made some technical, but important, points about marginal rates. I shall write with a more detailed response, but we do not believe that these issues will affect large numbers. For example, only 1 per cent. of the CSA case load, will be affected, because of how it is made up and how it relates to in-work benefits. The hon. Gentleman should examine the case load and assess what money is involved. At the moment, only a small part of the overall case load is affected.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for providing a specific answer to my question. Clearly, 1 per cent. could be on in-work benefits in the £100 to £200 range. Many in that range will not be on in-work benefits and I presume that they will still face 25 per cent. or, if they have several children, even 35 per cent. rates, plus tax and national insurance. It could amount to 60 or more per cent.—more than the levy on higher band taxpayers. Does the hon. Lady accept that that is an issue, even if in-work benefits are not included? Such a high marginal rate could have disincentive effects.

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