Draft Child Support Appeals (Jurisdiction of Courts) Order 2002 and Draft Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) (Modification and Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Malcolm Wicks: I think that I said in my opening remarks that we do not have precise statistics. We believe that there are relatively few such cases—probably under 50—which must be a relief to us all.

As I said, we have had a useful debate. The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked a range of questions that were in order, but that made it difficult for me to reply, as they touch on some contextual issues. I only hope that no one on the Committee, especially not the hon. Member for Spelthorne, despite his doubts and questions, disputes the overall principle that, although

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it is difficult for law and social policy to deal with all the blood and thunder of breakdowns in personal relationships—

Mr. Wilshire rose—

Malcolm Wicks: No, I will not give way—and all the sensitive issues about parentage, and although we need to have proper appeal mechanisms in tribunals and courts, our children have a right to be maintained by their parents; fathers as well as mothers. None of us should suggest that men should easily evade that responsibility.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister said that he hoped that I was not thinking anything other than what he just said. I put it on record that I completely agree with the principle that he just explained.

Malcolm Wicks: On that happy and quick note of agreement, I commend the order to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Child Support Appeals (Jurisdiction of Courts) Order 2002.

5.54 pm

Malcolm Wicks: I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) (Modification and Amendment) Regulations 2002.

I started to introduce the regulations earlier, perhaps because I was confused about the order of the debate or to check that Opposition Members were listening fully. The statutory instrument revives—the word suggests that we have had this before—the temporary compensation payment scheme, or the deferred debt scheme as it is more familiarly known. The regulations modify section 27 of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, and amend regulation 3 of the Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) Regulations 2000.

The deferred debt scheme was time limited to 31 March this year. Once revived, it will continue until 31 March 2005, allowing the agency to enter into agreements under the scheme until then. The agreements must expire on or before 31 March 2006. Hon. Members should not infer anything too particular from those dates, which provide some leeway in relation to this important policy.

I hope that hon. Members will be pleased that the scheme is to be revived. Currently, more than 100 pieces of information can be required for the agency to make an assessment. That can be time-consuming, allowing arrears of maintenance to build up before the non-resident parent has even been told the exact amount of his assessment.

The scheme provides assistance for absent parents, or non-resident parents as we now refer to them, who face substantial arrears at least partly through no fault of their own. The Work and Pensions Committee

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raised the issue of reviving the deferred debt scheme on 22 May. Members of the committee felt that the scheme should be kept running.

The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 provided the legislative framework for the non-statutory arrangements for debt deferral that had been introduced by the previous Government. The decision to include the sunset provision, ending the scheme on 31 March this year, was based on the expectation that it would no longer be necessary. Deferred debt can be offered only when a delay of more than six months in the calculation of liability has transpired, and when the agency is responsible for at least three months of that delay.

Under the scheme, if a non-resident parent agrees to pay at least the last six months worth of their arrears and their current liability, the agency can suspend any collection or enforcement action on the balance of those arrears for the lifetime of the agreement. If the non-resident parent honours the agreement, the agency will make a compensatory payment to the parent with care for the maintenance that would have been paid if the agency had been able to collect the full amount. If the agreement is maintained until it expires, the agency will write off any outstanding arrears. However, if the agreement is not honoured, the agency will reinstate the full amount of outstanding debt, and take normal collection and enforcement action.

The main aim of the deferred debt scheme has been to help non-resident parents get into the habit of paying regular maintenance. It is part of the Department's strategy to tackle backlogs of work and to improve compliance. We must revive the deferred debt scheme. Despite the good progress that the agency has made in clearing its backlogs in the last few years, several cases remain to be dealt with. It would be unfair for parents between now and the introduction of the new child support scheme to be denied access to the deferred debt scheme, simply because the legislation has run out.

I am satisfied that the regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights and I therefore commend them to the Committee.

5.58 pm

Mr. Boswell: We now move to somewhat firmer ground, in that these are indisputably matters for the Department for Work and Pensions with no particular legal overtones. Some of the wider comments made on the operation of the Child Support Agency will not require repetition in debating the regulations. The Minister has broadly explained the bones of the provisions and pointed to precedents in legislation and the extra-statutory compensation scheme introduced by his predecessors. We are not dealing with a completely new concept.

The regulations are remarkably simple, comprising the mere alteration of three digits to alter the years. The only literary analogy I could find was from Shakespeare's ''Richard II'', a play I know well because I studied it for O-level many years ago. In the first scene, Bolingbroke's exile is cut from 10 to six years, and he says that four summers and four winters

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    ''End in a word: such is the breath of kings.''

The Minister may not aspire to royalty, but nevertheless he alters definitions and dates with a pen.

Malcolm Wicks: The parentage test.

Mr. Boswell: We may come to that in another context.

The regulations are relatively simple, but they have wider implications. I should say straight away that we do not find the concept objectionable, but it is reasonable to ask a few brief questions about its detail.

If Ministers thought that everything would run out by the year 2002 when they introduced the legislation and orders under it for the scheme in 2000, they have missed their target considerably. They provided for a two-year scheme, and this amending order provides for a five-year scheme. A substantial additional period is required, which may suggest—I may touch on this point later—that the delays in implementation of the new operation and assessment scheme have played into that. There is a 150 per cent. uplift in the time period involved, so will the Minister level with the Committee? I thought that I heard him say that the delays in the new maintenance formula were playing into the need for the revival of this scheme. He conspicuously did not answer questions about the maintenance formula in the last debate but he may want to comment on it now.

The Minister also spoke about the burden of blame, which occasions an offer to be made under the compensation scheme. As I understand it, he was saying, not unreasonably, that the total amount of arrears must exceed six months and that the arrears attributable to administrative delay by the agency must be three months. In other words, an element of administrative error or delay on the part of the agency is necessary to trigger the scheme. He might like to reflect on the implications of the signal that he is sending in making the scheme available for a longer period. We agreed earlier that some non-resident parents have the habit of taking almost any action to avoid payment. I acknowledge that an element of blame must be attached to the agency, but I can imagine a parent trying to play things into the long grass, hoping that the scheme will be rolled forward yet again so that nothing cuts in until either the child reaches the end of the statutory maintenance period and there is nothing pay or the case goes dead. That should not happen, but the fact that Ministers are extending the scheme for a further three years might have that implication.

It would useful in that context for the Minister to assure the Committee that no further extension of the scheme is contemplated. In other words, will he assure us that this will be the only occasion on which revival is required? Beyond that, although I appreciate that Ministers and the agency will want to be able to compensate for any general administrative error, will he assure us that when the new formula is introduced—we are still waiting to know the timing for that—there will be no provision for a new compensation scheme or any attempt to revive the principle?

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Ministers have been a little sanguine in the explanatory notes in suggesting that when the new scheme comes in, the assessment will be so simple that there will be no delay and therefore no need to compensate. Are they sufficiently confident of that to say that there will be no need for any further provision for a deferred debt scheme and, by implication, that everyone will be dealt with in time? With the best will in the world, even if the system is simpler because it is based on an income test and has fewer hurdles to be mounted, letters can still go astray and files can be mislaid. There could be delays that are not the fault of the individual, which could trigger substantial arrears before the assessment is made.

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