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Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab):
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you advise me on the convention of the House that Members should at least inform the local MP if they seek to raise an issue concerning that MPs constituency? All Membersnone
more so than myselfwant to ensure that matters relating to the Durham Green development in my constituency are properly investigated. Had the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) informed me of his intentions, I could have told him that it was a Liberal Democrat council that gave planning permission and that the lifting of article 14s in the region was the subject of a campaign organised by The Journal, and backed by the chamber of commerce and all political parties in the region, to support job growth in the area.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I tabled a closed question under Defence questions, and I would like your advice about the transfer of questions from one Department to another. The relevant question was to do with defence, but for some reason it was passed to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Can Departments pass questions to each other in order to invalidate or ignore them, and how can such loss of a question be compensated for?
Mr. Speaker: I do not always know the reasoning behind the decisions, but Departments and Ministers can move questions from one Department to another. It has happened to us all as Back Benchers and we have to live with it.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a serious issue at stake. The Defence Export Services Organisation was charged with responsibility for facilitating defence exports from the United Kingdom. If we cannot question Ministers in the Ministry of Defence about the issue, the defence industry of the United Kingdom should be told that that is not on. This is a serious matter for the UK defence industry.
Mr. Speaker: I am not going to allow a debate on the issue to be opened up. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for a considerable time and knows that this has happened to every Back Bencher, including me when I was Back Bencher. That does not mean that a future question cannot be posed to any Department. If you go into the Table Office, you can submit whatever questions you wish, to whichever Department.
[Relevant documents: The letter from the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions dated 12th July and the Secretary of States letter of reply dated 10th August. ]
(2A) The order referred to in subsection (2)(b) shall be an order (the Order) for periodical payments to the child made under section 23(1)(d) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (c. 18) or paragraph 1(2)(a) or (b) of Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41).
(2C) Where the court makes an order of the type listed at subsection (2A) and the conditions of subsection (2B) are met, any calculation under this Act shall be discharged and, during the currency of the Order, the Secretary of State shall not exercise his powers to make a calculation under section 4 of this Act..
No application may be made at any time under this section with respect to a qualifying child or any qualifying children if there is in force a maintenance order in respect of that child or those children and the person who is, at that time, the non-resident parent..
Mr. Plaskitt: I wish to discuss these amendments and new clauses in two groups. I shall begin with new clause 2 and Government amendment No. 5, as I believe that setting out their purpose will shed light on why we are unable to accept the proposal by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir).
New clause 2 clarifies how the provisions of sections 4(10) and 7(10) of the Child Support Act 1991 work in relation to registered minutes of agreement made on or after 3 March 2003. It gives registered minutes of agreement for periodical child maintenance the same status as court orders for the purposes of those sections. It ensures that those registered agreements, like court orders, have a 12-month period to bed in and work before any application may be made to the statutory scheme.
For all practical purposes, that is what sections 4(10) and 7(10) of the 1991 Act currently provide. However, their interpretation in relation to registered minutes of agreement relies on the decision of a child support commissioner, which may be challenged and overturned by a higher court. If that happened, it would mean that making and registering a minute of agreement would not prevent either party from immediately applying to the commission for maintenance calculation.
The Government believe that registered minutes of agreement, like court orders made on or after 3 March 2003, should be allowed a settling period of 12 months in which to bed in and work. However, if it becomes clear that, for whatever reason, those agreements are not working, parents should have access to the statutory maintenance scheme to put things right. New clause 2 clarifies the position in primary legislation and puts the matter beyond doubt.
In short, we believe that it is right to make it clear that for the purposes of sections 4 and 7 of the 1991 Act, registered minutes of agreement have the same status and effect as court orders and are subject to the same treatment. In order for that to happen as soon as possible, Government amendment No. 5 will commence new clause 2 on the day after the Act is passed.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Surely the proposal does not change the position that minutes of agreement are guaranteed for only one year. After that, either party may apply to the commission, irrespective of the provisions in a minute of agreement, for enforcement in the same way as a court action. If that happens, we are back to square one, with an application to the commission, rather than immediate enforcement.
Mr. Plaskitt: These measures give the agreements the same status as court orders. They do not address the more substantive issue of the 12-month rule that the hon. Gentleman wants to debate. We will come to that.
I turn to amendments Nos. 1 and 13 and new clause 5, which would all, by differing means, prevent parents who had entered into certain minutes of agreement or court orders from ever making an application to the commission for a maintenance calculation. Under the measures, parents who decided not to use the statutory service initially for their maintenance arrangements would be locked into registered minutes of agreement or court orders for ever.
The Government recognise the value of minutes of agreement and court orders, which have a positive role to play in giving parents an opportunity to agree maintenance arrangements that suit their particular circumstances and providing for regular ongoing payments of maintenance to children. However, we feel that they should be given a 12-month period in which to bed in and work, with either parent having the opportunity to come to the commission after that time if they do not work.
Of course, if both parties agree that the arrangements are not working and on how they need to be changed, the parties will have the option of returning to the court for a variation. However, those provisos will not apply in most cases.
Mr. Weir: The 12-month rule is still the problem, however. The Minister is saying that if, after 12 months and one day, one party decided to go to the commission, they could do so, irrespective of whether there had been any change in circumstances from 12 months and one day prior to that. The whole concept of minutes of agreement lasting more than 12 months is undermined, because neither party has a guarantee that the other party will not unilaterally take the matter to the commission.
Mr. Plaskitt: It does, because the arrangements will break down in some circumstances. If things break down, we would all agree that there needs to be a way of overcoming that breakdown, because that is in the interests of children. As I said, if both parties agree that the arrangements are not working, and on how that should be resolved, they can go back to the court to seek a variation. However, what would happen if the breakdown between the two was irreconcilable? We cannot leave children in a situation in which there is no flow of maintenance. There needs to be a way of one of the parentsgenerally the parent with careto seek a means of securing maintenance. That will be achieved by allowing them access to the commission.
Mr. Weir: I still do not follow what the Minister is saying. When I said, It does not matter, I was making the point that both parents do not have to agree that things have broken down. One parent could decide unilaterally that they no longer like the terms of the agreement, whether or not those terms had been adhered to fully, and then go to the commission. The other parent would have no option. In such circumstances, no one will enter into minutes of agreement lasting more than a year because they could be overturned by the other party in a year and one day. It would not matter whether the terms of the agreement had been fully adhered to, the agreement was working or the payments were being made, or whether there had been capital payments, because a parent could still go to the commission.
Mr. Plaskitt: I do not agree that there is a disincentive. Some 20,000 such orders or minutes of agreement are made every year, and there is no indication that the existence of the provision in any way undermines them. They remain a choice; if parents want, they can exercise that choice, and they can settle their separation and child support issues by those means. The vast majority do not opt for that process, but go through the Child Support Agency or reach a voluntary agreement. For those who do take the order route, there has to be a way of resolving things if the agreement breaks down.
The ability to move between systems after a year can in itself create instability and reduce the incentive to make an initial agreement.
Mr. Plaskitt: I know that they are Sir Davids words, and as he would expect, we debated that recommendation thoroughly and considered it carefully, but in light of all the evidence that we looked at, we did not agree with his recommendation.
John Penrose: I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he agree that it is possible that a court can be more thorough in its initial investigation, particularly of the financial circumstances surrounding the break-up of a relationship? As a result, the court ordera minute of agreement in Scotlandthat is created may result in a fairer and better division of assets, or provision of maintenance. Providing whoever feels hard done by with the opportunity to undo that arrangement may result in a less just conclusion.
Mr. Plaskitt: The order may be more thorough, and that is why some parents who separate choose to go down that route. They may feel that the court order is more relevant to their circumstances than any of the other means. However, I do not accept that the existence of the other means undermines court orders or minutes of agreement. So far, we cannot see any evidence that they have that effect. I should like now to make a little more progress; there will be an opportunity to come back to those issues in respect of the other amendments in the group.
The amendments proposed by Opposition Members would prevent choice; they would remove the bedding-in period and could leave parents irrevocably locked into arrangements that may no longer work further down the line or meet the needs of the children concerned. Minutes of agreement and court orders have their proper place in the provision of child maintenance, but there needs to be a safety net for when those arrangements go wrong. Children must not be left for considerable periods with no maintenance or inadequate arrangements, and parents should not be tied to agreements that no longer work for them or, more importantly, their children.
By encouraging agreements between parents that lead to effective and sustainable maintenance arrangements, we hope that parents will not need to turn to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission for a calculation under the statutory scheme. We do not wish to overturn any effective or agreed maintenance arrangements, whatever form they take. Repealing section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991 will mean that only when one or both parents make an application to the commission can written maintenance agreements, including minutes of agreement and consent orders, be overturned. Working agreements will continue for as long as both parents want them to.
The 12-month rule is intended to encourage settlements that contain fair levels of child maintenance, calculated broadly along the lines of the statutory scheme, so that we can ensure that children have regular, ongoing maintenance payments. The rule achieves that, because that is what lawyers invariably advise. As I said earlier, it also enables parents to apply to the statutory service if the arrangements fail. Those principles would not be served by the amendments. If parents are happy with their arrangements, we want those arrangements to continue, but we do not think it right that a specific group of parents should be excluded from the opportunity to use the statutory service if that is what they feel is right for them and their children, so I urge hon. Members not to press their amendments.
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