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Lord Renton: The Government had a very difficult task when they decided to try to put maintenance and some other provisions of the 1991 Act into better perspective through this particular legislation. I feel sorry for the Government because the 1991 Act had broad support and was a splendid attempt to provide for what had become a real social problem. But, for one reason or another, and perhaps because the 1991 Act attempted too muchinstead of leaving enough to discretion for those who had to decide cases under itit worked out in ways which caused resentment and sometimes injustice. This Bill is an attempt to put right what has proved to be a very difficult task.
I believe that the noble Earl has done a service by drawing attention to the methods which we are attempting to use in this Bill. I feel sorry for my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish who, I presume, will answer this debate, because I do not believe that he had any say in the formulation of the provisions of the Bill, but he has to defend them. Therefore, I do not want to make his task any more difficult than it is bound to be already. Perhaps I may try to be constructive. I am glad to see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, is in his place. About 20 years ago it was suggested by a committee which reported to Parliament that it was best for Parliament to state the principles on which Parliament intended legislation should be based.
Lord Renton: The report was published in 1975. My simple arithmetic makes that 20 years ago but the noble and learned Lord was at school a little more recently than I was. Ever since that time there has been a reluctance on the part of those responsible for advising parliamentary counsel on the drafting of legislation to instruct them as to what the principles should be. There has been an endlessly futile attempt to include in legislation a mass of hypothetical circumstances, to deal with matters in detail, sometimes leaving them to delegated legislation for the provision of still further detail.
I am sorry to have to say that in all those 20 years legislation has become, broadly in my opinion, worse, despite the advice offered to Parliament by that committee, of which I happened to have had the honour to be chairman. What do we find now? We find that instead of leaving a good deal to the discretion of those who will have to decide the cases that will arise under the Bill, the Bill itself goes into a large amount of detail. But where it does not reach any conclusions on some of the details that might arise, it makes provision in half a dozen places, to which the noble Earl has referred, for the making by the Secretary of State of regulations containing further guidance, which are bound to be detailed. The circumstances which will arise in those cases are so
I shall be interested to hear what my noble friend has to say in reply to this short debate, but it is an occasion when we should take note of the practice, which is now becoming prevalent, of assuming that there will have to be more and more detail provided for the people who have to obey statutes, and that the ever-increasing detail shall be contained in secondary legislation. Of course it must be approved by Parliament, as with Clause 2 last week, when the Government gracefully gave way on the proposition that the Secretary of State could give guidance without getting it approved by Parliament, or giving Parliament an opportunity to disapprove.
I hope that throughout Whitehall, one day before long, people will realise that they are creating difficulties for themselves and for other people by continuing with this exceedingly complex method of legislation, which does not necessarily lead to justice and must inevitably lead to uncertainty.
Lord Houghton of Sowerby: I apologise for being a few minutes late. I had hoped to be present at the beginning of the debate on the clause relating to the oversight by someone else of the work of the department and of the Secretary of State in making regulations under the Bill.
Following the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I believe that we are approaching something of a crisis in our method of legislation. When one thinks of the Jobseekers Bill, the Child Support Bill, and the Disability Discrimination Bill, the mountain of regulations that someone has to produce is most forbidding. They are presented to Parliament, to be disturbed only on a prayer to do something with them as a whole, or on the sanction of both Houses of Parliament in a positive way, in which case it is assumed that in giving positive approval Parliament will at least read them and try to understand them.
But to have to make detailed regulations following the statement of principles in an Act of Parliament may be inescapable when one is dealing with public expenditure. After all, when people are entitled to benefits, and when they add up to large sums of public expenditure, Parliament has to be satisfied that the scheme is a workable one and that adequate, although not fastidious, care will be taken to safeguard the public purse, and that the public approves the benefits that they see being paid out.
In the case of the Child Support Bill, however, many of the regulations will apply to the division of spoils between the father and the mother of his children. It has nothing to do with the state. There will be no state money in it. There will be state expenditure in administering it, but it will not be a matter of state concern.
The Bill goes into a field of public relations, and, in particular, relations between husband and wife, man and woman, children and parents. It goes into a field of extreme complexity and great sensitivity. It is small wonder that the child support legislation fell on evil times and the Child Support Agency into an awful mess.
I believe that we imposed on the agency more than it could possibly cope with in the 1991 Act. We did not provide anything in the formula decisions which went beyond the formula itself. Now in this Bill, we are having to erect another formula in addition to the old one to provide for the cases that the old formula did not reach, or produced a result which was fantastic nonsense to the parties concerned. The result is that we have a whole page, if not more, of detail as to what expenses a father might regard as a charge on his income before the formula decides what he shall contribute to the maintenance of his children who are with the former wife or mother of his children. That is an astonishing situation.
The Bill directs us to provide for regulations to be made to look at income which may be invested by the father on behalf of the children, but which may not be invested to the best advantage. Regulations may provide for the income which will be notionally received on the investment, but which, because it is not sensibly invested, is not being received, and not the actual money at the disposal of the family concerned.
What are we to do with all that? I am very much in sympathy with what I heard the noble Earl, Lord Russell, say on his amendment. I thought that the first amendment on the Marshalled List was placing an additional burden on the parliamentary system somehow, and I was not sure whether we had the resources to deal with it. I am more attracted to the amendment on the Marshalled List in the name of my noble friend Lord CarterAmendment No. 54which provides for the appointment of an advisory committee.
I believe that there is a model comparable with this one; that is, the national insurance legislation. That was of extreme complexity over a wide field. A national insurance advisory committee was appointed, made up mainly of outside persons, to look at and comment upon draft regulations, and generally to express an opinion upon the equity or wisdom of something that the Secretary of State was proposing. It could undertake its advisory function almost at any stage. It could pick up either proposals or final decisions and was free to comment on them in the public interest and in the interest of the beneficiaries. I believe that that is an idea worth pursuing. Perhaps the advisory committee could be given sufficient resources to study draft regulations. It would probably do so better than we could. Perhaps we should be justified in employing parliamentary staff to do it for us.
I do not believe that the way in which we deal with the Committee stage of complicated Bills is sensible. My health will no longer stand sitting up until the House adjourns in the middle of the night. Therefore, the next morning I look at the Minutes of Proceedings to see when the victims of the system left their task to go to bed. Some time ago there was talk of adopting methods to shorten the long proceedings that your Lordships' House has suffered in its duties. Indeed, we were told that often the House of Lords sits later than the House of Commons. If the representatives of the people can go home and get to bed at a reasonable hour what are we doing sitting up half the night altering commas and full-stops, inserting the word "and" instead of "for", or whatever, in order to get the Bill right? We cannot be assumed to be the final word in
I believe that in those circumstances the Committee stage should be on a smaller scale. Committees appointed on the lines of the House of Commons are well worth considering. We experimented on one occasion but, whether we like it or not, we must come to the stage of having only a selection of amendments debated on the Floor of the House. The Commons have to put up with it and I believe that we shall have to put up with it.
We must realise that every amendment on the Marshalled List can be moved, debated and voted upon and that the Government must set a timetable to get the Bill passed in so many days. They say to the House, in effect, "Well, if you want to sit until breakfast time that's your look out but we are going to get to Amendment No. 52 before we finish tonight". Short of us all walking out and leaving the Chamber unmanned, one can put no difficulties in the way.
I see that the digital clock reads 29 minutes. The amendment has been under discussion for that time. I know that time goes very fast but I am sure that there would be some protest if I spoke for 29 minutes, although occasionally I have come pretty close to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, raised issues of principle dealing with complicated Bills of this kind and I thought it worth uttering a few comments on the tasks upon which we now embark. It is likely that considerable time will be spent long after the hour when we should have given up work. Not all of us are in a position to tolerate those hours. With the co-operation of those who have tabled amendments, we should try to shorten our Committee proceedings on the Floor of the House. We should more seriously consider the setting up of a Standing Committee to deal with much of the detail of complicated Bills, while reserving debates and decisions on matters of major importance to the full Committee on the Floor of the House. That is done in the Commons. I do not believe that we should be loath to see what the Commons does and whether it is successful. Certainly, the public will wonder what we are doing starting another Bill in respect of which there are hundreds of regulations. Someone must define the word "available" and it is in such detailed consideration of Bills that hairs are split left, right and centre.
I hope that we can be more sensible about the way in which we are carrying out our work because, in my humble opinion, we cannot go on like this. Members a good deal younger than me can become fed up with sitting up half the night to settle regulations on the Child Support Bill as regards the division of resources between husband and wife at state auspices and state authority when, surely, they ought to be able to do it for themselves.
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