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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Baroness is at her most beguiling. I am not entirely sure what I can add to the previous arguments. I have some sympathy with the point she made about the parent with care, and the fact that by definition inevitably the parent with care has had to shoulder the responsibility of the children on her own, and so on. However, I sought to explain why I do not believe that we should have a disregard on income

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support and why I believe it is more important to concentrate on incentives (if I may so call them) to help the parent with care back to work vis-o-vis the bonus. That bonus accumulates. If the parent with care goes into work at any stage, she will be able, so to speak, to cash that figure up to the maximum. I believe that that is important when helping the parent with care into work.

The maintenance disregard on family credit and the like is equally important because in many cases, especially if the children are young, the parent with care is likely to want to work part-time and therefore is not likely to be earning the considerable amounts of money which she might earn if she were able to work full-time. Therefore I believe that the £15 maintenance disregard is important.

The noble Baroness sought to inveigle me to her side by trying to win my sympathy for the parent with care. In many cases she already has my sympathy for the parent with care who is left to bring up the children on her own. However, my sympathy will not quite extend to agreeing with her on the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: With reference to the Minister's care and discretion from reading the gaps and listening to the silences in what the Minister said, I think we can deduce the Minister's own views to which no doubt we shall return.

Basically, the Minister has offered us only one argument in this second round: that a modest disregard would be a disincentive to go back to work. He knows that that is psychologically as well as empirically simply not true. What stops a lone parent going back to work is that the children are too small and child care is unsatisfactory. If relatives are around, it is possible that she will try to do so; otherwise the children are too small and the child care is unsatisfactory. Most lone parents go back to work when the children reach school age. That is a fact. The average time a lone parent spends on income support is only about two and a half years. That is evidence enough that income support, dependency on a benefit, is a passing phase when the children are very small and the mother cannot realistically leave them to go to work. That is the time at which her poverty is most acute; it is the time when her isolation is most acute; it is the time when she most needs the disregard.

I had thought that, despite the occasional double dose of original sin, the Tory Party were at least the party of the family. That is clearly no longer the case. The Tory Party has become the party of "the lone parent's place is in the workplace" concept. Frankly, little attention has been given by the Government to the welfare of the child. That surprises me coming from the Minister and from that party.

Clearly we shall return to the issue with, I hope, many more voices at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 [The child maintenance bonus]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 41:


Page 9, line 17, at end insert:

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("(k) the bonus to accrue at the weekly rate (subject to paragraph (c)) whether or not the child support agency has actually collected the money for each week, in all cases where the total maintenance payable by the absent parent would allow for this.").

The noble Baroness said: The amendment ensures that where the agency has failed to collect maintenance on behalf of the parent with care, the parent with care would not be penalised by receiving a reduced lump sum on her return to work. The Minister may tell us that we misunderstand the Bill and that the parent with care will receive the full lump sum notwithstanding, in which case we shall be delighted. However, I fear that the Government may argue that maintenance can only be paid in a lump sum that has been collected. If it is to work effectively as a return to work measure, the agency will need to guarantee it; otherwise parents with care who know that their maintenance has not been collected, due to no fault of their own, will have no such incentive.

If the agency were to pay out the lump sum, the mother would have a modest incentive to go back to work and there would be a bigger incentive for the agency to collect the money from the absent parent and to enforce the measure where necessary. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Although I shall not go into detail, the amendment is a little defective to do what I believe the noble Baroness seeks. As she clearly said, the noble Baroness wishes the weekly bonus to be paid regardless of whether maintenance is actually paid. It should be based therefore on the maintenance assessed rather than the maintenance paid. I shall not go over the arguments in favour of the maintenance bonus; I did that in the last debate.

I wish to try to help alleviate some of the concerns which the noble Baroness has in proposing the amendment. Our plans are that a credit of £5 a week will accrue for each week in respect of which maintenance is paid (or a credit of the actual amount of maintenance paid, if that is less). Where an absent parent pays his maintenance weekly, on time and in full, then it is quite easy to see that a parent with care will accumulate a bonus up to the maximum rate of £5 a week. But we will have to deal with circumstances where payment is not weekly, not on time and not in full.

For example, non-weekly payments may be because the absent parent pays monthly and therefore the Child Support Agency would have to take that into account. People pay every two weeks or every four weeks, as well as monthly. We shall have to look at the payment made over the agreed charge period and translate it to a weekly equivalent. That should not cause a problem. However, a payment might be late and added to a later period. Our aim will be to recognise that such arrears also count towards any bonus due. I hope that that answers some of the concerns of the noble Baroness.

What happens will be complex, I fear, because sometimes people will make sporadic payments, under-payments, arrears, all over a prolonged period. It will not be so obvious what bonus is due. Nevertheless, our aim is the same: to allocate a bonus accordingly for the period over which payments are made.

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Perhaps I have not gone quite so far as the noble Baroness, because I say that the bonus should be accumulated if the maintenance is paid. However it is paid, we shall try to accommodate the situation, whether it is paid late, paid in arrears, paid weekly, monthly or whatever it is. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness was inviting me to go further—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes, I was.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I was trying not to be too positive about it, just in case; but I am sure that she wished me to go further and allow the bonus to accumulate, even if the maintenance is not paid at all. I do not think I can go that far. However, I hope that there will be few absent parents who will not split the responsibilities and pay their maintenance and therefore allow the bonus to be accumulated. We all hope that through the improvements made in the agency, it will be able to pursue the absent parents who seem reluctant to pay their dues and will ensure that they pay and that the bonus will be collected for the parent with care, if she returns to work.

While this does not go so far as the noble Baroness wishes, I hope that it is helpful and will show that I am going some of the way in addressing her anxieties.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It does not quite do that because all that the Minister said or conceded is that if any money is paid in the course of one month, six months or a year, it will be apportioned to the weekly bonus base. I had taken it for granted that it would; it is just a question of our computers dealing with it properly. What I was concerned about was where the agency was the collection agency, and where the collection had failed to take place, either because the CSA was inefficient or because the absent parent had managed to avoid making maintenance payments or where maintenance payments had fluctuated for whatever reason, nevertheless the back-to-work bonus would be protected in the circumstances where any failure to pay was no fault of the parent with care. Can the Minister give us some helpful move on this?

11 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not think I can. It is all predicated on the fact that the absent parent pays, as the noble Baroness accepts. So long as he pays, we shall try to equate how he pays with the bonus.

In the case of an absent parent declining to pay and somehow or other still managing to elude all the powers of the agency to call him to account and make him pay—and I hope that such cases will be a very small minority—I do not think that we could pay the bonus because the principal condition is not being observed; namely, that the maintenance is being paid. It is out of the maintenance paid that the £5 bonus rolls up. I know that that will disappoint the noble Baroness, but I hope that I have made my position clear.


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