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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I wonder whether the noble Earl is speaking to the right amendment. Amendment No. 71 was grouped and discussed with a previous amendment. I wonder whether the noble Earl is perhaps speaking to Amendment No. 72?

Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. I should be speaking to Amendment No. 72. However, at least I am talking about the right subject. After the Jobseekers Bill I am very relieved about that.

[Amendment No. 71 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 72:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Contribution to maintenance by deduction from benefit

. Section 43 of the 1991 Act shall be omitted.").

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The noble Earl said: I rise to move Amendment No. 72, which deals with the levy of child maintenance from an absent parent on income support.

When we debated Amendment No. 52 last night the Minister said that the income support rates provide a benchmark for assessing need. I told the Minister then that I was grateful for those words and that he would hear them again. That is precisely the point. It is not a generous benefit. It is not intended that such a large surplus should be left over that people are capable of paying large sums in addition.

That is not all. We have heard many times in this Chamber, many of them before the Minister came here, of the number of deductions to which people on income support may be subject: for gas, water, electricity, rent, Social Fund loans, court fines and many others. There is a rule in the department that deductions should not normally rise above 15 per cent. If the Minister were to wish to give me a crumb rather than the whole substance of the amendment, he might concede that levies of child maintenance should be subject to the 15 per cent. rule, because beyond that people are getting very near the bone. They are getting to the point where one needs to consider the risk of malnutrition.

The Minister may also consider whether, from the point of view of the department, the procedure is cost effective. At the moment the levy of £2.30 a week is levied on 18,300 parents, which is 10.5 per cent. of the total assessments. That is an awful lot of work to collect a very small amount of money. I am not sure whether it is a cost-effective use of money, and I am sure that it is not a cost-effective use of the time and effort of the agency. It takes a great deal of time to collect these small sums, and the Minister must face the fact that the agency has been overburdened with work to a far greater extent than the Government ever foresaw.

If the Minister gives his usual reply that the absent parent must pay and that maintenance must take priority over all else, and he gives that priority over the need to avoid malnutrition and over the interests of the Treasury and efficient government, then I shall think that the Minister is in danger of obsession. I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This amendment seeks to remove the requirement for absent parents who receive income support to make any contribution to child maintenance by way of either current payments or arrears.

I have made it clear sufficiently often that the Government believe that all absent parents should normally provide at least a small contribution towards their children's costs. The amendment would mean treating income support recipients more favourably than absent parents with similar levels of income from other sources. The standard current maintenance contribution in these cases, £2.35 per week from April 1995, provides a small but continuing recognition of the financial responsibility which parents have for their children.

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When I mentioned the bench mark, I was well aware that the noble Earl would come back at me. However, £2.35 is not a huge amount, although I fully accept that we are not talking about large incomes. On the other hand, I believe that the point about the continuing recognition of financial responsibility is important. We recognise that it would not be right to expect absent parents to pay maintenance in all circumstances. Therefore there are some groups which are not expected to make that contribution. Those who are aged under 18, those who are sick or disabled, or those who have a child living with them are not expected to make that contribution. The income support recipients who contribute will be those aged 18 or over who are seeking work. When they find work the fact that they are already paying the modest amount of £2.35 will be a useful indication and reminder to them that when they start work they will have to provide support for their children.

We also recognise the need to provide additional safeguards for those absent parents who have failed to budget for other essential expenditure and who could face eviction from their homes or disconnection of fuel or water supplies. Deductions from income support to meet rent arrears or fuel or water charges are given priority over child maintenance. It is the one exception that I think I shall make to my usual principle—just in case the noble Earl jumps up to say that I contradict much of what I said. However, in those very special cases we accept that those deductions should be given priority. When those deductions apply, the £2.35 contribution to child maintenance is not required.

Given the existence of those safeguards, I do not believe that it would be right to go the step further and treat all unemployed absent parents who receive income support differently from those with similar income from work.

I hope that with my explanation of the exceptions that are in the system already the noble Earl will withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell: Before we go further, perhaps the Minister will assist me by telling me what general principle governs the few cases which are excepted from the Government's normal rule. If we can discover the general principle, we may be able to consider it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Sometimes one looks at the practicalities. The practicalities are that we are talking about people on income support. As I mentioned earlier, we have already excepted those who are aged under 18, sick or disabled, or who have a child living with them. They are not expected to make a contribution. We have considered the special circumstances of those who have problems paying their rent arrears or fuel or water charges. We believe that in those circumstances it would be right to make a small breach in the general principle. I am a little surprised that the noble Earl encourages me to stick to the broad principle.

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A principle is not in any way limited if we are prepared in very exceptional circumstances to depart from it. I believe that these are very exceptional circumstances, whereas most of the other circumstances from which I have been invited to depart are not exceptional.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Perhaps I should know this, but I do not. I am not sure whether the Minister should have mentioned the Social Fund loan deductions. If he did so, I did not hear him. Do they also take precedence? My understanding is that they do. In other words, one is not referring only to the mandatory court-imposed repayments, but also to the Social Fund loans.

We come up against a real problem. There is so much top slicing of benefit that living standards are depressed well below income support levels. Perhaps the Minister can give guidance on this.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall have to take advice before I can give any guidance on Social Fund loan repayments.

Earl Russell: The Minister misinterpreted me. I do not object to his having more than one principle. With regard to principles, there is genuinely safety in numbers. Principles need social sense just as much as human beings. If the Minister has a second principle which can keep company with his first principle, I hope that they may have a reproductive faculty so that in the end we gain a few more.

I ask the Minister a slightly different question. What is the general category to which the individual list of exceptions belongs? Is there a general category, or are the exceptions arrived at randomly? If he will enlighten me on that, I should find it helpful.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The exceptions are not in a general category; nor are they arrived at randomly. Each individual circumstance is considered. Like the other three more general cases to which I referred—the child living with the person, those under 18, and those who are sick or disabled—a decision has been taken that an exception shall be made in the case of rent arrears and fuel and water charges.

Earl Russell: I wondered whether the Minister might say that the common factor in those cases was that they all involved hardship. Indeed they do. My contention is that this also is a case which involves hardship. The basic levels of income support do not leave much margin for safety. As the noble Baroness said, benefit is so consistently top sliced by deductions for this, that or the other that it is normally down to the bone. For example, I do not see why child maintenance and Social Fund loans should be forced into competition with each other so that if you pay one, you necessarily have to default on the other.

The Minister was not present when we last debated the National Children's Home report on levels of debt and hardship among those on benefit. It was somewhat distressing. So was the National Consumer Council report, Your Food: Whose Choice?, which argued that

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in a great many areas of the country, especially those remote from cheap shops, there is real difficulty in securing an adequate diet on income support.

It is in that context that I believe the attempt to levy child maintenance on absent parents on income support causes real hardship. If hardship were the governing principle of the Minister's exceptions, I believe that he would accept the amendment. Perhaps he will consider the issue before a later stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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