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Earl Russell: The Secretary of State has used the whole of this category of women as evidence of fraud. Indeed, he has taken it as a quantification for fraud. Can I take it that the Secretary of State made that allegation entirely without evidence? If so, will the Minister convey to him my request that he will withdraw it?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall certainly look at what my right honourable friend said. I am not prepared just to accept this discussion on its face value. As I indicated, there will undoubtedly be some who will have been in collusive desertion; some who go back to their partner; some who re-partner; and some who find a job. If the noble Earl thinks that government ought to indulge in the kind of work that would be necessary to answer all these questions, then one or two people may agree with him. I do not agree with him at all.

Earl Russell: What I do believe is that governments should not adopt policies in total ignorance of their likely effects. The Minister knows perfectly well that I do not suggest that everybody who is not on benefit should be studied all the time. The Minister knows—or at least, he knew when he made the last up-rating statement—the word "pilot". The Minister knows that there is such a thing as academic research, which can be done with a controlled sample. It is perfectly possible to commission research on the effects of disentitlement to benefit or reduced benefit directions. It is criminally irresponsible of the Government, and indeed careless of public money, to implement this provision without having any idea of its effects.

The Minister once again invoked the interests of the taxpayer. Once again, let me remind him that I am a taxpayer and as such I am ashamed that my comfort

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should be based on taking bread out of the mouths of women and children who have done nothing wrong except wanting to protect their private lives. I can see no justification for that.

We simply do not know what has happened to most of those who have gone off benefit. I agree with the Minister that they are probably not living on nothing—from which the question necessarily follows: are they living legitimately? That raises a question as to whether they may be costing public funds a great deal more than they otherwise would.

The Minister praised the confidentiality provisions. In the light of a lot of the cases that have come into my postbag, I am extremely surprised that he is so confident of the confidentiality provisions of the agency. If the Minister were a woman, dealing with a man in a prominent position in the public eye and in whom the press might take an interest, would he take the risk that the confidentiality provisions would be observed? If the person were in the entertainment industry and certain tabloid newspapers would pay many thousands of pounds for the information, would the Minister trust junior, ill-paid officials to resist the temptation in all circumstances? I am not sure that I would. And I am not sure that a great many other people would, either. There is a great deal more mischief in this provision.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I should have thought in the kind of hypothetical situation that the noble Earl suggests, the man involved might happily be perfectly prepared, and certainly able, in the light of the kind of definition that the noble Earl put forward of his position, to pay the maintenance required for any such child on a private basis, and the mother would not have to go to the income support system in order to seek maintenance for herself and the child.

Earl Russell: I did not for one moment suggest that the man in this situation would be blameless; quite the opposite. Indeed, the woman in this situation might be suffering from foolish good nature. But is that a quality to which we must apply such ferocious legislative penalties? Is a lingering affection for somebody one has once loved so gross a crime? I am very surprised that the Minister should think so. In the meantime, I do not think that I can get any more answers out of him, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 74 and 75 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 76:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:


. Section 47 of the 1991 Act shall be omitted.").

The noble Earl said: I can deal with this amendment quite briefly. It deals with the requirement to pay fees to the agency for its services.

There is a problem with the agency in that the amount it is demanding is too heavy. It is causing very great

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hardship. On top of that, to be asked for fees for a service that one did not request, appears to many people to be adding insult to injury.

I appreciate that agencies cost money. But whether those costs should fall on individual parents, or whether they are costs that are more properly attributable to the whole of society, and indeed to those very taxpayers whom we are so often told are benefiting from the Act, is a question that deserves consideration.

The fees can create a real burden. They certainly cause a great deal of anger. They certainly contribute to the cumulative shock when the maintenance demand, the fees and the arrears all arrive at one and the same time.

The Minister is rightly concerned with the need to collect money. But a lesson that he might have learnt from the failures of the poll tax is that the best way to collect more money is to acquire a rather greater degree of consent to the procedures that are being operated than he has at present. If the Government want to make the agency popular enough to work, this is something that they could very well do. As the Minister's honourable friend Mr. Burt said in the other place on 15th December last, the agency does indeed need friends. Is the Minister not prepared to do a tiny little bit to win it some? I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am sure that those who are interested in this particular field will be aware that fees have been suspended for two years from April of this year. As the Child Support Agency acknowledged, it has not been able to provide the level of service that people have a right to expect. The principle of charging fees remains entirely sound. Where the Government provide a service, it is usual to charge a fee which recovers the full cost of the service provided. I must point out to the noble Earl that under the previous system of child maintenance, parents often had to meet the legal costs of consulting solicitors and going through the court system.

Now that the Child Support Agency provides that service, it would be wrong for the taxpayer to subsidise those parents who can afford to pay. It is important to remember that fees are charged only to those parents with care and absent parents who are in a position to pay the fees; in other words, non-benefit cases. Parents with care and absent parents receiving income support, family credit or disability working allowance and absent parents whose maintenance is restricted by the protected income provisions are exempt from the payment of fees.

The fees have been suspended. But, leaving that aside for the moment, it is not that they are imposed on absolutely everyone. A very large number of people who come into the categories I mentioned are not asked to pay fees. It is only those non-benefit cases who are asked to pay fees. As I pointed out, under the previous system, to which the noble Earl would like to move back provided there were some changes, such parents undoubtedly would have had to meet legal costs and the costs of going through the court system.

However, the point that I want to make to the noble Earl is that the fees have been suspended for two years,

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because, as I acknowledge, the agency has not delivered the service that it ought to have done. With that reminder—I am sure that he was well aware of it—I hope that the noble Earl will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

6 p.m.

Earl Russell: As the Minister suspected, I was aware that fees had been suspended. "Suspended" is described in "1066 And All That" as "a modified form of hanging". My request was to delete the modification. I do not see why the fees have not been abolished.

The Minister's comments about the services of a solicitor show that he has not understood the point of the amendment. In paying fees to a solicitor, you pay for something which you yourself have requested. There is a certain fairness in that. In this instance, people are being forced to pay for a service which they most certainly have not requested and which in many cases they most earnestly desire to avoid. That is a very different matter. It shows how much the customer model of public service has got out of hand. These people are not the customers of an agency any more than the inmates of a maximum security prison are its customers. I am aware that in strict government logic I ought now to call them such, but I do not do so.

There has not been a meeting of minds. We cannot go any further now. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 77:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Obtaining information by menaces or false information,

.—(1) Section 50 of the 1991 Act shall be amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (1) there shall be inserted—
"(1A) A child support officer who obtains information under section 6(9) (a) by means of menaces or false information shall commit an offence and in all such cases the Child Support Agency shall pay damages to the parent with care, and shall have no further jurisdiction in the case." ").

The noble Earl said: This is another amendment which covers the case about which I wrote to the Minister last Tuesday and which we discussed last night on Amendment No. 45. The Minister will remember it well. I should like to thank his honourable friend Mr. Burt for the speed with which he replied to my letter. His reply was in my box yesterday evening and I found it this morning.

As the Minister may remember, the issue was whether the case should have been before the agency at all. In effect, Mr. Burt's argument was that it was right that it should be before the agency because the parent with care made a voluntary application for maintenance. What he does not deal with is the other part of the letter that I wrote to him about that case. The parent with care did sign an application for maintenance, after an interview in which she was told that she would lose all her benefit if she did not sign it. That was "all"—not 20 per cent. but the whole lot.

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I do not for one minute blame the Government for that. I have written to Ministers about many similar cases in the past. Their responses have lacked for nothing in concern, courtesy or consideration. I do not suggest that they have one scintilla of blame for that. I suggest that this is only the umpteenth of a long succession of cases of that type and that Ministers have not so far been able to stop them.

The Minister may say that the provisions of this amendment are draconian. They provide that a child support officer who obtains information by menaces or false information shall commit an offence and in all such cases the Child Support Agency shall pay damages to the parent with care and shall have no further jurisdiction in the case. That is draconian. Any historian finding that in a statute would immediately conclude that milder provisions had not been effective. Any future historian looking at this amendment and drawing that conclusion would be right. So, should the Minister say that it is too draconian, I hope also to hear from him some way in which he can make certain that such a case does not happen again and that, if it does happen, something will instantly be done about it and redress will be offered. I beg to move.

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