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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The Child Support Agency has been aware of the sensitive nature of its work from the outset. All staff likely to be involved with the interviewing of parents with care, or absent parents, undergo training which was devised in co-operation with Relate, which was formerly the Marriage Guidance Council.
In the agency's annual report, it admits that mistakes have been made. Forms have been sent to the wrong people; errors have been made in calculations. But those mistakes need to be kept in perspective. In my experience there are usually two sides to every story. Often, the press are quick to work up some small event into a sensational headline. But staff in the agency cannot defend themselves by revealing the true story without breaching their rules of confidentiality.
The noble Earl mentioned a particular case regarding a letter that he sent to my honourable friend Mr. Alistair Burt. I mentioned it last night and said that a reply was on its way to the noble Earl. As I said then, I cannot go into any of the details of that case because of those same rules of confidentiality. They bind Ministers just as surely as they bind staff. But, as the noble Earl is well aware, we are more than willing to look into specific cases brought to our attention where support staff have used menaces or lies. I can assure him that they will be thoroughly investigated.
I know that Miss Chant, the Chief Executive of the agency, takes allegations of that nature very seriously indeed. If such a case did come to light, the staff involved would be subject to the strong disciplinary action that is available within the agency. Civil servants, including child support officers, are expected to maintain a high standard of integrity at all times. They should remain impartial in their dealings with clients. The agency's staff rules and conditions of service set out the relevant provisions and any breach of these rules may result in disciplinary action being taken against the officer concerned.
There is no reason for such unacceptable behaviour. Where the parent with care refuses to give the information without good cause, even though she knows the whereabouts of the absent parent, there is a proper procedure to be gone through and, ultimately, the sanction that we discussed earlier. The Secretary of State also has considerable powers for tracing, which involve using the department's own records, information which is a matter of public record, the Inland Revenue's records, and information from the absent parent's employer. All that should mean that unacceptable behaviour is absolutely and totally unnecessary, as well as uncalled for.
I do not see the jurisdiction of the CSA as something to be taken away because of a perceived mistake, or even misconduct, by an officer of the agency. The child support system is now the main method of getting child maintenance in this country. There will always be a need for the courts to become involved in a minority of casesfor example, where one of the parties lives abroad. However, I cannot see any situation where it would be right for the agency to lose jurisdiction as a form of punishment.
This amendment is unfair to the very many civil servants who are doing an honest job in what is a difficult and sensitive area of people's lives. With my explanation and assurance to the noble Earl that any cases which he draws to our attention will certainly be investigated, I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: While not supporting the wording of the amendment as it stands, nonetheless the noble Earl, Lord Russell, touched on a very real fear. I am sure that the Minister believes the words of his brief and every Member of your Lordships' Committee hopes that what he said would prove in the end to be correct. The trouble is, we all know that in other areas of lifefor example the workings of bailiffs, private security firms, debt collectors and so forththere is a culture of being "heavy" to obtain information.
Perhaps the Minister can help us on this. Can he give us an assurance that no collection of such information will ever be privatised outside the directly employed Civil Service? Most of the experience of that kind that I have had in local government has not been through the bailiffs attached to the sheriffs' courts, where they are properly trained and legally certified officers, but with the introduction of private "heavies" who operate by menaces. Can the Minister give us that assurance?
Secondly, can the Minister also assure us that explicit and careful guidance will go out to the officers of the CSA and that such guidance will be posted in the Library so that we can look at it, and if we are not happy with it, we can come back with Starred or Unstarred Questions at a later date? If the Minister can give us those assurances or perhaps come back to us with information at a subsequent date between now and Report stage, then some of our worries may be removed. However, the noble Earl has a real cause for concern, knowing, as I do from local government experience, just how slender is the pathway between what is an acceptable quest for legitimate information and an unacceptable quest.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I complained yesterdayhumbly, I hopethat the Minister had set his face against every single amendment that we put forward; that there was no sort of flexibility, no resilience; that he was apparently oblivious of the fact that this Bill and its provisions have been necessitated because that was the attitude taken during the proceedings on the 1991 Bill, when one amendment after another moved in your Lordships' Chamber was rejected in much the same manner as the Minister manifested yesterday.
I have been waiting avidly for this amendment because I thought that here at last there would be something that no reasonable Minister could possibly reject. The amendment asks that the obtaining of information by menaces by an officer of the Child Support Agency, or by false information, should constitute an offence. Should it not? Obtaining money or property by menaces is an offence under the Theft Act and this is just a step to obtaining property and in fact obtaining money. It is no answer to say, "There are disciplinary proceedings to deal with it".
This jurisdiction has been seized, has been arrogated from the magistrates' courts. The magistrates have been exercising this jurisdiction since 1895 and suddenly, in 1991, there is a hunger for arrogation in Whitehall and at a sweep the whole jurisdiction is removed from the magistrates to the Child Support Agency. Judging from the Minister's assured performance at the Dispatch Box, one would have imagined that the original Act had been an unqualified success. In fact we know it was a major legislative disaster. If it had been left in the magistrates' courts, what would one say of a magistrates' clerk who elicited information in these circumstancesby menaces and by force or by false information? Would it be an answer to say that no clerk ought to behave in that way; that if he did the Magistrates' Courts Committee could take disciplinary action? Anybody saying that would be laughed to scorn.
It would be an offence and rightly an offence. That is no more than the noble Earl is asking and I find it depressing in the extreme that the Minister is sticking to the same brief: that nothing must be altered beyond what has been conceded under pressure; the very least being given, and I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter. It seems to me that, if there has even been one instance of this sort of behaviour on the part of a statutory agency which we erected to perform this jurisdiction, we ought to be saying that obtaining information for the purpose of the agency, for the purpose of the TreasuryI take no objection to that myself, naturallyin that way is an offence and should be declared an offence. I hope that the noble Earl will persist.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I believe I am in some difficulty with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I understand that on this issue whatever I do I shall not satisfy him, short of actually returning this jurisdiction to the courts.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I was intending to go on to say that of course some amendments open up the considerable divide between the noble and learned Lord, the noble Earl and myself in regard to the agency. I have tried, in at least some of the amendmentsnot, I accept, all of them where it was a bit more head to headto explain how the procedures work and I hope that I have encouraged Members of the Committee who tabled the amendments to believe that the position is not as bad as they fear; that the situation they have devised to bring before the Committee is not the real one and that checks and balances are in place in the system.
That is what I tried to do in relation to this amendment. I tried to say, in the first instance, that there are two sides to many of the stories we read and, of course, confidentiality means that the staff of the agency and indeed Ministers cannot answer the cases. I am not complaining about that. That is perhaps the downside of confidentiality in regard to the agency.
I indicated that where any member of the staff goes down the road suggested in the amendment, then the agency itself will take vigorous action on those breaches of the rules and that may result in disciplinary action within the agency. That is a system which works within the whole Civil Service, not just the agency. I hope therefore that the idea has been scotched that an official of the agency, a child support officer, could act in the kind of way described in the amendment and get away with it.
Turning to the two points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, we have no plans to privatise the agency. Our present concerns are much more directed at, and our time is taken up by, making sure that the agency actually works. The noble Baroness inviting me to contemplate other changes is just going many, many bridges too far. I am happy to give her the assurance she asks for.
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