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Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.25 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8 to 8.25 p.m.]

Child Support Bill

House again in Committee.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 90:

After Clause 22, insert the following new clause:

("Certain arrears

.—(1) This section applies to arrears of child support maintenance which are payable under an assessment which was made at a date later than the dates of the period in respect of which the arrears in question are payable, and which were not also payable under an assessment which was in force during the period in respect of which they are payable.
(2) Arrears to which this section applies shall not be enforceable except with the leave of a judge of the Family Division of the High Court (or, in Scotland, of the Court of Session).
(3) In any proceedings concerning such leave, the person entitled under the assessment, and the person liable under the assessment, shall be entitled to be heard; and unless the judge otherwise orders, their costs of the proceedings shall be payable by the Secretary of State on an indemnity basis.
(4) In any such proceedings—
(a) the judge shall not give leave unless he is satisfied that it would be unjust not to do so, and
(b) he shall have power to remit all or part of the arrears in question.").

The noble Earl said: This amendment deals with arrears. The Committee may be aware that the procedure has been that arrears accumulate from the date when the parent with care signs the maintenance application form but they come as a bill to the absent parent only when he gets the maintenance assessment. Since the agency has been so severely overburdened and since the body of work has been such that it could not keep up with it, a very long time has been elapsing between those two events.

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One of the biggest shocks affecting those who have received maintenance assessments is the enormous weight of arrears that comes with the assessment. I have already mentioned a case in which the arrears for someone with very little income had accumulated to £2,600. I believe that probably that resulted from an error, but the perfectly genuine cases of arrears become backbreaking.

That may have the effect of preventing the absent parent from paying a maintenance assessment which he might otherwise have been perfectly well able to pay. It is never worth breaking the camel's back when one has to rely on regular financial support afterwards. Here there is a situation with which it might be in the Government's interests to deal, apart from any consideration of justice.

I understand that a concession has been made on this matter for the future. No doubt the Minister is about to tell the Committee all about it. But the effect of the amendment would be to extend that concession back to 1993. So it would deal with weights of accumulated arrears which in many cases will never be paid off and which lie on people who have a horror—with which this Chamber is familiar—of being severely in debt.

In any of those cases applications over arrears would have to be made to a judge of the Family Division, who would have to decide that it was unjust not to enforce them. So before the Minister starts to hold forth as he has done many times about absent parents deliberately evading their obligations, let me stress to him that this amendment would do absolutely nothing for any absent parent who was deliberately evading his obligations. If, in the opinion of the judge—I have confidence in our judges and I hope that the Government do too—it would be unjust not to enforce them, then they would be enforced. But where the arrears arise perhaps from the agency's inability to keep up with its work or where they arise from complications, cock-ups or inaccurate information in the assessment, they might be remitted. Some remission is essential both for the absent parent's ability to go on paying and for any kind of continuing consent to the system, in which the Minister has an interest. I beg to move.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: In my time it was the general practice of the judges of what is now the Family Division not to enforce arrears of more than one year. That practice was based on long experience of justice. So far the amendment of the noble Earl is entirely in line with it. I also venture to think that the discretion that he gives to the judge would be exercised precisely in the way that he claims.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This amendment provides that arrears of maintenance due for the initial period—that is, the period from the date on which liability commences up to the date the assessment is made—shall be enforceable only with the leave of the Family Division of the High Court. It also enables the court to remit all or part of the arrears, and requires the Secretary of State to meet all the costs of the application unless the judge orders otherwise.

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It will always be the case that initial period arrears will occur in cases where there is no court order in force because in such cases liability starts before the date on which the assessment is made. The noble Earl alluded to the two changes introduced in April that will limit the arrears payable in such cases. First, where the absent parent returns the maintenance inquiry form within four weeks of its issue providing certain basic information to enable the case to be progressed by the agency, the liability for maintenance will start eight weeks from the date the maintenance inquiry form was issued, rather than the date on which it was issued. Secondly, in cases where delay by the Child Support Agency has contributed to the arrears, only six months' arrears will be enforced if the absent parent pays his ongoing maintenance and maintains an agreement to repay the six months' arrears.

But where initial period arrears do arise and the absent parent does not co-operate in making arrangements for payment, there is no reason why normal enforcement action should not be taken. When the maintenance inquiry form is issued the absent parent is given clear advice about the date from which he will be liable to pay maintenance. In addition the Child Support Agency will make every effort to reach an instalment undertaking that repays the arrears at a reasonable rate over a period of time, before enforcement action is considered. In such cases payment of arrears and current maintenance will be limited to a maximum of 33 per cent. of net income, ensuring that the absent parent does not face an undue burden in repayment.

To require an application to the Family Division of the High Court in cases where the absent parent refuses to come to an agreement in respect of initial arrears is entirely unnecessary. Given the advice to absent parents about the date from which liability starts, the provisions relating to instalments, and other provisions relating to the date liability starts and the amount of arrears that will be collected, there is no justification for arrears to be remitted by the court. Furthermore, it would be wrong for the taxpayer to have to meet the costs of the application to the court, as provided for in the amendment, since such an application would only be necessary in cases where the absent parent refused to come to an agreement with the agency about repayment.

Although the noble Earl hoped I would not say this, it is worth pointing out that the new arrangements we are putting into place will encourage an absent parent to respond timeously, and if he does, then the amount of potential arrears—as long as he pays—will be greatly reduced. As I say, the agency can come to an arrangement within the 33 per cent. of the net income on repayments, which we believe is reasonable. Any parent about to come into the circumstance of being an absent parent must by this time know that he will be expected, via the agency, to pay maintenance to his children if they are being looked after by his former wife and not by himself.

The noble Earl said that the amendment would have a retrospective effect. I am advised that it would not have a retrospective effect; any arrears before the Act came into force would still be due even with his

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amendment. I do not believe he meant that, but that is the case. From now on the situation will be as I described; that is, that previous arrears will still be due. I would hope that the agency would be able to come to a reasonable arrangement with absent parents in regard to paying them. They are not simply arrears to the agency; they are arrears to the parent with care.

Earl Russell: Many times today I have been reminded of a debate in 1991 on whether the payers of 20 per cent. poll tax should be pardoned any further pursuit. That was the occasion when the Opposition Benches tabled an amendment, together with us, to put that practice of pursuit to a stop. The Government brought in the noble Lords, Lord Hanson and Lord White—those well-known champions of the poor—to oppose it, and succeeded in voting it down. With his obsessive concentration on wilful refusal, the Minister is beginning to sound rather like that. It is a familiar voice—Whitehall playing the tune of the retreat from Moscow, and it does not do it very well. The Minister seems to think that from now on all arrears will be entirely justifiable to collect; that nothing can possibly go wrong again and they all live happily ever after. It is not like that, as anybody who has the misfortune to deal with the CSA already knows very well.

Let me take as an example the case of a regular payment direction pending appeal for a departure. That regular payment direction may be set at a level which is actually too high for the absent parent to bear successfully. That could give rise to arrears. There are many other circumstances in which arrears could arise, including failure to co-operate by the parent with care. I was interested that Miss Chant said yesterday to the Public Accounts Committee that even mothers will not co-operate. I do not know why she is so surprised; I warned her in 1991 that that would be the case; or rather, to be more precise, I warned her predecessors.

The Minister does not understand the horror which a great many people feel on facing a great load of debt. He does not remember the very effective speeches made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, on the student loans Bill in 1990. He brought that horror to the attention of this Chamber. His prophecies about what people would feel are entirely accurate. To people who feel that way, saying that they can pay in instalments is not adequate. They feel stigmatised by carrying a load of debt. If the Government really have hostility to inflation as they make out, they should not so much stigmatise thrifty habits of mind and bring them into so much trouble.

I do not see any understanding of the case that is being made. But I am getting used to that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 [Repayment of overpaid child support maintenance]:

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