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Earl Russell: The arguments for this amendment have a very large area of overlap, both with my own arguments for the previous amendment and my arguments against deducting income support from the

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absent parent, on the principle that an injustice is an injustice no matter to what sex it has been done. I warmly support this amendment. I do not believe that the Minister understands at all quite how burdensome it has been in many cases attempting to get clawbacks from those people who are existing very close to benefit level. That is something which is capable of causing shock and a very severe hole in the budget. Once one gets into debt anywhere near benefit level, one is carrying burdens which it is not easy to get out of. I wish the department would do some research on that problem because it is very badly needed. I do not see any reason at all why the Minister should not accept this amendment, and I hope that he will do so.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: These amendments would remove the ability of the Child Support Agency to recover from the parent with care a reimbursement of overpaid maintenance made by the absent parent where the overpayment is due to official error or an interim maintenance assessment.

I can appreciate the concerns surrounding the recovery from the parent with care of reimbursements made to the absent parent. As was said in another place during the passage of this Bill, it is not intended that recovery of reimbursements is sought in all cases. Consideration will be given to the circumstances of the parent with care and her ability to repay. It is not intended, for example, that recovery will be sought in any case where she receives income support or family credit, however the overpayment arose. There will also be other cases when the particular circumstances are such that recovery will not be appropriate.

In any case where recovery is considered appropriate, we shall not normally expect the parent with care to repay the money immediately. It will be possible to make an instalment arrangement to repay the relevant amount at a reasonable rate over a period of time.

I have listened to the debate and we need to think carefully whether it would be right to ask the taxpayer to bear the cost of repaying overpayment where the parent with care can in fact afford to do so. I am willing to consider very carefully whether there are specific circumstances—I mentioned some which have already been made clear in the other place—in relation to which I can give an undertaking that overpayments would not be recovered from a parent with care. On that basis, and with my explanation of how we would treat income support and family credit, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I am not quite clear whether the Minister was indicating an administrative discretion or that he will bring forward an amendment at Report stage which goes far to meet the case so persuasively put by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Perhaps he will clear that up.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: In answer to the noble and learned Lord, I was not going as far as to say that I shall come forward with an amendment at Report stage. I made clear that we said in another place that it is not intended that recovery of reimbursements is sought in all cases. I mentioned two of them; namely, receiving income support and family credit, however the

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overpayment arose. We are looking at overpayments which have arisen as a result of the agency itself due to administrative official error or an interim maintenance assessment. As I have said, I am prepared to consider the matters which have been raised and I shall see whether I can give an undertaking at a later stage that overpayments will not be recovered from the parent with care in other circumstances which I shall then specify.

As regards the specific question, subsection (3) of the new Section 41B inserted by Clause 23 enables the Secretary of State to prescribe the circumstances in which recovery will be sought. Those regulations will be the appropriate place in which exemptions from recovery will be specified. As I have already said, we intend that particular consideration will be given to cases involving official error. I hope that that is helpful to the noble Lord.

Lord Carter: That is a helpful answer. Before deciding what to do with the amendment, as the Minister referred to subsection (3) which requires the relevant person to pay to the Secretary of State the whole or a specified proportion of the amount, would the specified proportion be nil in some circumstances?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That will be one way to specify who was not going to pay. I shall have to take advice on that. As I said, the regulations would be the appropriate place to say in which cases there would be exemption from recovery. I do not believe that would meet the suggestion made by the noble Lord. However, in those regulations we shall be able to do what I have already suggested that we intend to do in certain cases. The other cases I shall seriously consider in the light of what has been said.

Lord Carter: I am extremely grateful to the Minister. That shows that occasionally regulations have their good points and allow a degree of flexibility. We shall not be harrying the Minister on this, but we shall certainly be watching the point very carefully. We may need to put down probing amendments at a later stage to stiffen the Minister's resolve. There is a glimmer of light there. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 94 not moved.]

Clause 23 agreed to.

9 p.m.

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 95:


After Clause 23, insert the following new clause:

("Limits on reduced benefit direction

.—(1) Section 46 of the 1991 Act shall be amended as follows—
(2) After subsection (5) insert—
"(5A) Subsection (5) shall not apply in cases where the parent with care or any child that would be affected by a reduced benefit direction is disabled."
(3) After subsection (7) insert—
"(7A) The child support appeal tribunal shall have the power to alter the time and level of the reduced benefit direction according to the circumstances of each case."

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(4) In subsection (11) leave out "such amount, and for such a period as may be prescribed" and insert "no more than 10 per cent. of the personal allowance being claimed by that parent, and for a period not exceeding sixteen weeks".
(5) After subsection (11) insert—
"(12) Where a reduced benefit direction is issued, it shall take priority over other loans, and shall not be made in addition to other loans being repaid from that person's weekly benefit." ").

The noble Lord said: This is a new clause to be inserted after Clause 23. We return to the point about reduced benefit directions. The effect of the amendment would be threefold: to ensure that families which are particularly vulnerable due to one member being disabled do not have to pay a penalty by way of benefit reduction; to ensure that younger mothers who receive a lower rate of benefit do not pay a higher percentage of their benefit as a penalty than other, older mothers; and to ensure that a reduced benefit direction does not run concurrently with other reductions in benefits.

There has been some anecdotal evidence of fraud—I stress that it is anecdotal—in terms of absent parents attempting to make up the lost benefit in return for an assurance from the parent with care that she will not co-operate with the agency. Before the noble Earl, Lord Russell, seeks to intervene, I repeat that that evidence is anecdotal. However, there are also many cases where the parent with care has good reason for not wishing to co-operate, but where her reasons do not fall under those considered to be "good cause" by the agency. In those cases, we are concerned that the penalty is harmful to one-parent families which are already struggling on low levels of income.

The amendment seeks to limit the penalty and, in the case of families having to cope with disabilities, to remove from the Secretary of State the power to make a reduced benefit direction. By giving the power to vary a reduced benefit direction to the appeal tribunals, as is mentioned in the amendment, the provisions can take into account the welfare of any children involved by looking at the individual circumstances of each case.

The amendment also seeks to ensure that those living on benefits are not reduced to unacceptably low levels of income by the imposition of a penalty on top of other repayments, such as for arrears of water rates, overpayments, and repayment of crisis loans from the Social Fund. The Government have argued in the past that the penalty is necessary to ensure the co-operation of parents with care. We do not go all the way with the Government on that, but, although there is no reason to repeat all the arguments now, we can see the Government's point where no good cause has been shown. However, reducing the income of a family to below subsistence levels can only be harmful to the children involved.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister can see that there is a problem. The wording of the amendment might not be perfect, but this is Committee stage, and the amendment is intended to highlight what we feel is a threefold problem. I hope that the Minister will give it his sympathetic consideration. I beg to move.

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