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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will not object if I respond. I had a small chortle at the rubber stamp. If it is such, it is not an easy rubber stamp to operate, I can assure the noble Earl. On occasions this Session it has proved a quite impossible one.

Let me reply to the noble Earl in this manner. My observations should not be read in any way other than as a general comment. I am not in any way suggesting any thoughts on the matter. Starting at 50 per cent.—let us say for the sake of argument that the Government decided in the future that it was not working in the way in which they had intended or hoped that it would work. There is the availability in regulation to make a change: 60 per cent. or 40 per cent., whichever way the change might go. Parliament in general, both Houses, would be able to give their views, although I fully accept all the arguments put forward by the noble Earl about the way in which this Chamber has to give its view.

I am not entirely sure about this matter. Indeed, I may have second thoughts about it. The noble Earl mentioned the inflexibility of the formula. In fact, the problem that we have here is not the formula as we are using the word this evening—namely, the Child Support Agency formula. The problem is the way in which we have correctly (I think I am right in saying that for everybody) devised family credit to make it a payment

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which lasts for six months and it gives some security and constancy. That is the difficulty when it comes to working out compensation.

Lord Carter: I am grateful to the Minister, not for the content but for the fullness of the answer that he gave to me and also to the noble Earl, Lord Russell. He said that many parents would receive full compensation. Obviously, by inference, that means that not all parents will receive it. He said that others would be over-compensated.

There is one thing on which I should like to congratulate the Minister. As I sat here making notes, I thought back over the years in which I have been involved in social security. At least the Minister has not used the phrase used by so many of his predecessors in this Chamber; namely, swings and roundabouts. When that phrase was used, I always had to point out that it has not statistically been proved that swings do equal roundabouts. But we shall have to read this debate very carefully. Perhaps I may say to the Minister as kindly as I can that it was one of those answers that I am sure read much better in the original Sanskrit. It was very complicated. We must look at it and take advice.

We do not agree with the arithmetic. I have many figures with me but I shall refrain from giving them to the Committee at this time of the evening and at this stage of the Bill—more particularly in the absence of my noble friend Lady Hollis, who has a previous engagement this evening. She is a great expert in these matters and I know that she wants to come back to the Minister on decoupling and the period of six months. She has some interesting ideas on that and we might have to come back to the matter on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 99 to 101 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 102:

Page 19, leave out line 33.

The noble Earl said: This amendment proposes to delete from the Bill the line in Clause 24:

    "'relevant time' has such meaning as may be prescribed".

Some members of the committee remember the case in the Jobseekers Bill, in which there were terms which had "such meaning as may be prescribed". The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked to be told of any cases in which those words had been used in previous legislation. I understand that he is still waiting for his answer.

But, thanks to the efficiency of the Minister here, I am not still waiting for my answer. I am grateful to him for his trouble. I do not know that I am entirely reassured, though. The Minister has come up with two previous examples. The first is from paragraph 4 of Schedule 4A to the Leasehold Reform Act 1967, which provides that a lease for the elderly is excluded from the operation of the relevant part of the Act in certain circumstances. The term "lease for the elderly" has such meaning as may be prescribed.

The other example comes from Section 117(2) of the Reserve Forces Act 1980, which prescribes that the term "active list" shall have such meaning as may be

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prescribed. In fact, so far as the Minister and his staff discovered—I am sure that they have done their best—there are only two previous examples in all legislation. That seems to me to be two too many.

But even having said that, one could understand where the meaning of the terms "lease for the elderly" and "active list" may change. But putting into a Bill the phrase that such words will have,

    "such meaning as may be prescribed",

is simply using a control over language to acquire a control over legislation which did not appear in the original draft. That is most improper. It is a form of words which should not appear in any Act of Parliament. I should like to know whether the Minister can convince me to the contrary. I beg to move.

Lord Carter: I support the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on this point. Subsection (2) contains definitions of "child support legislation", "compensation payment", "qualifiying person" and "reduction"; but there is no definition of "relevant time".

The Government have gone to the trouble, on the face of the Bill, to define carefully those other terms but they then introduce this catch-all,

    "'relevant time' has such meaning as may be prescribed".

If the Government have gone to the trouble of defining those other terms, why is it so hard to define the two words "relevant time"?

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I support Amendment No. 102. The two measures which are to be construed together are both in substance and in form the very quintessence of bureaucracy, and this is the quintessence in legislative form: "X shall have such meaning as may be prescribed".

What are we here for except to express in the law the words by which the citizen is to be bound? Yet we are now asked to agree that a word shall have such meaning, "as may be prescribed". I care not how many precedents have been infiltrated by this department or any other into our legislation. It is high time that we brought that practice to an end.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The words "relevant time", which the amendment would prevent us from prescribing, appear in the definition of "qualifying person". They enable us to provide that a person will qualify for compensation only if he or she had a maintenance assessment at some earlier date. The earlier date is the "relevant time", and that is eminently sensible.

Having the power to prescribe the "relevant time" enables us to pinpoint the date on which we require the person to have had a maintenance assessment to be a "qualifying person". Without that power, the provision is left blowing in the wind.

As the Committee knows, our intention is to base the compensation payments on the reduction in the maintenance assessment brought about by the change in the child support legislation. We therefore need to provide for the starting point to be the maintenance assessment in force when the child support legislation

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changes take effect. We therefore intend to define the "relevant time" as the day before the revised maintenance assessment takes effect.

That is our clear intention. I hope the noble Earl does not think that there is anything suspicious or underhand about that. Perhaps I may go on to say that, if a future government decided to pay compensation on the actual loss of family credit or disability working allowance, then it would be necessary—as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, invited me to do earlier—to define "relevant time" in relation to the date of the family credit or DWA claim. There are options as to how to define "relevant date" according to what one wishes to achieve. I have explained what we wish to achieve and what that relevant date will be in our case. I hope that I have also explained, rather unusually perhaps, to the noble Earl—the noble Earl may think it unusual for me to look into the crystal ball to envisage what future governments may or may not do—that in this case it is rather easy to consider another possible scenario dealing with the same problem, especially as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has raised it this evening. With that explanation I hope that the noble Earl will be able to withdraw the amendment and noble Lords will not feel that I am asking for some unnecessary and draconian power for the Secretary of State.

Lord Carter: As I understand the Minister's answer, he seems to be making it easier for a future Labour Government to make changes, which I think is an extremely good idea.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for that point, which brings to our attention one of the fundamental issues about this kind of provision. I have no argument with the Minister's definition of what he actually intends to do. If he had put that into the Bill we would not have argued with it. I entirely accept what he said in his letter:

    "But I can assure you that such powers in the Child Support Bill have been drafted with no such purpose".

He means no sinister purpose. But the Minister and all who advise him must get used to the fact that when we look at what is in effect a delegated power like this we are not only concerned with the immediate policy intention. The immediate policy intention may be entirely acceptable. What we look at are the vires. We look at what may be done with this power at some time in the future by some government in the future.

We never assume that any government are trustworthy, even if we were in charge. No one is trustworthy in office. Power needs control. What I look to see is whether there is any circumscription in the vires. Whenever I find, "This word has such meaning as may be prescribed", there I see something where there is no limitations in the vires. It is an absolutely unacceptable method of legislation at all times. The only way I can explain to the Minister that it will be so is to ask for the opinion of the Committee.

10.3 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 102) shall be agreed to?

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Their Lordships divided: Contents, 16; Not-Contents, 29.

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