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Division No. 3


Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.
Carter, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.
Dean of Beswick, L.
Dubs, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L.
Ezra, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.]
Kilbracken, L.
Mar and Kellie, E.
Monkswell, L.
Palmer, L.
Russell, E. [Teller.]
Seear, B.
Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Taylor of Blackburn, L.


Addison, V.
Astor, V.
Balfour, E.
Barber, L.
Blatch, B.
Brougham and Vaux, L.
Carnock, L.
Cochrane of Cults, L.
Craigmyle, L.
Denton of Wakefield, B.
Dudley, E.
Ferrers, E.
Goschen, V.
Hayhoe, L.
Henley, L.
Howe, E.
Inglewood, L. [Teller.]
Long, V.
Lucas, L.
McConnell, L.
Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Oppenheim-Barnes, B.
Rawlings, B.
Stodart of Leaston, L.
Strathclyde, L. [Teller.]
Trumpington, B.
Wakeham, L.
Wynford, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

20 Jun 1995 : Column 252

10.10 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 103 and 104 not moved.]

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 105:

Page 19, line 47, at end insert:
("( ) The Secretary of State shall make provision for payment by him to qualifying persons of sums by way of compensation where financial loss, worry or distress has been caused to that person or a member of his family by the actions or inaction of the Secretary of State, a child support officer or any other person carrying out duties in connection with child support legislation.").

The noble Lord said: I shall try to be brief in moving this amendment. However, it raises an important point. In the report on the Child Support Agency by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, paragraph 34—I shall not read out the whole of it—dealt with what it described as,

    "many other cases of serious distress arising from the maladminstration of the CSA. It is quite within the power of the DSS to apply greater discretion in its consideration of 'worry and distress' payments and to remove the current requirement of medical certification before any such payment is made".

Its recommendation which, as your Lordships will know, appears in heavy type at the end of each paragraph stated:

    "We recommend that the DSS consider discretionary payments for worry and distress caused by the maladministration of the CSA, removing the insistence that there be medical certification of harm or proven malice from officials".

That recommendation is repeated in paragraph 28 of the Government's response to that document, but it is completely ignored in their answer. I am sure that the

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Minister has a good reason for that, but so far as I can see, the Government make no attempt to answer the recommendation that was made in the previous report. They have reprinted it—they have had to because it appears in heavy type and recommendations are always reproduced with the Government's response—but, so far as I can see, they have completely ignored it.

Given the acknowledged poor performance of the CSA in its first two years, the amount of compensation that has been paid out as a result of that poor performance has been derisory. The Parliamentary Ombudsman's report documented the problems being caused for families by the poor service being provided by the CSA. The Select Committee's report, from which I have just quoted, severely criticised the DSS for the limitations placed on its compensation scheme. Those limitations were the requirement for medical certification or proven malice from officials. As I have said, the committee used the phrase "worry and distress", which we have repeated in the amendment.

We should all prefer the problem to be solved by a dramatic improvement in the performance of the CSA but, if we go by the figures which appeared in the press today to which I referred earlier, that will be a long time acoming. If that were to happen—if the performance were to improve—the amounts to be paid out under the compensation scheme would not be great. However, while the problems remain at their current level, we feel that CSA clients must be guaranteed some form of compensation, otherwise pressure will remain to keep the ex gratia scheme very limited. The severity of the administrative problems and errors are illustrated by the fact that the ombudsman had insufficient staff to investigate all complaints against the CSA and therefore will be restricting investigations to issues which he has not yet covered.

As I have said, I should like an answer from the Minister if the amendment is not to be accepted. Perhaps he could also say why the recommendation which was made by the Select Committee was completely ignored in the Government's response. I beg to move.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Lord, Lord Carter, seeks in this amendment to provide statutory provision for compensation payments in circumstances where a person has been caused financial loss, worry or distress as a direct result of the activities of the agency.

The amendment is framed by way of an addition to Clause 24. It would, in fact, have been more appropriately placed as a new clause since Clause 24 does not deal with compensation related to the administration of child support. That is a technical point and I will not rest my case on it.

Members of the Committee will no doubt be aware that, notwithstanding that child support legislation makes no provision for compensation payments of the type referred to in the amendment, there are nevertheless administrative mechanisms for compensation to be considered in appropriate cases. If someone considers that they have suffered a financial loss or undue delay

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as a result of an action or omission on the part of the agency, they can contact the agency, which will deal with cases on an individual basis. This is in line with practice which operates elsewhere in the Department of Social Security.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, raised the issue of the ombudsman's criticism. The Permanent Secretary at the department made it clear in his evidence to the PCA Select Committee that the agency now operates general DSS arrangements for compensating actual financial loss. He made it clear that special payments were considered where it was clear that agency error had resulted in an actual financial loss to a customer.

The Department of Social Security special payments arrangements, which now also apply to the Child Support Agency, have been in place for almost 20 years and provide for payments to be made on an ex gratia basis. Compensation may be considered where an individual has experienced undue delay or suffered an actual financial loss as a result of official error. Compensation arrangements specifically designed to cover the work of the agency are being developed and it is hoped to introduce them in the near future. There are no plans to introduce these arrangements on anything other than a discretionary ex gratia basis. We do not consider that specific provision needs to be made in primary legislation.

Were a compensation scheme to be placed on a statutory basis, it would be necessary to regulate, I believe at some length, for the detail of the scheme. That would inevitably limit the extent to which it was possible to deal flexibly with the individual circumstances of each case. We believe this flexibility to be a great advantage of the current arrangements and therefore consider the introduction of a statutory scheme to be unnecessary as it would not in itself guarantee a better standard of redress to customers of the agency.

I turn to the issue of compensation for worry and distress. I should make it clear, as did the Permanent Secretary yesterday in his evidence to the PCA Select Committee, that the Government do not accept that compensation should be paid in all cases to those falsely identified as absent parents. I imagine that that is the circumstance in which the worry and distress arises. Maintenance inquiry forms clearly state that they are issued on the basis of information provided to the agency by the parent with care. Absent parents are invited to contact the agency for information if they believe that they have been incorrectly identified as an absent parent.

We do not accept the need for a statutory right inside the child support legislation to receive compensation on those grounds because the right to compensation already exists under common law. I hope that with those explanations of what we are doing in the agency to address at least some of the problems raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter—although I accept not others—he will withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Seear: Once again, the Minister does not appear to understand why we are so dissatisfied with a great deal of this legislation. He is making the department judge and jury in its own case. That has

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happened again and again and for a long time. It is part of what years ago Lord Hewitt called the new despotism. It is by now becoming a long-established, long-toothed despotism. We wish to have embedded in the legislation a right to compensation and not compensation graciously given by the department which is inflicting the injury. That is totally unacceptable.

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