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Lord Carter: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, and with the leave of the House, I have one question for him. Does he consider that his attitude to the amendment—and, indeed to later amendments—will be regarded as attempting to wreck the Bill?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: My Lords, if we could only come rapidly to Amendment No. 15 which deals with the appointment of a child support advisory committee and pass it, then nine-tenths of the remaining amendments on the Marshalled List could be withdrawn. That is the way to do the business this afternoon.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if we could only come rapidly to Amendment No. 47, I suspect that your Lordships might be a great deal happier. However, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for the congratulations that he extended to my honourable friend Mr. Alistair Burt. I am grateful for what the noble Earl said about my honourable friend and I shall certainly pass those remarks on to him.

Both the amendments that we are discussing deal with the maintenance disregard in income support. In fact, this is the third time during the proceedings on the Bill that we have discussed the issue. It is clearly a subject which generates strong feeling on both sides of the House—or perhaps I should say on all sides.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, argued his case—and I shall not deal with it in any great detail because it goes quite a long way from the subject of the amendment—against the whole concept, preferring that such matters be returned to the court system which, clearly in his view, was markedly better. I have already explained to the House that the previous system had many inconsistencies in it. Indeed, the figure arrived at as maintenance through all those inconsistencies was often extremely low, partly because the Bench knew that the taxpayer would pick up the tabs in any case. Even when granted—

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, was it ever as low as the one penny a week which the CSA managed in one case to leave to a divorced father?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not believe that that question is terribly relevant. Indeed, that was part of one of the difficult administrative problems that we had. It is not a matter of the principles of the way that the system works. That ought not to be the case and I hope that it will not be the case in the future. I do not know whether the courts went as low as awarding one penny; indeed, I doubt whether they did. But the awards were certainly not very high and they certainly did not cover anything like the costs of the children. Moreover, in very many cases, even when they came to a conclusion, the courts did not have the

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mechanisms for ensuring that the money was paid. Perhaps the parents with care in those distant halcyon days when the courts had such responsibility would not join the noble and learned Lord in thinking that that was a sensible way to work. I see that the noble Earl wishes to intervene. I give way.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister. However, as he introduced such a general point, perhaps I may ask him, before he again blames the courts for what was wrong in the old system, to think about the points made on Second Reading by his noble friend Lady Faithfull.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Yes, my Lords, but I should point out that I did not introduce the subject; indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, introduced the more general debate. However, I have thought about that and I noted what my noble friend said. I believe that I indicated in Committee—although, if I did not, it is because it has arisen since—that I actually had occasion to discuss those days with someone who was in the post of looking after parents with care and trying to secure money from absent parents. I have to say that her recollection of the situation does not match that of my noble friend Lady Faithfull. In any case I suspect that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, will never be persuaded by anyone, far less myself, as regards his view that lawyers and courts ought to be left to deal with absolutely everything and that they can be relied on to do it in a totally sensible way.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I apologise for again intervening in the noble Lord's speech, but are the courts not being left to deal with the maintenance of the mothers? If they can deal with the maintenance of the mothers, why can they not deal with the maintenance of the children? Is it not quite ludicrous to suppose that those two matters can be adjudicated upon differently?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, what the courts do now in the case of divorce—as the noble and learned Lord knows—as regards the relationship between the husband and wife is to attempt, as far as is humanly possible, to institute what I think is called a clean break. As I believe I have said on a number of occasions, there can never be a clean break from the children, and that is where the Child Support Agency comes in. As I indicated as I was about to leave this particular diversion, I doubt whether I shall ever be able to persuade the noble and learned Lord that any system would be an improvement on what the courts did or would do if they were granted the powers to look after these issues again.

I shall deal first of all with Amendment No. 13 as it is the key amendment which introduces the disregard. We have given considerable thought to the arguments put forward both here and in another place for a disregard. But despite the passionate and eloquent speeches by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and others, we remain firmly of the view that a maintenance disregard in income support is not the best way of providing help for lone parents or other parents with

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care. In a speech in Committee which some noble Lords will remember as it covered much the same ground as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, mentioned in her speech today, she gave five reasons in favour of her proposal. While she has not enunciated them as five points this afternoon, I believe she has encompassed every one of them in her contribution. I wish to consider each of them separately.

The first point that the noble Baroness makes, and I have no doubt that she will return to it on a number of occasions during the day, is that lone parents and their children are poor. However, I should point out that we already spend—or taxpayers spend—something like £9 billion each year supporting lone parents. That is a considerable sum. Since 1979 poorer lone parents have seen a real increase in their income. It is also the case that since 1988 extra help, which is now worth over £1 billion a year, has been given to low income families, and of course that includes many lone parents. It is important to recognise the considerable amount of money which has already been spent on supporting lone parents and to ensure that any additional expenditure is effective. I believe that overall the child maintenance bonus will be of more real and lasting benefit to lone parents than would a disregard in income support.

The second point is the loss of passported benefits such as free school meals and free prescriptions for the parent with care when the payment of maintenance lifts her off income support. This implies that maintenance is somehow different from other sources of income which may also lift parents off income support benefits or indeed all benefits. We must remember that the financial provision for children is properly the responsibility of parents who can afford it and should not be passed on to the taxpayer through the benefit system. Parents with care lifted off income support may in any case be able to claim housing benefit and council tax benefit, as well as help with NHS charges, on grounds of low income. They may also be eligible for family credit if they take up employment, and family credit rates include an element to cover the costs of school meals. I recognise that some parents with care will have to meet charges from which they have previously been exempt, but receipt of maintenance is in this respect no different from receipt of other forms of income.

I believe that the noble Baroness suggested that the £5 disregard would somehow compensate for the loss of passported benefits. I do not believe it would because, if the parent with care stays on income support, she receives the passported benefits regardless of whether there is a disregard. All a disregard does is to shift upwards by that amount the level of income at which the parent with care would be floated off income support. Once floated off, at whatever level of income she loses these passported benefits.

The third point made in her speech on a previous occasion by the noble Baroness was that a maintenance disregard would give an incentive to both the absent parent and the parent with care to co-operate in seeking and paying maintenance. I believe that point was also made by the noble Earl. I have previously made the point that I do not believe that a disregard will

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encourage absent parents who are reluctant payers to become committed payers. Many who refuse to pay take this line on the grounds of their fundamental objection to the child support system and not because maintenance is fully taken into account when assessing income support. As I said on 19th June, the regular receipt of maintenance can transform the lives of parents with care and their children by opening up opportunities for employment. This fact alone ought to be enough to convince absent parents that maintenance was of value to their children if they were genuinely looking to be convinced that they should pay. The claim that a disregard would encourage parents with care to co-operate is equally debatable. Reference was made in Committee to the possible collusion between parents with care and absent parents to avoid the effects of a reduced benefit direction.


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