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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, is he aware that he has fallen into the trap of offering the House a contradiction? He has suggested a co-ordinated response and insisted that it should be local, although he knows full well that local authorities are intent and determined on being totally autonomous and there is no real prospect of proper co-ordination.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I accused the noble Lord of falling into a trap. He has responded by offering the same compliment to me. I do not believe that I did fall into a trap. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that there should be some form of central co-ordination in order to overcome the problem. I have tried to say that there is because there has been the co-ordination of Ministers and of government departments. However, there is no difference in saying that, while at the same time saying that it comes down to the local authorities and the people of the locality to address the problem.

The noble Lord shakes his head, but I cannot understand how he can believe that it should be for the Department of the Environment or for the Home Office to say how the problem should be dealt with. The way in which it should be dealt with must be a local matter. The fact that it should be dealt with and the funds that should be addressed for it are matters for central government.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may apologise for prolonging the debate. I appreciate that after nine hours and perhaps 10 minutes he will not be in a position to give a detailed response. However, as regards the ministerial discussions, he raised the question of reporting back so that those involved in the work at local level, in the voluntary agencies and so forth are fully informed of ministerial thinking and are able co-operatively to take the issue forward. Will he expand on that?

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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am becoming rather nervous that we are now out of order because I have been invited to make three speeches. However, I shall ensure that account is taken of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

Child Support Bill

8.10 p.m.

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

[Amendments Nos. 16 to 23 not moved.]

Lord Simon of Glaisdale moved Amendment No. 24:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Provision of information to the Secretary of State: repeal of section 14(4) of and Schedule 2 to 1991 Act

. Section 14(4) of and Schedule 2 to the 1991 Act shall cease to have effect.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this amendment relates to Inland Revenue confidentiality. The matter was gone into slightly in Committee because the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, raised it on another amendment which I moved. I should say that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who has his name to this amendment, has suffered a slight accident and has had to go into hospital. I know that all your Lordships will wish to concur in sending him a message of goodwill and good wishes for his rapid recovery.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I am sorry that he is not here to speak on this amendment because, although at one time I was a Minister responsible for the Inland Revenue and have dealt with Inland Revenue cases both at the Bar and as a judge, that is slight experience compared with that of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. He devoted many years of his valuable life to the service of the Inland Revenue in a number of capacities. He was always urging—and I venture to second this—that Inland Revenue confidentiality should be respected.

I reminded your Lordships in Committee that our Inland Revenue system is in many ways peculiar. I know of no other system which relies to the same extent on self-assessment. But that self-assessment depends on an assurance of confidentiality. The provision which this amendment seeks to expunge—and it is now in a more correct form than it was in Committee—is to be found in the second schedule to the 1991 Act. It enables the Secretary of State and his officials to breach Inland Revenue confidentiality for the purposes of the Child Support Agency.

I have been long enough hereabouts to recognise the sound of entrenching tools in Whitehall. They have been very noticeable this evening. It is perfectly obvious that the department made what I think would be agreed generally, although it will not concede this, to be an egregious error in the 1991 Act, and it is now in a Maginot line. It is entrenching itself and taking a firm stand behind formulae which are worked out most capriciously. I have a whole list of cases with which I

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shall not trouble your Lordships at this hour of the night. But perhaps I may mention one. The Child Support Agency, evidently on the formula which your Lordships will be looking at later, made an assessment which left a father with 1p per week.

Although the Minister and his department despise the magistrature, is it really conceivable that any rational Bench would commit such an error or make the other egregious decisions which have been freely publicised? I sympathise with what the Minister said in support of the Child Support Agency and its officers. They were subject to great provocation and unfairness. It was not their fault that they had to administer an unworkable Act. It was the fault of the Government in arranging that they should have to do so by using their Whip in the other place and by using the management of business in this House so as to preclude your Lordships from amending effectively the 1991 Bill, although its defects were recognised clearly and identified. Some of those defects are rectified in this Bill.

One other matter to which I should refer is a heading to a leader in The Times of 23rd December 1993. It is headed

    "Keeping the Flaws The reform of the Child Support Agency is disappointing".

The leader spells that out in detail.

The Minister has rightly been staunchly loyal to his department. He has defended the officers of the Child Support Agency, who, as I say, were not responsible for the policy which they had to implement. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the 1991 Act was a major act of bureaucratic aggrandisement.

There was a good deal of slow, bureaucratic aggrandisement from 1945 when the Labour Government made use of the powers that had been vouchsafed to the Executive in wartime; and, indeed, that aggrandisement, a slow process, went on after the Conservatives came to power only ending with the disaster for the Conservative Government of Crichel Down, which resulted in the resignation of an able and popular Minister. That Minister took the blame for the bureaucratic errors of his department; and that should be a warning.

That is the general background: an unprecedented act of bureaucratic aggrandisement, seizing the jurisdiction from the magistrature, which had exercised it since the Middle Ages and done so under statute for a century, and vouchsafing it to a government agency charged with applying an inflexible formula. However, it did not rest there. They had to show that the Child Support Agency could do at least as well as the magistrates. That could only be done by arming the officials with exceptional powers.

In Committee we discussed—and I took the matter to a Division, so I only mention it in passing—the power of those officials to enter private premises on pain of a penalty and to interrogate on pain of a penalty the employer, the father and the fellow employees. In addition to those powers, the 1991 Act assumes power in the officials to breach Inland Revenue confidentiality.

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I leave the other matters aside, but they are essential background—the bureaucratic aggrandisement, the power to enter private premises, the power to interrogate employers and fellow employees to elicit information that will strengthen the arm of the agency.

We now come to the breach of Inland Revenue confidentiality. I venture to say that that confidentiality lies at the very heart of the functioning of the Inland Revenue in this country. It is quite intolerable that officials should be given the ability, that no private creditor has, of being able to breach Inland Revenue confidentiality. I hope that the Minister will not say that that power is only used in certain circumstances and only as a last resort. That simply will not do. It ought not to take place at all. I beg to move.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I must apologise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for not being in my place when he introduced his amendment. However, I believe that he made some friendly remarks about my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I am informed that, although my noble friend has had to have some treatment, he is now progressing well, although he will not be able to join us for the rest of this evening's proceedings.

As always, the noble and learned Lord made a very powerful case. There is but one point that I should like the Minister to clarify. As I read Schedule 2 to the 1991 Act, it seems to me that the access to Inland Revenue records only applies to the address of the employer of the absent parent. However, I should be most grateful if the noble Lord could make that crystal clear and confirm that that is the only information that can be obtained from the Inland Revenue and that no other information of any sort can be so obtained in connection with the work of the Child Support Agency.

Further, as regards local authority records, under the same schedule, can the Minister confirm that it is only the information regarding benefits—that is, housing benefit and, as it was then, the community charge benefit which is now council tax benefit—that can be obtained. It is extremely important that those points should be emphasised.

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