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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may start in the elegant legal words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and say that I concur with the remarks made by my colleagues about the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I very much hope that the noble Lord will be back with us in time for us to hear his voice raised on the issue next week when we come to Third Reading.
Section 14(4) of the 1991 Act introduces Schedule 2 which allows the Child Support Agency to obtain from the Inland Revenue the current address or current employer of an absent parent. It also allows the agency to obtain from local authorities details of housing benefit or council tax benefit which are needed in the assessment formula. The amendment proposed would remove those two provisions.
We had a full discussion in the House during both the Second Reading and the Committee stages of the Bill about the information which the Child Support Agency is able to obtain from the Inland Revenue. I would like
The agency does that when it is unable to trace an absent parent or the absent parent's employer. Then it sends a standard inquiry form to a central point within the Inland Revenue. That form is then returned with the absent parent's address and that of his employer, where it is known. As I said, officers of the agency do not visit the Inland Revenue premises and they certainly do not see any individual's tax returns.
During the Committee stage of the Bill the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, seemed to compare the Child Support Agency with a debt collection agency. The CSA is much more than that. It has now taken over from the courts jurisdiction for the assessment, collection and enforcement of child maintenance in the majority of cases. I very much appreciate that that is where the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and I part company in that we do not agree with that takeover of what had previously been the role of the courts. As I said before, two of the many reasons for the introduction of the agency were the courts' general failure to trace absent parents and their lack of success in enforcing orders once they were made. The agency has had the same problems, but we are determined that it will be more effective than the courts in achieving fair and regular maintenance for more parents with care. However, to achieve that, the agency plainly needs to have more statutory powers than a simple debt collection agency.
In explaining why the provisions of Schedule 2 were introduced, I can do no better than to remind your Lordships of the commonsense contribution made in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, who said that,
The noble Lord was surprised at the length of the argument that we had on that subject in Committee; indeed, so was I. Sadly, it is true that many absent parents try to avoid being traced and, when traced, try to avoid paying maintenance. In the past year the agency successfully traced 49,600 absent parents whose whereabouts were unknown to the parent with care. The agency has had success in tracking down fathers, and indeed mothers, who disappear without facing up to
Lord Carter: My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. With the leave of the House, it would perhaps be helpful if I asked a question now as the answer might be forthcoming from other sources. Are there other examples of where this power is used? Is it used only in connection with the Child Support Bill or are there other areas where there is access to the Inland Revenue or local authority records? It would be helpful to know that.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may return to that in a little while because I wish to discuss the point about local authorities that the noble Lord raised. The second arm of the schedule which would be removed by the noble and learned Lord's amendment concerns the provision of relevant information from local authority records. I reminded your Lordships that the relevant information has been prescribed in regulations as the eligible rent for housing benefit purposes, the entitlement to housing benefit, the council tax payable and the entitlement to council tax benefit of either the person with care or the absent parent. The provision is beneficial because it allows the CSA to collect information which it would otherwise have to obtain from either parent; or, alternatively, the other parent would have to obtain it from his or her ex-other half.
An important element of the calculation of a maintenance assessment is the housing costs, which are net of housing benefit. The net council tax is needed for assessing protected income, which ensures that the absent parent and his new family remain significantly above the level of income support. That is why I find it strange to hear for the second time the case that the noble and learned Lord refers to of the person left with a penny. I would need to know a good deal more about that before I could comment on it. As I said, these calculations about housing costs and net council tax costs are very important; the net council tax is needed for assessing protected income. Failure to obtain this information could reduce the speed and accuracy of some assessments. That leads to some of the problems which have beset the agency. I must inform your Lordships that I cannot understand why the amendment has been drafted to remove this provision.
I was asked who has similar powers. The Contributions Agency can similarly ask the Inland Revenue for the address of a person who is in arrears of contributions, or it can ask for his employer's address. Therefore the Contributions Agency already has this power. If we lived in a world where the absent parent always made himself available to have his maintenance assessed and where, once assessed, it was always paid, it would not be necessary to have access to the limited information on addresses which the Inland Revenue is asked to provide. Lamentably, we do not live in such a world and therefore there is a need for the agency to be allowed to receive limited details from the Inland Revenue's records.
Provided that this information is carefully handled by the Inland Revenue and by the agency, I am afraid that I cannot see the great matter of principle which so concerns the noble and learned Lord. I could see it if the agency were asking to see all of a person's records, but as regards the two questions that the agency is allowed to ask the Inland Revenue and to which it expects an answer, I do not think any reasonable man or woman would consider that that trespassed on individual liberty or freedom. Therefore I am afraid that once again I must reject the noble and learned Lord's amendment.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I am afraid once again in the reply of the Minister there has been a quite perceptible note of antagonism to absent fathersindeed there was hostility. That was marked earlier and it has been marked again. One of the wise things that was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in Committee was that there are few men in this country who can afford two families. That was said repeatedly at the time of the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which ushered in an enormous spate of divorces in spite of it being sold to the public as a kiss-and-make-up Bill.
It was said on that occasion by Lord Hodson, who was the foremost matrimonial judge in this country, and by Lady Summerskill, with a lifelong devotion to women's rights, who recognised immediately that to allow polygamy, albeit successive polygamy, not simultaneous polygamy, was disastrous to the status of married women. What has happened is that society has allowed people to have two families, and it is perfectly absurd that the Department of Social Security has got into a false position that it should blame the absent father. That is the first thing I would say.
He was dealing there expressly with the systems of administrative law on the Continent which put officials in a privileged position. That has never been our way until very recently. All personsthe ordinary debt collector and the official debt collector alikeshould be subject and amenable to the ordinary law of the land. At this time of night, and having made a brief reconnaissance outside the Chamber, I see no point in wasting your Lordships' time with a Division. Without being in any way convincedon the contrary, believing this to be an important point because the rule of law is an important principleI beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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