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Earl Russell: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask him two questions. First, can the noble Lord tell us when the evidence of Sir Michael Partridge to the Public Accounts Committee to which he referred will be available? Secondly, does the Minister dispute any of the figures I put before the House and, if so, which?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not know when the Permanent Secretary's comments will be published. In fact, they may have already been published. Of course, that is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee in the other place. The hearing was conducted in public, as is obvious because a freelance reporter was present. I am afraid that I cannot help the noble Earl in that respect. However, I can perhaps write to him if he needs to know exactly when the material will be published.

In response to the noble Earl's second question, I am afraid that I have not gone through each and every one of his figures. Frankly, I find it difficult to follow them all. Moreover, I suspect that one of the ways by which the noble Earl arrives at his conclusions is by doing a lot of discounting—for example, by saying, "Those savings would have been made anyway", "That can't be counted", and so on. I have given the figures that we believe are accurate both as to the cost of the agency and as to the amount of benefit saved.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He has given me one useful piece of information; he has given me the present operating costs of the agency which, at £183 million, are rather higher than

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any figure I had available before. That makes the picture look rather worse than I thought. However, the biggest mystery here is the £897 million of benefit savings. This is the hub of the argument. If the Minister can give me only a little information he might be able to keep me quiet.

In the reply to Mr. Dewar of 7th March there is a category of non-maintenance cessations—benefit ceases following action by the agency. We need to have some information before we decide whether or not to give the CSA any credit for those figures. I do not prejudge that point either way until we have some evidence, but we must have evidence on that. Can the Minister tell me, as he has supplied the figure of £897 million in benefit savings, whether that figure is corrected for the number of people who on average would have gone off benefit anyway? Can he tell me what reason he has for connecting that figure with any action by the agency?

He asks me why the problem of absent parents asked to pay is so acute if the agency is collecting so little money. Of course, the agency is consuming its own receipts to the tune—the Minister says now—of £183 million. The other point to which I have drawn his attention many times is that absent parents are being asked to pay what they do not have. The Minister's answers are getting to sound more and more like the Government's defences of the poll tax where they always insisted that the money must be there if only people would try hard enough to get it. In the case of arrears from the poll tax, they are still insisting on that point and not getting very far with it either. I suspect that after the agency is abolished—which I am sure one day it will be—we will still have this problem of pursuing arrears left over from it.

The Minister says the information is all available but he knows as well as I that there is more than one way in which information can be presented. Even with the best will in the world there is more than one way in which information can be presented. I would like to see someone with competence have a look at this information but as I shall not get anywhere asking that tonight I shall beg leave to withdraw the amendment and return to this subject in the form of Starred Questions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale moved Amendment No. 34:


Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Calculation of maintenance: repeal of paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 of 1991 Act

. In Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act, paragraph 4 shall cease to have effect.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, we have heard much this evening about the formula which is indeed what the department, the Child Support Agency and the noble Lord are clinging to. Perhaps that argument reached its crux when the noble Lord said, while keeping quite a straight face, that the welfare of children could be safely left to the operation of the formula. Therefore, the time has now come for us to look at that formula.

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The amendment I am moving, which I tabled in a slightly different form at Committee stage, is to remove what seems to me a self-contained provision of the schedule setting out the formula—Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act. I did not move it at Committee stage because it had failed to be called at virtually midnight. The position is not much better tonight as regards your Lordships' role as a legislative Chamber which listens to debate, and after listening to debate comes to a decision in the Division Lobbies. Therefore, I shall not put the amendment to a Division.

I am not sure whether it is a wrecking amendment because I do not understand the formula. In that I believe I am not alone because I have yet to find anybody who claims to understand it. Even my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor was invited on several occasions in 1991 to explain how it worked. He is a famous mathematician, so perhaps we lesser mortals may be excused for not understanding it. However, the Minister has had ample warning of the topic that is to be raised, so I turn at once to this provision of the schedule.

Paragraph 2(2) of Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act reads:


    "Where the result of the calculation made under sub-paragraph (1) is an amount which is equal to, or less than, the amount of the maintenance requirement for the qualifying child or qualifying children, the amount of maintenance payable by the absent parent for that child or those children shall be an amount equal to A x P where A and P have the same values as in the calculation made under sub-paragraph (1)".

Sub-paragraph (3) reads:


    "Where the result of the calculation made under sub-paragraph (1) is an amount which exceeds the amount of the maintenance requirement for the qualifying child or qualifying children, the amount of maintenance payable by the absent parent for that child or those children shall consist of a basic element ... and an additional element".

The basic element is A x G x P where A and P have the same values as in the calculation made under paragraph 2(1) and G has the value determined under sub-paragraph (2).

We turn to G, which is an item in the basic element, which your Lordships remember is A x G x P. G equals MR (the maintenance requirement) over (A + C) x P. If my recollection is right, A is the assessed income of the absent parent and C the assessed income of the other parent. Therefore we have to add G to A x G x P, G being the maintenance requirement—which is calculated under paragraph (1) of the schedule—over (A + C) x P. That is not merely where it stopped. However, I ask the noble Lord not only to explain that, and what follows, but to say frankly whether he considers that the child support officer, the absent parent, or the caring parent, can possibly understand what it is all about. Those parents ask for bread and they are given a formula.

However, the formula goes on. There is an additional element. Your Lordships remember that there is a basic element and an additional element. The additional element is this:


    "Subject to sub-paragraph (2), the additional element shall be calculated by applying the formula—AE=(1 - G) x A x R",

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and your Lordships will remember the complicated equation of "G". "A" has the same value: in other words, the absent parent's assessed income. Your Lordships already have the formula for "G". There are no guesses as to what "R" is:


    "R is such number greater than zero but less than 1 as may be prescribed".

However, lest we should be unsatisfied, the sub-paragraph goes on. There is an alternative formula. The provision states:


    "Where applying the alternative formula set out in subparagraph (3) would result in a lower amount for the additional element, that formula shall be applied in place of the formula set out in sub-paragraph (1)".

I have just read that out. The alternative formula for "AE" is:

"Z X Q X ( )".

I have already reminded your Lordships of "A" and "C".

Your Lordships will be able to guess that,


    "Z is such number as may be prescribed; and Q is the aggregate of any amount taken into account by virtue of paragraph (1) (3) (a) in calculating the maintenance requirement; and any amount which is both taken into account by virtue of paragraph (1) (3) (c) in making that calculation and is an amount prescribed for the purposes of this paragraph".

I repeat those last words:


    "an amount prescribed for the purposes of this paragraph".

I wait avidly for the Minister to explain that extraordinary farrago, and even more eagerly for him to tell us frankly whether he believes that ordinary absent parents, ordinary caring parents, can possibly understand what they are being offered. If they cannot understand, it is most improper legislation. It is just the legislation of the bureaucracy which animates this whole scheme. I beg to move.


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