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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We had a debate on a similar amendment in Committee. Indeed, it was an almost exact replica. The normal duet of the noble Earl and myself was changed into a trio by the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. I shall not risk boring the House by repeating the arguments I put forward in Committee.

As I said then, the amendment is founded on a misunderstanding of two related but entirely distinct concepts: that of care and that of contact. The Government clearly support—as did the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, in his speech—the principle that following the break-up of a relationship, children should keep in touch with both parents where that is in their best interests. But there is a clear distinction between contact visits, even if those involve overnight stays, and providing for the regular care needs of the child.

For there to be shared care, the absent parent must be making a substantial contribution to the care needs of the child and thus incur a substantial proportion of the costs associated with his support. The existing provisions allow for an absent parent's maintenance

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liability to be reduced where he is providing a significant amount of care for a child. We believe that the average of two nights a week continues to provide an appropriate benchmark. Much was made of school and Saturday and Sunday and the fact that if the child goes to school on Monday morning the chances are that the child will return to the parent with care on Sunday evening. But Friday night has been ignored. I assure your Lordships that in Scotland that is considered to be part of the weekend. After school on Friday, there will be plenty of time for the child to join the absent parent to have a two-night weekend, which gives him the whole of Saturday and Sunday until the evening.

Lord Kilbracken: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. But many children, including my own, have to go to school on Saturday morning.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not believe that many children have to go to school on Saturday morning. I suggest respectfully to the noble Lord that those children who go to school on Saturday morning clearly have parents who are paying school fees. That will assuredly take them beyond the scope of income support and the remit of the Child Support Agency, as the noble Lord suggested. I am afraid that I shall not consider too carefully the needs of people who can afford to send their children to boarding school because they will not be encompassed by the agency's work. It is more likely to affect children attending state schools who probably live near the parent with care and, therefore, there is not much of a problem in relation to Friday night.

One night of care per week is 52 nights per year. Of course, the chances are that 14 nights may be taken as a holiday period and, therefore, it is not a case of every weekend in the year. If the figure were dropped to one night of care per week as representing a genuine sharing of responsibility, we should be disadvantaging seriously the parent with care because it is most unlikely that where that amount of care is being provided by the absent parent there will be any noticeable reduction in the costs of bringing up the child for the parent with care. It would be unreasonable to make her suffer a drop in the income she was receiving while having to look after the child. As I said in Committee, 104 days is a reasonable, sensible figure at which to draw the line. I hope that, having heard my argument again, the noble Earl will withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the problem with all the reasoning based on the Bill is that it all starts from the premise: either one parent or the other. That is not a very constructive approach for dealing with parents who are separated. It tends to produce a picture in which children are assumed to have to choose one parent or the other. Sadly, sometimes, it is that way. But one does not need to create an administrative framework which makes it that way when it does not have to be so.

The other matter which strikes me increasingly as I listen to the Minister is that the present method of calculation—two nights per week—has a strong built-in bias in favour of two separated parents living in close

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geographical proximity to each other. Those, of course, are precisely the ones where help to maintain contact is least needed.

Let us suppose, for example, that one parent is in London and the other is in Oban. Would the Minister wish to encourage the child, who may be quite young, to set off from Euston Station after school on a Friday and go to Oban that same night? It is quite a long journey for a seven or eight year old. Even without invoking anything quite as extreme as Oban, I still think that, as a parent, when a child comes rather tired out of school late on a Friday afternoon, and with Friday trains stopping earlier and earlier each year, I should hesitate to encourage him to go on a very long journey that night.

Therefore, the two nights a week will really only apply where the two separated parents live in fairly close geographical proximity. Well, it is hard enough for parents to keep contact with their children if they are a long way away. My honourable friend Mr. Kirkwood had one absent parent in Roxburgh, while the children were living in Plymouth. He had no end of trouble keeping contact over that. In that position, one really cannot manage two nights a week of contact. It does not mean that one wants any less to see one's children.

I cannot help suspecting that the Government fixed on the formula of two nights every week simply because it is administratively simpler. That is no way to treat real people. Can they not use a little imagination? However, it is clear that we shall not get imagination tonight. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 [Deferral of right to apply for maintenance assessment]:

[Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 39:


Page 14, line 8, at end insert:
("(12) Nothing in subsection (10) or in any commencement order or regulation under this Act shall have the effect of preventing or delaying, transitionally or otherwise, the making of an application for child support maintenance under this section by a person who, or whose partner, is subject to an assessment of child maintenance as a result of an application under section 6 of this Act." ").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the above amendment deals with a situation which has come to be known among those involved with the legislation as the "pig-in-the-middle" situation. It is a situation where the first wife is on benefit and has come within the legislation, so the husband of the first wife is paying maintenance. He is married to a second wife, herself divorced from a previous husband, who has not been on benefit. Her former husband has not been brought within the legislation and is, perhaps—as we on these Benches have always admitted some parents do—evading his responsibilities. It does happen, although it is not the normal situation.

In such a case, the unfortunate man is paying out maintenance for one lot of children, but his wife, who has another lot of children—his step-children—is not getting anything coming in for them. Therefore, in effect, the man is carrying the whole weight of supporting two lots of children. It is one of many cases in which the Government's principle that children must be the responsibility of their natural parents does not

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work in practice; indeed, any principle quite so general very often does not. I hope that the amendment will receive some consideration. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as your Lordships know, the Government's original plan was that all cases would come into the agency's jurisdiction within four years. However, because of the problems faced by the agency and the need to introduce new procedures, particularly the departure scheme, that will not prove possible.

Once again I have to reiterate to your Lordships that the highest priority for take-on are those people who have no access to the courts, or those who are claiming benefit and who are being supported by taxpayers. Of course, I do have sympathy for those parents with care who receive only a small amount of maintenance through a court order while their current partners pay out a larger amount in child support maintenance to their first wives and first families. However, those parents with care are able to apply to the courts to have their orders varied. The mere fact that the family finances have been affected by a child support assessment is a change of circumstances which could be put to the court in support of an application to vary the order. We do not want to jeopardise the smooth introduction of other provisions by taking on these cases immediately. I am beginning to get a bit uncertain as to what we discussed in Committee and what we are discussing on Report but I certainly know that this matter was discussed in another place. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made clear in this instance, we do not believe that we can give way to this request. My suggestion is that the parent with care in those circumstances should consider returning to the court to have the order varied.

11 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand the point that he is making. Perhaps where the procedure he suggested for any reason does not prove effective he might consider this as a case where a departure under this new Bill might be allowed because there are some cases where hardship does arise, sometimes because there is no money to be recovered from the former husband of the second wife, sometimes because he is perhaps ill, mentally ill, or out of the country. In particular, if he is out of the country returning to the court to recover money can be very difficult indeed. So there is, I think, a slightly bigger problem here than the Minister has allowed for, but he is awake to its existence. I thank him for that and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 [Non-referral of applications for maintenance assessments]:


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