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Earl Russell: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to withdraw his reference to wrecking the Bill. If I had intended to wreck the Bill, I would have moved very different amendments from those that I have moved.

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Lord Carter: My Lords, I have not the slightest intention of withdrawing that remark.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, during Committee stage the noble Lord, Lord Carter, tabled an amendment so that where a parent with care who refuses to give her authority is disabled or has a disabled child, or where deductions are being made from her benefit to repay a debt, her benefit would not be reduced. I undertook to consider his arguments on both those points.

It is right—we have discussed it earlier—that parents with care should co-operate with the agency in pursuing maintenance unless they have a good reason not to do so. Only if a parent with care co-operates can maintenance be sought from the absent parent. As I said earlier, this financial burden should not be passed to the taxpayer. Even where parents with care are disabled, or have a disabled child, their duty to co-operate remains.

However, I considered and reflected on what the noble Lord said at Committee stage. I am persuaded that where a parent with care, or her child, is disabled the benefit reduction may cause particular hardship. The Government agree with the noble Lord that benefit should not be reduced in these cases. My amendment will provide the necessary power to set out the detail of this exemption in secondary legislation and will enable other categories of parents with care to be exempted in the future if the need for such exemption arises.

If we were to exempt parents who are repaying loans by deductions from their benefit we would be discriminating against those parents who are better able to budget or who choose to pay off loans themselves without involving the benefits system. However, I accept the noble Lord's concern and I have decided that a reduced benefit direction should be suspended while a parent with care is having deductions made direct from her income support, to pay outstanding debts such as for fuel or rent arrears. If deductions cease the reduced benefit direction will be reimposed, but existing legislative safeguards will apply and the parent with care will be given adequate notice and will be invited to reconsider her refusal to co-operate. Again, I will be setting this out in full in regulations as soon as it is practicable.

The benefit reduction is intended to make the parent with care think carefully about her decision not to co-operate and, as I said earlier this evening, I believe that that is right. However, the amendment in my name will mean that, in specific circumstances, where the reduction will cause particular hardship, the reduction will not be imposed.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will withdraw Amendment No. 43. I commend Amendment No. 48 to the House.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister. We began the day with the Government in fact drafting an amendment for me to improve the Bill. Amendment No. 48 certainly improves the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 43.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 [Compensation payments]:

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Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 44:

Page 19, line 24, at end insert:
("( ) The Secretary of State shall make provision for payment by him to qualifying persons of sums by way of compensation where financial loss, worry or distress has been caused to that person or a member of his family by the actions or inaction of the Secretary of State, a child support officer or any other person carrying out duties in connection with child support legislation.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, when we discussed the issue, I said that I would come back with the matter at Report stage. It is a simple point. In Committee I referred to paragraph 34 of the Third Report of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commission for Administration on the Child Support Agency. It recommended that the DSS considers discretionary payments regarding worry and distress caused by the maladministration of the CSA, removing the insistence that there be medical certification of harm or proven malice from officials.

When the Minister was kind enough to respond in that Committee, he rather avoided the point and answered one which I had not made. I said then that I should like to read again what he said and reserve the right to come back at Report stage. It would be helpful if he could deal with the point. In the Government's response they ignored it. It would be helpful if we could have the reasons why they wish to ignore—if they did—the recommendation from the Select Committee about discretionary payments for worry and distress. I beg to move.

11.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, St. Jerome said that no man should be patient when taxed with heresy. I do not see why I should be patient at the charge of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, of wrecking the Bill. I was distressed to discover that the charge was first made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in Committee at practically the only moment in the whole of the Committee stage when I was out of the Chamber. I thought that that was a little ungenerous as a choice.

The noble Baroness made the charge against all my amendments. That is an extreme charge. Even the noble Lord, Lord Denham, in all his glory, never went so far as that. It did not appear to me to be the case that an attempt to introduce a little respect for evidence and for law was wrecking the Bill. I did not believe that the Bill was so easily wrecked; if it is, then it is not a tribute to it as a Bill.

I was also somewhat distressed throughout the Committee stage that the Opposition showed so little understanding of all the issues arising out of the rule of law and that they had so little to say and so little understanding of the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, on Second Reading. It does not encourage confidence in what they might do in office.

I was also disappointed that every single one of the amendments moved by the Opposition in Committee favoured the parent with care. I know injustices are being done to the parent with care. I have tried to put some of those injustices right, but to argue that the Government have put right all the injustices to absent

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parents in the Bill is, first, in the nature of administration, improbable. Secondly, according to the past conduct of the Opposition, if the Government had put them all right, it is extremely improbable that the Opposition would have agreed that that was the case. Compared with their otherwise creditable conduct in 1991, the Opposition's conduct on this Bill shows quite how much they have been taken over by political correctitude. I deplore it. I had not intended to say all that but the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked for it and he got it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not think I will intervene too much in the dispute apart from saying that the noble Earl would be insulted if I did not say that had I accepted all his amendments he would have changed the Bill and the 1991 Act out of all recognition. I believe that that is what he intended to do and I am happy that I have been able to resist him on all the occasions on which he tried.

I turn to the substance of the amendment. Your Lordships will be aware that there are already administrative mechanisms for compensation to be considered in appropriate cases. I explained in Committee that where a customer of the agency considers that they have suffered financial loss or undue delay as a result of an action or omission on the part of the agency they can contact the agency. Their case will be dealt with on an individual basis in line with practice which operates elsewhere in the Department of Social Security.

Under the department's special payment arrangements, compensation may be considered where an individual has experienced undue delay or suffered an actual financial loss as a result of official error. These arrangements, which now also apply to the Child Support Agency, have been in place for almost 20 years and provide for payments to be made on an ex gratia basis. We plan to introduce compensation arrangements specifically designed to cover the work of the agency shortly, which will also be on a discretionary ex gratia basis.

We do not consider that specific provision needs to be made for compensation in primary legislation. If a statutory compensation scheme were to be introduced it would be necessary to regulate at some length for the detail of the scheme. This would inevitably limit the extent to which it was possible to deal flexibly with the individual circumstances of each case. Flexibility is a great advantage of the current arrangements and I consider the introduction of a statutory scheme to be unnecessary as it would not, in itself, guarantee a better standard of redress to customers.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, made the point that the Government had not fully answered one of the recommendations of the PCA Select Committee—namely, that the Department of Social Security should consider discretionary payments for worry and distress caused by the maladministration of the Child Support Agency, removing the insistence that there be medical certification of harm or proven malice from officials. He

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also referred to the evidence that Sir Michael Partridge gave to the Select Committee and indicated that he would return to this point.

The Permanent Secretary made it clear in his evidence to the PCA Select Committee that the Government did not accept that compensation payments should be made, as a matter of course, for worry and distress. He stated that they would be considered only in instances of proven malice on the part of officials, or where worry and distress was alleged to have been caused as a direct result of maladministration by the agency and there was medical evidence that a person had suffered a material and objective injury directly attributable to the agency's actions.

Sir Michael pointed out that it would not be consistent with government policy generally, and contrary to practice in other government departments, to make compensation payments on the grounds of worry and distress where neither of these factors was present. It would, in any case, be an extremely difficult and highly subjective exercise to try to place a monetary value on the appropriate level of compensation for worry and distress in individual cases. Furthermore, it would open up the opportunity for people to claim compensation for the most trivial or vexatious reasons.

For the reasons I have given, we do not accept that there is any general need for a statutory right in child support legislation to receive compensation, where there is already a discretionary scheme and, as a last resort, a right to compensation exists under common law. With that explanation spelling out the position we are taking up on the Select Committee's point, I hope that the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment.

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