Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Russell: My Lords, I share the regret of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that so much of this Bill has been conducted in what Sherlock Holmes might have called the hours of darkness when the powers of the executive are exalted.

However, in relation to this Bill we have an arrangement which has been agreed and which has taken account of a great many other matters. Therefore in respect of this Bill we are bound by it. For the future we might reflect that, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has pointed out, there are such things as Fridays. We might also consider the view, which I hope may commend itself to the Minister, that there are disadvantages in one department putting forward four major Bills in the same Session.

On Question, Bill read a third time.

3.45 p.m.

Clause 6 [Departure directions]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 5, line 19, at end insert:
("( ) in cases where the absent parent is applying for departure under Schedule 4B, paragraph (2), it is his opinion that hardship would be caused to the absent parent or any member of his family should he not do so; and").

13 Jul 1995 : Column 1843

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am sorry that we are opening today's debate with such a modest amendment. I feel that it should be a stirring announcement of principle. However, at Third Reading that is perhaps less appropriate than it would be at earlier stages.

We are revisiting the amendment because we want to push the Minister further on what is understood by hardship. The amendment would require that there be evidence of hardship as a criterion for access to the departure system. At present, as the Bill stands, the absent parent can gain access to the system of appeals or departures merely because, for example, he has high travel to work costs even though he can perfectly well afford those high travel to work costs. The amendment would establish that he would have grounds for appeal if he had high travel to work costs and as a result suffered hardship.

We understood from the original White Paper that the test in terms of departures comprised the two criteria of individual grounds and the fact that hardship was caused to the absent parent. We felt that that was entirely reasonable. However, we are concerned that that test of hardship may have fallen by the wayside so far as concerns the absent father. It may therefore mean that he may be able to reduce his maintenance payments because certain of his costs are high even though, given his level of income, he could well afford them and hardship does not result.

We want to press the Minister on that point and to make sure that the Bill as it stands is even-handed in its notion of hardship in respect of both the parent with care and the absent father. I hope that the Minister can help us in this regard. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as the noble Baroness explained, the intention of the amendment, which we also debated at Committee stage, is to introduce hardship as a basic condition for access to the departure system; that is, a departure may be given in respect of an absent parent only if it is to relieve hardship.

The amendment does not, in fact, achieve that intention and could act in a very different way from that intended. For example, it would enable the Secretary of State to make a departure direction, which would not otherwise have been made under other provisions within the scheme, solely because of hardship. However, I understand from her explanation what the noble Baroness is trying to achieve with the amendment, and I hope that I can persuade her that it is not necessary.

First, as I explained in Committee, even if one accepted hardship as a basic condition, it would be inequitable to look at the issue in the context of the absent parent only. Relieving hardship for the absent parent may well cause hardship to the parent with care. It is clearly unfair to consider the position of either of the parents in isolation from the other.

Secondly, I believe that the concerns of the noble Baroness are largely covered by the provision in new Section 28F(1) (b), which requires the Secretary of State to consider in all cases whether it would be just and

13 Jul 1995 : Column 1844

equitable to make a departure direction. That provision enables the Secretary of State to consider all the circumstances of all parties to an assessment, and in particular their financial circumstances. It is intended that the relative positions of the parties would be examined under that provision, and the question of possible hardship for either party will clearly underlie those considerations.

For example, an absent parent with a relatively high level of income may apply for a departure direction on the grounds that he has a special expense, say high travel to work costs. However, the way the formula works means that in the vast majority of cases he will already be substantially better off than the parent with care before any allowance is made for that special expense. In such cases the adjudicator will be able to look at the circumstances of both parties and consider whether it would be just and equitable to make a departure direction. He might decide in such a case that there would on balance be more hardship caused to the parent with care by a reduction in maintenance than to the absent parent by expecting him to meet his travel to work costs from his much larger disposable income.

The noble Baroness suggested that we wanted an even-handed system. I would argue that the way outlined in the Bill is a much fairer, even-handed way of dealing with the issue than the amendment before us. It enables the Secretary of State to look at the situation of the parent with care, the absent parent and any children affected, to balance their needs and then decide whether a departure direction would be just and equitable in the light of all of the circumstances. I hope that my arguments carry some weight with the noble Baroness and that she will withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. His arguments always carry weight with us; sometimes they even persuade us. I should have said that it is a probing amendment. The Minister's reply helps clarify the situation as to what considerations should be in the minds of the tribunal based on the departure system. For that we are grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 [Transitional provisions]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 7, line 37, leave out from ("prescribed") to end of line 38.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is a technical amendment which is needed as a consequence of an earlier amendment accepted by the House at Report stage of the Bill.

Your Lordships will recall that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, proposed an amendment to Clause 1 of the Bill to remove, in its entirety, subsection (4). The purpose of his amendment was to allow late applications for departures—that is, applications made outside the 28 day time limit, previously disallowed by the former subsection (4) of the new Section 28A—to be accepted. Any departure direction made as a result of a "late" application, where there was no good cause for the

13 Jul 1995 : Column 1845

delay, would not take effect from a date earlier than the date of application. The House was content to agree to the amendment of the noble Lord.

Amendment No. 2 is needed to delete from the new Section 28I, as introduced by Clause 9 of the Bill, reference to the now-removed subsection (4) of Clause 1. It is a purely technical amendment to accommodate the amendment proposed and accepted by your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for explaining the purpose of the amendment. Perhaps he could have been a little more forthcoming in explaining that the amendment which the House accepted was drafted by his department.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 10 [The child maintenance bonus]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 9, line 13, at end insert:
("( ) the bonus to accrue at the weekly rate (subject to paragraph (c)) whether or not the child support agency has actually collected the money for each week, in all cases where the total maintenance payable by the absent parent would allow for this.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, to coin a phrase of the Minister, I wonder whether arguments on this amendment will carry weight with the Minister.

We return to the issue of the regular payment bonus. The amendment is promoted by us in the context of a Child Support Agency which, to all our regrets, has become notorious for its history of administrative incompetence and shambles. I am sure that we all wish well the relatively new chief executive. I am sure we all hope and believe that she will be able to turn the agency round in the very near future. However, as it stands, it is undeniable that the CSA has an abysmal track record. Something like half of all its assessments appear to have been faulty or irregular. At least as many have not been adequately collected.

That produces a set of problems for mothers who expect maintenance and who have not received it or receive it only irregularly. It produces problems for the absent parent, usually the father, who may have had an inaccurate and over-high assessment.

The amendment deals with another problem which may result from an agency which has not so far proved to be administratively competent. It refers to the back-to-work bonus. As part of the incentive to get parents with care back into the labour market—we shall not explore the virtues or vices of that at this moment—the Government propose to roll up £5 of the maintenance as a disregard and to present it as a lump sum worth £1,000 at the point at which that parent with care goes back to work. We have argued that the woman should receive that £5 each and every week, rather than as a lump sum. But we are not visiting that issue; we are referring to the lump sum: a roll up of £5 a week of maintenance disregard over four years or thereabouts so that when she goes back to work she receives that lump sum of £1,000, provided that the agency has been competent enough to collect the money. We have no such confidence that it will be competent to do that.

13 Jul 1995 : Column 1846

We fear that because the agency has failed to collect it, the parent with care may not receive the maintenance bonus to which she is entitled. The failure would be that of the agency—and, goodness knows, we have enough track record to suggest that that is a likely possibility for many parents with care.

Therefore the amendment proposes that where the agency is at fault for having failed to collect the maintenance that is due, the mother should not be penalised for the agency's incompetence by losing her right to the £5 disregard being rolled up as her bonus. In other words, if she is abiding by her part of the bargain (getting ready to go back to work) the agency should be held to its part of the bargain: to collect and deliver the maintenance, including the back-to-work bonus.

That is what the amendment provides. Her right to that bonus is enshrined in the Bill. However, without such an amendment it will not be a right but a grace and favour option according to as, when, if and however the CSA collects the money. Such an amendment would not be necessary if the CSA had been run competently from the first. We know all the problems associated with that, but we do not wish to see the parent with care losing her right to the bonus which is enshrined in the Bill because of further administrative inefficiency of the CSA.

I hope that the amendment is acceptable, or some version which makes clear that where it is the fault of the CSA that the bonus has not been collected, the woman should not suffer but should receive the lump sum nonetheless. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page