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Earl Russell: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, he said that he was afraid of calling down my wrath on his head for saying that the absent parent was the villain because he was not paying. I assure him that he will draw no wrath down on his head if he extends his statement just a little further: the absent parent is the villain of the piece if he is not paying, can afford to pay and is correctly assessed. Can the Minister go that far?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, our whole approach is based on trying to devise a system to make sure that the absent parent is asked to pay what he can afford to pay, consistent with the formula that Parliament has agreed, and that he has been properly assessed. I think I can go some way in agreeing with the noble Earl—which seems to me to be rather a good way to start this Third Reading.

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Lord Carter: My Lords, before the Minister sits down and with the leave of the House, the Minister seems to have defined the villain as at least half a villain. Can he go into just a little more detail? We are concerned about the agency's inefficiency resulting in non-collection. He said that the existing procedure is ex gratia. What is the procedure? Does the matter go to a commissioner? Is it done under a departmental arrangement? Is it informal? How does it work? I see that the Minister may need time to reflect, but I remind him that this is Third Reading. Can we be given some sort of timescale so that we know when the procedures being devised will be in place?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, there are arrangements throughout the Department of Social Security to deal with departmental errors. That includes errors in agencies. The special payments arrangements currently in place in the Department of Social Security were set up as long ago as 1977, following a recommendation of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Under the terms of the arrangements, which are ex gratia and discretionary, compensation may be considered where payment of benefit has been delayed unduly or where actual financial loss has occurred as a direct result of clear and unambiguous official error. There is no legal entitlement to special payments, and no right of appeal if a payment is refused.

As to the second part of the noble Lord's question, we hope that we can have negotiations with the ever-present Treasury that will be completed by the end of the summer and that proper arrangements will be in place, with a useful delegation to give the Child Support Agency's compensation unit the procedures to deal with these and other problems, by the autumn.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, this short debate has been rather informative, although I feel that the Minister failed to accept responsibility for the issue that lies at the core. We are not talking about villains; that vocabulary is not especially helpful. The matter is not that simple. We are talking about absent fathers, many of whom will be reluctant to pay and will be avoiding paying, interlocking with an agency that has a track record of incompetence and inability to collect. The two together will result in a situation in which, too often, the parent with care will fail to have enough maintenance to generate a disregard which would be paid to her as a back-to-work bonus.

If we could easily and cleanly identify the fault as being the father's or that of the CSA, then indeed the world might look as the Minister describes it, with official error being rectified or the fault being all the father's and nothing to do with the CSA. But that is not what it is like out there. What is happening is that the incompetence of the CSA is magnified by the reluctance of fathers to pay; and the reluctance of fathers to pay is magnified by their knowledge that the CSA is incompetent to collect. The person who loses out is the mother in the middle. If the matter were clean and simple, we should not have tabled the amendment in this form.

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The point is that any woman who is on income support has no choice but to use the CSA as the collection agent. She will not therefore know whether she is failing to receive her back-to-work bonus because the father is refusing to pay maintenance or because the CSA has failed to collect it. We know that it will be a mixture of the two, and that this will be a moving game over three or four years. But the mother will not know. She cannot go to a more efficient collection agency to make sure that the father pays; she has no choice. She is stuck with what the Government have required; namely, that the CSA will collect the maintenance. Then, when the CSA does not collect—whether because it is less than competent or because the husband is more successful than usual in avoiding payment—she suffers.

Why should she suffer? She is very poor indeed. She is on income support. She has not deserted her children, is looking after them, struggling to keep and maintain them and hoping to go back into work. But the one sop that the Government have given to that parent with care is that there will be a modest disregard rolled up in what is called a back-to-work bonus. Then, of course, she learns that she will receive that only if the CSA has managed to do what it is required to do; namely, collect the darned money. That is not fair. She cannot control whether she receives the money or not.

It is no use the Minister saying that if the money is paid, there is no incentive for the father to contribute his maintenance. That is irrelevant. It is the job of the CSA to collect the money. Of course the father may be reluctant to pay. That is the whole history of the CSA. The point of the CSA was to ensure collection. The Minister is not only letting fathers off the hook; he is letting the CSA off the hook as well when it fails, through other than very obvious clerical errors, to collect.

This amendment not only offers an incentive for the father to pay. It also offers an incentive for the CSA to collect. Without such an amendment, as the Minister accepts, there is no such incentive. It is pretty rough for the Minister to tell a mother with care who is bringing up her children in straitened circumstances, trying to be independent, hoping to return to work and counting on a back-to-work bonus as one of the few concessions that the Government have made, that whether or not she receives the money depends on whether or not the CSA has managed to collect it. If she says, "Can I have a more efficient collection agency?", she cannot. She has no choice. She has to get it from the CSA.

I wonder whether the Minister can be persuaded to help us a little further. This arrangement is so unfair. The mother with care is totally dependent on the competence of an agency that has a bad track record and is notorious for incompetence. As a result, she goes without. Why should she? What is fair about that? Can the Minister help me, please?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness that I do not know whether I can help her. The compensation arrangements that I described are already there so far as concerns the whole department and, as I said, will be tailor made for the agency which will be in position in the autumn.

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Clearly, it would be an incentive for the agency to make sure that it collects and does not fall down on its job, thus finding that it has to make up for the financial loss by paying the bonus for those weeks for which it did not collect the bonus from the absent parent because of its own fault. So there is an incentive for the agency to make sure that it collects. That and a number of other aims are the targets which we set the agency. I totally agree with the noble Baroness that the collection is very important indeed. So far as the agency is concerned, I believe that there is a stick to make sure that it does its job properly with regard to collection.

The argument with regard to the absent parent is difficult. As I said, the noble Baroness argued the other way about the maintenance disregard to try to give the absent parent an incentive. I very much hope, as a result of our efforts last April and of the departures arranged in this Bill, that the excuses used by many absent parents not to face up to their responsibilities will be peeled away and that many more absent parents will accept their responsibilities. I should have thought that the very fact that the two main political parties in this country are at one on the principles ought to tell absent parents that, rather than flirt with people who they think might agree with them at the edges of the political scene, it would be better to take on board the fact that the main players in politics in this country believe quite firmly that the agency is here to stay and that absent parents should take on their responsibilities.

Those are all the assurances that I can give to the noble Baroness. I shall have to leave the matter there.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I realise that we are at Third Reading and this is not Committee stage. Therefore, it would be unreasonable to press the matter further. I take it that the parent with care will receive a print-out at the end of each year as to where her bonus has got to. I also take it that if, as a result, at the end of that first year it is clear that many parents with care are receiving an incomplete contribution towards their bonus because of the incompetence of the CSA, the Minister will bring regulations before this House to ensure that in future we can take up the spirit of this amendment.

If, in practice, the CSA fails to do what we fear it will fail to do, which is to collect reliably, it is the woman, the parent with care, who will suffer. On the understanding that she will receive an annual print-out of the bonus that is credited to her, and thereby we can monitor that she is receiving what she has been promised; and on the understanding that, if she is not getting what she has been promised—and that is clearly owing at least in part to the inadequacies of the CSA—we can revisit the subject and the Minister will make regulations to overcome those deficiencies of the CSA; then, in the light of all that, with your Lordships' leave, I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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