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Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 4:


Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Appeals to child support appeal tribunals: amendment of section 20 of 1991 Act

. In section 20 of the 1991 Act (appeals), subsection (1), at end insert—
"( ) Any parent with care who has satisfied the obligations to authorise the Secretary of State under section 6(1) and to provide information under section 6(9) but is aggrieved by a decision of the Secretary of State made under sections 6(2) or (11) may appeal to a child support appeal tribunal against that decision."").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this amendment deals with the harm and undue stress provisions. They allow the mother not to give information if she or her family may suffer harm or undue distress as a result of doing so.

That was a very welcome change in the 1991 Act, as a result of the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and other Members of this House. The effect of this amendment is to extend those provisions so that they may, on appeal, apply to someone who has signed the authorisation to the Secretary of State and then comes to believe that she may experience harm or undue distress as a result of having done so.

Research on the ground suggests that this is a very necessary provision. I referred to the Children's Society's study Losing Support. It found that 12 out of 54 mothers who had completed a maintenance application form were unaware at the time that they had any right at all to refuse to co-operate with the agency and were unaware of the circumstances in which consent could legitimately be withheld. One of them who had been a victim of domestic violence completed the form because she believed that the risk of a deduction from her income support was a greater threat than her ex-husband's potential violence.

When the Minister talks about women being made to consider very carefully whether they should refuse to co-operate with the agency, whether or not he knows it, that is the kind of thing to which he is referring. In that sample, four single mothers had tried to withdraw their agreement to co-operate, once they had found out about their rights and had some experience of the effects of co-operating. All of them found it to be impossible. That is the situation that this amendment is designed to address.

Some further research, which is still in progress, came to hand this morning. It is the kind of thing where the footnotes are not yet checked, so I ask the Minister to treat it with caution, as its author has asked me to do. It reveals quite a lot of problems. People asked to sign the form under Section 6(1) of the 1991 Act find that they experience a good deal of difficulty. Only three out of 15 who claimed harm and undue distress managed to get the matter resolved quickly. All of them first had a distressing interview with the child support officer or were required to produce medical evidence.

I did not have time this morning to check the Official Report, but I thought that we were given an assurance in 1991 that they would not be required to provide medical evidence. They had been put under considerable pressure. One of them told the officer, "He has a thingummy for assault; check his records. What they said to me about this form was that it was against the law for me not to sign it." That is the kind of situation

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in which a woman may want to invoke the harm and undue distress provisions when she did not do so initially.

Let us consider what happened to that particular woman. Some time afterwards she encountered her former partner:


    "He got me coming down from the shops and started shouting at me and threatening me because the CSA had sent another letter to his work. I never gave them any information because I knew what was going to happen".

So she found herself in danger as a result of the CSA's actions, even without her co-operation.

It seems to me only equitable that a woman in that situation should be able to invoke the harm and undue distress provisions, even though she had originally, before she knew that she would encounter such a reaction from her former partner, signed the maintenance application form. As the law stands at the moment, if a woman once signs a maintenance application form, it is like selling her dowry. She never gets it back. She never gets back the right to invoke harm and undue distress. I feel that a great deal of pain, violence and possibly bloodshed might be saved if this amendment were accepted. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as I previously explained during the progress of the Bill in its various other stages, parents with care who are in receipt of relevant benefit are required to give their authority for maintenance to be sought unless the Secretary of State considers that there would be a risk of harm or undue distress occurring to the parent with care or any child living with her if she were to do so.

This amendment would give a parent with care, who has given her authority, the right to appeal to a child support appeal tribunal that the requirement should not have been imposed or should be withdrawn. No parent with care is required to give her authorisation without the agency first giving careful consideration as to whether giving that authorisation would cause her, or any child living with her, harm or undue distress. Even after she has given her authorisation, if she believes that she or any child living with her might be caused harm or undue distress if it remains in force, she can ask the Secretary of State to consider the position and, if he accepts that there is a risk of harm or undue distress, he will lift the requirement to co-operate. If I heard the noble Earl correctly, he did not seem to realise that that possibility existed for a parent with care who had given her authorisation but who then, as he described it, had second thoughts about it—perhaps because of other circumstances. So she can ask the Secretary of State to consider the position. If he accepts that there is a risk, he will lift the requirement to co-operate. The parent with care can then ask the Secretary of State to cease pursuing maintenance, and he must do so.

I have described in some detail in earlier proceedings the detailed procedures we go through in order to make sure that the parent with care realises that she does have the right to ask for the requirement to co-operate to be lifted. I do not propose to repeat them at length at Third Reading. I will simply say that the parent with care has, in total, 12 weeks to consider her position with several

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opportunities to make further representations during that time. The child support officer will consider making a reduced benefit direction only if he is satisfied that there are no reasonable grounds for believing that there is a risk of harm or undue distress by imposing the requirement to co-operate. The parent with care has a right of appeal against the child support officer's decision to impose a reduced benefit direction. The appeal tribunal will consider all the relevant facts and will decide whether the child support officer's decision was correct.

The noble Earl asked about the need for medical evidence. Guidance to staff is that the parent with care should be believed unless what she says is contradictory or inherently improbable. Evidence is helpful, but it is not essential. The intention is that all parents with care should co-operate unless there is a risk that harm or undue distress might occur to the parent or any child living with her. I have said many times before why that is right. A parent with care should not prevent the payment of maintenance by the absent parent and allow the burden of maintaining her children to fall on the taxpayer, unless there is good reason.

It is not Parliament's intention that co-operation in seeking maintenance should be voluntary. If a parent has good reason not to co-operate once she has given her authority, then she will be listened to and, if she has good cause, the Secretary of State will withdraw the requirement on her to co-operate and will cease collecting maintenance if she requests him to do so. If she does not have good cause for refusing to co-operate, the agency will continue to seek and collect maintenance and it is right that it should do so.

I hope I have shown that there are already sufficient practical safeguards built into the requirement to co-operate process. Several different officers are involved in the decision-making process and, finally, there is already a right of appeal against the decision to impose a reduced benefit direction. I do not believe that there is any need for a right of appeal against the decision to impose the requirement and invite the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment in the light of my explanations, both today and at previous stages, as to the steps that must be taken before the agency can come to the conclusion that a direction should be imposed.

4.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I believe the Minister described entirely correctly how the world exists in the Government's intentions. Unfortunately, that is almost equivalent to saying that he described how the world exists in the Government's imagination. If the Minister looks at the Children's Society study—it is a serious study by reputable scholars—he will find that that is not the way it is on the ground. People are being placed under severe pressure to sign the form to authorise the Secretary of State.

With regard to asking the Secretary of State to change his mind after signing the form, that is a little like saying that I can ask the Minister to agree to amendments. So I can; so can any man; but will he come when I call him?

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The Minister's response is not good enough. Circumstances may change later on and it is certainly the case on the ground that in the study to which I referred all the women who found the need to invoke the "harm and undue distress" provisions after signing the form, found that it was utterly impossible and no such application would be entertained.

If the Government's intentions are as they are—I accept the Minister's description of them—can he make even stronger efforts to communicate them to the people on the ground? Can he say whether those who enforce these provisions are subject to performance-related pay, and is the number of cases of harm and undue distress they allow any part of that performance? I should be grateful for an answer to that question before I decide what to do with the amendment.


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