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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I was listening very carefully. I did not understand quite a lot of the Minister's reply because what he said is not my understanding of most of the structure of the family credit benefit. As far as I can understand, he seemed to be focusing on the changes in the protection offered to women following the changes that the Government were introducing under their own steam.
In this amendment I was not so much concerned with the changes that the Government were introducing. They accept that they have an obligation to compensate. I was not arguing with that because that is accepted. I was trying to protect against future changes in maintenance which follow not from the Government's change in the rules, but from the changing situation in which the father who is paying finds himself. I was trying to overcome the situation where, for example, a mother has an assessment based on the husband's maintenance, which quite properly reduces with his changes in circumstances. As a result, the maintenance may be halved or even fall below that, but because the woman's family credit was determined one month before the payer's circumstances dramatically worsened, she is stuck at a level of family credit which is inadequate to float her off the poverty line. Those were the circumstances that we were trying to deal withnot the consequences of the Government's action. We expect them to take responsibility for what they have done. Where there are other circumstances over which
I believe that the Minister's answer was addressed to either a misreading of the amendment or perhaps there is a fault in the amendment as drafted. But the intention certainly was to offer a fallback to what we pressed for on an earlier occasionthat is to say, that the CSA would ensure that the full maintenance was paid as though it were the figure at which the family credit was originally assessed at the beginning of the six months period, in exactly the same way as income support is paid. That would not have been difficult because the sums are perfectly easy to work out. It would also have been fair.
As it is, we are left with the problem that if the woman fears that her husband's income will fluctuate, she would be very wise to go back onto income support in order to get the maximum sum and on that basis to go into a family credit situation where she will get the full sum. This is extremely worrying. I believe that there was an estimate of about 50,000 women who can expect maintenance to fall, family credit not to compensate and to be poorer as a result.
I understand the point that the noble Baroness is making. I believe I answered her amendment as it is placed in the Bill. I equally answered the other point which she made in a more substantive way at Report stage. My argument now is much the same as it was then and encapsulates some of the points I made on the narrower question of Clause 24.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, it is too late now to untangle this matter. It is clear from what the Minister said at earlier stages that he was not going to move on this issue. This is one of the more worrying problems which result when one tries to appliqué a CSA and its structure of a collection of maintenance on to the existing structure of family credit. I believe that the Government have doggedly refused to address an issue which is of their own creation. The losers will be women who find their family credit fixed for six months and their maintenance fluctuating. As a result, their income will be below an adequate level of support. If this Government will not address the matter, I hope that the Minister, following his previous suggestion to my noble friend, has left enough power in regulation to those who may follow after him, to redress this anomaly. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
I wish also to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for their contributions. The noble Earl has prompted us to revisit issues time and again during the course of the Bill's passage through this House, providing an opportunity to test not only this Bill but the original Act.
I am grateful also for the contribution from the Cross-Benches from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. It is with some trepidation that I tangle with the noble and learned Lord on matters of constitutional and family law, in which he is a great expert. I am grateful to him, however, for enabling me on occasion to put on record our intention with regard to certain aspects of the Bill. Although I am not able to go nearly as far as the noble and learned Lord would like in principle, I hope that I have been able to clarify some aspects of the Bill.
I should like to thank also my noble friends for their help and assistance. I extend my appreciation particularly to my noble friend Lord Lucas for his support throughout the Bill's progress through this House.
I should also like to thank the voluntary organisations, such as the National Council for One Parent Families and the Child Poverty Action Group, which have provided advice to all sides and have persuasively represented the interests of the agency's clients.
I have been criticised during this Bill's passage for "objurgations" against absent fathersI have to admit that I had to look up that word in a dictionaryfor "antagonism" and even "hostility" towards absent parents. I should like to put on record my recognition that there are many absent parents who are at pains to maintain regular contact with their children and who have never flinched from their financial responsibilities to their children. Indeed, there are some absent parents who voluntarily pay maintenance well in excess of any amount which they would be required to pay under the formula assessment. I am pleased to have this opportunity to acknowledge the continuing care and support which such parents give to their children.
But there are also those who have gone to considerable lengths to avoid payment, who have sought to justify their reluctance to pay with numerous superficially attractive arguments. They have argued that the interests of children of later relationships are not acknowledged by the scheme, despite the effect of the formula, which almost always results in second families being better off; that they should not have to meet the
It is worth perhaps reflecting for a moment on what the Child Support Act is intended to achievethat every parent should provide financial support for his children where he can afford to do so. The children of a broken relationship will not only lose the constant presence of one of their parents but will almost invariably suffer a drop in their standard of living. Following divorce, typically the absent parent is better off and the mother and children worse off. How many men who have stayed with their family can say they have at least 70 per cent. of their net income to cover their own expenses? The recently published White Paper on divorce and mediation leaves us in no doubt that,
But regular receipt of maintenance can transform the lives of parents with care and their children. Even where the parent with care is on income support, it gives her a portable income which helps her to work if she wishes to do so, thereby raising the standard of living of her children and mitigating the financial effects of separation.
The payment of regular maintenance where the absent parent can afford it signifies his clear acceptance that he has a financial responsibility to his child. But we have learnt that it is not easy to secure acceptance of this responsibility. It is not easy to reverse a culture where the taxpayer could always be relied upon to provide a financial safety net. But we believe that this is the right way to go and have not been deterred by the resistance of some absent parents to the idea that they owe a decent level of support to their own children.
We have listened carefully to the helpful advice received from many quarters, in particular the recommendations of the Select Committee on Social Security in another place. That we have gone further than those recommendations with the provisions of this Bill is clear evidence of our commitment to getting child support right.
I know that it has been suggested that the Bill does nothing for the parent with care. It does. There are provisions within this Bill which have been introduced specifically with the parent with care in mind: the child maintenance bonus; the compensation payments to those who suffer financial loss; and the provision of grounds for departures which are specifically aimed at parents with care. We believe that the best way to improve a child's standard of living is through the maintenance bonus, which helps the parent with care to return to work. We believe that that is a positive way to help parents with care.
The principles which underpin the 1991 Act continue to enjoy widespread support. But the system has clearly had its difficulties. We have again listened carefully to the criticisms and we recognise that a small minority of cases will warrant particular consideration. The departures system introduced by this Bill makes provision for that consideration. It provides for a fairer system. It will allow an absent parent who has special expenses and genuine difficulty in meeting his commitments the opportunity for his case to be re-examined. In so doing, it removes any legitimacy in the argument of absent parents who are simply intent on avoiding their financial responsibilities to their children that their assessments are unfair. Absent parents will not be able reasonably to refuse to pay.
The measures in this Bill have been designed to encourage voluntary compliance and so to secure the payment of more maintenance to parents with care. The whole purpose of the child support scheme continues to be to secure more maintenance, more regularly for more children. This Bill as it leaves this House will help to achieve that. I commend it to the House.
Lord Carter: My Lords, in speaking to the Motion, That the Bill do now pass, I should like first to thank the Minister for his unfailing courtesy, good humour and helpfulness in dealing with the Bill. We have not accepted all his arguments, but we have certainly enjoyed his performance. During the eight or nine years in which I have been involved in social security matters in this House, I cannot remember a Session like this in which we have had five major Bills on social security. That has meant a heavy load for the Minister.
I thank also my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham, who has carried just as big a load as the Minister but without the flotilla of officials to assist her. I was pleased to take just some of the load by leading on this Bill. The attitude of my party to this Bill in this House and in another place was put well by my honourable friend, Mr. Donald Dewar, our shadow spokesman on social security, at Second Reading in the other place on 20th March. Referring to the 1991 Act, he said:
My honourable friend also made it clear that the Opposition would not engage in what he called "trench warfare", and we have certainly tried to follow that precept in our consideration of the Bill in this House.
So that there is no misunderstanding, I should make it clear that we had our reservations about the 1991 Billwe expressed them at the timenot about the principle of the Bill, but about its practice. Those reservations were borne out by the actual operation of the CSA. This is not the place to repeat all the horror stories that we have heard at various stages of the Bill's passage both in this House and another place. We took no pleasure in that; nor in the likely problems of the CSA, but, as we know, the arguments for change became overwhelming and the Government have now been forced to act through the changes in administration which they introduced earlier this year and now in the Bill which is just leaving this House.
We took the view that in handling the Bill we would set out within the traditions of this House to probe, to amend and to improve it. I am grateful to the Minister for the Government's agreement to a number of our amendments dealing with departure directions and reduced benefit directions for parents with disabled children. We are grateful also for the helpfulness of the Minister's office, for his correspondence and for help in drafting one or two of the amendments. Furthermore, we are grateful for the full explanations that he gave of the complicated amendments, because we were trying to get the Government's explanation on the record.
I shall not pretend for a moment that we regard the Bill as perfect. It is the first step on the road to improvement, which may be long. Certainly, we would not support, and have not supported, changes that would make it easier in practice for the absent parent to evade his responsibilities, however superficially attractive such changes may appear in theory. As a responsible Opposition which firmly intends to form the next government, I am fully aware of our responsibilities as regards public expenditure. We have done our best to improve the Bill as did our colleagues in the other place.
It is in our minds that we fully expect to form the next government and the CSA will be there when we assume office. We want to find a CSA that is working and this Bill and the administrative changes that were introduced earlier this year go some way to make that outcome a little more likely.
I conclude by thanking the Minister again for his courtesy and good humour. I hope that, as a result of the Bill, the Child Support Agency will be able to get on with the job that it was set up to do and do it much more efficiently and humanely.
Earl Russell: My Lords, for me one of the defining moments of the Bill was on the first day of Committee when the Minister said that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, had reminded him that he had been replying to three noble Lords whose average age was close to 90. This place is sometimes known as a Senate. There are some among us who genuinely entitle the House to deserve that title.
In terms of age and in other terms, pride of place must go to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord is recovering and that it is hoped he will leave hospital tomorrow. The noble Lord has made a distinguished contribution to the
I am grateful in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for a profoundly helpful intervention in Committee. It was confined entirely to points of drafting and not of policy. However, the implications of his comments about drafting stretch right through the Bill and well beyond it. I hope that what he said will be listened to in all quarters and in all parties.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, is, of course, one of the glories of this House. He is just about a party in himself. Having his support is as great an accession of strength as having the support of a whole party. The noble and learned Lord has a better track record for being right than almost anyone else in this House. It has been a delight to be able to support him and I congratulate him on his performance.
I am also extremely grateful to the Minister who this year has faced an extremely back-breaking burden of work. He has faced a fearsome amount of flack from across the Dispatch Box. We on the Front Benches of both Opposition parties should say that, if at some future time it should fall to any of us to speak from the place where he now is, we can take the flack with half the patience, kindness, courtesy and accuracy that he has shown we should be entitled to be proud of ourselves. Tonight the Minister is entitled to go home and sleep the sleep of the just.
The Bill, of course, is a different matter. It reminds me of the comment of a 17th century cynic who, when asked whether he preferred the Scripture in English or in Latin, said that he would rather have it in Latin for in Latin "as it doth no good so it doth no harm". On the other hand, the Bill is a very big opportunity missed. It gave us the opportunity to revisit the 1991 Act, but that has been largely untaken.
Shortly after the Committee stage I was invited by the Hansard Society to address an audience of Romanians about the position of a third party in British politics. I mentioned the 1991 Act among others and described itI hope that the Minister will not think inaccuratelyas an Act which attempted to assess all child maintenance by means of a mathematical formula. All the Romanians burst out laughing and I believe that their judgment was accurate.
I do not see whom the Bill benefits. It does not benefit women; it does not benefit men; it does not benefit children; and, as I believe we established on Report, it does not benefit the Treasury. So who does benefit? If the Minister believes that absent parents are now not reasonably able to object to their assessment he is, I am afraid, sadly mistaken. I shall not dwell on the reasons for believing that: I think that he knows them. There is unfinished business here and there is a good deal more of it to come.
I must confess that I regret that we have had so little input into the Bill from the Opposition. Its Members tell us that they fully expect to form the next government. Perhaps I may remind them of Mr. Enoch Powell's definition of an amateur in politicsone who predicts the result of the next general election! They talk about being a responsible Opposition. Being a responsible Opposition does not necessarily mean adopting the principles of the Government. They have shown no sense of heeding the remark of Mr. Tony Blair in his Fabian Society lecture, which I was glad to hear, that the party needs to pay more attention to abuses of power. I have heard no sign of any recognition of that from their Benches. I have heard no sign of recognition that there are any remaining injustices to absent parents. When we dealt with Amendment No. 12 I was extremely disappointed to hear no voice raised from the Opposition Benches in support of the major feminist issue in the Bill. Responsibility can be taken too far. I must say to people outside the Chamber who are concerned to procure the repeal of this Act that once the Thatcherite cuckoo is out of the Conservative nest I think it more likely that the Bill will, in the end, be repealed by a Conservative Government than by a Labour Government.
I had intended to cut out all that I wished to say about illegal demonstration. The Minister has heard me say it previously but he tempted me to say it again. I shall say only that we on these Benches are very proud that the poll tax was not killed in Trafalgar Square and that it was killed in Ribble Valley.
I do not believe that it will be long before we have the next Bill on this subject; in fact, I believe that next Session is a good bet. That will not be the last Bill either. How many more we have to go through before the 1991 Act finally disappears I have no idea. Perhaps the position may be similar to the education Bills in the 1980s, or local government Bills before that, but I am certain that sooner or later the 1991 Act will go. In 1991 I said on the Question, That the Bill do now pass that it was unenforceable. I have seen no reason to change my mind.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, the noble Earl dealt first with what was obviously a pleasant task to him and is a pleasant task to all of us who have participated in the Bill; namely, to pay a tribute to those who have contributed. However, the noble Earl then went on to examine the Bill, which obviously brings a different atmosphere at once. I propose to take matters the other way round.
We have no real objection to most of this Bill. Indeed, parts of it we must welcome because they embody the suggestions which we made in 1991 and which were brushed aside with contumely. So much is good. But we object to what the Bill does not do; in particular that it does not correct the unconstitutional aspects of the 1991 Act.
That was a very wise summing up of the British constitution. We must face it: it received a dislocation in 1991. Until that time, maintenance for both women and children was taken care of by the magistratesa body of laymen who carry out and transact a great mass of our criminal jurisdiction, a most important part of our family jurisdiction and, to some extent, some civil jurisdiction, too.
In 1991 their jurisdiction to award maintenance to children was taken away at a sweep and vested in a government agency whose officers were charged with applying a series of fomulae which the noble Earl has just described and which are really perfectly ludicrous if one looks at Schedule 1 of the 1991 Act.
But the matter did not stop there. Having transferred the jurisdiction, and having sanctioned the bureaucratic aggrandisement at the expense of the lower judiciary, the officers of the Child Support Agency and other officials of the department were then armed with extraordinary powerspowers which the ordinary citizen does not have in similar circumstances. There was a power of entry into private premises, denial of which would attract a penalty. There was a power to interrogate a man's employer and his fellow employees. Again, they had to answer on pain of a penalty. There was power to infringe the confidentiality of the Inland Revenue. Only today we have learnt of exceptional powers of distress which we suspected but did not succeed in pinpointing until today.
By taking proceedings under Section 35 of the Child Support Act rather than proceeding under the Magistrates' Courts Act, the department has three advantages: it need not go back to the magistrates' court, even though a distress warrant would issue automatically; it escapes general damages in the event of an irregular or illegal distress; it limits the liability to special damages, although the ordinary distrainer will have to pay general damages as well if he makes an irregular, illegal or in some cases excessive distraint. We learnt that only today. They complete the picture.
Or perhaps they do not quite complete the picture because one must turn then to the drafting which, again, is a triumph of bureaucracy. I believe that the high point was the provision that x shall have such meaning as shall be prescribed. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, observed of that genially that as he understood the Minister's explanation of it, it will enable a Labour Government to make such changes as they please and he thought that that was a very good idea.
However, at this stage I must say that I was disappointed that the Labour Opposition did not rally behind the noble Earl when it came to constitutional matters. There is no question that the Opposition prefer the Child Support Agency to the courts. That is understandable if one considers their Fabian past, although that has now been brushed into the background. There is no doubt that this series of measures might be regarded as part of the inevitability
But at any rate, whatever one might think about the Liberal Democrat leadership in the other place, in your Lordships' House clear green water emerged between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Opposition. That gives great heart to those who count on constitutional procedures.
That is all I wish to say about what we have failed to do in relation to amending the Bill. I now turn to the agreeable part of what I have to say. I endorse entirely what was said about the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the noble Baroness. At one time, we were worried that an enormous legislative load appeared to be placed on the noble Baroness this Session. We were very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Carter, not only for his own sake, which is true, but also because he knew a great deal about the 1991 proceedings.
I believe that I did an injustice at an earlier stage when I said at midnight that there were only two Liberal Democrats on the Front Bench. That was wrong because the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, was assiduous throughout and periodically made the most effective interventions. But a heavy burden fell on the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I have been here or hereabouts since 1951, but I cannot remember a more brilliant parliamentary performance than that of the noble Earl on this Bill. He had all the social service details at his fingertips; he was a master of the constitutionality; and, as always, he was more than courteous. The noble Earl was generous in debate and we are very deeply in his debt.
Having said that, I turn to the Minister. The same or, perhaps, an even heavier burden fell on him than that which fell initially on the noble Baroness. The noble Lord has had three Bills going through the House at the same time, each involving a great deal of work; and, indeed, he has carried through this Bill virtually unaided, although we are conscious of and grateful for the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
The Minister has been unfailingly courteous, but he has also shown an extraordinary mastery of his brief which has frequently been technical both on the constitutional and on the social security side. Disappointed as I am with the outcome of our deliberations, nevertheless, I count it a very great personal privilege to have taken part in them.