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Earl Russell: My Lords, will the Minister think a few more times about her criteria for defining those who "can't pay"? She is achieving simplicity only in so far as she departs from reality.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does the noble Earl really think that someone on an income of £200, £300 or £500 a week cannot afford to pay 15 per cent for the support of his child, leaving him with 85 per cent of his income? That is an entirely reasonable figure and somewhat less than he is currently assessed to pay. Any man who believes that a child can be maintained for less should do the weekly shopping.

I hope that fathers will co-operate with us and pay the money, knowing that it is going to their children and that their children will see that they are paying. If they do not, we are willing to extend the penalties available to us. There are already extensive civil action powers, including bailiff action and garnishee orders. Because it takes us so long to assess and the formula is so complex, those powers have not always operated as successfully as they should. We are seeking to strengthen the penalty regime for those who can pay but refuse to do so. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for giving me notice of his question and I am happy to assure him that we shall seek additional penalties for those who knowingly or wilfully give false information. An honest mistake is not an issue for us. We are talking about someone who is wilfully deceitful to avoid his responsibilities.

We are contemplating the penalties that other countries use. In some states of the United States, driving licences are taken away. The state of Texas has been doing that since 1995. In that time 18 have been taken, but in the past six months the threat has brought in an extra 22 million dollars in child support. If we have to implement the penalty, we have failed. But we may need to do so if men who should pay do not. We are not seeking to make life harsh, but we are determined to ensure that children enjoy the support that they should get.

The noble Lord asked about the transfer of information. The relevant level of civil servant will be executive officer. On the role of the private sector, we are expecting banks and building societies to help to

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collect the money in the same way that they help to collect housing benefit from local authorities. The issues of confidentiality are similar in both circumstances. Will we have one Bill or two? If legislative time permits, we expect an early Bill to deal with all the issues, but some proposals could be implemented ahead of the new case load, which has to wait for the IT machinery.

Finally, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked whether I was aware of the British Medical Association report Growing up in Britain. He should keep reminding the House that the poorest children in this country still suffer in their education, their health, their housing, their poverty and their life chances. The poorest children in this country are the children of lone parents. They are poor sometimes because their mother is not in work, in other cases because their mother is not receiving the maintenance that she should. With the New Deal and the working families tax credit, the Government are encouraging parents to go to work, but through child support we are ensuring that the non-resident parent should co-operate. The noble Earl and I may disagree on how best to deliver support to children, but by ensuring that child support flows and that parents have opportunities to go to work we can stop children bumping along on the bottom of income support rates for 16 or 18 years and then becoming unemployable as they hit working age. We have a responsibility. Child support is part of it. I hope that your Lordships will help us to achieve it.

Earl Russell: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am sorry to say anything more after such a full reply, but will she tell the House in what way the Government are involving the private sector?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we are expecting to use the private sector for consultancy on debt collection and its expertise on issues such as debt management work for self-employment.

4.46 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Higgins, I consider this to be a bipartisan matter. I welcome the Minister's commitment to maintaining the principle of the child coming first as the mainstay of the Child Support Agency. Like my noble friend, I recognise that there have been great failings in the way in which the system has worked. I sat for a few years as a lay member of a child support appeal tribunal. I have also sat on a family panel dealing with non-CSA maintenance payment enforcement. I see the noble Lord, Lord Gladwin of Clee, in his place. I was honoured to serve with him as a magistrate on that panel. I am sure that it is fair to say that we both found it frustrating to see how difficult it is to enforce the payment of maintenance to children from the father or, in some cases, the mother.

My questions for the Minister are about the penalties. With great respect, she talks about the Government getting tough and imposing tough penalties, but in the real world it will be the magistrates who will be called on to impose those tough penalties. What consultations

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have the Government had with the Magistrates' Association about the implications of imposing fines for the way in which magistrates' courts currently work? The Minister talked about penalties of imprisonment thereafter. I am sure that she is aware of the instruction from the Lord Chancellor's Department on the training of magistrates--it has been in force for some years--that imprisonment should be a last resort. Even if the penalty is "only" the imposition of a fine, non-payment of the fine will result in possible imprisonment. Magistrates are very reluctant indeed to impose a sentence of imprisonment. Very few cases of social security fraud ultimately lead to that. Perhaps we might temper our language when talking about penalties to take into account the practical realities.

What views have the magistrates expressed about the implications of such changes for CSA cases on the way in which maintenance is enforced through the family panel? The Minister and others have talked about equity. The noble Baroness also referred to abandoning the courts. One must remember that a huge number of maintenance cases are still heard in magistrates' and county courts. That will continue regardless of what has been said today. But the White Paper proposals may have huge implications for the way in which those cases are heard. For example, there is the matter of equity of treatment in access to tax records. Magistrates may feel hampered by not having access to them in cases that they hear. Those who are subject through CSA assessment to having their tax records open to view may find that there is a lack of equity of treatment. What view have the Government taken on that and what advice have they had from the Magistrates' Association.

What view has the Lord Chancellor's Department expressed to the Department of Social Security on write-offs? The Minister has already said that in the interim there may be write-offs for those who find it difficult to pay under the current system. I heard her refer to write-offs in her response to my noble friend Lord Higgins and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I am sure that she is aware of the guidelines given by the Lord Chancellor's Department to magistrates in non-CSA cases that if someone has run up substantial arrears, usually more than one year's total maintenance, the amount is written off and the person escapes--I can say that in this House--from their duty.

I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to answer some of my questions today because I have referred to the Lord Chancellor's Department. I would be happy for her to write to me about them.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I wonder whether we are contravening Standing Orders.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I remind noble Lords that we have 20 minutes for questions to the Minister on this matter. It would be helpful if noble Lords confined themselves to questions rather than comments.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, my answer will be very brief. We have consulted both the Magistrates' Clerks' Association and the Magistrates' Association, not on the particular point about penalties

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but the scheme as a whole. They put their views to us which we found extremely informative. I must point out to the noble Baroness that most of her remarks went outside the realm of the White Paper which is concerned with reform of the Child Support Agency and, therefore, the mode of child support. We are not addressing ancillary relief issues currently handled by magistrates' courts. I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness on the question whether the LCD has any proposals for magistrates' courts, but they are not part of the White Paper. Therefore, many of the questions put by the noble Baroness go well beyond the subject we are discussing today.

Baroness Fookes: My Lords, the staff have had a very difficult task over the years. Is it intended that their number should be supplemented under the old system, which is extremely complex, while they prepare for the new?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful for the point raised by the noble Baroness. We are recruiting an extra 600 staff in order to develop face-to-face interviews. I have worked on these schemes with the staff fairly closely. They say that they spend 90 per cent of their time trying to make an assessment and, because the system is so complicated, only 10 per cent of their time is devoted to compliance. They want a simple system so that they can get the assessment cleared within days and then spend their time ensuring that the money flows. They tell us that a simple system such as that now proposed will make training and other matters much easier. We hope that as a result we can retain more staff--obviously, there is a problem of morale and turnover--and offer a quality service, with the provision of information and face-to-face or telephone contact that too often the CSA has not been able to deliver.


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