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The Earl of Mar and Kellie: Both the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, are entirely right to be stressing the need for overarching principles at the start of the Bill. I should briefly like to say that nothing in the amendment conflicts with the other CSA--that is, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995--which lays down in Sections 1 and 2 that parents have a right and duty to maintain contact, in estrangement, with their children. It also lays down that the parent with care must enable that contact.

The Earl of Listowel: Perhaps I may briefly say, as someone who has worked with boys and young men over several years in various capacities, that I have noticed the confusion that young men in particular have when their fathers are not in the picture. They are sometimes confused about their sexual identity when their fathers are not around. They are particularly vulnerable to other men on whom they may wish to model themselves, who are perhaps people we would not wish them to admire and copy. It may be difficult for them to forge a special relationship with a woman later in life and start their own family if they have had no father in the picture.

I am not sure whether this amendment is the best way of solving this problem and increasing the number of fathers who continue to be involved with their sons, but it is an important point. I am sure that the Minister will bear it in mind.

Lord Renton: I hope that the Government will consider sympathetically the move by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to include this clause, perhaps slightly modified, into the Bill, or something on the same lines.

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While we are trying to improve the situation which arises under the Act of 1991, we should seriously make a more positive definition than has so far been made of the responsibilities of parents. I hope that when further considering this matter, both the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, will consider attempting to define the situation that may arise when the parents fail to agree. In those circumstances--it will always be difficult--some guidance may be given, especially when the parents are separated or divorced. In the case of disagreement, it is the parent with custody of the child who should have the last word. That is a point which could be added to the statute.

Earl Russell: I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on having most eloquently distinguished between the things on which we all agree and those on which we do not. His amendment provides a beautifully drafted piece of common ground from which to begin our debate.

I am glad the noble Lord said what he did about financial maintenance not being the whole story; nevertheless, I am grateful to him for having given me an opportunity to stress once again that the obligation of parents to maintain their children is common ground between all the parties who debate this Bill. I first made that point on the Statement preceding the 1991 Child Support Bill. I have made it many times since. I make it again. Any future debate is how that liability should be calculated, apportioned and assessed; never about whether it should exist.

Lord Northbourne: Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Earl.

Earl Russell: If the noble Lord wishes to say that that was not the whole of his amendment, that was exactly the point I was coming on to. If he wishes to say anything else, I shall give way instantly.

Lord Northbourne: I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. I was only going to draw attention to the fact that, while he is right in saying that there is consensus across the Chamber on that subject, there is not necessarily consensus across the country. That is why it is so important for the Government to be absolutely clear what they mean.

Earl Russell: I do not dispute that point for a moment. I would be happy for that to be put into legislation.

Secondly, I am grateful to the noble Lord for having stressed that this is not just about support, and for putting in the words he has about nurture, love, care, guidance and education. Those things are, in the end, probably much more important. I thank the noble Lord also for having worded that passage in a way which is optative and not prescriptive. We all want those things. But how to get them can be a difficult problem in which the heavy-booted intervention of legislation is not always helpful. To have it spelt out in this general way as something to which we can all aspire is exactly right.

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Thirdly, the noble Lord is right about the importance of access. But again I am grateful to him for having stuck to a tone which is optative and not prescriptive. The problems of access after matrimonial breakdown are far more difficult to resolve than most of us realise. Resolution in almost all, but not all, cases is something devoutly to be wished for. But when we are dealing with two people who have been badly hurt, we find that they do not always react with the reasonableness one hopes to achieve in a Committee of this House. So again I am glad that the noble Lord has been optative and not prescriptive.

Perhaps I might comment on a couple of other points in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. In relation to the 40 per cent of non-resident parents who lose contact with their children, I understand that there is some dispute as to the academic validity of that figure, but since my information comes to me under Chatham House rules I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not develop the point further.

I refer to the Lord Chancellor's views as to the obligation to maintain 16 and 17 year-olds. Except for 16 and 17 year-olds, all of us are in a position where a residually and fiduciary liability to maintain us if we become destitute rests on somebody; if we are under 16, on parents; if we are over 18, on the state. But in the case of 16 and 17 year-olds it at present rests nowhere. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor made the remarks to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred, specifically in that context. So if the Minister does not wish him to do that, she knows what she can do about it.

Lord Higgins: The Committee will have listened with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in moving his amendment, given his considerable experience in various parts of London where there are problems of the kind with which the Bill is seeking to cope. It is true to say, as he did, that the previous legislation was not particularly popular; but it was unpopular largely with people who were not accepting the responsibilities which he is seeking to set out in his amendment. While my own constituency experience was in an area that might have been relatively tranquil compared to parts of London, nevertheless one was struck by the fact that a number of parents were not prepared to accept their responsibilities and were positively determined to resist them. We will turn to that aspect later.

There are other aspects of the noble Lord's amendment that will, again, be reflected in our subsequent debates. He stresses that the responsibilities of parents should be held jointly and severally. A considerable amount of the controversy over the Bill relates to the question of whether both parents should pay or only one, and joint responsibility is a very important aspect of that matter. The noble Lord has tabled another amendment to the 1991 Act, which extends the definition of an absent parent by adding the words "or is not contributing to

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his maintenance". It would be helpful to hear the Minister's comments in relation to that issue. We are also concerned with access.

The amendment is in effect a declaration about the responsibility of both parents. That is important, not least because the Bill is concerned with not only those who have been married and divorced, but with those who have never been married and are still parents, and to a considerable extent with where there have been multiple relationships. Part of the problem is not simply about the relationship of the first family to the second, but in some cases to the third or fourth family, when none of these events has been subject to marriage. The declaration envisaged by the noble Lord has much in its favour. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that point and on the more technical aspects of the matter.

4 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 seek to place on the face of child support legislation a new framework of obligations within which a reformed child support scheme would operate, emphasising the role of both parents in raising children.

Amendment No. 3 seeks to set out in the Bill the wider responsibility that both parents have to their children beyond the immediate obligations to maintain them when the parents live apart. Amendment No. 4 extends the definition of "non-resident parent" to include those who live with the child and the other parent but who are not contributing to the children's maintenance.

We are reforming child support in the context of the Government's active family policies and the wider responsibilities of parents. As we explained in the child support Green Paper, we are convinced that one of the reasons for the failure of the existing child support arrangements is that they do not work properly with other family responsibilities. We strongly believe that fathers have a vital role to play in their children's lives and should never be marginal to a child's wellbeing.

Paying maintenance is an important part of non-resident parents' continuing responsibilities to their children, but there is more to being a good parent than this. One of the central issues for separated parents and their children is maintaining continuing contact with non-resident parents. The child support reforms set out in the Bill recognise this issue because it is in the best interests of children, for whom appropriate contact can compensate for many of the problems associated with parental separation. There is good evidence to suggest that non-resident parents who have regular contact also tend to provide more maintenance for their children.

I have seen recent research that looked at predictors of good outcomes for the children of lone parents. For daughters of lone parents a good outcome in the sense of staying on at school, doing GCSEs, not becoming pregnant as a teenager and getting a job, was that the lone parent was in work. However, for a good outcome

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for the sons of lone parents, in the sense of staying on at school, not truanting, not getting into trouble with the police, getting GCSEs and getting a job, the predictor was that he had regular contact with his natural father. For daughters the predictor was that the mother was in work and for sons it was if they had regular contact with their natural father. That is in accordance with what we are trying to achieve.

We all agree that children have the right to the love and care of both their parents, whether or not they live together. A point about jointly and severally has been mentioned on several occasions: under our proposals, both parents would have joint and several responsibility in that a parent with care is providing support in kind and the non-resident parent is providing support in cash. That makes up the joint and several package.

The Government are committed to an active family policy which integrates all activities that affect the family, including maintenance and contact. However, we do not accept that child support liability should be reduced or removed altogether simply because contact arrangements are unsatisfactory. Refusing to pay maintenance adds to the disadvantages of children who have lost contact with a parent.

The new system of child support will be clear and easy to understand. Non-resident parents will know immediately how much they need to pay for their children and how much they will have left to meet their other responsibilities. We will recognise children's overnight stays with non-resident parents by a small reduction in rates of liability. This will go some way to meeting the non-resident parent's expenses, without being so severe as to make parents with care resistant to shared care arrangements.

We will also support a personal, localised, face-to-face service that integrates child support with other family services. There is clearly broad support from fathers for these reforms, and it is clear that non-resident parents in particular want, more than anything else, a system of assessing liability that is simple, transparent and predictable. It is in the best interests of the child to get maintenance flowing as quickly as possible. That is what is driving our child support reforms. Where that maintenance is flowing, it is more likely that the father will seek to sustain contact.

I understand that the amendments are intended to give expression to the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, which has been reflected in the Committee today, that some children and young people do not receive enough support from their parents. I agree with that concern, but I do not think it is appropriate to make a declaratory statement in a Bill, which should be as precise in its wording as possible. The appropriate place for what one might call a mission statement, is the Green Paper or the White Paper. In quoting those extensively, the noble Lord made it clear that the Government entirely shared the context in which the reforms are put before the Committee.

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The noble Lord mentioned--and had support from noble Lords--the concern of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor about the issue of parental responsibility and the maintenance of 16 and 17 year-olds. The noble and learned Lord has explained that there is no specific statutory obligation on a parent to provide for the maintenance of a child who has reached the age of 16 and has offered to consider a review.

Officials in the Lord Chancellor's Department are conducting an internal review of the provisions for these young people before making recommendations about whether a wider review or a full consultation exercise is required.

I welcome the fact that in his amendment the noble Lord acknowledges that parents are not always in a position to support their children as they would wish. That is why we have set in train a wide range of initiatives, particularly where children are in care, in order to ensure that the local authority better delivers its responsibility in loco parentis. Equally, the Department for the Environment, Transport and Regions is working to reduce the incidence of homelessness and rough sleeping among young people, and the Social Exclusion Unit has published reports on teenage pregnancy in 16 to 18 year-olds who are not in education, training or employment, which the Government intend should lead to prompt and effective action, along with the Children Leaving Care Act and the Care Standards Bill, will give additional protection for these vulnerable children.

The amendments clearly go wider than that and fall outside the scope of the Bill, which in this section is concerned solely with the provisions of financial support where parents are living apart.

The noble Lord wants to reconnect maintenance and contact. We know that the men who pay most maintenance are the most reliable payers of maintenance because they tend to be older, divorced men, and more likely to be in contact with and emotionally committed to their children. The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, was absolutely right that our major problems occur with young men for whom it may have been a casual relationship, possibly a weekend relationship only, who may be unemployed and whose own lives are pretty chaotic. They are very young and may still be living at home with their parents. There, it is often the paternal grandmother who ensures that contact continues and educates her young son in his responsibilities for his child in turn. Where that happens, it can transform the young man's life.

However, as I have already suggested, the right way to sustain contact with the young man is through arrangements that are to be found in the Bill; for example, the abatement of maintenance to encourage overnight stays and the face-to-face interviews that we can offer. Equally, we are obviously concerned about the situation where the parent with care may thwart contact. The Lord Chancellor's Department is looking into the matter to ascertain what sanctions might be available where someone is in contempt of court.

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But those concerned are seeking to find sanctions that will not bite on the child, which is something that imprisonment might do. There is always the right available to a non-resident parent to consider a change, or to seek a change, of a residency order to ensure that contact is maintained.

I fully recognise the commitment of the noble Lord to improving the circumstances of children and young people. The Government believe that existing provisions in legislation, along with existing programmes in health, in the DETR and through the Social Exclusion Unit, further supported by the passage of this Bill, its implementation and that of the other legislation to which I referred, will provide an effective means of securing the improvements that we all wish to achieve. As the noble Lord said, the context for this was reflected in our Green and White Papers. With that explanation and bearing in mind the fact that we endorse much of what the noble Lord said, although we do not think it right to put a broader description on the face of the Bill, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.


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