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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I would have considerable difficulty in doing so. If I may say so, that is not a helpful analogy. Normally, I am full of admiration for the stories the noble Earl brings. But to suggest that if I fail to pay I could expect to suffer violence from the Conservative Party seems unlikely; undue distress, maybe, but violence--surely not.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: No. The noble Earl will have to help me. We may have different understandings of the word "conscience". I can understand, as I said, that many lone parents would prefer a clean break, with nothing to do with the individual father and, in particular if there is a new partner on the scene, would like him out of her life and to have another father support the child. I do not think that that is a choice she is entitled to make. It is not in the best interests of the child, of taxpayers and, sometimes, of the non-resident parent father.
I do not accept the word "conscience". All that I understand by the word "conscience" means that I support those who are not autonomous adults against the often perverse will of autonomous adults; that is, I support children.
Lord Davies of Coity: Perhaps I may follow on from the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I understand the argument he advances in respect of the interests of the child. I do not think that any of us would depart from that interest.
However, we also have to recognise that there are conflicting interests. We are addressing the interests of the child, the parent who looks after the child, the parent who is absent, the question of the responsibility under the Child Support Agency and the benefit provided by the state. Those are conflicting interests which have to be addressed.
Clause 19 gives a degree of flexibility which enables each and every circumstance to be addressed in accordance with the way in which they are presented and have to be considered. In putting forward these amendments to Clause 19, we are placing too much emphasis on a particular interest when they all have to be, and will be, addressed under Clause 19 by the people involved at the time the circumstances present themselves. That degree of flexibility is necessary to make the provision work; otherwise it becomes totally inflexible and will never work.
Lord Higgins: As I said, this is essentially a probing amendment. It has revealed clearly that the position of the Liberal Party is not the same as that of noble Lords on these Benches. We are primarily concerned with ensuring that the absent parent makes a contribution to the child's maintenance. We believe that there is a case for penalties. But it is important for a specific penalty to be administered in a way which does not result in the bodies which deal with the problem at the front end saying that the decisions are not infrequently incorrect, unreasonable or inappropriate. It is in marked contrast with the view put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
Before Report stage, I wish to consider carefully what the noble Baroness said. I do not find wholly convincing the argument that because no one who said that she was threatened with violence has been subjected to violence, that removes the fear of it.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I did not say that. I said that I was not aware of any case where a parent has had fears of violence and has been, so to speak, over-ruled and required by the CSA to co-operate. Women have decided to co-operate rather than receive reduced benefit. In other words, they have named the father. I simply asked: in that case, to noble Lords' knowledge, has the judgment of the CSA been at fault? I did not suggest the reverse: that sometimes there may have been a reduced benefit direction where, as the CAB suggested, there may have been grounds for a different response.
The important issue is, where a parent who is reluctant to co-operate did co-operate because of the reduced benefit direction, was she, as a result, subject to the violence she originally feared? That would have suggested that the CSA was wrong to require her to co-operate. I have not heard a single piece of evidence today.
Lord Higgins: I understand that, but the reason that she did not co-operate in the first place may have been that she was afraid she would be subjected to violence. However, I shall consider the noble Baroness's point.
The Minister was somewhat dismissive of the recommendation of the Select Committee in another place that there should be a delay before the new sanctions were fully operative. The Minister pointed out--it had not been clear previously--that the reduction of benefit applies to the benefit of the parent with care rather than the child's benefit. None the less if the parent with care was existing on the level of support which the Government regard as the minimum, and for a period of perhaps three or more years she has to live at substantially below that level, it is not clear how she will survive. There may be an argument for examining to what extent that has been a problem in individual cases.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The lone parent makes a voluntary choice not to co-operate with the CSA where there is no evidence that there is good cause or undue risk of distress. That penalty is £20 on an income of, say, £90 or so where there is one child plus housing benefit, council tax benefit and the like. In order to receive back the full amount, she has only to co-operate with the CSA. As I said, there is no case in which a lone parent has subsequently co-operated with a CSA where, to my knowledge, violence has been validated. Therefore, it is up to her.
One could argue equally well that it is unreasonable, for example, that people in receipt of the jobseeker's allowance who fail to be available for work should be sanctioned, because they cannot live on a reduced benefit. One either accepts that benefits have conditions attached or one believes that benefit is a birthright. I happen to believe that it is perfectly proper for society to attach conditions that are appropriate to a benefit, as in this case, and that it is up to the lone parent to remedy the situation.
We know that 70 per cent of those who have taken a reduced benefit come off that reduced benefit, if I can express it in that way, within a matter of a month or a couple of weeks. A third do so in order to go into work; some do so because, presumably, they are already re-partnering or have started to re-partner and therefore do not claim benefit at all; and a third decide to co-operate with the CSA. Therefore, many possibilities exist under which the lone parent may return to enjoy the full benefit. I agree that she should have it and it is in the best interests of her child to have it.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The problem arises from a failure to return the forms on time. How does she manage to live? It is a two-way process. If she wishes to receive the full benefit, there are conditions with which she must comply. She must return the forms, renew them appropriately, and she must attend a ONE interview, or whatever. That is essentially the case. I take the simple point that anyone who has an income which is less than income support is below the income support level. That is true by definition. The questions are: was it her own activity that put her into that situation; and, can she remedy it reasonably? The answer to both those questions is: yes.
Lord Higgins: I believe that there is no point in my continuing to make the same point over and over again. I still remain completely unconvinced by what the noble Baroness has said. However, having said that, I want to raise one final point. Perhaps we may then consider coming back to it on Report. Apparently, in a number of cases this situation has been continuing for three years and sometimes has been extended by three years. Of course, as the noble Baroness just said, it is true that in a number of cases results are produced in a matter of days, weeks or months. However, it seems that if nothing has happened by the end of three years, the person concerned is not likely to change his or her mind. Again, that is a point to which we should perhaps return.
Having said that, there is a significant difference of opinion on these issues between the noble Earl and myself, and we shall need to read very carefully what the noble Baroness said. Subject to that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment which has, I believe, given rise to a useful debate.
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