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COLLECTION AND ENFORCEMENT: PRIORITIES

(" . After section 43 of the 1991 Act there shall be inserted--
"Collection and enforcement: priorities.
43A. In exercising his powers under sections 29 to 43 of this Act the Secretary of State shall ensure that such powers are exercised with a view to securing the collection and enforcement of child support maintenance from those non-resident parents who have failed to pay any amount of child support maintenance and that

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this duty is accorded priority over the collection and enforcement of child support maintenance from those non-resident parents who have made some payments of child support maintenance.".").

The noble Lord said: I believe that we can dispose of this amendment very briefly. The amendment seeks to establish the Government's priorities: whether, given the huge backlog within the Child Support Agency, they are going to concentrate on the collection of maintenance from the 30 per cent of cases where parents have made no payments rather than the 23 per cent where parents are partially compliant but not making full payments. Given the extent of the backlog, presumably some degree of priority will be established as to how the department proceeds. I merely inquire what instructions have been given to the department and its officials for the Child Support Agency and its officials.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Amendment No. 103 would require the CSA to set a priority order for the operation of its collection and enforcement activities. It proposes that they take action against non-resident parents who have made no payments regarding child support before turning to those who have paid some, however little. It may be of interest to the noble Lord to know that 47 per cent of non-resident parents who now pay through the CSA are fully compliant. In 1997 that figure was 30 per cent. Therefore, we have already gone a long way. Twenty-three per cent are partially compliant; 30 per cent pay nothing at all.

Non-resident parents would be able to work out that if they made a token payment, that would move them to the back of the list of cases which the agency would be obliged to pursue. We all know that the complexities of the current formula leave the agency with little time for collecting maintenance. Too often, people have been able to avoid payment. Even where the assessment is completed, many NRPs fail to pay all that is due.

When I visited a child support centre in Hastings, I was struck by the fact that approximately 90 per cent of the non-resident parents asked for a review of the amount that they were liable to pay because their circumstances had changed. The review was carried out and they still do not pay. Their requests were intended simply as a means of stretching out the process. Non-resident parents must not and will not be able to escape meeting their full responsibility by making an occasional payment. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that the amendment is unnecessary.

Under the new system, instead of 26 weeks, we expect an assessment to be made within four to five days, and the non-resident parent to pay within five to six weeks. Given that, the staff resource will be in compliance for all cases. It will not be the case, as the noble Lord feared may have happened in the past, that one simply adds to the payments required by those who are paying rather than chases those who fail to pay it all. Therefore, I believe that the amendment is unnecessary.

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Enforcement action will now be taken against all non-resident parents who do not meet their responsibilities because such a simplified formula will free the resource for such action. I do not believe that a legislative priority for collecting enforcement payments provides the best way to ensure that parents receive the maintenance which is theirs by right.

Given that, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment. If he requires further information, I shall be very happy to try to provide it for him. However, by virtue of a simplified formula, the speed of assessment and the fact that we should be able to get money flowing from everyone, our whole push is that it should no longer be necessary to go after what some may have alleged in the past were the easy targets. As I said, we hope that we should not need to discriminate in a way that the noble Lord may fear has sometimes occurred in the past.

Lord Higgins: What are the priorities so far as concerns those who are on the old system?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We seek to obtain the money from all fathers. In the past, the priority has been to do so in private cases where the money is enjoyed by the family as opposed to cases where, for example, the father and mother are on benefit and where there is very little money involved. Therefore, in the past the priority has tended to be cost-effective: that is, to go for maintenance actions which are most likely to produce most money for children. If one must prioritise, it seems to me that that is the most decent way to do so.

It is not a matter of saving the Treasury money. In so far as public cases have had a degree of priority, it has been a question of what money will benefit the children. That has been the situation in the past. However, in future, with a simplified system, we hope that those choices--I am not trying to suggest that it has been widespread--would not have to be made.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Does the Minister consider that the parents with care will believe that it is fair if the absent parent who has paid some money is traced just as quickly as one who has not paid any?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Is the noble Baroness asking me to change the situation for the future Bill or to change the situation as it is now? In future, there should be no question of prioritising. At the moment, in order to obtain an assessment of child maintenance it is necessary to acquire approximately 100 pieces of information from the non-resident parent. If he holds back only one of those, the money will be delayed. In future, only three pieces of information will be required from the non-resident parent: the name of his employer, details of his take-home pay and the number of children that he has.

As a result, the assessment should be made within four to five days and the money should be flowing from him to the parent with care within four to five weeks, compared with the six months plus that it now takes. If it takes a long time at present, it is understandable

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that officials will go after the money which most benefits the child. That dilemma should not occur in the future under the new system. We have tried to construct a system in which precisely those difficulties do not arise. I hope that the noble Baroness will be content with that assurance.

Lord Higgins: In the light of the Minister's reply, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 [Regulations]:

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 103A:


    Page 23, line 30, after ("section") insert ("6(1),")

The noble Baroness said: This amendment gives effect to a commitment we made in Committee last week. During the debate on Clause 3 noble Lords expressed some concern about delegated powers set out in new Section 6 (1), which has been inserted in the Child Support Act by Clause 3. Concern was expressed in this House about how the power might be used and some Lords queried whether such a power was needed at all. As I explained to the House, we wish to be able to retain a power to add other benefits to those already in the Act should the need arise though we have no present plans to add to the list. It mirrors the formula we have in the Child Support Act 1991.

I also explained that delegated powers are a feature of social security legislation, and that approach has been endorsed by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. However, in response to the concerns of your Lordships' House I gave a commitment that in future any regulations made under this power will be subject to the affirmative procedure even though that was not recommended by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee.

The amendment before us now places a reference to new Section 6 (1) and Section 52 of the Act as amended by Clause 25, that adds to the list of affirmative provisions. I hope that noble Lords will accept that we have responded positively to your Lordships' wishes.

During a previous debate the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked me to consider whether we would amend the subsection so that any other means-tested benefit of a prescribed kind could be substituted for the current wording. I promised to reflect on this. Having done so, I do not think that wording would be appropriate because the benefits we define as means tested or income related are a narrow group of benefits such as IS or income-based CSM. Those two benefits are contained in new Section 6 (1) on the face of the Bill before us. We may want to add some benefits in future that are similar in nature to income related benefits but are not strictly defined as such, for example, WFTC which is not means tested but did replace a means-tested benefit called family credit. We do not intend to add WFTC, but there are a number of tax credit type benefits that are being considered. It is possible that

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more may be developed in the future. Therefore, a future government may wish to add it, but I must emphasise strongly that we have no such plans in mind.

Secondly, and more importantly, not all income-related benefits currently in existence require a person to seek child maintenance, for example, HB or council tax benefits, and IRBs which are not expected to apply for child support. The noble Lord's definition might well bring in groups of people to whom we had not intended it to apply.

I hope that on the first part, by making the regulation subject to the affirmative procedure, noble Lords will be satisfied that Parliament will be able to scrutinise any regulations made under this power and on the second part that we might actually be widening the scope beyond perhaps what the noble Lord intended. I hope that noble Lords will be able to accept this amendment and will accept the Government's response to the House.


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