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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness specific details, but I can reassure her that discussions about Zimbabwe have exercised the minds of all those who are aware of the election. We are very much in the forefront on that. I am sure that South Africa will be intimately interested in the outcome of the election in Zimbabwe.

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

3.30 p.m.

Report received.

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 1:

("The basic principles")

.--(1) The Child Support Act 1991 shall be amended as follows.
(2) In section 1, for subsection (1) there shall be substituted--
"(1) For the purposes of this Act, notwithstanding any other rights of the child or duties of his parents, each parent of a qualifying child is responsible for maintaining him."").

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, in Committee, I expressed concern that the narrow emphasis of the Bill and of the Child Support Act 1991 on the financial responsibilities of a non-resident parent could well be misleading, by suggesting that they were the only important obligations on a non-resident parent. In their White Paper, the Government say:

    "As explained in the 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".

However, the Bill perpetuates that situation, not making the slightest reference to other responsibilities, such as nurture, love, care, guidance and education.

In Committee, I suggested that we should use the Bill as a vehicle to define the obligations and responsibilities of the absent parent. That suggestion was rejected by the Minister. I now accept that she was right. With the help of the Library, I have done a lot of research and I now realise that the law of parental responsibility in this country is in a state of chaos compared with even such a near neighbour as Scotland. The Minister is right to say that to attempt to define parental responsibility in the Bill would be too ambitious.

However, there remain two things that we need to do in the Bill. The first is to ensure that it is crystal clear what the word "maintenance" means in the Bill--that it means only financial maintenance, because that is what the Government want it to mean. Secondly, we should make it clear in the Bill that neither it nor the 1991 Act in any way subsumes or reduces the responsibilities of a non-resident parent, other than the financial responsibilities to the child.

Section 1(2) of the 1991 Act absolves the absent parent of any responsibility for maintenance beyond paying over the money laid down in the Act. The Bill does not change that situation; it merely alters the basis for the calculation of the sums to be paid.

That is why the definition of the word "maintenance" is very important. I have found no definition in the Bill or the 1991 Act. The Government want the word to mean no more than financial maintenance, but is that really what it means? If "maintenance" were to be held by the courts to mean more than financial maintenance, it could seriously prejudice a child's right to other forms of care from the absent parent. There are grounds for believing that the Government's assumption about the meaning of the word could be challenged.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives nine meanings or usages of the word and 16 meanings for the word "maintain". These include two usages that support the interpretation of providing financial support, but there are several others that support other interpretations. They include

    "The action of giving aid, countenance or support"


    "To keep up friendly relations or correspondence with".

It would be useful to have a definition in the Bill. I have suggested one possible formulation in my Amendment No. 3.

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My other two amendments address my concern that the 1991 Act does not make it explicitly clear that the Government and Parliament intend that the financial maintenance that is dealt with in the Bill is still only one part of the totality of a non-resident parent's obligations. My Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are suggestions for achieving that objective. They would not detract from the Government's purpose or intentions for the Bill, but they would make a point that needs to be made--a point that I believe has the support of all sides of the House. I beg to move.

Lord Higgins: The House will have listened with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, given his experience of social security matters. He has raised some broad questions that it is appropriate to address at the beginning of our debates. There is an argument for clarifying the definition of the word "maintenance". It will be of considerable relevance when we come to debate issues such as whether the absent parent's income should be taken into account. In Committee, the Minister and I had some discussion and dispute about the position of a particular parent without care and the extent to which they--and the parent with care--were contributing, other than in financial terms.

I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say about the other amendments. The noble Lord pointed out to me a few days ago that the preamble in the original Bill in 1991 was also deficient in a number of respects. Those of us who tried to work with the 1991 Act in another place over several years will feel that that is not the only deficiency in it. That is why we are now trying to improve it. This is a useful preamble to the discussions that we are going to have.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. In Committee, we had a general discussion on the noble Lord's amendment and whether or not it was a good idea to have a declaratory statement at the beginning of the Bill. I believe that Amendment No. 1 is a rather more limited declaratory statement which would be of assistance to lawyers when they are interpreting the Bill to clarify precisely what is the responsibility of both parents.

I also feel strongly that the noble Lord is right to say that it would be helpful to define what "maintenance" means. On this subject, it is extremely easy to talk round all the figures and relate them to the word "maintenance", with different ideas in our minds as to what is meant by that. Clearly, the Government mean something different for the resident parent than for the non-resident parent in terms of finance, although they believe that it will balance the whole thing out if the Bill as it stands were to be enacted.

I believe that this proposal is very helpful. I hope that the Minister will say something good about this, whether she accepts the amendments as they are worded or whether she agrees to bring back amendments which achieve the same end.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I too support my noble friend's amendments. It should be made clear

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that discharging one's financial duties towards one's children is only one, and by no means all, of the duties that a parent owes a child.

3.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham) : My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, met officials in the Lord Chancellor's Department yesterday and will be meeting the Lord Chancellor to discuss his longstanding concerns on the care of children and young people. His wider concern that fathers should have a role in the nurture of their children, whether or not they live in the family home, is of course being addressed in the Ministerial Group on the Family, chaired by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I have the pleasure to represent the DSS on that committee. Therefore, I am actively engaged in those discussions.

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seek to clarify the scope of the Child Support Act 1991 by stating on the face of the Bill that a non-resident parent's obligations to his children go beyond the obligation to maintain children financially when the parents live apart. Amendment Nos. 1 and 2 make no difference to the effect of Section 1 of the Child Support Act 1991 but have the unfortunate consequence, I am sure unintended by the noble Lord, of obscuring the clear unambiguous language of the duty to maintain there set out. Section 1(2) of the Act states:

    "For the purposes of this Act, an absent parent shall be taken to have met his responsibility to maintain any qualifying child ... by making periodical payments of maintenance ... of such amount ... as may be determined in accordance with the provisions of this Act".

That means that maintenance is clearly defined as being about money and child support. Section 1 makes it clear that that is his responsibility. The wording of the provision,

    "For the purposes of this Act",

makes it clear that the duties referred to are in no sense intended to override other parental duties. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 obscure the language but do not add to it and Amendment No. 3 is unnecessary.

There are many other Acts of Parliament which set out the responsibilities of parents. As the noble Lord will be aware, the Children Act 1989 provides generally for the responsibilities of parents, as well as providing a means of determining financial support for children. I believe that those words may lead the courts to try to put a new, different and possibly more purposive construction on the wording which would not necessarily improve the operation of the Child Support Act.

We covered much of this ground when we had what was almost a Second Reading debate in Committee. It was accepted all round the House, and certainly on the Government Benches, that children have a right to emotional and financial support from both their parents. But this Bill, which amends the 1991 Act, focuses solely on the provision of financial support. While we share the noble Lord's desires to encourage

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wider parental responsibility, this Bill is not the place for such a provision. Although we absolutely support the noble Lord's concern that fathers should play an active part.

However, within this Bill, we are developing matters in ways which will help to meet some of the noble Lord's concerns: for example, by developing the face-to-face service, which allows local interviews with parents, including fathers; by signposting, which means our staff will be trained to refer both parents on to other organisations, including welfare agencies, Relate and so on. We are working with the National Council for One Parent Families, Parentline Plus and the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that the message gets across to young people--young men in particular--about what being a parent involves and the life-time commitment which having a child entails.

This Bill is about the child support rates which will make likely financial commitment clear to all. As I said, we shall be working across government, through the committee chaired by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, to ensure that the wider concerns which the noble Lord has aired today are followed through. Therefore, we do not need the amendments because they will in no sense affect the wording of the Act but may cut across some of the wording in other legislation to the greater obscurity of all. With that explanation, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

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