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Earl Russell: My Lords, we must leave the House to judge between us on the matter.

I shall not deal with the Minister's other arguments at any great length. However, she talked about a penalty like tagging disgracing the parent before the child and argued that the loss of a driving licence would not do so. The noble Baroness does not seem to understand that, for many children, the chief purpose of a father is to act as a magic carpet. That should not perhaps be so, but it often is in practice. I believe that this penalty will disgrace the father before the children a great deal more than a penalty like tagging.

The Minister also argued that this penalty would produce increased compliance. She used evidence from the United States, with which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, dealt extremely effectively. In the United States, you cannot move or even do your weekly shopping without a driving licence. It is not like that in this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, also said, it is much more likely that those affected will drive without insurance. Therefore, if they have a crash, the penalties in this clause might fall upon innocent people who just happened to be travelling the other way. I declare an interest in the hope that I shall not be one of them. I beg to move.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, by a curious coincidence, the closing remarks of the noble Earl are relevant to my opening remarks. If one believes that one may have an interest that is relevant to a debate, I have always regarded it as paramount that one should declare it. During the Committee stage, I unexpectedly received a brief from the RAC Foundation, which made exactly the same points that I made on Second Reading regarding this matter. I thought that I might have some indirect connection with the foundation and, therefore, rightly drew it to the attention of noble Lords. However, it turns out that I have absolutely no connection with the foundation, which, I understand, is an independent charitable body. So I suppose that I must "undeclare" my interest, if that is possible. I apologise for detaining the House on that point, but it is curious that the noble Earl declared an interest just before my opening remarks.

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The issue now before us is an important one. The noble Earl outlined many of the relevant arguments. I fear that the problem of the disconnected penalty is becoming increasingly fashionable. There is no connection between the offence--namely, not paying one's child support, which we all agree should be done--and the penalty of withdrawing someone's driving licence. If anything, as the noble Earl pointed out, such a penalty may prove to be counter productive in as much as the withdrawal of the licence may make it more difficult for the individual concerned to produce the resources required. However, I accept the provision in the Bill which states that the court may consider, and take into account, whether withdrawing the licence would result in the person losing his livelihood. Indeed, the noble Earl dealt with that aspect.

A further issue arose in Committee. The noble Baroness, who is always preoccupied with the record of the previous government, pointed out that the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 included such a provision. She also mentioned that it proposed pilot schemes, but did not tell us the results. I make one major point in that context. The proposal in that legislation related to criminals; it did not relate to those who have not paid their child allowance. While we may deplore that fact, those people are not--at any rate for the moment--defined as criminals. Therefore, there is a big difference between those two sets of people.

That Act was passed under the previous government. A Home Office press statement by the present Government was published on 1st January 1998 announcing its implementation. This made the point I have made; namely, that criminals could be deprived of their driving licences. It also mentioned pilot studies. In Committee, I asked the noble Baroness about the results of the pilot studies but she was unable to give me an answer. Subsequent research has failed to produce an answer but I am glad to note that the Minister nods and therefore it appears that at least the Government have that information. No one else appears to have it and the matter seems to be shrouded in secrecy. It would be interesting to have that information in the context of this debate.

People who do not pay their child maintenance and have their driving licence withdrawn--even though they may not be criminals--might then drive while uninsured. That matter has serious consequences and is a relevant consideration.

The Government appear to have been inspired by experience overseas, and in particular by that of Texas. We carried out a quick survey. However, I admit that it involved just one person! One does not have that many Texan friends! The results were illuminating. When asked how life would be in Texas without a driving licence, the answer was that it would be tough. We asked whether people in Texas had to carry their licence all the time when driving. The answer was "Yes". We asked whether a penalty would be imposed on someone who was stopped while driving and did not have a licence on them. We were told that one was fined in those circumstances. We asked whether the licence served as an ID card. The answer was "Yes".

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Driving licences there have one's picture and can be used to cash cheques and to perform many other transactions. That is not the case in this country. I shall not ask how many noble Lords have been asked to show their driving licences recently. I see that one hand has gone up. Driving licences are normally asked for in this country only if one has committed some traffic offence.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I was asked to show my driving licence because my car was stolen.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I commiserate with the noble Baroness. However, the inconvenience of being deprived of a driving licence is nothing like as severe for someone in this country as it would be for someone in Texas.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am now baffled by this argument, which was also deployed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Is the noble Lord saying that the Government should not deprive certain people of their driving licence because that would not cause them the same degree of inconvenience as it would for people in the States? Is he saying that the loss of a driving licence is such a severe penalty for people in the States that it acts as an effective deterrent, whereas in this country it would be too mild a deterrent to be included in the shopping list of penalties given that alternative forms of transport such as buses are available and people do not have to use their driving licences as ID cards? Is the thrust of the noble Lord's argument that we should not use this deterrent as it is not tough enough for people in this country? Which argument is the noble Lord deploying?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I hope that I may interrupt this jolly conversation between the two sides of the House. If I am correct, we are at Report stage. I believe that on the previous amendment the noble Baroness had about five chips at the cherry. We ought to follow the rule that we speak only once.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I do not believe that the noble Earl was present for the rest of the debate.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the noble Earl has far more experience of the proceedings of the House than I.

I say to the noble Baroness that, on the whole, we think that this proposal is pretty silly and is not likely to be effective. We have mentioned the danger that people whose driving licences are withdrawn may drive while uninsured. It is not at all clear whether the Government regard this as a lesser penalty. Ministers have said that this penalty is less severe than some others. On the other hand, it was announced with a great fanfare as if it was the flagship proposal of the Bill. That no longer appears to be the case.

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Other bodies have expressed concern at the proposal. The Law Society of Scotland states:


    "the Society does question the proportionality of the disqualification provisions which appear in Clause 16(3) which provide that in the event that the Court is of the opinion that there has been wilful refusal or culpable neglect to pay, it may order the non-payer to be disqualified 'for such period specified in the order but not exceeding two years' ... from holding ... a driving licence.


    The proportionality of this disqualification period may be out of kilter with current road traffic law. For serious contraventions of the Road Traffic Act 1988, such as Section 5(1)(a) (driving whilst under the influence of alcohol), the penalty can be disqualification for a period of only 12 months and in practice, the disqualifying period will only exceed this if there are aggregating factors".

The noble Baroness asked whether this was a severe penalty. It seems to be regarded as more severe than the penalty imposed for driving while under the influence of alcohol. We need to consider whether the proportionality of the penalty is appropriate.

As I say, we on this side of the House regard the proposal as silly in some respects. However, it has potentially dangerous consequences. In our view, it is not an appropriate penalty to impose in this area. That does not mean that we are not anxious to ensure that those who ought to pay child maintenance do so. We have generally welcomed the provisions of the Bill. However, we do not think that this proposal is appropriate. If the noble Earl seeks the opinion of the House, I believe that we on this side ought to support him.


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