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Lord Higgins: My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to a "linked" case. Is that a case where an individual—either with or without care—has other relationships? In effect, does it link what one might call a "serial" partner?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that is exactly right. It is where either the parent with care or, for the purposes of calculation of maintenance, the non-resident parent—usually the father—has an existing maintenance liability under the current scheme and enters a new relationship after 3rd March. As a result, his maintenance liability must be recalculated.

However, we are not trying to charge him with two liabilities which run simultaneously—one under the old scheme and one under the new. Under the old scheme, he might pay, say, 30 per cent of his income; under the new scheme, he might be required to pay 15 per cent. If the two were put together, that would clearly be an unreasonable amount. The linked case is the current parent with care, who must be treated for assessment purposes as though she were a new case. Therefore, the NRP's maintenance can be recalculated for both children in both relationships and equitably divided. Thus, the noble Lord is right; the linked case is where there are a number of serial relationships. Usually that occurs with the NRP but sometimes it may involve the parent with care.

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As I said, there are three regulations with policy substance. If noble Lords wish, I shall be happy to expand on any of those points. Apart from that, I hope that your Lordships will be willing to support the regulations, which I commend to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9th January be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the noble Baroness and I have debated the child support situation over a number of years. We are extremely grateful for her expertise in explaining what these regulations do. Anyone who listens to this debate will be inclined to believe that the issue is unbelievably technical and dull. However, we must remember that, underneath it all, lie very strong emotions.

I remember that when the Child Support Agency was first introduced, I invited a number of constituents to speak to me. About 70 turned up and I was struck by the sheer bitterness shown on occasion by the individuals concerned. For example, where a man had remarried or changed partners, the incumbent partner was determined that the previous partner and the children of that first relationship should not receive anything. Therefore, we must take on board that these are very emotional matters.

On the other side of the coin, I well remember how some individuals unjustifiably suffered considerable stress and trauma because of the difficulties of administration. Therefore, these are more than simply technical matters; they have a real human content.

Having said that, one aspect of the matter is of concern. We are told that this will be a simpler system. Of course, over a long period it may become a simpler system—the so-called "new" system is certainly simpler than the old. But the old system will continue. On top of the old system, which is very complicated, and the new system, which is almost as complicated—or at any rate somewhat less complicated—we have a transitional arrangement, which itself is immensely complicated. Therefore, it will be some time before the simplification takes effect. Perhaps the noble Baroness will tell us at what stage she believes the transition will be completed. My understanding is that it may take four or five years or even more.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, when the noble Lord refers to "transition", does he mean phasing or does he mean the move from A-day to C-day?

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am not sure that I caught the noble Baroness's last expression. I am saying that we have an old system and a new system. As I understand it, a large number of people will remain on the old system and will gradually be moved to the new system. If I have that wrong, no doubt the noble Baroness will be able to explain the situation.

However, I consider there to be a real problem. In changing from one system to another, people may find that they would have been far better off on either the

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earlier or the new system. That point has been raised at various stages during the debate. Therefore, people who want to move from the old to the new system because they believe that they will be better off may well feel for a considerable time that they have been unjustly treated. Rather ironically, that is so except in the example mentioned explicitly by the noble Baroness; that is, where people shift from one system to another because the individual concerned has had a series of relationships. Therefore, the issue involves real problems.

My other point, and the reason why my right honourable friend Mr Willetts in another place expressed some relief when the Statement was made by the Minister on 27th January, is that these changes have been long delayed. I believe that they were originally promised to take place in October 2001. The date then changed to April 2002 and then, before the change occurred, in the March before that, they were delayed indefinitely. Therefore, as I understand it, at least we now have a firm date—namely, March—for people to enter the new system. However, as I said earlier, we do not know—no doubt the noble Baroness can help us—how long the two systems will continue side by side with people feeling that they would prefer to be on the new system rather than the old or, in a few cases, the other way about.

To exacerbate the complexity of the matter, one basic problem has been with the IT side where the computer system has not proved satisfactory. As I understand from the Minister's Statement on 27th January, additional costs will be incurred. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us the calculated total cost of the computer system and, in particular, how much extra burden has fallen on the taxpayer as a result of what I understand was a negotiated settlement between the provider of the IT system and the Government.

Clearly, as there was a negotiated settlement, to some extent it was felt that the problem was due to the company and, to some extent, that it was due to the Government. In particular, I believe that the problem was felt to be due to the changing of the specification because of the underlying changes with regard to the tax credits scheme.

Of course, much of the problem arises from the Chancellor of the Exchequer's obsession with tax credits. I shall not go over again all the debates that we had about the changes in terminology relating to different kinds of tax credits, some of which were abolished before they had even been introduced. But an extraordinary amount of jargon is involved and it confuses the situation significantly.

In particular, the noble Baroness said that in future, instead of what used to be called departures from the normal specification of the case, we shall move to a system of variations. I am not in the least clear about why we have to change the jargon from one thing to another. Perhaps again the noble Baroness can explain why that is so. The idea that individuals will understand what officials are talking about when they say, "You have a system of variation" whereas they

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used to say it was about departure, particularly if they are changing from the old system to the new, is worrying.

I intervened at an early stage in the speech of the noble Baroness with regard to Regulation 2. There was an extremely good debate, if I may presume to say, in the First Standing Committee in another place on 3rd February which to some extent dealt with this problem. I wonder whether I might have the attention of the noble Baroness because I want to understand this. On that date the Minister stated:

    "The amendment made by regulation 2 is part of the delicate balance between ensuring that a non-resident parent complies with his child maintenance obligations, and that work pays. The amendment made by it to the collection and enforcement regulations relates to both the current and the new schemes. Working tax credit will be paid directly to an employee along with their wage. The amendment provides that the employer cannot deduct child support maintenance from working tax credit under a deductions from earnings order. It must be deducted from earnings".—[Official Report, Commons First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 3/2/03; col. 4.]

The noble Baroness, expressing this in her own words in response to my intervention, gave an example which, strangely enough, arithmetically was the same as the one I was trying to work out; namely, that of someone who has 150 per week earnings and 50 per week top-up. As I understand it, the regulation states that if that person has an attachment of earnings order, it has to come off the earnings and not off the top-up. As the noble Baroness knows, I am a simple soul in these matters. I have problems in understanding whether there is really any difference.

At the end of the week the individual concerned receives 200 and has an attachment of earnings order. The employer who has the sad responsibility of dealing with such matters as regards both the attachment of earnings order and the top-up is told, "You must not take it off the top-up; you must take it off the earnings". However, at the end of the week or, more accurately, by the weekend, the situation is no different. If the attachment of earnings order is for 20, it does not matter much to the individual. It is purely—I do not know what is the expression—an illusory regulation to say that it must come off the earnings rather than the top-up and that if one makes the regulation, in some miraculous way the incentive of the individual to work is somehow preserved even though by the weekend the amount he receives is precisely the same. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could clarify that particular point.

As regards the overall situation, the argument is that as a result of the changes the department will be able to spend more time on enforcement—that is to say, on collection of the money from the individual responsible for paying the maintenance rather than on making the calculations although, as I said, the two systems plus the transition arrangements will all happen at the same time. Can the Minister tell the House how much is expected to be received at the end of the day, or rather how much is expected to be paid in maintenance as the scheme develops over the period? Can she also tell the House—we have debated this matter on previous occasions—how much of the

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maintenance has now effectively been written off? It became apparent under the old scheme that some of the maintenance was never going to be paid.

The system seems arbitrary in as much as some people will be on the old system and some on the new system. I do not want to delay the House too long. However, it is important to get these points on the record. In the course of the debate in another place on 3rd February the Minister, rather oddly, perhaps, said that he would write to the other Members of the Committee about various points he had not clarified in his speeches. Were those letters made generally available? I have not been able to find them. It would be helpful to people outside, the various voluntary bodies and so forth, in trying to understand this matter to know whether such letters are available at present and if not whether there is some way of making them so.

I believe that in some sense we are making progress. I expect to a significant extent that that is as a result of the interest which the noble Baroness has long taken in this matter. Clearly, it will be far more complex in the immediate future. It would be nice to know when we hope to find that everyone is on the new system. Perhaps by that time it will be rather like New College, Oxford, which is a long way in the future. I fear for those who have irate constituents returning from the Child Support Agency to their constituency interview nights where individual Members of Parliament are asked to explain what all this is about. Fortunately, I shall not be in that situation. That is something from which for the moment at any rate I have escaped. However, I believe we need to spell this out. We are grateful to the Minister for doing so and no doubt for the further elucidation she will manage to achieve in replying.

8 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked why it was necessary to change the jargon. One of the minor pleasures of research was discovering the original meaning of the word "jargon". It is the French for a cypher key. I found an ambassador, newly appointed, complaining,

    "Vous m'avez envoye le chiffre, mais pas encore le jargon".

We need a new jargon because we have a new cipher. We have a new system of child support and a new system of tax credit. So the Minister has the job of putting together a jigsaw and fitting the pieces together. It reminds me of those infuriating small-piece jigsaws where the pieces were almost too small to see and on which I used to break my nails and ruin my temper when I was about six. That is in the nature of the case.

A question is raised regarding our present system of legislation: are we attempting—as I have argued in the past—to legislate in too much detail for a series of human conditions which, as the Minister has illustrated in several of her remarks about repartnering and so on, are not simple enough to be reduced into the general series of rules to which we try to reduce them?

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Human beings have the infuriating habit of remaining individual and not behaving in the way expected of them. That particularly struck me when reading Regulation 3, which incidentally is a wonderful example of what I shall in future regard as "the Higgins principle"—that when the Minister explains the provision herself it is a great deal simpler than it ever is in the legislation as drafted. I look at paragraph 5 of the Explanatory Memorandum. I shall not quote the regulations because even in such informed company, they are very nearly impenetrable. It states:

    "Regulation 3 inserts two new provisions which, in specific circumstances, provide for setting effective dates of supersessions in the new scheme. The first is where one or more of the qualifying children leave the person with care to whom the existing calculation relates, but other qualifying children remain with that person with care. The previous calculation will be superseded to take account of the departed qualifying child from the first day of the maintenance period in which the person with care ceased to have care of the qualifying child".

It is a little like the question with which the Sadducees tempted Christ about the woman who had remarried many times. They asked:

    "Now, in the resurrection whose wife will the woman be?"

Christ was able to avoid answering the question. The Minister is I am afraid perhaps not in so happy a position.

I understand what these regulations intend, but they call into question a point I have been raising from the very beginning of the CSA legislation; whether it is always a correct assumption that there is one parent with care and one parent without care.

I remember one of the happiest families I have ever known. The four children were from four separate combinations of parents. They were as happy as the day is long. In those circumstances it could be very difficult to decide exactly who is the primary carer and at which date one ceased to be and the other became so. It is perhaps better to lay down principles on which these matters can be approached without attempting to provide for every detail, when we know perfectly well that if we tried to do so we should fail.

The point has already been raised about disabled children not being disentitled to benefit. That is a crumb from the Treasury's table and all crumbs from that table must at all times be welcomed. God knows there are not very many of them. I take the Minister's perfectly logical point about extra costs. The costs of disability are a good deal higher than they are often reckoned to be. But it raises the question: under what circumstances and to what extent should people be disentitled to benefits? It also raises the question whether there should be a lesser or no disentitlement.

In that context, I ask the Minister to keep an eye on a case in which Mr Justice Collins gave judgment today regarding deprivation of benefits for asylum seekers. I shall not ask her to comment in detail; I am in no position to do so myself. The judgment is only a few hours old and the transcript is not yet available. I understand that an issue in that case was at what level of destitution does disentitlement create inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 3 of the European

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Convention on Human Rights? It appears to be the prevailing level of opinion among lawyers that there are some levels of destitution above which it does and some below which it does not. Lawyers have yet to decide what these are.

I hope that the Department for Work and Pensions will follow the progress of that discussion with some care because if it does it may save itself some cost in litigation, which I am sure would be welcome to everyone concerned.

My honourable friend Mr Webb, when he discussed the regulations in another place, was concerned about the provision that the tax credit goes to the higher earner, because he thought that that created a perverse incentive for the wife to keep down her earnings so as to receive the tax credit. There may be a problem in that area. I appreciate that anomalies are likely to arise in all circumstances. I should like the Minister to be prepared to repeat the words of the late Lord Whitelaw: "I am investigating alternative anomalies".

There are also considerable problems concerning the transition. I respect the way in which those have been approached—on the whole, in a logical and humane way. Whether it will succeed in solving the problems is another matter. The operation that has been attempted is immensely complicated. Although I admire the good will with which most of it has been done and the care that has been put into it, I do not think that we have heard the last of it. I doubt whether the Minister does either.

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