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Baroness Amos: My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken and have welcomed me so warmly to the Northern Ireland portfolio. I entirely share the sentiments expressed with respect to the late Lord Williams of Mostyn. He was a very special person.

I was a regular visitor to Northern Ireland in a previous job. I look forward to working with noble Lords on Northern Ireland. I assure noble Lords—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland—that I will carry on the practice followed by my predecessor of bringing noble Lords together for regular meetings about Northern Ireland issues. I welcome the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran: it is not the politics that matter, it is the future of the Province.

Several specific questions were asked about the order. I shall try to answer them. I appreciate the welcome given to the order around the House. The noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Rogan, asked, in the context of time off for union learning representatives, who will decide what "reasonable time" means? Practical guidance on what constitutes "reasonable" will be provided by a code of practice. The current Labour Relations Agency code on time off for trade union duties and activities has worked well and has reduced the scope for disagreement. It may require to be revised to reflect the new right to paid time off for union learning representatives.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also asked whether there was an inference that employers would be required to give employees paid time off to pursue learning activities. The answer is "no". It is entirely a matter for discussion between employer and employee as to whether the learning activities covered by paid time off were in the employee's own time. In respect of the question about costs for small employers, the assessment of the regulatory impact of the proposals confirms that the projected costs to Northern Ireland businesses would be minimal.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked a wider question about the burden on small employers. The order aims to ensure that by adopting very simple and straightforward procedures employers will be able to resolve an increased number of disputes internally, thereby avoiding the expense of tribunal proceedings.

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With respect to the noble Lord's question about how long the fixed period would be, that is a matter for the regulations. It is envisaged that the regulations will set a maximum length, which could be in the region of three months. It is an area for discussion with the Labour Relations Agency and it is one on which the department would wish to consult.

As regards the Labour Relations Agency's concerns about resourcing, also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, in a debate in another place on 17th September, my honourable friend indicated her willingness to meet with the agency to discuss any concerns. I can confirm that a meeting has now been arranged for 12th November.

The code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. The standards laid out in the current Labour Relations Agency code of practice continue to represent good practice. However, the new statutory minimum procedures are aimed particularly at small firms which may have few or no procedures in place. The department will be working closely with the agency over the coming months to ensure that the code of practice is revised to reflect the new statutory minimum procedures.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, asked specifically about pressure on the tribunals system. The number of applications to industrial tribunals rose by more than 60 per cent between 1991 and 2001, while applications to Northern Ireland's Fair Employment Tribunal went up by a staggering 185 per cent in the same period. I appreciate that in certain cases recourse to a tribunal is the most appropriate means of addressing a problem, but they spend a great deal of time on cases where no attempt has been made to resolve the issue in the workplace. That is why the dispute settlement procedure is one we are promoting.

On the question of increased productivity, I hope that noble Lords will agree that a more skilled, talented and well-educated workforce is better placed to increase work output. However, I entirely accept the point behind the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, about how we are going to measure that. If I can find out any more information, I shall come back to the noble Lord. That covers the questions I have been asked. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations 2003

8.40 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham rose to move, That the regulations laid before the House on 10th September be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations 2003 laid before the House on 10th September 2003 be approved. The word "miscellaneous" used here is appropriate.

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The regulations before us today make a number of diverse amendments to seven of the many sets of regulations which govern both the old and new child support schemes. This package is largely made up of amendments to regulations governing the new child support scheme and to "transitional" regulations which relate to the transfer of cases from the old scheme to the new arrangements. A small number of cases, linked to new cases—that is, where someone has multiple partners—have already moved from the old to the new scheme. But the bulk transfer of cases will take place in due course once we are satisfied that the new arrangements are working well.

In addition, this package includes a number of amendments to the old scheme. Most of the amendments reflect that the world has moved on in the time since we made regulations for the new scheme. The introduction of the new state pension credit is one example of this. Finally, some of the amendments in this package make minor technical corrections to reflect what was intended in the new child support scheme.

I shall not go into great detail, but given that the other place has not yet looked at these regulations, perhaps it may be helpful if I set out some of the more important changes.

One of the changes to the old scheme to which I referred a moment ago is consequential on the introduction of the state pension credit which replaces the minimum income guarantee, the title given to income support for people aged 60 or over. In the old child support scheme it is possible, in prescribed circumstances, to seek a "departure" from the standard formula for making a maintenance assessment. The amendment made by Regulation 2 to the Departure Direction and Consequential Amendments Regulations provides that recipients of state pension credit shall not have, or be the subject of, a departure in the circumstances which previously excluded recipients of the minimum income guarantee; that is, a straight word substitution. This is for the sound reason that a person who receives a state pension credit will, like those on minimum income guarantee, be treated as having no "assessable income" for the purposes of making a maintenance assessment. Therefore a "departure" would be futile as it would have no effect on the amount of maintenance payable. This amendment mirrors not only the minimum income guarantee position, but also the treatment of persons in receipt of income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance.

Regulation 3 makes a number of amendments to the old scheme's Maintenance Assessment Procedure Regulations. One of the amendments I would like to bring to the attention of noble Lords takes account of the changes made to remove residential allowances in income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance, and of changes in terminology in relation to "care homes". This has arisen as a result of both Department of Health and Scottish legislation. As noble Lords may be aware, a parent with care is required to apply for a maintenance assessment if income support or income-based jobseeker's

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allowance is claimed by, or is payable to or in respect of, her. If, without good cause, she does not co-operate with the CSA, the agency may make a "reduced benefit direction" that lowers the amount of her benefit.

The amendment ensures that the reduced benefit directions are suspended if the parent with care is in a residential care home or independent hospital or, in Scotland, is provided with a care home service or independent care service. This suspension is necessary because parents with care are normally left with what used to be known as the "pocket money" rate of income support, and what we now call the "personal allowance" rate of some #17 of income support when they move into such accommodation or receive such services. This rate of benefit would clearly not sustain a reduced benefit direction.

The amendments made by Regulation 4 are to the Child Support Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases Regulations which relate to the old scheme. They are mostly technical and relate to changes made by other legislation. To give just one example, to correspond with the treatment of minimum income guarantee, as I mentioned earlier, recipients of state pension credit will be treated as having no assessable income for child maintenance purposes.

The amendments to the new scheme Maintenance Calculation Procedure Regulations made by Regulation 5 are consequential to changes made to income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance and upon changes in terminology relating to "care homes", the changes to which I have already outlined. However, in the same way that we have made adjustments in Regulation 3 to the old scheme, here we are making adjustments to the new child support scheme.

Similarly, Regulation 6 makes several amendments to the Maintenance Calculations and Special Cases Regulations which relate to the new child support scheme. The most noteworthy change is in cases where a non-resident parent has to pay maintenance under child support rules to one child or children, and maintenance under a court order for another child, both at the same time. The amendment ensures that the payment made in respect of the qualifying children that fall within child support rules is never less than the flat rate of maintenance of #5 a week. This provides consistency with other new scheme provisions that prevent liabilities from falling below the flat rate amount.

The transitional regulations make provision for how and when old cases will convert to the new scheme. They allow changes in liability to be phased in over a period of five years in specified cases. Phasing is intended to allow both parents with care and non-resident parents time to adjust their household budgets. It is crucial to the success of the new scheme that phasing is allowed to work properly, and the CSA fully intends to enforce these phased liabilities. Otherwise, obviously, someone's liability could go up by far more than their wage increase that year; on the other hand, a parent with care could equally find a very substantial drop in the child support around which

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they had budgeted, for example, their return to work. So the phasing works for both parties, preventing both substantial increases and decreases.

The several amendments made to the transitional regulations made by Regulation 7 ensure that the provisions in this complex area work as we intend them to. For example, in the old child support scheme, a non-resident parent can apply for an allowance in their "exempt income" in recognition of a property or capital settlement made before April 1993. The transitional regulations provide that when a case with such an allowance is converted to the new scheme, that allowance becomes a "relevant property transfer". In other words, if the non-resident parent is supporting the parent with care through support for the property, this should be appropriately taken into account.

However, in the new scheme, a maintenance calculation can be "varied" to take account of a pre-1993 transfer. I say "varied" because the language under the old scheme is "departures" and the language under the new scheme is "variations". One amendment made by Regulation 7 makes it clear that a non-resident parent cannot have both a relevant property transfer and a variation in respect of the same pre-1993 property or capital transfer at the same time. Without this amendment, the non-resident parent would have two separate adjustments to his weekly liability—in effect, a double benefit; he would get the benefit twice over—in respect of the same pre-1993 transfer. This was never intended and we need to clarify the wording.

The amendment made by Regulation 8 is consequential to the relevant property transfer amendment to the transitional provisions made by Regulation 7, to which I have just referred. It amends the variations regulations to ensure consistency with the position in the transitional regulations.

Those are the most significant changes in the package. As I have tried to describe, several of them relate to terminology in terms of replacing minimum income guarantee with pension credit; others reflect the new arrangements for financing people in care homes; and others relate to retirement pensions, to going beyond the #5 income and to rectifying any possibility of a double consideration for property transfer. I shall be happy to cover other of the amendments—which are, for the most part, technical—if noble Lords so wish.

I draw to your Lordships' notice that we are a little late, with some of the regulations before us today amending the regulations concerning child support arrangements as a consequence of earlier changes made to other legislation. State pension credit, for example, was introduced just over a week ago. I apologise to your Lordships but I hope that you will agree that it is important that we get the amendments right.

The regulations before us today underpin our continuing commitment to making sure that child support works for both parents and their children. As I said, they are miscellaneous regulations. I accept that they are quite hard to decipher as they stand because they regulate changes in regulations to regulations. I

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have produced a "health warning" version—a kind of keeling schedule—which I hope will make the situation a little clearer. I only regret that I did not have that bright idea a few days ago and send it to your Lordships earlier.

I am satisfied that the regulations are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 10th September be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

8.49 p.m.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the history of the Child Support Agency is a long-running saga. One of the advantages of transferring from another place to this House is that one no longer has to deal with Child Support Agency constituency cases.

This subject does not often create headlines but I was rather struck by an article in the financial supplement of the Mail on Sunday which described the present situation as the mother and father of all mix-ups. Underneath that rather exotic headline was a remarkably good, well researched article by a Mr Stephen Womack on the present state of play in child support matters.

The situation is enormously complicated, as was apparent from the noble Baroness's as always very helpful remarks, by the fact that we are running two systems side by side. Some of the provisions in the regulations relate to the transitional arrangements—some to one system and some to the other. This complication is bound to give more scope for those who are playing the system, one way or another, in trying to avoid paying the amount they are due to pay in child maintenance.

The noble Baroness spelt out a number of changes, some of which are purely terminological. Every time the Government change this or that aspect of the social security system, there will be more and more changes in the Child Support Agency system. I do not think this is helpful for those trying to administer it, nor is it helpful for the agency with regard to its computer programmes and so on.

I still do not fully understand some of the complications. For example, I would have thought that for a war widow, the question of child support does not necessarily arise. Perhaps the noble Baroness could clarify how that will operate. Similarly, there is a change in the occupational pension definition to cover a new type of pension. I am not at all clear about the relevance of that.

The noble Baroness has, in her usual helpful way, provided me and, I imagine, the Liberal Benches, with a new set of documents which show how the various changes in these regulations will affect earlier ones. We do not have a provision for delegated legislation in the same way that we do for consolidation of primary legislation. However, it is now getting so complicated here that if the kind of document which the noble Baroness has produced for us, which shows the

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changes in italics, could be made available to those who, one way or another, are involved with the Child Support Agency, that would be of great benefit.

In the context of these changes, I am not at all clear how the system will operate. As I understand it, around 1 million cases operate under the old scheme. At the same time, there is a constant inflow of cases being dealt with under the new scheme. One of the problems that we pointed out when the primary legislation was being debated was that the absent parent was likely to find himself in a better position under the new scheme than the old one. Therefore, there will be constant pressure to accelerate the move—my goodness, it has not been accelerated much so far—from one system to the other, but that will be to the detriment of the parent with care.

I am sure the noble Baroness is right in saying in her opening remarks that we want a smooth transition, but the changes will take place, as I understand it, over a period of five years. We have had a delay in making the change anyway because of the repeated delay—although foul-up might be a better expression—regarding the introduction of the computer. This means that the overall timescale is now stretching out further and further. Meanwhile, a good many people are still under the old system.

I was fascinated to read an extremely helpful evidence-taking session by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee on 2nd July. At that stage, the chairman of the committee seemed somewhat to despair, especially in relation to the evidence that had come from the trade union concerned. He said:

    "My heart sank because we were back to cases being stockpiled, management systems failing, delays occurring and staff wastage figures still unacceptably high . . . I cannot understand how we got here. This is the second time around".

In particular he drew attention, as the evidence session generally did, to the problems arising from the computer system, and the continued problem of non-payment. The latest figures provided were for November last year. They tell us that 384,000 parents with care are entitled to receive child maintenance; 70,000—more than 20 per cent—receive no payment; and 193,000 receive less than they are entitled to. All that suggests that the system is seriously failing to operate as it should.

There is one point in relation to the evidence on which it would be helpful to have a view. I refer to the issue of the computer system. Apparently, it costs 20 per cent more to process each claim than it did before the introduction of the new system, which was supposed to simplify it. The report said that there was,

    "a mix of IT difficulties . . . and cultural problems associated with the shift to the new arrangements".

I am not clear what those cultural problems are, but perhaps the Minister could give us some indication.

It is important for us to understand, in the mass of figures that are being introduced, whether the main stockpile is going up or down. Is the number of cases coming in greater or less than the cases being dealt

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with? From the figures that I have studied, I am not clear what the situation is with regard to the very substantial backlog.

Finally, will the Minister clarify the situation on sanctions? Given the figures that I quoted earlier, I am not clear how many cases are now being dealt with by an earnings deduction order. It seems unlikely that we should have failure to pay on the scale to which I referred, if that mechanism were being used effectively.

With regard to the evidence to the Commons committee, how satisfied should we be and how satisfied are the Government about the sanctions imposed on those who are not paying? In the course of the passage of the primary legislation, we spent some time debating whether driving licences should be withdrawn. At the time, I believed that to be rather a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, so far only two driving licences have been removed and only 11 cases have been brought. It seems extraordinary that we legislated for that and debated a clause at length in this House, if that kind of sanction, whatever one's views on the merits of it, is to be introduced. Will the Minister bring us up to date on that?

Apparently, the sanctions have operated so poorly that #2 billion has been written off so far. That is obviously a considerable failure of the system, which one would have thought would have begun to operate a little more effectively than it has, after 14 years. I have always conceded that the original legislation was seriously deficient in dealing with both new and old cases. However, 14 years on, one would have thought that the situation would have been rather better than it is.

The complexity being introduced by the order, on top of all the other complexities, means that the chance of the system operating effectively and of the agency managing to cope effectively is bound to be greatly diminished. I am grateful to the Minister for her help; we are all on the same side on the issue and we all want the system to work effectively, but it is in a pretty sorry state at present.

9 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, first I should like to thank the noble Baroness—and, through her, her officials—for the issue of what I may best describe as the Keeling guidance. This is an extremely helpful document.

Regulation is a form of legislation by crossword puzzle. What we normally get is the insertions in the crossword without the blank squares and without the clues. That is slightly confusing. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that the measure will be very, very helpful not only to us here—the stately progress of the Criminal Justice Bill has given me occasion to examine it with rather more care than I might otherwise have been able to do—but also to many people outside this House. I support his suggestion that it be made more widely available. I hope that that precedent will be followed.

The regulations are what I might best describe as sandpaper regulations. They smooth the rough corners of the joints not only between the old

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regulations and the new but also between the new and other legislative developments, such as the pension credit and the new-found doctrine of equality between widows and widowers. Where one is dealing with sandpaper regulations I do not think that it is an occasion for examining all the original pieces of wood whose corners are being smoothed. I do not think that it is an occasion for discussing policy. The Minister and I have done that at great length. I think that it was—on both sides, I hope—an extremely high level of discussion and there is no point in doing it again now.

We have discussed how far the Act is capable of working. Again, I do not think that we have anything to add to that now. We have discussed the delay in the Act and the computers. Again, I do not think that there is any need to add anything to that now. If one looks only at the sandpapering of the joints—which is what these regulations are about—I see no reason for criticism. In fact, so far as I can see, it has been extremely well and competently done. There is a spit and polish about this which I find on the whole reassuring.

There are one or two matters that I should like to raise as questions. I should like to know how the provisions for residential care under Regulation 5, and in other cases, affect women's refuges. There is a possibility of legislation being introduced on women's refuges so there may be another occasion on which to raise the matter. However, this is something that one tends not to think about because it does not come in the categories that anyone is thinking about when they prepare regulations. Therefore, I hope that the question is not redundant.

I should like to welcome the provision for equality between war widows and war widowers. In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, about how that could apply, I say that people are capable of having children by more than one partner. That has been known. I am indeed the product of such a thing myself. I should like to congratulate the Government on the provisions for the training allowance.

I should also like to raise a general question regarding how far we should go ahead with the making of affirmative regulations because it is possible that at some stage something controversial might be done under the power. I can see that something controversial could have been done under these powers, but I see nothing in the contents of these particular regulations which would call for them to be affirmative. I think that we should perhaps consider the suggestion that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, made at the very beginning of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, as it then was. Where something under the affirmative procedure gave rise to no controversy, he suggested that it might be possible to let it go through on the nod. With that thought, I hope that the Minister will forgive me for leaving the matter.

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