The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, the Independent Review of Sickness Absence by Dame Carol Black and David Frost has provided a valuable contribution to the evidence base about the issues facing individuals, employers, healthcare professionals and the state. The Government will carefully examine the findings and respond later this year. Given the complexity of the issues raised and the work needed to consider the recommendations, it is too early to speculate on whether and how individual recommendations may be implemented.
Lord Luce: My Lords, I welcome the Minister's response. Does he agree that the report is full of recommendations that are designed to help those who suffer from long-term diseases such as chronic pain to get back to work or indeed to stay in their jobs? Since sickness absence costs the economy something like £15 billion in output and £13 billion in health-related benefits, does he agree that the early implementation of these recommendations would do a great deal to boost both the quality of life of a large number of people and the economy?
Lord Freud: Yes, my Lords. This initiative, which I am proud to have commissioned and sponsored, is really very important for improving the quality of life for a lot of people. With this review we are talking about a way of intervening much earlier so that we stop people start falling out of the labour market. The present system allows them to drift on for months, if not years.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a connection between a healthy economy and a good health service? Given that back problems are the most important reason for sickness absence, early intervention by physiotherapy services is important for those who fall foul of that problem. Will he ensure that we have a service for physiotherapists that is able to match the need in order to return people to healthy work as soon as possible?
Lord Freud: My Lords, one of the reasons why this is quite a challenging report that implies quite a lot of work is that we need to reshape the provision for people. I shall give your Lordships a statistic that I find truly shocking. We have one occupational health professional in this country for every 34,000 people. In the Netherlands, there is one for every 4,000 people. That just shows how far we have to go to get provision for people in that position.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: Does my noble friend agree that general practitioners have a critical role to play in the health-at-work policy area? Is it too early to say whether there has been any flow-through from the recent introduction of the fit note certification process on absence rates? Will he give sympathetic consideration to the idea in this very welcome report that we should have an independent assessment service? That would be of signal assistance to general practitioners, who are trying to persuade their own patients that it is often in their own interests to go back to the world of work earlier rather than later.
Lord Freud: Yes, my Lords. The recommendations in the report were very supportive of maintaining the GP's role. The independent assessment service could be a supplement to that, which a lot of GPs would find very welcome in helping to get people back into the workplace.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, if we are going to prevent people becoming ill at work and accidents at work, should we not do more to promote and applaud the health and safety system that we have in the UK? Would the Minister have a word with his right honourable friend the Prime Minister to ask him to stop making ill informed comments that undermine the system?
Lord Freud: My Lords, in practice there has been a lot of emphasis on the safety aspects of work and too little on health in work. One of the things that we are trying to encourage is the ramping up of health support, both in work and as people fall out of work. That is why this set of recommendations is so interesting.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: I welcome the report and the update that the Minister has given us on the process for its implementation. He mentioned early interventions in this context, and in the debates on Monday he spoke frequently about the need for early interventions with certain families to try to get them on the right track. That is a lot of additional work coming the way of the Civil Service. Is he confident that his department has the resources to address these issues adequately? Can he say whether his department will increase or diminish in size between now and 5 April?
Lord Freud: My Lords, the department has an enormous workload; I am absolutely conscious of that. It is driving through one of the biggest social changes that this country has seen for many decades. At the same time, we are decreasing the numbers in the
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Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is sometimes easier for GPs just to write a sick note, rather than find the real cause; and that this is very difficult for employers?
Lord Freud: One of the things that the sickness absence review did was to look at the mismatch in what people were trying to do. The worst of the mismatches was that GPs were signing people off on their sick notes because they could not do a particular job, while the work capability assessment later looked at whether they could do any job. It is those mismatches that we need to stop and sort out.
Lord Campbell-Savours:I suffer from ankylosing spondylitis, which the noble Lord will know is a long-term disease. Does he have any provisional views on the recommendations in the report on physiotherapy services?
Lord Freud: My Lords, I think I tried to deal with this a little earlier. There is inadequate support across a whole range of occupational health therapies, including physiotherapy. We are taking our time to do this properly, but one of the important implications is the question of what provision is needed for people who are of working age and in danger of going out of the workforce. We seem to have far too little provision generally, and we will probably need to bulk it up.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, from April 2013 air passenger duty will for the first time cover passengers travelling aboard private or business jet flights. The changes will bring a substantial number of new operators into the regime and will require the introduction of special rules, tailored to business aviation. Given that the sector comprises many small operators, the Government decided to implement the change from 2013 in order to ensure that burdens both for HMRC and industry were minimised and that the system functions effectively.
Lord Morris of Handsworth: My Lords, in light of the Question on the Order Paper, do the Government now accept that the air passenger duty was falsely promoted as a positive measure towards mitigating climate change? Is it not just a Robin Hood tax in reverse whereby the Government take from poor families in the Caribbean, as we heard earlier this week, and give to bankers through subsidising their private jets?
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, that is quite a question. The Caribbean issue was addressed extensively when my noble friend Lord Sassoon answered questions on Monday. As regards whether it is a tax dressed up as an environmental duty, broadly speaking I agree with the noble Lord. It is a revenue-raising duty which makes an important contribution to the public finances.
Baroness Benjamin: My Lords, BA has cut scheduled flights to the Caribbean. Travel agents that serve the region are feeling the pinch as fewer people are travelling, meaning a loss of APD revenue to the Treasury. However, last week the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated at the UK Caribbean Forum that the Government had not closed the door on further discussions with regard to APD. That is most encouraging, especially to the UK Caribbean diaspora who feel betrayed. However, in the mean time, will my noble friend tell the House what plans the Government have to provide economic support to the Caribbean now that many livelihoods are threatened by the unfair banding of APD?
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I recognise the importance that my noble friend places on this issue. As I said, the question of the Caribbean was addressed extensively by my noble friend earlier this week. I have nothing to add at the moment but as soon as I do, I will bring my noble friend up to date.
Lord Berkeley: Is not this air passenger duty a way for the Government to levy an environmental charge on the carbon discharged by airlines? Does the noble Lord agree that this is fair given that airlines get tax-free fuel whereas all motorists and truck drivers have to pay a large duty?
Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, given my noble friend's answer to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and that this duty will not come in until 2013, does that not give the Government the opportunity comprehensively to review the whole issue of this duty and perhaps to come up
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Lord De Mauley: My Lords, we have recently gone through a full consultation exercise on this. In answer to my noble friend's question about the effect on the economy, the Government's top priority remains to tackle the fiscal deficit. That means that these APD revenues must be maintained for the foreseeable future. The Government believe that the aviation sector should continue to make a fair contribution to the public finances.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, both the noble Lord today and the Minister on Monday made it absolutely clear that this tax is about revenue-raising. Why, therefore, has he indicated this concession for private jets, while the tourism industry, particularly in relation to the Caribbean, is being affected adversely? Why are the Government not consistent in their approach to industry?
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I am speechless that the noble Lord opposite, who was an esteemed member of the previous Government who did nothing about the taxing of business jets for 13 years, should raise the issue at all.
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to pay the legal costs of the Territorial Army soldier who has been interviewed under caution in relation to an incident in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Astor of Hever): My Lords, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a case currently being considered by the independent Director of Service Prosecutions, but legal aid is available for all personnel, including reservists, who are subject to service law or service discipline at the time of an alleged offence, through the Armed Forces Criminal Legal Aid Authority. The scheme is based on the same principles as civilian
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Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I readily accept that it would be quite wrong to comment on any particular case that may or may not come before the courts, but is it not right that the Ministry of Defence-as, in effect, the employer of soldiers, sailors and airmen-should cover their proper legal costs when the need arises, and not leave them to the vagaries of the legal aid system?
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, as my noble friend said, I will not be able to respond to specific questions on this case; the department must protect the personal data of our employees, and I do not wish to prejudice any possible future disciplinary or administrative action. However, I can say that the MoD will pay for the defence of an individual charged with an offence that is committed in the course of their duties and while acting in accordance with any applicable regulations or direction. However, where someone may have fallen short of the high standards we expect of our personnel, it must be investigated and, if appropriate, proceed to trial. In this situation, legal aid funding will provide representation according to the charge and the defence case, engaging counsel if and when appropriate. All legal representatives used by the Armed Forces Criminal Legal Aid Authority are civilian solicitors or barristers registered with the Law Society or the Bar Council. By funding appropriate legal representation, we are confident that the Armed Forces legal aid scheme well serves individuals subject to the service justice system.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, as chairman of the Association of Military Court Advocates I wonder whether my noble friend will accept that, as the results have shown, there are many skilled lawyers who will appear for the defence in the most serious cases involving the military?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that we are very lucky in this country to have some amazing men and women volunteering and serving as reservists. However, is it not a huge risk to assume that reservists can fulfil on a very large scale the tasks that are done by regulars? With the current reduction in Regular Forces and increased reliance on reservists, this will be a major problem militarily.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, each of the services has its own service police who derive their powers from the Armed Forces Act 2006 and are independent of Ministers and the chain of command for the purposes of investigations. In the case of the Army, the Royal Military Police special investigation branch conducts investigations. Decisions on what charges should be faced by any soldier are taken by the independent Service Prosecuting Authority, which is under the general superintendence of the Attorney-General. Neither Ministry of Defence Ministers nor the chain of command play any part in such decisions.
The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, does the Minister agree that when a member of our Armed Forces is asked to revisit traumatic events in which they were involved in the course of a tour of duty and which may lead to legal action, they are often in need not only of legal support but of pastoral and counselling support? What is his degree of satisfaction that such levels of support are readily available to them?
To ask Her Majesty's Government, in the light of the Save the Children and Oxfam report on the crisis in east Africa and the call for early responses to warning signs, what they will do to ensure a similar crisis is averted in Niger.
Baroness Northover: My Lords, the Government are very concerned about the emerging crisis in Niger and have been monitoring the situation closely. The Secretary of State for International Development has announced emergency support to mitigate the impact of the crisis. This will reach 68,000 children in Niger, Chad and Mali and provide livestock support to 30,000 families.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her response. The warning signs of looming disaster were there in the Horn of Africa two years ago, but no action was taken and tens of thousands of Somalis starved to death and millions of people in east Africa were affected. Against that background, will the Government give active endorsement to the UN-supported charter to end extreme poverty, which identifies five specific actions that must be taken when we know that a crisis is predicted and preventable? We can and must stop the drought in west Africa and the Sahel turning into a famine. We must say never again and mean it.
Baroness Northover: The noble Baroness is right that we must say never again and mean it, but I dispute that the Department for International Development was not leading on the response in the Horn of Africa. Credit has been given to the UK Government for that. The report from Oxfam and
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Lord Chidgey: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the report, A Dangerous Delay, which has just been issued, Oxfam states that many of its messages chime well with the humanitarian emergency response review chaired by my noble friend Lord Ashdown? Focusing on anticipation of and resilience to natural disasters, what measures have been put in place to co-ordinate cross-departmental and cross-agency efforts through the stabilisation unit and other means?
Baroness Northover: The noble Lord is right that the humanitarian emergency response review made some extremely important recommendations for the anticipation of disasters and building resilience to them. That is being taken forward at the moment. DfID is in the process of developing a humanitarian framework for Africa and a Sahel resilience strategy which will help the UK anticipate and respond strategically to crises across the continent. The building stability overseas unit normally focuses on resilience against conflict issues rather than natural disasters. Nevertheless, the two feed on each other, so there is action that that unit can take as well.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, has the Minister seen the reports this week that Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group in Nigeria, has been responsible for a large number of people escaping from the violence there into neighbouring areas in Niger, and that this is both leading to an exodus of refugees, compounding the existing problems in Niger, and preventing food being transported from Nigeria into Niger? Did she see the warning from the European Union earlier this week from Kristalina Georgieva, the commissioner for human aid, that it is a race against time to safeguard the lives of the 5.5 million people who are currently at risk?
Baroness Northover: The noble Lord is right to flag up the problems in the area generally. Indeed, the knock-on effects from the problems in Nigeria are having an effect. So, too, are the returning mercenaries from Libya who instead of sending back remittances now need to be supported in that area. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State today spoke to the Commissioner about the situation in the area and the EU has just doubled its contribution. We are acutely aware of the difficulties of working in this area as it is very unstable.
Baroness Northover: The United Kingdom has just contributed £2 million to this directly in response. It is worth bearing in mind that the United Kingdom is also a major contributor to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund which has just put in £7.9 million, of which £1.9 million was from the United Kingdom.
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The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, according to the World Health Organisation 40 per cent of the healthcare in Africa is delivered through the churches. Can the Minister say whether the Department for International Development will be working through the churches as part of its response to these crises?
Baroness Northover: The right reverend Prelate is right that the churches are very active in the region and DfID is working with a number of organisations. This is a region where, generally speaking, it is not possible to channel money directly through Governments. Therefore, a number of other organisations are the routes to support in the area.
Lord Boateng: In the light of the Minister's very helpful answers to previous questions, will she consider how she might co-operate with her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in seeing how we can better support the African Union and ECOWAS in terms of their peacekeeping or conflict resolution capacity in view of the deteriorating situation in the Sahel involving the Tuareg?
Baroness Northover: The noble Lord is right. In terms of co-operation, the FCO, the MoD and DfID are working very closely together. My noble friend made reference to the building stability overseas unit, which is, as it were, a concrete example of that working together. The support for the African Union is very strong and will continue to be so.
Baroness Tonge: My Lords, some of us may be old enough to remember that in times of plenty the Pharaohs used to build up stores of excess supplies to use in times of famine. I wonder whether the international community has made any progress in pre-empting these crises by making sure that there are stores in strategic parts of the world that are likely to suffer famine in advance of the famine occurring.
Baroness Northover: The World Food Programme and UNICEF are indeed already stockpiling supplies and a lot of work is going into how best to ensure that these crises do not occur. The Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, was all about how to pre-empt such crises and develop resilience in an area where already the population is exceptionally vulnerable. A lot of the problems are because of rising food prices rather than necessarily food scarcity. The noble Baroness's point is well taken.
The Earl of Sandwich: Will the Minister join me in commending BBC correspondent Mike Wooldridge and his colleagues for outstanding coverage of the famine in West Africa? One point that he made, which
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Baroness Northover: I am very happy to commend the BBC and its journalists for their brave coverage in these very unstable areas. DfID supports the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, a pilot programme from the World Bank on climate resilience, which is extremely important here, and a global facility for disaster risk reduction. It is also important to emphasise DfID's support for social protection programmes, and for cash transfers where appropriate, to try to build up these vulnerable communities so that they will be more resilient in circumstances such as this.
The amendment is designed to maintain the legislative position that prevents the state recovering overpayments where the mistake is entirely the fault of officials and where the claimant could not reasonably have been expected to realise that they were being overpaid. This protection has been on the statute book for over three decades, yet it stands to be removed by this Bill. This is of great concern to churches and charities that understand the impact of sudden, unexpected and, in many cases, unaffordable debt.
During Grand Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, emphasised the importance of this protection remaining enshrined in primary legislation rather than being in a code of practice. Unfortunately, despite the Minister's assurances that the Government's draft code of practice, What happens if you are overpaid Universal Credit, Jobseeker's Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance, would,
it appears incomplete and worryingly inadequate to protect claimants. Nor is there any duty in the Bill requiring officials to comply with the code of practice. Those representing welfare claimants against whom an overpayment recovery is being enforced could prevent costly litigation if they could point to a statutory duty to follow procedure, but the statutory duty is not there.
The opening section of the code of practice encourages claimants to check their award notices and to inform the relevant authority if anything is wrong, missing or incomplete, but even the most incisive individuals may face real difficulties in identifying whether officials have made an error or an omission-perhaps especially the 20 per cent of adults who are estimated to struggle with literacy or numeracy. The principle of expecting
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The second area of concern I wish to raise relates to the section in the code of practice "If you disagree with the overpayment decision". Claimants are instructed that they have a period of one month from the day that an overpayment notice is dated in which they may challenge it. This may seem an adequate time on paper, but it takes no account of the reality facing many people at home. Let us take a single mother of four young children who is attending a college course to improve her chance of getting a job receiving an overpayment notification and being threatened with her benefits being stopped. She is balancing an education with raising a young family, and one month in which to challenge the decision would not be long at all. If you add literacy problems, waiting times for advice services and even time lost through postage, there is a very realistic prospect that claimants simply will not be able to respond in time. Will the Minister reconsider what appears to be an inadequate time limit? Will he also outline what provisions will be put in place for those who do not respond within the prescribed time because of any matter out of their control, such as hospitalisation?
In the section of the code "Paying back an overpayment", claimants are informed that overpayments may be recovered through deductions from their benefits, direct debit, another regular payment method, a lump sum or through the courts. Crucially, it does not mention that an overpayment may be recovered through deductions from earnings, as outlined in the Bill, nor is there any mention of the additional administrative costs that could be imposed in such cases, an aspect that has been of particular concern to organisations such as the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, which works on the front line with vulnerable debtors. Will the Minister clarify why these powers are not outlined in the code of practice and confirm that they will be conveyed in full to those in receipt of benefits so that those facing the recovery of overpayments in such a manner can fully understand the process and the implications?
Suitable safeguards must be put in place to ensure that the burden of official errors does not fall upon some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Profound anxiety has been expressed by a number of faith groups, including the five major Christian denominations that are backing this amendment. Noble Lords may have seen a recent letter to the Times by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, who underscored these concerns.
However, replacing a tested mechanism in primary legislation with a questionably incomplete code of practice means these safeguards are being watered down. This is all the more significant in the context of the IT changes involved in the shift to universal credit. Any new system will generate official errors. Because there is no duty in the Bill for officials to abide by the code, the current legislative provision remains vitally important protection for those individuals and families at risk of what may be very large debts arising through no fault of their own.
In the past, the DWP has issued advice stating that in cases of official error overpayments should not be recoverable if the claimant could not be expected to realise the error. With the introduction of universal credit, it is not clear whether these guidelines still apply. The draft code sent on 7 December 2011 does not mention official error at all, only that a number of factors will be taken into account when considering a request for repayment, including the claimant's receipt of the overpayment in good faith. This actually represents a weakening of the advice to officials and therefore less protection for claimants.
The Government have two options to remedy this situation. They can explicitly include in the code of practice a requirement not to seek repayment in cases of official error and claimant good faith, but this would really need to be supplemented in the Bill by a requirement on officials to follow the code of practice. Alternatively, they could choose the simpler option of accepting this amendment. I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, for raising this issue, which comes at a point at which existing recipients of benefit may be experiencing real pressure. I hope that the Minister will be able to illuminate more fully than he has so far the Government's intentions in this field. We are exceedingly grateful to the noble Baroness.
I think we all accept that one of the big problems with our current benefits system, which I strongly hope and believe universal credit will help to rectify, is that the complexity of benefits-the fact that they overlap and there is no simple, clear or obvious way of ensuring the appropriate entitlement-has been a great cause of error by both officials and claimants, and of fraud. These are built into the system in the present way in which it is organised. One of the reasons why I welcome universal credit is that the simplicity of a single benefit-with its clarity, its monthly paper trail and so on-should, I hope, allow us to overcome some of those difficulties.
Overpayments will still happen, and there must be a presumption, as with banks, that if there has been an overpayment one should seek to recover it because it properly belongs to the taxpayer. However, many benefit claimants cannot afford it and that should be one consideration; it may in that case properly be wiped out. Secondly, the benefit claimant may be under great stress, perhaps suffering from terminal illness or caring for someone with terminal illness, which has been overlooked and it is not now possible for them to repay; or the claimant may be in a mire of debts,
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I am happy to leave it to the discretion of the local offices as to whether any overpayment should be pursued, deferred or patterned slowly for repayment, only if the Minister can give us full assurances about how that discretion will be used wisely and decently. Perhaps we could, in conjunction with the relevant voluntary organisations, go over the code of practice again in the light of its need to be clarified, given universal credit, and ensure that that code of practice has a statutory basis and that, if local decision-makers do not follow it, that would be a basis for appeal to a tribunal.
As I have said, I believe that if someone can afford to repay an overpayment and it is reasonable and decent to seek to get that repayment, we should do so, but for many people on benefits that will not be the case. It would be very helpful if the Minister could explain exactly how he will ensure that local discretion is exercised wisely and decently.
Lord Bichard: I support this amendment as someone who used to be responsible for delivering the benefits system. When I was in that position, I remember railing against the complexity of the system and am therefore delighted that we are doing something about that. I also railed against the complexity of some of the bureaucratic communications that were sent out. Since I am now more often on the receiving end of those kinds of communications, I fear that my railing had little impact because they are still excessively complicated and I find it quite difficult to understand some of the letters that I receive.
It is placing a very heavy burden on benefit recipients to expect them to understand fully all the communications that they receive and therefore fully to appreciate sometimes when an overpayment has been made. For those of us who had an overpayment of, say, an occupational pension that we have to repay, irritating though it is, we can probably afford to do that over a period of time. It is a very different issue for a benefit recipient to repay a large sum of money in their circumstances. Therefore, I support the amendment. It is really important to get some clarification of the situation as we move forward.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, it seems that the HMRC's position on tax credits is to say, "If we fail to meet our responsibilities but you meet all yours, we won't ask you to pay back all of an overpayment caused by our failure". That is quite a strong statement of their side of the bargain and recognition of an error made by HMRC. Its own code of practice and guidance sets out the limitations of payments where a claimant is experiencing hardship and the circumstances in which an overpayment will be written off.
Given that we will now have a new and unfamiliar system of universal credit, once it is clear both that there has been an official error and that the recipient could not possibly have known about it, if all those overpayments were to be clawed back in those
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"Although the starting point for overpayment recoverability will be that almost all overpayments of working-age benefits ... will be recoverable ... DWP will consider a claimant's means, income or expenditure if the debtor"-
However, it seems to me that this has two problems. First, it is discretionary and possibly means-tested but without anyone knowing the rules. HMRC's draft code, which was sent to us in December, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, has said, says only that it might decide in exceptional circumstances not to seek recovery of an overpayment or part of it and that there are no prescribed circumstances for a discretionary write-off, although it hints that it would do so only in cases of immediate significant family hardship or a threat to their health, and emphasises that hardship is taken to be "other than financial hardship".
Secondly, the code relies on claimants knowing that they can appeal against a required repayment without having been informed about that. The draft leaflet really does not make it very clear, nor does it explain how to appeal. If I have understood it correctly, it says only that you can consider the amount that is being asked for, but not the fact that you have to pay it because of your own circumstances. The Minister said in Committee,
but it is not clear how that would work. If this amendment falls and the system proceeds, will the Minister assure us, first, that anyone asked to repay to cover for official error will be told of their right to appeal; secondly, that they will be given rather more guidance than that given in the draft leaflet as to the circumstances in which any write-off will be allowed; and, thirdly, where the repayment is sought from landlords, which in certain cases it would be, that they will also have the right of appeal against a loss of income over which they will have no control?
The Minister knows that the IT problems caused significant headaches and hardship for many claimants in the early days of tax credits. Getting the position right on overpayments and ensuring that claimants do not feel that they have been unjustly made to pay for the errors of government officials will be essential to
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, as we have previously discussed, Clause 103 is based on the premise that for those benefits within its scope, most if not all overpayments will be recoverable. I think we are all in agreement that a benefit recipient should not receive any more money than they are due; nor should they receive any less. In keeping with this general principle, we believe that a benefit recipient should not be allowed to keep money that they should not have received and that this should hold true even if they were not aware of the mistake. I do not think that we can accurately compare the issue of tax credit overpayments, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, with that of benefit overpayments. That is because awards of tax credit are based on an estimate of what someone will earn, whereas benefit entitlement is based on actual information-and of course it will not have escaped anyone's notice that the level of tax credit debt has grown significantly.
As we have discussed before, although the provision allows for all overpayments to be recoverable, this does not necessarily mean that overpayments will be recovered in all circumstances. We will endeavour to recover all overpayments where we are able to do so and where it is reasonable to do so without causing undue hardship. This remains a cornerstone of our overpayment recovery policy. The code of practice, a draft version of which has been distributed to noble Lords, will provide guidance about the circumstances in which recovery action will or will not be taken. It is intended that the code of practice will be available to the public in leaflet form and online. This will ensure that the decision-making process is transparent and that the right decisions are made about the recovery of overpayments. Where a claimant wishes to challenge a decision, they may exercise their right of appeal against it.
To pick up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on what compels decision-makers to apply the code of practice, the application will form part of the decision-making process, and failure to adhere to it would leave the DWP open to challenge and appeal on the decision itself or, indeed, judicial review for failure to apply good practice. While there may be no legal duty to comply, failure to do so renders the department more open to successful appeal by the claimants. So we have every incentive to adhere to the code of practice.
As DWP will not prescribe in legislation circumstances in which the discretionary write-off or non-recovery of an overpayment would be considered, we will be able to consider any application for non-recovery or write-off on the merits of that particular application.
Whether an overpayment was received in good faith is only one of the considerations that we will apply. We will also consider whether recovery is likely
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In many cases, a claimant will not question the calculation or the constituent parts of the award. In some cases, this could be due to language or literacy problems or perhaps learning difficulties. If an error were to occur in such an instance, perhaps due to the fault of officials but perhaps not, is it reasonable for any claimant who has language, literacy or learning difficulties to avoid repayment solely because of this? Is it not reasonable that they should gain assistance in checking their award? In many cases, of course, they will have gained assistance in making their claim.
Any test of reasonableness must be subjective. This amendment would require a subjective assessment not only of the debtor's capacity to understand entitlement but of their capacity to gain assistance from others in understanding their entitlement, all before the overpayment is determined.
As I have stated previously in Committee, we do not intend that the repayment of any overpayment, whether it is the fault of the claimant or officials, should cause undue financial hardship. We will gladly discuss an alternative repayment rate if a claimant cannot afford the suggested repayments. Indeed, as I have previously placed on record, only just under half our current on-benefit debtors repay at the maximum rate of recovery. That rate is currently £10.20 per week for those individuals on income-related benefit.
We will prescribe in regulations that where official error causes an overpayment of housing credit to a pensioner, this will remain non-recoverable. This remains in line with how we treat overpayments of state pension credit and will provide greater reassurance for older people who may be on fixed incomes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked whether we would inform claimants of their right of appeal. Yes, we will. She asked for more details of the write-off. It is our intention to judge exceptional circumstances on a case-by-case basis. The landlord will have a right of appeal if the recovery is due from them.
I am sure that we are all in agreement that, in the current financial climate, it is important to protect public money. Thus, wherever possible, while ensuring that recovery will not cause undue hardship, we should pursue the recovery of overpayments. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the Minister reminded the House that the current maximum weekly repayment for overpayments is some £10 a week. Will he assure the House that when a local decision-maker decides on the pattern of repayments that may be appropriate, one of the key factors to be taken into account is any other debts and debt repayments that that person may have? Under the old social security system the rule was that no more than 10 per cent of a benefit income should be top-sliced to repay debts for utilities, the Social Fund and the like. Can we have that assurance? Otherwise someone could find themselves trying to repay housing, fuel and pay check debts, and
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Lord Freud: My Lords, I think I can give that assurance on the basis that we are looking at financial hardship as the key criterion. Clearly the benefit recipient's other debts form part of that consideration, so they will clearly be considered.
Lord Freud: My Lords, I am not sure that I am in a position to give assurance on precise figures and percentages. I am giving a general assurance that that factor will be looked at as part of the financial hardship consideration.
Baroness Hollins: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his detailed and careful reply, which contained a number of reassurances. Many of the reforms proposed in the Bill are primarily about changing behaviour rather than reducing expenditure. On the issue of overpayments, it is difficult to argue that the changes to the procedures for repayment fall into the former category. The primary motivations, I understand, are ones of principle and finance.
Until we can be sure that when things go wrong the individual judgment of officials does not subject claimants who have been overpaid to undue punishments, we need clear safeguards. The Minister has tried to reassure the House that those safeguards will be in place. I am reassured by his comments that recovery will not cause hardship and by his reminding us that the DWP would be open to challenge or to judicial review. With great power comes great responsibility, and many Members may believe, like me, that when the DWP alone is at fault the DWP alone should take the hit, and that this ought to be clear in legislation.
(3) Officials of jobcentres and local authorities shall take into account all the relevant factors and circumstances of welfare claimants before deciding to impose any sanction or any penalty and before deciding to recover any overpayment.
(4) It shall be the duty of the decision makers in jobcentres or local authorities to give reasons for any decision in any case where any sanction or penalty is imposed upon a welfare claimant and where any decision is made that an overpayment is recoverable."
The purpose of the amendment is to try to ensure that the standard of evidence required of officials in local authorities or jobcentres when imposing civil penalties and recovering overpayments should be the same as that required in the courts when imposing fines and enforcing debts. I set out at length my reasoning for the amendment to the Grand Committee and I do not propose to repeat that now.
In Grand Committee I was grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who helpfully suggested that, as tabled, the amendment was too prescriptive. The Minister, while agreeing that it was right and proper that decision-makers gave full consideration to all the relevant facts provided by a claimant, who should also have the right of appeal, suggested that adequate protections were already in place. However, he also agreed to meet those who had drafted the amendment to go through the issues in detail. That meeting has taken place, for which all who attended-I hope that I am speaking for the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie of Luton and Lord Kirkwood, as well as myself-were extremely grateful.
Before that meeting I tabled the amendment in its current form. It proposes that, to better ensure the original intention, the guidelines recently published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, should be followed. At the conclusion of the meeting the Minister said that he wanted to work with those attending the meeting, whom he recognised as being concerned about vulnerable people, to get the guidance right and compliant with the Wednesbury principles on reasonableness.
The Minister also said that he would look again at the current guidance with the reworded amendment and see whether adjustment was appropriate, not least because of the similarity with the decision-making required, on the one hand, of the courts when imposing fines and enforcing debts, and, on the other, by officials in local authorities and jobcentres in raising civil penalties and recovering overpayments. I hope that the consistency resulting from what I propose will encourage the Minister to accept at least the spirit of the amendment. I note with interest what he said about the code of practice. I am sure that that is the way in which the guidance should be got to officials. I would welcome his reassurance that the guidelines about which this amendment speaks have been included in the working of that code of practice. I look forward to his response. I beg to move.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McKenzie, I also thank the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for that meeting. I know that he found it of considerable interest and use. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, of course knows rather a lot about penalties, sanctions and their fairness. His amendment seeks to ensure that the appropriate guidelines and procedures are in place when a jobcentre or local authority imposes sanctions, fines or penalties on claimants, and particularly that, when officials impose such penalties, they give clear reasons for doing so.
Clarity about circumstances in which a penalty, sanction or overpayment can be recovered is vital if administrative justice is to be realised but also to enable claimants to have confidence in the system. It obviously also makes the job of officials considerably easier when there is a clear set of steps to follow and a clear description of the circumstances in which they should consider possible hardship to a claimant. It is also essential that the reasons for any sanction or repayment are set out, preferably in writing, so that the claimant, any adviser or a reviewer can understand the grounds on which the decision was taken. We look forward to the Minister giving us assurances that a set of guidelines, safeguards and relevant procedures will be in place so as to meet the aspirations set out in the amendment.
Lord Freud: My Lords, I need to start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for arranging a really useful seminar the other week on a range of issues related to sanctions and penalties. I was equally impressed by the content of that seminar, the iron discipline with which it was conducted and how much ground we managed to cover. We are very keen to draw on the expertise of others as we develop our implementation plans. I look forward to continuing to work with interested groups in this collaborative manner. I gave a commitment in that meeting that we would work collaboratively with the groups involved. I am pleased to repeat formally here that that collaboration will happen.
Turning to the substance of the amendment, I hope I have made clear that we are really on the same page on many of these issues. We absolutely agree that clear guidance should be issued to officials making decisions on behalf of the Secretary of State where discretion is exercised. We do this now and will continue to do it under universal credit. Decision-makers will be required to follow this guidance when applying the law to the facts of the case where they consider a decision about a claim, sanctions for non-compliance with work-related requirements, a civil penalty or the recovery of overpayment. As is currently the case, we will make this guidance publicly available.
We spoke about the Wednesbury principles at our seminar, and I can reassure noble Lords that the decision-making process is and will continue to be consistent with these fundamental principles of public law. The department strives to ensure that no decision is influenced by irrelevant factors and that decision-makers act in a rational and fair manner, taking into account all relevant matters before exercising a discretion. For example, the primary legislation expressly sets out that a conditionality sanction applies only if there is no good reason for the failure. In determining whether there is such good reason, decision-makers will have to consider all relevant matters raised by the claimant within a particular time period, including information about a claimant's health condition and financial circumstances.
It is worth noting that when it comes to failures to meet work-related requirements, we get the vast majority of the decisions right. In 2010-11, just 0.2 per cent of JSA sanction and disentitlement decisions were overturned
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I assure noble Lords that, as I have just committed, we will work with stakeholders to ensure that guidance, communication products and decision-making processes are suitably tailored to meet the needs of the range of universal credit claimants.
Despite all these points of agreement-and I think that they are agreements on substance-I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment, only because we do not think there is a need to set out a general duty in primary legislation to take into account relevant considerations or to give reasons as part of the decision-making process. Decision-makers clearly have a general duty under public law to make decisions in accordance with the Wednesbury principles, to consider relevant matters raised by a claimant and to explain their decision to claimants. Our training and guidance is designed to ensure that decision-makers adhere to these duties. This amendment would not bring about a change in approach from decision-makers, nor empower claimants to challenge decisions. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister not just for those remarks but also for the seminar which he mentioned, where I know that his willingness to listen and what he said was hugely appreciated by the stakeholders. I am very glad that he mentioned the future collaboration because I know that it will also be appreciated by them. What this exercise has shown-the Grand Committee, the seminar and now today-is that it is essential to maintain a dialogue between the stakeholders on the ground and the people responsible to make certain that, if anything is going wrong or there are ideas for making improvements, that should be fed in to the people responsible rather than having to go through a tortuous process.
Lord Freud: My Lords, Clause 129 enables relevant information to be shared between DWP, local authorities and others for prescribed purposes relating to the
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Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I just want one penn'orth. I completely support these amendments, but they give me the opportunity which I missed earlier in these proceedings to record on the Floor of the House that the single silliest thing in this whole affair is the determination of the Department for Communities and Local Government to have separate council tax benefit systems in every corner of the country. That is a battle to be fought again on another day. I had devised an amendment that could have brought it up today, but I decided that discretion was the better part of valour at this stage. However, there is a local government finance Bill coming down the path. My noble friend-and, above all, his noble friends in the DCLG-should know that some of us are going to go on worrying away at this total absurdity, which I know is not supported in the DWP itself. These amendments may help to mitigate the effects but they will not completely eliminate them, and I shall go on trying to eliminate them.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I concur completely with what the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has just said. We obviously will not oppose these amendments, but that should not be taken to mean that we are supportive of this proposition. When I say that I concur completely, I am not saying I am sure that this is the single silliest thing in this Bill-but it is certainly in the top 10. The briefing note that we had makes it clear that the support for council tax in future is likely to be based on a system of means-tested discounts. How on earth that can sit sensibly with universal credit and single tapers is a mystery to me. Maybe we will be enlightened when we get that legislation, which I think will come our way quite shortly. We could have a long debate around this today, as it is a real flaw in the universal credit, but I accept the need for this amendment, as it makes the data-sharing coherent.
Lord Wigley: My Lords, may I have one word of clarification about the interplay between these provisions on council tax and how they play with the devolved authorities? There are provisions lower down, on page 100, relating to the National Assembly for Wales, but this brings in a new dimension in that local government in Wales comes under the Assembly as well. Is there agreement with the Assembly Ministers on the provisions which the Minister is putting into the Bill by way of these amendments?
Lord Freud: Yes, my Lords, I can confirm that we have agreements with the devolved Administrations on this matter. They will be receiving the information in slightly different ways, but we have sorted that out. On that basis, I will avoid the temptation to indulge in a long discussion about DCLG and council tax. Although I know that noble Lords would enjoy that, we have other things to do.
Before sharing information regarding eligibility for services under section 69(3) of this Act, the Secretary of State shall satisfy himself that the Local Authority is intending to deliver these services in accordance with the purposes set out in the settlement letter that accompanies any payments made from the Consolidated Fund under section 69 and that arrangements have been made to report on the use of these payments."
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, this amendment has the support of the noble Lords, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope and Lord Blair of Boughton, to whom I am grateful. The noble Lord, Lord Blair, asked me to say that he is lecturing in Oxford and, if he is unable to reach the House in time, to assure your Lordships that he means no discourtesy by his absence. He also asked me to remind the House that he has spoken twice in support of the Social Fund earlier on Report, seeking the Government's commitment to require councils to preserve this money and account for its spend on the objects of the Social Fund. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is chairing a committee of the House and I am hoping that, like the cavalry, he will come over the hill-or through the Bar-to my rescue. If not, though, his strong support for an amendment along these lines is on the record both in Committee and on Report.
I apologise for returning once more to the Social Fund, and I will not rehearse all the arguments again. The reason why I have tabled yet a further amendment
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The money that we are talking about is that which is currently paid out in community care grants and crisis loans under the discretionary Social Fund to provide vital cash assistance at times of acute need. I note that in today's Guardian the Minister, Steve Webb, writes:
The vulnerable people to whom the Minister referred include women who have fled domestic violence, young people who have left care and people with chronic health conditions or disabilities who need help with household items in order to live independently in the community. Family Action, to which I am grateful for all its hard work on this issue, has provided noble Lords with a number of examples of the value of the Social Fund to people in such circumstances. I shall quote just one:
"Lisa was awarded a Community Care Grant after being forced to leave her furniture and most of her possessions behind when she fled a violent partner with her three sons. She lived in a refuge and then temporary accommodation. When she moved into permanent accommodation, she had hardly any belongings and no money to furnish the partially-furnished house. Lisa's fear of being isolated and lonely in her unfurnished, unpainted room was exacerbating her mental health problems, making her unable to unpack any of the items from her move. She slept in the bed of her middle son and her social worker emphasised how important it was to furnish her room, so she could sleep alone and move towards an independent and organised life. Lisa was awarded a grant for a bed, bedding and drawers, which helped her feel more at home, gave her the emotional strength to start unpacking her boxes, and meant her and her middle son were able to sleep comfortably, alone. She said 'I've been waiting for this flat for six-and-a-half years, and for once in my life I can call a place home for the first time. For once in my life, my kids and I have a home... I just want to get myself better'".
But there are no real safeguards. There will simply be a detailed settlement letter-and I thank the noble Lord for clarifying the contents of it-a specific revenue
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The Minister's final word on the subject in our previous debate was to state categorically that a local authority will not spend the money on a swimming pool, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Newton. How can he know that? Even if he does know it, how can he prevent it? I am afraid that the noble Lord simply cannot give such an assurance, however much we all wish he could.
The Supporting People grant provides a salutary lesson. Within a year of the ring-fence being removed by the previous Government, it was absorbed into the general area base grant. Despite the present Government emphasising its importance and giving it a degree of protection in public spending cuts, which I welcome, the evidence suggests that many local authorities are cutting Supporting People services disproportionately. Only this month, the Minister Grant Shapps lamented in a letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, in her capacity as chair of the Local Government Association:
"It is disappointing to see several councils are indicating significant cuts in Supporting People services, particularly for the homeless. It is difficult to understand why some councils appear to be targeting any disproportionate spending reductions on programmes that support the most vulnerable people in their communities".
This amendment is devised to help prevent a similar situation arising with the money devolved to local authorities from the Social Fund. It does not formally ring-fence the money, as the previous amendment that we debated did. It simply requires that the Secretary of State satisfies himself that the local authority will use the money for the purposes set out in the settlement letter. This addresses the Minister's concerns about local authorities that might want to pool their Social Fund allocation. Provided that the Secretary of State is satisfied that the money is being pooled for the purposes specified, there will not be a problem. If it is not being pooled for those purposes, the authorities will not be complying with the settlement letter anyway.
The amendment will also require local authorities to report on the use of these arrangements. As a number of Peers emphasised in our previous debates, this represents a bottom line in accountability for money voted by Parliament. I know the Minister fears that this will create a disproportionate burden on
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This is a cost-free amendment. Any minor administrative costs associated with it are surely worth it if they ensure that the money voted by Parliament to assist some of the most vulnerable groups in society is channelled to those groups for the purposes intended. I believe that the Minister genuinely wants to meet us half way on this issue, and I hope that this amendment provides him with the means of doing so; or, if there are problems with the drafting, that he will bring forward a similar amendment at Third Reading. I beg to move.
Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I can hope only that my noble friends on the Front Bench have already realised that Newton on Wednesday will not necessarily be the same as Newton on Monday. After Monday, I am amazed that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is still prepared to accord me hero status. I give her full credit for that. I do not know whether she regards me as adequate cavalry in substitute for the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, or, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Blair, but here I am on my charger doing the best I can.
I indicated in the earlier debate that I was a heretical supporter of ring-fencing and that I did not want to see this Social Fund money frittered away on other things. All I am going to say now is that I agreed with every word that the noble Baroness said. I had better say straightforwardly to the Minister that if this amendment is pressed and we have not had what I regard as a satisfactory reply, I shall be strongly tempted to vote with the noble Baroness, should she press the matter. In saying this, I am linking it back with my earlier remarks. I have no doubt whatever that the obstacle here is not my noble friend-he cannot comment on this-but the DCLG. I do not think that the localism agenda should stand in the way of making sure that money spent for the purpose of these vulnerable people is spent on these vulnerable people. I therefore strongly support the thrust of the amendment.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the key to this amendment-I go a long way with my noble friend Lord Newton on what he has just said-is the settlement letter. What I think the House will need to know is what happens when the local government organisation in question does not abide by the settlement letter. On the answer to that, I suspect, will depend the decision of the noble Baroness on whether or not to call a Division.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, there is an amazing coincidence here. I remember back in 1985-86 being strongly opposed on the introduction of the Social Fund by someone with the same name as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who proposed this amendment. I have to say that she was not alone. It was one of the most controversial changes that we made at that time. We were strongly opposed by the welfare groups and the party opposite.
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The Public and Commercial Services Union, with more than 80,000 members in the Department for Work and Pensions, also regrets its passing. Therefore, I hope that it will be of some comfort to the Minister when he is attacked from the other side that sometimes you find after 10 or 20 years that positions change, as has the attitude taken on this measure. It is not altogether surprising that I have a lot of sympathy with the view taken on the Social Fund. I think it is common ground that we need a system for dealing with emergency payments of one kind or another. I think it is also common ground that some of the 67,000 families who will be affected by the cap will need such help. I think that is common ground all round.
As regards the mechanism, I have to say that I still rather support the Social Fund. That is not surprising as my noble friend Lord Newton and I invented it in the first place. It did have, and does have, a number of advantages. The department has experience of how such a scheme works and has local offices with local knowledge which are, however, kept within a national programme with a national budget. Therefore, I should have thought that from the Government's point of view as well as from the claimant's point of view it had substantial advantages. There is a risk that different local authorities will pursue different policies with regard to it.
My view is slightly unlike that of my noble friend, to whom I pay the usual tribute. We worked together for a long time. I made the popular announcements and he did the unpopular ones. I see that he agrees with that. The Government have decided to go this particular way and, as I said on Monday, I do not intend to trample over my successors' proposals. However, I give just one warning, which is the warning of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who knows so much. I pay tribute to her for all the work that she has done on social security over the years. If money is to be made available to local authorities for what I shall call Social Fund purposes, we must do everything that we can to ensure that that money reaches the proper destination-otherwise the exercise is all slightly pointless.
We have seen in the health service where this has not happened. Money intended by the previous Government for prevention of ill-health was siphoned off and used for other more general purposes. Whether my noble friend accepts this amendment -it seems unlikely that he will accept it-the House will wish to be assured that we have some way of checking that the money reaches its proper destination. That seems to me to be the crucial point and that is the assurance that the House seeks.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, it is clear that the nub of this issue is the accountability required to make sure that the Social Fund is used in the manner for which it is intended. I doubt that any noble Lord does not see the significance of that and it has been argued for eloquently and cogently by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. My ears have suggested to me that there is a deep measure of agreement around the House on this issue. I hope that in his response the Minister will not only recognise that but give some clear way of assuring us that, if he is not going to accept the amendment, the Government have in mind a way forward that will match what the noble Baroness has most properly put before the House.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I am not sure that I was entirely helpful to the Government when in Grand Committee I referred to a Liverpudlian case where dirty, if not illegal, work was at the crossroads in terms of the expenditure of money that had been provided by a different department for another purpose. Swimming pools have been quoted as a possible diversionary target for resources in our debates on this issue.
I again make a brief personal note. My late noble relative, who was a councillor for 17 years-the last Conservative councillor for Kilburn in history-had Welsh blood and a Welsh title. When seconding the Loyal Address during the 1970 Parliament in your Lordships' House, he told a story that I shall tell again to indicate that local authorities are not entirely sound on swimming pools. He described the inquest that was conducted in a Welsh borough where someone had drowned while using the municipal swimming pool. At the inquest, the coroner asked the swimming pool attendant in charge of the pool why he had not attempted to assist the lady who unfortunately was deceased. The attendant said in reply, "I can't swim". The coroner said, "But surely you were asked whether you could swim when you were interviewed to come and work in this role for the local authority". The swimming pool attendant said, "I can't swim. The only question I was asked at the interview was, 'Are you bilingual?'". On that note, I indicate that local government behaviour on swimming pools is not wholly reliable and that it was therefore prudent to raise this matter in the debate.
Lord German: My Lords, I should like to follow that because it is an interesting perspective. I come to this issue as one who has been an ardent devolutionist and as someone who believes in power being passed-obviously, in my case-to Wales and to local government. So, although I come with a different historical perspective, I understand the historical perspectives of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, because I read all about it in an article that I am afraid I have lost. It quotes her at the front about how the money would be used in Wales.
I hope that for once the Minister can tell me the mechanism by which the money will be transferred to Wales and Scotland. I understand that it will be part of the local government settlement in England and in
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There is accountability because there are elections for local government. Local government is held to account, and the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are both held to account by their electors. Clearly, there is a role for those who are receiving the money to be accountable to their electorates. I cannot believe that if there is a purpose to deliver something locally it should not be passed on to local government. We do ourselves a disservice by not accepting that there is a democratic right for local government to exercise this ability. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that where I live in my country, her party supports no ring-fencing whatever for local government. It trusts local government to make those decisions. That is a form of devolution that is the right way.
We have to consider what functions are being transferred, whether to Wales or local government. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, in his usual manner of creating an environment, is absolutely right. If these are very small decisions about loans to people with whom the local council will already be in contact, surely it is right to trust local government to do it. I know that local government in England is ready, willing and able to do the job, and I know that there is an opportunity for their electorates to hold them to account. Sometimes it is important to let go and have the decision-making closer to the people whom it most affects.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Perhaps I may challenge the noble Lord, Lord German. What he is saying is entirely applicable to Wales, where every local authority is a unitary authority and therefore has responsibility for both housing and social services and can read across, for example, from the help that will come from the discretionary housing allowance to the Social Fund. Often the same families need support in a crisis if, for example, a house has been flooded, has caught fire, or if someone is coming out of care, and so on. They will need both housing and social services help, and a unitary authority is rightly placed to give that, provided that it spends the money as it should.
However, the noble Lord has not mentioned that most local authorities in England do not want this because they are lower-tier authorities, and the social services which handle the Social Fund are upper-tier authorities. In the county of Norfolk, which is some 60 miles long and 40 miles wide, yellow lines are put on roads that you do not even drive down, and schools that you have never even visited are closed, which happened when I was a county councillor, because it was too large to be called local government. None the less, that social services authority will be determining the Social Fund for seven district councils, including
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We will therefore have two sets of officials, one at district level and one at county council level, dealing with the same vulnerable family, each of them focusing discretionary money with no mutual interlocking, decision-making or accountability. It is a bloody silly system that is being proposed and I hope that my noble friend presses the amendment to a vote and that, as a result, we give the other place a chance to think again.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we support the amendment moved with the great passion and inescapable logic which we have come to associate with my noble friend Lady Lister. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that I prefer the noble Lord of Wednesday to the one of Monday. As my noble friend said, this is light-touch and effectively cost-free, so we should not have the usual argument about what this would do to the deficit reduction programme. Most noble Lords, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord German, were pretty much on the same page, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said. To the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I say that this is not about trying to roll back the decision and retain the Social Fund as it is; it is simply trying to ensure that the money allocated through this process will be spent as it was meant to be. I should have thought that, in these times of austerity, the Government would feel it particularly incumbent on them to ensure that.
The amendment is intended to build on the useful reassurances we had from the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, at earlier stages in response to concerns we raised about the localisation of the discretionary Social Fund. Those concerns primarily centred on the lack of a ring fence for the money that is to be transferred to local authorities to allow them to provide services that replace those that the Social Fund currently provides to some of the most vulnerable people when they are facing a particularly difficult situation.
Those concerns about the lack of a ring fence were raised by more than 40 per cent of respondents to the Government consultation on reform of the Social Fund. They have been raised by a wide range of charities, including Scope, Crisis, and Family Action, which state that they are seriously concerned that the abolition of the discretionary Social Fund and its replacement with a patchwork of local arrangements will remove one of the final safety nets for some of the most vulnerable and needy members of society.
Those concerns are so acute because of the degree of vulnerability of those to whom the Social Fund community care grant scheme provides support. Thirty-two per cent of those receiving a community care grant in 2009 were disabled, 26 per cent were lone parents and 10 per cent were pensioners. Many women fleeing domestic violence see community care grants as a vital lifeline when setting up a new home on exit
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Local authorities themselves are worried about that possibility. DWP research published in December 2011 into local authorities' plans to replace the Social Fund found that a number of authorities were concerned that without a ring fence and some level of reporting, funding would quickly become amalgamated into existing budgets and that, as a result, its identity, visibility and purpose would be lost. A second concern was that councillors or directorate heads would redirect the funding to plug gaps in other budgets. The most common example mentioned was the social care budget.
The amendment would not place a ring fence around the funding, which the Minister argued would be restrictive. He also argued that the settlement letter which accompanies the transfer of moneys to the local authority will be sufficient to ensure that those funds are used for the purpose for which they are intended-the meeting of often urgent need. If this is the case and local authorities intend as a matter of course to use the funds for this purpose, there should be no barrier to the Minister accepting the amendment, which merely puts in place a checking mechanism to ensure that what he is confident will happen takes place. We support the amendment.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, during the passage of the Bill there has been much discussion of the reform of the discretionary Social Fund, and how we can ensure that the money intended for vulnerable people goes to them-an aim with which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, generously acknowledged, I am completely in agreement. However, imposing restrictions on local authorities through data sharing, as the amendment seeks to do, would take us a little away from the central issue of how best to ensure that the funding achieves its intended purpose.
The noble Baroness's Amendment 62BJA would mean that the Secretary of State would have to ensure that he was satisfied that a local authority planned to use the funding, which will replace community care grants and crisis loans for general living expenses, for the purposes set out in the settlement letter, before he could share information with a local authority about eligibility for assistance under the new local provision. The Secretary of State would also have to be satisfied that arrangements had been made to report on the use of the funding.
I appreciate the noble Baroness's intentions in moving the amendment. Despite its drafting, and despite what the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said, I read it as another approach to the issue of ring-fencing the funding that will go to local authorities. Although I do not think that it will achieve that, I will say, as I said
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The Government fully agree that it is very important to have adequate controls in place to ensure that the funds are used in the way intended. We have clear agreement on that point. However, I will explain why the amendment is unnecessary. Other controls are in place to provide checks and balances before, accompanying and following the initial allocation under the new provision. Perhaps I have not been adequately clear about these so far.
First, I turn to the current element of the steps that we are taking-what I might call the "before" steps. Departmental officials have already conducted a great number of meetings and workshops with local authorities to support them in preparing to deliver the new local provision. We will continue with this support by holding a series of workshops with all upper-tier local authorities over the coming months. The workshops will consider in detail how transferred funds could be used to maximum effect from April 2013. Through the sharing of ideas and best practice, they will assist the development of new services and will help local authorities identify how the funds can be used to best effect to support the most vulnerable. The participants and outcomes of the workshops will be published on the DWP website as part of our ongoing package of advice and information for all local authorities.
The settlement letter-what I might call the "accompanying" step, because it will accompany the funding that local authorities receive for delivering the new provision-will set out, as we discussed at some length last week, what the funding is to be used for and the underlying principles, and will describe the outcome that must be achieved. On 17 January this year, having further considered our debate of the week before, I laid out exactly what the settlement letter would contain. My noble friend Lord German made the point that local people and communities can hold their local authorities to account. The detailed settlement letter will help them do that. Furthermore, as I explained, in order to underline its purpose the funding will be distributed to local authorities through a specific revenue grant rather than being included with the rest of their general expenditure in the main revenue support grant.
I shall move on to the "following" steps. Following the introduction of localised assistance, the department has already made plans to conduct a review in 2014-15 to obtain appropriate information from a representative cross-section of at least 50 local authorities, which represents one-third of the total, in order to help inform future funding levels. We have committed to using this opportunity to gather further information about the way in which local authorities have used the funding. I contend that this review will be more valuable than the information required under this amendment. It will tell us about how the provision is working and what the funding is being used for, whereas this amendment would require a judgment to be made
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Turning to the amendment itself, I suggest that it would be unreasonably burdensome to expect the Secretary of State to make a case-by-case check on every local authority that requires information about eligibility from the Department for Work and Pensions. As I said a moment ago, we estimate it would be approximately 150 local authorities. Indeed, the amendment presumes that local authorities will approach the department about eligibility for their local schemes, but this may not happen in every case. It will be for each local authority to decide which vulnerable people in its area would most benefit from the new local provision. This is the point. This is about trusting local authorities. They are best placed to make these decisions, as they will already be working with vulnerable people in their area through the other services that they provide. This local knowledge will help them to decide how to tailor support, and they may not feel that they need to approach the department for any information in order to do this.
Even if the obligation contemplated by the amendment were necessary, which, as I have explained, we contend it is not, primary legislation would not be the place for it. Regulations under Clause 129 will prescribe the purposes for which the department can share benefit information with local authorities, and the agreements reached with local authorities will make clear that the information is to be supplied only if it is for a prescribed purpose-in this case, determining eligibility for the new local provision.
We are already working with local authorities to make sure that they are ready to deliver this support. The settlement letter will make explicit that the funding is to provide a replacement provision for community care grants and general living expenses crisis loans. It will be clear that the funding is meant for vulnerable people and about the outcomes that should be achieved. The review will offer a check on what local authorities have done with the funding they received and will provide accountability.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked why a light-touch reporting system cannot be set up. Local authorities will be using money in a variety of ways, all directed towards meeting the needs of vulnerable people. Any system, no matter how straightforward, would, by its very nature, have to be complex to capture and assimilate all the money and the varied information.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and other noble Lords raised Supporting People as a demonstration, in their eyes, of how non-ring-fencing produces a risk. The Supporting People funding was deliberately incorporated into the main formula grant in order to provide local authorities with maximum flexibility. Our funding will not be included in the overall grant. It will be part of a special revenue grant. In addition, we are working and will continue to work with local
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My noble friend Lord German, who must have no idea how grateful I am to him for his very helpful words, asked the important question about Wales and Scotland. The funding will not be transferred under the Barnett formula; it will be allocated through a special grant. The funding will be based on the equivalent Social Fund spend for 2012-13, and it should be noted that Scottish policy is also not to impose a ring-fence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked about the tension between upper-tier and lower-tier authorities. The funding is allocated to upper-tier local authorities in order to provide the greatest possible flexibility to local areas. From our discussions with local authorities, we know that a range of delivery models are being considered, some of which will result in some funding being devolved to lower-tier services such as housing. Decisions about the ultimate funding for each area will be determined by a range of local factors, including the location and nature of existing services, and how these align with areas of deprivation and need and the level of funding that will be devolved. In some less deprived areas it may not be necessary or practical to operate a number of services.
Local authorities have been enthusiastic and engaged with this process and I am confident that, given what I have said, they will continue to act in a responsible and fair way to protect the most vulnerable in their communities. I hope I have addressed the issues noble Lords have raised, and I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I have to say, when I was calling for the cavalry, I had not expected its generals to be two former social security Secretaries, the noble Lords, Lord Newton and Lord Fowler. I am very grateful to them for what they have said. I particularly thank my new hero, the noble Lord, Lord Newton, for his strong words in favour of the amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, rightly said that the key is the settlement letter and what happens if a local authority does not abide by it. I do not know about the noble Lord, but I have not heard an answer to that question. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, and I came to a great defence of the principle of the Social Fund. I would not say that we had been wrong at the time, but we accepted that the Social Fund had worked out better than we had expected. We all agree that it needed reforming. The problem is that reform is not the same as the partial abolition that is taking place now. I would still have preferred the old system of statutory single payments, but that is history and that is not what we are here to discuss.
I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester for the point he made about accountability. It is interesting that the noble Lord, Lord German, made the same point in Committee, where I felt that he was not convinced that accountability
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Yes, we do trust local authorities. This amendment is not about bashing local authorities. This is not an amendment that says, "I do not trust local authorities". However, local authorities are under huge pressure in terms of spending. We trusted them with the Supporting People grant, but, as I have said, they are making disproportionate cuts in it-not because they want to hurt vulnerable people but because it is easier to make cuts in the money that goes to marginalised groups than it is in, say, weekly bin collection.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: He has put up a very noble defence of the Government's position. But the noble Lord, Lord Newton, put his finger on it. I did not like to say this myself as a member of the Opposition. The resistance to an amendment on these lines is not coming from the Department for Work and Pensions; it is coming from the Department for Communities and Local Government. As the noble Lord said, we should not allow the localism agenda to trump the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
I very much welcome the full and strong steps that the department is taking to try to engage local authorities in seminars and so forth. That is all very valuable. But ultimately there will be no come-back if local authorities do not use the money for the purposes voted for by Parliament.
I have listened carefully to noble Lords on three or four occasions and each time we inch a little further towards where we are trying to get. But on none of these occasions have I been satisfied that we will achieve genuine accountability and that any mechanisms are in place to ensure that the money voted for vulnerable people will be spent on them. As my noble friend Lord McKenzie said, at a time when we are all being told about public spending being under such pressure, surely it is that much more important that the money is spent on the purposes for which it is intended.
Given that nearly everyone who has spoken has spoken in favour of the amendment and that I do not feel that the Minister has addressed questions put by his own side of the House, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, Tell Us Once is a cross-government programme developed so that people should be required to inform the Government only once of a change of circumstances, such as birth or death. Government Amendment 62BK allows the Registrar-General, superintendent registrars and registrars of births and deaths to transmit information from a birth declaration, as well as information entered in a birth register which is already covered by Clause 133, to the Secretary of State and to verify such information for the Secretary of State.
Birth declarations in England and Wales account for approximately 10 per cent of registrations. The impact can be considerably higher in certain local authorities where the location of the hospital where most births take place falls within a neighbouring borough. In some areas the local authority will be unable to provide the service to up to 80 per cent of customers unless the customer makes two separate visits to the local authority-one to make a declaration of the birth and another when they have received the birth certificate to use the Tell Us Once service.
To ensure that all new parents are able to access the service and to avoid the need for them to inform several government organisations separately of a birth at what is often a busy time for families, I ask noble Lords to accept the amendment.
"(b) in particular, before accepting an application under those sections, invite the applicant to consider with the Commission whether it is possible to make such an agreement."
The Government are committed to supporting lone parents. We spend over £6.5 billion on income-related benefits for some of the poorest lone parents alone. Significant financial support is also offered through the tax credit system and child benefit. Our reforms to child maintenance build on this support that the Government already provide directly to lone parents. Our key aim when reforming child maintenance is to ensure that both parents take responsibility. That includes taking responsibility for paying maintenance and for making the right choices about maintenance. This should be seen in the context of our wider ambition to make it the norm that parents work together in the interests of their children, especially when they no longer live together.
Every family is different and the child maintenance system in Great Britain should reflect this. The truth is that the statutory scheme cannot be so detailed and individualised as to be able to deal with every possible circumstance. For too long, parents have been implicitly or explicitly told that the Child Support Agency is the default option. That approach has entrenched conflict and led to an overreliance on the Government providing enforcement action.
The CSA-based system has failed, with the statutory schemes costing around £450 million each year. That could be seen against funding for relationship support for separating parents of £30 million over four years. Furthermore, taxpayers support costs of up to £25,000 for some typical CSA cases and up to £40,000 where we need to take substantial enforcement action. That is money spent by the state chasing maintenance from one parent to give to another. This has led to a system where, overall, it costs about 40p to move £1 between parents. The system must change because it is not working properly for parents or children. It does not represent value for money for the taxpayer.
The reformed system of child maintenance will be based on the principle that collaboration between parents is best for children. We firmly believe that collaborative child maintenance agreements are longer lasting and parents are more likely to be happy with them. Furthermore, we know wider collaboration between parents is clearly associated with better outcomes for children.
I hope that noble Lords will also acknowledge that we cannot be overly simplistic as to where fault lies when it comes to problems establishing maintenance arrangements. In reality, one-third of parents in the
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However, it is surely not the state's role to intervene and arbitrate in personal relationships between two adults. Instead we wish to support parents to make an informed decision. That was always the intention of the gateway we provide for under Clause 134. It has become apparent that Clause 134 as drafted, referring to reasonable steps, has been interpreted more stringently than we intended. We do not wish to require parents to take multiple steps determined by us before being able to make an application. That would risk establishing a new quasi-judicial function. It would require us to decide whether a parent had taken reasonable steps and is an impediment to making a collaborative agreement. This would be akin to the complex and intrusive bureaucracy that dogged the early days of the CSA. That is the antithesis of our approach and why we have brought forward Amendments 62BL and 62BM. I hope this clarifies our intentions.
The amendments make clear that our role is to inform the parent approaching us and invite them to consider whether they can make a collaborative arrangement outside the state scheme. This will normally take place when the parent telephones to discuss their options. Where parents wish to pursue it, we will direct them towards wider sources of support. To further make sure support is available for parents, we have announced today £20 million of additional funding. This will be spent working with voluntary and community groups on streamlining existing support and looking at what additional help is needed. This amounts to doubling government spending on relationship support in 2012-13. I hope that, on that basis, noble Lords will be prepared to support Amendments 62BL and 62BM.
Organisations as diverse as the Centre for Separated Families, Families Need Fathers and Relate have all welcomed this announcement. Sarah Caulkin, interim chief executive of Relate, has said that her organisation hopes that,
These reforms to support parents in collaborating are coupled with reforms to the state-run CSA system. Perhaps I should make it clear that under our reforms
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We absolutely recognise that some parents will need to continue to use the state-run service, and we need to do better for them as well. Our starting point for reform is the review by Sir David Henshaw, which was commissioned by the last Government in 2006. The key reform is based around a new scheme recommended by Sir David to replace the Child Support Agency scheme. At the heart of the new scheme will be tough enforcement and collection measures when parents fail to pay maintenance. The Government have developed new processes for identifying those who might not pay and addressing non-payment when it first occurs. The new scheme will also ensure that non-resident parents cannot escape their true responsibilities by refusing to provide us with details on their income. Instead, we will generally access this information from HMRC, which will enable a smoother and faster flow of maintenance to parents with care.
The Government are also committed to ensuring that the most vulnerable parents continue to benefit fully from child maintenance. To this end, we are ensuring that child maintenance payments remain tax-free. In addition, we will guarantee that parents keep all the maintenance, even when they are on universal credit. When money is in payment, child maintenance averages around £32 per week, tax-free, under the CSA. This is a significant financial benefit to the most vulnerable mothers.
charging should form part and parcel of the commission's approach. Subsequently, the then Government took a wide-ranging power to charge as part of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. It is Amendment 62C to that Act from my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay that we will deal with in the next debate. Let me not prejudge that debate, but I shall say something on the principle of charging before flagging an amendment that we propose to make to our powers.
As I said earlier, the Government cannot fairly and should not try to apportion blame between parents. Therefore we firmly believe that, to reform the system and maximise the number of effective child maintenance arrangements, we need to have an affordable but clear financial incentive on both parents to collaborate. With such high numbers of parents who use the CSA saying that it is likely they could collaborate, an affordable financial incentive for both parents is a necessity. The application charge and collection charges proposed by the Government meet these criteria. However, noble
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The Government are convinced this approach to charging is the right one and wish to formalise a requirement for us to review based on an evaluation. This would be achieved through Amendment 62CA. We will review charging within 30 months of its introduction. Thirty months will allow a proper sample to be evaluated, including the impacts of collection charges. Within that timescale we will lay a report on the review and the Government's conclusions on charging before Parliament. I ask noble Lords to support this amendment and the commitment to review.
Child maintenance needs major reform. Fifty per cent of children of separated families have no maintenance arrangement in place at all. We will provide improved statutory child maintenance for those who really need it, and we will of course continue to support lone parents directly through benefits and tax credits. However, we need a fundamental change so that wherever possible parents think twice, take responsibility and do not depend on the state. I beg to move.
Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, I will speak briefly to Amendments 62BL and 62BM, and in doing so I draw the attention of the House to my interests, which are in the register. I am a former non-executive director of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and a former chief executive of the National Council for One Parent Families.
I want to ask a specific point about these government amendments, which seem to be producing a new formulation that would require an applicant wanting to apply for child maintenance through the CSA to consider with the commission whether it is possible for them to make a private arrangement before being allowed to make such an application. Can the Minister please make it clear to the House just what the applicant would have to do? If I am making an application and I simply say, "I wish to make an application", and the agency says, "Have you considered making a private application?", and I say, "Yes, but there is no way that he is ever going to agree to it", is that enough? Am I then allowed to proceed, or is it intended to be a bigger hurdle than that?
Baroness Tyler of Enfield: My Lords, I welcome the announcement of the additional £20 million for family support services for separating families, which is part of this package of reforms, and in doing so I must of course immediately declare a very direct interest as departing chief executive-this week-of the charity Relate. We provide help and support to separating families, to mothers, fathers and children and to wider family members. I recognise also that this is less contentious than the issues surrounding the reform of the statutory system, which we will be debating a little later, but it is worth a quick comment-not least because of the fact that each year around 350,000 children are directly affected by parental separation.
I am sure that all noble Lords across the House will agree that it is better, wherever possible, to encourage separating parents to make voluntary maintenance arrangements and to provide them with all the necessary practical help and support to do so. I am equally sure that all noble Lords recognise that this avenue will never be possible or appropriate, or even desirable, for all parents, particularly when issues of domestic violence are involved. That is what the statutory service is there to do, quite rightly, but it must be in everyone's interest that as many separating families as possible are encouraged and actively supported to make their own arrangement, not least so as not to clog up the statutory system for those who really need it most. The fact that some 50 per cent of children living in separated families have no effective child maintenance arrangements in place is surely evidence that the current system needs an overhaul. It is self-evident that any new system should be based as far as possible on reducing conflict and encouraging collaboration.
The fact that the funding announced today will allow parents to access more consistent support services as soon as possible across the country, and that it responds very directly to concerns raised by the DWP Select Committee a number of months ago, will be in everyone's interests, particularly those of children. This form of earlier intervention must be a wiser use of resources than waiting for problems to become so intractable, and for conflict to become so entrenched, that voluntary-based arrangements, frankly, become quite impossible.
As a former chair of the Kids in the Middle coalition of charities, I know that high levels of conflict in family relationships are bad for the well-being of everyone involved, particularly the children. Research makes it clear that the two most damaging issues for children when parents separate, which often make effective and enduring co-parenting far more difficult, are high levels of conflict and a lack of contact between both parents after separation. It will hardly be a surprise that the two often go hand in hand and, crucially to the debate today, that where there is contact between the child and the non-resident parent then often financial support arrangements flow as well. There is good evidence for the impact that co-ordinated services can have in this area, addressing financial, legal, housing and practical advice but also emotional support, mediation and a range of other things. I will not detain the House any longer by going through the research evidence that exists in this area, but I find it persuasive.
I stress, as I did in Committee, how detrimental it is to any child to grow up not simply without enough income and financial support but without any role model of a father-as generally the non-resident parent is-as a key figure in that child's life, providing practical, emotional and financial support.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I shall speak briefly, following the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who is about to follow me as chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. I speak as someone who has dealt over many years with some of the families who are in greatest conflict and need.
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I agree that there is some need for reform. I welcome the money being put into relationship work and hope that some of that will find its way to CAFCASS, which does a great deal of that work with those difficult families. There is a proportion of families, though, where it is clear that the level of conflict between the families is detrimental so continued contact with both parents-judges have said this-may well not be the answer for those few children.
I am interested, as the noble Baroness is, in who is going to make that assessment and at what point the mother-it is usually a mother, although occasionally it is a father-will know that she is not going to have to continue to engage with an extremely aggressive and often destructive person who has damaged not only her own relationship but that of her children, and when she will be able to bypass all those procedures and be sure that she can actually get maintenance. The likelihood of the man giving her maintenance is slim, but she needs to be able to get by the procedures.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, it will be fairly obvious to most of your Lordships that these amendments are not entirely unrelated to the amendment that I am going to move in a little while. I am not certain of this, of course, but I have a feeling that the proposed amendments regarding the test for the discretion to be used have arisen out of discussions that I have had, which my noble friend Lord De Mauley has been at too, about the effect of the test in relation to charging. I will not elaborate on that now.
I would just be interested to know on what basis this test was originally put into the Bill. It must have been the subject of instruction; parliamentary counsel are extremely creative, but only on the basis of what they are asked to do. They are very good at finding words to express what you want. I wonder, and my noble friend may know the answer to this, what they were asked to do in the first instance. Does this reflect a change in the underlying request or not?
The third amendment concerns the review. That was certainly mentioned to me by the Secretary of State when I met him a week yesterday. I am entirely in favour of that. However, I suggested to him that it would be fair to do it on my basis and that that would be a real test of how good my suggestion was. However, it was suggested, "No, we will test it on my basis"-that is, on his basis. Therefore, from my point of view there is not much of an improvement as yet, but who knows what may happen? At present, the amendment is very welcome but, so far as I am concerned, it does not help me at all.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, introduced these fairly specific amendments, we had a bit of a broad sweep
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The noble Lord referred to the cost of the scheme-£450 million a year. One of the problems is that three schemes are operating side by side through a transition. I think it was originally planned that by 2012-this year-we should be down to one scheme based on gross data, which should significantly reduce costs. However, I think that has been somewhat delayed by the Government.
As regards tough enforcement and collection, following a question that I raised in Committee, the noble Lord wrote to me indicating that not all the powers included in the 2008 Act had been brought into force. If I am wrong on that, he may take the opportunity to correct me.
Amendments 62BL and 62BM appear, at first reading, to make it harder for parents with care to access the statutory maintenance service. The Bill as it stands provides for applicants to take reasonable steps to establish whether it is possible or appropriate to make maintenance agreements outside the statutory system. A key part of the Government's reform of child maintenance was supposed to be the introduction of the gateway referred to by the noble Lord, the purpose of which is to ensure that all clients consider the range of their child maintenance options so that they can be directed into the family support services where appropriate. The Government's White Paper states at paragraph 10 on page 18:
"In some cases the gateway will be a step towards an application to the statutory scheme. Where the parent wishes to pursue that and states clearly the reasons why, the conversation about other options available will be closed and they will be assisted in moving to make a full application".
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