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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful for that recognition that there are precedents for this power. I was just coming to that for the benefit of those Members of the Committee who may be concerned about these powers. For example, over many years there have been powers to appoint national insurance inspectors. Similar powers exist in regard to Customs and Excise and to the Inland Revenue. Indeed, the powers of appointment available to the agency are a good deal more restricted than those available to other government bodies, since, as the noble and learned Lord will know, child support inspectors can be appointed only for one-off investigations and for a limited and specified period.
The powers of inspection are designed to deal primarily with cases where absent parents, more often than not self-employed absent parents, refuse to provide information or provide information that is wholly implausible. They are intended to be used primarily to gain access to records of business held either by the absent parent or his accountant. The agency can approach employers for information as a matter of course; and while it is possible that inspectors could be appointed to seek information from employers, that is not the primary purpose of the power.
The suggestion has been made that the inspectors might enter premises which are also dwelling places in the middle of the night, and that suggestion managed to get the hairs of my noble friend standing up on the back of his neck. But inspectors will not enter premises in the middle of the night or unannounced. The department has proved over many years that it can exercise this kind of power sensibly and sensitively. An inspector can only ask for admission to premises; he certainly cannot force his way in.
To date the agency has used these powers very sparingly. Since it began operations they have been used on a total of just fewer than 50 occasions. I do not accept that these are unusual or draconian powers, and it is clear from the number of times they have been used that they are used only in the most exceptional circumstances. The amendment would be extremely damaging since the power to appoint inspectors in a small number of often high profile and exceptional cases is the last resort in securing justice for the parent with care. Furthermore, while little use generally is made of the powers, the very fact that the agency possesses them is a deterrent to non-co-operation or indeed a deterrent against the provision of wholly false information.
The powers of inspection relating to establishing the income of the absent parent, or in a few cases the parent with care, are clearly the ones I have been dealing with, but there are a small number of cases, which were raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, involving personal questions. There are a small number of cases where paternity is one of the issues and it may be necessary to ask personal questions of the type the noble Earl mentioned. But I stress to the Committee that these kinds of questions are undertaken only in a very small number of cases where paternity comes into question. This is not at all related to the question of powers of inspection, which these three amendments cover.
I do not believe at all that these are in any way draconian, unique or unusual powers. They are sensible powers to give to the agency to enable it to carry out its task, which is to ensure that the absent parent pays the maintenance properly assessed and can be properly assessed for maintenance which can then be paid to help the parent with care and the children of his former marriage. I hope that the noble and learned Lord and the noble Earl will withdraw the amendments in their names. But if they do not, I hope my noble friends will support me in the Division Lobbies.
The Earl of Onslow: Can we not have these people going to get a warrant? If we had the old English system of being given a warrant by the magistrates for inspection, everyone would be happy. What sticks in some of our more libertarian minds is the fact that someone can just go and do it. This is an excuse which is heard every single time these powers are sought for other agencies. The moment one more power for another agency is produced it is said that it is exceptional but that there is a precedent. That is how the argument on VAT was lostthe noble Lord, Lord Healey, said that the Tories had introduced it
Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge: Surely the whole thing depends on the wife who is left with a child by a man who by now dislikes her and has another wife. It is perfectly obvious that that man will not easily pay what he ought to pay. It seems to me that this is a long argument to try to stop what is right being done, and I am very surprised, having sat right through it.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: Either last night or at Second ReadingI have forgotten whichI asked rhetorically what is the Conservative Party doing supporting this Bill, the 1991 Act and the kind of powers that your Lordships have immediately under review. I was therefore particularly gladdened by the intervention of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. The noble Lord the Minister does not seem to realise the kind of powers that are exceptionallyI say "exceptionally"being demanded. They may not be exceptional in the sense that other government departments may have already grabbed them. But they are exceptional in that individuals who have a grievance, to whom a debt is owed, have no such power and rightly have no such power. It is intolerable in a civilised society that people should have the power of entry and interrogation on the most private matters and to the detriment of a fellow citizen. We give no such power, for example, to the individual mother who was instanced; the individual wife who has been deserted and is owed maintenance. But we give the power to government departments. I was glad to hear a voicea familiar voice to meof the Conservative Party protesting against such powers.
I repeat what those powers are. They are now all under the review: the power of entry under penalty; the power of interrogation under penalty, including as to private matters. Those are not the only circumstances in which paternity is an issue, but we would not dream of allowing those powers in any other case. Therefore, the second power is the power of interrogation, including into private matters of finance, marital status and paternity.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for allowing me to intervene. I hope that I made it clearif I did not, this gives me another opportunitythat the inspectors with whom we are concerned would not be the people asking the questions about paternity. The child support officers would be asking those questions in the very small number of cases in which paternity is an issue. The question of inspectors and premises is quite different from the issue of trying to establish paternity where it is denied.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: The noble Lord will forgive me if I say that that is no answer at all; because it is an official who has the power, and no matter if that applies in only a small number of cases. It should not apply to any case.
The last matter is that of Inland Revenue confidentiality. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has spent many years of his youthful life in the service of the Inland Revenue in one form or another. He is also acutely aware of the social problems with which the Bill and the Act face us. The noble Lord rejects entirelyand entirely correctlythe infringement of Inland Revenue confidentiality. We have a very ancient and peculiar Inland Revenue principle in this country, going back right to the beginning of the system under the second Pitt. I refer to the principle of self-assessment. We rely on the individual to provide information to the Inland Revenue, and we assure him that if he does so and if he gives information honestly, his confidentiality will be respected. The information will not be handed round to any government agency which might care to use it against him. That is what is being done here, and I ask the Committee roundly to reject it.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.