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Earl Russell: My Lords, before I get down to business, I hope that I shall be forgiven for taking a moment to congratulate Mr. Alistair Burt on his promotion to the rank of Minister of State. It is a well earned promotion and I am happy to congratulate him on it. I wish to say to those outside the Chamber who may read the debate that Mr. Burt is not to blame for this Act being on the statute book. Actions against him personally are not the way to change it. An Under-Secretary in our system is a private soldier in the ministerial army. He does not give orders. It is a mark of his unusual stature among Under-Secretaries that even though these changes are quite inadequate he has managed to produce as much change as he has. If we are looking for people to blame for the 1991 Act, we do not look for Under-Secretaries who came in afterwards. But we must reflect that the classic line that the evil that men do lives after them is a sexist remark.
At this stage, I shall not take up the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about rewarding those who break the law. She is wrong and we shall return to that on another occasion. But in this instance, and for once on this Bill, these Benches and those Benches happen to think alike. This is a good and important amendment and on these Benches we support it with all the strength that we can muster.
One important argument in favour of the amendment is that it gives people an incentive to pay. A large number of men want to support their children but they do not wish to pay more to relieve the Treasury or other taxpayers. If people who are asked to pay maintenance knew that their children would be better off as a result, there would be a much greater degree of compliance than there is at present.
If, as the Government presumably want, the Act is to survive at all, it is necessary to make people a great deal more willing to comply with it than they are now. It would make the women, many of whom are extremely poor, better off than they are now instead of having them, as they are as a result of the present operation of the 1991 Act, often worse off than if they remained on benefit.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, is quite right about the effect of passported benefits. I had hoped that, as we had in 1991, we might have an amendment to deal specifically with that problem. On that occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, divided the House upon the matter and I very much wish that he had been successful.
Of course, the provision of school meals is likely to affect the vast majority of people affected by this Act. If you have a large family and you lose free school meals, you are losing a very substantial part of your necessary weekly income. Therefore, many women who receive maintenance as a result of the implementation of the 1991 Act are worse off than they were when they received benefits.
Again, if we are to achieve the consent which the Act needs for its operation, it is necessary that somebody should be seen to benefit. If this amendment were agreed to and the disregard were to be made sufficiently large, we might perhaps be able to argue that some of the poverty among women had been relieved. On these Benches, we should very much welcome that.
The next important matter is that the amendment would make it easier for the women concerned to enter employment. I simply do not understand why the Minister thinks that it would act as a disincentive. One of the greatest difficulties if you are trying to get off benefit into employment, especially if you are a single mother in that position, is the costs created by returning to work. You need to pay fares. Certainly if you are living in or near London that is likely to be a substantial cost. You will need to arrange childcare, and we shall return to that later. But the initial costs of childcare, especially the costs before the first pay cheque comes in, can be a considerable handicap in returning to work.
The effect might be similar to, for example, the jobseeker's grant and other measures announced in the last Budget. On these Benches, and I believe on the Opposition Benches generally, we welcomed those measures. It is in that same spirit that we propose the amendment.
We do not believe that the back-to-work bonus is a substitute and, frankly, it appears to us to be a gimmick. It does not do very much to help. Regular money coming in every week would do a great deal more.
The other matter which I believe is particularly important in relation to the amendment is that it would provide women with an incentive to co-operate with the Act. Miss Chant, giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, said that even women were not co-operating with the Act. I do not know why she was so surprised. That is what most of the rest of us expected. But if we want them to co-operate, we must give them an incentive. We must try to get back to the spirit of legislation which helps people to do what they want to do in any event. That greatly reduces the problems of enforcement.
Of course, if we were to give women a carrot to operate the Act, we should not need the stick. If there was a disregard, we could do without the objectionable benefit penalty which has caused a good deal of hardship and injustice and a great deal of administrative labour and general confusion. Therefore, if we lead people to act in their own interests instead of harrying, chasing, whipping and scorpioning them and so on, we should get on a great deal better. This amendment would do a great deal of good and we are happy to support it.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I do not wish to say anything on the merits of the amendment but I should like to address a few words about the phrase with which the noble Baroness introduced it; namely, that she is in favour of the Child Support Agency. I can only say that if she is still in favour of it after its disasters, anomalies and administrative chaos
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. I said that I was in favour of the principle of the Child Support Agency. I chose the word deliberately because I did not wish to be associated with the administrative chaos that has subsequently followed.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, the principle of the Child Support Agency was that a jurisdiction that had belonged to the justices of the peace since they were set up in the 13th century was transferred to a government agency. That government agency was to apply a series of formulae which your Lordships will have an opportunity to examine on a later amendment. As I said, that has caused not only administrative chaos but also grave hardship, great injustice and such indignation that the postbags of Members of another place were even fuller in relation to that matter than they were in relation to the poll tax.
If one can believe that the Child Support Agency is right in principle, that is the charm of fidelity to an idea rather than to experience. It is very natural that anyone who seems to have the gift of perennial youth should tend to be caught in a political time warp. I fear that that is what has happened to the noble Baroness. We are so much in her debt that we try to exculpate her and find a scapegoat. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has such a fund of good will, we tend to blame him. He should have told the noble Baroness that Sidney Webb is now dead. I see that the noble Lord wishes to intervene. I give way.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I was taking up the very phrase with which the noble Baroness introduced the amendment and which should not go undisputed; namely, that one favours the Child Support Agency as against the jurisdiction of the justices of the peace. As I said, the justices of the peace were established in the Middle Ages. They took cognisance of the maintenance of children in the parish and of deserted women and enforced the obligation on what we now call the absent parent. They did so under common law until the end of the last century when their jurisdiction was codified in the 1895 Act. They were then to do what the Child Support Agency was supposed to doto ensure that absent fathers maintained their children so far as was reasonable in all the circumstances. That is exactly what is claimed for the CSA and in respect of which it has woefully fallen down.
The justices of the peacethe magistratureno doubt being human beings, could have been improved in their proceedings. Indeed, I know that the noble Earl and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, have ideas which I share on how the system might be improved; that is, by the institution of a family court. That was powerfully argued, too, in 1991 by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. What he said on that occasion could well bear rereading, if I may make so bold with the noble Baroness.
In the Courts and Legal Services Act we welcomed a measure that your Lordships will rememberthe specialist family county court. We welcomed it as a step towards a family court. The 1991 Act which is now under review, confirmed in that respect by this Act, was a notable step away. I was presuming to complain of the noble Baroness being caught in a time-warp in that no one had told her that Fabianism is not at the top of the agenda of her party at present; that a centralised bureaucratic state is no longer to be advertised; that the apparatchiks of the Soviet empire are not to be admired; and that that empire should no longer be regarded as the fatherland of the working class, or the monster at its head referred to affectionately as "Uncle Joe". All that is gone.
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