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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Before the noble Lord sits down I hope that I may respond. The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, is right to say that we are not taking the woman's unearned income into account; we are not taking the man's into account either. There is entire equity there. The unearned income is taken into account only if it is so substantial that it represents some kind of diversion; in other words, he declares an income of, say, £100 a week but has a lifestyle that requires an income of £500 or £1,000 a week. That would create the basis for a variation. However, as I said, there is equity between both parties.
I am surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked us to tailor our policies to the prejudices or knee-jerk reactions of the tabloid press. He would be the first to ask us not to do this in the case of asylum seekers.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I cannot conceive of any circumstances where the parent with care has income where it is just to take that into account given the arguments I have set out. If one does that, one is effectively asking the parent with care to pay twice over, not only in terms of the cash payment of bills incurred as part of the care of the child but also in terms of a maintenance contribution because the other party's maintenance that is received is reduced accordingly. The noble Earl asks the parent with care to pay twice over. I am slightly shocked at the suggestion that we should tailor the provision in case one or two cases are picked up by the Sun. Perhaps the noble Earl did not hear me say that. I am slightly shocked that the Liberal Party of all parties should say that we should be wary of cases coming to the notice
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Of course I would not expect the noble Earl to propose something that he believed to be unfair. However, the fact that he has a belief does not mean to say that the belief is correct. On this occasion I suggest to him that it is not. The provision we propose is fair and decent. The parent with care is providing in kind. That also means paying out cash. The absent parent is providing in cash because he is not providing in kind, in exactly the same way as if they were an intact family.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that the formula was unjust. The alternative is to return to an essentially court-based system which I believe many Members on all sides of the Chamber consider to have failed children in the past and, if it were to be reinvented at huge cost and with huge complexity, would fail children again. It would be discretionary and a lottery. It might suit the instincts of angry fathers who want their day in court. However, I am concerned--as, I hope, is the Committee--with the well-being of the child which is not best met by an adversarial situation in which the father seeks to reduce his maintenance. What message does the child get from that except that his or her father does not want to support him to the extent that the agency thinks he should be supported?
We believe that the proposals are simple. Booklets and tables will be available at post offices, surgeries, libraries and other such places explaining net income and the number of children. The man will know what he has to pay. He will pay his taxes, his national insurance and his child support. The woman, in turn, will know what she can expect to receive from the man, whether she is on benefit or in work, from rough and ready assumptions about his income. The woman will offer the child the standard of living that she is capable of, both in cash and in kind. We think that that is fair and reasonable. Any proposal that the parent with care should pay cash in addition seems to me a double whammy and deeply unfair to lone parents.
Lord Higgins: Let me first pick up the point made by the noble Baroness a moment ago. As she well knows, we are entirely of the view she expressed; namely, that it would be a mistake to go back to the courts and to get rid of the Child Support Agency. We believe that the right approach is to do our best--it is not easy--to improve the Child Support Agency.
While this debate is unlikely to hit the headlines tomorrow, I presume to say that it shows very clearly the ability of your Lordships' House to debate this kind of very complicated issue in a remarkably sophisticated way. It has been enhanced by the virtuoso performance of the Minister. Having said that, she has totally failed to convince me.
Perhaps I may make one or two simple points to start with. First, in the light of the debate that we had on the earlier amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, we are all agreed--it is absolutely common ground--that so far as concerns emotional support and contact with the children, the support of both parents is a matter of great importance. There is no dispute whatever in regard to that.
Let me make another point which has not been raised so far but which is rather implicit in what has been said; namely, that somehow the absent parent wants to be the absent parent. In many cases that is not so. As I well know from my constituency experience, it may be that the marriage broke up in a way which deeply distressed the absent parent. Again, I think that is common ground.
I do not think it is true that a small number of people are affected. There may be a considerable number of situations in which the wife has a higher income and greater wealth--if indeed it is the wife rather than the husband--than the absent parent. There may be a considerable number of such cases.
As to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, that we are seeing greater equality of incomes between men and women, that is certainly the trend. I welcome it. However, it is wholly irrelevant to the amendment we are discussing where we will be looking at what is the income in an individual case. That is what the amendment is about. So I still think it is an important issue.
It is not a case of whether the tabloid press pick up a particular point or not, but a case of whether or not taking into account the income of the parent in care increases the amount of bitterness in the relationship, perhaps with regard to the degree of personal contact and so on between the two parents.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The noble Lord may be going on to deal with this matter in which case I apologise. What is the noble Lord's response to the point I put to him that under the present scheme--for both simplicity and reasons of basic decency--we are not making any distinction between the biological children and the stepchildren in a second family? Does he accept my argument that if there are stepchildren in the second family--and very often if he joins a new partner he may be joining somebody with a child already, who may herself have been a lone parent in the past--then, as a result of the noble Lord's proposals, in all equity we would have to assess her income in regard to her ability to contribute both to their joint children, to her existing stepchildren and, by definition, possibly also to those of her ex-partner? Does he accept that basic argument? Or is it the cascading domino effect; that, once one goes beyond
Lord Higgins: I was coming to precisely that point. It relates again to the point I was making about bitterness. From my own experience--after all, if I may presume to say so, I have seen this at the front end--it will be difficult to take into account the extent to which there is bitterness between the stepchildren of a second marriage and all the ramifications that the noble Baroness spelt out. None the less, on the narrower issue, one still needs to take into account the income of both parties in this particular dispute.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: So, under the noble Lord's formula, where the parent with care had an income of under £25,000, we would treat stepchildren and biological children in the second family in the same way; but if the income was £26,000, we would treat them differently?
Lord Higgins: I should like notice of that question. No doubt we can return to it on Report. The noble Baroness has rightly raised the ramifications of the whole issue. But one should not suppose that because one does not deal with all the ramifications in the Bill, they are not real issues on the ground. The views of the stepchildren and so on are extremely vivid, if I may put it that way.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is a precise question. Does the noble Lord accept that the implication of the amendment is that the income of the new partner of the former husband--if I may genderise the issue--would now have to be taken into account if there were children in the second family?
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