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Let me go back a step. All of the changes to child support that we are proposing are to ensure that maintenance flows to children in a way which is as conducive as possible to mediation, negotiation and good relationships between the parents. That in turn will benefit the children. We want compliance and we are hoping to get compliance. We have a simple formula: men are being asked to pay less; parents with care will be offered a maintenance disregard; if maintenance flows, men will see the money going to their children; we will have the development of a local face-to-face service which can offer interviews in order to sort out problems and so on. We want compliance.
Lord Higgins: Is it not the case that, if this proposal goes forward, many people who are dependent on being able to drive for their living will find it completely counterproductive. Intrinsically, one is introducing a measure which will reduce people's ability to pay; therefore the possibility of compliance is reduced, not increased
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: On the contrary, the threat of this should help increase compliance. One will lose one's licence only if one fails to pay maintenance. We want people to pay their maintenance. Enforcement kicks in only when people do not voluntarily pay their maintenance. If I may say so, the noble Lord's point is back to front. This possible penalty would kick in only when someone has failed to comply. We are therefore talking about the area of enforcement.
One has to ask what remedies are currently available. My noble friend is right, it is mostly men who are non-resident parents; therefore, by definition, it is mostly men who fail to pay maintenance liabilities. Any penalty which insists that men--that is, fathers--pay maintenance, can, on that argument, be regarded as discriminatory. By a definition of the statistics, this
I hope that my noble friend will accept that this is not discriminatory, except in so far as most non-resident parents are men and, therefore, any kind of penalty for failure to pay will fall disproportionately on men by virtue of that fact.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: She is of course correct that the non-resident parents are usually men. Is she aware that one of the reasons for this is that men believe that if they go to court for custody of the children they do not stand a chance; that custody is usually--indeed generally--given to the woman? That is why men generally are the non-resident parents.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am willing to, but I am not sure that my other noble friends are. To argue that men are unfairly treated by the courts in determining who gets residence is to put to question the whole of the developments in social policies since the Children Act 1989.
I accept that there may be cases where there should be greater contact between them. There are no saints or sinners in this story. I am not saying that all lone parents are perfect and that all non-resident parents are sinners--far from it. Nonetheless, I doubt whether few people would not agree, as the courts themselves agree, that, by and large, the parent with care tends primarily to be the mother. Where that is not the case, there may be good reasons for it. But I suggest to my noble friend that at this stage we do not go into that argument.
I was seeking to address the point that the penalty is discriminatory against men. I was trying to suggest that, on my noble friend's argument, all penalties are discriminatory against men simply because they are the vast majority of non-resident parents and the vast majority of those failing to do what they should. My noble friend's argument seems to follow the line that men have an inalienable right to drive associated with an inalienable right not to support children. I really do not accept that.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I have listened very carefully to my noble friend. I simply disagree with him. He argues that it is improper. I argue that it is proper. That is simply a juxtaposition of different perspectives.
What we have at the moment is a range of penalties if a non-resident parent fails to pay his maintenance. They include a fine. They include a distraint order. We know that a distraint on goods is effective in less than 10 per cent of cases. They include a garnishee order, which is on the property. It may be 10 or 15 years before that property is sold and the garnishee order comes into effect. They include imprisonment.
We have heard about depriving someone of his livelihood. From the way noble Lords have spoken, one would think that imprisonment is not currently available. If we currently had as an option disqualification as a penalty for men and in addition we were introducing imprisonment for the first time, everything that noble Lords have said about depriving people of their livelihood and so on would be valid. On the contrary, what we are doing is proposing to the Committee that we add another penalty, one which we know from experience abroad--if we have not experienced it ourselves, why should we not turn to experience from abroad?--is more likely to lead to compliance than many of the other penalties.
The problem is making someone pay any money for maintenance. Adding a fine simply adds to the amount of money he is required to pay and does not deliver. Distraint of goods does not deliver. The bailiffs do not get access in other than about 10 per cent of cases. Garnishee orders do not work. With imprisonment, what you are saying to the child is that your father is in prison because he refuses to support his child.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Possibly, but the point is that imprisonment is one of the penalties for contempt of court. If the CSA has taken someone to court for failing to do something, the courts currently have that power to do so. I ask the Committee: which is better for the child; which is better for the parent with care; and which is better for the father--that he should have his driving licence taken away or that he should go to prison? I have no doubt in my mind that all of the arguments advanced about livelihood, children and rural society and all the other flimflammery that has been offered to defend men's inalienable right to drive their cars without at the same time supporting their children are based on a notion that somehow imprisonment is not a realistic option.
We are trying to find a way of ensuring that men comply with their obligation to support their children. This measure produces an additional penalty which is available not to the CSA but to magistrates. If magistrates so determine that they wish to pursue the removal of a driving licence rather than imprisonment, that must surely be in the better interests of the man, the better interests of him maintaining his livelihood and the better interests of the child; and, what is more, the moment he starts paying his maintenance his driving licence is restored. Once he is in prison, he does not have that choice; he is there until the end of the sentence for contempt of court. I know which is the more serious of the two penalties. If we ask which it is more decent to do, to threaten to remove a driving licence or to threaten to send someone to prison, I know which sanction is, first, likely to be more effective, secondly, less likely to damage a child, and, thirdly, more likely to ensure that maintenance will be paid, and that is the removal of the driving licence.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My noble friend uses the word "fascist". A lot of sanctimonious nonsense has been talked during this debate. I really will not accept this language--"Hitler", "This is fascist", and all the rest. What we are saying is that magistrates will have the option of another sanction in their repertoire which will not be a failure, as fines are--which simply add to the debt which is already causing the problem of payment. It does not end up imprisoning the man and does not try to seize his goods, which in any case is ineffective. My noble friend appears to be saying that he is in favour of all penalties just so long as they are not effective. That is his objection, I suspect--
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