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Amendment No. 84 would mean that magistrates would have to inquire into whether the non-resident parent needed his licence to buy food, take children to school or attend for medical treatment. We consider that requiring the courts to inquire into whether the non-resident parent needs his driving licence to earn a living, together with an inquiry into his means, is a clear and vigorous provision. The further inquiries suggested by the amendment would place an unreasonable burden on magistrates. It would be difficult to define the circumstances when the suggested provisions might apply. For example, the non-resident parent may have a partner who can drive. Some magistrates may decide that the new partner can take the children to school or buy the food; others may not inquire into the availability of alternatives.
We believe that all parents should accept responsibility for the financial support of the children. Those who refuse to do so, who can pay but are failing to do so, must see that we mean business about
Amendment No. 86 seeks to change the rules on availability for work and qualifying for JSA. The effect of the amendment would be to allow the non-resident parent to be exempt from the "actively seeking work" rules for the period of any disqualification.
Exempting a jobseeker who is deprived of a driving licence under this sanction from the "actively seeking work" provision would be at odds with the key purpose of JSA, which is to ensure that recipients maintain a clear labour market focus. There is nothing to prevent jobseekers who are disqualified from driving under this provision either paying their maintenance, whereupon they will have their driving licence restored, or from seeking other types of work not requiring a driving licence. We might expect a jobseeker who is deprived of a driving licence under these provisions because he is failing to pay his maintenance to realign his job goals to take account of the disqualification.
JSA regulations already provide protection for those who live in remote or rural areas. In determining whether a jobseeker satisfies the "actively seeking work" requirement, the regulations state that regard shall be had for all the circumstances of the case, including the location and availability of vacancies.
The clause introduces a new civil penalty, as opposed to a criminal penalty such as imprisonment, that will enable an order to be made by magistrates disqualifying a non-resident parent from holding or obtaining a driving licence. Under the current enforcement arrangements, the CSA would first apply to the magistrates for a liability order. Discretion would then be used as a method of enforcement in individual cases: for example, bailiff action, garnishee orders or ultimately going back to the courts for committal. This new penalty will be added as a final sanction to give magistrates an alternative to committal proceedings.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As I understand it, it is a civil penalty. We are talking about civil penalties. That is one of the virtues of the provision. We are trying not to cross the line between civil and criminal jurisdictions.
These are the procedures that the magistrates' court will have in mind. It is not the CSA but the courts that will decide the matter. The court will have to be satisfied that the non-resident parent has deliberately refused or neglected, through his own fault, to pay the maintenance owed. The courts have to be satisfied on a point which I am sure will concern the noble Lord.
We understand that the loss of a driving licence may have a particularly hard impact on people who live in rural areas. For this reason we have placed a specific duty on the courts to consider whether a licence is needed by a parent to earn his living. But it would fatally undermine the effectiveness of this penalty if it could never be applied where there was a risk of the non-resident parent losing his job as a result. In practice, it would give magistrates no alternative but to imprison those parents to whom the driving licence penalty could not be applied. In other words, if one lived in a rural area one would be more likely to be sent to gaol on the basis of the argument that one could not afford to lose one's driving licence, which would be perverse.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As far as I am aware, it deals with both civil and criminal matters. I am receiving support from elsewhere for the point that I have just made, but if I have misled the noble Lord I am happy to write to him about the nature of the jurisdiction. Parking fines are the subject of civil and not criminal offences. Some of the debts handled by magistrates' courts are not criminal matters. Magistrates deal with other matters as a first step on the road to the criminal jurisdiction; for example, assault, burglary or whatever, which are criminal offences. I do not know whether the noble Lord wishes to pursue this point, but if I can provide any further elucidation I am happy to try to do so.
This measure would be fatally undermined if it could never be applied in rural areas. If that happened the person concerned would, instead, be liable to imprisonment. We would far rather that the person concerned was in work and paid maintenance, but for those few hard cases we must demonstrate that to fail to support your child when you are able to do so is unacceptable. In each case the magistrates, not the CSA, will decide whether the current penalty of committal or the new penalty of removal of driving licence is the more appropriate sanction. If the maintenance arrears have still not been paid at the end of the disqualification period an application may be made to the court either for a further period of disqualification or committal proceedings. That penalty will apply equally to non-resident parents who live in Scotland.
Experience elsewhere shows that the threat of losing the driving licence ensures that money flows. In the past I have cited cases in Minnesota, Texas and elsewhere, but I shall not do so tonight. This measure works. We believe that the possibility of withdrawal of the licence will make non-resident parents thinks twice about trying to evade their responsibilities. Unlike imprisonment and some of the other penalties suggested in another place--for example tagging--this will not bite on the child.
I hope the Committee accepts that what we propose here is an added sanction that is available to magistrates when they determine what to do with someone who repeatedly fails to pay maintenance. We seek to introduce a new penalty, which is of a lesser order than some of the other penalties that are currently available, that may obviate the need for someone to go to prison. We hope that, as shown abroad, the threat of it will ensure that maintenance flows to the child without criminalising the father in so doing. That must be to the advantage of the child and mean that maintenance flows. I hope that as a result noble Lords will withdraw their objections to this proposal.
Earl Russell: Before I say anything else, I shall forgo any advantage which may be derived to my argument from the suggestion that this proposal is discriminatory against men. I am reminded of a rather wise remark by Christina Larner in a book on witchcraft in which she said that prosecution of witchcraft was only anti-female in the sense in which prosecution of violence was anti-male. That remark set up a revolving door which I entered 15 years ago and from which I have not yet emerged. I am not quite so satisfied by the argument about whether this proposal is discriminatory as between drivers and non-drivers. It seems to me that if two people commit the same offence and one is a driver and the other is not the former will be the more severely punished of the two.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Perhaps I may dispute that. If he does not have a driving licence, the alternative would be for the magistrates to consider committal to prison. So it is not true that the person holding a driving licence would be more disadvantaged than someone who does not.
Earl Russell: That brings me to the point on which the Minister spent a great deal of effort about the argument of comparison between prison and deprivation of driving licence. It is an accepted point that if one breaks the law prison may be the ultimate consequence. But what we are comparing here is a spell in prison with being a second-class citizen living in the world outside. I do not think that that comparison is as easy as the Minister suggests.
I accept, of course, that people who are not safe in charge of a motor vehicle must be deprived of a driving licence for the protection of the public. But to turn individuals into second-class citizens in the course of their ordinary life in the world singles out a group of people in a way which causes me some anxieties. I do not want to reach any firm decisions on the question today, but it is a more complicated argument than the Minister realises.
Very much to my surprise, the noble Baroness stated that people who are deprived of their driving licences may obtain other types of work. I do not know what part of the country she is thinking about. There are some where that is possible; there are a great many where it is not. The noble Baroness talked about the driver getting his licence back. That may be so but by