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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: All the research available to us suggests that, for example, where lone parents thwart contact--that happens in 42 per cent of cases--that is not in the best interests of the child. Surely, the noble Earl accepts that there will be occasions when, for example, the lone parent has a new partner who wants her to cut all her ties with the former partner, even though the child needs those ties. In those cases her interests as she perceives them and the best interests of the child will be at odds. We believe that where that happens it is the responsibility of government to side with the child, which is what we are doing here. We hope that that does not happen very often, but the noble Earl will accept that that can and does occur. In my experience such cases arise.
I am confident that we are doing all that we can to ensure that there are sufficient safeguards in place so that parents at risk do not suffer accidentally. No one should suffer such a penalty through ignorance. If the woman's circumstances change and she forms a new relationship she may not fully understand the financial implications, for example that she must still seek child maintenance if her new partner is on benefit. For that reason, not only do we seek to set up the system so that financially it is attractive to her, and in her interest, to co-operate; we attempt to back it by improving the quality of advice through the development of the face-to-face service and the opportunities and contacts that she has.
Those who claim good cause are, we believe, treated in an understanding way by staff who are specially trained in the procedures. The training and procedural instructions were designed following considerable consultation with clients and key groups representing lone parents. Therefore, the staff who work with lone parents and seek to determine whether or not good cause is appropriate have been trained in part by the organisations that represent lone parents. We have done everything we possibly can to ensure that that training is professional and that there is an incentive.
It may shock the Committee to learn--this may put noble Lords into the mindset of the issues with which we must deal--that the Government seriously considered the removal of the provision of good cause altogether and making it mandatory for everyone to name, as happens in many European countries and in broad terms in the United States and New Zealand. Those countries have decided that by making it mandatory they can better protect the lone parent and
We seriously considered whether that offered better protection to the lone parent than the policies that we had pursued. However, as a result of the consultation exercise on the Green Paper, I was persuaded that that would send out a wrong signal about domestic violence and that, although it might stop some men, where the man was under the influence of drugs or alcohol the risk might continue and we did not want that.
It is important to bear in mind that parents who do not receive child maintenance will lose any chance of receiving the child maintenance premium. In all, 600,000 children in the poorest families stand to gain over £150 million a year through the maintenance premium, and individual families will be up to £10 a week better off. We hope that that will be real money which goes to children.
Amendment No. 102 would also result in children losing out in child maintenance. This amendment would decrease and time-limit the reduced benefit decisions. Here, what is proposed is a 10 per cent, instead of a 40 per cent, sanction for six months. Before October 1996 when the current sanction of 40 per cent was introduced, there was a sanction of 20 per cent for six months and then 10 per cent for a year. However, at that time around 70 per cent of parents with care initially claimed that they had good cause not to co-operate with the CSA, and of those only about 8 per cent were found to have good cause. No one of whom I am aware whose good cause has been rejected has subsequently gone on to experience violence. I have no evidence to suggest that the CSA has ever made a wrong decision on that.
These figures were a cause for concern and the subject of a report by the Social Security Select Committee in June 1996 which recommended a strengthening of the sanctions. We want a meaningful penalty. Amendment No. 102 would reduce the sanction and time-limit it to six months. The effect would be to reduce the benefit of a parent with care by about £5, instead of £20, per week. I do not believe that that would be effective in encouraging the lone parent to co-operate or that it would be high enough to discourage the manipulation of the benefit system that I have just described.
Amendments Nos. 97 and 98 would delay the introduction of a reduced benefit penalty for two years from the introduction of the child maintenance premium. The underlying purpose of a reduced benefit direction is to encourage parents with care to apply for child support, unless they have good cause for failing to do so. To delay the introduction of this penalty would reduce the incentive and mean that many parents with care would not seek child maintenance. It would also mean that many fathers would be exempt for a period of up to two years from paying maintenance if the woman chose not to name him and, as a result, would not get into the habit of paying. The hope and expectation that after two years' grace he would go on to pay maintenance with willingness seems to be Utopian. I do not know why the figure was chosen. The Social Security Select Committee believed that during the five-year phasing-in period the new incentives should be given a chance to work before the provisions of Clause 19 were brought into effect. We do not believe that that is reasonable.
Amendments Nos. 94, 95, 96, 99 and 101 remove a number of subsections from Clause 19. Their effect is to retain Clause 19 but to make it unworkable. I should like to quote to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, the words of Mr Pickles in another place at Committee stage on 3rd February. When dealing with a similar amendment moved by the Liberal Democrat Party, he said:
I think that it would be deeply unfair, to taxpayers, other fathers and, above all, to children, to make child support voluntary, which is what the removal of RBDs would do, and to transfer the responsibility to other fathers--not that particular father, but generalised other fathers--to take on the care of those children. Why should some non-resident parents walk away from their responsibilities without good cause and, frankly, place those same responsibilities on other people who, because they are taxpayers, cannot protest about it? I do not believe that child support should be voluntary. The cluster of these amendments, subject to the provisions I have made with the noble Lord opposite, would make it voluntary. We know that the failure to pay child maintenance is bad for the financial and the emotional health of the child. Therefore, if Members of the Committee are on the side of the child, they will join me today in urging the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Earl Russell: If the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, will forgive me, perhaps I may say that I understand the Minister's concern about non-resident parents walking away from their responsibilities. I suggest that in many cases the Minister is pursuing that concern at the expense of the child. The Minister thinks in categories. She thinks in averages. I ask the noble Baroness to read Hansard tomorrow and to ask herself how many times she has used the phrase "the child". One child is not like another. The average child is quite a rare animal. The Minister has great confidence that she is able to judge the interests of this mythical child better than the parent.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Can the noble Earl cite me any child who would not be better off if the family were not receiving maintenance? I think that it is perfectly proper to generalise in that respect.
Earl Russell: Perhaps the Minister could consider the possibility that although material matters are important, a child's interests may not be a matter of material factors alone. The happiness of the environment, the sense of safety and peace, and the avoidance of being in the middle of a game of battledore and shuttlecock may matter to a child. Money matters, but it is not the only factor. Until we take that on board, we cannot have a serious debate.
I ask the Minister one final question. She will not think it material, but I shall ask her before answering it to pause for one deep breath long enough to wonder why I think that it is material. Let us suppose that the Minister is on benefit and is threatened with a benefit penalty of this size if she does not join the Conservative Party. Would she do so?
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