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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, it would also mean that no matter how inadequate the level of maintenance, the parent with care would always be prevented from applying to the CSA if the non-resident parent paid up. The noble Baroness appears to be saying that if the non-resident parent paid maintenance, but at a level which the parent with care later thought was inadequate, the latter would have no right to go to the CSA. It is precisely in such cases, where the maintenance is inadequate because it is low, where the non-resident parent is most likely to be paying in full.
Amendment No. 16 seeks to change the 12-month waiting period to six months instead. We know that new court orders for child maintenance can be made only where the parents have previously consented to a written maintenance agreement. With that in mind, we have decided that any new "consent" order should be in place for at least 12 months to give it time to bed in. We believe that six months, which the amendment proposes, is too short. We do not want to encourage a knee-jerk reaction; we want time for reflection and mediation and not possibly vindictive behaviour. We want fairness between the parties in that if one party can go to the CSA, so can the other.
Amendment No. 17 seeks to address a particular problem which was a feature of court-based maintenance in the past; the risk that parents with care were forced to accept lower maintenance under duress, causing the children to lose out. But the CSA would be placed in an impossible position in trying to decide whether a court order, perhaps made several years previously, should fall within this provision. The CSA would inevitably have to take the parent with care's word for it, leading to endless litigation. I really do not think that we should go down that path.
Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 would, if enacted, give back to the courts the power to set levels of child maintenance in any case where they were making other financial arrangements, such as a property settlement or an order for spousal maintenance. These amendments give the courts an increased jurisdiction by allowing county courts to change a court order where an application for financial relief, such as spousal maintenance, is already before them. This means that both the courts and the CSA could potentially be involved in assessing child maintenance for the same child. That form of parallel jurisdiction is confusing, unhelpful and, we believe, not in the best interests of the child.
All of these amendments fly in the face of our plans to reform the child support scheme. We have moved a long way from the starting point of the Conservative government, which was that the CSA figures should apply to all arrangements, including those of the court, without any discretion at all. We have listened to the lawyers and Members opposite. As a result, we have decided that where the parties agree they need never come to the CSA. The CSA is there as a fallback. Both lawyers know that if either party is unhappy he or she can return to the CSA. Therefore, each lawyer knows that it is not in his client's interests to seek to exploit the other--whichever way it goes--on the issue of child maintenance because ultimately the aggrieved party can have recourse to the CSA. Therefore, that issue will no longer be subject to conflict and the whole debate will be on the other elements.
The protection of children is at the heart of our child support scheme. We believe it is right that maintenance proposals should be as simple as possible and that parents should have discretion to make alternative arrangements as private cases if they wish. If those arrangements come unstuck, they can turn to the CSA. Because they have recourse to the CSA those arrangements are less likely to come unstuck. Therefore, we hope that child maintenance will become less adversarial and flow more regularly, which is in the best interests of the child. With that, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very full response to my plea in relation to these amendments. We have had a full debate. The Minister has been made aware of the concerns in your Lordships' House, in another place and among a number of different organisations. We understand the intention of the Government to improve the CSA and its working. However, I am still unable to understand how that will assist with caseload. The caseload has been one of the reasons for the problems with the CSA in terms of breakdowns, delays and lack of communication. The noble Baroness called it "the Mexican wave"; I call it "forced mediation", but I take her point, sexist though it sounded.
As to the two-month period, that is for mediation and the proverbial wet towel on the head. I hope that in practice that will be enough time for the parties to reconsider any disagreement or breakdown in the court arrangements. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for his support for these amendments. There is no question but that most of the arrangements executed by the courts are good, effective, and stem from the involvement of people of experience and expertise who are very flexible in their approach.
Finally, I thank the Minister for her response to Amendment No. 20. I understand that, as currently drafted, it is not acceptable to the Government. Nevertheless, I thank the Minister for her positive response and look forward to the proposed amendment to be tabled at Third Reading. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 21, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 22 to 24. These are probing amendments. I begin by confirming our support for the Government's proposals in Clause 3. The purpose of the amendments is to extend further the provisions in the clause by providing that the Secretary of State should not be constrained or controlled as currently proposed. With regard to applications by those who claim or receive benefit, the proposed new Section 6(5) provides that,
In tabling these amendments we seek to highlight a difficult area; namely, those cases in which there is a history of violence. On the face of it, these amendments may be surprising. It may appear to make sense that, as currently drafted, the Bill should not exert any pressure on a claimant to produce information where that may hurt a former partner. But we believe that it is important for an aggrieved parent to be secure in the knowledge that a non-resident parent, who may be overbearing and aggressive, cannot benefit by physical intimidation or unpleasant or unreasonable behaviour and so, by persuasion, prevent the agency from gathering the necessary information. I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, at the beginning of this process we faced a basic dilemma. We did not at any stage want to endanger the safety or mental or emotional health of women and children. Clearly, we could have gone down one of two paths. One was to say that good cause should be extended. As to that, our fear was that as a result maintenance could be a voluntary payment. Alternatively, to a degree we could have followed the path described by the noble Baroness and tightened up the procedures dramatically so that no non-resident parent who was abusive, emotionally or physically, could be rewarded for that bad behaviour by being able to apply duress to the
As a result we tightened up the administrative procedures. Instead of the parent with care having to opt into the collection of child maintenance--to begin with we had only a 30 per cent co-operation rate--we established a system where she had to opt out, and with a tighter timetable. Already that, together with our other changes in procedure, is establishing greater compliance.
Under the scheme a lone parent who claims income support or income-based JSA must make an application for child maintenance but is not required to do so if there is good cause: that there is risk to her or any child living with her suffering harm or undue stress as a result.
The changes to be introduced in the new scheme will mean that parents with care who make a claim for income support or income-based JSA will be treated as having applied for child support unless they specifically request that child support should not be pursued.
We then have the definition of "good cause". We are doing that not only to speed up procedures but because we do not want to increase the risk of parents with care having to be seen to seek child support which might give signals to an abusive partner that he can bully her out of so doing. Our new approach makes it clear that child support action is linked to the benefit claim and that it is not a separate process for which the parent with care must apply. We think that that process will be not only more streamlined but safer for her because it leaves her less vulnerable to harassment and bullying. We are sending a clear signal to the parent with care and the non-resident parent that maintenance is not an optional extra. They must pay unless there is good cause or good reason why they cannot.
Amendment No. 21 seeks to toughen up the good cause provisions by removing the Secretary of State's powers not to treat the benefit claim as an application to child support in certain circumstances. This amendment would have the effect of delaying the process of deciding whether or not to take child support by not allowing the CSA to make the judgment that the parent with care is clearly at risk. As well as causing unnecessary distress to vulnerable parents with care, this amendment does not help children.
Amendment No. 22 similarly requires that the Secretary of State will act to recover child maintenance unless the parent with care asks him not to do so. This has the effect of placing more onus on the parent with care to opt out of claiming child support. We believe that it is important that we should not pursue maintenance at the outset if we know that the parent with care would then be at risk.
It would be wrong to assume that all parents with care who do not opt out will want to claim child support. In some circumstances the parent with care may be in emotional turmoil or under threat and unable to take the necessary action to opt out. Amendment No. 22 would have the effect of forcing the Secretary of State to recover child maintenance in these cases where she did not opt out and would put pressure on the parent with care to have to opt out in what may be difficult circumstances.
I am aware that the noble Baroness is concerned that we might not be doing enough to discourage fraud; or that we might encourage aggressive behaviour against the parent with care. In the usual Ministers' phrase, we think that we have got the balance about right.
We are satisfied that the policy has already gone a long way to discourage fraud and collusion and to encourage parents with care to co-operate with the CSA. About 85 per cent of parents with care choose now to apply for child support which compares with only 30 per cent a few years ago. But there will always be a small minority of parents who do not want to co-operate with the CSA--for example, women who have done an informal deal with their ex-partner so that he gives cash but pays less than if he had been assessed by the CSA. To some extent the previous system encouraged this. By having the maintenance disregard, and so on, we hope that we have a system which builds out that type of fraud and collusion.
On top of that, the new scheme will mean that the CSA provides a more streamlined service better able to meet customers' needs. As a result, we hope that a parent with care who has maintenance collected through the CSA will benefit from being able to use the CSA and will receive the money to which she is entitled.
Amendment No. 23 requires the parent with care to opt out within 14 days of being notified of her right to do so. This amendment has the effect of adding a further 14 days to the initial stage. Setting a formal time-scale of 14 days to respond will build unnecessary delays into the process. In the new scheme, benefit claims are treated as a claim for child support unless the parent with care decides to opt out. This provides the Secretary of State with the power to start the recovery of child maintenance as soon as it is feasibly possible.
Normally when a parent with care makes a claim for benefit, an interview will take place. If she is happy to receive child maintenance, her claim will be processed straightaway. If the parent with care wants to opt out, she may give her reasons immediately and, if they are accepted, the case will be closed and reviewed at a later date. So in many cases child maintenance can be processed immediately.
However, there may be times when the parent with care may be unsure about claiming child support and may want extra time to consider her options. We want this discretion and flexibility to continue in the new scheme. We think that a period of two weeks is normally sufficient. But we would not want a statutory
I turn now to Amendment No. 24 which relates to subsection (7) of Clause 3. This requires the parent with care to provide information for a child support assessment even if she has opted out. The amendment would have the effect of forcing all parents with care and claiming benefit to provide details of the non-resident parent, regardless of whether they had opted out of child support. In practice, the CSA would have to obtain information about non-resident parents, even though in some cases the information could not be acted upon. This amendment would have the effect of forcing the CSA to waste vital resources in collecting and chasing information in cases where it was not going to collect maintenance. This would not be sensible. The information would not be used; it would soon become out-of-date; and the efforts by the CSA would have been pointless.
The amendment could also cause some distress to those parents with care who have good cause, who would be asked to give information even it were not necessarily followed up--for example, where the child was conceived after a case of rape--at a sensitive and difficult time.
I am sorry to have taken so long but these are technical issues. It is right to probe them. All the amendments in this group would introduce more complications and delay in the recovery of child maintenance. We are trying to eliminate that; we are trying to get the balance right between protecting the parent with care, without at the same time giving perverse signals to an abusive non-resident parent. We have taken a great deal of advice. All the advice given throughout our consultation period--we have had a Green Paper and a White Paper--suggests that we have now got the balance about right. I hope that my answer may have persuaded the noble Baroness of that.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her full and clear response to these probing amendments. I am glad that the noble Baroness agrees that it is right to probe these arrangements which have caused concern among many in different organisations. All of us have been consulted on these issues.