HC Deb 15 July 1963 vol 681 cc205-16

(1) Where during any period (in this section referred to as "the period of default")—

  1. (a) a person was liable to make contributions in respect of a child; but
  2. (b) no order was in force requiring him to make the contributions,
a magistrates' court acting for the petty sessions area where he is for the time being residing may, on the application of the person who would have been entitled to receive payment under such an order, make an order (in this section referred to as an "arrears order") requiring him to pay such weekly sum, for such period, as the court, having regard to his means, thinks fit; but the aggregate of the payments required to be made by any person under an arrears order shall not exceed the aggregate that, in the opinion of the court, would have been payable by him under a contribution order in respect of the period of default or, if it exceeded three months, the last part thereof, less the aggregate of the payments (if any) made by him in respect of his liability during that period or, as the case may be, the last part thereof.

For the purposes of this subsection the last part of the period of default shall be taken to be the last three months thereof and such time, if any, preceding the last three months as is equal to the time during which it continued after the making of the application for the arrears order.

(2) No application for an arrears order shall be made later than three months after the end of the period of default.

(3) An arrears order shall be treated as a contribution order, and payments under it as contributions, for the purposes of the following enactments, that is to say—

(4) Where the person who was liable to make contributions resides in Scotland or Northern Ireland, subsection (1) of this section shall have effect as if for the magistrates' court therein mentioned there were substituted a magistrates' court acting for the petty sessions area where the applicant is for the time being residing or, where the applicant is a local authority, a magistrates' court acting for the area or part of the area of the local authority.

(5) A person liable to make payments under an arrears order shall, except at a time when he is under a duty to give information of his address under section 14(1) of this Act, keep the person to whom the payments are to be made informed of his address; and if he fails to do so he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five pounds.

(6) In this section— child" has the same meaning as in the Children Act 1948, contributions" means contributions under section 86 of the principal Act, and contribution order" means an order under section 87 of the principal Act.—[Mr. Skeffington.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I am glad to see that the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) has added her name to the new Clause. As the side note indicates, its purpose is to secure arrears of contributions from persons liable to make them in respect of their children in care.

I put down this Clause as a result of representations made to me by the London County Council—and because of some memories of experiences of the children's committees of that council from time to time. Since the Clause appeared on the Order Paper I have received communications from a considerable number of town clerks and clerks to authorities, hoping that the Clause will be accepted, and in addition I have had a strong letter of support from the Association of Municipal Corporations on behalf of its members.

Briefly, I want to explain the purpose of the Clause. Under Section86(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, read in conjunction with Sections 23 and 24 of the Children Act, 1948, the father and mother of a person committed to the care either of a fit person or to an approved school, or into the care of a local authority are liable to make contributions in respect of that child. Under Section 87 of the 1933 Act a juvenile magistrates' court at the time of the child's commital or any magistrates' court in the area where the parents reside may subsequently make a contribution order for weekly payments in accordance with the parents' means, to help to support the child.

These contribution orders under Section 87 of the 1933 Act are enforceable as affiliation orders, and it would be fair to conclude from that—although I do not think that this point has ever been decided—that they are effective only from the date on which they are made. However long the period in which a child is in care before the order is made, for all that period of time it is not possible to obtain contributions if the parent does not choose to make them.

Many authorities—including London County Council—work on the assumption that they will get co-operation from the parents and try to obtain a voluntary agreement. The parent is seen; the means are ascertained by the officer investigating the case and these means are then generally checked with the employer. I regret to say that some parents underestimate their income, and it takes between two and three weeks to see the parents and get the details, and get them checked in full and to make out a scheme of payments in accordance with the means of the parents and the authority's scale of payment.

The authorities are still assuming at that stage that the parent will honour the agreement; it would be wrong immediately to apply to the court for a contribution order, so two or three weeks must elapse before it can be certain that the parent will not contribute voluntarily. Then an order has to be obtained from the court, and in the present state of the London Petty Sessions that means another three or four weeks must elapse before the contribution order can be made. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that three months can pass before an order is obtained from the magistrates for the sum which the magistrates think a suitable one according to the demands made by the local authority on a parent's income.

I am not making a general charge, but there are unfortunately a number of parents who know their way about this kind of procedure. They need not and do not notify a change of address, and so more months may pass before it is possible to get an order. Theoretically, there are two ways in which a local authority is supposed to be able to cover this kind of contingency. Theoretically, it can apply to a court—if a juvenile court commits a child to care—for an order, but there are three snags. In the first place the father generally has to make the payment, and he is not in court. It may be some time before he is induced to come to court—if the authority knows where he is. In the second place, it is not possible to find out what the parent's income is in time for the court hearing. The third objection to this theoretical possibility is the fact that many magistrates, certainly in the London area, hold the view—and I think it is right—that the rather emotional atmosphere in which a child is committed to care is not the right place to go into details of what parental contribution there should be. Of course, a much greater reason for rejecting this possibility is the fact that the overwhelming proportion of children who come into care do not do so through the courts, and consequently one cannot apply for an order at that stage.

There is another possibility which is sometimes suggested, and that is that a legal arrangement can be made with the parent by a stamped deed which, if the parent does not contribute, can be enforced in the county court, but I think everybody who has had any experience of these matters will see how highly theoretical that is, because in the first place a non-co-operative parent will not sign the deed or reveal his income, and in the second place, much as I uphold the splendid work the county courts do, they are in many cases a little slow moving, and it would take some months before one could effect any payment under an order of this kind.

The amount which was lost by the London County Council in 1961—I think it was; certainly in one year in the last three years—was £20,000, which was not paid by parents whose children were in care, parents who were in the economic position of being quite able to make a payment. This does not seem quite fair on the rest of the citizens. I do not know what the sum thus lost would be for the whole country, but taking as a basis that about one-eighth of the children in care are under the London County Council the sum which could have been made available for the community at large must be well over £100,000. The Clause is designed to close this gap. Of course if there is no income in a problem family or only a very low income the local authority would not dream of asking for a contribution, and if it did, it is the magistrates who decide, within the scale set forward, what the contribution should be.

A working party of officers of various local councils and of local authority associations recommended this change nearly ten years age, in 1954, and in paragraph 379 of its Report the Ingleby Committee also made a recommendation to the same effect.

The new Clause would work in this way, if it were accepted, as I hope. There would be a new type of order termed an arrears order which would provide for the payment by weekly sums of the amount which would be due if a contribution order had been in force at the time when the parent became liable to contribute. The effect would be that where a child ceased to be in care the extent of the retrospective arrangement would be limited to the last three months of the child's period in care. The decision whether or not to apply for such an order would have to be taken by the local authority within three months of the child's discharge. So that there is a great limitation on the power given in the new Clause. The Ingleby Committee in paragraph 379 of its Report actually suggested six months in both cases. So the new Clause is fairly modest in the suggestion it makes.

The Clause has had most distinguished and eminent draftsmen, and the House will therefore realise that it is not my own. The complicated wording in the last sentence of subsection (1,b) is to allow arrears orders to be made in respect of the period commencing three months before the date of the issue of the summons, where a child remains in care. The reason for this provision follows from what I was saying earlier, that though a parent may be under an obligation to give his address, it is often difficult to serve a summons. They have to be served personally, and months may go by before the summons is effectively served. If, however, the parent knew that however long the delay his obligation would still remain, that would save a great waste of time by officials who could be better employed looking after other of their activities for children. It is hoped that this provision would discourage delaying tactics.

There is a provision for the address in subsection (5) where the duty does not already exist under the Act. The Clause will not allow arrears orders to be made against a child over 16 in respect of his own contributions. These cases arise from time to time.

I remind hon. Members that there has been widespread support for the Clause. It would not be exercised where the parent had no means or very little. Local authorities do not commonly take action where parents have no means. In any event, the magistrates have the last word on a contribution order which was so made for weekly payments. I hope that the House will accept the new Clause. I feel that it is a modest contribution to the Bill and closes a gap which we should not tolerate where payment can reasonably be made.

11.30 p.m.

Miss Vickers

I support the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) in the new clause; he was modest about it, but it is quite an important Clause because it will aid parents and encourage them to contribute voluntarily, which is what we want. I believe that more than half the parents who should contribute in fact do not do so. Parents do not contribute unless they are forced to do so by court order. Other difficulties also arise. For instance, if the mother is ill or having another child, there may be difficulty about the payments and these often are not made. Considerable debts accumulate to the local authority.

I agree with the hon. Member that the Clause would not be enforced where there were financial difficulties. But my right hon. Friend knows that there are certain parents who do not intend to pay; they are apt to part with their children with no intention of paying.

On page 111 of the Ingleby Report the Committee sets out in detail its views on this matter and supports all that has been said by the hon. Member. A similar provision was moved as an Amendment in another place and the Government spokesman there seemed fairly sympathetic.

I lay special emphasis on the last point made by the hon. Member—that the Clause will not allow arrears orders to be made against a child over 16 in respect of his own contributions. This is important because these are often exceptional circumstances in which people would find it difficult to pay Action must be taken within three months, otherwise the child ceases to be in care—and that is another safeguard for the individual. I hope that my right hon. Friend will sympathetically consider the Amendment in view of what was said in another place and of the way in which the hon. Member has proposed it.

Sir B. Janner

The Association of Municipal Corporations is in favour of the acceptance of the Clause. The present position is that, where children or young persons are received into the care of children authorities under Section 1 of the Children Act, 1948—the section which covers the position where children come into the care of the council under the terms of that section and sot by virtue of a court order—or are committed to the care of an authority by an order of the court under the Children and Young Persons Act, 1944, or committed to approved schools, application may be made by the children authority to the magistrates for a contribution order requiring the payment to be made by the parent of such weekly sum towards the cost of the children who are taken into care, as is reasonable having regard to his means.

I understand that the cost of maintaining children in care is often great. In the financial year 1962–63 the average cost for each child in Leicester council homes was about £10 a week. This figure is not exceptional when compared with the cost to other authorities. In the view of the Leicester council it is incumbent to recover from the parent such amount as is reasonable, having regard to his means, for the whole period the child is in care. At present the council is in a difficulty because this cannot be achieved. When a child or young person comes in the care of the council, by whatever Statute, there is a delay, says the Leicester council, of between three and four weeks from the time he is so received into care till the time the magistrates are able to hear the application for the contribution order.

Although parents often make voluntary payments to the city council in respect of the maintenance of their children for the intervening period, there are persons who, not facing up to their responsibility as parents, fail or refuse to pay anything for this period. As the law stands at present, there is nothing to compel the parent to pay in respect of his child's maintenance for the period. The consequence is that the council loses the arrears. On the other hand, there is a compulsion upon the council to maintain the child.

The Leicester council's children's officer estimates that in the period 1960 to date the council has lost £400. That is nothing compared with what the London County Council has lost, but a much smaller area is involved. This sum would be literally turned into thousands of £s if no voluntary payments were made.

It is said by opponents of the Clause that it is wrong in principle to enact a Measure requiring retrospective payments to be made, but there is such a Section in the Affiliation Proceedings Act, 1957, which enables the court when a complaint for an affiliation order is laid within two months after the birth of the child to order not only a future weekly payment but retrospective pay- ments from the date of the order to the date of the child's birth.

In support of my hon. Friend I have given these facts and figures concerning Leicester. Many of my hon. Friends could give similar facts from their counties. There is no reason why a person who is able to pay should not be called upon to pay. I have given a precedent for requiring retrospective payments to be made. I hope that the Minister will accept the Motion.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

Hon. Members will have listened with interest to the good case put forward in favour of the new Clause. I do not think that hon. Members will desire me, at this late hour, to go over the arguments again. The new Clause brings in a principle arising out of the Ingleby Committees' recommendations and it is welcomed by the local authorities. For these reasons I advise the House to accept the new Clause.

Mr. Hannan

Before we proceed to pass the new Clause, I must confess that I am not clear about what the position will be from Scotland's point of view, for it is stated in subsection (4): Where the person who was liable to make contributions resides in Scotland or Northern Ireland, subsection (1) of this section shall have effect … This presumably means that someone who is due to pay a sum of money to maintain his or her child in England but that person resides in Scotland will, under the Clause, still be responsible for such payments. If the Clause does apply to Scotland should not there be a provision whereby anyone who is responsible for payments in Scotland but is residing south of the Border will, nevertheless, make those contributions?

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. R. Brooman-White)

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member, but the new Clause does not apply to Scotland. When it was being mooted we consulted the Scottish local authority associations. I do not want to dampen the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington), but I must tell him that the Scottish local authorities were not at all enthusiastic for the Clause—for practical reasons. The English authorities were enthusiastic for it.

Following the Scottish, response we felt that, since a number of matters concerned with the Bill were due for further consideration after the Kilbrandon Report, we would see how it worked out in England first and then follow it in Scotland at a later stage if that was thought desirable.

Mr. MacColl

The main point in the new Clause which worried me when I first saw it was the question of arrears. I feared that it might create considerable difficulties if the court, faced with a request to make an order—not only for paying off the current amount but finding someone whose finances were already rocky—declared that in addition to the present amount a person was liable to pay off a substantial amount of past arrears. Such a situation, I thought, might create a considerable debt and might upset the whole arrangement. However, it is to be at the discretion of the court to decide the order it will make. Presumably it will be expected to take account of the circumstances.

As to the period mentioned in the new Clause, I would not like to see it longer than six months. Even that would be excessive. In view of the advantage which arises from the encouragement it gives to make agreements without going to court—not only a more civilised arrangement but helpful considering the long lists facing courts today—I am glad that the hon. Lady has accepted the new Clause.

Dame Irene Ward

The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) need have no fears about what the courts will feel about the new Clause. Magistrates' courts will be delighted that it has been accepted. I hope that the local authorities will accept their responsibilities and ensure that if the parents are in default, they will go to the magistrates' courts at the earliest possible moment and so save the public purse a great deal of expense.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne has had considerable difficulty in the past. That local authority might have taken action earlier. However, I now hope that local authorities generally will take advantage of the provisions of the new Clause. I also hope that the Scottish Office will consider the matter and will insist on a similar new Clause being introduced into the Scottish legislation.

11.45 p.m.

I have always understood that the whole idea of the Government was to try to save the public purse. It is pretty horrifying that we have had to wait until this stage of the Bill for a new Clause to be moved by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington), supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers). I should have thought that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would have protected the public purse without waiting for the new Clause to be moved from the back benches. The same applies to Scotland and I hope that the Government will take note that the ratepayers would like action on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland as well.

Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I cannot let that statement go without saying, as a member of a local authority and a children's committee, that I can assure the hon. Lady that local authorities are most anxious to reclaim as much money as possible in this direction and that they do everything they can to obtain it. My own local authority employs a special officer to do this work and it goes to great length to recover as much money as possible. It is most unfair of the hon. Lady to assert that local authorities are not fully aware of their responsibilities to save ratepayers' money.

Dame Irene Ward

The hon. Lady may have the best local authority in the world, but I am a magistrate and I feel deeply on this matter. I have observed on the bench how the Newcastle authority has allowed arrears to develop over a period. The hon. Lady is entitled to speak for her local authority. I am entitled to speak for the bench on which I serve.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second lime, and added to the Bill.