HC Deb 13 July 1988 vol 137 cc480-91
Dr. Marek

I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 6, line 31, after 'but' insert— `The officer shall not require the suspect to submit to a strip or intimate search without receiving an authorisation from a superior officer of the rank of senior executive or higher and'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 18, in page 6, line 34, at end insert— '(2B) The officer informing the suspect of the effect of subsection (3) below when requiring him to submit to searches of his person, whether rub-down, strip or intimate shall take him before a justice of the peace or before a superior officer of a rank of senior executive or higher, or in the case of the suspect being required to submit to a rub-down search, to such a superior officer if he is not satisfied that the suspect is fully aware of the effect of subsection (3) below.' No. 82, in page 6, line 34, at end, insert— '(2A) The officer informing the suspect of the effect of subsection (3) below shall do so verbally and offer to do so in writing if the suspect so desires.' No. 79, in page 6, line 37, at end, insert `(of a senior executive rank or higher)'. No. 83, in page 7, line 10, at end insert— `(5A) The Commissioners shall formulate a code of practice under which any powers in this section shall be exercised.'

Dr. Marek

My right hon. and hon. Friends have tabled five amendments dealing with the Customs and Excise management of searching and detection of people who enter the country but do not abide by the laws on drugs and other proscribed materials. Amendment No. 83 is a comprehensive amendment. It deals with a code of practice, and covers many issues. Amendment No. 80 deals with the seniority of the officer who shall require a type of search to be undertaken. Amendments Nos. 81 and 82 are related in that they deal with a suspect being fully aware of his or her rights, and say that information on these rights should be made available not just verbally but in writing. At the least, the suspect should be told that the information is available if he or she desires to see it.

I hope that the debate will not be too long, as the night is getting on, but this is an important matter. The debate should not be party political as both sides of the House want an efficient procedure that is understood and respected by the public.

Customs officers have powers of search and detention. In many ways those powers exceed the powers of the police. When a policeman arrests a person, the arrest is covered by a code of practice. At present there is no code of practice for customs officers. Even though the suspect is not arrested, customs officers have powers of detention. I hope that I will get a careful reply from the Economic Secretary. It should be stated somewhere that customs officers will only use their powers reasonably and that any detention should be reasonable pertaining to the circumstances. If a code of practice is established, it should define what it would be reasonably necessary for a customs officer to do in pursuance of his duty.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Can my hon. Friend explain why it is necessary to establish a new code of practice for customs officers rather than simply to apply the code of practice which exists under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984? Having established after a great deal of parliamentary debate a code of practice for one group of people to carry out searches, why should we want a different code of practice for Customs and Excise officers? I fear that the Government's view is that there should not be any code of practice. If we want the public to know their rights, it would be much better to have one code of practice for all searches.

Dr. Marek

Home Office code C would probably do very well for customs officers. On the other hand, the powers are slightly different. Customs officers have a power of detention which is not a power of arrest. The Economic Secretary may say that there will have to be changes in the code of practice to accommodate the slightly different position. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) may want to make a short contribution later to amplify the point.

When a suspect is detained, his or her rights should be imparted to the suspect verbally or by written notice. If a suspect is required to undergo an intimate or strip search, the suspect should have the right to go to a justice of the peace or a senior officer. In the case of a rubdown search, the suspect would have the right to go to a senior officer if he or she so wished.

Many suspects speak English well, and nearly all of them are accommodating; there are no problems because they realise that customs officers have a difficult job to do. I am concerned about the one case in 10,000 where a problem might arise. Human beings are human beings and we are all imperfect in one way or another. Misunderstandings can arise. In those circumstances, there should be clarification of the procedures so that the public can have confidence in customs officers. I urge the Economic Secretary to ensure that written notice is available to a suspect.

The written notice could be not just in English. Many people entering this country do not speak English, so it would have to be in a sufficient number of languages. We can never get that absolutely right. Some people are illiterate. We cannot take account of cases where people cannot read and do not speak English but speak a language that no official at the port of entry speaks. I do not ask for 100 per cent. cover in every eventuality, but we can go a long way towards that. Although we go some way towards that at present, it would be a great advantage if a written notice of rights, in various languages, were available.

I should like the notice to be in large type so that, if an old person had to read it, he or she would have no trouble in doing so. I hope that such bodies as the National Council for Civil Liberties and any organisations for the avoidance of gobbledegook would be consulted, so that the document would he easy to read and understand for people who were stopped at the port of entry.

If the suspect decides to ask to go before a justice of the peace, he should know that he can be in the presence of the justice of the peace when he hears the reasons for the officer's suspicions which led him to require that a search be made of the subject. Again. it is a question of making sure that the suspect is fully aware of his or her rights. I understand that it may not be possible to thrust a great deal of written material about rights into everyone's hand. regardless of whether they want it. However, a code of practice should be instigated whereby an officer, if he is unsure whether a suspect is fully aware of his or her rights, can go to a justice of the peace or offer written details of the procedure to be adopted. In that way, he can be satisfied that the suspect understands exactly what is expected of him. There is an Opposition amendment to that effect.

If there is an intimate or strip search, a record of that should be made and a copy given to the subject showing which parts of the body were searched. The code of practice should state clearly that, in the case of a strip or intimate search, no suspect should be left completely naked at any one time and that any such search should be carried out on only one half or one third of the body at a time. I hope that the Economic Secretary will be able to confirm that that is the practice now, but it should definitely be included in the code of practice.

The record of the search should also state why the suspect was searched and give the reasons for the suspicions. It should show the name and rank of the authorising officer and of the person conducting the search. It should also give the circumstances that gave rise to suspicion. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will confirm that that was recommended by the Keith committee but has not been implemented despite its being part of police procedure.

12.15 am

A code of practice should be able to deal with a situation, and let the public know what happens, where, for example, an officer believes that a suspect might injure himself or herself unless a search is made immediately. In some circumstances, that could be a real fear and lead to an officer having to make a difficult decision.

If a suspect is arrested, he or she has the right to telephone a solicitor. That should be made clear in a code of practice. Samples of urine or blood should be taken only if consent is given in writing. That is the case now and it should be spelt out in a code of practice so that everybody knows where they stand.

I understand that officers of senior executive rank or higher have to authorise initimate searches. That should also be the case for strip searches. They demand that a subject is partially naked and it is only right that SEOs or above authorise such searches. Unless I am persuaded by my hon. Friends, I would not go so far as to say that that should apply to rubdown searches.

It should also be clear that if a code of practice is instigated its findings would be admissible in evidence in any subsequent civil or criminal proceedings. Indeed, the code of practice used by the police says that.

Suspects in Customs and Excise matters do not have statutory rights, unlike those arrested by the police. Therefore, all the matters that I have raised require serious consideration, and I shall be interested to hear what the Economic Secretary has to say.

Mr. Darling

We had a useful discussion on this matter in Committee on 12 May. Opposition Members raised matters that appeared to find sympathy with some Conservative Members, although I do not see any of them here at present.

Whenever we discuss the Customs and Excise it is important to emphasise at the outset that most people recognise that its officers have a difficult job, being responsible for the detection of a large number of people who seek to import goods illegally or to avoid the payment of duty.

However, it is important that there is co-operation from the public and confidence that everyone will be treated properly and in the same way. It is important to remember that everyone who is stopped must be presumed to be innocent until they are found to have contravened some regulation.

As I said in Committee, most people have had the experience of being flagged down by a customs officer on their return from a trip abroad to be asked whether they fully understand what going through the green channel means and to be reminded of the regulations on bringing drinks, cigarettes, and so on, into Britain. I am sure that any hon. Member who has been so stopped has felt slight indignation and resentment at being seized upon because, as far as they were concerned, they were innocent and there was no need to be stopped. People are often stopped in the presence of their fellow passengers and that can be an embarrassing experience.

It would be useful for Customs and Excise staff to have a code of conduct of which members of the public should be aware so that they need not feel aggrieved and embarrassing situations need not arise. While I am sure that the vast majority of customs officers are very courteous and will explain quite patiently, sometimes in the face of abuse, what is required of passengers, unfortunately some cases have arisen from time to time which have given cause for disquiet. Some of those have led to very embarrassing and discomforting scenes at airports and ports around the country. Those cases have led to unfortunate publicity.

The code of conduct should deal with the circumstances under which someone should be stopped. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which applies only to England and Wales. I referred in Committee to the code of conduct laid down in that Act. That code refers to the powers of stop and search and deals in particular with reasonable suspicion, contrasting that with mere suspicion. It makes the point that reasonable suspicion must be founded on fact. It may well be that there are justifiable grounds to allow a customs officer to stop someone on a hunch. I am sure that there must be many occasions when an officer has a hunch and subsequently finds some goods. I do not know whether that is right or not and I am willing to be persuaded. However, I would like to think that a Customs officer has a reason to stop someone.

It would be useful if the officer had to record in writing his reason for stopping someone. When the Minister replied to this point in Committee, he said that he did not think that that would be practical, as about 44,000 people were stopped a year. However, it would be practical for a customs officer in a particular port to provide someone who is stopped with written reasons why that has happened. Sometimes the reason for stopping someone is discovered subsequently. In other words, the action is justified by the findings rather than the officer being asked to justify his stopping in the first place. There are good grounds for considering the issuing of written reasons.

It would be useful to remind officers that they must have a reason for stopping someone and that when they stop someone the conversation that follows should be conducted as courteously as possible. If possible, the questions put to the passenger should be asked in such a way that fellow passengers cannot overhear what is being said. Once a customs officer begins to go through someone's possessions, that process should be conducted in such a way that other passengers are not privy to the operation. That search can be very embarrassing and unnecessarily humiliating for someone who, as I said, must be presumed to be innocent until contrary evidence comes to light.

If officers are searching for prohibited magazines, or tape recordings, they need only carry out a search that would reveal the existence of those magazines or tape recordings. Two of my constituents complained to me that they were stopped and searched because they were suspected of bringing prohibited material into this country. They wondered why on earth they were subjected to an intimate body search and internal examination. Common sense would have dictated that that was not necessary if the officers were looking for magazines or tape recordings. It angers people when they are subjected to such searches because that may he construed as something more than a search. I stress that that does not happen regularly, but it happens and it can be an unnecessary cause of aggravation.

Intimate body searches, rubdown searches or simply body searches should be conducted in the presence of as senior an officer as possible, who is fully aware of all the procedures that should be followed.

We should emphasise that at no time should a member of the opposite sex be in a room where someone is to be searched. There is no reason why someone should not have a friend or relative present while such a search is being carried out. It can be frightening to be taken into a room in the presence of two officers whom a person has not seen before. I cannot see what prejudice can be suffered by having a friend present. Some people subjected to such searches have been shocked, frightened and scarred by the experience.

As a matter of course, the public should be informed of their rights at an early opportunity. Often, people are stopped and searched when they do not expect it, and they are not fully conversant with the rights and remedies that are available to them. I do not see what harm would be caused if such a code of conduct were to be published and made widely available.

Many of these points were made in Committee. The Minister's reply was disappointing. He seemed to think that there was no need for a code of conduct. As has been said, the police have one. I cannot see why Customs and Excise officers cannot have one. A code of practice would help Customs and Excise officers, and it would certainly help members of the public. Over the summer months, when, in the nature of things, more of our constituents travel than at other times, hon. Members will receive letters from people who have had unfortunate experiences. Given a little thought and consideration, most unfortunate experiences can be avoided. A code of conduct would be useful. The Minister said two months ago that he would think about the matter. I hope that he will give us the benefit of his thoughts. It would be a welcome step.

I do not believe that it will do any harm to have a code of practice—far from it. It would make the public aware of the difficult circumstances in which Customs and Excise officers work and the valuable work that they do. They need our support to do that work.

Mr. Lilley

I pay tribute to the way in which this issue has been debated in Committee and in the House. All hon. Members have recognised that Customs and Excise officers have a difficult but necessary job which, on occasions, must require extremely unpleasant tasks to be undertaken. We all agree that it is important to ensure that such tasks are undertaken properly and with appropriate safeguards. The clause that we introduced in Committee was designed to give legal backing to guarantees for the citizen. In large measure, they implement the key proposals on the issue.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) made several points. I shall mention two in particular. He said that the present law might allow customs officials to search people on the basis of mere suspicion. In fact, they must have reasonable suspicion, which is closely defined in law and by practice. It means that they require evidence—more than a hunch.

Mr. Darling

I fully appreciate that they must have reasonable grounds. I am willing to be persuaded that perhaps, in some cases, something less than reasonable grounds might be acceptable, but certainly not without a code of conduct. Under the law as it is presently framed, a hunch is not sufficient.

Mr. Lilley

I misinterpreted the hon. Gentleman's point. He suggested, if anything, an extension of customs powers, reinforced by a code of conduct. We do not propose to move in that direction. It would be hard to square it with the general tendency to tighten up civil liberties in that respect.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) asked whether there should be a code of practice specifically for customs. Customs officers are obliged to follow the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice on arrest, search and questioning and have regard to the spirit of the code in matters to which it does not specifically apply because of the different nature of the two professions. Even after listening carefully to the points that hon. Members have made, I am not persuaded that it would be helpful to have a second separate and overlapping code for customs. It would be confusing in practice and would rarely be looked at by members of the public. Of course, it would add to the confusion that those involved in customs and police duties would face.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

The Minister says that Customs and Excise ought to follow the spirit of the code that is available under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Should that not be translated so that both the general public and the customs officers can see whether they are acting in the spirit of the code? If it is possible for them to do so, surely the code should be written down so that people can check it. It is the arbitrary nature of stopping and searching that has upset my constituents. If people can be told, "This is done in conformity with the code of practice; you have not been singled out for any reason other than the suspicion that you are smuggling something into the country," they will accept that as fair.

12.30 am
Mr. Lilley

There is no need for a code of practice in that respect, as it is established in law that customs officers must have reasonable grounds for suspicion before they can search anyone. If there is an objection to the way in which it is done, the matter is justiciable. It would not be made more justiciable by a separate code of practice spelling out that basic truth.

The citizen, in fact, has rather more rights when dealing with customs officers than when dealing with the police, despite the codes to which hon. Members attach so much importance. Above all, they have appeal rights, which they have not when apprehended in similar circumstances by the police. Those rights make a separate code of practice otiose in such circumstances.

Speaking to amendment No. 81, the hon. Member for Wrexham drew on our debate in Committee. He urged us to introduce written notification of appeal rights, aimed particularly at those who found it hard to understand or make themselves understood because they were not English-speaking. I took on board the arguments deployed in Committee, recognising that it is perhaps a weakness that in ports and airports written notification of appeal rights is not available in a multiplicity of languages— boldly presented, as the hon. Gentleman suggested—in case customs officers cannot make themselves understood orally.

That, however, is desirable in the first instance. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, in the overwhelming majority of cases officers obtain the consent and co-operation of the public. Although it is unpleasant for them, the public understand the need for such searches. We do not wish to bureaucratise and impede the process by providing for pieces of paper to be thrust at them each time such circumstances arise. I have, however, discussed the matter with the customs, and it has been decided that a booklet should be made available. It would have to be a booklet, as it would contain material in roughly 17 languages— spelling out appeal rights for those who need to know about them.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that, even with the aid of such notification, it would not be possible to be sure that the suspect fully understood his rights. He should in any case be brought before a justice of the peace, who, it was hoped, would have superior powers of communication and would acquaint him with his rights. I find that a rather difficult process to get to grips with. If the suspect cannot be made to understand that he has the right to go before a JP for his objections to the search to be heard, simply bringing him before the JP will not make him understand the position much better. But I trust that we shall never be faced with such circumstances—particularly as, following the hon. Gentleman's representations, the additional reinforcement of a written explanation of rights will be available.

The hon. Gentleman also argued that the appellant should have the right to be heard before a JP, and to hear his case argued. That is what happens in the bulk of cases. The evidence is heard in the presence of the suspect before a JP.

There would be cases where that would be inappropriate. For example, customs officers might have reasons for wanting to search which they could not reveal legitimately to the suspect because they were based on intelligence information. In such circumstances it is reasonable, at the JP's discretion, that the customs evidence should be heard separately.

I hope that I have covered all the issues that have been raised in what, inevitably, is a short debate and reply. I hope also that the concessions that I have been able to announce will go some way to reassuring hon. Members that we accept the spirit of their proposals and will do our best to work within them.

Dr. Marek

Will strip searches, as well as intimate searches, be authorised by officers of senior executive rank, or higher?

Mr. Lilley

Strip searches, as against intimate searches, are generally authorised by a superior officer to an executive officer. They would usually be authorised by ahigher executive officer. Senior executive officers are not necessarily present or available at every port. If we were to require that only a senior executive officer could authorise such searches, unnecessary delays would sometimes be imposed upon the suspect, who would have to await such an officer being informed and brought from a different port. We restrict that requirement to intimate searches, which are the most infrequent and the most serious sort.

Dr. Marek

The Minister must know that that reply begs more questions than it answers. I recognise, however, that some progress has been made. I hope that the Government will study what I have said and consider whether further provisions should be inserted in next year's Finance Bill. Given the spirit of the discussion, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 21, in page 29, line 42, at end insert— `(6) References in subsection (2) above to an individual include references to a Scottish partnership in which at least one partner is an individual.' No. 22, in page 32, line 16, at end insert— '(6) References in subsection (2) above to an individual include references to a Scottish partnership in which at least one partner is an individual.'.—[Mr. Norman Lamont.]

Mr. Chris Smith

I beg to move amendment No. 100, in page 31, line 21, at end insert— `parties to a marriage" shall include individuals who have not been married to each other but who have lived together as husband and wife and the term "married couple living together" shall include individuals who are not married but who live together as husband and wife.'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 101 in page 33, line 41, at end insert— `parties to a marriage" shall include individuals who have not been married to each other but who have lived together as husband and wife and the term "married couple living together" shall include individuals who are not married but who live together as husband and wife.' No. 102, in page 37, line 14, at end insert— parties to a marriage" shall include individuals who have not been married to each other but who have lived together as husband and wife and the term "married couple living together" shall include individuals who are not married but who live together as husband and wife.'

Mr. Smith

The amendments seek to remove the discrimination that exists in respect of maintenance payments that are made on behalf of children of unmarried parents who have subsequently separated. The Bill provides that for new court orders and enforceable agreements, divorced or separated fathers can claim tax relief up to a maximum of £1,490 a year—that is the difference between the single person's allowance and the married couple's allowance—on maintenance that is payable to the mother for herself or to the mother for a child. Unmarried fathers cannot claim tax relief on any maintenance that is paid.

For existing court orders and enforceable agreements from 6 April 1988, divorced or separated mothers can receive up to £1,490-worth of maintenance income tax free. Unmarried mothers will still be liable to tax on all the maintenance that they receive. This basic discrimination against the moneys that are received by unmarried mothers and paid by unmarried fathers, which do not qualify for tax relief, is something that the amendment seeks to remove.

The provisions in the Bill on the treatment of maintenance payments, in so far as they expressly discriminate against children of unmarried parents, starkly contradict the spirit of the Family Law Reform Act 1987. That Act seeks to remove all forms of legal discrimination against the children of unmarried parents. On 12 May 1987, the Solicitor-General said: it is the Government's view that, whatever one may think about the rights and wrongs of engendering children whose birth will he illegitimate, it is wrong to take it out on the children, in the sense that they are subjected throughout their lives to handicaps imposed by law."—[Official Report, 12 May 1987; Vol. 116, c. 220.] The Opposition entirely concur with that sentiment, but the Government seem to be departing from it in the tax arrangements which they are making in the Bill for the payments made on behalf of the children of unmarried couples.

In Committee, the Financial Secretary said on 7 June that he would study carefully what has been said during our debate to see whether further action is needed and that he would examine the measure to see if it is likely to throw up individual hard cases which should he dealt with by amendments on Report."—[Official Report, Standing Committee, 7 June 1988; c. 320–321.] I know that the National Council for One Parent Families has been in touch with the Financial Secretary and has pointed out to him its view that there will be serious consequences for couples separating in such circumstances, and that the impact on the children will be adverse.

I hope that the Government will be prepared to consider the amendments that we have tabled. We have beeen careful about the drafting. We have lifted much of the Government's own wording from their legislation implementing the poll tax, so I hope that we shall have no challenges from the Government about inaccurate drafting.

It should be remembered that the scale of the problem is considerable. According to the latest figures, more than one in five births occur outside of marriage. Thus, a significant proportion of children potentially will be affected by these discriminatory provisions in the Bill. On the basis of recent trends, an ever-rising proportion of the population is likely to be affected in future. More important than the numbers affected is the principle of equal treatment for all children, which must be defended. Such a blatant contradiction of that, as is enshrined in the Bill as it stands, runs against the principles established under the Family Law Reform Act and should not be allowed to pass unchallenged. We hope that the amendments will commend themselves to the House.

Mr. Norman Lamont

As the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said, I undertook carefully to study this matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the starting point is that, under the new regime introduced by the Bill, there will be no relief for maintenance payments for children, whether their parents are married, divorced, separated, unmarried or widowed. The special problems of single parents are recognised to some extent by the one-parent benefit and by the additional personal allowance.

The hon. Gentleman drew a comparison between married and unmarried couples who have separated—indeed, that was his central point. I believe that there are distinctions. Marriage creates a special legal relationship which is recognised in the tax system. The married allowance is given whether or not the couple have children. The maintenance relief for payments by one divorced or separated spouse to the other recognise that such obligations may continue after the marriage has broken up. It gives relief for maintenance payments to the other spouse up to the equivalent of the married allowance. Again, the relief is available whether or not the couple have children. The clause does allow payments to the ex-wife for maintenance of the children to count for relief as well as payments to the wife for her own maintenance, but that is just recognising the fact that many of the wife's household expenses cannot easily be apportioned between herself and the children.

The situation is different for an unmarried couple. There is no formal legal relationship—I am not making any moral judgment, but simply stating the fact—and the couple will not receive the married allowance. If the cou.ris order maintenance to be paid, it will be for the child rather than the mother. Extending maintenance relief could put the unmarried parent in a more favourable position than the divorced or separated because, with the divorced and separated, it is covering the obligation to maintain the ex-wife, whether or not there are children; it is not primarily for the children.

12.45 am

The amendments illustrate some of the problems of definition. They say that "parties to a marriage" shall include individuals who have not been married to each other. The amendments require the couple to have lived together as husband and wife at some time. They do not say when or for how long. There may be much more uncertainty about whether an unmarried relationship has ended than there is with a marriage, where there is a divorce or formal separation. There may also be unmarried parents who have never lived together, but I assume that the amendment is not intended to extend—

Mr. Hanley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the amendment as drafted could include two men or two women living together as husband and wife?

Mr. Lamont

I am not sure about that. I do not think that it does.

Inquiring as to whether an unmarried couple are living together is clearly more difficult than establishing whether a marriage has broken up permanently. The question raised was whether the absence of relief for unmarried couples would lead to hardship. It is ultimately for the courts to decide what maintenance is appropriate in a particular case. They will have to take the new tax regime into account, but it does not follow that they will necessarily award less maintenance than they would have done in the past. They will need to consider the facts of the case and the needs of the child.

If the courts award less maintenance, the result will often be that the mother will be compensated by an increase in social security benefits. One of the points made in Committee was that 80 per cent. of single parents are on means-tested benefit. That includes people on family credit or housing benefit as well as those on income support. For those lone parents receiving maintenance who are above the benefit level, the fact that maintenance will be exempt from tax will be helpful. If they are not paying tax, it will enable them to earn more than before without crossing the tax threshold because they will have their full personal allowance.

I know that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury will be disappointed. However, if we make the concession for which he is asking, the framework of what we have constructed will come unstitched. The benefits system can pick up most of the cases. One has to decide what is appropriate for the tax system and what is appropriate for the benefits system to pick up. Some of the cases will be better dealt with through the benefits system. I know that the hon. Gentleman has put this forward as a serious point and I regard it as a serious point. I have looked into it and I know of his concern. We will keep the position under review. I hope and believe that his fears will prove groundless. It would be wrong to accept his amendment on the evidence we have so far.

Mr. Chris Smith

I am disappointed, but I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for the sympathetic consideration that I know he has given to the matter.

There is already evidence that maintenance payments are likely to be reduced in value as a result of the measures in the Budget. The Law Society's family law committee met recently and the decisions made at that meeting are recorded in the latest issues of the Law Society Gazette. Those decisions seem to suggest that maintenance payments will be lower in future. I fear that the problems we see as a consequence of what is enshrined in this part of the Bill will come to fruition.

We fear that the Government's apparent reliance on the benefits system to pick up the problem will not be sufficient in view of what the Government are doing to that benefits system.

We are grateful that the Treasury will keep the matter under review. We hope that there will be an opportunity to return to the matter, perhaps in next year's Bill, if it can be demonstrated, as I fear it will, that hardship does result from the Budget changes. In the light of the Government's commitment to maintain a reviewing eye on what happens, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to