§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4 34pm
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am certain that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that children and adults benefit from secure and stable relationships. Sadly, however, we must all recognise that some marriages and other relationships with children break up. As a result, both parties involved suffer emotionally. They certainly suffer financially. When the Bill has received parliamentary scrutiny—I hope that it will receive some all-party agreement as well—and been enacted, it will have an effect on many men, women and children. If it is enacted—it is my hope, of course, that it will be—some people will be affected extremely beneficially.
The purpose behind the Bill is to concentrate on ensuring that those whom the courts have directed to pay maintenance do so, and do so regularly. Maintenance payments should be made to those who the courts have decided should receive that maintenance. Essentially, that is what the Bill is about.
Children are often found to reside in the middle of matrimonial disputes and disputes where children are involved as a result of relationships where there were no marriages. I think that we all agree that children are almost always innocent and often the injured parties in such break-ups. As each Session passes, more and more is being done by the House to protect children. For example, the Children Act 1989 received much all-party assent, and it is soon to come into force. It has already done an enormous amount to forward the cause of children.
Secondly, there is the Criminal Justice Bill, important clauses of which concern the proper protection of child victims in court following the report of Judge Pigot. Again, that Bill will greatly help the cause of children. It will come before us for its first day of consideration on Report on Wednesday. The provisions to which I have referred have been widely welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I know in particular that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has a long-standing interest in these matters, which we all respect.
Thirdly, there is the critically important Child Support Bill, which has come from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and was introduced in another place on Thursday of last week.
All in all, the three measures, plus the short but important Bill before us, represent an integrated package to try to help and better the position of children who are so often caught in so many different ways and who are almost always entirely innocent parties.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
As someone who practised in the divorce courts, it seems to me that in divorce courts the agony that is experienced by children lies in the prolongation of the arguments that turn on them. They are treated almost like dogs quarrelling over a bone when they are caught up in the middle of a dispute. That is a tragedy.
The position of children when disputes take place will be improved by the Bills that are before this place and another place. If the Maintenance Enforcement Bill is enacted, women will know that moneys will be coming to them. That will enable them to build a life for themselves without having to apply for social security and without having moneys docked. It is clear that the Bill is extremely important for women.
§ Mr. Patten
My hon. Friend has considerable interest in these matters. I am sure that she knows more about civil law and divorce law than someone such as myself, who is neither a barrister nor a solicitor. My hon. Friend is right, if I may say so, when she holds that it is delay in settlement that so often harms children. They are harmed also when they are caught within what seem to be never-ending wrangles about whether the absent partner—it is usually the man, but sometimes it is the woman—should pay, should pay so much and should pay on certain dates. That harm often continues until the issues are sorted out by the courts.
It would be a mistake to regard the Bill—I know that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) would not do this—as purely about financial provision. That might, however, be the view of some outside this place. The Bill's provisions will, of course, have an effect on the regularity of financial provision, but ensuring that that provision is adequate and that it is paid regularly will have a material and beneficial effect on children as they go through the appalling traumas that sometimes face them during marital break-down or the break-down of a relationship. That is why we have tried to assist those who have to struggle on by themselves economically after fragmentation of a family bond. That is why we have created a maintenance system to try to help families. I have in mind the work that has been done by the Department of Social Security, including that carried out by the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is in his place on the Government Front Bench. Like any system, however, the maintenance system can always be improved.
As I have just said, the Child Support Bill, whose purpose is to help deal with exactly this issue, has just been introduced in another place. That Bill, when it is enacted, will radically alter the system of child maintenance. This Bill does not make such radical changes. Its purpose is rather more simple: to improve maintenance collection and enforcement in England and Wales—in particular, by giving new powers to the courts to help to ensure that payments are made regularly. We all know that regularity of payment is often just as important as the size of the award. Maintenance is no good to its intended recipient unless it is received—and received regularly, so that people may plan properly for themselves and their children. That is the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) referred, and I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) agrees that it is an important issue.
40 This Bill is being given a Second Reading at a time when another and much larger piece of legislation, in the shape of the Child Support Bill, is waiting in the parliamentary wings—if one may refer to another place as the wings. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall allude briefly to the Child Support Bill. As those hon. Members who have studied the White Paper "Children Come First" know, the purpose of that Bill is to make changes to only one area of maintenance—child maintenance. The Child Support Bill will affect the whole area of child maintenance. That is its importance to children. It will deal with assessment, collection and the very important matter of enforcement. On the other hand, the very much smaller Bill that we are considering today is limited to collection and enforcement improvements. However, it will affect all maintenance orders—spousal as well as child maintenance.
Further—subject to parliamentary approval—the child support agency, which will be set up to administer the legislation, will come into full effect only in April 1996. The provisions of the legislation are expected to be relevant as interim measures until the function of child maintenance collection is completely absorbed by the child support agency. But the Bill will continue to be vital in respect of maintenance orders relating to spouses but not children. It will continue to be of fundamental importance. I can imagine no circumstances arising in the next few decades in which we might want to change it in respect of the collection of maintenance for spouses.
I am sure that, like me, all other hon. Members understand the emotional difficulties and distress that arise when relationships break down. However, though one might try to understand people who run away from their responsibilities, one has to recognise it as a simple fact that far too many people who are obliged to pay maintenance fail to do so. They evade payment in a cold and calculating way, and for as long as possible. They play the maintenance avoidance game with considerable cleverness and exceptional aptitude. It is true that sometimes things go wrong, and the absent spouse finds it impossible to pay as much as he or she would like. I realise that there are some absent spouses who would like to make greater contributions but are unable to do so. On the other hand, there are those who—to use the jargon of government—take a policy decision to go as far as they can and to pay as little as possible towards the upkeep of their children. I find that very difficult indeed to understand. It is those people—not the ones who need help—that this Bill is intended to deal with, in the interests of spouses as well as of children.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
I totally agree with the principle that the Minister has just stated. I should like, however, to draw attention to a practical problem. Take the case of a man who remarries and has children by his second wife. Often such a man is under terrific pressure from the second wife and the children of the second marriage because of the maintenance order in respect of the first marriage. The wife and children of the second marriage may actually be living in poverty. I accept what the Minister has said about the need for a sense of responsibility, but I should like to know how he views this practical problem.
§ Mr. Patten
That emotional pressure can be very great indeed. I hope that it will be possible, during the debate on 41 the Child Support Bill, to examine such issues in rather greater detail. I realise that there may be great emotional pressures, but surely anyone who has taken on the responsibility of children should use all his endeavours to ensure that his responsibilities are met. Great acrimony can arise from responsibilities to a second wife or husband, but the children, who are in the middle, should not have to suffer. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware not just of the economic deprivation but of the emotional turmoil sometimes caused by marital breakdown.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
Under this Bill, if I understand it correctly, the first charge on the absent parent's income—after tax and national insurance—will be his or her own living standards, followed by the second family, in preference to the first. Can my right hon. Friend clarify the situation?
§ Mr. Patten
That matter will undoubtedly be discussed in Committee. In addition, my hon. Friend may want to refer to it during our consideration of the Child Support Bill—the much bigger piece of legislation that was introduced in another place last Thursday.
I shall give a few figures with a view to putting some flesh on the bones of the economic and social problems facing those who fail to receive the maintenance that the courts have decided they should have. In 1989—I apologise to the House for the fact that the 1990 figures were not available—there were more than 80,000 enforcement actions in magistrates courts. Generally a woman—occasionally a man; sometimes a guardian or parent—has to go to court to secure enforcement of a maintenance order. In 1989, many such proceedings were abortive. All too frequently debtors pay their arrears at the last moment because of the threat of the court hanging over them. What happens in the intervening period? Children, mothers and fathers are put under considerable pressure, and the time and money of courts are wasted. That must stop.
In the rather bureaucratic language "This causes a great waste of court resources" lurk many of the delay problems that one encounters in the magistrates courts. It is entirely wrong that people should play the maintenance system and delay payments. It causes many problems for the courts. The Bill specifically targets those people who attempt to exploit the loopholes in the current system, or who are too disorganised or lazy, or simply too bad, to make regular support payments. Any reasonable means that can be found to foil maintenance default deserves the support of the House.
I shall give one example from the 80,000 cases that went to magistrates courts in 1989. That figure does not necessarily mean 80,000 individual people, because on some occasions people had to go to court more than once in the calendar year. The worst example that I found—it is not much worse than some—was in Somerset magistrates court. In 1990 that court had to take no fewer than 11 separate enforcement actions against one debtor. Such examples are repeated throughout England and Wales.
I hope that when I describe the Bill's main clauses hon. Members will realise that, although the kernel of this legislative nut is pretty uncomplicated and straightforward, the measure is necessarily wrapped up in some complexity. The Bill may seem somewhat long and complicated for its purpose. That is simply because the law 42 on maintenance is contained in a sizeable number of statutes. Some hon. Members may say that maintenance enforcement and maintenance in general are ripe for consolidation. That may well turn out to be true in the fullness of time. On studying the Bill, my hon. Friends will probably find that there is a great deal of repetition. That is because the law on maintenance is not consolidated. That is a matter to which in the fullness of time we shall undoubtedly need to turn our attention.
Although the Bill deals mainly with magistrates courts' powers—much of the collection and enforcement of maintenance is done by those courts—the Bill gives similar powers to the county courts and the High Court. That continues the aims and ideas behind the widely welcomed Children Act 1989, which created a concurrent jurisdiction between the three types of court. Again, we are putting children first.
Clauses 1 and 2 contain the principal provisions of the Bill. They give powers to the High Court, the county courts or magistrates courts to specify the method of payment when making or dealing with a maintenance order. Those powers include entirely new powers to order that maintenance payments should be made by standing order direct to the creditor, or by an attachment of earnings order.
The first method—payment by standing order—will be particularly useful where a debtor is self-employed. On the face of it, the self-employed debtor is a difficult case because he or she cannot be the subject of an attachment of earnings order, especially if he or she is simply too lazy or too disorganised to make regular payments. Once the order has commenced, maintenance payments will become as regular as any of the other payments made by such debtors by that method. It would require a positive action to cancel the standing order.
Some hon. Members may be worried that the power to require a debtor to open a bank account in order that payments can be made by standing order is somewhat draconian. I do not believe that it is and perhaps I should give a word of explanation about the thinking behind it. It is not as draconian as it might first appear. The provision is vital if we are to prevent some debtors from continuing so successfully to play the system simply by dictating the method by which they will pay, or rather not pay. Unless that power is available, a large number of the people who may be involved in maintenance order actions—those who are self-employed—would effectively be able to escape any maintenance order enforcement.
My hon. Friends will probably notice that under the Bill no court is obliged to order that payments be made by standing order. There is no obligation. All the methods of payment given in the Bill are equally available. The Bill makes distinct provision for the parties and any person who may be the recipient of the maintenance, such as a grandmother or grandfather who is looking after the children, to tell the courts what method they prefer. There are four methods of payment—direct payment to the spouse, payment to the courts, payment by standing order and payment by attachment of earnings.
§ Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)
Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to the possibility of using direct debits? It may be possible at some stage to consider some type of indexation of maintenance payments. Direct debits have been left out. Is it possible that they will be put in?
§ Mr. Patten
The direct debit is an appalling thought on the face of it. It is not quite the same as a standing order, because either side has the power to vary the direct debit mandate. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point which we may have the chance to examine in Committee. Unless my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) is careful, he may find himself on that Committee. I do not say that in a threatening way. I shall think about his constructive suggestion, for which I am extremely grateful.
Most importantly, if the debtor can show to the court that there is a reason why he or she cannot open an account—for example, because every bank in the area in which he or she lives has refused to allow him or her to do so it will be impossible for the method suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton to be used, whether by standing order or direct debit. I make it clear to my hon. Friend that the power to which I refer does not interfere in any way with the banks' ability to run their business in the way in which they think best. If a debtor is ordered to open a bank account, the order will be against him, not a particular bank, to open an account on his or her behalf. In other words, the order will not specify where the account should be opened.
§ Mr. Randall
Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens), clause 1(5)(b) suggests that payment can be made by standing order or any other form of payment. I am sure that that must include direct debits and other forms of crediting an account. In law those methods are the same to all intents and purposes, apart from direct debits, the mandate for which can be varied, as has been said.
§ Mr. Patten
There are technical difficulties about using direct debits because the debtor can vary the payment at any time without cancelling the order. That is a point to which we may return in detail during the undoubtedly long hours of the Standing Committee sittings.
Where a debtor is in employment, payment by attachment of earnings may be much the more effective method. At present that can be done only when the maintenance order is offered and the debtor consents, under the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971. I am advised that in only about 10 per cent. of cases in 1989 did people consent to having an attachment of earnings order made. That is a very small number.
I realise that some hon. Members are worried that the Bill will increase the number of attachment of earnings orders in existence and, consequently, the administrative burden that employers have to bear. I do not want to add to the burden on either large or small employers. I understand that fear. I have considered the matter carefully since the debates in another place.
We are urgently considering increasing the administrative charge that employers can deduct when complying with an order. It would be manifestly unfair if the level of charge that employers could apply were kept at perhaps its current level, which is less than the economic cost of making those orders. Consultation is proceeding. Lord Ferrers gave an assurance in another place on the matter. We are consulting the Confederation of British Industry and, I dare say, others on the issue. I hope that during the passage of the Bill through the House I shall be in a position to make an announcement about helping industry and business in that way.
44 What was said in another place bears repetition. We cannot depend on a debtor's consent to use such an effective method of maintenance collection, as fewer than one in 10 debtors have been prepared to give that consent. Last year consent was given in only 7,000 cases.
Clause 3 of the Bill has two parts. The first simplifies the procedure by which a creditor gives authority to a justices' clerk to take enforcement action on his behalf, when maintenance payments are made through a magistrates court. Under the present system specific authority must be given on each occasion that a default occurs. The Bill provides that a creditor can give a standing authority—like a standing order—to the court so that every time there is a default the necessary enforcement action can be taken. That will considerably help to smooth the processing of maintenance orders.
The second part of clause 3 has teeth. It is clear that sometimes people have been told to pay by a certain method but do not do so. Therefore, there needs to be some sanction. The Bill will impose a sanction of a sum up to a maximum of £1,000—people will have the chance to make representations about it to the court—if a person fails to pay by the method specified by the magistrates court. If there is no element of sanction, people will simply cock a snook at the court, as they do in so many cases at present, and—what is worse—they will badly hurt their spouse, child or children.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Will my right hon. Friend be clarifying the position of the 7,000 people who pay up? I imagine that there will be some among them who would prefer to pay directly to ensure that their privacy is respected. They might not necessarily want their employer to be involved. Does the Bill contain provision to enable such people to continue to maintain their privacy and to pay directly?
§ Mr. Patten
As I said earlier, there are five ways to pay: by attachment of earnings order, standing order, any other suitable banking instrument, payment direct to the court and payment direct to the creditor. Therefore, after due debate between the two sides before the magistrates, or in the county court or the High Court, it will be possible for payment to be made in that way.
§ Mr. Randall
Unless I misunderstood, I think that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) was referring to privacy when people have to pay by an attachment of earnings order. The Bill would result in other employees having access to some personal details—for example, the fact that someone is divorced. I do not think that the Bill ensures that there would be greater privacy, although the orders will be used far more in the future.
§ Mr. Patten
I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. We are trying to deal with this problem and to prevent 80,000 cases coming before the magistrates courts each year—with the emotional and financial problems involved. If an attachment of earnings order is the chosen method, a certain amount of information has to be given by the court. Such attachments may also be imposed by other means.
Clauses 4 to 7 give magistrates courts power to specify the method of payment when varying, reviving or enforcing a maintenance order. Clause 8 allows the justices' clerk power to amend payment when a person no longer claims income support or when he or she 45 subsequently reclaims benefit under section 24A of the Social Security Act 1986. That was a matter of concern to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary.
Many maintenance orders come before magistrates courts for the purposes of reciprocal enforcement, either from other parts of the United Kingdom or from other countries. We have remarkably good reciprocal enforcement arrangements with a number of West African countries, with Czechoslovakia and with one or two central European countries, but we have remarkably bad arrangements with some of our western European partners. We are prepared to do the business on behalf of people whose spouses have fled to this country, but, alas, some of our western European partners are not prepared to help out in return.
§ Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)
I am pleased to learn about the reciprocal arrangements with a number of countries. Will my right hon. Friend give me some guidance on what could happen if a British court has made a decision on payments to a mother and child, the father goes to a country with which we have a reciprocal arrangement, but the mother does not know where he is in that country and cannot trace him? One of my constituents has a spouse in Australia. She cannot track down the home address of her former husband, so she cannot take him to court in Australia to have the British courts' maintenance agreement enforced.
§ Mr. Patten
I am extremely sorry to hear of that case and I hope that my hon. Friend will write to me with details about his constituent—perhaps he has already done so—which would give me the chance to look into the matter. Normally, in a country like Australia it should be possible to track down someone from social security records or residence records of various sorts.
For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, I must explain how we do things in this country. A group of civil servants are seated, or lurking—however one wishes to describe it—in the Home Office and they make up the central authority. If someone comes to this country from France, for example, and does not pay his or her maintenance order to a spouse or children in France, a French court or the French Government can get in touch with the Home Office, and we do all we possibly can to track down the person, through whatever means are available to us, and to get an enforcement order specified by a British magistrates court on behalf of the French spouse and children. Our system and our record are second to none. However, we need to do more within Council of Europe countries to ensure that our western European partners do more to help people in Britain whose husbands or wives have gone into European jurisdiction. That is an element of the European debate with which many hon. Members are not familiar, but it is one of the many ramifications which face us. We generally have good relations with Australia and the United States.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
Are the provisions for paying citizens who have gone to France as good as our provisions for French citizens? Is there reciprocity of treatment in this matter?
§ Mr. Patten
I must not get dragged too far down that route; I was referring to international relations in an aside. Reciprocal arrangements do not work well with France and one or two other western European countries and do 46 not benefit people living in this country. However, I think that there has been no criticism of the way in which the British have looked after the interests of French citizens who have applied for orders here. We need to pursue that matter further within our bilateral treaty arrangements.
Many maintenance orders come into magistrates courts for the purposes of reciprocal enforcement, either from other parts of the United Kingdom or from other countries. Therefore, clause 9, which gives effect to schedule 1, provides for magistrates courts to have similar powers in respect of those orders.
The Bill is small, but it seeks to make sensible changes. I hope that they will be uncontroversial changes to the existing maintenance system and that they will improve the effectiveness of the courts in preventing maintenance default and, should default occur, to assist them to take enforcement action.
I hope that hon. Members will recognise the benefits of the Bill for women and for men who are dependent on maintenance payments and, most of all, the benefits which will undoubtedly flow to children in this country and elsewhere. 1 commend the Bill to the House.
§ 5.9 pm
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
The Bill aims to improve the procedures for the payment and enforcement of maintenance orders. The major change that I perceive to meet the aims is to allow the courts, when a maintenance order is made, to specify the method of payment. Accordingly, as the Minister of State pointed out, the Bill is narrow.
In the 1980s, considerable debate took place on the whole question of family maintenance and, in particular, on whether spouses should continue to be entitled to the so-called meal ticket for life. The outcome was legislation which compelled the courts, after a divorce had taken place, to consider whether the spouse concerned should receive maintenance for a limited term to help her to adjust to the end of her financial dependence on her former husband. That was referred to as the clean break.
This decade has started with a change in the debate, towards the children and the family and the notion that parents will indefinitely have an obligation to support their children, irrespective of the state of the relationship between the parents. Although there must be an obligation to children, some fathers remarry and have children in the second marriage. Often those fathers are under terrific pressure, to which I referred in my intervention, from the second wife who perhaps resents having to bring up children almost in poverty because of a maintenance order from her husband's previous marriage.
Notwithstanding the practical issue, it is important to note—the Minister touched on this—that after family break-up the majority of men continue to support their children and their former wives in a reasonable fashion. However, there must be concern that, according to the Minister's figures, an estimated 80,000 enforcement proceedings are held within the court system. I assume that that is the figure per annum.
§ Mr. Randall
That means that some children are being deprived of the financial security to which they should be fully entitled. It should also be said that many fathers who fail to adhere to maintenance orders put their own 47 economic well-being before that of their children. That behaviour is unacceptable. Therefore, I support the idea of improving enforcement to ensure that lone parents and children receive regular incomes.
Another important factor worth mentioning is that a staggering 80 per cent. or so of lone mothers need to claim income support, which means that many children are brought up in households with all the disadvantages of near poverty because their fathers fail to make the necessary provision for them.
The Labour party supports the principle that the court, at the time a maintenance order is made, should be able simultaneously to make an attachment of earnings order so that maintenance costs can be deducted at source from the father's pay packet, with the help of his employer, with the money being passed subsequently to the mother. The main reason for supporting that in principle is that, unlike the existing procedure where action is taken only after default, the default itself can be prevented, which means that children can be protected from much trauma, despair and distress.
While supporting that provision in principle, the Labour party believes that in practical terms the Bill has serious deficiencies which threaten the very children whom we all want to protect. I shall highlight some of the deficiencies later. Perhaps at this stage I should say that some of them could be dealt with by proposals in the Government's White Paper "Children Come First". The Minister referred to the Child Support Bill which will come to the House soon.
The White Paper, which was supposed to form the basis of the Government's review of the family justice system, was announced by the Government at the time the House debated the Children Act 1989. That was some time ago but it was announced in the Queen's Speech that a Bill would be published in this Session of Parliament to legislate on the proposals in the White Paper. I understand that the legislation had its First Reading in another place a couple of days ago. I will say within these four walls, because no one else is listening, that I intended to slag the Minister for not doing anything on the matter, but I note the efficiency of his officials, whom we should not mention, which has ensured the First Reading in another place, and which we all welcome.
Clause 1 of the Bill before us refers to the powers of the High Court and of county courts to issue maintenance orders. It also gives those courts powers to specify the method of payment that may be used by a debtor—usually the husband—to settle maintenance commitments. The key methods of payment may be standing order, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, direct debit—I cannot remember whether I saw that in the Bill or read about it in a briefing—or attachment of earnings, which means debiting the debtor's wages. The aim of using the powers is to ensure that maintenance is paid regularly. Hopefully the effect would be to reduce stress and worry for the wife and children.
In addition, much court time could be saved by reducing the effort expended, for example, in issuing enforcement summonses, preparing notifications of arrears and arranging hearings. I ask one question: will the Bill in its present form achieve those desirable objectives? The Labour party doubts it. I refer the House to the 48 comments of the Law Society, which also has doubts. I shall paraphrase what the Law Society said in a briefing sent to hon. Members on 18 February. It had some doubt whether the Bill would significantly increase the payment of maintenance, particularly when the fundamental problem was that the payer either could not or would not pay.
Although the county courts will have new powers to force a debtor to set up a bank account, that will not provide a complete solution. A determined debtor could refuse to pay any funds into his bank account, and a bank cannot deal with a standing order if the debtor does not put in any money in the first place. That is a serious flaw: debtors would still be able to evade their responsibilities. Moreover, when a debtor is a proven bad-debt risk, a bank or building society is extremely unlikely to be prepared to open an account for him in any event.
The Bill also has significant implications for civil liberties. I cannot remember the precise word that the Minister used, but he said that there was a need for sanction——
§ Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)
May I return to the question of bad debts, and credit rating with building societies and banks? Surely the hon. Gentleman does not suggest that courts should not continue to try to impose maintenance orders. If the courts are put off by bad credit rating, people may be encouraged to achieve such status, perhaps maliciously, knowing full well that they can then avoid liability for maintenance payments.
§ Mr. Randall
The Opposition entirely support the principle of enforcing maintenance orders. I merely suggest that the proposal with which the Minister dealt at such length could be made to fail to work. If someone definitely does not want to pay, although he can be compelled to open a bank account, he need only fail to put funds into it. As the bank cannot then proceed with the transaction, the system is bound to fail.
§ Mr. Burns
Could not the courts deal with a systematic defaulter by adopting another means of obtaining the money—for instance, attachment of earnings, withdrawal of social security payments or seizure of goods? Surely the courts must judge for themselves what is the best system to impose on each individual to ensure that mothers receive the funds that the courts have specified.
§ Mr. Randall
The hon. Gentleman is right. Various mechanisms can be invoked: the Minister listed four. I merely suggest that someone who is intent on not making standing order payments will be able to get away with it. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) looks rather bemused, but surely the position is clear: the debtor goes to court, a maintenance order is made and, at the same time—this is the new element—the method of payment is determined. My point is simply that more court time will be wasted if a debtor is intent on wrecking the system; he may set up a bank account, but he need only fail to invest any money for the whole thing to fall flat. Meanwhile, his family may be forced to rely on income support.
§ Mr. Burns
I do not want to make heavy weather of this, but I do not think that the position is as gloomy as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Surely, in such circumstances, the courts will change the system under which money can be obtained. The hon. Gentleman says that disruption will 49 result, but we must bear in mind that great disruption, and grave injustice, exist under the present system. Surely a mother waiting for maintenance payments will be more reassured by the battery of arrangements in the Bill than by the existing system, under which, more often than not, she will end tip resorting to income support because of the methods employed by the courts.
§ Mr. Randall
I believe that the enforcement weapons now available to the courts will result in more families receiving money through maintenance orders. Like the Law Society, however, I am less sanguine about the system than the hon. Gentleman, because it would be so easy to wreck the whole arrangement by withdrawing money from the bank and putting it into, for instance, a building society.
§ Mr. John Patten
I entirely understand the practical point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) cited a way of dealing with it, but, if the hon. Gentleman remains unconvinced, has he any practical suggestions to help the Government and those who do not receive their maintenance payments?
§ Mr. Randall
I could offer some suggestions. The most popular measures for the courts to impose would be attachment of earnings and standing orders—although there are some stopgap measures, which are used only infrequently. Such arrangements would, however, be difficult to impose on, for example, a self-employed person: he will have no money in his bank account to pay a standing order, and attachment of earnings will not work because he will not be on an employer's computerised payroll file. Many small businesses are going into liquidation, but such businesses still employ a large number of people who can slip through the net.
§ Mr. Stevens
Although those who do not want to pay may still be able to cause trouble, under the present system the adamant—or awkward—can cause not only difficulties for families, but a good deal of delay. The Bill introduces some measures to improve, if not cure, the lot of many families.
§ Mr. Randall
I accept that the Bill's aim is to deal with such problems expeditiously, and, as I have said, a number of families will probably be better off if the courts are enabled to enforce orders on debtors. At the beginning of his speech the Minister of State referred to 80,000 proceedings. To how many will that number be reduced? I suggest that it will not be reduced to 10, 20 or 30; it may be reduced to 20,000 or 30,000. Even so, that is a very large number. I am not sanguine that these measures will be invincible. I have received advice from varous organisations, in particular the Law Society which is a reputable organisation; its judgment is sound and it knows what is going on. It should, therefore, be recognised that there is doubt about the effectiveness of the proposed measures.
§ Mr. John Patten
I may be in a position to help the hon. Gentleman. He is concerned about the effect of the Bill if it passes into law. I guess that he wants it to pass into law, as amended in this House and by the other place. No one can say what the outcome will be. However, in 1979 about 7,000 attachment of earnings orders were made. They represented the outcome of 22 per cent. of all enforcement proceedings. In only about 10 per cent. of those did 50 individuals say that they would consent to an attachment of earnings order. Therefore, 90 per cent. did not consent. They will have to do so in future, so that a lot more men, and sometimes women, will have to pay up for their spouses and children—and quite right, too.
§ Mr. Randall
I welcome those figures. It shows that such measures can work. However, I am not convinced that they will be as effective as both I and, I know, the Minister of State would like them to be. I am dubious, but I am sure that in Committee these drawbacks and concerns will be debated in detail. There will also be the opportunity to table amendments.
There are civil liberties implications. For debating purposes, I intend to put my argument in fairly strong terms. We have a Conservative Government who, it could be argued, are interfering in the personal affairs of private individuals by forcing them, against their will, to open bank accounts and make certain payment transactions in a way that is specified by central Government. The Minister of State will say that we are dealing with defaulters whose actions are detrimental to the well-being of children and wives. I know that the Minister speaks on behalf of the Government, but does he have any personal reservations about the civil liberties implications? This country sometimes goes overboard when it comes to civil liberties, but I feel anxious about the implications here. What are the precedents in British legislation for forcing people to open bank accounts? I am not sure that there are any precedents. I hope that the Minister will deal in specific terms with that question.
The arrangements associated with maintenance orders that are made in the High Court and county courts are made directly between the debtor, the husband, and the creditor, the wife. Therefore it is for the debtor and creditor to note which payments have been made and whether there has been default. If the maintenance order debtor is in default, an attachment of earnings order can also be used to enforce the order. The Minister referred to that point, which was also raised in interventions. Attachment of earnings orders are regarded as the best means of enforcement, though they have limitations. If a defaulter regularly changes his job, it can lead to difficulties in finding out who his new employer is and making all the new arrangements to deduct the cost of maintenance from his wages. An example was given of inability to trace somebody. I am making the same point. There is a cost to employers in making the deductions. I believe that employers are entitled to make a further deduction from the debtor's pay packet, amounting to 50p per transaction.
The Minister referred to the Confederation of British Industry. I have received a parliamentary brief from the CBI. It is very short but useful, and I welcome it. It, too, has reservations about the future cost of making the deductions. On 14 February the CBI said in its brief, entitled "Maintenance Enforcement Through Attachment of Earnings—Second Reading, Parliamentary Brief", thatThe use of attachment of earnings orders in cases of maintenance enforcement will impose substantial administrative costs (around £10 per deduction) on employers and place an unwelcome strain on industrial relations. The CBI values the undertaking given at the Lords Committee Stage that employers would be consulted on the implementation and administration of the legislation and welcomes the Department of Social Security's initiation since then of this consultation process.51 The Minister referred to the consultation process. The brief continues:The CBI looks forward to working with the Department to ensure that administrative procedures are simple, certain and, as far as possible, consistent with those for existing forms of attachment order.From that it is clear that the CBI thinks that the new administrative procedures for attachment of earnings orders may be much more complex than the existing arrangements, to the extent that the deduction may rise from 50p to £10. I should be grateful if the Minister of State would explain who is to pay for that. I had always thought that the 50p was paid by the person who was making the maintenance payments. May this figure be increased to £10 per deduction? I hope that the Minister will explain whether I am right or wrong. Furthermore, can he enlighten us about the ramifications of the levy charged by employers being increased to that level? Has he discussed it with his Department of Social Security colleagues? It is a serious issue.
Since the number of attachment of earnings orders will probably increase if the Bill becomes an Act, does the Minister of State see any reason for the increase in the levy because of the volume of payments? I should not have thought that it would make too much difference, because payments are made per deduction. I should like to know whether volume has anything to do with it. The House should be aware of the CBI's useful statement on the issue.
The Bill empowers courts to issue an attachment of earnings order at the same time as the maintenance order is made. The existing arrangement does not allow a court to make an attachment of earnings order, if requested by the wife or creditor, until arrears exist. Even then, at least 15 days must pass after the order is made. The Labour party welcomes the change, which will improve considerably the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation of attachment of earnings orders. A major administrative benefit is that courts will no longer need to spend extra time dealing separately with maintenance orders and attachment of earnings orders. More importantly, serving maintenance orders and attachment of earnings orders simultaneously will deal with potential defaults before they occur. The Bill will enhance the position of wives and children and reduce the probability of putting them through the trauma and uncertainty of having no income.
Nevertheless, we must keep matters in perspective. Attachment of earnings orders are not always as effective as they might appear at first glance. Although the attachment of earnings orders arrangements aim to reduce defaults, in Committee we shall have to consider loopholes—for example, moonlighting. A debtor could have two or even three jobs which, together, give him a susbstantial income. In court, he could simply declare the name of one employer. Naturally, he would give the name of the employer from whom he received the smallest income and hide the details of the others. The court would then not order his other employers to make a deduction from his wage packet and the family would lose out. I regret that the Government have made no proposals to combat moonlighting.
In addition to the Bill's civil liberties implications, we must also consider the threat to personal privacy, which was mentioned in earlier interventions. Again, the 52 Government have made no provision to protect people against such abuse. The attachment of earnings order provision means that a debtor's personal details—about marriage, maintenance or other matters—will be seen by certain employees in the company where the debtor works. The Bill does not appear to prevent that personal information from being indiscreetly used by certain company employees. For example, a person's promotion prospects could be impaired by the fact that it will be known throughout the company that that person has a broken marriage. In some jobs that may be important. I hope that, in Committee, the Labour party or the Government will table amendments to the Bill to ensure that the privacy of the individual is protected at all times.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
Does the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about privacy extend to the right afforded to a mother not to reveal the name of her child's father? In certain cases, the father of the child may not be the marriage partner.
§ Mr. Randall
I was about to come to that issue, but perhaps we can deal with it now. As politicians, we must deal with such questions and weigh up the arguments between civil liberties and privacy. The private details of a person's lifestyle, such as marriage, should not be carelessly disseminated throughout a company or used in telephone calls or references. I deplore such unnecessary and careless abuse of privacy. However, a woman who has a child and does not want to disclose the name of the father—perhaps she does not know it or has personal reasons for not wishing to disclose it—should not be penalised. For example, the father may be her grandfather, or she may have some other complicated reason for not disclosing the name. I should want to weigh up the arguments carefully before deciding. A court would need to be convinced that a woman had good reasons for not disclosing that information, but the woman should not be denied an income because she is not prepared to disclose it. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) asked a difficult and sensitive question. We have no rigid rules on the issue, but we must be careful and sensitive in dealing with it.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have taken much interest in the Bill. I have spoken to many women who are in that position, and they often say that they would rather not pursue the father because they are afraid for their own safety. They want to be independent and to be able to go out to work and earn their own money. They do not want to be caught up in this terrible business, but want their self-respect. Perhaps another Bill could be brought forward to help them.
§ Mr. Randall
I could not have been more eloquent than the hon. Lady. Her argument is persuasive and shows the complexity and sensitivity of such cases. We should not be too heavy-handed and forceful in those matters; rather, there must be considerable discretion.
§ Mr. Stevens
I understand the complexity and difficulties that can occur for some women, but it is important that collusion between parents does not disadvantage their children or the state. I accept that the availability of private information on an attachment of earnings order could be embarrassing if it were improperly used, but if people do not want to get into that position they can pay the maintenance by other means that are completely private to them and the court.
§ Mr. Randall
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, as he usually does. The Minister referred to the four mechanisms for making payment that are available to the court, and I am considering them individually. One of the problems with attachment of earnings orders is privacy. I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about collusion but, as I said to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), any mechanism must offer discretion and flexibility. People who need their case considered sensitively and carefully could suffer under a rigid set of rules.
The attachment of earnings order will be used extensively by county courts because they will be able to decide the payment mechanism when they make a maintenance order. However, the threat of potential abuses of privacy will grow. Labour Members believe that the Government have a clear duty to provide the appropriate mechanism to protect the privacy of people, whether or not they are failing in their duties properly to look after their children. The fact that they are debtors does not mean that we can discard the principle of ensuring people's privacy.
Clauses 2 to 7 deal with the new arrangements to be applied in the magistrates court. Clause 2 provides that a magistrates court must specify the method of payment at the same time as the maintenance order is made. The Minister referred to the four methods of payment that the court can use—direct payment between the debtor and the creditor, via the court, by standing order and by an attachment of earnings order, via the employer.
Magistrates courts have no discretion in adopting one of those methods of payment, but the High Court and the county court have the discretion to decide whether to specify a method of payment when serving a maintenance order. If the reforms in the Bill aimed at preventing arrears are so laudable—the Minister of State has praised them—why have not the Government imposed the same compulsion on the High Court and county courts as they have on magistrates courts? Is there a major principle at stake, or are there merely technical reasons for the difference between magistrates courts and the High Court and county court? If the difference is made for technical reasons, why have not the Government allowed magistrates courts that discretion?
The consequences of that are serious. Families will be more likely to go through the stress and trauma that I referred to purely because technical difficulties exist in preparing appropriate legislation. I shall not speculate on that, but I should like the Minister to give the House a full explanation of that apparent omission from the Bill.
Clause 3 amends the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 and, in cases where maintenance payments are made via the court, enables the creditor—the woman—to give the justices' clerk a standing authority to initiate enforcement proceedings once the debtor goes into arrears on his payments. On the face of it, that approach would have considerable benefits for the wife compared with the existing arrangements, which prevent the justices' clerk from taking any action until the wife or creditor has requested him to do so.
A major benefit of that reform is that valuable court time could be saved, thereby speeding up the processes of safeguarding the family's income. In addition, the debtor would be encouraged to keep up his regular payments because he would know that the justices' clerk will be monitoring his payments and will quickly take enforcement action if he falls behind. 54 In its brief on the Bill, the Law Society supports giving justices' clerks that standing authority. It says:It will now be possible for a creditor to give a standing authority at any time, for the Clerk to take action, which will mean, that the Clerk will not need to receive repeated authorisations from the creditor in the future…The Law Society supports the provisions, relating to the introduction of standing authorities to the court clerk, to take enforcement action—this will simplify procedure and ease the burden from lone parents of taking action.However, it has doubts about the method of payment orders.
The National Council for One Parent Families has expressed two concerns about the Bill. The first is that many lone parents are adversely affected by delays in courts' serving procedures, which is caused by a lack of resources. What steps will the Minister take to provide those vital resources to improve serving procedures? It must be a matter of concern that the Bill states that there are no resource implications arising from this legislation. If the Government are genuinely concerned about children and lone parents, should not they take immediate action to speed up court procedures by ensuring that the necessary resources are available? I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to that because the sheer sluggishness of court procedures seems to be causing many problems.
The second concern expressed by the National Council for One Parent Families is that the Bill seems to contain no provisions to deal with the delay in court procedures where a debtor deliberately fails to attend the court hearing in order to avoid making maintenance payments to his family. It believes that if a debtor and his solicitor intentionally fail to attend a court hearing dealing with arrears in maintenance payments, the magistrate should make an order in their absence unless he is satisfied that it is undesirable to do so. Clearly, such behaviour by the debtor is grossly unacceptable and quite irresponsible. I should like to hear the Minister's view. What new provisions do the Government intend to introduce to protect families from such behaviour?
The long title makes the Bill rather narrow. Although some of the provisions seem supportable, we have considerable reservations about what they would mean in practice. Informed opinion outside the House has expressed serious reservations about the Bill's effectiveness. I regret the Government's choice of a long title for the Bill because it is bound to restrict the ability of the House even to propose amendments to alleviate some of the problems encountered by families when fathers fail to face up to their responsibilities.
The Bill is a wasted opportunity. We support some of its provisions but its scope is too narrow. It is defective in practical terms and will have limited benefits.
§ 6 pm
§ Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)
I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) will forgive me if I do not take up all the points that he has made. Let me say—in the nicest possible way—that I felt that his concluding remarks were a little unjust and unduly gloomy about the Bill's prospects of success.
I regard the Bill as the hors d'oeuvre before a good lunch—the good lunch being the Child Support Bill, introduced last week in another place, which will no doubt wend its way to this House. The two Bills interact and should not necessarily be seen as totally separate. They are joint Bills and one helps the other.
55 I welcome the Bill, however narrow it may be, because it is a step in the right direction. It deals with the mechanics of collecting child maintenance. It is worth looking beyond the Bill to ensure that the Child Support Bill will tighten up the whole maintenance system. That is beyond the scope of this Bill, but it is important for it to be on the statute book as quickly as possible to bring help and to increase the number of weapons available to the courts to overcome the serious problem of maintenance support.
One must consider the context in order to appreciate the extent of the problem. There are currently more than 1 million lone parents; 41 per cent. are divorced mothers and 23 per cent. are unmarried mothers. Each year, 41,000 new child maintenance orders, 34,000 lump sum orders and 50,000 consent orders are made and magistrates deal with 28,000 applications for award and variation of maintenance each year. Some 500,000 maintenance accounts and 85,000 enforcement proceedings are dealt with each year.
Problems often arise not with those families in respect of which the courts are able to intervene and have some effect, but with the majority of lone parents who are not getting the financial maintenance that they should or could expect. Hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of taxpayers' money is being used, through the income support system, to support one-parent families when absent parents—they are usually fathers, but I believe that 3 per cent. are mothers—evade their social responsibilities. That is unfair to the taxpayer, but, clearly, no one wants to consider the issue solely from the taxpayers' perspective. It is also grossly unfair to the lone parents because, more often than not, the money that they receive from the state is less than the maintenance that would probably have been—or has been—awarded by the courts.
Once an order has been made, there is the serious problem of enforcing it. That is why the Bill is so important. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West mentioned the case of a father who gets divorced or splits from his family and children and then forms another family relationship, either inside or outside marriage. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the stress and problems placed upon the second family because of the father's financial responsibility for his first family through court maintenance orders. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said, but, with all due respect, he was somewhat cavalier in glossing over the feelings and problems of the first family which has been left by a father who sets up a second home.
§ Mr. Randall
I thought that I had made it clear on two occasions that I support the principle that parents are responsible for their children, irrespective of what happens to their relationship—whether they remain single or remarry. I accept that principle, but I was tempering the statement by mentioning some of the practical considerations. Many people are on low incomes and second wives may become bolshie and make life difficult. They may think, "Why should I bring my children up in near-poverty?" That is a dilemma for parents and it is a practical consideration which must be taken into account.
§ Mr. Burns
I appreciate that point. I do not want to sound hard or uncaring—I do not believe that I am—but I think that a father who leaves one family, forms another 56 liaison, either inside or outside marriage, and has more children must bear in mind his responsibility and the implications of his action.
§ Mr. John Patten
Does my hon. Friend recognise that that is exactly what the Government are trying to do with their twin-track approach in this Bill and the Child Support Bill? We seek to make those who have left one household and some children think twice, or perhaps three or four times, before having more children. Parenthood is for life and it is their duty to maintain the children that they have had and those that they may have. The two Bills together will force them to do that.
§ Mr. Burns
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. In his characteristically clear way, he has hit the nail on the head and come to the heart of the problem.
We have discussed the second family and the father who wants to meet his financial responsibilities, although it may be financially difficult for him to do so. The other problem which, sadly, occurs all to often is that of the father who, when establishing a second family, wants to wash his hands completely of the first family and does not want to meet any of his financial responsibilities, whether he can or cannot do so. That is a tragedy as well.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, we must always bear in mind the two basic principles of the Bill. The first is that family responsibility should be actively encouraged. I believe that it is still too easy for an individual to walk out of family life. I know that many people give serious consideration to the marital problems, and if a marriage has broken down irretrievably, it is probably in the children's interests for it to be ended, but under the law as it stands, it is far too easy for those who are not prepared to give their marriage a second chance—or to accept counselling that might help save that marriage—to abandon their responsibilities, including their financial responsibilities. That brings us back once again to the need for the Bill.
I am sure that the constituents of many right hon. and hon. Members come to our surgeries with problems emanating from the fact that they are not receiving the maintenance that they should. It is upsetting to listen to the tales of genuine hardship told by mothers who are not only struggling after the traumatic break-up of their marriage—traumatic not just for them but for their children—but having to cope with financial worries because their only source of income is the state. They are then caught in the poverty trap of state benefits from which it is so difficult to break free. More often than not, the reason for that is the attitude and behaviour of the father.
I welcome the fact that the courts are to have increased powers to tighten up on enforcement. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will assure us—perhaps we shall have to wait for the Child Support Bill for assurance to be given—that more will be done to give courts powers to track down absent fathers. Not only should more power be given through the tax system to track down absent fathers in this country, but, as I said in an intervention, more power should be available to track down those who may be the subject of British court orders but who have gone overseas. That is crucial.
The second principle that we must not forget is that it is much better to avoid default than to try to rectify the problem once it has occurred. Despite the misgivings of the 57 hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, the Bill will go a long way to tighten up that aspect of the law. At present, maintenance is paid either to the court or directly to the recipient, but there are not enough ways of enforcing the provisions in respect of someone who determinedly defaults on payments. That is why the extra powers are so welcome. In future, payments will be made by standing order. I thought that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West was nitpicking when he took us through the problems of standing orders. I do not think that the standing order provisions will be as difficult to implement as he suggested. Moreover, the standing order option is only one of a number of options that a court can adopt.
§ Mr. Randall
I do not quite understand what the hon. Gentleman means by "difficult". I said only that the Government's proposed standing order scheme was utterly open to simple abuse.
§ Mr. Burns
That is true. My point is that if there is likely to be abuse, and if the scheme is therefore unsuitable in a particular case, the courts will not use that procedure. They may go for attachment of earnings or choose some other way of enforcing payment. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's fears, even on that narrow issue, are as well founded as he implied. Certainly in respect of those who will not deliberately seek to use the standing order procedures to abuse the system, it will be easier to prove non-payment by examining building society accounts and bank statements.
The other important provision is that relating to the attachment of earnings. At present, the courts use that method only when someone has been wilfully neglectful or has deliberately defaulted. The method is used only in extreme cases. By widening the use of that weapon to magistrates courts, we shall go a long way to help to solve the problem.
I have one or two suggestions for the possible improvement or strengthening of the Bill. I listened carefully to the point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West about court time and about those who deliberately do not turn up for hearings, thus immediately placing the burden on the shoulders of the lone mother awaiting a court decision. I agree with him that it would help to alleviate a great deal of hardship if my right hon. Friend the Minister could re-examine the matter to see whether there is any reasonable way in which the provisions could be tightened up. For example, we might allow magistrates courts to make a decision in the person's absence.
If my memory serves me right, the CBI briefing that we all received referred to a possible cost of up to £10 in respect of an attachment of earnings order. It is not necessarily in anyone's best interests for industry and commerce—the employers to have—to pick up the tab. I welcome the promise that the Government made in the other place to look at the matter further. I hope that something can be done to ensure that the burden is placed fairly and squarely in the pocket of the person directly responsible—the father who is meant to be paying the maintenance-—and thus to save industry and commerce expense. That would improve the system and benefit everyone—except possibly the father who will then have to pay more.
58 Will the Government consider the removal of the provision which renders legal aid unavailable in respect of the issue of a county court summons? It is reasonable to ask the Government to look again, even if they eventually find that they cannot meet the request.
Let me take up a point made on Second Reading in the other place. Will the Government consider consulting the Inland Revenue about the adjustment of tax codes for those in default as a means of deducting maintenance? People in all walks of life know how efficient the Revenue is in going after its clients and customers and its money. It is almost like a terrier. If we could involve the powers and enthusiasm of the Revenue, we should go a long way towards helping lone mothers and their children.
The most important principle is to ensure that, in questions of divorce and maintenance, the interests of the child are put first. I would enter the caveat that we must not forget or overlook the interests of the mother who has to bring up her children alone, often in the most difficult circumstances.
I believe that the Bill goes a long way towards helping the child by providing for proper and regular financial payments from the father. It also helps to alleviate the burden, worry and frustration of lone mothers. We look forward to the Child Support Bill, which, together with this Bill, constitutes an optimistic and serious way of tackling the problem.
§ Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)
It is very pleasant to be invited to contribute to this debate on the introduction of a Bill that seems to have virtually all-party support. However, the two Members on the Opposition Front Bench must be feeling extremely lonely because no Opposition Back Benchers have been present during the debate, apart from one or two travellers who obviously came into the Chamber to escape the cold outside.
§ Mr. Carlisle
There have been no Liberal Members here either. It is disturbing that Opposition Members have not been present to debate this important Bill.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) said, the Bill, regrettably, involves considerable sums of taxpayers' money. Opposition Members should have been here in greater numbers, although I pay credit to the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) for being present to represent their cause.
When I first considered the Bill, I wondered whether it was a Bill for lone parents, as it had been paraded or whether it was intended to penalise absent fathers. My constituency experience over the past 12 years makes me believe that perhaps the Bill should penalise absent fathers. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members are aware from their constituency experience that the number of absent married or unmarried fathers is increasing, and that fact has been brought to our attention by the lone-parent mothers involved.
In the 12 years that I have represented my constituency the number of absent fathers has increased dramatically. It is high time that the Government introduced such a measure, and we look forward to the Bill's twin—the Child 59 Support Bill which is in another place—as a means of strengthening the powers of the courts against absent fathers.
Absent fathers are prevalent at the moment and they cost the taxpayer enormous sums of money. They also bring misery upon misery to thousands of women and children. That misery is totally unnecessary and in many cases is callous. I can tell hon. Ladies who are present in the Chamber now that, although in the past perhaps I have not been too friendly to their causes and their gender, in this particular case they have my total sympathy. Absent fathers cause considerable misery.
I share the sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull. West at the conclusion of his speech. I believe that the Bill does not go far enough—although it may be extended in the Child Support Bill. In many cases the fathers are not named and in some cases they are not known. In my constituency, in some cases the father is not known until the child is born and the colour of its skin is revealed. That perhaps gives some hint about the extent of the problem. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] I can understand my colleagues tutting when I say that, but such things happen.
In virtually every case the father gets away with it. He avoids any responsibility to the mother and to the child. He also gets away with any responsibility to the taxpayer because the taxpayer must pick up the tab.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford took up a point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West about the courts enforcing orders against absent fathers who deliberately make themselves unemployed at certain times of the year when child maintenance orders are being made against them or are being upgraded in financial terms. I know of a sad case within my family where the absent father is a deep sea diver. He deliberately arranges for the court hearing to be heard when he knows that he will be unemployed because his work is seasonal. When the day is named for the case, he absents himself and the case is adjourned. In many cases adjournments are sought by absent or negligent fathers—call them what one will—on the basis that they know that the courts will not hear the case and it will be delayed. In every case the lone mother or the children involved suffer as a consequence.
§ Mr. John Patten
My hon. Friend has raised an exceptionally important point which we will have to consider in the twin-track approach encompassing this Bill and the Child Support Bill, which is in another place. However, the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 gives a new power to the court to levy costs against solicitors who put in for unnecessary adjournments that lead to the problems which my hon. Friend has accurately described. It would be a very good thing, too, if the lawyers had to pay occasionally.
§ Mr. Carlisle
Knowing the sympathy that my right hon. Friend the Minister has on occasion to show to the legal profession as a result of his duties, I can see how that remark matters to him. However, he is absolutely right. Such a remedy exists, but I should remind him that in several cases, even with the powers under the existing system, let alone those proposed in this Bill, magistrates do not use their powers to the full. On many occasions the magistrates' sympathy seems to be with the absent father 60 or they are swayed by the legal arguments made by the solicitors representing them. As a result that brings more misery to the lone mothers and their children.
Part of the Bill's aegis is that it will give some incentive to negligent fathers to go out to work harder to ensure that maintenance is paid. That is a somewhat pious hope. Sometimes absent fathers get themselves into financial trouble because of the so-called responsibilities that they take on in second or third marriages or in other relationships. They get themselves into virtually impossible positions and usually the taxpayer has to fund that irresponsibility.
I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that many lone mothers are dependent on income support and on some form of social benefit simply because the absent fathers are not paying their way. The problem is experienced not just by the wronged married woman; it is experienced also by the second, third or other woman who, perhaps unknowingly, has the children of the recalcitrant gentlemen known in my constituency as tower block stags who tend to jump from one flat to another, with no responsibility for the children they father.
§ Mr. John Patten
There is either something wrong with the amplification system or with my hearing. None of us on the Government Front Bench could hear the last word in my hon. Friend's phrase.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I was referring to tower block stags, who leap from one bed to another within my constituency. I suppose that that is humorous in a way, but it is also tragic for those who, for whatever reason, are caught.
In all sincerity, I can tell the House that the saddest cases that come to me—and I am sure to other right hon. and hon. Members—involve young girls who have been conned into producing children which they do not want. They must then take full responsibility for them and then go on their knees to their Member of Parliament and also plead with the social security to assist them. Many of them are ashamed of what has happened and are not willing to name the father who, of course, gets away with it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) has said, many women are afraid to name the father because of the possible consequences.
The Bill will provide some assistance but only a small amount. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, it is a Bill of responsibility. That is what the House and our constituents should be concerned with. Sadly, in the last decade or two, responsibility and discipline within the family have slipped, and are slipping further despite gallant attempts by various Governments to reverse the trend. Regrettably, the Bill will affect many people, perhaps far more than we who frame it and hope to pass it would ever envisage. The situation worsens day by day.
We and, I hope, the Opposition welcome the Bill. We welcome the spirit with which it has been presented and the spirit in which it has been received. If it brings some comfort to those lone mothers and children who suffer under the present system, it will be of some benefit. I hope that it will bring some relief to taxpayers who have picked up enormous bills for the negligence and indiscipline of many absent fathers. I fear that it may not go far enough, but, together with the Child Support Bill, it may at last reverse the terrible tide.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
I congratulate the Government on this timely measure which will bear down on those irresponsible fathers who refuse to pay the maintenance ordered by the court. Power for the courts to attach a father's salary and make sure that the wife or partner receives money is long overdue.
I do not like the term "lone parent" because there are always two parents. There is no such thing as a one-parent family, a term that we seem to have dropped. We are talking about families which are invariably fatherless, but as that could mean widows, it is more correct to say that we are dealing with fathers who have scarpered from their families. The mere fact that a father has cleared off and has left his wife to go to such lengths to get maintenance tells us something about him. It is necessary for the courts to be given extra powers to ensure that such fathers meet their obligations.
The statistics on fatherless families show that about 41 per cent. of the women are divorced and that 23 per cent. are unmarried. What about the other 36 per cent.? Are they widowed mothers? Perhaps the Minister can supply that information when he replies.
As hon. Members have said, we are dealing with a difficult area of human relationships. There is often great bitterness between the parties, and sometimes the mother is unwilling to prosecute for maintenance because she fears for her existence. Many marriages break up because of fear. Incompatibility has meant that the marriage has foundered, and we are left to do something about the resulting untidiness. In debating such matters we usually deplore the divorce rate, but sometimes divorce is the most humane and sensible course. Divorce is not always bad. In the old days women were often trapped in unhappy and brutal marriages, perhaps for all of their lives, because they could not afford to separate, establish themselves and support their children.
Time and again I have made the important point that we who pontificate on these matters take a technical viewpoint to see how we can tidy the loose ends or block loopholes. I know some women who are bringing up children on their own. They meet for moral support and self-help so that one can look after the children while others go shopping. The Children Act 1989 is in danger of making that illegal because it requires people who look after children to be licensed.
When I talk to the women in such groups, I always ask what they want me or the Government to do to help them. I am concerned not about what my colleagues think is right, but about what such women want. They never ask me for increased child benefit. Some of them say that they want the husband to pay for the children, but more often than not they say, "I do not want to pursue him in the courts because I am afraid of the consequences. I want to be able to go out and earn a bit of money so that I can support the children." They feel that it is more dignified to do that. Although the Bill will place much greater constraint on the father, I hope that when we consider the matter in another Bill we will take note of the feelings of women.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the women's obvious sense of pride in wanting to stand on their own feet, the father has a responsibility to make some provision? The hon. Member for Kingston 62 upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) spoke about limiting privacy. I hope that my hon. Friend will encourage such women to ensure that the absent father pays his dues, if only for the sake of the children. They would then enjoy a better standard of living.
§ Mrs. Gorman
I agree with my hon. Friend. Fatherhood and motherhood are for life, and fathers also have a responsibility. However, some women would not thank us for pursuing the husband or father through the courts in the way that we or the court might think right and proper. That is because of the consequences to the mother. It should be borne in mind that every unhappy marriage breakdown is a tragedy with its own circumstances.
§ Mr. Randall
The hon. Lady spoke about the aspirations and desires of women to whom she has spoken. She has said that their top priority is to be independent and earn a living. I am a male and not as qualified to speak on the matter as a woman, but in my experience many women with babies and children want to be able to stay at home. Although the decision must rest with the woman, it is obvious that she cannot stay at home with the children if she has a job. The hon. Lady does not seem to support the notion that some women might like to have that option and that their top priority might be some sort of guaranteed regular income, perhaps from the father.
§ Mrs. Gorman
The hon. Gentleman reinforces my argument that almost every case is different and that women have different views on the issue. I remind him that throughout history women with young children have worked. In Victorian times some mothers with 10 children went out to engage in cleaning or laundering or some other work.
Often an idealised view is taken of women staying at home and raising their children. That is the ideal, but the reality of most women's lives is not like that. Women often need to earn extra money. Of course, choice is what matters, but the fact is that 80 per cent. of mothers with young children stay at home with them whereas most mothers with school-age children—almost 70 per cent.—go out to work. It is not uncommon for women with children—of any age—to find that they need to work.
In the past, a woman who was widowed in a war would have raised her children without any help from the state. She would go out to work and do a fine job. Because women are multi-competent and extremely able, they can make their own way in life when they are left in the lurch by their husband. Indeed, many would rather do that than risk the punishment that might be meted out to them by the children's father if he is a violent man, and unfortunately in this world there are many men who mete out violence to women, mainly because women are not taught how to defend themselves—but that is another story.
I come to the role of the employer, which has already been mentioned, and to the question whether those concerned—either the woman receiving the payment or the man who is making the payment through a court order or by having the maintenance deducted from his salary—will want their employer to know that they are involved in such circumstances. It is impossible to prevent such circumstances from influencing the attitude of an employer. It is no good saying that that is private information because it will inevitably have an effect on the employer. I feel strongly that in deciding on this 63 legislation, if fathers are prepared to make a private arrangement, we must do all that we can to ensure that we do not lose that good will. Even if that involves only a mere 7,000 of the 82,000 cases that we are talking about, those 7,000 cases are still important and valuable. We must preserve the privacy of the man if he is prepared to do the right and decent thing and to reach a suitable arrangement with his wife.
After a woman has gone through all the court proceedings to get maintenance from her husband's wages deducted at source, she may be awarded just 1p per week maintenance in arrears. That sometimes happens even today because the magistrates think that they are taking account of the real circumstances in that case. If a woman goes through the process and is awarded only a derisory maintenance payment, she feels insulted. The Bill does not cover the amount of money that a magistrate may award, but I believe that the courts should be discouraged from making such decisions. A woman may have gone through many unhappy emotional experiences to get that far, and it is insulting for her to be treated in that way.
Sadly, the Bill is necessary in today's society because people's sense of responsibility has been undermined. That has increased under the welfare state, which has adopted the attitude that if an individual will not accept his or her responsibility, the state will do it. We will not cure the problem until we reverse the attitude that the state must be the last resort. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) said, we must stop ourselves always rushing in with the public purse, because that is what lies at the root of this problem of irresponsibility. If we do not expect people to be responsible, in many cases they will be irresponsible. That is a sad fact of human life.
Although I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill, we have yet to debate many other aspects of this subject.
§ Mr. Randall
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply briefly to some of the comments that have been made in this interesting debate, which has been wide ranging although the Bill itself is narrow, dealing only with maintenance enforcement.
The Minister referred to the CBI levy and to the consultations that are taking place on that. I cannot remember whether I asked him to give us more detail about that, because it could have a crucial impact on debtors. I should also like to know more about the reciprocal arrangements with the EEC. As a result of 1992 and all that, the problems of maintenance enforcement could be seriously exacerbated as people move around the various member states of the Community more and more. Therefore, I was concerned when I heard that the reciprocal arrangements with the EEC are not working very well.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) is not in his place. He talked about family life and said that it was of paramount importance. Although we would all agree with that, I submit that the Government's taxation policy is also a major factor causing the break-up of marriages and of family life—[ Interruption.] I am sorry, I see that the hon. Gentleman is here, albeit in a different seat. The gap between the better-off and the less 64 well-off is unquestionably growing in this country. Such pressures can cause the break-up of marriages—[Interruption.] That is a well-known fact, but other social pressures can also have an effect.
§ Mr. Randall
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I had wanted to be brief because I made a long speech earlier.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I was sorry to have to ask the hon. Gentleman to give way, but he must give the House the evidence about the startling fact that he has just announced. He has said that the difference between the so-called "poor" on the one side and the so-called "rich" on the other has contributed towards the break-down of marriages. Where exactly is the evidence for that? If the hon. Gentleman does not have it, perhaps he could inform the House of it at a later date.
§ Mr. Randall
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not aware, because so much has been published about it, that, under this Government, there is a growing gap—I chose my words carefully—between the better-off and the less well-off in this country.
§ Mr. Randall
Well, the hon. Gentleman does not know, but Opposition Members do know and it is a matter of concern to us. It is one reason why the Labour party has been amending its taxation proposals. We want to compensate for that sort of thing and, in our taxation policy, to do the things that would be good for families. The Government's taxation policies run contrary to the well-being of family life. Many of the troubles we have been discussing today emanate largely from that.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford made a good point about defaulting. He is absolutely right that we should take steps to prevent defaulting and thus to reduce the workload of the courts. There is no doubt that a lot of the time that is currently taken by the courts in dealing with maintenance orders and ensuring that payments are made could now be avoided.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to standing orders and payments. I do not want to go over the argument yet again, but I feel that the hon. Member for Chelmsford does not understand the people with whom we are dealing. Some of them—not all—are out to bust the system and once one recognises that, one realises that the system of payment to a wife must be strong enough and resilient enough not to be abused in this way. The hon. Gentleman made a good point in his question to the Minister about something on which I had touched—debtors who do not bother to turn up at court. The hon. Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) also mentioned that point. We shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that.
The hon. Member for Luton, North referred to the effect that absent fathers have on the taxpayer. He spoke about the tower block stags in his constituency. I was pleasantly surprised by his description of the young lady who came to visit him in his constituency surgery. He 65 obviously has a soft spot for people, although that is not apparent from his political image. He reacted in an emotional rather than an objective way to her and I would have expected the latter.
The hon. Member for Billericay put great emphasis on irresponsible fathers and I intervened on that point. She also spoke about the desire of women not to receive an income from benefit but to be free to go out and earn. However, lone parents—I know that she does not like that term, but she knows what I mean—are in a difficult position because they cannot share the burdens of parenthood. Those with young children, especially if they have no support from their own parents, encounter great problems. If we are to provide choice for women in that position, and allow them to live comfortably, the top priority is to give them a guaranteed income. The hon. Lady speaks authoritatively on this and has given the House the benefit of her experience.
I look forward to the Committee stage. I hope that the amendments that will be tabled will encourage proper debate on the Bill, and, if agreed to, make it more effective. I have been encouraged by the way that hon. Members on both sides of the House have shared a belief in the basic principle underpinning the Bill, which is that those who have maintenance orders served against them should act responsibly and fulfil the terms of those orders. Where that does not happen, we need a mechanism to ensure that they are fulfilled. If the Committee can make that mechanism work as effectively as possible, we shall have given credit to the House of Commons. More importantly, we shall have helped people who desperately need an improvement in the system. The failure in the existing system has meant that children and families are enduring the distress and trauma to which we have all drawn attention. The Bill will help to alleviate those problems.
§ Mr. John Patten
With the leave of the House, I shall reply. This has been an interesting if short debate, founded on considerable agreement between the two parties represented in the Chamber—there has been no representative of the Liberal Democrats. We believe that something needs to be done and we have agreed that a useful Bill will be brought to fruition by the Committee.
We have heard some remarkable speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) gave us some important statistics and put his finger on a number of significant policy points. He also provided the House with a good keynote phrase for the Bill when he said something along the lines of, "It is better to prevent default than to have to enforce the measures after default." That underpins what the Bill is about and shows why it deserves an unopposed Second Reading.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) demonstrated that authority and robustness, mixed with compassion, for which he is well known. He drew attention to the link between this Bill and its big brother or sister, the Child Support Bill, which is going 66 through another place. He treated the House to what was, for my money, all too short a passage on responsibility and the rebirth of it in the 1990s. He reflected on the adverse changes that have followed a diminution of family responsibility in the previous two decades. That passage will bear rereading.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) also spoke about responsibility and I agree with everything that she said on the issue. She spoke about divorce and the effects of that on society, about the equally important issue of working women and about how these provisions can help them. I suspect that the issues that interest her, as they interest me, will be debated when the Child Support Bill reaches this Chamber under the aegis of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.
I applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay does to try to help women in a number of groups. Although they may not want to go to court to get the maintenance paid to them, perhaps because they fear physical violence—the police are doing more about domestic violence in this decade than they did in the previous decade—I ask her to urge them to think again about ensuring that those payments come. After all, it is the children of the marriage who will suffer. I hope that the quick and clean mechanism that the Bill will set in place will encourage women who face those problems to do something to ensure that the absent father, or the absent mother in about 3 per cent. of the cases, faces up to his or her responsibility. That motif of responsibility has run through each of the speeches made by my hon. Friends.
I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) will forgive me if I do not have a great deal of time to refer to all the points that he raised. However, I have time for a couple of important ones. He asked about what would happen if people refused to pay standing orders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, the courts have many ways to get money from the absent spouse if he will not pay by standing order. Furthermore, he can be fined up to £1,000. If he will not pay that fine on top of not paying the maintenance—most maintenance payments are in arrears of 15 weeks—there is always prison to encourage him to pay up. We do not want to send people to prison, but we must have that for a last resort.
Direct debits are not provided for because the court could not adequately exercise supervision over variations in direct debits. Under direct debit mandates, the person who gives the authority can vary the order, but the courts should have that power. The courts will have an important role and I believe that, after an initial surge of business, their business will diminish greatly, just as the amount of money flowing to spouses and children will increase greatly as a result of the provisions of this welcome Bill. I commend it to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).