HC Deb 11 November 1992 vol 213 cc900-11

Order for Second Reading read.

4.56 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor)

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

The Bill is a modest and technical measure and, if I may presume to say so, it is narrow. It will amend the court procedures for the reciprocal enforcement of maintenance orders by magistrates courts. It will enable orders for maintenance to be enforced where one party is resident in the United Kingdom and the other party is resident in a country with which the United Kingdom has a reciprocal agreement. Until this amendment is made, a number of people will be unable to obtain the maintenance for themselves and their children to which they are entitled.

The Bill consists of four clauses and three schedules. Clause 1 will bring into effect the substantive amendments contained in schedule 1. Clause 2 will bring into effect the consequential amendments to other legislation set out in schedule 2. Clauses 3 and 4 provide for commencement and the short title of the Bill respectively. Schedule 1 contains the substantive changes to be brought into effect by the Bill. Part I amends the Maintenance Orders (Facilities for Enforcement) Act 1920 and part II amends the Maintenance Orders (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act 1972. Schedule 3 is a schedule of consequential repeals. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Geoffrey Hoon (Ashfield)

Will the Minister explain how that rather sorry state of affairs came about?

Mr. Taylor

Certainly. That state of affairs, to use the hon. Gentleman's words, was debated in the other place. As the House wants a candid answer, I must say that it was an oversight made in good faith.

4.59 pm
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

We are grateful to the Minister for his candour. What occurred was a legislative cock-up of the most monumental proportions. [Interruption.] I see one of the silent ones telling me to calm down. I am not getting over-excited, at least not yet, but it is a bit rich for the Government to present only now, almost a year after the Children Act 1989 came into force on 14 October 1990, a Bill that addresses an issue that should have been addressed when the Children Act was considered both here and in the other House. Had it been so addressed, we should not have needed this Bill.

As the Minister said, we are here because of an oversight in the drafting of legislation that ought not to have happened. We do not blame the Minister personally, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) was right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that there is someone to blame. Since 14 October last, it has not been possible to make a claim for maintenance under the reciprocal enforcement legislation because any such claim could not be processed as a result of someone's oversight in drafting.

It has not been possible to initiate proceedings under the Maintenance Orders (Facilities for Enforcement) Act 1920 and the Maintenance Orders (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act 1972 because they refer expressly to a complaints procedure that, as a result of the passing of the Children Act, no longer exists. Under that Act, all procedures have to be initiated by application. Therefore, in the past year or so, about 1,000 applicants have been adversely affected. There ought to be some parliamentary draftsman or Minister, past or present, whose ears are burning because of that oversight.

The Minister said that the oversight might have occurred as a result of the speed with which the Children Act was dealt with, and the necessity to get it through. The Lord Chancellor said of the Children Act: It was a very important stage and one which I would certainly not have liked to have forgone for the sake of ensuring that it was absolutely complete."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 June 1992; Vol. 1538, c. 349.]

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I seek some information from the hon. Gentleman. Will the 1,000 people who have been disadvantaged get back the money that they have lost?

Mr. Boateng

No, they will not. The hon. Lady puts her finger on the point. For the past year, such people have been without remedy, and that is a cause for concern that I know she will share. Rather than being a party matter, that is one of those oversights that both Houses have a duty, when we are considering legislation, to ensure simply does not happen.

It is no excuse for us to be told that the other place was in a hurry and had to get the Bill through. The whole point about starting Bills in the other place is that their Lordships are supposed not to be in a hurry. They are supposed to be at that wonderful stage in life when they can relax, take it easy and use their considerable endeavours in the unheated and uncontroversial atmosphere that is cultivated in the other place to give measures such as the Children Act the mature and reflective consideration that is required. In this instance, that clearly did not happen.

Not surprisingly, the Opposition welcome the Bill, as the whole House will no doubt welcome it. As the Minister said, it is a modest measure, but it is worth while looking briefly at the context in which it is being introduced. Sadly, matrimonial breakdowns are all too common, resulting in more and more lone parents, whose plight is very real. It is the duty of the House to ensure that the arrangements for initiation of maintenance proceedings and the enforcement of resulting orders are effective.

It is important not only that orders are effective in ensuring that those against whom they are made obey them and respect the order of the court but that the proceedings are brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible, with the minimum delay, fuss and inconvenience. In so doing, one ensures not only that the parents or parties making the applications receive a rapid remedy to address the financial constraints in which they often find themselves, but that the cost to the public purse through the court system is minimised.

At the moment, only 30 per cent. of lone mothers and 3 per cent. of lone fathers receive regular payments of maintenance. Some research carried out in 1990 showed that less than 10 per cent. of lone parents' income arises from maintenance, compared with 45 per cent. from income support and 23 per cent. from net earnings. The problem of family poverty as it is associated with the receipt and payment of maintenance to lone parents is a real one. To the extent to which this modest measure addresses that problem, it is welcome.

5.7 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) has put his finger on the problem—errant fathers in particular manage to leave the matrimonial home, abandon their children and expect the state to pick up the tab. I should like to address the House —shortly, as always—not on the subject of the Bill's extremely narrow purpose but on the way in which it will work—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Before the hon. Member goes down that path, let me point out that this is a Second Reading debate on a specific and narrow Bill. I hope that we shall not have a long and wide-ranging debate on matrimonial matters. I urge the hon. Member to stick to the Bill.

Mr. Steen

Your rulings are always extremely helpful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and have great foresight in their application. I took the liberty and, you may feel, the prudent step of checking with the Public Bill Office first about whether the speech that I hope that I shall be allowed to make would be permissible. I was advised that, as this is a Second Reading debate, the modest matters that I wish to raise would be in order. I have no doubt that if you feel, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am in any way abusing the time of the House, you will mention it in your normal courteous way.

At the outset, I said that this is a narrow Bill, dealing with a specific point which, as has been said, should have been dealt with before. None the less, it relies on magistrates courts for the execution of justice for those men and women who have been abandoned by their partner and whose children need maintenance and help from that partner. My concern is whether magistrates courts, the subject matter of this and the earlier Bill, can and should deal with such cases.

I do not know whether other hon. Members have a similar problem, but three out of every 12 cases at my advice centres every fortnight involve women who have been abandoned by men who take no responsibility for their children, expecting the wife to look after them and the state to provide the maintenance for them.

Two particular cases in the past couple of weeks clearly illustrate that point. Both concern the failure of magistrates courts to deal with serious matters of child maintenance. Magistrates seem to be inexperienced and to be advised by clerks who may not have the knowledge to deal with these matters. The result is that women who have been abandoned by men have been abandoned by the courts. The courts have not come to the aid of the abandoned women or their children but have supported the husbands, even though they have produced virtually no, or little, evidence to show that they cannot afford to look after their own children.

A constituent of mine in Dartmouth was abandoned with three children, aged nine, seven and two and a half, by her husband who has paid nothing at all and who, at the hearing, expected the magistrates court to take up the problem and turn to the state to help the lady with her children.

Even worse is a case, which was drawn to my attention by Cornish and Company, a well-established firm of solicitors in Totnes, of a lady with one son whose husband has never paid any money for his son since he left the matrimonial home. He now owes hundreds of pounds, but the court wiped off the maintenance simply because it believed the husband's story, although there was virtually no evidence to support his claim that he could not afford to pay even £5 a week for his son. As a result, the mother has to work nights at the local hospital so that her son can have the little extras arid obtain the extra help that he needs for his education.

I am trying to point out that women are being abandoned by men and that the state is allowing, that to happen and colluding with it by paying for the abandoned children. Husbands leave the matrimonial home and remarry and the magistrates court, because of its lack of experience, tends to say that the state should pay for the children of the first marriage, allowing the husband to get off scot free. That is a national problem.

Rather than introducing this narrow Bill to provide for reciprocal arrangements around Europe and elsewhere, the Minister should show a particular interest—I know his concern in the matter because we have corresponded on it —in ensuring that magistrates courts are equipped to deal with such cases and do not allow their eyes to be closed when husbands come to court and avoid their responsibilities. That is what is happening in my area and probably in many other parts of the country.

Three or four years ago, the former Prime Minister—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has put before the House a distressing case, but it is out side the bounds of the Bill, so I shall have to urge the Minister to continue the correspondence rather than to deal with the points from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Steen

I have the impression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you feel that I have made my point well enough and that the House wishes to move on to other things.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House does not want to move on to other things; it wants to stick to the Bill.

Mr. Steen

I understand the point you make so tellingly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I rest my case by saying that I do not believe that a magistrates court can deal with those matters. The Bill will not help it to deal with them. I am worried stiff about the increasing number of women who are being abandoned by husbands who expect the state to pick up the tab for their children.

I urge the Minister to see what can be done to ensure that husbands who desert their wives and children take responsibility and pay for those children rather than expecting the state and the taxpayer to take on that responsibility.

5.15 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

It is true that the Bill does not deal with some matters that are of great importance in respect of maintenance on which one would be interested to hear the Government's view —for example, what they propose to do to tackle the problem of the high incidence of default which particularly affects those on low incomes and those with low awards.

I rise not to seek to widen the debate but out of curiosity to know what lessons the Government have learnt from this rather unusual legislative episode. It is extraordinary to have an afternoon devoted to considering, in prime time, the defects of a Bill so recently before us that appears not to have thrown up any awareness of the need that the Bill addresses. It suggests that there is something wrong with the way in which the Children Act 1989 was considered.

It is a matter of satisfaction that the Lord Chancellor's junior Minister, who is now a Member of this House, has introduced the debate and has some departmental responsibility for the Bill. That marks a considerable step forward, perhaps even to the avoidance of the kind of difficulty in which the House now finds itself. However, it raises other questions.

We are clearly not debating simply a slip of drafting. A whole circumstance has been overlooked. It suggests that the Children Act was drafted in too much of a hurry and was not subjected to the usual kind of— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) will have an opportunity to intervene if he wishes and the Minister may feel it appropriate to answer the point.

Consideration has been given to whether Bills, particularly technical Bills, should, as a matter of course, be considered by Select Committees before they are brought to the House for Second Reading, or after Second Reading, in order for evidence to be taken. Such a procedure might be suitable in a case of this kind to avoid the difficulty that has been experienced here. However, it occurs so rarely that the Minister may have some more mundane explanation.

I am genuinely puzzled: it strikes me as extraordinary that such an obvious requirement was not spotted earlier, given the history of our procedures. We should try to learn from the omission and to devise scrutiny procedures that will prevent the time of the House from being taken up in this way. After all, we do not have a superfluity of time for primary legislation; many matters that others may consider more important are waiting in the queue, and no doubt some of those matters pertain to the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The Department may wish to consider the appropriateness of referring Bills of this kind—Bills that involve consequential changes to existing legislation—to the scrutiny of the Law Commission. It has the capacity—although not, perhaps, the resources—to give further consideration to whether the form of the legislation is appropriate. It is not entirely reasonable to expect us to pick up certain technical matters in Standing Committee; such matters require the technical advice of a body such as the Law Commission.

That prompts me to ask whether the Lord Chancellor's Department is considering a better method of scrutinising what might be described as law reform measures. As was suggested in the other place by Lord Hailsham, this kind of piecemeal approach makes the statute book extrernely difficult for the practitioner to manage. We now have two Acts where one would have done, and the second introduces most of its substantial modifications very obscurely by means of schedules. That is a far from ideal way of legislating, but it exemplifies a practice that—alas —is becoming too common.

5.22 pm
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have described the Bill as a modest measure. To acquaint myself with it, I consulted the report of the Second Reading debate in the other place. I observed that it took up five columns of Hansard. The report was followed by a report of their lordships' debate on court practice—the wearing of wigs and gowns—which took up not five but 25 columns.

Although that may support the claim that it is a modest measure, the Bill raises issues which are far from modest and whose importance is likely to increase, both in this country and throughout Europe. I feel that the reciprocal arrangements may not be adequate, and may need to be complimented in the near future by legislation above national level—possibly Europewide legislation. The demography of our times will make measures such as this far more important. It is not just a British concern; I understand that the courts are also concerned with foreign nationals who may come to Britain—often from other EC countries—and against whom their spouses or ex-spouses in those countries may make orders.

Between 1960 and 1985—no more up-to-date figures are available—the divorce rate quadrupled throughout the EC countries. In the EC countries as a whole, one in 10 families with children is now a one-parent family. Of course, the rate is far higher in this country. One of the reasons why I welcome the Bill—despite the circumstances in which we are debating it—is its importance to family life in Britain and in Europe as a whole. It also deals with what, sadly, will become an increasingly important aspect of family law.

By a sad coincidence, the increase in family breakdowns is occurring at a time of greater labour mobility across Europe. One of the features of the internal market, and of current European policy, is the way in which British people are encouraged to work in other European countries—and, indeed, other Europeans are encouraged to work in Britain. Because of that, there will be more opportunities for men, in particular, to leave their families behind and to escape maintenance obligations.

A more complicated scenario may also arise. Let us suppose that a British family follows the father's work to Brussels or Milan, and the marriage breaks up in that foreign city. The father may go on to another European country, leaving a family who may wish to return to Britain. The issues raised in the Bill are more important than we assume. As the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) pointed out, it is difficult enough to enforce the relevant obligations in this country; how much more difficult will it be when families are scattered across Europe, and questions of jurisdiction arise relating to access, custody and maintenance? Those are substantial issues, and it does not surprise me to learn that the European Commission is beginning to commission studies of them.

A social revolution involving family change is happening in Europe at approximately the same time as the revolution in labour and family mobility. That will make legislation such as this increasingly important. When the Child Support Act comes into force next April, fathers —the absent parent is usually the father—may find that, far from escaping their maintenance obligations as they often do now, they are asked by the new agency to pay £20, £30 or £40 a week, and rightly so. The chance of a job in another part of Europe—or in Australia, New Zealand, or the United States—may then become very attractive financially. The current changes make the Bill more important than the House may assume, and it may need to be complemented by more far-reaching legislation in the future.

The Bill is important for another reason. Throughout the world we are becoming increasingly concerned about children's welfare, and about the child poverty which has already been described. That is not a uniquely British phenomenon, but 70 per cent. of British children in one-parent families depend on income support, and—as has already been said—most do not receive maintenance. The legislation on child support and maintenance that has been introduced in some American states, in New Zealand, in Australia and in other parts of Europe demonstrates increasing awareness about children's welfare. We need to recognise the obligations of the state in regard to social security and employment training; we also need to recognise the duties and responsibilities of parents.

Mr. Steen

On the wages paid to the average person in this country, a man who abandons his children and then remarries often cannot pay for the maintenance of both families. Another problem is that the magistrates courts are not necessarily the right people to pursue husbands who can afford to pay maintenance. The hon. Gentleman has raised some even more complicated issues, and he was right to do so. Answers need to be given.

Mr. Wicks

I agreed with the hon. Gentleman's first point. On any wages which are other than fabulous, it is particularly difficult to support two families at a time of economic recession. The Child Support Act contains a necessarily complicated formula to try to deal with the dual obligations of such parents, which we shall no doubt discuss when the Act is implemented. My judgment, however, and the judgment of the legislation, is that that should not enable him—or, sometimes, her—to escape duties towards the first children.

Some people might adopt a harsher tone and say that if legislation such as this makes it difficult for a father to father a second group of children, it may be right and proper that he should think twice before doing so. We are dealing, however, with very complex matters and my argument is that they will grow more complex and become more of a challenge for the House.

Britain is not alone in facing these issues. Throughout the world, Governments are trying to get to grips with them. At the heart of it, there has to be a new definition of what a parent's rights and responsibilities are. I for one £faced with the appalling evidence of child poverty, which could grow worse, given the family changes that I have mentioned£think that we have to be tough-minded about enforcing parental obligations. Therefore, I welcome this admittedly modest measure.

5.30 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

This measure has been introduced as a small technical measure although, as the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) said, it touches on a wide range of issues which go beyond the merely technical. I listened to his speech with considerable interest and considerable agreement.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department told us that this issue should have been addressed in the Children Act 1989 and that the oversight stems from its omission. I cannot forbear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from remarking that Northern Ireland is at least fortunate in having no equivalent to the Children Act, even though we have been pressing in Northern Ireland for some time for equivalent legislation, but that is a passing complaint.

I noted with particular interest the comments made by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) regarding the style of the legislation and the manner of its enactment. I endorse entirely what he said about the drafting style. The modern legislative drafting style is getting worse and worse. In places, the Bill is almost unintelligible. I see no reason why its substantive provisions cannot be placed in the clauses. I do not know why so many of them are buried in schedules, in a way that is particularly difficult to follow.

I noted also the hon. Gentleman's comment that technical measures such as this ought to be considered by a Select Committee, or referred to other bodies. It reminds me of a comment that was made, I believe, by the Foreign Secretary at a fringe meeting of his party's conference the year before last, when he suggested that there was a case for referring a number of measures to Special Standing Committees of this House instead of having the Standing Committee procedure which mirrors the normal Second Reading style of debate. It would be well worth looking into that suggestion.

I rise to speak on the Bill for, I regret to say, entirely parochial reasons. This measure also extends to Northern Ireland. Admittedly, it does so only with regard to the provisions for variation and revocation of maintenance orders, the substance of which I welcome. The fact that this primary legislation will go through its normal stages of Second Reading, Committee stage, Report, and so on and contain within it provisions which apply to Northern Ireland is very welcome. For many years, those of us who sit on this Bench have complained about the iniquitous system of legislating for Northern Ireland by means of Orders in Council which are only perfunctorily debated and cannot be amended.

When we complain, one of the reasons given for needing Orders in Council for Northern Ireland is that that procedure maintains the integrity of the statute book in Northern Ireland—in other words, that the Northern Ireland statutes contain Orders in Council and that there will be no interference with Northern Ireland legislation by United Kingdom legislation. The Bill, however, extends to Northern Ireland and amends Orders in Council. Consequently, it interferes with the so-called integrity of the Northern Ireland statute book.

I do not complain about that—I commend it. It demonstrates what we on this Bench have said time and time again—that there is absolutely no reason why legislation for Northern Ireland cannot be made in the normal way. We welcome in particular that aspect of this measure and hope that it will increasingly be a model for other measures.

5.34 pm
Mr. Boateng

By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This has been a short, although important, debate. As it developed, it demonstrated to the wider world one of the advantages that we have in this place —we are able to draw on the experience that hon.

Members gain in their constituency surgeries. We are also able to draw on their clearly displayed—I refer to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks)—knowledge, which is deep and detailed, of a subject that has led to legislation such as this. It has been a good debate.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) called into question, rightly so with respect to the history of this legislation, our having any complacency about the efficacy of our procedures for checking and overseeing the stages of the legislative process, in order to ensure that drafting and content oversights such as this—it goes as deep as that—are not repeated.

One of the odd features about the passage of the Bill is that, even when this matter was brought before the other House to deal with the oversight in the Children Act, it was necessary for their Lordships to consider on Report no fewer than 15 amendments to the Bill as it was after Second Reading in the other place. It is incredible that it was found necessary to amend it 15 times after its Second Reading.

Hon. Members will have read the proceedings on Second Reading and Report in the other place and seen that their Lordships proceeded at a fast pace—at considerably more than a gallop on the part of the Lord Chancellor. Such a speed would have done credit to a participant in the Derby. The way in which their Lordships went through those amendments was incredible.

I make no complaint about that, provided that we can be absolutely sure that their Lordships got it right and that we shall not find next year, or the year after, that again we have to go through that which we seek to achieve on this occasion. I anticipate—for it requires no great foresight—that we shall not spend all that much time on the Committee and Report stages of the Bill.

When the Minister responds to the points made by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, I hope that he will state clearly that he and his Department are satisfied that the matter has now been dealt with, that the Bill is in its final state and that we shall not have to come back here, years hence, to deal with it again.

I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West. He was absolutely right to set the debate about reciprocal arrangements in a European context. In July this year., a report was published by the Family and Policy Studies Centre entitled "Lone Parents in the European Community", of which my hon. Friend is aware. The evidence is that report makes it clear that lone parenting is likely to become an even more important issue in Europe in the next few decades as a result of rising divorce rates and an increased number of births outside marriage.

The evidence suggests that the southern European countries are following the north. An examination of the figures for lone parents in Europe shows that there is a marked distinction between Greece, Spain and Italy, and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom heads the list, with 17 per cent. of families with children under 18 headed by a lone parent. The figures for Greece, Spain, Italy and southern Europe fall as low as 5 and 6 per cent. It is clear that the position is changing. The issue will not go away.

It is important that we examine the reciprocal arrangements carefully and that we have the means to do so. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the Lord Chancellor's Department will take on board the points made this afternoon in the debate and that this important issue will be addressed effectively in the interests, above all, of the children and the deserted spouses.

5.41 pm
Mr. John M. Taylor

With the leave of the House, I wish to reply to the debate. Perhaps I should deal with the last point first. The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) asked whether the Lord Chancellor's Department would take seriously the comments made in the debate this afternoon. I tell him and the other hon. Members who have taken the trouble to attend the debate that the answer is an emphatic yes. I am here to take careful note of some valuable points that have been made in the debate.

I hope that the House will not consider it discourteous if I say that many of the matters raised in the debate—for perfectly understandable reasons—may fall just outside a strict interpretation of the Bill's narrow purposes, but I shall try to reply as best I can.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) addressed the issue constructively. He commenced his remarks by addressing the matter of default. I say to him with the seriousness that his comments merit that he knows as well as I do—it is a humbling thing to come to terms with—that, sadly, no amount of legislation and rejigging even of the jurisdiction and practices of magistrates can stop marriages breaking down or people behaving thoroughly unpleasantly towards each other and defaulting and welshing on their obligations to members of their families. That is part of the original sin of the subject, and we all know it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his personal remarks about the job that I have been asked to do and the fact that the Lord Chancellor's Department is for the first time directly represented in the House of Commons. I always thought that it was important for the Lord Chancellor's Department to be represented in this House, but I did not know that I would be given the job.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have said about scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman's remarks were about the complexity of the statute book and were similar to those made by the Lord Hailsham in another place. As the hon. Gentleman is a distinguished law practitioner, he might follow me if I said that most practitioners in this subject, who are probably specialists, would be more inclined to use "Stone's Justices' Manual" than the statute book.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) on his excellent and thoughtful speech. Clearly, he knows the subject well. As he developed his remarks into wider jurisdictions, he may be interested to know that the present score is that the United Kingdom has reciprocity with 100 jurisdictions. But that position will develop. We will need to examine the position closely and take the new opportunities where they arise.

The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West may also be reassured, as will the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, that in the other place the Lord Chancellor undertook to examine the possibility of consolidating this law. Meanwhile, I thank the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West for his thoughtful contribution.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) correctly distinguished the position in Northern Ireland. As he rightly pointed out, apart from the provisions on variation and revocation of orders which also apply in Northern Ireland, the amendments in the Bill affect only proceedings in magistrates courts in England and Wales. I noted the pleasure with which the hon. Gentleman welcomed the references to Northern Ireland in the primary legislation. That point was not lost on us.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) is, to his eternal credit, persistently concerned about matrimonial welfare—I do not think that he will mind if I say persistently. I cannot comment on his individual cases. But if he would like to write to me, as he regularly does, I shall gladly examine them. He wondered whether magistrates courts were the right forum. Since 1920 magistrates courts have been dealing with the narrow range of cases that we are discussing today.

The Bill aims not to change policy but to deal with procedural changes—that is a rather negative remark. I shall tell my hon. Friend something more encouraging. The child support agency, which will deal with domestic maintenance claims in the future and seek to improve the enforcement of them, will be set up with effect from 5 April 1993. I am sure that my hon. Friend would prefer the agency to be set up at the end of next week. The agency will have a valuable role. None of us are relaxed in the slightest about the degree of default and the difficulties of enforcement.

The Government's White Paper entitled "A New Framework for Local Justice" says much about improving best practice in magistrates courts and bringing all of them up to somewhere near the best, with an inspectorate to follow through.

Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) is not in her place. However, I shall answer her intervention about maintenance and the position of those who may have been put in difficulty by the legislative need of repair. Maintenance is payable for the period for which it is claimed. It is therefore payable in respect of the periods both before and after the commencement of the Bill.

I interpret that rather cryptic advice to mean that people will not lose in the circumstances described. I hope that that is true, but I shall certainly research the matter.

I end my speech as I began it, by responding to the hon. Member for Brent, South. At the risk of saying this twice, I tell him that Parliament overlooked the deficiency to which I referred in my opening speech and which I dealt with candidly. I do not seek to step aside in any way from that reality. There was an oversight, but it was committed in good faith, and we have brought the remedy before the House as fast as we could. With the good will of the House, we shall secure that remedy today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House. —[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee: reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made—[Mr. John M. Taylor]—and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.


Mr. Steen

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being so candid with the House and for the generous things that he said he would do as a result of the many contributions that have been made from both sides of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed without amendment.