HC Deb 17 July 1995 vol 263 cc1342-5

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 26, leave out from beginning to end of line 6 on page 2.

5.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Andrew Mitchell)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 3.

Mr. Mitchell

Amendment No. 1 concerns the time limit for making a departure application. The amendment deletes subsection (4) of new section 28A of the Child Support Act 1991 inserted by clause 1 and removes the time limit for applications. Applicants would be able to apply for a departure at any time.

I should remind the House of our original purpose in including a time limit for application for a departure direction. Our intention was to reduce as far as possible the period of uncertainty both for the person with care and for" the absent parent while there was still a possibility of a change to the amount of maintenance fixed by the assessment. We wanted to avoid delays in applications, but we always agreed that if there were good cause for a late application, it should be accepted. We felt that it would be unfair to the other party if either the absent parent or the person with care were able, perhaps after a considerable period, to request a departure direction that would affect the amount of maintenance due right back to the date when liability first started.

We accept that it would be unfair to exclude someone from any chance of a departure because he or she had failed to act promptly. We have therefore accepted a compromise solution. The proposal is that an application made later than 28 days from the issue of a maintenance assessment will be accepted even if there is no good cause for the delay. Any direction that results, however, will not be backdated beyond the date of application. We shall achieve that by bringing forward regulations under subsection (4) of new section 28G as introduced by clause 7.

Amendment No. 3 is consequential to No. 1. New section 281, as introduced by clause 9, contains a reference to subsection (4) of new section 28A, which has been removed by amendment No. 1. Amendment No. 3 removes the reference, which is now redundant. The amendments represent a sensible way forward and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box in his new duties, especially as his first speech on the Child Support Bill is designed to tell the House that the Government are prepared, in effect, to accept an amendment that I moved in Committee, which would have had the same effect as the Lords amendment. It is pleasing that, as a result of the pressure that has been imposed in another place, the Government have reconsidered their position. In the Minister's explanation, I think that I could hear my very words being spoken in justifying my amendment in Committee. I am pleased that a time limit will not be imposed. I am pleased also that the concession has belatedly been accepted by the Government.

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

I support the amendment. It is not only fathers, however, who are not paying maintenance.

I have written to the Department about one of my constituents who, because of certain circumstances, allowed her husband to look after her children. After 10 years, her circumstances have changed to the extent that she holds down a good job. At the same time, she looks after the children almost every night. In the evening, however, she takes the children to the father's house. During weekends, she takes the children and looks after them. She works early in the morning in a fruit market and is required to ensure that someone sends her children to school.

It appears to me that the father is only a glorified babysitter and that the mother is facing her duties. The Child Support Agency has ruled that she must pay a substantial proportion of her earnings to the husband. Surely that is extremely unfair. Perhaps the Minister will look into the matter with a view to future amendment of the Biil.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I shall bear in mind. If he writes to me with specific details, I shall consider the matter carefully.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I, too, welcome the Minister to his new position. I am sure that he will fill it with energy and commitment.

I ask the hon. Gentleman seriously to consider departures and time. I have four constituency cases at the Child Support Agency, of which two would have benefited from departures on Saturday. If we are not careful, those who are least able to afford the consequences will be caught, rightly up to a point, by maintenance orders. Those who are able to say that they are self-employed, for example, will avoid having to make payments. In those circumstances, the low-paid in second marriages will be in real trouble if a partner of the first marriage is able to announce that he or she is self-employed. Departures will be extremely important. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when thinking about implementation.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

I welcome the Minister to his new post, which I consider to be a poisoned chalice. I also welcome the amendments. I wish that the Government had seen fit to accept more amendments, especially those tabled in another place.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) raised important points about the workings of the departure system. She will know that we intend to pilot the departure system from next April. We are determined to get the system right, and all points will be carefully taken on board. I hope that the hon. Lady will approve of the piloting system as a means of achieving our goal.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 2, in page 2, line 17, at end insert—

("(7) Schedule 4A has effect in relation to departure directions.")
Mr. Andrew Mitchell

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 4, 11 and 13.

Mr. Mitchell

These are all minor drafting amendments. Lords amendment No. 2 is a minor but necessary drafting repair, which inserts a new subsection into new section 28A, as introduced by clause 1 of the Bill. New schedule 4A of the 1991 Act is inserted by clause 1(2) of the Bill, but no mention of it is made—as it should be-by new section 28A of the 1991 Act, which is inserted in clause 1(1); the amendment rectifies that omission, and I commend it to the House.

5.30 pm

Lords amendment No. 4 resolves a minor technical inconsistency in the wording of clause 19, which occurred when an amendment was made to the clause on Report in the House of Commons. Clause 19 addresses the problem that the making of a deliberately spurious claim for benefit will allow a parent with care to come within the jurisdiction of the Child Support Agency, when in fact she will not be within its jurisdiction because she has a written maintenance agreement made before 5 April 1993 or a court order for maintenance. Subject to certain safeguards, the provision requires the Secretary of State to treat the application for child support maintenance as if it had not been made if he becomes aware that the benefit claim has been withdrawn or disallowed.

As originally drafted, clause 19 referred to "the person with care", but it later referred to the same individual as "the parent with care". The amendment corrects that minor inconsistency by using the phrase "the parent with care" in both instances.

Lords amendment No. 11 is a clarification of an earlier amendment introduced in Committee in the House of Commons. The Bill as originally drafted made provision for regulations made under paragraphs 4 and 5 of schedule 4D of the Bill as originally introduced to be subject to affirmative procedures. However, prompted by an Opposition amendment to reconsider the schedule, we judged that it would be right for all regulations made under it to be approved by both Houses before coming into effect.

It is possible that the amended wording of section 52(2) of the 1991 Act could be interpreted to mean that affirmative procedures apply only to regulations made under part I of schedule 4B, but that was neither the Opposition's intention nor ours. The proposed amendment would put the matter beyond doubt, and I commend it to the House.

Lords amendment No. 13 is a minor technical amendment that rectifies omissions from the 1991 Act, which currently refers only to "part I" and "part III" of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, and does not indicate to which schedule the parts belong. The amendment makes it clear that it is parts I and III of schedule I to the 1975 Act that are amended. The amendment also rectifies a similar omission from the parallel amendment to the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975, where again the relevant schedule is not indicated. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful to the Minister for recognising the necessity for these drafting amendments, which we have pointed out before—especially in regard to Lords amendment No. 11, which clarifies the affirmative procedure. We have always said that, as Bills now rely so much on regulations, affirmative procedures should be adopted whenever possible, and with clarity.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 3 and 4 agreed to.

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