HL Deb 29 October 1990 vol 522 cc1695-708

3.2 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement about child maintenance. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will be making a corresponding Statement in another place.

The Government have today published a White Paper, Children Come First, which sets out their proposals for a new system of maintenance for children. Copies have been placed in the Library.

These important proposals are a collaborative effort involving many departments of state. They are to be seen as a further step in the wide-ranging review of the family justice system which the Government have in hand. As with other aspects of that review, its aim is to give priority to the welfare of children and to highlight their parents' responsibility for ensuring it. It is a natural adjunct to the Children Act over which this House spent so much time and care in the last Session. It takes its place with the other items in that review such as divorce reform and the law on domestic violence on which Law Commission reports are expected and current work in departments on the arrangements for and place of conciliation, reconciliation and support services for the courts in family proceedings. At the same time my colleague the Home Secretary will be taking steps to ensure that maintenance is paid more reliably.

Every child has a right to receive care from his or her parents. Parents have a legal and moral responsibility to care for their children until the children are old enough to look after themselves. The parents of a child may separate. In some instances the parents nay not have lived together as a family at all. Events may change the relationship of the parents to each other. They may divorce, for example. But these events cannot in any way change the responsibilities of the parents towards their children.

The payment of child maintenance is one important way in which parents fulfil those responsibilities. Government cannot ensure that families stay together. But we can and should ensure that parents make proper financial provision for their children whenever it can reasonably be expected.

The present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, and uncertain in its results. It is based largely on discretion; and it is operated through hundreds of courts and hundreds of social security offices throughout the United Kingdom. The cumulative effect is uncertainty and arguably inconsistent decisions about how much maintenance should be paid. In a great many cases, the maintenance awarded is not paid at all or the payments fall into arrears and take many weeks to re-establish.

Only 30 per cent. of lone mothers and 3 per cent. of lone fathers receive maintenance regularly Over million lone parents and their children depend on income support. In 1989 only 23 per cent. of lone parents who were receiving income support received maintenance. Ten years ago the figure was 50 per cent. Income support represents 45 per cent. of the income of all lone parents. The cost in real terms to the taxpayer has risen from £1.4 billion in 1981–82 to £3.2 billion in 1988–89.

We have made improvements within the present system. These will help parents but they cannot solve all the problems. We now need strategic reform. Our proposals will deliver a single system available to all; consistent and predictable decisions about how much maintenance is to be paid; payments that bear a realistic relationship to the costs of caring for a child; a fair and reasonable way of deciding maintenance so it does not become a contest between parents to the detriment of the children; regular reviews of maintenance; a chance for children to share in their parents' standard of living; and continuing incentives for absent parents to work and to go on working; and we want to help caring parents who are ready and able to go to work to do so.

We do not want children to become dependent on income support whenever this can be avoided. It is not right that taxpayers should shoulder that responsibility if parents are able to do it themselves. After all, taxpayers include other families who are bringing up children.

We intend to achieve all these many objectives by introducing three important measures. The first is a formula for the calculation of maintenance. The second is to create a Child Support Agency which will assess, collect and enforce maintenance. The third is to make changes to the social security benefits which are paid to parents who work.

Before turning to the details of the formula I should tell the House that there will be a protected income level which is higher than income support. Nobody who is working will ever be left with less than that after maintenance is deducted. There will also be an upper income limit on the operation of the formula beyond which further support for the child will have to be sought in the courts.

Turning to the formula itself, it has three elements. First, there will be a maintenance bill which represents the day-to-day costs of caring for a child and which all parents should pay if they can afford to do so. The size of the bill will depend on the number and age of the children and will be based on income support rates.

Secondly, there will be an exempt income which the parent keeps before he pays any maintenance at all. So from his take-home pay he keeps enough to meet his own necessary expenses and his housing costs and the cost of those of his children who are living with him.

Thirdly, maintenance will be paid from the remaining income. We believe it is right that, once his expenses have been met, he should share the remaining income equally with his children until the maintenance bill has been paid. In most cases, this will mean that the absent parent will keep between two-thirds and three-quarters of his net, post tax, income. Those who can afford to meet the maintenance bill will continue to contribute to their children but at a lower rate.

Where the caring parent has enough income, she will also be expected to contribute towards the maintenance bill. Both parents are liable to support their children. We hope to apply this formula from early in 1992.

Absent parents who are receiving income support have the same legal and moral obligations towards their children as any other parents. As a general rule, they will be expected to make a nominal contribution from their income support for the maintenance of their children.

The second measure is the Child Support Agency, which will have responsibility for tracing absent parents, assessing, collecting and where necessary enforcing maintenance payments. It will need powers to make a legally binding assessment, to require the provision of information and to determine the method of payment. The agency will be required to review the maintenance payable every year. In Great Britain, the agency will operate as a Next Steps executive agency within the Department of Social Security. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will make similar arrangements in Northern Ireland.

When the agency is fully operational, the courts will generally no longer decide applications for child maintenance or applications to vary existing awards. The courts will retain jurisdiction over related matters which arise when parents separate or divorce. These matters include residence of and contact with children, disputed paternity, property settlements and spousal maintenance. As at present, generally parents may choose to apply for an assessment or may make their own private arrangements. The details of the formula will be well known and they will be able to use the formula themselves.

However, where there is a third party interest, that of the taxpayer, parents will be obliged to use the agency's services. The taxpayer has an interest when the caring parent is receiving income support or family credit for herself and the children. It is also in the parent's own interests. If a regular pattern of maintenance is established it is easier to move from benefit to work. If a parent unreasonably declines to seek maintenance, it will be possible to make some deduction from her adult allowance. There will of course be exceptions for those rare circumstances where it is not in the interests of the children to seek maintenance.

The third measure, and one to which the Government attach great importance, is providing more help for those parents who are looking after children and who want to go to work. Receiving maintenance, in addition to their earnings, will provide an invaluable bridge between reliance on income support and the world of work. But we believe that we should offer further help still to parents who work. We shall be making two significant changes in the rules for benefits paid to working people.

To coincide with the introduction of the formula we shall introduce a maintenance disregard of £15 per week. The first £15 of maintenance paid will be ignored for the purposes of calculating entitlement to family credit, housing benefit or community charge benefit.

At the same time we shall reduce the number of hours work which qualify for family credit from 24 to 16 hours a week. Similar adjustments will be made to the rules for receipt of income support. This will apply to all claimants. It will be of particular value to lone parents. This will make it easier for parents to combine work with their responsibilities for caring for children. No one will lose from this change because full protection will be provided.

These measures will make it easier for parents to achieve independence through their own efforts. The choice must be the parent's own; but we know that many of them wish to work. It is right that we should take steps to help them realise those ambitions.

We shall bring forward legislation which provides for the use of the formula, the powers of the agency and rights of appeal against the agency's decisions. We are giving further consideration to the precise form of the appeal structure.

This is an integrated package of important measures which will help children. Where maintenance is paid, it advances the interests of all of us. It is in the interests of the children that they should be maintained by their parents. Maintenance provides them with a reliable source of income, and they learn about the responsibilities which family members owe to each other; and it is in the interests of the caring parents. Maintenance provides them with a bridge into work and greater independence.

I commend the proposals in the White Paper to your Lordships as a further valuable step in our staged reforms of the family justice system.

3.13 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord for making that interesting Statement. The principles behind the Statement—namely, that fathers, together with mothers who can afford it, should be responsible for the maintenance of their children and that the children come first—are obviously acceptable to the whole House and certainly to the Benches that I represent. However, there are some questions that one must ask in order to ensure that the measures are not intended merely to save money for the Government but effectively to relieve hardship in regard to the children, wives and mothers in the cases that will be considered.

I noted that when making the Statement the noble and learned Lord said that when the agency is fully operational it will deal with the assessment, collection and enforcement of maintenance payments. Then he used the words: the courts will generally no longer decide applications for child maintenance or applications to vary existing awards". Does that statement mean that there will be exceptions to the rule and that the courts will be dealing with some applications? If so, what applications? Are they to be applications relating to people outside the income limits with which we are dealing when we think in terms of hardship, poverty and the general liability that will fall upon spouses who separate?

I also noticed that the noble and learned Lord dealt with the issue of lone parents. One has heard it said in many circles that in order for a lone mother to be able to claim the benefits through the agency when it is set up she must disclose the name of the father of the child. Is that right? Is it to be a qualification for an award c f maintenance that whatever the circumstances the lone mother must disclose the name of the father?

The noble and learned Lord also spoke of a possible appeals procedure which is to be worked out. Will provision be made for legal aid at the stage of first instance and also on appeal? It will be necessary for legal aid to be made available to parents with whom we shall be dealing in the main, and certainly in connection with an appeal.

I have read the Statement rapidly, as I am sure have other noble Lords who received copies. However, I have not seen or heard a reference to the way in which second families are to be treated. We often think of the children of the marriage that has broken up because the father has disappeared in order to set up another family. Under the regulations, how are the children of the second family to be protected?

The child support agency is also to have the task of enforcement. How will the agency enforce the payment of maintenance apart from those cases where deductions can be made from assets and income other than from earnings? Will that be done through the courts? What jurisdiction is the agency to have? One can think of many other questions. Indeed, I am sure that other noble Lords will raise further questions, but those I have asked have an application regarding the legal aspects.

I have only one other comment to make in that context. There are many noble Lords who have repeatedly spoken with hope and have taken every opportunity to mention the family court. We did so last week when the Courts and Legal Services Bill came before your Lordships' House for consideration of Commons amendments. Will the business of obtaining uniformity through the agency mean that the family court will be made more distant? Many noble Lords considered that this very work could have been carried out by that court, providing uniformity and comfort for the family as a result of knowing that all its problems were being dealt with within the court's confines.

I repeat that the principles of the Statement may be right but we all wish to look at the details.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for making that interesting Statement.

We too on the Liberal Democrat Benches accept the principles behind the Statement. We too believe that fathers should be responsible for their offspring. We recognise also that the taxpayer has a legitimate interest in that matter. We are aware of the growing cost to the taxpayer. However, we do not wish our anxiety about that to become out of proportion with anxieties about other aspects of the problem. I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord not to hope for too much from the application of this Statement both in terms of any possible deterrent effect on public morals and in terms of any possible reduction in expenditure.

The problem of single parents is not new. It has been with us as long as history. It has always been a cyclical problem. Attempts to deter the old Adam—if I may so put it—have never been particularly successful. There has always been a cyclical pattern. For example, if one looks at the rise around 1600, it is thought that to a large extent that was the result of unemployment and mobility—putting men in a position where they were not economically able to undertake the task of caring for a family. Therefore, I do not believe that this is something which maintenance applications can necessarily deter. I do not believe that it will save public expenditure quite as much as the Government hope.

If they are concerned about government expenditure, perhaps they will bear in mind that the cheapest way of reducing the bill for single parents is contraception. They might consider, for example, the position of the FPA clinics.

There are some crucial questions which cannot be answered by the information available to us. Phrases about the level of protected income sound all right so far, but we do not know exactly what that will mean in practice. In passing, I should like to ask not only the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, but also whether the level of protected income will be index-linked. That will be quite important to its operation.

If that level of protected income is set too low, in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said about second families there is a risk—if the House will forgive me for putting it that way—of killing the gander which lays the golden eggs. There are plenty of cases of people who have taken the king's shilling, or whatever else one did in the past to evade such responsibility. If one sets the rate too high, that will be self-defeating.

Perhaps I may pursue the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, about the exclusion of the courts. I should like to know precisely how far that will go and, in particular, whether it will cover one of the commonest of all maintenance disputes; namely, the man who says, "You cannot make me maintain her. She is living with another man". I should like to know whether that dispute goes to the Child Support Agency or to the courts.

I warmly welcome the disregard. Indeed, I could not do otherwise without self contradiction. It is vital that the single parent of either sex should have an incentive to apply the procedure. The Child Support Agency is clearly a body about which we shall need to know more. I see no need to make any objection to it at present. I am interested.

The reduction in the number of hours needed to qualify for family credit is something which we can only welcome warmly. I should like to ask whether the procedure is to be used for attachment of earnings to maintenance orders. If it is, has there been any consultation on that matter with the Confederation of British Industry? That has a legitimate interest in the issue.

Finally, I should like to look with some care at the words: If a parent unreasonably declines to seek maintenance, it will be possible to make some deduction from her adult allowance". That is a guarded form of words. However, in the light of past press reports, I am bound to wonder whether that is a procedure for pushing the mother to name the father of the child under the disincentive of some loss of benefit if she does not.

That has been tried before. It was tried in the times of Elizabeth I in Wiltshire. The result was that the mother named a man who had subjected her to sexual harassment. That man found it difficult to clear his name. I should like to ask whether the noble and learned Lord agrees that there are many good reasons for a mother not wishing to name the father of her child. Fear of violence is the most obvious reason. Desire to protect the man's position may be another reason. People may say that that is improper, but one cannot stop the fact that some mothers feel that. There may be a desire not to have the father involved in the upbringing of the child, and there may be perfectly good reasons for that, or it may be something as simple and elemental as a desire to wash that man right out of her hair. Those matters deserve respect; and whether or not we respect them, we cannot change them so we had better live with them.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their welcome of the principles of this Statement. Some questions have been asked and some detail has been requested. The situation is that the White Paper contains a good deal of detail. I am simply heralding the White Paper to your Lordships.

Perhaps I may take the very last question first as that is fresh in our minds; namely, about washing that man out of her hair and similar desires on the part of the lady unwilling to name the father. I believe that the phrases which we have used which the noble Earl kindly quoted covers that matter in the best possible way as a matter of principle; that is, the question of what is reasonable is in issue.

As regards the question about the courts that I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, the idea is that we should have a formula which applies and can be applied readily once the facts are ascertained. It will be the responsibility of the agency to inquire into those and to determine them.

I mentioned the question of an appeal from that determination, and we are considering the form of that. I mentioned also that there may be applications to the court in circumstances which I indicated. For example, that would have the effect of taking account of an income which is above the ordinary limit in particular cases. However, the general idea is to make this system of maintenance relatively simple to operate so that it will not require the interposition of the court in the ordinary situation.

Powers of enforcement were mentioned. I expect that the agency would have a variety of powers of enforcement available to it, and attachment of earnings would be one of those powers. I should say that while the White Paper sets out what is proposed, it invites comment on the way in which that may be carried out, and an opportunity for consultation will arise from that.

A very important question was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, about the treatment of the second family. The primary rule is that a person is responsible for his own natural children. The situation as regards stepchildren is more difficult and the detail of that, so far as we have proposed detail upon it, can be found in the White Paper. I acknowledge that it is a difficult question. It will have a bearing on the protected level of income for that particular family.

The noble Lord is very attached to the family court and fears, without real reason, that the proposal may make what he regards as the family court more distant. The steps that we are taking and have taken are intended to achieve the ideals of the family court campaign, and the ideals that are dear to the noble Lord. We hope to minimise the amount of unnecessary conflict between parents over their children, and to have a graduated system of tribunals, from the lowest to the highest court, available to deal with cases involving children or families as may be appropriate to the nature of the problem in question.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked about maintenance of the woman where, I believe he said, she is living with another man. We are not concerned with that. We are concerned with maintenance for the children. There will be an element in the maintenance of the child covering the need for someone to care for that child. Maintenance for the woman is a separate matter and is not subject to the agency. As to the protected income, the noble Earl asked whether it would be index linked. The level of protected income will be related to the income support levels and therefore will have built into it the changes appropriate for that.

As regards expenditure, it is important to have a proper system for the maintenance of children in the interests of the children. That is the primary aim of the change we are proposing. I believe that I have answered the questions put to me so far.

3.32 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, many of us in the Churches are profoundly distressed at the level of this problem in our country at the present time. Anything which the Government are able to do to meet the problem has our warm support. Like others who have asked questions of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, I support the principle of responsibility of those who have children and whose family relationships have broken down, whether men or women. My question relates to the protected level of income and how possible it will be to administer the system. One fear already expressed by noble Lords opposite is that some of the poorest people in our society will be affected by what is proposed, thereby making the problem for second families possibly worse.

Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor can say whether it is possible to administer a system such as this simply enough for it to be generally understood? Anything unduly complex would cause more problems.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the idea of the formula is to try to enable that to be done. I know that the right reverend Prelate will be aware that it is always difficult to provide a simple rule which is just in all circumstances. We are endeavouring to provide a rule which is as simple as possible and which will do justice in the vast majority of cases. There may be exceptional circumstances; for example, at particularly high levels at which the court's intervention will be necessary. Apart from that, we are aiming at a system which will be reasonably simple to administer and which will do justice on the basis of the formula in the vast majority of cases.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, without going into the substance of this important Statement, I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord for clarification. It has come to our notice that the Statement made by the noble and learned Lord is different from the Statement the Secretary of State is now making in the other place. I may be mistaken, but in the 40 years or so that I have been in these buildings I have never known that to happen before. I wonder whether the Statement the Secretary of State is making in the Commons will be repeated here after the noble and learned Lord has finished, and whether his Statement will be repeated in the House of Commons.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is perfectly right. I made a Statement which it will not be necessary to repeat in the Commons. The substance of what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is saying in the Commons will bear a marked similarity to what I said. However, as both departments are very much involved in the matter it is appropriate that I should make the Statement to your Lordships and that the Secretary of State should make his Statement to the other place. The differences between the two are such as not to require their being repeated in either place. That will be seen when noble Lords have had a chance to examine the detail.

I wished to make the Statement because it is a very important statement of principle on family law generally. The support agency will be in the department of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. Therefore he has a very direct interest in the matter also. It was thought right between us that we should arrange matters in the way we have. It is in the nature of an innovation for two Statements so closely related not to be repeated. I hope it may be an innovation in this case which the noble Lord will feel is, if anything, an improvement on the practice he has known over 40 years.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord; I do not criticise him. His admission that it is an innovation will be helpful to the whole House. I see the reasons perfectly well. I am obliged for his explanation.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, perhaps I too can thank the noble and learned Lord for the Statement. In the light of what the Leader of the Opposition said, may I say that many of us are grateful that the noble and learned Lord has himself spoken on the matter inasmuch as it is very closely linked to the Children Act. The noble and learned Lord took that Bill through the House.

Perhaps I may ask a number of questions. Many of us welcome the fact that men are to be responsible for their children, whether in or out of marriage. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that under the Children Act 1948 it was suggested that men who could not afford to pay for their children should be exempt when the children were either removed for adoption or put into care? It was decided by all the social workers in the country that however small the assessment, those fathers should pay something—not for financial reasons but in order that a father should feel responsible for his children, and the children feel that their natural father was taking an interest in them. I therefore welcome that part of the Statement.

Will it be possible for mothers with young children —babies—to have the choice of staying at home and looking after those young children rather than going out to work? Can that be taken into account in the formula that is to be set up? Many of us believe that it is in the interests of very young children that they are cared for by their mother. Is it to be possible, as it is in France and other countries in Europe, for the mother to stay at home and look after her very young children?

I refer now to the agency that is to administer the situation. Will there be one agency in the country or separate agencies for different regions? How is a mother, or indeed a putative father, to appeal? Will they appeal to the agency or to the courts? How will it be done? How will the agency be set up? Who will serve on it? To which ministry will the agency be responsible? There are many ministries involved in this type of work. I think I have asked a sufficient number of questions for my noble and learned friend to be going on with.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my noble friend's questions are always well informed and important. I am sure that she has many more but perhaps the White Paper will answer some of them.

There will be one agency for Great Britain. It will be an executive agency of the Next Steps variety within the Department of Social Security; in other words, responsible to the Secretary of State for Social Security and on the basis of a Next Steps agency structure.

The intention is that a person wishing either to claim maintenance or to have maintenance liability determined will apply to the agency and the agency will then undertake the matter. As regards appeal, the precise machinery for appeal against an agency's determination will be a matter to be further considered and any views which your Lordships may have will be considered with great care. There is the possibility of having a form of tribunal as the appeal from the agency. Alternatively, the matter might go to the courts.

As regards the formula, as I said, this will be based on income support considerations. However, it may well be right that a proportion of that should be related to the element of need for a carer. That might well reflect the point made by my noble friend.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I put a specific matter to my noble and learned friend. He will be aware, of course, that it is a feature of the divorce law in England, and probably elsewhere in the United Kingdom, that before a court grants a dissolution of a marriage it has to be satisfied as to the care and maintenance of the children; otherwise the parents do not get their final decree. I did not understand from the Statement whether what has been said this afternoon will interfere with that feature or whether it will be retained in its present form.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, what I have said this afternoon does not touch directly on that. The Statement concerns simply the question of maintenance responsibilities. If the parties can agree on maintenance, there is no need for any action under this system. On the other hand, even if parties have been able to agree, questions may arise later on the enforcement of their agreement. If that happens and a party wishes to use the agency, the agency would be operating in accordance with the formula system generally. Other matters, of course, will remain with the court subject to the effect of the revisions of the Children Act on the matters to which my noble and learned friend refers. I do not see that the present proposals will affect that position. The main effect on the matter to which my noble and learned friend refers will derive from the provisions of the Children Act which modify it.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I have a question which may have a simple answer. While I, too, cannot possibly disagree with the principle that fathers should be responsible for the maintenance of their children, nevertheless for a single mother bringing up her children the bottom line is that the cash comes in at the end of the week so that she can feed and maintain her children. If a mother is reliant on maintenance rather than income support, or part of each, and there is a breakdown in the payment of the maintenance, what can be done for that family in the short term?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, that is part of the reason why I believe it is sensible to have an executive agency within the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Social Security. The system would certainly seek to pursue the maintenance obligations by pursuing the liable parent. However, if for some reason the payment were not forthcoming under the agency's efficient collection system, of course the ordinary income support system would be in place.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I have one question for the noble and learned Lord, but first I welcome the fact that similar legislation will be introduced in Northern Ireland by a separate order. I hope that there will be no time lag in its introduction into Northern Ireland and that it will coincide with operations within the United Kingdom. My question refers to appeals. I did not hear the noble and learned Lord reply to the question concerning legal aid. Will such assistance be given in cases going before a tribunal? Does the noble and learned Lord envisage that happening?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I said, the detail in regard to appeals is still open to consideration, as the White Paper will show. The precise form of an appeal has yet to be determined; therefore, any question of legal aid does not arise at this juncture. The question is whether appeals should go to some form of tribunal, existing or new, or to the courts. That is a matter still to be determined and views on the matter would be extremely welcome.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I first congratulate the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and his colleagues on tackling a problem which is a legal and social minefield. We have not yet had the opportunity to see the White Paper but presumably there will be equality in treatment. The noble and learned Lord used the masculine gender, but will he confirm that the mother and father will be equally responsible, particularly bearing in mind that, quite rightly, women have careers and are just as capable of leaving their families as men?

My second question relates to access. I have heard many men say that they would be happy to pay maintenance—indeed, have wanted to pay maintenance—but have been denied access to their children. That hurt them very much and, indeed, discouraged them from paying maintenance or continuing with maintenance.

I ask one final question which relates to the family support and family income system. Will the amount of income support —I do not know how to phrase this —still encourage men, and indeed women, to go to work rather than become unemployed and exist simply on the amount of income support?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as it is fresh in my mind I take the last question first. Certainly part of our aim is to do nothing to discourage people from working and remaining independent. Therefore, the arrangements are proposed with that very much in mind.

As regards the first point, I used the masculine gender in describing the absent parent, and the White Paper is careful to point out that that is a very common case. Therefore, we use the masculine gender, but the proposals are intended to apply equally if the absent parent is a woman. I use the phraseology that the noble Lord will find in the White Paper, which makes it absolutely plain that we intend that the proposals apply to both genders equally.

The noble Lord raised a question about access, which is of vital importance in practical terms. I believe that he will find the issue mentioned in the White Paper. It is another matter to know precisely how to deal with it. If the noble Lord has help to offer us on that we shall be glad to hear it.

Speaking generally, the truth is that the father should have access to his child and he has an obligation to maintain his child. However, there may be circumstances in which it is not in the interests of the child that the father should have access. If the court takes that view, the result ought not to be to remove the father's responsibility for maintenance. As the father is responsible for maintenance, he should pay it, whether or not he has access.

Anyone who has had experience of dealing with litigation in this area knows that fathers often put the two together, as the noble Lord did in the example he cited. That is perfectly understandable though the two are really distinct. The responsibility to pay maintenance for the child is a general and subsisting obligation. Sadly, there may be cases in which the court decides that it is not appropriate in the best interests of the child that a particular father should see the child. It is a problem. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising it. As I say, any help which noble Lords can give in providing the machinery to solve the problem will be much appreciated.

I re-echo here what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said. It is a practical view which I share. It is unwise to expect too much of any system. To be able to solve this problem completely may be expecting too much of the system. However, we have the matter very much in mind.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord forgive my persistence? The point that I wish to raise is particularly relevant to the interesting question which my noble friend asked. If there were to be established a family court where questions of access could be dealt with at the same time as issues concerning maintenance, would that not be so much better than setting up a separate agency? The two matters would dovetail. Is the noble and learned Lord, with all his knowledge and experience, not aware of this? We may have a situation where maintenance is awarded against a father in a situation such as that to which my noble friend referred. The child may be illegitimate. The circumstances would be such that maintenance would be awarded by a different tribunal, at a different place from that where access may be dealt with, if, for example, it was a divorce matter. Are we not separating two matters that should be judged together?

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend forgive my intervention? We have now spent 21 minutes on this matter. After my noble and learned friend has replied we should move on to the next business.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the object is to provide a simple way to arrive at maintenance. As I pointed out in the Statement, a variety of discretions is available at the moment to determine the amount of maintenance. I believe that, generally, maintenance should be a relatively simple matter and determined by a formula, with an agency having the power to get the necessary information and provide the necessary help in collection which is available to it.

Access is a distinct question. As I said earlier, the considerations are quite different. Considerations in respect of maintenance and the responsibility for it do not disappear, whatever the other circumstances. Access is a different matter. It is appropriate that it should be decided by the court where it is contested. It is important that these two issues are seen as distinct for the reasons which I have sought to explain.