HL Deb 25 March 1993 vol 544 cc501-8

7.20 p.m.

Lord Henley rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2nd March be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move. Two packages of child support regulations were approved last year. The amending regulations before the House this evening are the fruits of our further detailed work to put the new scheme into practical effect. They are designed to ensure that our policy intentions are fully achieved when the Child Support Agency begins operations. Many simply make technical drafting improvements, and, with the permission of the House, I shall concentrate only on those provisions which make slight adjustments to the detail of the policy intention.

Under Regulations 3 and 4 there will now be a new, Category B, interim maintenance assessment which is designed to deal with the situation where the new partner of a parent with care or absent parent refuses to divulge information about his or her income when it is needed, for example, for the protected income calculation. It would not be right if the partner's failure to provide information meant that a maintenance assessment could not be completed and a child was therefore deprived of maintenance.

Regulation 10 covers the possibility that a child support officer may refuse an application for a maintenance assessment on grounds of lack of jurisdiction and a court then refuses to make a maintenance order because it does not have jurisdiction either, this meaning that neither the agency nor the court was dealing with the application. This amendment protects the parties' position by ensuring that the normal 28-day time limit for a review of the agency's decision runs from the date of the decision by the court and not from the date of the original decision by the child support officer.

Regulation 25 introduces a new Regulation 27A into the Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases Regulations. Together with Regulations 15 and 24, this will ensure that where a qualifying child is officially in the care of a local authority but is allowed to live with a parent, the case is treated as a special case for the purposes of child support legislation, and so the parent will be able to claim maintenance.

Regulation 26 deals with deductions from an absent parent's income support. As the House will know, absent parents on income support must normally make a small contribution towards maintenance, but there are several exempt categories.

This regulation slightly adjusts the grounds for exempting an absent parent from making this contribution, in particular extending the exempt categories so that the absent parent is exempt if he has day-to-day care of a child. This regulation also introduces Schedule 5, which provides for a decision on the making of a deduction to be open to review.

Among the remaining regulations, I should draw the attention of the House to only a few. Regulation 37 amends the Arrears, Interest and Adjustments of Maintenance Assessments Regulations and ensures that relevant persons have written evidence where an agreement has been reached between the absent parent and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for paying off arrears.

Regulation 46 amends Regulation 8 of the Maintenance Arrangements and Jurisdiction Regulations and allows for payments made in respect of a maintenance assessment which is subsequently found to have been made in error because there was an existing court order to be deemed payments in respect of that court order. The same rule applies if the situation is reversed.

I have spent a few moments explaining the provisions in this statutory instrument in which I think the House will have particular interest. These provisions are largely of a technical nature and they are designed to ensure that the legal framework for the new child support scheme is as robust as possible. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2nd March be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Henley.)

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the regulations and do not want to raise any detailed queries as most of our queries were raised in another place and were patiently and courteously answered by the Minister there. I should like instead to make a few wider points to continue to register our concern about the scope of the Act and the work of the Child Support Agency. Some of these points were made in another place but others perhaps were not.

We entirely accept that parents, both parents, have an obligation to maintain children and that when husbands walk away from wives, or when wives walk away from husbands, they do not also walk away from their children. We have expressed in the past some of our general concerns which have not yet been alleviated—and certainly will not be by the changes in the regulations. First, we continue to fear that under the Act women will be under severe pressure to name their former partners even if they fear some retaliation. The retaliation may be access. It may involve intrusion (where the relationship has long been ended) and the invasion of a new and still rather insecure step-parent relationship. There may be violence. We accept that the agency means to be sensitive and that it will do its best to be sensitive, but we shall all be monitoring what is meant by "reasonable grounds" for not pursuing a mother's former partner.

Secondly, we are concerned that under these provisions there is no financial advantage to a mother and child on income support. This point was argued in the other place. There is a disregard of £15 if the family is on family credit, but nothing if it is on income support. That seems unnecessarily harsh. Therefore, no child of a non-working parent on income support will be better off, so to talk about the "Child Support" Act is to use Orwellian language. We know that the children of single parents are more likely to be in poverty, to be malnourished, to become truants and later to be at risk of offending. All the research backs up the obvious common sense that the best way to help a child is to support the mother and her wishes. But this Act ignores them by pressurising her, harassing her and imposing more bureaucracy on her. That is no way to help to keep a family (often at its wits' end) afloat.

Our third concern remains that the penalties are harsh. There will be a deduction of £8.80 per week in the opening period. That deduction in income is inevitably shared and experienced by the child and is at the expense of shoes, trainers or trips for the child —there is no doubt about that, as anybody knows who has sought to bring up a child on income support levels which are barely adequate now. To deduct £8.80 a week as a fine means that, to some extent, that child will go without food and clothing.

Fourthly, we are worried about the implications for the absent parent who is in a new family. We fear that the children of a second relationship may well be impoverished to help fund, support and maintain the children of the first relationship. I am not making moral judgments about the responsibility of a father in that situation (and I am not inviting the Minister to do so); I am concerned about the well-being of the children of both families—of the first and subsequent relationships alike. It is simply a fact that a man on a low income cannot afford to maintain two families, and if we insist that he does so, it is the families and the children who will suffer.

Fifthly, and following from that, I am worried about the intrusion into the financial circumstances of the partner of the absent parent who may or may not have children of his or her own. I refer now to Regulations 3 and 4. She (if that partner is a woman) may bring children to the relationship or there may be children within that relationship. I understand the logic, but once one goes down that route, one puts pressure on the second relationship, which, if it founders, will merely add more children to the problems besetting the original relationship. The cycle will then repeat itself.

Sixthly, and finally, it is clear from the new regulations that the role of the child support officer is even more pivotal in interviewing and ascertaining the situation of the parent in care. The quality of training is essential—I am sure that Miss Hepplewaite is taking great care over it —especially as the child support officer (if he or she is at all sensitive to the situation of the parent, as I am sure that all officers will try to be) will probably find herself or himself advising on a whole range of DSS benefits, including how to bend the Social Fund successfully. I hope that the Minister will ensure that high quality training continues to be available to child support officers as I expect it to be a very stressful job and therefore to have a high turnover of staff. If the officers are to be able to offer the service that we hope that they will offer, they will need all the support possible.

I do not have any queries remaining about the detailed aspects of the regulations; they were answered in the other place. It is, however, important to continue to register our concern about an Act which we feel (despite the assurances that I do not doubt that the Minister will make to the contrary) is financially damaging to the most vulnerable children in our society, the children of single parents.

7.30 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me if, before getting down to the detail of the regulations, I spend a moment on a procedural point which I hope might be helpful to the House in general. I wish to refer to the memorandum submitted by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. The noble Lord suggested that where we have an affirmative instrument before the House, but no one wants to make a fuss about it, it should be possible, by agreement between the Front Benches and if no noble Lord objects, to refrain from bringing the Minister to the House to explain the regulations. That seems to me to be a constructive suggestion. Those of us who have been arguing for scrutiny of delegated powers have been arguing in terms of "may" rather than "must".

We have been concerned that the House should be able, where it wishes, to scrutinise the regulations, but we are well aware of the pressure on parliamentary time that can be created by having affirmative powers for everything. We do not wish to clog up the time of the House unnecessarily. The instrument we are discussing would have been an ideal candidate for the procedure suggested by the noble Lord. If it had been the only instrument, it would have been unnecessary to bring my noble kinsman to the Dispatch Box to explain what all of us are prepared to agree to and what we could have done outside the Chamber.

On the other hand, I believe it is a good thing to bring the child support regulations before the House. My noble friend Lord Meston, taking advantage of the fact that they are on the Order Paper, has been looking at them with some care and has found some points of detail which in a few moments he will bring to your Lordships' attention.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I have profound misgivings about the policy, but I do not think that I should be telling my noble kinsman anything he does not know already if I spend time saying so. Also; I should not be dealing with the content of the regulations, because it seems to me that the content of the regulations is, on the whole, and with the exception that my noble friend is about to raise, beneficial. If the Government are following a bad policy, I would rather they followed it as well and as humanely as possible. On the whole, the regulations contribute to that end.

On Regulation 3, I agree, of course, with the point made by the noble Baroness about intrusion into the affairs of the partner of the second parent, but that is inherent in the policy of the Act which we have already approved. Since such intrusion must necessarily happen, I would rather it happened in a way which did not leave the child destitute because no one is prepared to co-operate with the procedure. So I believe that that regulation does meet a possible mischief. If we are to have the policy at all, that is the way in which we should have it.

In fact, the procedure is so useful that I should like to ask my noble kinsman to recommend it to the Department for Education for cases where the parents refuse o disclose financial information for assessing a student grant. There it could do a great deal of good.

Regulation 11 relates to where there are two separate disputes: a dispute about parentage and some other dispute. That can be treated as two applications. That is a good and practical regulation which I welcome.

I was pleased also to see Regulation 14: that a reduced benefit direction can be reviewed where it seems to be causing harm to the child, on information which comes from some other person. Let us say, for example, the woman is the victim of domestic violence. I can easily imagine a situation in which she is not prepared to say, but her mother is. In those circumstances, if the mother can have the reduced benefit direction withdrawn by giving the necessary information, that is a thoroughly humane and practical concession which I welcome.

One further point upon which I should like to touch is that, on the form which parents with care fill out giving details of income and so forth, one and the same signature, as I understand it, validates the information given and authorises the Child Support Agency to pursue maintenance. That is a double function of the signature which may not always be understood. There may be some risk that we shall have people authorising the Child Support Agency to collect maintenance without realising that they have done so. It could remove some of the problem if we had a provision for a double signature: one to sign for the information, and the other to authorise collection. If that could be considered within the department it might be helpful.

Finally, I should like to ask my noble kinsman, as did the noble Baroness, about the training of officers to take action under the Act. I understand that that is proceeding, but I should be glad of some reassurance about how many officers will have completed the training in time to begin using the procedures of the Act on 5th April when it comes into force, which is now in the very near future.

Lord Meston

My Lords, I was disappointed that the Minister did not refer to Regulation 41 which provides that, for the word 'lumps' there shall be substituted the word 'lump"'. That seems to me to show a healthy preference for one lump rather than two. My more serious point is to express anxiety about the drafting of new Regulation 27. One problem that most worries those who have thought about how assessment will work in practice is of course the problem of the self-employed earner.

Partners were omitted from the original regulations and the new regulations appear to fill the gap. By "partners" I should hasten to say that I mean business partners. The gap is filled, apparently in the nick of time, by Regulation 27. However, I am by no means sure that it does so satisfactorily, because it seems to me to confuse the earnings and expenses of the individual and the earnings and expenses of the partnership.

Paragraph 3(1) of the main assessment regulations requires one to start with the gross receipts of the individual self-employed earner. Then paragraph 3(3) requires deduction of that individual's expenses. The new subparagraph (7) requires deduction from the gross receipt of the partnership the sums mentioned in heads (a) and (b) of subparagraph 3(3) which, as I read it, refers not to the partnership expenses but to the individual's expenses. Surely it should be made clear that it is the partnership expenses which should be deducted to produce the individual's net income, having applied the appropriate partnership share to the resulting net figure.

A further point is that it does not seem to me that the new Regulation 27 allows for the more sophisticated and complicated deeds of partnership, which undoubtedly exist in some areas, where expenses can be borne in different proportions—that is to say, different from the ultimate share of profits —or where there are other complications in arriving at the partner's net share of the profits.

I appreciate that that is a technical point to have made, and unless I have missed something glaringly obvious I should not expect the Minister to deal with it now.

Lord Henley

My Lords, may I start by saying that I note what my noble kinsman Lord Russell said about the procedures we adopt for reviewing affirmative regulations in the House. I do not think it would be right for me at the moment to comment upon it, other than to say I am always more than welcome to come to the Dispatch Box to explain the purpose of any particular regulations that Parliament has felt in the past ought to be subject to the affirmative procedure.

I note also the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about the scope of the Act. I had rather hoped that she would repeat the general support of the principle behind the Act, as did her honourable friend in another place on behalf of her party. However, I hope that I can give the noble Baroness assurances on some of the points that she raised.

Of course we shall monitor the operation of the requirement to co-operate. I quite agree with the noble Baroness on the importance of managing those matters in the most sensitive manner. I accept that it is vital that the training for all the Child Support Agency staff should be managed well, and also that the role of the CSOs is pivotal. I shall certainly pass on her remarks to the new chief executive of the Child Support Agency. We are developing a suitable training package, and one has been designed in collaboration with Relate. It is important to co-operate with such organisations.

As regards the effect on second families, we believe that the maintenance formula provides for the needs of the second family to be covered by protected income which ensures that, after paying maintenance, the absent parent and his second family will be better off than they would be if merely claiming income support.

As regards whether the penalties are too harsh, we argued about that late at night on many occasions during the passage of the Bill. I simply do not accept what the noble Baroness said about that.

Both my noble kinsman and the noble Baroness expressed anxiety about Regulation 3. That provides for the introduction of the new type of interim maintenance assessment which is called the Category B interim maintenance assessment. The existing Category A interim maintenance assessment is designed to dissuade an absent parent from refusing to provide information regarding his income.

A Category B interim maintenance assessment provides for circumstances in which the partner of a parent who is party to an assessment refuses to provide details of his or her income. The partner is not bound to furnish that information, without which it would not be possible to make a full assessment. It would not be right if a partner's refusal to provide that information resulted in the deprivation of a child's maintenance. For that reason, a new category of interim maintenance order was required.

A Category B interim maintenance assessment will be in essence a normal maintenance assessment, although it will include an assumed measure of income for the parent's partner which prevents the parent concerned from gaining any advantage because the partner has not disclosed details. We have provided powers for the cancellation and review of Category B interim maintenance assessments to be consistent with those contained in Sections 17 and 18 of the Act.

The noble Baroness said there should be a maintenance disregard in income support. Again, we argued this long and late during the passage of the Bill. We do not believe that a maintenance disregard is in the best interests of lone parents and their children. We know from research that most lone parents want to provide a better standard of living for their children by going to work now or some time in the future. Disregard of maintenance in income support would do nothing to help those parents to realise their ambitions.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, does the Minister not consider that it may be unreasonable to expect a single parent with a child under school age—three or four—to be effectively in the labour market? The prime responsibility of that parent may be to the child. Therefore, the Minister's arguments about maintenance disregard would not apply. That is only relevant when the parent is in a realistic position to choose between going to work and obtaining benefit. At that point one does not wish to have perverse incentives to stay on benefit. However, that cannot be the case where the child is pre-school or pre-nursery school age.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I accept what the noble Baroness said, but I imagine that many single parents whose children are under school age may wish to stay at home to look after their children. However, that would not be true of all of them. Some would desire to rejoin the labour market. I therefore feel that what have said about maintenance disregard still stands true, even in those cases.

Lastly, as regards the technical point which the noble Lord, Lord Meston, raised, I am grateful that he does not require an immediate answer. I thank him for his comments. I shall certainly ask officials to look carefully at the point that he raised. As the noble Lord will realise, it is too late to change these regulations, but I give him an undertaking that, should it transpire that the noble Lord is proved right and amendments are necessary to Regulation 27, they will be brought forward at the earliest opportunity.

I thank all noble Lords who took part in this helpful and constructive debate. The regulations will be implemented by the new agency. We already have in place a dedicated workforce to staff the agency on 5th April. Four of the six proposed centres will be fully operational on that date, with the other two ready by September.

The National Council for One Parent Families and the Child Support Unit have jointly produced a statement of rights for parents with care who are to be interviewed about the requirement to co-operate. That goes some little way towards reassuring the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, as regards the need to operate these procedures in a sensitive way. We believe that the agency now has the foundation in place for its success. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.