HL Deb 01 February 1994 vol 551 cc1217-41

4.45 p.m.

Viscount Astor rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 13th January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the regulations introduce changes to the child support scheme. As the House will recall, the Child Support Act 1991 was introduced because of the growing concern about the lack of proper financial provision for children whose parents live apart. Nearly 1 million lone parents and their children were dependent on income support. Three out of four received no regular maintenance at all. The old system of obtaining maintenance through the courts or DSS offices was slow, uncertain and led to low and often inconsistent settlements. It was clearly not working.

The basic principles behind the new system are that both parents should be responsible for maintaining their children where they can afford to do so. The taxpayer should have to help only where parents do not have the means to support their children. Those principles have wide support. But we recognise that there have been genuine concerns about the way the new system is working in detail. We have, therefore, conducted a thorough review of its operation, considered all representations and studied the thoughtful and balanced report of the all-party Social Security Select Committee which was unequivocal in its support for the basic principles of the scheme. We accept the main thrust of the Select Committee report and have acted on the majority of the changes that it recommends on the calculation of liability. Where we have decided not to act on its recommendations we have done so for good reasons. We shall be responding to the report in detail in due course.

We agree with the Select Committee that it is better to leave absent parents more financial choice to meet other demands on them rather than try to incorporate into the formula a whole range of specific costs like travel to work, visiting first families and debts. We also accept the Select Committee's conclusion that there is no sensible way in which the capital value of past settlements could be reflected in current maintenance assessments, even if that were thought desirable. The formula already reflects the consequence of settling a house on the former partner in that the absent parent's costs of rehousing himself and any new children are deducted pound for pound from his assessable income, so reducing his maintenance bill.

As well as introducing some important changes to child support arrangements the regulations also make some technical drafting improvements designed to ensure that our original policy intentions are fully achieved. We propose that the changes will take effect from early February and will affect the way in which child maintenance payable by absent parents is worked out by the Child Support Agency.

The Child Support Agency works out how much an absent parent pays as child maintenance by using a formula. This formula is necessarily detailed as it has to be able to deal with the complexities of people's individual circumstances in a fair and equitable way.

The formula takes into account such things as the cost of looking after children and whether the parent with care or the absent parent has more than one child. It also takes into account the income of both parents, allowing for tax, national insurance and essential expenses such as rent or mortgage costs. There are various other elements which make up the total amount of child maintenance. We propose that three of these elements will change.

First, there will be a change to the maintenance requirement which is the amount of money required to provide for the day to day needs of the child or children for whom the child maintenance assessment is being made. It is made up of several parts. One of these parts represents the care provided by the parent with care of the child or children. The proposed change recognises that this need does not end suddenly but reduces gradually as the children grow older. Accordingly, the new measure provides for the amount to be reduced by 25 per cent. when the youngest child reaches age 11, and by 50 per cent. when that child reaches age 14.

Secondly, we propose to amend the part of the assessment known as the additional element. When essential expenses are deducted from an absent parent's income, he or she is left with "assessable income". Where the absent parent has income left from his assessable income after paying the basic maintenance requirement he is required to pay 25 per cent. of that balance in additional maintenance. We propose to reduce the rate of this deduction to 20 per cent. where there are only two children to be maintained and to 15 per cent. where there is only one child. The rate will remain at 25 per cent. where there are three or more children involved. This recognises that extra expenditure on children, over and above their basic needs, is not likely to be as high for one or two children as it is for three or more and will moderate the very high amounts that some absent parents are expected to pay.

Thirdly, I turn to protected income. Protected-income provides that an absent parent retains enough income after paying maintenance to meet his daily needs and that of any second family. The aim is that absent parents should be better off after paying maintenance than they would if they received income support. We propose that the level of protected income be substantially increased. Absent parents will now keep a minimum of £30 above the level of help they (and their new family if they have one) would receive if they were on income support, instead of only £8 as at present, plus 15 per cent. of any other income instead of 10 per cent.

We also propose to streamline the calculation of housing costs in exempt income. Exempt income represents the income which the parent keeps for his or her own personal expenses. It includes housing costs. From the date these regulations take effect the full amount of premiums on an insurance policy intended to discharge the mortgage on a parent's home will be allowed in the calculation of the parent's exempt income where the mortgage does not exceed £60,000.

We also wish to provide for a significant extension to the current arrangements for phasing in the higher awards under the new scheme. Absent parents with second families or care of a child for at least two nights per week and with an existing court order or written maintenance agreement, whose maintenance assessment is over £60, will have any increase in their liability phased in over a period of up to 18 months in six-month steps of £20, or 25 per cent. of the difference between the old and new liabilities if this is higher.

These new arrangements will help absent parents to adjust to their commitments over a period of time, while gradually increasing the amount that they pay.

I am sure your Lordships will recall the debate held on the charging of fees for the services that the agency provide. We now propose that where a parent with care is in receipt of income support, family credit or disability working allowance and the absent parent is making regular payments direct to the parent with care the Child Support Agency will not make a charge for the collection fee to the absent parent.

The regulations also provide for a child support officer to be able to use a deduction from earnings order for "interim maintenance assessments" issued in cases where the absent parent refuses to give the Child Support Agency proper information to calculate maintenance.

Current regulations lay down charges that bailiffs may make when levying distress in order to collect child maintenance. The Child Support Agency is anxious that a person's goods are only distrained as a last resort. The changes we propose will allow bailiffs to charge £10 for requesting payment of the debt by letter and also reduce the daily charge for a walking possession agreement to 10 pence per day.

A further minor change that affects only absent parents whose liability is modified as a result of a protected income calculation is introduced by these changes; in these cases an assessment must: increase by at least £5 or decrease by £1 before a change has effect on the amount of maintenance he pays.

I believe this package of modifications to the child support scheme meets the major anxieties expressed and at the same time preserves the basic principles of the Act. It has not, of course, met all the recommendations made by critics of the scheme. It is understandable that some absent parents will continue to be dissatisfied, even after these changes have been made. But in framing social legislation it is Government's responsibility to balance the needs of all concerned.

We should not underestimate the extent of the massive task the agency faces to implement these changes, which are likely to cause some difficulties and delays in the normal day-to-day business of the agency. The changes aim to ensure that all parties—children, parents with care, absent parents, second and step families and taxpayers—are treated fairly.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he not deal with the important constitutional points relating, to the word "transitional", which have been raised specifically and drawn to the attention of both Houses by the highly admired Joint Select Committee on Delegated Legislation?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I have not formally moved the regulations. Perhaps when I reply to noble Lords who are to speak on them I shall be able to answer the noble and learned Lord. I beg to move

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committed.]—(Viscount Astor.)

4.57 p.m.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, as a so-called absent father, I wish to intervene for a couple of minutes in order to make two points. First, I object most strongly to being so described because I spend some three-and-a-half months of each year with my 12 year-old son. During that time his mother is the absent parent. It is wrong that fathers who spend as much time as I do with their children should be so described.

Secondly, the formula under which the sums are payable by so-called absent parents is so intricate and complicated that I cannot begin to work out what I should be paying, which is far less than I am paying. Several barristers to whom I have spoken have said that it is possible to work out the sum only if one has a specially programmed computer. I do not know whether the new regulations will make that easier; I believe that they will make it more difficult. However, it is a serious criticism of the Act and the regulations made under it that the formula should be so unspeakably complicated.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I wish to say only a few words about the regulations. I do so because I have had quite a bit of correspondence with various people up and down the country. I have sent copies of some of those letters to the Minister and he has been good enough to reply. In my view, the replies have not been entirely satisfactory. I thank him, however, for replying and for the résumé of the amended regulations he gave me.

The Minister will be aware that in spite of the regulations, there are still very grave concerns among so-called absent parents. I say "so-called" because often they are absent through no fault of their own. Indeed, they would like to be present with their families. During the Bill's passage through this House, I moved a number of amendments which would have corrected the situation.

There is still widespread anxiety. I must tell the noble Viscount that there was a meeting with parents, mainly fathers and their new partners, at Burghfield. The meeting was packed. The new regulations were found not to be satisfactory. Those attending the meeting were able to convince their Member of Parliament of that fact and I hope that he will put further pressure on the Government.

Clearly, the amendments will not meet the point put by so-called absent parents—I have to use that description —because they will still find themselves in grave financial difficulties. Indeed, they will still find that the new partner of any second family, usually the wife, will be expected to contribute through her income to the previous family, although the reverse does not appear to be the case. I may be wrong, but so far as I can see the income of the new spouse of the caring family is not necessarily taken into account when the assessment is made. I hope that the noble Viscount will clarify that point.

I cannot vote against the amendments because they are an improvement. But they do not go far enough. What the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I said during the passage of the Bill has come all too true. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, warned time and time again in the watches of the night that the Government would regret the Bill and that it would be another poll tax fiasco. However, as I said, I cannot vote against the regulations because they are an improvement.

A point made to me time and time again by fathers, in particular, who have maintained, and who are prepared to continue to maintain, their children is that sometimes they are refused access to their children. Very often, that is against a court order. In due time the Government will have to take that into account. The Government cannot say to fathers and parents that they must be responsible for their children if they are unable to take an interest in them and play a part in bringing them up if they wish to do so. Many fathers are being prevented from doing that. It is a factor that the Government will need to consider in due course.

5.4 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and the noble Lords, Lord Kilbracken and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for their extremely helpful contributions to the debate.

When I was a boy, my parents used to take me to the zoo. In those days there were few restrictions on feeding the animals. One day I remember a large crowd enjoying feeding the hippopotamus. I had with me nothing larger than peanuts. I picked up a peanut and to my intense five year old pride, my throw landed right on the middle of the hippopotamus's tongue. But the hippopotamus simply kept his mouth open waiting to be fed. When I look at these regulations and I compare them with the size of the problem which they must meet, I begin to understand how that hippopotamus felt.

Today we are debating only small grievances. We are debating the regulations and the Select Committee report. We have an Unstarred Question on 9th February when we shall be able to debate the possibility of changes in primary legislation. In the time that I have been in your Lordships' House, I have never received correspondence on any subject on the scale on which I have received it on this matter. I believe that I have now received something in the region of 300 letters. Even in the last week of October when, as some of your Lordships will know, I was involved with another piece of business which received a great deal of attention, the single largest item in my post-bag related to the Child Support Act. Since the announcement of these regulations, that flow of correspondence has shown no sign of easing.

Indeed, the department is becoming overwhelmed. It wrote to me recently saying that it hoped the explanation would reassure my constituent. I ask the department to note that this matter is so serious that even mere Lords are being written to in large numbers.

The universal criticism is that fathers simply do not have enough money to meet the demands made on them under the Act. Mr. Burt's replies that the more that individual claims for expenses are recognised, the further the child slips down the list of priorities is a fair point. But I hold to the old-fashioned view that politics is the art of the possible. You cannot get from people money that they do not have.

I give your Lordships one example of the way in which the cost is worked out. I have received a letter last week from a representative of a communications company in Dorset. His monthly income is £1,500 of which he pays £330 income tax and compulsory deductions, national insurance, superannuation, new tax increases, and so on, which amount to a total of £699. Under the formula he will pay £476 which will leave £325 per month for the wife and one child of his second family. Therefore, for an average 50 hour week with no overtime, he is left with £81.25 per week with which to house, clothe and feed his family and to meet the not inconsiderable costs of going to work. He asks why he should go to work and I cannot answer him. I hope that perhaps the noble Viscount can do so.

Of course fathers must contribute. All the people who have written to me agree that fathers should contribute and the vast majority of them are already doing so. The question is how much they should contribute. I propose three yardsticks to indicate when the burdens have become excessive: first, when they move people to emigrate, and so far I know of one case of emigration caused by the Bill but it may not be the last; secondly, when they make people give up their job because they would be better off on benefit, which is clearly not in the public interest; and thirdly, when they break up second marriages, causing great unhappiness to the people involved.

At the beginning of this Session the noble Viscount said to me—it was in private and I am grateful to him for permission to quote it—that people are having second families at the state's expense. I understand what he is saying. I also understand the state's concern. However, the state is misleading itself if it thinks that it can get out of fathers enough money to prevent the state from having to pay anything for second families. If the noble Viscount is concerned with reducing the state's share, that is a legitimate concern; but if he wants to reduce it further, he should look in the way that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did in the Budget in the direction of building upon that very welcome concession on child care. That is a much better way of affording second families than trying to charge fathers what they do not have.

In that context I should like the noble Viscount to give an assurance that it is no part of the Government's purpose to tax second families out of existence and that it is no part of back to basics to ensure that everyone stays with their first wife. I expect the noble Viscount to have no difficulty in giving such an assurance. However, if he does give me that assurance, it must follow that, if the Act is breaking up second families, it has been overdone and is in need of amendment.

I turn now to the regulations. First, we have a concession on phasing which is welcome as far as it goes. It is the concession that Polyphemus made to Odysseus that he should be the last devoured. It is not much use unless you find, as Odysseus did, that Polyphemus is out of office before the time comes. Secondly, there is an increase in protected income. My criticism is that it is not targeted. It goes to every family regardless of how many unavoidable expenses they have that they cannot get out of. I merely ask the noble Viscount whether he thinks that the protected income would be sufficient to pay for a season ticket to work from, say, Newbury. Alternatively, would it pay for someone who needs a room—and the cost of an extra room can be very great—for work at home in London? I believe that the answer to both questions must be no.

Thirdly, we have a new taper which is regressive, means that the proportionate burden on the poorest increases. There is also a further point which I hope the noble Lord will seriously consider. The latter can be potentially disastrous for people on family credit, which is assessed only once every six months. Therefore, if you lose some of the income upon which your family credit was assessed and you do not receive any more for six months, you may be in a very bad position. If that is not to cause severe hardship, there must be an ex gratia payment to those who lose as a result.

The concession on fees is welcome as far as it goes. I should be grateful if the department would make its policy consistent on accepting payment of fees in instalments. However, I do not see why there should be any fees at all. A great many of my correspondents have found that the fee amounts to adding insult to injury. I understand that feeling and sympathise with it. There are also certain points which are not included in the regulations but which were referred to in the Select Committee's report.

I hope that the Minister will look again at paragraphs 81 and 82 of the report, which deal with step-children. Step-children, like Mount Everest, are there; you cannot say that they are not entitled to maintenance, because they exist. There is a severe difficulty, if you think that you can rely on the absent natural father, in bringing up, say, four children together, with two of them on one income level and two on another. That can be most invidious.

There is also a phasing problem which I should like to see the Government address. It is one to which the Law Society has also drawn attention. Many people who have written to me are paying the expenses of their natural children and also their step-children because the second wife's children are not coming on stream in the Act until 1996. Therefore, until then the man is clobbered with the cost of supporting two families. If the Act is to last in any form, that is an anomaly which should surely be put right.

I heard with pleasure what Mr. Burt said about the new form involving naming the father and making it clear that the authorisation of an assessment and the naming of the father and authorising pursuit are separate. He said that a few offices were still using copies of the old form. I trust that Mr. Burt—in whom I have in some ways a great deal of confidence—has by now put a stop to that practice. Judging by the noble Viscount's smile, I trust that I shall hear that the answer is yes.

I turn now to one of the biggest problems, that of overthrowing settlements. Here again, I should like to quote from a letter that I have received: My divorce from my ex-wife took place before the Child Support Act or Agency was even thought of. With the full agreement of my ex-wife and myself … we made what we both, at that time, believed to be a full and final settlement and agreement … in which I relinquished my share of the equity in the marital home, with the intent that my ex-wife would realise from the proceeds of this house a substantial sum of money which would then be used for the benefit of both herself and our children. To be now faced with a completely new form of legislation which goes in the face of our Court Agreement, and of which we could not have had any prior knowledge, seems to us to be absolutely unacceptable in a democracy. As I say, I believe the Act is fundamentally misjudged … but even bearing this in mind, I can at least appreciate that people currently getting divorced at least have these facts in front of them and can make their own judgments about their courses of action. For myself and my wife, this unfortunately is not the case, and our entire financial future is now jeopardised by the Act". That couple's chances of continuing their second marriage depend entirely on the readiness of the Government to accept paragraph 82 of the Select Committee's report on the housing costs of stepchildren. So at least one real marriage depends on that point; it matters.

The noble Viscount repeated today the argument put forward by Mr. Burt to the Select Committee that it is impossible to find a way within the formula to assess the value of capital settlements. I very much hope for the sake of the noble Viscount that he is wrong in that respect. However, if he is not wrong, I believe that he has shot himself not merely in the foot but somewhere very near the heart.

In the first place, the Government are wrong to think that capital settlements are entirely reflected in the absent parent's housing costs. Capital settlements cover many things. Some of the most complicated -involve business debts; for example, where a husband and wife have been running a small business.

There is a serious point involved here; namely, the argument that the man who has a capital settlement and is paying under the Child Support Act is suffering a kind of double jeopardy, for both of them were settlements that were meant to be full and sufficient by themselves, without the existence of the other. It is fundamentally inequitable that anyone should have to face both. Therefore, if it is impossible to feed capital settlements into the formula, in the case of past settlements it must mean either that retroactivity must go altogether and the Act must not apply to people who have already reached settlements or it must be possible (by primary legislation, if need be) to reverse the judgment in the Crozier case and allow them to back out of the settlement.

As with most other things, I have met a case among my pupils. She said—it was "she" and not "he"—that if the capital settlement in her case were overset it would cause grave dismay, and that she would be happy to renounce all the maintenance under the Act if only she could keep the capital settlement. That is a judgment which it seems to me she had the right to make. I do not see why the state should insist that she cannot do so. Before the noble Viscount raises the point, she was not living on benefit. As she was a student, by definition she could not have been living on benefit.

In the case of future settlements, if they cannot be fed into the formula the husband will not make capital settlements. That may be a cause of great distress to the wife because often in a divorce what she wants most is to hang on to the roof over her head. That matters more than any recurrent income which she is often perfectly happy to go out and earn. If we cannot feed capital settlements into the formula, the effect of continuing to apply the Act will lead to a large increase in the number of the homeless, which might cause some distress to Sir George Young.

None of this seems at all fair. We in this party are committed to a fundamental review of the Act, but if it is true that we cannot feed capital settlements into the formula we might have to begin discussing among ourselves whether what we ought to be considering is not the fundamental review of the Act but its repeal. When I say that in his own interest the noble Viscount should try to convince me that he is wrong, I mean what I say. Mr. Frank Field said on the radio that this would not be the last change in the Act. I agree with him and that is where we begin the next episode—discussing possible changes in primary legislation—on 9th February.

5.22 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we on this side of the House firmly believe that parents may divorce each other but not divorce their children. Therefore, we believe it is right and proper that absent parents should make an appropriate contribution to their children's maintenance in terms of their income, any responsibilities they may have towards their first family and any responsibilities they have incurred with their second family, provided always that the safety and well-being of the first family is safeguarded.

The Labour Party supports the principle of the Child Support Agency. However, like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, we have argued from the beginning that it is deeply flawed and must be radically reformed. Our complaint is that although these regulations are welcome, they do not go far enough, as my noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon quite rightly said.

As it stands, the CSA too often impoverishes second families without floating first families off poverty. Children in second families are hurt—we have the evidence for this—and children in first families are not helped. The only beneficiary is the Treasury, which requires the absent partner—usually men—to support two families on earnings that will not stretch far enough. The plain fact is that even with good will all round, men on below average earnings cannot always support adequately two families. To require them to do so pushes both families, and the children of both, onto the poverty line. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, we will explore this matter more thoroughly in the Unstarred Question next week.

Tonight I believe it is appropriate to look instead at the current criticisms of the Child Support Agency and to ask how far the changes in regulations address those criticisms. The criticisms are broadly threefold. First, it is said that the Act is harsh and even threatening to the parents with care. Those parents are usually women. Secondly, it is said that the Act is harsh on the absent parent—usually men—especially if he is part of a second family. Thirdly, it is said that the activities of the agency are too often seen as unreasonable and are judged to be aiming at the soft targets of parents who are already paying, and that its administrative arrangements are inflexible and overbearing.

I turn to the first criticism which concerns the situation of parents with care, who are usually women. Some of the early fears that were expressed by organisations such as the National Council of One Parent Families with regard to the threat of violence and compulsion to reveal names appear not to have materialised. I pay tribute to the sensitivity of the agency on that score. There are continuing fears but our initial fears have not been fully realised. Nonetheless, the Act remains harsh on parents with care on at least three counts. First, there is no disregard—these regulations do not address that point—in that a woman receiving maintenance loses, pound for pound, income support until any such maintenance floats her off income support levels or family credit altogether. On family credit such a woman, if she were going to work, would retain £15 a week. I am not at this point arguing that there should be a disregard but that the Government recognise, in the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee, that there is a case to be looked at.

Secondly, there is a real problem for the parent with care that if the maintenance comes from the absent parent and he is on just below average earnings, his contribution may float her almost exactly off income support. As far as I can see, a caring parent with two children—one below 10 and one above 10—will receive both income support plus about £2.30 a week if the absent partner is earning about £19,000. That may replace income support but it will not improve her standard of living. It will not float her off poverty. Indeed, she may be worse off. The Minister, Alistair Burt, said in another place on 2nd December that, many lone parents will no longer have to rely on income support as their main source of income". That is true, but it is irrelevant to those parents as their income will be no higher than it was on income support. Indeed., by losing passported benefits such as free school meals, free prescriptions and dental care, they may be worse off. These regulations do not address that crucial matter.

Thirdly, I wish to re-emphasise a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. If the woman—if it is a woman—is in part-time work and on family credit, that family credit is determined for six months at a time. If there is any faltering in the flow of maintenance payments because the absent parent becomes sick, unemployed, or disappears, nonetheless her family credit remains unaltered and she may find her living standards fall catastrophically. There must be a way to overcome what is essentially an administrative problem.

Do these regulations address these three problems for the parent with care: a disregard as recommended by the Social Security Advisory Committee; the problem that a parent on average earnings may not only float the parent with care off income support, but she may still remain worse off because of the loss of passported benefits; and the problem of family credit? No, they do not. These regulations do not improve one iota the position of the parent with care. The regulations do not go sufficiently far enough to enable any of us to say that the Act is beginning to be satisfactory.

On 2nd December the Minister also stated that there should be, substantial benefits for children to be derived from regular payments of maintenance". Again, that is not true unless those payments float the, parent not only off income support but also constitute at least £7, £8 or £10 a week more than that. I have a final question on this matter. We do not object to reducing the maintenance of the parent as carer with older children where that parent may reasonably be assumed to be in work. However, if that parent is assumed to be in work, that is already taken into account in the calculation of her income. We understand the reasoning behind it, but can we have an assurance from the Minister that that formula will not apply to a parent who cannot go to work, perhaps because an older child is disabled? That is a very specific question which needs a specific answer.

The second cluster of problems associated with the Child Support Agency is that associated with the absent parent, usually the father. Here we accept that the changes in the regulations help him to some degree. They allow for phasing in so that men do riot find their maintenance contributions trebled overnight. They are also to be backdated to when the original inquiry forms were sent out. That is sensible, but it could be argued that a longer phasing-in period—perhaps three years—might be more appropriate.

However, the phasing in does not apply to those fathers who are not part of a second family. It does not apply to single absent fathers. It should. Nor does it apply to those who are currently not paying any maintenance because of a clean break settlement. It should. They too need that time to rearrange their finances in order honourably to meet their new obligations. The transitional arrangements should apply to all absent fathers not just to those with second families.

Do the regulation changes take into account the complaint of many men that maintenance assessment takes no account of clean break settlements, past arrangements or current expenses? All noble Lords who have spoken so far have made the point again and again that they do not. In particular, the clean break settlement which forfeits equity in property —sometimes quite substantial equity—is being ignored. Nor am I persuaded by the report of the Select Committee on Social Security that such capital settlements could not be taken into account. The committee was over-impressed by the difficulties and over-persuaded by the Minister. It should distance itself from that position. After all, the calculations are not very different from those in which capital gains are taken into account on a property which has subsequently been revalued.

In another place the Minister made much of the fact that one of the reasons for not taking property settlements into account was that, alongside equity, mortgage repayments might be transferred, and in turn would be picked up by income support, and on the other side replacement housing costs were taken into account in the calculations of the absent parent's income. So what? Neither of those two points addresses the issue that there is substantial equity, which may have been amicably negotiated between the partners and accepted by the courts as legitimate, which is now being ignored. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, the result will be that in future the property will become the source of bitter and angry rows. If a parent who is leaving knows that any arrangement over the home will not count as part of his maintenance contributions, why should he leave his former wife in that home? He—and the solicitors—will expect her, quite understandably, if not rightly, to sell that home and share any remaining equity.

The result will be that a woman who may have lost her husband to another relationship and has the burden of bringing up two children singlehandedly on levels of income which are not much above income support level, will now be presented with the problem of homelessness. She will lose her home and have to uproot herself and move elsewhere, throwing herself on the mercy of the local authority which at best, given that it cannot build, may find her a new home many miles from where the children go to school and from their friends. That adds to the problem of a broken marriage and low income the problem of the loss of a home. I cannot believe that the department, in all its ingenuity and with its amplitude of numbers, cannot find a response to that problem.

The Minister has rightly taken a more conciliatory attitude towards some of the other costs facing the absent parent—travel to work, travel to see the children of the first family—by raising the disregard from £8 to £30. That is sensible, but I still doubt whether it will be enough. However, it only protects and benefits those absent fathers who are earning enough to benefit from that disregard; namely, the better off. Those below protected income levels will continue to lose 85 pence in the pound to the first family. Those able to meet the basic maintenance requirement—the better off—will lose only 50 pence in the pound. The best off, who are offering additional maintenance, will lose only 25 pence in the pound and less than that if they have three children. That regressive nature of the formula is unfair and must be amended.

As my noble friend Lord Stoddart, rightly said, a fundamental asymmetry remains. The Minister must comment on that. The earnings of the second partner and of any adult in the household of the absent partner are taken into account in determining the second family's ability to pay full maintenance to the first family. Their income is taken into account in assessing the ability to meet the full income support displacement. What is not taken into account is any extra cost incurred by the second family where that family includes step children and, either the absent father of those children has not yet been approached because the mother is not on benefit or the father himself is on income support and therefore contributes only £2.20. That is not a realistic assessment of the costs of the step children in that second relationship. Therefore, the absent father in that second family is being asked not only to pay considerable sums for the children of his first family but, in lieu of any support from the father of the step children to provide any compensating offset, to bring up those children. Therefore, he is being asked to support the children of the first relationship and the step children of the second as well as any natural children of that second relationship. Only the very affluent or very altruistic can reasonably be expected to do so. The Minister must tackle that basic asymmetry.

Nonetheless, the position of absent parents, usually fathers, has to some extent been mitigated, but by no means far enough. There is a further set of problems associated with the working of the agency itself. The new forms are welcome and we hope that they may overcome some of the mistakes that have been pilloried in the press in which fathers are accused of having illegitimate children they do not have, putting their marriages under pressure. There have been four such mistakes in five days in January alone.

The main criticism has been that the agency has gone for soft targets. However, as one local DSS official has said, it is undeniable that the name of the game was to maximise the yield, and the staff—all 5,000 of them—were on performance related pay. That meant tracking the men in work, often in the public sector, who were already paying something. The Minister in another place assured the House that more than half the cases identified by the agency—330,000 of 616,000—were not paying maintenance. He used that as evidence that the agency was not going for soft targets. He then went on to confess that in least a third of all cases the fathers were not liable to make maintenance payments in any case. In other words, well over two thirds of those targeted are already paying maintenance. Those were certainly not the feckless, walkaway fathers Parliament believed were to be at the end of the agency's attentions.

Changes in regulations which determine when payments should start are to be welcomed. They may avoid situations such as that reported by the Select Committee on Social Security of a 21 year-old absent father who was asked to pay £65 a week out of a net income of £120. It then took 10 weeks to process that case. As a result he found himself with arrears and a debt of £650, although at the time he was unemployed because he had lost his job. Equally, changes in the arrangements for the payment of fees are sensible, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said. The present system is somewhat unreasonable: it is like being burnt at the stake and being asked to pay for the firewood.

None of us is arguing that the old court-based system was always right and that the new agency and administrative formulas are always wrong. Clearly the old court-based system was based on individual cases. That could mean that two individuals in different parts of the country in similar circumstances had different awards made against them. That was unfair. But it is equally unfair that the Child Support Agency, dealing with individuals with very different circumstances, requires them to pay the same when they should pay different amounts. We need to balance the evenhandedness of the CSA with the locally tailored discretion that the courts could always offer. These changes in the regulations do not yet get that balance right.

The changes in regulations are welcome in so far as they signal the Government's willingness to learn. They are welcome too for the modest gains they offer to those affected. It is worth noting that all the changes have been made in one direction: to aid the absent parents, usually men, who suddenly for the first time find themselves receiving the attentions of social security. They have shouted, loudly and rightly so, and their plight has been somewhat eased. However, the voices which remain silent—we have not heard much about them tonight either—are the women in poverty in the first families whose source of income may have changed from the taxpayer to the absent father but whose level of income is not only not changed but may have been worsened as a result of that activity. That situation we must amend.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I must apologise for intervening at this moment through the courtesy of the noble Viscount, and without having put down my name. The noble Lords, Lord Kilbracken and Lord Stoddart, slipped more decorously into the gap. However, I felt that anything I had to say about the impact of these regulations, and indeed of the machinery of the Act itself, would be sure to be said very much better by the noble Earl and the noble Baroness than I could say it, and so it has proved.

A sure avenue to unpopularity is to say, "I told you so". If we in your Lordships' House today say, "We told you so", it is with a definite purpose. The Act which is now having to be altered by regulations was and is the most bureaucratic Act in the statute book, put forward by the most bureaucratic department in Whitehall; and things have turned out exactly as was prognosticated.

Perhaps I may make two preliminary observations. First, we have had the benefit of a clear exposition of the regulations by the noble Viscount. That shows very clearly the benefit of the affirmative regulation procedure over that of the negative regulation procedure. It is true that the noble Viscount has significantly shied away at this stage from dealing, as a preliminary, with what is before us; namely, the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, to which I shall come towards the end of my observations. However, we must first look back as a warning to what was done and how it was done in the Act.

The Bill was described by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who dealt with it in principle for the Opposition at the time, as virtually a skeleton Bill; and so it was. It ended up as an Act with over 100 regulation-making powers. The noble Viscount has recently written a letter to me stating that the bulk of those were subject to affirmative resolution. I can only ask him to order a recount. We were left with the impression—it was never contradicted—that of those 100 and more regulation-making powers fewer than 20 were subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That was the skeleton, the mode, of the Bill and at its heart lay what has done all the mischief; namely, an absolutely incomprehensible series of formulae which were to be applied by officials. No one claimed that they were comprehensible to the absent husband or the mother for whom they were intended. Not even a gifted mathematician like my noble and learned friend who piloted the Bill so skilfully was able to satisfy your Lordships that those formulae could be understood. Almost the only thing that can be said in favour of the department putting forward that deplorable Act is that obviously it did not understood the formulae either. If it had, we would not have needed the regulations today.

However, that was only the heart. Surrounding it, of course, was the ulster of the jurisdiction of the courts in favour of officials administering a formula. The noble Viscount said today that the jurisdiction of the courts had been capricious, had shown variations and was unsatisfactory. He is to be complimented on saying that with a straight face because the inference is that the Act itself was satisfactory, uncapricious and consistent. If it had been, we would not have needed these regulations. Nor would there have been the spate of protests which has come about. It says quite a lot for any political managers that they have managed to offend equally the absent fathers and the caring mothers. Both are highly affronted. I would have thought in advance that that was barely possible. But it came about through populous demagoguery at a party conference.

There is another preliminary point to be made. It is very convenient that we discuss a regulation today in the context of the Act itself, arid next week we shall have the opportunity given to us by the noble Earl to look more widely and to include consideration of the point that the noble Baroness today has put so well: are we not largely in the present trouble because our matrimonial law is so unsatisfactory? At the time of the Divorce Reform Act 1969, Lord Hodson, the most experienced matrimonial judge in the kingdom, and Lady Summerskill, who devoted the major part of her political life to women's causes, pointed out that most men's income is quite insufficient to support two families with the result, as the noble Baroness has just said, that both families go down to the poverty line. That is a matter best left, at any rate by me, to be considered next week.

I was dealing with the structure of the Act, but what I said was by no means all in the way of bureaucratic aggrandisement and encroachment on the rights of the individual. The officials were given power, which ordinary citizens do not have, to enter into private premises and to interrogate employers and fellow employees as to the means of an employee.

Then there is the extraordinarily harsh remedy of distraint, self-help. That is carefully safeguarded by the common law, but under the Act officials are able to exercise the right of distraint without regard at all to the common law safeguards.

As if those two things were not sufficient, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, pointed out with great force, we had the extraordinary provision that the confidentiality of Inland Revenue communications was to be breached in the interests and at the suit of officials. I wrote to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate, because he replied to the debate on the Queen's Speech, but my letter was answered by the noble Viscount who disregarded most of the points. However, he said that the provision as to entry into private premises and interrogation of employers and fellow employees, and the breach of Inland Revenue confidentiality, had a precedent or, in fact, two precedents. I offer no prizes as to where those precedents are to be found because noble Lords will readily conclude that they were in Acts which were promoted by the same department. However, one must go behind the Act in order to understand the constitutional implications.

Last week the noble Baroness mentioned the Statutory Sick Pay Act 1991, but matters are even worse than she thought. That, again, was an Act promoted by the department. When it was introduced in the other place not only did it have a Henry VIII clause as a crucial provision, but that Henry VIII clause applied to a fiscal charge. The Minister was enabled, by a stroke of the pen, to alter the charge from 80 per cent. to any other figure that entered his head.

However, that again was not all, because that power was subject only to the negative resolution procedure. That, of course, was objected to in the other place and the Government were prepared to concede that it should become an affirmative resolution procedure. Nevertheless, they stuck to the Henry VIII clause and it was only removed by a vote in your Lordships' House against the Government—again, a sign of the wisdom, experience and value of your Lordships' House in constitutional matters.

I have mentioned all that because there is an important constitutional point, as your Lordships know, in connection with the regulations. It occurs with the word "transitional". The Minister may make "transitional" regulations. That is a common word, in fact it is commonplace in such circumstances. Where the Act has not yet been applied, the regulation altering the provisions of the Act could be described as "transitional", but certainly not where the Act has already been applied. The Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee drew attention to that and the answer of the department was that the regulations could be said to be transitional because the problem they address comes from the fact that some absent parents who had been paying a relatively modest amount of maintenance under a court order were suddenly faced with a substantial increase in their maintenance payment when an assessment was made. In other words, the department is saying: "Under the word 'transitional' we can bring in regulations which will alter what has already been done under the Act". If that is the meaning of the word "transitional", it goes far further than anyone had ever accepted or could for a moment have contemplated.

The question is: what are we to do under those circumstances? It is tempting to say that with such bureaucratic aggrandisement and with such constitutional arrogance we should throw the regulations out entirely. There are two reasons why we should not do so. The first is that, as previous speakers have said, at any rate they ameliorate in some measure the harshness of the Act itself. The second reason is that the matter is so serious, the claim of the department is so grotesque, that the matter should be considered by the Procedure Committee.

Thus, I do not think that we should throw out the regulations. I have previously argued that your Lordships' self-denial regarding statutory instruments is a weak constitutional convention. The noble Earl, with his great knowledge of constitutional history, has agreed with that. So if we have that kind of claim, the time may well come when your Lordships could condignly throw out some regulation. For the reasons I have given, I did not think it right to go so far today, but a warning shot has, I hope, been fired across the bows of the various warships in Whitehall.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, started us off with a visit to the zoo which he had made as a child. After hearing about his visit, I am glad to note that his first name is not Albert and he did not meet a lion but a hippopotamus, otherwise we might not have been able to hear what he had to say this evening.

Of course, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for her support for the principle that parents cannot divorce their children, and for the support for the principle of the work that the Child Support Agency does. I have been asked a number of detailed questions which I shall now attempt to answer.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, asked about the unusual powers that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments commented on in Part III of the regulations. The provisions apply not only to those cases where no maintenance assessment has yet been made, but also to some cases where an assessment has been made and is in force. The department considers that the provisions can nevertheless properly be said to be transitional because the problems they address arise from the fact that some absent parents who had been paying a relatively modest amount of maintenance under a court order were suddenly faced with a substantial increase in their payments when an assessment was made. Accordingly, had the problem been identified before the Act came into force and any assessments made, the department could have made provision for those cases. The fact that it was only with experience of operating the Act that the problem was recognised does not make it any the less a transitional problem. So the provisions of Part III, which are intended to deal with the problem, are themselves transitional.

It is true that much of the detail of the child support legislation was laid down in regulations. That is a desirable situation as the department can respond quickly if defects emerge by laying amending regulations. I wrote to the noble and learned Lord stating that half the regulations were subject to affirmative procedures and were debatable by both Houses of Parliament. I am happy to have a recount on those regulations and should I be wrong, I shall certainly write again to him. I should point out that all regulations pertaining to the formula are subject to affirmative resolution.

Under the old system, where both spousal and child maintenance were agreed by the courts, there was found to be a marked inconsistency in the level of awards made as a proportion of the absent parent's net income. Processing times varied greatly depending on the type of court which dealt with the case and whether it was made in England or Scotland. Many of the orders made by the courts experienced arrears problems; the powers of the courts in those cases was limited and the use of attachment of earnings orders was not widespread. The agency brings together work handled by the department's local offices and by several parts of the courts system. The Child Support Agency delivers a consistent assessment service by the application of the maintenance formula. Maintenance assessments are reviewed regularly to ensure that the current circumstances of all the parties involved are reflected in the amount of money in payment. The agency also provides an efficient and effective collection and enforcement service.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, mentioned the term "absent parent". The term was subject to considerable debate and was agreed after consultation. It in no way implies that the parent concerned is not meeting his responsibilities; it merely reflects that he is not resident in the same household. The noble Lord also said that the formula was too complex. But the formula is necessarily detailed because it must deal with the complexities of individual circumstances. If it were less detailed it would create greater inequity.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, talked of access to children. Maintenance for a child and access to that child are totally separate issues. The question of access remains at the discretion of the courts and as such is outside the jurisdiction of the Child Support Agency. The noble Lord also talked of the second wife's income being taken into account A second wife will not be asked to contribute to the maintenance of children of a first family. However, she is expected to contribute to the upbringing of her own children of the new relationship. Details of her income are therefore necessary to determine that. In addition, her income is needed to decide whether any maintenance that the absent parent pays can be reduced under the protected income provisions.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked whether we were attempting in some way to tax second families out of existence. A parent's fist duty must be to their own natural children. That duty persists irrespective of changes in the relationship of the parents. Once a parent makes arrangements to meet that responsibility, there is no reason why he should not go on to form a second family. But it is not right that he should expect to do that at the expense of either his first family or the taxpayer.

When any couple—for example, a young couple—are considering starting a family, they must take all factors into account. Many young families do that. High on their list will be the question of whether or not they can afford to start a family. Having said that, the formula makes allowance for any natural or adopted children of a new relationship. The protected income assessment—a proposal your Lordships seek to make more generous—provides an important safeguard for all second families by ensuring that their income remains above income support levels.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, can the Minister clarify the situation for stepchildren in the second family, particularly where the mother in that family does not enjoy full maintenance from her absent partner?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked a number of questions. Perhaps she will allow me. the time to attempt to answer them.

The noble Earl asked about absent parents being treated too harshly. The noble Baroness said that the agency was going for "soft" targets. In 96 per cent. of cases dealt with by the CSA last year the parent with care was on benefit. Most absent parents enjoy a much higher standard of living. The protected income assessment ensures that the absent parent remains above the income support level. The measure therefore increases the margin above income support that absent parents will retain. The noble Baroness also asked whether it was a Treasury saving exercise. Taxpayers should only have to support children when their parents are unable to do so. That view was strongly endorsed by the Select Committee, which agreed with the Government.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked about parents with care being compensated for the reduction in their income brought about by the changes. Most parents with care will receive more maintenance under the Child Support Act than under the old courts based system, even after the changes take effect. Some will have current assessments reduced but for those in receipt of income support—the majority—their benefit will be adjusted to compensate for any reduction in income. Family credit is payable for: 26 weeks and not normally adjusted for changes in circumstances. Changes in maintenance will not be taken into account until a renewal claim is made. Income can move either up or down; some will gain because of the rule and others will lose. Other in-work benefit, such as housing benefit, can be adjusted immediately, minimising the effect on losers.

The noble Earl also asked why there is no help for items such as travel-to-work costs and debts and contract costs. Maintaining their children should be the parents' first priority. Allowing for individual items of expenditure in the formula would be to give those expenses a higher priority than child support. The formula leaves most absent parents with more than 70 per cent. of net income after paying maintenance and allowing sufficient flexibility to meet other outgoings. The proposed increase to protected income will provide a further margin of income to help vulnerable absent parents to meet such costs. The old system of allowing a range of other expenses before child maintenance resulted in unrealistically low levels of award. To start including travel-to-work costs would create pressure for more items to be added to the list of exceptional expenses. The Social Security Select Committee endorsed the decision.

The noble Baroness asked about housing costs of stepchildren. The recommendation runs contrary to one of the fundamental principles of the Child Support Act; that is, that the parents' first responsibility is to their own children. It would be wrong to place the need of stepchildren first.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the noble Viscount consider the case in a letter I received this morning where the father of the stepchildren is dead? There is no other way for them to be maintained.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I cannot comment on any specific case. Obviously I do not know of the case cited by the noble Earl. However, if he writes to me I shall of course reply.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I was trying to use the case to refer to a general principle where the stepchildren do not have any other natural father who is capable of supporting them. Ought not their stepfather to have some allowance for the fact that it must become his duty to do so? It cannot be the duty of anyone else.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, if the noble Earl will allow me to finish the point I was on, I shall come later to his point.

When an absent parent sets up home with a new family it is right that the natural parents of any step-children should contribute to their housing costs. In some cases this can mean that the absent parent can afford to pay more maintenance to his own children. The formula ensures that where an absent parent cannot afford to pay the assessed rate of maintenance—for example, because of commitments to a stepfamily—then in those circumstances all the housing costs are taken into account and the needs of the step-family are placed before the needs of the first family. It is important to recognise that the formula assesses the ability of both parents to contribute to the maintenance of their children. Any allowances in exempt income apply equally to both parents. Where the parent with care has repartnered and the new partner has children then the committee's recommendations could result in an absent parent paying more maintenance.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am not sure that the Minister has fully understood the point. He keeps referring to the housing costs. We are not talking about the housing costs. We know that those are covered. We are talking about where the step-children in the second family cannot bring with them any maintenance from their natural father either because he is dead or because he is unemployed or missing. As a result the second father is carrying their care in an honourable and decent way and floating that second family off poverty at the price, very often, of impoverishing his first family. If he were to meet his maintenance obligations on the first family, the second family would be impoverished. Will the Minister address that issue please? We have come back to it twice.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I was about to address the issue before the noble Baroness interrupted me. I was attempting to say that step-children are taken account of in the formula. Before any maintenance is paid a calculation is done which includes step-children. In some cases step-children can take precedence over the child of the first family. If, for example, the step-children are adopted, they will be treated as natural children.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

If they are adopted, my Lords.

Viscount Astor

Yes, my Lords.

The noble Earl asked about the incentive to work. The protected income provisions ensure that absent parents retain enough of their disposable income to ensure that they are always better off than they would be on income support. These amendments mean that absent parents will now keep a minimum of £30 above the level of income support. In addition, they will also keep 15 per cent. of the difference between their basic protected income level and the family's total income. The current provision only provides for the retention of 10 per cent.

The noble Earl also asked about clean-break settlements. We believe that the Select Committee produced a thoughtful and considered report. The all-party committee concluded that there is no sensible way in which the capital value of past settlements could be reflected in current maintenance assessments. The formula already reflects the practical consequence of settling a house on the former partner. In such cases it is likely that the absent parent not able to call upon the equity of the marital home will incur higher housing costs than would otherwise be the case. The absent parent's costs of rehousing himself and any new children are deducted pound for pound from his assessable income, so reducing his maintenance bill.

Moreover, the courts have never accepted the possibility of a clean break between parents and their children, and under the court system parents had the right to seek periodical maintenance for a child or to seek a variation of an existing order following a capital or property settlement. Indeed, it has always been open to the Secretary of State for Social Security to seek such a variation where the taxpayer became involved in supporting the children. This principle has been endorsed in a recent ruling in the High Court—the Crozier case.

It should be remembered that clean breaks are arrangements between spouses. There can be no clean break between a parent and a child. The formula takes account of the practical consequences of property or capital settlements. The Select Committee agreed that it is impractical for the formula to take further account of clean breaks. In fact to do so would amount to double counting in many cases. The Department of Social Security has always had the right to seek a review of child maintenance if the taxpayer is involved. In the Crozier case the judgment confirmed that there can be no clean break between a parent and a child. The judgment also confirmed that there has always been a statutory provision for the Department of Social Security to seek maintenance in these cases if the taxpayer became involved.

There are immense practical problems in ascertaining the actual value of the property at the time of the clean break. There are problems in establishing the amount of equity in the property where there have been loans secured against the property. How is it possible to determine how much of the total equity would have been allocated to the spouse? Even if we were able to overcome these extensive problems, how is it possible to ascertain the amount of maintenance that would have been payable between the date of the court order and the child support assessment had a clean break not occurred? If all this were feasible and the balance was converted into an income stream there would be significant double counting because of the way in which the formula looks at housing costs.

The noble Earl asked me about fees. The purpose of charging fees is to recover the cost of providing the services of making an assessment and putting in place arrangements for the regular payment of maintenance. Under old provisions where the courts may have been involved clients usually had to pay fees to solicitors and other associated court costs. It would not be right to shift the burden from individuals who can afford fees to the taxpayer simply because a government agency now has the responsibility. The noble Earl also asked about forms. The new forms for obtaining the parent with care's authorisation to act were introduced on 12th October 1993. Applications after that date are receiving the new forms and are being processed using the revised procedures.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked why there is no maintenance disregard on income support. Regular maintenance will provide a springboard for parents with care on income support who wish to return to work. A disregard would provide a perverse incentive for them to remain on benefit. The majority of lone parents on income support tell us that they wish to work. The Government have therefore placed the disregards in the in-work benefits which will help considerably in achieving that aim.

The noble Baroness also asked about bonuses for agency staff and about encouraging them to pick on soft targets. Agency staff are paid on the same basis as all other staff employed by the department and its agencies. All are eligible for performance-related pay linked to performance judged against a whole range of individual objectives. There is no direct link between the pay of staff and the amount of maintenance they secure.

The noble Baroness said that the carer element should remain if a child is disabled. The carer element represents solely the care needed by the child, not the cost of his or her upbringing, such as food or clothing. These costs may increase but the cost of physical day-to- day care reduces as the child gets older. The part of the maintenance requirement attributed to the child's own costs will increase at the age of 11.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Minister has again misunderstood the point. If a child is disabled, the need of the parent with care to continue to care does not reduce as the child grows older. Therefore there should be no reduction in the spousal maintenance that is associated with the responsibilities of being the parent with care when that child gets older. That was the point. Will the Minister address it?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I said that the part of the maintenance requirement attributed to the child's own costs will increase at the age of 11. Where a child is disabled, the parent with care can ask the court to make a top-up award over and above the amount calculated by the formula.

I was also asked about the floaters off income support and the loss of passported benefits. The receipt of maintenance in such circumstances is no different from receiving a new or increased income from another source. We do not believe that maintenance should be treated any differently. Parents with care who are floated off income support will generally still be eligible to qualify for help with National Health charges on income grounds.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, is the Minister saying that parents who receive a maintenance award which is pound for pound the same as they would have received on income support will continue to be eligible for passported benefits? If not, why not?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I said that: we do not see that there is any difference from receiving a new or increased income from any other source. That was the point I made.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, so the Minister accepts that such a parent, by receiving maintenance from the father in lieu of income support, will actually be poorer off.

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords. I do riot accept that.

We have listened to the views of people from all walks of life and have paid particular attention to the objective analysis of the Social Security Select Committee. The changes we have made will help a wide range of absent parents and the significant increases to protected income will in particular help those who are less well off.

We shall have a further chance to discuss some of the principles of the Bill during the debate in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, next week; but this package of changes, these regulations, preserve the basic principles of the Child Support Act and balance carefully the needs of all parties: the children, the parents and the taxpayer. I commend them to the House.

Earl Russell

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, can I ask if he will lend his support to the very modest proposal of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that the vires of these regulations and the general questions arising from them be referred to the Procedure Committee?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am not sure how that committee operates. I had understood that the Procedure Committee had a certain freedom to look at what it wants to look at. However, I take the noble Earl's point and I will pass the message along to the appropriate quarter.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, if I may help the noble Viscount, if he does not refer the constitutional point to the Procedure Committee, I shall certainly do so. Moreover, I shall raise the point next week on the Local Government (Wales) Bill, where the word "transitional" appears, as it does in almost every Bill these days, to ascertain whether Whitehall generally concurs with the view apparently held by this department that the word "transitional" is sufficient to allow rectification of Acts of Parliament where a mistake has been found subsequently.

On Question, Motion agreed to.