§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Earl Russell rose to move to resolve, That this House invites Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the Draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1996 and to lay amended regulations making the power to increase the benefit penalty discretionary and therefore to be exercised with regard to the welfare of any child likely to be affected by the decision, as required by Section 2 of the Child Support Act 1991.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg leave to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I should like to offer my thanks to the Minister's honourable colleague, Mr. Andrew Mitchell, first, for a great deal of kindness over correspondence; secondly, for giving me a meeting in which we discussed these new regulations in some detail; and, thirdly, when I asked for additional information on some of the points covered in the CSA research, for sending me a very large quantity of material.1242
§ I have read it all but it does not answer any of the questions about which I asked Mr. Mitchell for further information. I regret to say that I shall have to ask those questions again.
§ We are familiar with the proverb, "Give a dog a bad name and hang him". We have seen that done today to asylum seekers. It is being done under these regulations in very much the same way to women with children. The idea is being put about that they must be fraudulent and therefore outside our mercy. It is a wonderful way of denying sympathy to people in need. I find it extremely disturbing.
§ In the course of preparing this speech I looked back at our debates on the Child Support Act 1991. I found I had said then that if a benefit penalty was needed as large as the one that we have now, it would mean that the resistance among women to the Child Support Act was so great that the Act would be unenforceable. I believe that that was a good judgment. The Minister has decided that the present benefit penalty on women who do not co-operate with the CSA of losing 20 per cent. of their benefit for a year and 10 per cent. for a further six months is not enough. He says that that level of benefit penalty fails to provide a sufficient incentive to co-operate with the CSA. I cannot help wondering whether the conclusion that I drew in 1991 may be rather more appropriate. The Government have concluded that there is a need to make the benefit penalty more effective if they are to tackle abuse.
§ What are the real causes of women's failure to co-operate with the CSA? Surely the Child Poverty Action Group is right that in the context of the requirement to co-operate there will always be a margin for error. That emerges from a case in the book by Elaine Kempson. She quotes the case of a woman who left her husband after a particularly bad beating. She did not qualify for income support because he was supposed to be paying her maintenance, which she never received. That is a familiar story, too. Mounting money problems forced her to return to her violent husband. That woman did not have sufficient confidence in the good cause procedures to go anywhere near them. I wish that the Government were as alert to those cases as they are to the very few of fraud.
§ In a crucial passage in paragraph 43 of the CSA's research, a distinction is drawn, which the CSA regards as fundamental, between those who have genuine concerns and those who do not co-operate with the CSA. It assumes that these are two fundamentally different groups. There is a refutation of that on page 131 of the very same research. One would have thought that the authors might have noticed what they had themselves published. That case concerned a woman who refused to co-operate with the CSA and would not give any reasons. But the relevant officer, who fortunately had scholarly instincts, looked up the old liable relative documents and found that, although she had not claimed this, she had left her husband because of repeated incidents of violence. Because he happened to be a genuine scholar, the woman was found to have good cause. But that violence would have been just as genuine if the officer had not happened to look up the documents. It would have been just as genuine if it had 1243 not found its way in the first place into the liable relative papers. We do not know how many causes of that kind may be being missed.
§ Another common cause for failing to co-operate, which is perhaps not as bad a cause as the Minister believes, is a desire to protect a second family. It so happened that on Saturday evening very occasionally I took a little time off and watched a film on television. It emerged that the brother of the heroine suddenly discovered that the man he believed to be his father was not. His response was to take to heroin. That was a fictional case, but I am sure that it is possible to find real cases which can go with it. That may be a good cause for not co-operating, even if the CSA does not find it. It may be a common cause that to co-operate with the CSA will disrupt an amicable arrangement between divorced parents. The example of Mrs. Smith in the CSA's model cases in the appendix to this research is a typical case in point. It is a fictional case, but I believe that it is very accurately delineated.
§ God knows, it is hard enough for couples who have split up to reach amicable arrangements and keep them going. They may perfectly well dislike having the CSA marching in and putting its muddy boots all over those arrangements. Even if the Minister does not accept that that is so, he must accept that there is a limit to the practical powers of the state to force people to act against their own interests as they perceive them. That has always been so, and, thank God, it is.
§ The commonest reason: Professor Craig's report for the Rowntree Trust studied the cases of 53 women who had been subject to the CSA. Not one of those women was better off as a result. So, in this benefit penalty regime, we have a regime which is all stick and no carrot. If the Minister is keen for more women to co-operate with the CSA, he might think about a tiny little bit of carrot. The Minister knows perfectly well what we shall be asking him for. I shall not labour the point. It is a maintenance disregard, better arrangements for passported benefits, and, above all, some way of dealing with the frequent failure of maintenance to arrive. That is something that many other European countries have done, with profit. We have not done it here, and we are paying for it.
§ Another common reason, as one of the women in the Rowntree study said, is that she has refused to co-operate because she does not want to go into, as she put it, "the gory details of a rotten marriage". People coming out of a marriage, like people coming out of a party, tend to be suffering from centrifugal force. Requiring those people to resume a relationship with their former partners could be rather like an administrative requirement to require Dr. David Owen to return to the Labour Party. I do not think that it would be particularly effective.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, no, I do not conduct my auctions on Dutch principles. I think that the House takes my point. When a woman says that she is going to wash this man right out of her hair, that is a force which the state cannot change.
1244 I remember saying in 1995—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, opened his eyes wide with astonishment—that in some of these cases even the death penalty would not be a sufficient inducement to make the woman go back into a relationship with her former partner and co-operate. Those were considered words. I know actual examples. I shall not go any further. In those cases I believe that there is no penalty which is sufficient to make the woman co-operate.
Again it is vital that though violence is regarded as sufficient cause, fear of violence is not. The case of Miss Rogers in the CSA's model cases is a classic case in point. She said, "I fear he will hurt me one day. So I want to go where I will never see him again". When a woman decides that, it is hard to make her change her mind, but she can find it difficult to offer proof. Let us take this:It was the way he looked at me. It was very difficult to put into words. He had a strange and odd effect on me".That is actual evidence. It is the evidence of the WPC who had to go to see Thomas Hamilton of Dunblane about his gun licence. She was right. That instinct is part of a woman's survival kit in the world. Anyone who tries to make her abandon it will fail. So the Minister is barking up the wrong tree. However fierce his penalty, he will never get to the top of it. He can go on and on producing fiercer penalties.
Among all those possible causes for not co-operating, the only one that the DSS can see is fraud. I wish the DSS were as worried by its own errors as it is by those of claimants. The research offers a weak foundation indeed for that belief in fraud. It admits itself that it is not a statistically significant sample. It quotes the belief of staff that there is a great deal of fraud. But I did discover one interesting thing from the large mass of material that I was sent. It is the comment in paragraph 3.75 that that belief of the staff in a large level of fraud was perception rather than fact. That I believe to be correct.
The sample was untypical in that only one member of it had appealed against a reduced benefit direction. It was unscholarly in that it lumped together confirmed fraud and suspected fraud. I have had no additional evidence about cases of suspected fraud. Taking those two as one and the same thing is legally totally unsound. Of the 38, 26 are alleged to have told the research that a 40 per cent. benefit penalty had no impact. That is literally totally unbelievable. I have asked to see the words of the question to which that was a reply. I have not seen them. I can only translate that comment, saving your Lordships' presence, as, "… off". I think that that is all it means.
I do not believe the Minister realises quite how tight life is on ordinary levels of benefit: not being able to buy a wreath for a father's funeral. In Elaine Kempson's words:Insufficient income to cover even their basic needs".She stresses that the hardship of being on benefit grows, often in geometrical proportion, as you are on it longer. So if you are on a 40 per cent. reduction for the whole of your children's youth, that will grow very heavy indeed.
It must affect the children also. We were told in 1991 that it affected only the mother and not the children, but you do not divide the pat of butter into one half which is for the mother, which shrinks, and another half which 1245 is for the children. I know that mothers try to do that to the point of malnutrition, but even beyond the point of malnutrition, if you switch off the heating, you switch it off for everyone. The children must suffer too. And the problem goes on to the next generation.
They tell me that a 40 per cent. benefit penalty or a 20 per cent. benefit penalty have no impact. I find that an insult to my intelligence. In saying that, the Minister is flinging a pot of ink in the face of the public. If he wants a farthing, I am willing to repeat it outside the Chamber.
Moved to resolve, That this House invites Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the Draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1996 and to lay amended regulations making the power to increase the benefit penalty discretionary and therefore to be exercised with regard to the welfare of any child likely to be affected by the decision, as required by Section 2 of the Child Support Act 1991.—(Earl Russell.)
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for allowing us this debate in this form tonight. The regulations reduce benefit for the parent with care who fails to co-operate with the CSA without good cause by some 40 per cent. for a three-year term, which is renewable. I take it, but it would worth the Minister confirming it, that at any point that the parent with care co-operates with the agency the full benefit is promptly reinstated. The regulations are to take effect from October.
Perhaps I may start with the point that the noble Earl made last. We are talking about a significant sum: a loss to a family of nearly £20 a week, leaving her—I may not be a WPC, but I shall use the word "her" in this case—if she has one child with just £60 a week to live on if she is over 25 and £50 for a mother and child to live on if the mother is, say, 24. That is based on a review of just 72 cases out of the 27,000 cases in which there were benefit deductions.
The sampling evidence upon which this new practice has been constructed seems to me to be exceedingly unreliable, particularly when it is done by an agency which is notorious for its inaccuracy and error. Even after improvements during the past year, over one assessment in five is inaccurate. Improvements have been made, and we welcome them, but I should be somewhat more comfortable with all of this if I felt that the agency's procedures and processes were to be relied on rather more faithfully than we have so far been led to believe.
We do not doubt that there is a problem of collusion. While in 1974 there was a deduction of about 4 per cent. in benefit, it was double that last year. We know that the very act of triggering child support assessments has encouraged some parents with care to stop claiming income support, suggesting that their claim for income support may not have been legitimate; for instance, they may have been in work, living with a partner or claiming as a single parent. It is also sometimes the case that when child support assessments are made, allegations are made by one parent that the other is fraudulently claiming benefit.
1246 There is also some evidence, which we must accept, that some parents collude in order to avoid payment. Obviously, it is in everyone's interest, except that of taxpayers, that the parent with care should refuse to name the absent father and that in return for his avoiding formal maintenance he will pay informal maintenance of a lower figure which goes entirely to her and the children and none to the Treasury. That too is fraud.
It is also the case that some parents with care fail to co-operate with the CSA because they are genuinely bewildered. The noble Earl's description of them being in a fog in terms of the wondrous workings of the agency was most apt. They are bewildered and baffled by the whole process. Many find the forms very difficult to understand. Their English may be poor. Many parents with care may have minor learning difficulties. At present, the CSA makes no personal contact, such as a visit, and therefore it is difficult to know the extent of the problem.
Other parents may refuse to co-operate, not because they are confused but because they are all too clear that they do not want the absent parent back in their lives. They believe that if the absent father pays maintenance he will want access. For whatever reason, good or bad, they prefer to accept a benefit penalty rather than to allow that. The Minister, the noble Earl and I know that paying maintenance and rights to access are not the same, but that is not what is believed outside this House in many broken families.
Other parents with care may have a friendly relationship with the absent father. Their children may often stay with him in his new family and get on with the new half-brothers and half-sisters. They may not wish to threaten that relationship by appearing to hound him for maintenance. It is decent that they prize the good relations between their children and their father and have no wish to appear to jeopardise them at the cost to the children.
Finally, some parents with care are genuinely fearful of violence from an abusing partner. There is no doubt that for very good reasons many women do not co-operate with the agency. The test of the agency is whether it is sufficiently skilled and sensitive to recognise when such a real fear exists.
What is our position? We are emphatic that we do not tolerate fraud, nor do we accept collusion. I accept that there may be a case for some benefit reduction having a role to play in stopping fraud in particular. However, I believe that much of the blame for the present situation lies fairly and squarely with the practices and procedures of the CSA. Parents with care find themselves dealing with an anonymous, bureaucratic, error-ridden and deeply flawed organisation. It is wrong that the parent with care can suffer benefit reductions without having the opportunity to meet and discuss the case with the CSA official. We believe that home visits are essential if one is to determine the true situation and to assure a woman who is threatened with violence that she should be protected and to encourage the woman who may have learning difficulties and who is baffled and frightened by the whole system that she need have no fear in co-operating with the agency. We shall reinstate home 1247 visits. We believe also that there may be other and safer methods of tracing the absent father without jeopardising the well-being of the mother. Whatever our concern to eradicate fraud, there is no way in which we shall be party to putting women at risk.
Therefore the Government and the agency must be able to distinguish between a mother who is being deliberately fraudulent—possibly because she is working, which, clearly, must be stopped and a benefit penalty or the loss of benefit if her work takes her above that level should be considered—and the mother who is colluding with the absent father and enters into an informal arrangement with him. That, too, should be stopped. I hope that in the case of the first situation, if there is any question of misunderstanding and the woman should be on family credit, the agency will accept the fact that not everyone has such a clear distinction between income support and family credit and the 16-hours rule as do your Lordships.
The Government have only themselves to blame for the mother who colludes with the absent father. While not tolerating collusion, we know why it happens. It happens because the Government do not permit the parent with care to retain a single pound or a single penny of the maintenance paid in the form of disregard if he or she is on income support. We hope and expect to introduce such a disregard, thus making it more financially attractive for women with children to co-operate.
We must also distinguish between the woman who is confused and fails to co-operate with the agency, to which we believe the right response is home visits, and the mother who refuses to co-operate with the agency as a result of genuine fear. We all accept that the CSA staff have a difficult job. All of us would wish to pay tribute to the fact that, so far, in no case in which it has been reported that the CSA has refused to accept a fear of violence as good cause has there subsequently been violent assault or abuse. The staff are to be commended for that.
We shall restore home visits and we shall have a greater confidence in the system of penalties. Until they and a disregard are in place, and until alternative and safer means of tracing the father are in place, we oppose the Government's policy of increasing benefit deduction. It is wrong. It may, though I doubt it, succeed in getting more women to co-operate with the agency. However, it will plunge more children of lone parents into deeper poverty. Their health, education and well-being will suffer. Perhaps your Lordships will try to imagine a mother and a five year-old child living on £50 a week. Your Lordships might spend in one night that on a dinner for two. The health of those children and their education and well-being will suffer. Truly, the Government are insisting that we visit the sins of the father all too literally on the father's child.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, this Motion is unnecessary for two reasons. First, although the Government are satisfied that child support provisions are entirely consistent with the welfare of children, child support legislation, in fact, imposes no requirement on the Secretary of State to consider these 1248 issues when bringing forward regulations. I recall, as I am sure does the noble Earl, that this matter was debated extensively during the passage of the 1995 Child Support Bill.
Parliament has decided that child maintenance should be set within the clearly defined framework of a formula which takes into account the needs of all parties involved: the children, their parents and the taxpayers. The foundations of the scheme are rooted in the belief, endorsed by Parliament, that the welfare of the child is best served through the support of his own parents based on their ability to pay.
It is also the case that there are already established and well-used safeguards to ensure the proper use of regulation-making powers, such as those relating to the vires of the powers or the unusual or unexpected use of powers. There can be little doubt that it was the will of Parliament in passing what is now Section 46 of the 1991 Act that parents with care should face a benefit reduction if they failed without good cause to co-operate with child support provisions. These regulations simply seek to make that penalty more effective.
Secondly, in accordance with Section 2 of the Child Support Act 1991, the welfare of the child must be considered in connection with all good cause decisions. Both the requirement to co-operate and reduced benefit direction decisions are discretionary decisions and will continue to be, as they have been so far, subject to welfare of the child considerations.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, when the Minister says that it was the will of Parliament to impose a benefit penalty, is he aware that he means that it was the will of another place?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I thought that the other place was included in the term "Parliament". I presume that the noble Earl is pointing out to me, although I do not believe that I was here at the time, that this House did not perhaps agree with the Government's proposals but that the other place did. However, I do not wish to rehearse the arguments we had earlier today in that respect. Clearly the end part of the Bill—now the Act—was as I have stated.
In deciding whether to impose a requirement to co-operate the person acting on behalf of the Secretary of State must consider if there is any evidence of risk of harm or undue distress to the child. Welfare of the child is, therefore, already considered.
The reduced benefit direction is intended to ensure that parents with care consider carefully their decision not to co-operate without good cause. To be effective, a sanction must be applied in cases where co-operation is refused for no good reason. In deciding whether to impose such a direction regard must be had to the welfare of the child. But the welfare of the child cannot be considered in isolation and it is not the paramount consideration. Regard must also be had to the purpose and principles of the child support Acts; the obligation of both parents to support their children; and the advantages of receipt of maintenance. The 1249 child support scheme would be seriously undermined if the imposition of a reduced benefit direction was considered, in every case, to so adversely affect the welfare of the child that it should not be made. I hope, therefore, that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his Motion.
I turn now to the regulations which also formed part of the noble Earl's speech and that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The regulations make important changes to underpin the Government's commitment to the principles of child support, as well as making a number of minor changes to improve child support operations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that it would be a great deal better if the CSA was doing better; indeed, the agency has had difficulties and we have never made any secret of that fact. However, it is improving year by year. In March 1996 an accuracy rate of 79 per cent. was achieved. Therefore, progress is being made but, of course, that is being made against the background that there are many men out there who do not want to pay and who are pretty unwilling payers. In such circumstances there will always be difficulties for the agency.
The most substantial changes in the amending regulations which have been mentioned both by the noble Earl and the noble Baroness are those to the reduced benefit direction provisions. Many noble Lords will recall that Section 46 of the 1991 Act provides that a reduced benefit direction may be imposed on a parent with care in receipt of an income related benefit who fails to co-operate with the Child Support Agency without good cause. The regulations make important and, in our view, necessary changes to those provisions. First, they increase the amount and duration of the benefit reduction; secondly, they remove, in certain cases, the six-week cooling-off period given to parents with care before a reduced benefit direction is considered.
The regulations also include a provision to amend the confidentiality rules to ease the appeals process; provisions to enable the agency to gather information to decide whether a case should be taken on, and to decide the best way of enforcing a maintenance assessment; and a number of minor and technical amendments to ease administration and underpin existing policy.
Perhaps I may turn first to the reduced benefit directions, which are really the key to the whole debate. We have been increasingly concerned about the large numbers of parents with care refusing to co-operate for no good reason. In the year 1995–96, the Child Support Agency investigated over 112,000 cases where the parent with care had responded to the agency's initial inquiries indicating an unwillingness to co-operate. In the same year, administrators accepted the parent's reasons for not co-operating in just under 39,000 cases, and no further action was taken. In just over 27,000 cases the parent with care refused to authorise maintenance action despite being required to do so and a reduced benefit direction was imposed.
1250 Of even greater concern is the number of parents with care who do not make any contact with the agency to say why they do not feel able to co-operate. Following the recommendation of the Select Committee, the Child Support Agency recently undertook a detailed investigation of the operation of the requirement to co-operate. In the sample survey used for the report, the parent with care had failed to make contact with the agency in no fewer than 45 per cent. of cases where a reduced benefit direction was issued.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, does the Minister agree that that represents 34 people out of the 27,000 cases?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I shall come to that matter later. I referred to 45 per cent. of the sample. One can hardly move from the sample to the total number involved.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I believe that the sample was 72, therefore the Minister has evidence on 34 cases and from that he is speculating as to the situation of the other 27,000.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, as I said, I had intended to deal with that point at a later stage. However, perhaps the noble Baroness would prefer me to deal with it now. I quite agree that the sample was not a big one; indeed, it was a sample of 72 cases. That sample illustrated a problem for which there is wider and statistically valid evidence. The Benefits Agency review, which was based on a sample of over 1,600 cases, showed that almost 20 per cent. of lone parents had claimed benefit fraudulently or were strongly suspected of doing so. Therefore, there is some evidence to show that this is a problem. In fact, I believe that the Select Committee was thinking along those lines when it suggested that we should look at the issue.
It is clearly unacceptable that there are people who are not telling the Child Support Agency what the position is and who are just leaving it at that. The agency has a very good record in handling good cause interviews, and complaints have been very few. Indeed, I believe that the noble Baroness mentioned that point in her speech. The good cause procedures are designed specifically to establish whether the parent with care has genuine concerns. There is no evidence that anyone has suffered harm from the absent parent as a result of being required to co-operate. Again, I believe that the noble Baroness mentioned that fact.
It is perfectly reasonable to expect a parent with care to make her case to the agency. However, this high non-compliance rate must lead to the conclusion that, in at least some of these cases, there may be fraud or collusion between the parents to avoid child support liability.
1251 It also appears that the problem is getting worse. In 1994–95 19 per cent. of cases investigated resulted in a reduced benefit direction, and last year the figure was 24 per cent. I do not believe that we can allow that trend to continue. Accordingly, we are forced to the conclusion that current penalties are inadequate and provide insufficient incentive to those minded to abuse the child support system.
Just as an absent parent should pay maintenance if he can afford to do so, so a parent with care should co-operate in the pursuit of maintenance unless she has a good reason not to do so. Currently, a parent with care who refuses to co-operate with the agency without good cause may have her benefit reduced by 20 per cent. for six months, followed by a reduction of 10 per cent. for a further 12 months. It is regrettable that these penalties are necessary at all; in an ideal world they would not be. It is essential that the level of the benefit reduction reflects the seriousness of the parent's decision not to comply. The regulations before the House today will encourage the parent with care to think more carefully about her decision.
We achieve that aim by means of the following changes. First, Regulation 14 provides that the reduced benefit direction will be increased to 40 per cent. of the adult income support allowance for three years. The direction will be immediately renewed if the parent with care continues to fail to comply.
Secondly, Regulation 13 provides that only parents with care who give their reasons for not co-operating in writing will have the benefit of the six-week cooling off period. In all other cases, the Secretary of State will refer the case to a child support officer to consider imposing a reduced benefit direction immediately the parent with care fails to respond to the relevant notices. Even parents with care who fail to make any contact at all will still have ample opportunity for reflection and time to contact the agency if they choose to do so. No parents with care will have their benefit reduced before they have had a minimum of nine weeks to consider their position. During that period they will have received an offer of an interview and no less than five written communications from the agency. In addition, it will still be necessary for two agency officials to consider the case.
Perhaps I may explain the new procedure to the House. As now, when a parent with care applies for a relevant benefit she will receive the CSA 12C letter which explains that she may be required to co-operate with the agency and asks her to return a declaration saying whether she intends to claim good cause. If she returns the declaration to say that she thinks she, or any child living with her, will be at risk of harm or undue distress if she co-operates, this is considered. If she returns the declaration to say that she is prepared to authorise the recovery of maintenance, or if she does not return the declaration at all, a maintenance application form is sent after 14 days. She will then be given 14 days to complete that form, after which a reminder is issued giving her another seven days if the form has still not been returned. She will then receive a letter asking her to return the form, or give reasons in writing as to why she thinks she should not have done so 1252 within two weeks or the case will at the end of that two-week period be referred to a child support officer to consider a reduced benefit direction.
If within two weeks she gives her reasons why she should not be required to co-operate, she will be given six weeks before the case is referred to a child support officer to consider a reduced benefit direction, even though officials may not think that the reasons that she gives are sufficient to justify good cause. Once the case has been referred to a child support officer, he will allow the parent with care a further two weeks to make representations before he makes a decision on a reduction of benefit.
So noble Lords can see where the nine weeks arises. It will take at least nine weeks before a parent with care receives a reduced benefit direction. There is therefore plenty of opportunity for the parent to get in touch with the agency or attend an interview to explain her circumstances. A reduced benefit direction is the last resort and the agency's procedures and letters make this very clear.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, the Minister says that there will be five or possibly six communications in writing to the parent with care. Clearly, if she is competent, she will at least know what the situation is and take some responsibility for it. I apologise to the Minister if I am anticipating him, but will he comment or give guidance on the proposals about home visits?
A lot of this endless to-ing and fro-ing of paperwork is directed at women who may have fairly low literacy levels, who may not speak English as their first language or who feel themselves almost frozen into apathy after being bombarded by the system. Can the Minister comprehend that situation? As a councillor, I have known people in my ward in that situation who could not cope with the papers and letters coming through the door.
Will the Minister consider restoring home visits before going through to the child support officer to make the final decision?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, obviously, given the number of problems that we have in this regard with parents not returning their forms even at the end of quite a long procedure, it would be quite expensive and difficult to say that we could have home visits in every single case. In any case, all of the parents we are talking about have actually filled in income support application forms and perhaps been to the Benefits Agency office. I find it hard to believe that somehow they are unable either to fill in the form or go to the agency office to seek help and advice.
While we are interested in increasing the number of home visits across the whole benefits area, I cannot promise that we will particularly concentrate on home visits in this area. Most of the people we are considering are people who have income support and, therefore, they have made applications and know how the system works. They know where they can go for help.
Let me answer one point that the noble Baroness raised. Even after a reduced benefit direction has been imposed, a parent with care may at any time come forward to make 1253 her case and this will be considered. If she co-operates, or gives acceptable reasons why she should not be required to co-operate, the direction will be lifted immediately.
We are determined that parents with care will co-operate with the agency unless they have genuine reasons not to do so. We are matching the legislative changes proposed today with improved procedures to ensure that all parents with care understand what is required of them. They will be given every opportunity to state their case. Any parent with care who will genuinely be at risk from co-operating and explains this to the agency will continue to be exempted.
However, those parents with care who never contact the agency after being requested many times to do so, and those parents with care who have no reason—or a reason which does not involve harm or undue distress—for not co-operating should now do so. It is not right that taxpayers, many of whom have children of their own, should be expected to support children simply because they are not living with a parent who can support them. We believe that these changes will encourage parents to comply with the agency and, where they have genuine reasons not to comply, will encourage them to discuss these reasons with the Child Support Agency.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised the case about a parent with care who was not on income support but who had a violent partner. I am a bit puzzled about this. If the parent with care is not in receipt of any relevant benefit, such as income support, the agency will only become involved at the behest of the same parent with care. So the good cause process does not apply in those circumstances as the Child Support Agency is only brought into the picture on a voluntary basis by the parent with care.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, the parent was in receipt of maintenance—or was supposed to be in receipt of maintenance—which was not coming. She had failed to explain to the agency that she had good cause—presumably because she did not trust the agency with her explanation. That was my point.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I misunderstood the point and I apologise to the noble Earl. But my point still stands for the circumstance that I thought was being referred to by the noble Earl.
I come back to it. There is no reason why a parent with care who is fearful about her ex-husband or her still-current husband should be frightened to tell the agency why she does not want the agency to approach this particular man. We look very sympathetically at those cases and we now have a lot of experience of judging them. But, as in all these cases, and in all instances of social security, one eventually has to make a judgment or no one would co-operate with us and everyone would say, "Yes, please, I will have the taxpayers' money".
The CSA does not force a woman to strike up relationships with ex-partners. The good cause process is not about forcing women to go back to their old relationships; it is about ensuring that the agency gets the information it requires to make sure that—as in most cases it is—the father of the child actually pays his whack 1254 for the child. He should not look to other people, who have their own children to look after, and say, "Please, will you look after my child as well", because for whatever reason he does not want to bother doing it.
Turning to the easing of the confidentiality rules during the appeals process, the regulations before us today include provisions for changes to be made to the way the child support appeal papers are handled when appeals are made. The agency takes very seriously its responsibility to protect personal information given in the course of assessing child support maintenance. When an appeal is made by one of the parties to a child support appeal tribunal, it is in the interests of natural justice that all parties to the appeal are copied the relevant papers. This is the responsibility of the independent tribunal service. It is very important that the whereabouts of a party to the appeal are not revealed where there is a risk to that party, and this vetting action will continue.
At present it is assumed that all parties will want this information protected unless they say otherwise. This results in all the appeal papers being edited—often to the point where they are meaningless—despite the fact that most parents are well aware of each other's whereabouts and many spouses remain in the marital home.
It is right that documents should be edited only if that is requested. This regulation change means that the parties to an appeal will tell the independent tribunal service if they want their address and other location details kept secret. If so, the papers will be edited to protect this information.
There are other minor amendments which have not been raised. They are minor and corrective amendments and I need not trouble your Lordships with explanations of them.
I shall wind up by making one or two points in direct response to some of the questions I was asked. It was suggested by the noble Earl that I should apply a little carrot as well as a lot of stick. Proper arrangements for child maintenance are obviously in the interests of the overwhelming majority of parents and their children. That is the carrot. They provide a stable income on which a return to work can be contemplated by the parent with care. The child maintenance bonus will provide a clear financial gain to those who move off income support into work. We have had discussion before on maintenance disregard. We believe that it is likely to be a disincentive to return to work. The parent with care has to earn a great deal more to be better off. We believe it is better to focus our limited resources on helping the lone parent to return to work. For example, those in receipt of family credit already receive a £15 disregard.
I think we all appreciate the problems of a parent with care being exposed to a violent ex-husband after a marriage has broken up. We believe that if the parent with care tells the Child Support Agency she has a genuine fear of violence and states that that is why she does not wish the Child Support Agency to contact the father, that will be accepted as good cause. If, however, she does not have good cause and if she does not bother to reply—as I have said, a fair number do just that—I am afraid the penalty already in existence is clearly inadequate for a number of reasons, possibly (in some cases at least) because there is collusion between the parents.
1255 This package of regulations contains important improvements to the scheme which will improve compliance, encourage clients to contact the agency and ease administration. They reflect our determination with respect to the basic principle of child support; namely, that all parents should support their children whenever they are able to do so. As always I am pleased to acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, and the main party opposite—although we do not agree on all the details of the Child Support Agency—agree with the fundamental principle that ex-husbands have a responsibility to their children, and that they should not become ex-fathers, as it were.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I must confess to being disappointed with that reply. It was a reply which took place entirely within the confines of the office. It was a series of rational, bureaucratic, systematic calculations of logical principles. At no point in the Minister's speech did he appear to realise that he was dealing with the raw stuff of human emotions. At no point did he appear to realise that he may—in what appears perfectly logical within the departmental computer—nevertheless be tearing apart human happiness. People do not always behave in precisely the manner that the Department of Social Security believes to be logical. When I referred to a relationship, I was not attempting to suggest he thought the couple should be put back together again. For many people who have come out of a relationship even having to enter into correspondence with the other person can become quite unbearable. The Minister will not change that.
The Minister said he is determined that these people will co-operate. That begins to sound a little hysterical. It is the voice of the defeated bureaucrat who knows that he cannot do what he wants. In order to hear a voice from outside politics altogether I have tried to discuss what the Government are doing with a number of people who have absolutely no connection with politics at all. What I have heard from them is the voice of absolute cold shock and horror at what the Government are doing. That was a great deal stronger, I may say, than anything the Minister has heard from me because I understand the bureaucratic side of the argument as well, and that is also real.
I do not think the Minister understands at all what a powerful weapon he is wielding. In my book a 40 per cent. reduction in benefit takes you to the point at which you cannot live legally. For myself I would regard imprisonment as a less severe penalty. So women who do not co-operate with the agency are, in my book, being treated more severely than convicted murderers. I cannot believe that that is right. I am a taxpayer. However, I do not want to increase my comfort in other people's blood, and I do not believe I am the only taxpayer who thinks that way. I have told the Government before that I do not think they can make this Act work without the co-operation of at least one sex. If they do not get the support of women for the Act, the Act fails. They are doing everything they can now to throw it away. I listened with great care to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. I agreed with a large part of what she said and enjoyed listening to it. I heard nothing about the attitude of the noble Baroness to my Motion. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
1256 Motion, by leave, withdrawn.