HL Deb 15 January 1998 vol 584 cc1213-7

8.32 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 18th November be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I feel like saying, "I have a full speech and a tiny speech; which would your Lordships prefer?" I suspect that if I were to ask that, your Lordships would prefer the tiny one.

These regulations make a number of technical and minor amendments to regulations governing the child support scheme. In particular, the amendments correct minor errors and make changes to clarify regulations on the departures scheme, regulations on appeals and reviews, regulations on information disclosure, and regulations governing the child maintenance formula.

Today, I intend only to give an overall flavour of the regulations. However, before I do so I should like to underline the Government's commitment to a workable child support scheme. All children have the right to the care and support of both their parents wherever they may live. Fathers as well as mothers have an important contribution to make to their sons' and daughters' upbringing. To have the best chance to thrive, all children need to have a good and caring relationship with both their parents. While the Government can and probably should do little to make parents live together, they can, and should, seek to reduce the effect of parental separation on the children involved.

That is why we shall need to reform the child support system in order to ensure that it delivers support to children, rather than, as now too often, reducing absent fathers and parents with care into systems of collusion in which they seek to avoid their responsibilities.

Your Lordships have had an afternoon debating social security. I shall briefly outline the content of the regulations. First, Regulations 2 to 6 make amendments to the appeal, collection and enforcement regulations. These regulations are minor and technical. They clarify the policy intention and are neutral in effect. I stress that they do not pre-empt any of the decision making and appeals changes provided for in the Social Security Bill discussed today.

Regulations 7 to 31 make a number of minor amendments to the "departure direction" regulations, for example, to clarify the appropriate allowances to be made for the cost of supporting step-children who do not share the same parents and to allow a speedier processing of applications where a departure direction is clearly unlikely to be given. The regulations do not make any major or substantive amendments to the existing departure regulations but will assist with the smooth operation of the "departures" scheme. They are largely neutral in effect or, in some cases, benefit at least one of the parties to the departure application.

Regulations 32 to 34 amend the information, evidence and disclosure regulations and, although making only minor changes, are broadly beneficial to people using the agency. In particular, Regulation 33 provides that information may be disclosed to the courts by the Child Support Agency where there is a transfer of jurisdiction from the courts. This brings the agency into line with the courts which already have powers to disclose information to the agency. It will help to ensure smooth transition between different types of child maintenance and help to ensure an effective maintenance service for the few children where both the agency and the courts are involved in establishing maintenance arrangements. Regulation 34 provides that, in the sad event of the death of any party to a departure application, information about that application may be disclosed to the person appointed to act on behalf of the deceased. Previously, information could be disclosed only to the representative of the person who had applied for the departure direction. This, too, in the very few cases where these circumstances unhappily arise, will assist in settling matters quickly.

Regulations 35 to 41 make technical adjustments to maintenance assessment procedure regulations governing maintenance applications, interim maintenance assessments, and reviews. The regulations clarify the original policy intention of the regulations and have a neutral effect.

Regulations 42 to 58 make amendments to the maintenance assessments and special cases regulations. In particular these regulations provide for the changes in the child support scheme which need to be made in consequence of the changes in income support for lone parents which were debated in this House on 4th November.

I wish to stress to noble Lords that these amending regulations reflect changes to benefit provisions already approved by Parliament. They are purely consequential of changes already debated and approved.

The regulations before your Lordships today are largely technical, are being made to clarify intentions, or are necessary changes as a result of legislation changes elsewhere. The amendments being made are minor but will nevertheless assist in the smooth running of the child support scheme. There are a fairly large number of regulations, 58 in all, and it would therefore be helpful if any noble Lord who has the intellectual energy at this late hour to make a point or raise a query would identify by number the regulation to which he is referring. With that explanation, I hope that your Lordships will accept the regulations.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 18th November be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I shall not detain the House more than a moment or two. Anything which improves the working of the Child Support Agency is to be wildly welcomed by anyone who suffered in the previous Parliament dealing with constituency cases.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister one question. The noble Baroness may not be able to deal with it off the top of her head. Three parties are normally involved: the parent with care; the absent parent; or the taxpayer. Do the changes reflected in the regulations alter the balance between those three parties—the taxpayer, the parent with care and the absent parent?

Earl Russell

My Lords, I shall not shoot the Minister. The noble Baroness is doing her best. Having watched her today, I wonder why it is that any of us ever wants power. But she has coped extremely gallantly with the situation. It has been a long day. I do not propose to detain the House for long. If I detain it perhaps a couple of minutes longer than I had expected, it is because I am aware of the human needs of those involved in both the last business and the next.

I wish to refer to Regulation 33 dealing with confidential information which has to be supplied to the courts. I wish to ask for an assurance—I hope that I may have some chance of receiving it—that thought will be given to the needs of women who have been victims of domestic violence, for whom the disclosure of information can be a very dangerous process. I wish to express my regret that nothing has been done about the provision regarding those who become step-children later than 5th April 1993. That is, I think, a missed opportunity.

When the Minister spoke of turning the Child Support Agency round, I was reminded of the old firm of house agents who used to be called Turner and Giddy. But Mr. Turner became older and older and more and more tired; and one morning London woke up and found that the firm had become Giddy and Giddy. I am reminded of that when looking at the footnotes to Regulation 1, and at footnote (e) relating to maintenance assessment procedure regulations. The reference given is: Si 1992/1813; relevant amending instruments arc S.I. 1993/913, 1994/227, 1995/123, 1995/1045, 1995/3261, 1996/1345 and 1996/3196". The reference given in footnote (f), relating to maintenance assessments and special cases regulations is: S.I. 1992/1815; relevant amending instruments are S.I. 1993/913, 1994/227, 1995/1045, 1995/3261, 1995/3265"? I shall not go on; the reference is too long even for the purpose.

That reminds me of the time my father-in-law was filling up his car radiator and wanted just a drop of water. The garage said, "Ah, you're a piddler"! It also reminds me of a passage in the Renton Report about Ministers' determination to go on and on fine-tuning legislation. It suggests that turning the Child Support Agency round is a process which rather tends to go on repeating itself.

I shall not go on to put any questions of policy. However, I think the Minister should consider whether she and the Secretary of State are perhaps slightly optimistic about the amount of money they think they are ever going to get this way. I know that the Minister is familiar with the Bradshaw study of 20 countries, which shows that maintenance is not a particularly important constituent in the support of single parents in any of the countries investigated. I ask her once again to consider whether just possibly that might sometimes be because the money is not there.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am even more grateful than I suspect the rest of the House is for the brevity of the contributions from the other side.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked whether there has been any change in the balance between the parties of taxpayer, absent parent and parent-with-care. The answer is yes, there is some marginal change, but only by small amounts, in terms of affecting maintenance assessment. In general, the effect of the abolition of the lone parent element of the family premium is to reduce the maintenance requirement where a parent-with-care is a lone parent, possibly leading to a reduction in maintenance. If the absent parent is a lone parent, then his assessable income will increase; his maintenance may go up.

However, in many cases, because of the way the formula operates and because of the level of the absent parent's income, there will be no change. If maintenance is affected, it will not be by a significant amount—we believe that it will be a few pounds at most.

The impact of the abolition of the lone parent element of child benefit is similar. A parent-with-care not receiving income support or family credit may be able to contribute less to the maintenance requirement and may therefore receive a very small amount of additional maintenance. An absent parent, equally, may pay less maintenance if he is a lone parent. However, we do not believe that there will be many such cases, and should there be such changes, they should be very small in their impact.

The noble Earl. Lord Russell, raised a number of points, and mentioned "Giddy and Giddy". My noble friend Lord Carter could not resist pointing out that there is a firm of accountants called Doolittle and Daily, which I am sure is at least as enterprising a firm.

Earl Russell

I beg the noble Lord's pardon—they are solicitors.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that just shows how wise we are to have a panel of experts over and beyond the legally qualified to sit on our tribunals, accountants and solicitors alike.

The noble Earl entertained the House, as he so often does, deliberately—I am sure that he never entertains the House unintentionally—with his reference to the many footnotes to the regulations and the reference to lots of other regulations. The answer is, yes, the department intends to consolidate the child support regulations in due course and clarify the—I was about to say rigmarole—cross-referencing that makes such legislation opaque.

The noble Lord also asked about pre-1993 step-children. We are reviewing all aspects of child support. These regulations, as I hope I explained, are minor and technical. They make no substantive changes. We are not making changes at this stage.

The noble Earl also asked, more substantively, in relation to Regulation 33 about confidential information given to the courts, and whether the regulation will protect women who have been victims of domestic violence. The appeal tribunal will continue to allow any parent to opt to have her or his whereabouts kept secret. That confidentiality will also apply to the operation of Regulation 33.

Finally, the noble Earl is unduly cynical about the ability of the Government to turn the CSA around. I have the delight—though that can hardly be the right word—of chairing a review on the Child Support Agency. The agency has to be made to work. If it does not, the people who will lose will not be the Treasury or your Lordships—they will be the children of some of the poorer people in this country, who are entitled to enjoy the living standards that can be provided by both parents, their fathers as well as their mothers, in terms of both emotional and financial support. It is entirely a matter for private judgment whether those two parents can continue to live together as partners. Nonetheless, we are determined that those children should not lose both their parents. That is why we are determined to make the Child Support Agency into a child support service. I hope that in due course I shall be able to return to the House with proposals to that effect.

On Question Motion agreed to.

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