§ 3.18 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
§ [THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
§ [Amendment No. 1 not moved.]
§ Earl Russell
moved Amendment No. 2:Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—MEANING OF "CHILD"(" . In section 55(1) of the Child Support Act 1991—
- (a) in paragraph (a), for "16" there shall be substituted "17", and
- (b) for paragraph (b) there shall be substituted—(b) he is receiving full-time education (including education to the conclusion of a first degree course);".").1204 The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 2 deals with people who are older than those normally dealt with by the CSA. It extends the right to receive maintenance to the age of 17 or up to the conclusion of full-time education, whichever may be the later.
Where agreements for the maintenance of children are reached by negotiation between parents, it is perfectly common for them to include provision for the higher education of the child concerned. Indeed, that is a point I make from memory and with some gratitude. Where a system is imposed and where people have no right to negotiate and are required to accept particular terms willy-nilly, sometimes there is a feeling that when people have done what is imposed that no more should be required of them.
That is a threat to the continuing education of all children who come under the regime of the CSA. The extension from 16 to 17 is because we do not want children compelled to leave school in the middle of a school year. It is a regular academic convention, fairly well understood in negotiations between the academic community and the Government that financial support lasts until the end of whichever course is in progress.
As a serving university teacher, I must declare an interest in this amendment, a point that applies even more to the second part of the amendment which deals with the continuation of support through a period of full-time education. I believe that the Minister, in her academic capacity, will probably not dispute that point, although in her ministerial capacity she may feel that she must dispute it.
In practical terms, it is now impossible for people to go through a university education without a significant amount of parental support. I do not refer just to tuition fees, although in that context they have not helped. First and foremost, the support available under the loan system and under the access funds, even if the student concerned is extremely fortunate to receive support from them, is simply insufficient to maintain a student for 52 weeks of the year. Without living at home at the parents' expense through a considerable part of the year, people simply cannot get through.
It is no good saying that they should work for the whole of that time. I have learned a great deal more than I would have liked about the difficulties of the labour market in Bournemouth during the Christmas period. They are considerable. Bournemouth is not a unique example. In practice, without parental support, I would not advise prospective students to set out on a university education unless they are mature students with several thousands of pounds in the bank.
If this amendment is not accepted, one of the effects of the CSA regime will be to exclude those affected by it from a university education. That is a classic case of the law of the unintended consequence. I do not believe that Ministers expect any such thing, so I hope that they will consider it. I hope that they will take advice on the matter from sources of information 1205 slightly wider than simply the Department for Education and Employment. I hope that they will actually consider the real situation. I beg to move.
§ Lord Higgins
I have two preliminary remarks. First, we are now embarking on that section of the Bill concerned with the Child Support Agency and later we shall turn to the section on pensions and other items. Once again, I want to put on record that packaging matters that are totally disparate and have no connection whatever into one Bill is a matter of concern. Perhaps the House can attend to that point in debates that are scheduled for later this week.
Secondly, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, who, before the Bill reached this stage, helpfully held discussions and provided additional information. Also the Explanatory Notes on the Bill are available. I know that to a large extent she has been concerned in such matters. On this side of the Chamber, we intend to seek to improve the Bill in any constructive way in that we can.
The points raised by the noble Earl are important. I am inclined to agree with him that it is difficult nowadays for anyone to complete a university education without a considerable degree of parental support. I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say on that subject.
My noble friend has referred to completing a university education, but generally a university education does not start until people have reached the age of 18, whereas this amendment deals with those who are 17 years old.
§ Lord Higgins
My noble friend is absolutely right in that respect. Perhaps a commentary on present day life is that on the one hand we have an amendment—
§ Earl Russell
Perhaps I may assist the noble Lord, Lord Renton. The amendment contains two separate clauses: paragraph (a) concerns people up to the age of 17 and paragraph (b) covers,full-time education (including education to the conclusion of a first degree course)".Those are two separate propositions.
§ Lord Higgins
I imagine that my noble friend had taken that point. I understand that there are two separate issues, but my noble friend suggests that we are extending the definition of what is meant by "child" to cover someone who by any normal set of definitions, would not be regarded as a child. I leave the Minister to comment on whether that falls outside the Long Title of the Bill.
Perhaps it is also a sign of the times that we are considering what arrangements should be made for parents to support their children who undertake education and in later amendments we shall consider whether those in full-time education should support their children. Both sides of that issue arise and no doubt we shall come to the second matter later in the 1206 proceedings. None the less, I believe that the noble Earl has raised an important point. We look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the subject.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
Does the noble Earl, Lord Russell, realise that as a result of his party's activities in Scotland, Scottish university students do not pay the sum required for their fees until they have finished their university courses and are earning, I believe, over £10,000? If this amendment is accepted, does he anticipate that the maintenance for young Scottish students who are at university will be at a different rate and that an allowance will be made? As he will appreciate, this Bill applies to Scotland, and I believe that in sorting out one anomaly he will create another. Perhaps he can tell the Committee how he will make sure that that arrangement is fair.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
New Clause 2 seeks to extend the definition of a child, for child support purposes, by raising the upper age limit for child support liability to the date on which full-time education up to degree level ends. Under the proposed new clause children who leave school before that stage would receive child support until their 17th birthday or until they complete full-time education including a first degree course. Currently they remain a child for child support purposes until they are 16 or under 19 and in full-time non-advanced education.
The existing definition of a child for child support purposes reflects the rules of eligibility for child benefit. That is the point at whi.ch children are normally regarded as no longer dependent on their parents for benefit purposes. Much of the benefit system uses entitlement to child benefit as the simplest measure of establishing when a child or a young person is treated as a dependent. For example, young people are no longer treated as dependent for the purpose of assessing the amount of their parents' entitlement to income-based JSA and IS when child benefit ceases. In other words, the child may or may not be entitled in its own right.
This rule is relatively transparent and easy for parents to understand. The point at which child benefit ceases is a sensible and straightforward point at which to end child support liability. We must maintain simplicity in the reformed scheme because we all know where complexity can take us.
Not only would moving away from the existing definition of a child complicate a reformed system; it would also not be clear to whom the maintenance would be payable. Should it be paid to the parent with care, the student, or even to the college? Indeed, in many—if not most—cases both parents would be treated as non-resident parents, thus further complicating the child support rules.
The amendment would also have the effect of defining as children young adults at college or university who are substantially older than 19. If I refer back a few years, I recall that a significant number of the students I taught did not complete their degrees until they were 23 or 24. This would cut across the general responsibility for student maintenance which 1207 is based not on support from parents but rather on loans repayable by the young person over time as future income from employment rises.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I do of course favour parental support for students who are, by my definition, adults. However, on the assumption that the noble Earl's amendment were to be accepted, I should not wish to see students at university being treated by their institutions as in loco parentis. That would turn adults into dependent children. I am not sure that the noble Lord would wish to see that either. I am loath to turn adults back into children for the purposes of maintenance.
Furthermore, in extreme cases under existing legislation—Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989—provision is in place for a student aged 18 or over to apply to a court for an order requiring his separated parents to pay maintenance while he attends college. I hope that, with this explanation, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ 3.30 p.m.
I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in his desire to see that the parents of young people—I use that expression intentionally—of 17 years of age who stay on at school to carry on their studies continue to receive support. Furthermore, I agree with what was said by my noble friend on the Front Bench. However, I believe that we must avoid a legislative muddle.
As the noble Baroness pointed out, various different provisions relate to the age of young people. That should make us extremely careful in our use of the word "child". A relevant factor which I do not believe was mentioned by the noble Baroness is that when a young person reaches the age of 17, he or she is a free person. If a young person decides to give up his education, under statute, that person is entitled to do so.
Although I have sympathy in substance with the motive of the noble Earl, especially as regards the first part of his new clause, I think that we would be rash to deal with the matter in the way that he has suggested. However, it is an important issue and perhaps on Report, with further thought about the drafting, we can perhaps get it right.
§ Earl Russell
Perhaps I may respond, first, to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. I am of course aware of the force of the point that she made. The main thrust of my argument related to the level of maintenance available to the student, not to the tuition fees. However, the matter of tuition fees clearly establishes a difference and that difference should be taken into account.
However, when we discuss primary legislation, I cannot help but think—and here I invoke the words of the noble Lord, Lord Renton—that this is the kind of point that may be a little too detailed to be dealt with 1208 in primary legislation. Perhaps I should have provided for a regulation-making power in the amendment. I admit that that cannot be ruled out altogether.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
That is all fine, but I must say to the noble Earl that his party has helped to make the university funding system disparate across the United Kingdom. Parents of students attending Scottish universities will not have to pay the £1,000 a year that those at universities south of the Border will have to pay. I do not think that it behoves his party to recommend to the House that students should be treated in the same way at different universities. The Liberal Democrats cannot have their cake and eat it. I believe that the noble Earl must make some allowance for that in his amendment.
§ Earl Russell
I thought that that was precisely the point that I had just conceded. If that was not clear, then I state again that I do concede the point. My query was only whether primary legislation would provide the correct way to respond to it and that is a point on which I shall be perfectly happy to take advice.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, regarding the definition of a child. It is clear that what has been happening over the past 40 years is that social maturity has been getting earlier while financial maturity has been getting later. If the Minister looks at the record of national insurance contributions towards the state pension, I believe that she will probably confirm that a difficulty we are running into is that the proportion of people who have full and adequate contribution records before the age of 25 is going down. It may be that what we need to move away from is the single, isolated definition of a "child". The situation exists and we have to live in the real world. For that reason, we have to cope with it. I am perfectly prepared to entertain the possibility that the amendment I have tabled is not perhaps the best solution. However, before I can be convinced of that, I should be extremely grateful if a better way could in turn be suggested. If this is not the best way, then it follows that there must be a better approach.
I appreciate the Minister's desire for simplicity because it would be awfully nice. However, her pursuit of simplicity resembles a little my childhood game of chess. My game would have been absolutely brilliant if the other player had not moved in the meantime. The world is an extremely complicated place. These problems exist and one way or another we must tackle then.
I do not believe that it is the Government's intention to exclude children benefiting from the CSA regime from the benefits of higher education. However, if it is not their intention, then I believe that they must seek a way to ensure that that intention is not realised by inadvertence.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
I wonder why the noble Earl thinks that because we are continuing the status quo on child support we are somehow excluding for the first time children who would otherwise receive 1209 maintenance under his proposed amendment from access to higher education? I could take his point if we were changing the situation as regards the age of the child, but that is the existing situation and we are not changing it. As the current Government are seeking to extend access to higher and further education to nearly 50 per cent of the population, I do not understand or take his point.
§ Earl Russell
I did not say, "for the first time". If the M Mister refers to the proceedings on the 1995 Bill, she will see that I raised an identical point. It is not the first time, and I would not dream of pretending that I am raising it for the first time. Furthermore, I suspect that it will not be the last. However, for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
THE GENERAL DUTY
(" . For section 1(I) of the Child Support Act 1991 there shall be substituted—
(1) For the purposes of this Act any person who is the mother or the father of a qualifying child is responsible insofar as they are able—
(1A) In making provision for the nurture, love, care, guidance and education of the child both parents shall have regard to the principle that the best interests of the child are paramount.
(1B) The responsibilities of parents under subsection (1) have effect from the day the child is born till the clay on which it attains the age of 18 years.
(1C) Except as otherwise provided by agreement in writing or by an enactment, parental responsibilities under subsection (1) are joint and several as between the father and the mother.
(1D) In fulfilling their responsibilities under subsection (I) parents shall be entitled to make use of such services and facilities as are provided by the state."").
The noble Lord said: This amendment would replace Section 1(1) of the Child Support Act 1991 which states:
For the purposes of this Act each parent of a qualifying child is responsible for maintaining him".
My amendment does not alter the main thrust of Section 1(1), but it expands upon it. In particular, it makes it clear that a non-resident father, or indeed a non-resident mother, is responsible not only for the financial maintenance of the child, but also for the other elements that are so important in the nurturing of a child. As far as possible the parent should ensure that the child receives the love, care, guidance and education that it needs. The Government have indicated that that objective is in line with their
intentions. The 1988 Green Paper, Children First: a new approach to child support, made a number of references to that important issue. In the foreword, the Prime Minister stated:
The well-being of the growing number of children whose parents have separated depends on them receiving the financial and emotional support of both parents wherever they live".
The summary of chapter 3, at page 2, states:
The Government wants parents to fulfil their responsibilities to their children. The Government wishes to develop an active family policy which links children's rights and parents' responsibilities. Modern families are evolving. But fathers are vital to their children's well- being: children do best when they have two positive and committed parents. The child support scheme should give clear messages about the rights and responsibilities of parenthood".
Chapter 2 states that,
all children have a right to emotional and financial support from both their parents, wherever they live … 40 per cent of fathers lose all contact with their children within two years of separating. In many people's eyes, the current scheme treats money as the only thing that matters. It gives the message that a non-resident parent's obligations begin and end with a cheque in the post".
So far, so good—in respect of the Green Paper. The White Paper is a good deal more coy on the subject of non-financial obligations. To be fair, chapter 7 is devoted to the subject. It states:
Paying maintenance is an important part of non-resident parents' continuing responsibilities to their children—hut there is more to being a good parent than this. One of the central questions for separated parents and their children is maintaining continuing contact with non-resident parents … As explained in the Green Paper, we are convinced that one of the reasons for the failure of the existing child support arrangements is that they do not work properly with other family responsibilities. The Government is committed to an interactive family policy which integrates all activities that affect the family, including maintenance and contact".
Surprise, surprise—the Bill makes no reference whatever to anything other than financial matters, which is why I felt it appropriate to explore the Government's thinking by introducing the amendment.
The 1991 legislation was not 100 per cent popular or 100 per cent successful. It was unpopular because it was perceived to be unfair. The Bill does little to make it seem more fair to the absent parent. Admittedly, the Bill simplifies the calculation but it still makes the assumption that financial responsibility is the only thing that really matters. It implies that the absent parent's only responsibility is to pay. It does not refer in any way to the rights or responsibilities that the Government have said absent parents should exercise towards their children—or to the need for the resident parent to make it possible for the absent parent to do that.
The Bill also implies extremely low expectations of the absent parent. People tend to live up to the expectations made of them. Where there are low expectations of children at school, they tend not to do well. Children who are subject to higher expectations do better. I am convinced that the same applies to nonresident parents.
My amendment declares that mothers and fathers are jointly and severally responsible for their child—not only in respect of its material needs but its 1211 emotional, social, educational and support needs. The amendment lays down that the child's non-material needs should be subject always to the best interests of the child. It does not alter the responsibility for maintenance imposed by the Section 1(1) of the 1991 Act but clarifies and expands it.
My amendment also extends the age of responsibility to 18. I confess that I was flying a kite but the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor told me from the Dispatch Box six months ago that he was seriously considering whether the responsibility of families for their children should be extended to age 18. I wonder how that is going.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
The noble Lord has more intimate conversations with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor than I do.
§ Lord Northbourne
I thought that we had a joined-up government. I have more confidence in joined-up government than the noble Baroness.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor made the remarks in answer to a Starred Question. I remember the occasion well.
§ Lord Northbourne
I am most grateful to the noble Earl. I set down that Question. Unless some thought is given to the issues that I have raised, there is a serious danger that this legislation will be just as unpopular at the 1991 Act. I do not think that it is a good idea to put unpopular legislation on the statute book. We all remember the poll tax.
Amendment No. 4 is a probing amendment about the definition of a qualifying child. It seems strange that if an absent father, who is liable to pay maintenance under the Bill and the previous legislation, moves back in with the mother of the child, the child is no longer deemed to be a qualifying child—so the father does not have to pay. I may have misinterpreted the Bill but that is how it reads to me.
I hope that the noble Baroness has not been briefed to tear Amendment No. 3 to pieces on the ground that its drafting is defective. I confess that the drafting is probably inadequate but I wanted to raise the principle. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
The noble Lord has said a number of extremely important things and the Minister will probably have to give a complicated reply. The Committee must appreciate that above all children must benefit from what comes out of the Bill. The Minister may tell us that because of the Bill's interaction with the Children Act 1989 and other legislation, provision is already made for most of the matters of concern to the noble Lord. Certainly, the principle that the child's interests are paramount is in the 1989 Act.
The Bill is difficult to understand because, yet again, we are presented with legislation that is drafted to a large extent in terms of amendments to previous Acts, 1212 which one does not have to hand. So a parent will find the new legislation difficult to understand. An overarching clause at the beginning of the Bill to remind parents of their responsibilities would be no bad thing.
Having been involved in legislation about family mediation in Scotland, I know that when separating parents are making arrangements for their children, often it all comes down to a lot of anger with one another over money. It resolves itself into discussions in relation to money and the other important aspects of the position in which their child will be when they separate are forgotten. If this clause is included in the Bill, it will remind parents when they separate, and their legal advisers if they have them, what parenthood is all about.
An overarching clause at the beginning of the Bill, therefore, has much to commend it and I hope that the Government will not resist that suggestion. I can see that the Minister may have to pick up on some of the details of this specific amendment; but if she does not accept it, she may consider introducing something of this kind at a later stage. It would be a human thing to do, and would help parents to meet their obligations under the complicated legislation with which they will be confronted.
§ The Earl of Mar and Kellie
Both the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, are entirely right to be stressing the need for overarching principles at the start of the Bill. I should briefly like to say that nothing in the amendment conflicts with the other CSA—that is, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995—which lays down in Sections 1 and 2 that parents have a right and duty to maintain contact, in estrangement, with their children. It also lays down that the parent with care must enable that contact.
§ The Earl of Listowel
Perhaps I may briefly say, as someone who has worked with boys and young men over several years in various capacities, that I have noticed the confusion that young men in particular have when their fathers are not in the picture. They are sometimes confused about their sexual identity when their fathers are not around. They are particularly vulnerable to other men on whom they may wish to model themselves, who are perhaps people we would not wish them to admire and copy. It may be difficult for them to forge a special relationship with a woman later in life and start their own family if they have had no father in the picture.
I am not sure whether this amendment is the best way of solving this problem and increasing the number of fathers who continue to be involved with their sons, but it is an important point. I am sure that the Minister will bear it in mind.
I hope that the Government will consider sympathetically the move by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to include this clause, perhaps slightly modified, into the Bill, or something on the same lines.
1213 While we are trying to improve the situation which arises under the Act of 1991, we should seriously make a more positive definition than has so far been made of the responsibilities of parents. I hope that when further considering this matter, both the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, will consider attempting to define the situation that may arise when the parents fail to agree. In those circumstances—it will always be difficult—some guidance may be given, especially when the parents are separated or divorced. In the case of disagreement, it is the parent with custody of the child who should have the last word. That is a point which could be added to the statute.
§ Earl Russell
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on having most eloquently distinguished between the things on which we all agree and those on which we do not. His amendment provides a beautifully drafted piece of common ground from which to begin our debate.
I am glad the noble Lord said what he did about financial maintenance not being the whole story; nevertheless. I am grateful to him for having given me an opportunity to stress once again that the obligation of parents to maintain their children is common ground between all the parties who debate this Bill. I first made that point on the Statement preceding the 1991 Child Support Bill. I have made it many times since. I make it again. Any future debate is how that liability should be calculated, apportioned and assessed; never about whether it should exist.
§ Earl Russell
If the noble Lord wishes to say that that was not the whole of his amendment, that was exactly the point I was coming on to. If he wishes to say anything else, I shall give way instantly.
§ Lord Northbourne
I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. I was only going to draw attention to the fact that, while he is right in saying that there is consensus across the Chamber on that subject, there is not necessarily consensus across the country. That is why it is so important for the Government to be absolutely clear what they mean.
§ Earl Russell
I do not dispute that point for a moment. I would be happy for that to be put into legislation.
Secondly, I am grateful to the noble Lord for having stressed that this is not just about support, and for putting in the words he has about nurture, love, care, guidance and education. Those things are, in the end, probably much more important. I thank the noble Lord also for having worded that passage in a way which is optative and not prescriptive. We all want those things. But how to get them can be a difficult problem in which the heavy-booted intervention of legislation is not always helpful. To have it spelt out in this general way as something to which we can all aspire is exactly right.
1214 Thirdly, the noble Lord is right about the importance of access. But again I am grateful to him for having stuck to a tone which is optative and not prescriptive. The problems of access after matrimonial breakdown are far more difficult to resolve than most of us realise. Resolution in almost all, but not all, cases is something devoutly to be wished for. But when we are dealing with two people who have been badly hurt, we find that they do not always react with the reasonableness one hopes to achieve in a Committee of this House. So again I am glad that the noble Lord has been optative and not prescriptive.
Perhaps I might comment on a couple of other points in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. In relation to the 40 per cent of nonresident parents who lose contact with their children, I understand that there is some dispute as to the academic validity of that figure, but since my information comes to me under Chatham House rules I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not develop the point further.
I refer to the Lord Chancellor's views as to the obligation to maintain 16 and 17 year-olds. Except for 16 and 17 year-olds, all of us are in a position where a residually and fiduciary liability to maintain us if we become destitute rests on somebody; if we are under 16, on parents; if we are over 18, on the state. But in the case of 16 and 17 year-olds it at present rests nowhere. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor made the remarks to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred, specifically in that context. So if the Minister does not wish him to do that, she knows what she can do about it.
§ Lord Higgins
The Committee will have listened with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in moving his amendment, given his considerable experience in various parts of London where there are problems of the kind with which the Bill is seeking to cope. It is true to say, as he did, that the previous legislation was not particularly popular; but it was unpopular largely with people who were not accepting the responsibilities which he is seeking to set out in his amendment. While my own constituency experience was in an area that might have been relatively tranquil compared to parts of London, nevertheless one was struck by the fact that a number of parents were not prepared to accept their responsibilities and were positively determined to resist them. We will turn to that aspect later.
There are other aspects of the noble Lord's amendment that will, again, be reflected in our subsequent debates. He stresses that the responsibilities of parents should be held jointly and severally. A considerable amount of the controversy over the Bill relates to the question of whether both parents should pay or only one, and joint responsibility is a very important aspect of that matter. The noble Lord has tabled another amendment to the 1991 Act, which extends the definition of an absent parent by adding the words "or is not contributing to 1215 his maintenance". It would be helpful to hear the Minister's comments in relation to that issue. We are also concerned with access.
The amendment is in effect a declaration about the responsibility of both parents. That is important, not least because the Bill is concerned with not only those who have been married and divorced, but with those who have never been married and are still parents, and to a considerable extent with where there have been multiple relationships. Part of the problem is not simply about the relationship of the first family to the second, but in some cases to the third or fourth family, when none of these events has been subject to marriage. The declaration envisaged by the noble Lord has much in its favour. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that point and on the more technical aspects of the matter.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 seek to place on the face of child support legislation a new framework of obligations within which a reformed child support scheme would operate, emphasising the role of both parents in raising children.
Amendment No. 3 seeks to set out in the Bill the wider responsibility that both parents have to their children beyond the immediate obligations to maintain them when the parents live apart. Amendment No. 4 extends the definition of "nonresident parent" to include those who live with the child and the other parent but who are not contributing to the children's maintenance.
We are reforming child support in the context of the Government's active family policies and the wider responsibilities of parents. As we explained in the child support Green Paper, we are convinced that one of the reasons for the failure of the existing child support arrangements is that they do not work properly with other family responsibilities. We strongly believe that fathers have a vital role to play in their children's lives and should never be marginal to a child's wellbeing.
Paying maintenance is an important part of nonresident parents' continuing responsibilities to their children, but there is more to being a good parent than this. One of the central issues for separated parents and their children is maintaining continuing contact with non-resident parents. The child support reforms set out in the Bill recognise this issue because it is in the best interests of children, for whom appropriate contact can compensate for many of the problems associated with parental separation. There is good evidence to suggest that non-resident parents who have regular contact also tend to provide more maintenance for their children.
I have seen recent research that looked at predictors of good outcomes for the children of lone parents. For daughters of lone parents a good outcome in the sense of staying on at school, doing GCSEs, not becoming pregnant as a teenager and getting a job, was that the lone parent was in work. However, for a good outcome 1216 for the sons of lone parents, in the sense of staying on at school, not truanting, not getting into trouble with the police, getting GCSEs and getting a job, the predictor was that he had regular contact with his natural father. For daughters the predictor was that the mother was in work and for sons it was if they had regular contact with their natural father. That is in accordance with what we are trying to achieve.
We all agree that children have the right to the love and care of both their parents, whether or not they live together. A point about jointly and severally has been mentioned on several occasions: under our proposals, both parents would have joint and several responsibility in that a parent with care is providing support in kind and the non-resident parent is providing support in cash. That makes up the joint and several package.
The Government are committed to an active family policy which integrates all activities that affect the family, including maintenance and contact. However, we do not accept that child support liability should be reduced or removed altogether simply because contact arrangements are unsatisfactory. Refusing to pay maintenance adds to the disadvantages of children who have lost contact with a parent.
The new system of child support will be clear and easy to understand. Non-resident parents will know immediately how much they need to pay for their children and how much they will have left to meet their other responsibilities. We will recognise children's overnight stays with non-resident parents by a small reduction in rates of liability. This will go some way to meeting the non-resident parent's expenses, without being so severe as to make parents with care resistant to shared care arrangements.
We will also support a personal, localised, face-to-face service that integrates child support with other family services. There is clearly broad support from fathers for these reforms, and it is clear that nonresident parents in particular want, more than anything else, a system of assessing liability that is simple, transparent and predictable. It is in the best interests of the child to get maintenance flowing as quickly as possible. That is what is driving our child support reforms. Where that maintenance is flowing, it is more likely that the father will seek to sustain contact.
I understand that the amendments are intended to give expression to the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, which has been reflected in the Committee today, that some children and young people do not receive enough support from their parents. I agree with that concern, but I do not think it is appropriate to make a declaratory statement in a Bill, which should be as precise in its wording as possible. The appropriate place for what one might call a mission statement, is the Green Paper or the White Paper. In quoting those extensively, the noble Lord made it clear that the Government entirely shared the context in which the reforms are put before the Committee.
1217 The noble Lord mentioned—and had support from noble Lords—the concern of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor about the issue of parental responsibility and the maintenance of 16 and 17 year-olds. The noble and learned Lord has explained that there is no specific statutory obligation on a parent to provide for the maintenance of a child who has reached the age of 16 and has offered to consider a review.
Officials in the Lord Chancellor's Department are conducting an internal review of the provisions for these young people before making recommendations about whether a wider review or a full consultation exercise is required.
I welcome the fact that in his amendment the noble Lord acknowledges that parents are not always in a position to support their children as they would wish. That is why we have set in train a wide range of initiatives, particularly where children are in care, in order to ensure that the local authority better delivers its responsibility in loco parentis. Equally, the Department for the Environment, Transport and Regions is working to reduce the incidence of homelessness and rough sleeping among young people, and the Social Exclusion Unit has published reports on teenage pregnancy in 16 to 18 year-olds who are not in education, training or employment, which the Government intend should lead to prompt and effective action, along with the Children Leaving Care Act and the Care Standards Bill, will give additional protection for these vulnerable children.
The amendments clearly go wider than that and fall outside the scope of the Bill, which in this section is concerned solely with the provisions of financial support where parents are living apart.
The noble Lord wants to reconnect maintenance and contact. We know that the men who pay most maintenance are the most reliable payers of maintenance because they tend to be older, divorced men, and more likely to be in contact with and emotionally committed to their children. The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, was absolutely right that our major problems occur with young men for whom it may have been a casual relationship, possibly a weekend relationship only, who may be unemployed and whose own lives are pretty chaotic. They are very young and may still be living at home with their parents. There, it is often the paternal grandmother who ensures that contact continues and educates her young son in his responsibilities for his child in turn. Where that happens, it can transform the young man's life.
However, as I have already suggested, the right way to sustain contact with the young man is through arrangements that are to be found in the Bill; for example, the abatement of maintenance to encourage overnight stays and the face-to-face interviews that we can offer. Equally, we are obviously concerned about the situation where the parent with care may thwart contact. The Lord Chancellor's Department is looking into the matter to ascertain what sanctions might be available where someone is in contempt of court. 1218 But those concerned are seeking to find sanctions that will not bite on the child, which is something that imprisonment might do. There is always the right available to a non-resident parent to consider a change, or to seek a change, of a residency order to ensure that contact is maintained.
I fully recognise the commitment of the noble Lord to improving the circumstances of children and young people. The Government believe that existing provisions in legislation, along with existing programmes in health, in the DETR and through the Social Exclusion Unit, further supported by the passage of this Bill, its implementation and that of the other legislation to which I referred, will provide an effective means of securing the improvements that we all wish to achieve. As the noble Lord said, the context for this was reflected in our Green and White Papers. With that explanation and bearing in mind the fact that we endorse much of what the noble Lord said, although we do not think it right to put a broader description on the face of the Bill, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Before the Minister sits down, perhaps she could explain something to me. The noble Baroness mentioned various steps and inquiries that are being undertaken within the Lord Chancellor's Department which are relevant to the noble Lord's amendment, but can she say whether the Government intend that the conclusions reached within that department, which will then be considered and approved by Ministers, will be put forward at a later stage as amendments to this Bill?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
No. This is a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which, as I said, is currently conducting an internal review. That review may well lead to a wider review, which could go out to consultation. Therefore, even if it were a sensible procedure, the timetabling of all this would not be permitted. In any case, such major issues should certainly be tabled in Committee. From everything that I know about the review of my noble and learned friend's department, it may be several months before it may, or may not, see the light of day in the form of public consultation. So it would not be possible in practical terms. But, even if it were, I would argue that it would not necessarily be desirable because this is a child support Bill from the DSS; it does not seek to address the wider issues regarding the definition of "a child" and who has the responsibility for the child.
If the Lord Chancellor's Department sees fit at some point to produce clauses for an appropriate Bill, that would be another matter. However, even if it were desirable, it could not be done by way of this Bill. Indeed, even if one could, I am not yet persuaded that it would be desirable to do it through this Bill.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
The Minister gave a very careful and extremely interesting response to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. She suggested that the noble Lord's amendment goes beyond the scope of the Bill. I can understand the problem in that respect, as I am 1219 sure is the case with the noble Lord, who will probably have more to say about it. However, the noble Baroness also said that a broad statement was not a good idea in this Bill and that it would be more appropriate for the Green and White Papers.
Following on from what I said before, surely the noble Baroness does not expect parents to have these Green and White Papers constantly in front of them. They will want to know what the Bill says; indeed, they will want to ask their legal advisers what it means. Should not the noble Baroness take away the matter and think rather hard about whether it is possible to include this kind of statement, which is within the scope of the Bill, in order to help parents understand how the provision fits in with what they consider to be their legal responsibilities? It is no good just saying that such wording is all right in the Green and White Papers. That may be so for us because we can look it up, but parents cannot be expected to have copies of all these documents.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
On the contrary. To my certain knowledge we have distributed thousands of copies, including the abbreviated versions of both the Green and White Papers. Indeed, we have received 1,500 responses, followed by many seminars and discussions. I should be most surprised if as many parents were as familiar with the context of a Bill, or of a parliamentary statute. Their solicitors might be, but they would not.
The presumption seems to be that if one makes a declaratory statement in the Bill this will somehow change behaviour and that, therefore, we should accept it in order to encourage rather feckless young men to take on their responsibilities. It is presumed that if these words were in an Act such young men would read the provision and say, "Oh goodness me! Yes, Parliament has said I must do this, therefore I will". That is not what will happen. We might feel glowing as a result, but, in practice, the young men whom we seek to encourage to take on their parental responsibilities will do so because of a series of quite precise government initiatives, including encouraging them to have the residence of the child so that they bond as early as possible and making that possible through an abatement of maintenance.
We shall also encourage young people to take on their responsibilities by working with organisations like the grandparents' organisation and, if I may put it this way, with some of the men's organisations, as well as others. I believe that the way to encourage young men to take on their responsibilities is by engaging in education in schools and by having face-to-face interviews in local offices where any problems that they have about payment can be sorted out. It is also part of our responsibility to ensure that parents with care recognise that, if they wish that maintenance to flow reliably, one of the best ways to achieve this is to ensure that contact is maintained. That will not only ensure that maintenance flows, it is also good for the child. This seems to me to be the youthful, appropriate and practical way in which young men in particular 1220 will be encouraged to face up to their responsibilities. It is not a matter of having declaratory statements on the face of a Bill, which, frankly, will have far less circulation than is the case with the White and Green Papers that I mentioned.
§ 4.15 p.m.
I am sorry to trouble the noble Baroness again, but she said that the matters raised in the noble Lord's amendment are beyond the scope of the Bill. However, the first part of the Long Title to the Bill says that its purpose is:To amend the law relating to child support".That is just what the noble Lord's amendment seeks to do.
§ Lord Northbourne
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton. He has just made the point that I intended to make. Indeed, the fact that non-financial support is, and should be, included in the concept of child support is self-evident from the Government's Green Paper on the subject.
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for her response on this issue. Although we agree on the principles of what is desirable, I believe that we are quite far apart on the way of achieving those objectives. I personally believe that something in the nature of a declaratory statement—an aspiratory statement—should be on the face of the Bill. Indeed, without it, I think that the Bill denigrates the role of fathers, thereby creating a sense of lack of worth and, therefore, unfairness and resentment. I believe that that will motivate against the success of the Bill.
I believe that such a statement should be included in the interests of the better nurturing of children in separated families. The issues are extremely important and it is, therefore, important that the Government should at least give a balanced picture in this respect. In that context, I have to differ with the Minister that the Green and White Papers are adequate. The Green Paper leads up to the White Paper, which, in fact, says a great deal less on this issue. The White Paper then leads to the Bill, which says nothing at all about it.
The conclusion of any reasonable person is that the Government have actually dropped these ancillary considerations. The Government must do more and say what they actually believe. If the noble Baroness can tell me where and when the Government will address these matters in public in a way that will correct the imbalance implicit in the Bill, I shall be happy not to return to the amendment at further stages of the Bill. When are the Government going to say to young men, "If you get a girl pregnant, it is just as much your fault as hers"? When are they going to say to them, "To bring a child into the world when you have no intention of supporting it, caring for it or loving it, is a form of child abuse"? When are they going to say to young mothers, "Your child needs his father. If you exclude the father from his life, you're likely to be damaging your child's chances"?
1221 More simply, when are the Government going to say to schools, "Bring the fathers in to work with you and to support their child's learning. This will help boys and girls to understand the importance of a child to his father"? If the noble Baroness can convince the Committee that all this will happen soon and that it will be said loudly so that the whole country hears, I shall gladly not pursue the issue at further stages of Bill. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness Amos
I beg to move that the House do now resume.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.