HL Deb 08 May 2000 vol 612 cc1289-360

House again in Committee on Schedule 1.

[Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 not moved.]

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 18: Page 89, line 37, leave out from ("less") to end of line 41. The noble Earl said: Today I am slightly more fortunate in my timing than when I moved this amendment in 1991. I moved the amendment and then divided the House at 10 minutes to midnight with my Chief Whip standing at the Bar, beaming at me like a bishop giving the blessing. I hope that I shall not have to do it again, but the principle of this amendment is of some importance.

The amendment seeks to delete the requirement to pay a flat rate of £5 binding on those receiving benefits of a prescribed kind. A "prescribed kind" is the usual open-ended phrase used by the department when it might want to do anything. Effectively, it refers mainly to people on income support or jobseeker's allowance. We are told that those are subsistence benefits—although of late that phrase has been heard less often. Another amendment to be moved later will address this point, but in fact there is no estimate available of the minimum needs necessary for good health. Many other countries calculate such an estimate, but we do not. But at least it is clear that income support and jobseeker's allowance do not provide any substantial surplus over minimum needs.

Deductions from income support should be made very sparingly indeed. Already such deductions are used quite heavily to pay for gas bills, water bills, court fines and God knows what else. We all know of the Acheson report. That report stated that the level of income support was insufficient to maintain good health. The consequences of that may be quite serious. The Medical Research Council work on low birth weight is known by repute to many of us. It states: Inadequate nutrition can impair cognitive development and is associated with educational failure among impoverished children. Nutrition early in life has a big impact on the development of the brain". By inflicting further hardship on people receiving income support or jobseeker's allowance, we may be facing longer term consequences of quite considerable severity.

I do not understand exactly what useful purpose is served by such an adamant insistence on a flat rate payment of £5. I am sure that we shall again hear from the Minister much of what we heard on the amendment concerning the parent with care who is rich; namely, about the abstract principle. On occasion there is much to be said for abstract principles, but when those abstract principles cause real and gross hardship to people who are already suffering enough of it, without providing any substantial compensating benefit, then I tend to wonder whether that principle is perhaps mistaken.

Successive governments, in adhering to this flat rate £5 deduction from those on income support. have been inflicting a quite unnecessary degree of hardship and have been achieving nothing for it. It' they are that determined to continue with this requirement, then they will have to increase income support levels above the rate of inflation in proportion. At present I can see no sign that the Government will be willing to do that.

I have reminded the Minister of what happened when I moved a similar amendment in 1991. I shall not repeat that tonight, but I cannot answer for what might happen during later stages of the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Originally, Amendments Nos. 18, 19, 20 and 23 were grouped together, because they all deal with the same matter. However, I see that the noble Earl is signalling otherwise. Amendment No. 18—from the Liberal Democrat Benches—seeks to establish that there should be no deduction from benefit for maintenance, including those people who currently have £5.20 deducted from JSA and IS. In particular, the amendment seeks to remove all references to cases where the non-resident parent or their partner is in receipt of a prescribed benefit, pension or allowance and leave only those whose income is £100 or less—those not receiving benefit—to be required to pay maintenance.

Briefly, I should like to make three points. First, people on JSA and income support pay a contribution towards child maintenance. At present that contribution is £5.20. In the future we propose that it will be a flat rate of £5. Secondly, unlike at present where the £5.20 charge goes straight to the Treasury, in future the £5 will go directly to the child so that the child will share in the father's income, as it would if that family were an intact family and the father was claiming jobseeker's allowance and looking for work. I think that it is right that parents with care who are themselves on modest incomes can expect to see a contribution from the non-resident parent, whether it is £5 if he is on benefit, up to £10 if she is on benefit and he is in work or the full amount if both parents are in work.

The reasoning behind this is not only because we think that it is better for the child if he or she knows that he or she is receiving support from the absent parent and not only because we wish to continue the practice of the existing system, but also because we know from figures of those on IS and JSA—in particular young men on JSA, the main benefit we are discussing here—that around two-thirds of those young men will be in work within six months. Three-quarters will find work within 12 months. I refer also to research from Australia that has been quoted in the House on previous occasions. We know that unless the habit of making maintenance payments is set up fairly quickly after separation, it becomes increasingly difficult to collect that money. People must be encouraged into the mindset that states that if their relationship breaks down, they must expect to pay maintenance.

We know that most young people on JSA will be back in work within six months or at most a year. If we have not established the habit of making maintenance payments—a responsibility that goes along with the need to pay any arrears on rent, repaying social fund payments and so forth—then such young people are less likely to carry on making payments once they are back in work. For that reason, we are holding to the broad position of the previous administration on this, but reducing the rate from £5.20 to £5, ensuring that the benefit goes directly to the child and, lastly, continuing to support the principle that the need to establish the habit of making payments must be done early so that when that person moves into work, maintenance will continue to be paid. In the light of these points, I hope that the Committee will not support the amendment.

Earl Russell

The Minister has invoked the matter of encouraging the habit of making payments. Before I respond, can she tell me what proportion of those presently assessed to pay the £5.20 actually pay it?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The best statistics that I can offer the noble Earl is that of those who should be paying, around half of them do so.

Earl Russell

That does not strike me as a particularly convincing habit. Does the Minister wish to respond?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

That is not out of order with the statistics we inherited as regards those who were in work when we came into office. In 1997 we found that only around 30 per cent paid all the maintenance due, 30 to 40 per cent paid part of their maintenance, and the rest paid nothing at all. The mindset that payment was required was broken for everyone, whether or not they were in work—especially the self-employed. Those who paid regularly tended to be divorced, never had a continuing commitment to their children and recognised their obligations to that extent. While I entirely accept the noble Earl's point that the habit of maintenance has not been well established, that is something the system is designed to change.

The other factor that has affected getting the money flowing has been the inability of Benefit Agency computers to talk to CSA computers. When a young person, for example, changes his benefit status, that may be recorded on BA computers but the CSA has to be informed manually. Our inability to obtain accurate statistics is criminal. All the statistics that I give have an associated health warning. The new system will not only see that the money goes to children but will be associated with robust IT systems that should provide an accurate snapshot of the individual's benefit status.

Earl Russell

The Minister knows perfectly well why I believe that so little of the money assessed under the 1991 and 1995 Acts has actually come in. In a great many cases, parents have been assessed to pay sums that are more than they can possibly pay—which instantly breaks the habit of payment before it has been instilled. The figures that the Minister has just given are simply another subset of that mistake. If those individuals had been allowed the six months that the Minister invoked, until they had an income, they would have picked up the habit of payment perfectly easily. It is the usual story of the Treasury shooting itself in the foot.

I know perfectly well that the Minister thinks otherwise, but I am entitled to say to her that which she said to me earlier. I accept that she believes these things, but it does not follow that I have to do so. I do not. I accept that the money will go directly to the children, which is a good thing. But the money can only go to the children if it is actually there. The difficulty of living on income support is so considerable that it may not always happen. When the Minister described income support as a modest income, she was carrying euphemism to something near its outer limits. If the Minister had increased benefit levels by 20 per cent, I would have found the whole of her argument persuasive. I do not see that as an immediate prospect. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment—but it is not the last that we shall hear of this issue.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 19 and 20 not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe

moved Amendment No. 21: Page 90, line 10, leave out paragraph (a) and insert— ("(a) is a student in full-time education at an educational establishment in the United Kingdom; or"). The noble Baroness said: With this, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 22.

These probing amendments are designed to clarify why the Government want powers to exempt various of non-resident parents—so-called proscribed descriptions—from their duty financially to support their children. The two categories in our amendments have been taken directly from the Explanatory Notes. Both are disturbing.

We recognise and support the Bill's powerful theme that parents should be required to make a contribution to the upkeep of their children and to recognise the financial consequences of their actions, not take for granted that the taxpayer—someone else working hard to meet his or her responsibilities—should pick up the tab.

We recognise also that the Bill takes account of persons who, with little resources, will make a minimum payment of £5. Do the Government intend to allow all who choose to enter full-time higher education or who find themselves in prison to abrogate entirely their responsibilities for their children?

We know that many students need to take out loans to pay their fees and maintenance but many work. Most noble Lords can attest to that. I concede that under this government, funding one's way through full-time education is much tougher—except for those attending full-time education in Scotland, as we heard earlier from my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour.

What is more important—the pursuit of personal academic achievement or acceptance of responsibility, in however small a way, for one's own child? The Minister in another place, in response to a similar amendment, made much of the income of students and the number of student parents who account for the CSA's current workload. Those issues are irrelevant. Whether or not the numbers are small is also irrelevant. Either the Government are serious about requiring parents to meet their responsibilities or they are not. It worried me when the Minister said earlier in defence of ignoring minority cases in relation to Clause 1, "It is not worth it". Surely principle matters as well as practice.

On Second Reading, the Minister confirmed that 30 per cent of parents pay nothing towards the upkeep of their children. The noble Baroness said that reform of the formula of the benefits system will provide incentives for parents to co-operate. We support reform that will incentivise responsibility but believe that the clause will do entirely the opposite. It will provide more opportunities for those wishing to negate their responsibilities. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

I do not wish to appear behind the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, in my adherence to principle. The question is, which is the relevant principle? The guiding principle throughout our discussions has been doing the best thing for the children, although we have not always agreed on what that was. The question is even clearer for students than for people on income support. Most students have a lower income than if they were on income support—so if they are assessed to pay, they can-not do so.

I once had a pupil who was assessed by the CSA because she became the partner of a man who was assessed by the agency. Finally, the CSA decided that the assessment was in error and it was withdrawn. Had that not been done, my pupil would have had no option but to withdraw from her education. That is the only effect of requiring students to contribute. They cannot live on the money provided and need extra earnings, to the great detriment of their work, to cope. If they withdraw from education, their long-term earnings may be significantly lower—so the money going to the children would be considerably less.

The Minister might argue that such persons must pay immediately and give up their prospects. One could argue that is in the interests of the children. It is a difficult argument to make but not totally impossible. If the noble Baroness wishes to make that argument, she needs to come clean and say that is exactly what she is doing. Then we could discuss the matter on a real and serious basis. But to suggest that people should, at one and the same time, be students and pay maintenance under the CSA is not to be in the real world.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am slightly baffled. I did not understand the meaning of the amendment in the way that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, did. I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness will interrupt if I have misunderstood, but I thought that this amendment sought to remove a general power to prescribe, in regulations, categories of non-resident parents who would have a nil-rate liability and to confine it to the very group to which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred; that is, students, prisoners and those with a net weekly income of less than £5.

According to my advice, that is what the amendment means. If that is not the intention of the noble Baroness, I shall be grateful if she will let me know. I understood her to be confining the nil-payment groups to students and prisoners.:I was going to argue that a few other groups need to be included in that category. If she is indeed doing what the noble Earl fears she may be doing—that is, saying that nobody is exempt—I should like to have that elucidated.

Baroness Buscombe

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I am trying to encourage the Minister to clarify what the Government's intention is. Is there a list of prescribed people'? If so, who are they? We are taking the examples direct from the Explanatory Notes. In themselves we find them disturbing and I am happy to respond to the noble Earl in relation to escaping the real world; there is something very real about having children. But I ask the Minister to concentrate on clarifying what the clause intends.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I shall do my best. I shall not describe what I believe to be the effect of the amendments but come back to the intention of the Bill.

The Bill proposes to prescribe for a group of people that they should have a nil maintenance liability. The first group of those would be students. I understand around 1,500 students are non-resident parents. We are proposing that, given that their income is loan based, for these purposes they should be regarded as having a nil income that is assessable for child support purposes. I believe the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I agree on that.

The second group we are proposing should have a nil maintenance liability are prisoners, for fairly obvious reasons; that is, that they are imprisoned and have no access to earnings. The other categories that we have in mind to prescribe are persons receiving an allowance in respect of work-based training for young people or, in Scotland, skill seeker's training. But I cannot help the noble Baroness in relation to numbers in that regard; we do not possess any useful figures.

The next group we are proposing to exclude from maintenance liability are 16 and 17 year-olds in receipt of income support or income-based job seeker's allowance. We believe there to be around 40 nonresident parents who are 16 or 17 year-olds in that category. We are proposing to exclude a child as defined under Section 55 of the Act. We are proposing to exclude a person in hospital who is receiving income support pocket money at the higher or standard rate which, as Members of the Committee will be aware, is a very modest sum (again, I cannot put a figure to that) and the 60 or so persons in residential care or nursing homes who either have their fees paid in full or in part by the local authority or are in receipt of a benefit which would normally attract a £5 flat rate liability.

That need not be an exhaustive list. But at the moment that is the list we are proposing to prescribe for. In all cases, they either clearly have no income or, alternatively, so few, as possibly with students, have any serious alternative income that it is not worth the hassle.

The noble Baroness criticised me saying that I said something along the lines that a parent with care's income was not worth it. I had that as number two or three in my shopping list of reasons. My first reason was equity and fairness, which the parent with care is already paying in kind. It seems to me that if I can show that something is not only not fair, but also not worth it in terms of administrative simplicity, then we have two good arguments and not just one. I was certainly not thinking simply in terms of mechanical expediency.

Why are we doing this in regulations? Having the ability to prescribe in regulations provides us with the flexibility to add or amend categories where necessary and to reflect changes in other legislation. A simple transparent scheme is the only way to ensure that children receive the support they deserve. But the maintenance levels must be fair and reasonable. We are therefore seeking to exempt from those categories those who have no income. However, for the rare exception where there may be a mature student who has earnings or savings of the sort the noble Baroness might have in mind, parents with care will still be able to apply for a variation. Where a non-resident parent with a nil-rate liability, because they fall into a prescribed category, has nonetheless significant income or capital, the parent with care will still be able to apply for a variation.

Let me give an example. Somebody may have been in work, had savings and so forth and then decides to do an MBA for a year. They become a student. They have a nil-rate liability. But the former partner knows perfectly well that they have substantial savings and income, some of which can reasonably be used to support the child. Or someone may have been in work and stopped work to become a student and therefore their maintenance liability stops. In that situation, the parent with care can then go to the tribunal and seek a variation on the grounds analogous to, "He is declaring £100 a week but is living on £500 a week and therefore I should like my child maintenance assessed as though his income were £500 a week". It comes into one of the two categories that I explained earlier; that is, the first being child-related expenses and the second where the income as reported is not a fair reflection of his true financial position.

Should there be those few exceptions—we do not accept there are many—of either a mature or exceedingly rich student, then the parent with care will be able to apply for variation. But basically we are seeking to cut out of our trawl all of those who have no income to provide and at the same time seek to do it by regulations so that, if there should be other groups that I can conceive of that might fall within that category a year or two down the line, then we would have power to include them. It would then be up to your Lordships as to whether or not the House wanted, by affirmative regulation, to add to the proposals.

I hope with the explanation that there is a good reason for doing it—that they have a nil income or in the rare case where there may be an income the parent still has the right to apply for a variation—the noble Baroness will agree that we have got the balance right in terms of simplicity, but with the possibility of variation in those rare circumstances where a student may have significant income or savings. Of the 1,500 students who are in this category, I should be surprised if 40 of those had an income or savings that would bring them into a significant calculation. But if that is the situation, then there is recourse to variation and that was designed to cover precisely those situations; for example, where someone reduces their income and transfers it all into capital to be exempt.

I hope with that attempted explanation the noble Baroness will feel reassured and able to withdraw her amendment.

Earl Russell

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and to the Committee for having so seriously misunderstood her. I was trying to listen to her argument and to find the passage to which she referred in the Explanatory Notes at the same time. I did not succeed in letting my left ear know what my right hand was doing, and I am sorry.

I found the Minister's explanation entirely persuasive and reasonable. I should like to ask her just one more question. In this category, is she proposing to prescribe asylum seekers?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I confess that I have not addressed my mind to that situation. If we think about it, asylum seekers are either families or single people. I can conceive where an asylum-seeking family splits up. But if the asylum seeker has nil income—I can hardly expect him to send over, say, 10 per cent of his vouchers—what will happen is that the one family will be treated, for asylum seeking purposes and vouchers, as a single person and a family. As we know, if their case is not expedited within six months, they fall back onto the benefit system.

In all seriousness—I should not tease the noble Earl about this—I find it hard to envisage that circumstance arising. But I shall reflect on it and if I can add anything further to that answer, I shall write to the noble Earl.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, raised the subject of students in Scotland not having to pay tuition fees. In view of the fact that students in Scotland will be paying tuition fees on a deferred basis—that is, when they start earning more than £10,000 a year—Will those payments be taken into account when child support payments are being calculated?

9 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

This may be my folly, but we are talking here not about liability for tuition fees but for loans for maintenance. I am not making a distinction for these purposes between Scottish and English students.

Earl of Mar and Kellie

Perhaps I can rephrase the question. When a Scottish student subsequently pays tuition fees on the deferred scheme, which we have now enacted, will those deferred payments be taken into account when the CSA payments are considered?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

There is no intention to backdate, any more than somebody taking up work would be backdated for payments they had not made, if they are on benefit. The payment will begin at the point that liability commences, when there is an income.

I have received some very helpful information in response to the question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell about asylum seekers. As they are not habitually resident, they do not therefore have any subsequent liability.

Baroness Buscombe

I thank the Minister for her explanation. I am very grateful for her reference to the variation orders. I do feel, however, that there is an inconsistency with the previous amendment. The Minister said that it was important to get people into the habit of paying maintenance. It is difficult to equate the two statements. There will be situations where students and those in prison, for example, can negate their responsibility, and they will not get into the habit of paying maintenance due to their circumstances. They have no income, but they have a responsibility, the most important responsibility on this earth, in my view, and that is for children.

I accept the apology made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I apologise for not clarifying that I was drawing the information from the Explanatory Notes.

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment Nos.22 and 23 not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe

moved Amendment No.24 Page 90, line 20, leave out paragraph 7. The noble Baroness said: I should like to move Amendment No.24 and also speak to Amendment No.25.

Amendment No.24 simply deals with an inconsistency, that paragraph 7 in Schedule 1 only applies to certain circumstances with regard to shared parenting. We believe that it should apply whatever the circumstances.

The wording in Amendment No.25 speaks for itself. We feel that amendments to the level of maintenance payable should, in all fairness, be backdated to the date of cessation of care and not, as currently stated in the Bill, when the Child Support Agency reaches its decision. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I have some difficulty because I had understood the import of the amendments rather differently. I had understood that Amendments Nos.24 and 25 were probing amendments about the Government's philosophy on shared care, probing the circumstances in which there would be an abatement of maintenance. Amendment No.24 seeks to remove the possibility of any reduction of maintenance liability for those parents liable to pay basic or reduced rates to share the care of a child.

I am perfectly willing to return to these amendments and pursue the matter in correspondence. My briefing is very much at odds with the noble Baroness' introduction, which, if I may say so., was extremely brief, which also did not help me.

Baroness Buscombe

I apologise to the Minister. Amendment No.24 is confined to a very narrow point. There is an inconsistency as to who comes under the heading of those with shared care, in that paragraph 7 only applies to certain circumstances with regard to shared parenting. We believe it should apply in all circumstances.

Baroness Heigham

As this point is quite technical, can the noble Baroness write to me? If I am not able to meet her points, we could re-address the issue at Report or Third Reading.

Baroness Buscombe

I accept the suggestion. Can the Minister also come back on Amendment No.25?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My understanding of Amendment No.25 is that it relates to cases where the non-resident parent has a nil rate of liability because he is receiving social security benefit and shares the care of the child. Is that the noble Baroness' understanding of the amendment? If not, it would be sensible to follow the same procedure of an exchange of letters. We could put copies in the Library.

Baroness Buscombe

I share the Minister's stance. Perhaps we should revert to correspondence on the matter, in which case I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment Nos. 25 and 26 not moved.]

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No.27. Page 91, leave out lines 33 to 45. The noble Earl said: Amendment No.27 deals with a matter of drafting. It has picked up what became known in our debates on the jobseeker's Bill as a Humpty-Dumpty clause. It is Section 10A of Schedule 1, page 91, line 33 onwards. The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that—

  1. (a) paragraph 2 is to have effect as if different percentages were substituted for those set out there;
  2. (b) paragraph 3(1) or (3), 4(1), 5 or 7(7) is to have effect as if different amounts were substituted for those set out there."
It really is a case of words meaning what I say they mean.

I have two questions to ask about this matter. First, what does the Minister intend it to mean? Second, what guarantees can she offer us against the reading of perverse meanings into this undue licence in the drafting by her successors? No government are in power for ever and governments do not know who will succeed them. Is it really wise to give such an extreme latitude of drafting to we know not who? It is on that second point that I shall listen to the Minister's reply with the greatest care. I do not think that this is a good way to draft legislation. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I shall give the noble Earl a fairly brief answer and then see if he is satisfied. If he is not, perhaps he can then encourage me to expand on my response. Amendment No. 27 seeks to remove the regulation making powers that allow the Secretary of State to adapt the percentages and amounts used to set the maintenance rates and to revise the number of nights and fractions used in determining the reduction in the amount of maintenance to be paid where care of a child is shared.

We obviously believe that we have got it right. I could explain why and tell the noble Earl what the evidence is from overseas, but I should like to get to his basic point. We are concerned that the rates and amounts that form the core of the new scheme should not be subjected to unnecessary modification. The intention to provide regulation-making powers is simply intended as a safeguard to ensure that the Secretary of State can respond quickly should the rates and amounts provided in the Bill prove not to be appropriate in reflecting changes in the lives of children and parents.

This is the usual situation where one tries to avoid putting precise numbers on the face of a Bill because one may, in the light of experience, need to change them. It is more straightforward to do this by regulations than by any other method. If it would help the noble Earl, I should be very happy to try to give assurances about how those regulation-making powers might operate so that they are properly accountable to Parliament. However, when talking about benefits, it is fairly conventional to allow fractions and percentages to be determined by regulations to allow them to be adapted if needs be.

I do not particularly envisage such a situation, although I could conceive of one happening if, in the light of experience, it was found necessary to change the amounts. I do not know whether that has helped the noble Earl, but it is a fairly conventional way in social security legislation of allowing us to change percentages with proper parliamentary scrutiny—that is, by way of regulation—without the need to go for primary legislation. I am not sure whether the noble Earl requires a larger response, but that is why we are doing it in this way.

Earl Russell

I thank the Minister for her reply. As I expected, I have no great objection to her present intention under the schedule. I thought it was not intended to do anything particularly iniquitous and I understand why she wishes to do it in this way. However, before we leave the matter, I should like the noble Baroness to pay attention to the more general scope of my question; namely, what is the extreme limit of what could be done under these powers? I do not mean what could be done by the Minister, I mean by someone else.

If we put such powers into primary legislation, what use can be made of them? We are giving someone a ticket to travel under this legislation, and I should like to know where that ticket can take them. At the same time, I want to know whether the same effect—I do not oppose the Minister's desire to achieve it—could possibly be produced out of a slightly less open-ended wording. This is getting quite close to the proposition that the Secretary of State can do whatever he likes. It is not really our job to give quite such a carte blanche. Therefore, as the Minister has a perfectly reasonable specific intention, would it be possible to spell it out in a rather tighter way and not leave it quite as open ended as it is at present? I believe that this point is worth referring to parliamentary counsel for future consideration because, as the Minister said, other things are drafted in this way. I really do not think that they should be.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I should like, first, to point out that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee was satisfied that regulations were appropriate in this field, so that has been a considered judgment. The noble Earl seems to be saying that all secondary legislation forms part of the works of the devil and that, therefore, we should avoid it. Like me, he knows that this Chamber, the Moses Room and every committee room would be sitting both night and day in order to get through legislation if every change had to be done by primary and not secondary legislation. Given the fact that something like 3,000 or so separate statutory instruments come here each year, including social security legislation, I do not believe that the noble Earl would like to be here to examine all of them as primary legislation. There is a basic point here about the utility of secondary legislation. As I said, this has been approved by the scrutiny committee.

Secondly, I do not see why the noble Earl should think that there will not be proper parliamentary scrutiny because these are affirmative regulations. As a result, they will have to come before the noble Earl if he is so minded to discuss them in the usual way. No one is trying to duck or conceal.

Thirdly, the noble Earl asked me what would be the most extreme position in which such powers could be used. I suppose if one said that 100 per cent of someone's income was to be used as maintenance, that would be the limit. I could hardly conceive of 110 per cent of someone's income being used in that way. Clearly one could change those percentages of 15, 20 or 25 per cent, and so on.

I am inventing my next example and I shall probably be advised that it is not a good example at all. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is continually telling me that there is really no difference between taxation and national insurance, for example, and that they form a continuum. In that case I could conceive that one might have a different version of gross income, even though here we are dealing with net income. If there were some changes in pensions treatment, for example, it might be right and equitable to re-evaluate what counts as net income for the purposes of the percentages we are discussing. I could conceive of that possibility. I have no reason to think that it is at all likely but, realistically, it is not impossible. In that situation one would wish to discuss that in the Chamber to ensure that the spirit of what we intend is preserved if taxation law, national insurance law or pensions law were to be changed. That seems to me at least a feasible possibility. Given that there will be full parliamentary scrutiny by virtue of affirmative resolutions, I do not think that the noble Earl need have anything to worry about.

9.15 p.m.

Earl Russell

I thank the Minister for that reply. She has got into rather a habit this evening of putting words into my mouth. I was not arguing in this amendment the case for primary versus secondary legislation. I had specifically conceded the appropriateness of secondary legislation in this instance and I think that the record will show that. What I was trying to suggest was that the vires which confer the power to make secondary legislation might be rather more tightly drafted. That is a point which I leave with the Committee. I shall not ask the Minister to reply to it again.

I have another point that I have mentioned to the Minister about 100 times; I hope that this is the last time I have to say it. It is no good offering me scrutiny because the power of scrutiny is useless without the power of control. However, I shall not say that again. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 28 not moved.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Applications under section 4 of the Child Support Act 1991]:

Baroness Buscombe

moved Amendment No. 29: Page 3, line 3, leave out subsection (2). The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 29 I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 30, 31, 32, 33 and 35. I also wish to oppose the Question that Clause 2 stand part of the Bill.

This is an important part of the proceedings of the Bill. It was debated at great length in another place. The Minister will know that we have all been much lobbied on this subject from a number of different organisations. Therefore we feel that it is important to debate the matter fully this evening.

The current CSA legislation confirms that where parents are able to reach agreement on the level of maintenance for their children they may do so and they may also incorporate that agreement into a court order. If they do this, no CSA assessment can be made and the level of child maintenance to be paid will be covered by their agreement. In practice this is a valuable and greatly used provision. It enables parents to negotiate and agree their own arrangements without having to resort to the CSA. This benefits both the parents and children concerned and relieves the workload of an overstretched CSA.

Clause 2 of the Bill effectively removes this ability by stating that once it comes into force, even if parents are able to agree their arrangements and have them incorporated into an order, after just one year either parent may renege on that agreement and instead apply to the CSA. That will effectively bring an end to parental discussion and negotiation as any agreement that may be reached will be capable of being overturned at the end of a year by either parent who believes that he or she can do better through the CSA.

That approach is totally contrary to developments both in Europe and in this country on matters relating to children and finances generally. The overwhelming trend is towards encouraging parents to discuss and negotiate their own arrangements. This enables and encourages parents to act responsibly and realistically gives them the opportunity to tailor workable solutions to their particular financial circumstances. This ability is beneficial to all concerned and often helps reduce the resentment and acrimony caused by the imposition of outside "solutions". Indeed, the belief that there are benefits to parents in being able to agree their own arrangements underpins the Government's support and development of mediation in family matters.

There are numerous circumstances where parents want to opt out of the CSA. The three basic alternatives are as follows. First, parents reach agreement similar to what the CSA would have assessed but wish to avoid having to go through the CSA procedure. Secondly, parents agree that payments for the children will be greater than the CSA would assess. The most common reason for this circumstance is likely to be in return for a trade off. For example, the mother will agree to make no maintenance claims for herself—this is often referred to as a "clean break"—in return for a better level of maintenance for the children. This can have benefits all round. The non-resident father is happier to pay the money because it is deemed to be going to the children and gives a definite length to the maintenance obligation. The mother in turn no longer has to concern herself about forming new relationships and the effect that that has on the maintenance. Thirdly, parents may agree to a lesser sum than the CSA. Again, this will often result from financial trade offs.

For example, the non-resident parent may transfer capital or the house to enable the mother and child to remain housed, with the mother accepting in return a lesser level of maintenance for the children. The scope for this kind of settlement is likely to increase under the new CSA where the residential parent's income is no longer taken into account. One could have situations where the residential parent works and has sufficient income but there is a need for capital to secure accommodation for the children.

To benefit from this exemption the parents need to have their agreements approved by the courts. This provides an important protection against a parent being pressurised into unsuitable agreements, while at the same time it provides a straightforward and established procedure. It is a procedure that is frequently used when parents are divorcing and have been able to reach agreement on financial aspects generally as it enables them to ask the court to confirm the terms of an overall settlement that may well include spousal maintenance and capital at the same time as child maintenance.

One cannot see any benefits to this clause, which effectively states that after one year either parent may call upon the state to intervene and override agreements that they have reached, even if that agreement has been reached after full advice and after a court has approved the terms. On the other hand, one can see many benefits in allowing the current situation to continue which enables separating parents to agree their own financial situation.

We are here to improve the CSA. We are asking: why burden it with more work than it can cope with? We should also remember that, in contrast to the CSA—which we all agree is currently failing too many children—the courts in general enjoy a wealth of experience and expertise and are normally very effective in dealing with more complex cases.

I believe that it is important to review what the Select Committee had to say on the matter. It stated: We are concerned that the CSA formula may be invoked to overturn settlements agreed to in court. It would be preferable if settlements reached in court paid attention to the CSA formula from the outset. We recommend that further research be carried out into the extent to which the interests of the children concerned would be adversely affected by allowing parties to 'private' agreements to have recourse to the rough justice of the … new formula". The Minister informed the Select Committee that the justice system is not always uniform. We fear that this shows a clear bias towards conformity and administrative convenience.

Our amendments and proposed new clauses deal with three principal concerns. First, that the CSA will be swamped with cases as a result of the clause and it will not be able to cope. Secondly, private arrangements will not be reached as easily as they were in the past. The court system will not be able to cope with the greater volume of litigation. The third and most important point is that the amendments and new clauses would allow the courts to provide a disbursement of assets in the best interests of the child. Without the new clauses, we fear that the deal offered to the children will be lessened.

On a final note, perhaps I may add in relation to the debate earlier on the upper limits in Clause 1, that the numbers affected by this will radically increase if Clause 2 becomes law. I beg to move.

Baroness Honk of Heigham

Clause 2 and this group of amendments all relate to the relative jurisdictions of the Child Support Agency and the courts in matters of child maintenance. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has spelt out very clearly and lucidly where the concerns of the Opposition Bench lie.

As noble Lords will recall, a central feature of the child support scheme introduced by the party opposite was a deliberate move away from having questions of child maintenance settled by lawyers and the courts. Provisions in the Child Support Act 1991, which we supported, provided a straightforward administrative mechanism for setting levels of child maintenance and, where required, for collecting maintenance payments on behalf of the children concerned.

The legislation introduced by the Conservative government clearly envisaged a time when all child support matters were settled by the agency. It was intended that during a transitional period only—a period expected to last for some three years—the courts would be able to vary existing court orders for child maintenance and to make new orders based on agreements between the parents concerned. During this period, parents who had such maintenance arrangements would be prevented from coming to the agency for a maintenance assessment unless benefit was claimed for the children. In other words, it was expected to be a transitional period only. Thereafter the CSA writ would run and there would be only one assessment of child maintenance—that made by the agency and given in any court settlement. That was the previous government's proposal. It went far beyond anything that we are proposing.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives found that their child support scheme was not working as well as they had hoped. So, in 1995, they deferred the take on of court cases indefinitely. Nevertheless, they were careful to take a delegated power that would enable the agency to take over such cases in the future.

We have given a high priority to reforming the child support scheme to make it work effectively for children and their parents. Our initial view, as set out in the Green Paper, echoed that of the Conservative Government's position—that there was no role for the courts in a reformed child support scheme, for all the reasons which persuaded us that the Conservative's policy in this area was correct at the time of the Act. We expected to tread the path of the previous administration. However, in the course of consultation, we listened to the views of lawyers, judges, barristers, family solicitors and others, who often had very different views on this matter—there is not a single lawyers' view—and they saw a continuing need for court jurisdiction in this area, for the reasons spelt out so clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe.

Some sought, as does the noble Baroness in moving the amendment, to give more power to the courts. We were encouraged to consider taking powers to require the courts to operate the child support rates, although retaining a power to depart from those rates if the court saw fit. We listened to the advice of a broad range of people within the law, including judges, lawyers, solicitors, barristers, court welfare officers, magistrates' clerks and the like. They had very different views but some would have called on us to, so to speak, impose the CSA settlement on the courts.

We concluded that neither that extreme nor the total removal of court jurisdiction was entirely satisfactory. One extreme was to let the courts have an entirely separate jurisdiction, which is what the noble Baroness seemed to be proposing, and the other was to allow the courts no jurisdiction whatever by imposing the CSA settlement. We thought that neither of those paths was appropriate. Removing all power from the courts to set child maintenance would deny the parents the right to agree to depart from the child support rates where benefit is not involved and have that agreement registered in court, perhaps along with other financial arrangements. The other extreme, requiring the courts to apply a simple system of rates, appeared to conflict with judicial independence, which is at the heart of the court process, and it was not clear in practice that the courts would be able to resist varying the rates in a wide range of circumstances.

We did not wish to follow either extreme position—to impose CSA rates on the courts., though possibly with some flexibility, or to place child maintenance entirely at the discretion of the courts where there were private cases, partly because we feared reproducing the inequities and lottery which the CSA in 1991 was designed to overcome. We are proposing a third way. We believe that it is more flexible and that it shares the values, which the noble Baroness offered, of mediation and negotiation while preventing abuse of that system. Very simply, no private cases need ever come to the CSA. That includes WFTC cases. Therefore, around 55 per cent of all cases would potentially be private cases and need never come to the CSA. Only those cases where the parent with care is on a prescribed benefit—normally, income support—would come to the C:SA. Very many of those cases will not go to the courts because people are not getting divorced or, if they are getting divorced, no substantial property is involved and therefore there is not a question of the courts adjusting child support against spousal maintenance and the like. However, if the private case, which is a court case, comes to the CSA, it will do so only because those involved are seriously dissatisfied with court arrangements.

When will that happen? It will happen if either side feel themselves pressured at the point of making that settlement into too high or too low a settlement compared with the benchmark of the Child Support Agency's figures, which are now widely known by all lawyers. They could come to the CSA only after 12 months—we are not suggesting that this would be knee-jerk—and even then, to encourage negotiation and mediation, which is what we want, they have to give the other side two months' notice to allow opportunity for further negotiation and mediation.

Either side will come to the CSA possibly because he or she is dissatisfied and feels pressured at the time or alternatively if payments that are supposed to be made are not being made reliably and possibly the parent with care does not want to keep revisiting the courts to obtain the money but prefers to put the matter into the hands of the Child Support Agency.

What is the consequence of saying that either party may come to the CSA if he or she is aggrieved about the settlement figure or about its effective collection? I suggest that the consequence will be that, because the lawyers on both sides know that an aggrieved client could come to the CSA, if he or she departs very far from the CSA benchmark, and have ('SA rates imposed, those same lawyers will strongly encourage their clients to settle at the CSA rate. In other words, they will fix court maintenance in the shadow of the CSA. We shall not impose it on them, but we expect lawyers to give advice to clients that this is in their best interest.

However, the important point is that this arrangement still leaves all parties free when they wish to go above or below that child support figure. For example, a father might wish to go above the CSA figure because there is a disabled child and he feels it right that he should provide more; or he may feel, and she may agree, that it is reasonable for him to go below the CSA figure because he is picking up boarding school fees, including tuition fees, as well as maintenance.

If all agree, that is fine. By having that element of flexibility but nonetheless expecting lawyers to ad vise their clients to stay at the CSA benchmark figure unless there are good grounds, by consent, to go above or below it, it still allows other elements in the settlement referred to by the noble Baroness—for example, spousal maintenance, pensions, property, investments and so on—to be tailored to the particular financial circumstances of that family. There are many elements in the settlement of the kinds of couples referred to by the noble Baroness which can take the strain of discretionary judgment while the CSA figure remains the benchmark figure for child maintenance and child support.

The reason why it is important that there should be a common rate between the CSA and the courts—in other words, the same figure—is that so many parents with care come back on to benefits. To put the problem into perspective, we have a caseload of about 1.2 million, about half of whom will be private clients. Each quarter, around 100,000 lone parents move on to or off income support. That represents 10 per cent of the entire lone parent caseload. Even prosperous families can find that they need income support to see them through a financial crisis. So it is simply impossible to tell whether at some point in the future the subject has gone through a court process—for example, a business may have failed, she may have become self-employed and that employment has collapsed and she has had to go back on to benefit.

That is why we have decided, following extensive advice and consultation, not to go for either of the two extremes: to impose a CSA settlement on the courts willy-nilly or alternatively to let the courts do willy-nilly what they think fit. Instead, we have decided that the courts may make and vary child maintenance orders, but because there is the fallback of coming to the CSA if there is an aggrieved client, they will do so in the shadow of the CSA rates. If the agreement breaks down, the ability of either parent to come to the CSA will be an important guarantee that children will receive proper levels of maintenance.

This provision is not retrospective, which was one of the problems of the 1991 Act. It will apply only to new cases. Clause 2 gives effect to our policy in this area and makes changes to the child support scheme so that more separated parents can apply for child support. It will allow parents who have a court order for maintenance which has been placed for a year to apply to the CSA for child support calculation instead. But as I said, it also protects private clients with existing court orders.

Parents with maintenance orders in force at the time that the reforms are introduced and those with written maintenance agreements made before April 1993 will, as now, use the courts for enforcement and variation of child maintenance liability. Current arrangements whereby a parent with care on benefit can have an existing court order overturned by a child support assessment will remain unchanged. This will ensure that a two-tier system between the courts and the CSA does not develop. We expect that this will encourage courts to make consent orders in the shadow of the simple and predictable child support rates, because either parent has the option of turning to the CSA after one year and giving two months' notice for further negotiation or mediation, if that is appropriate. We have a one-year waiting period and a two-month cooling-off period.

I hope that, with that explanation on clause stand part, the noble Baroness understands what we seek to do. We seek to avoid two extremes so that where there is consent private arrangements will, as now, continue with good grace and negotiation or mediation. This is, as it were, a default rate. Either party and his or her lawyers will be aware that the other can come back if there is dissatisfaction. As a result, there is a fixed element in what may otherwise be a somewhat more complicated package. We believe that this is the most decent means to ensure that there is reliable maintenance at a consistent level without introducing a two-tier system, while encouraging mediation, negotiation and individually determined private arrangements.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 29 to 35 which seek to amend Clause 2. I am a little surprised that the Conservative Members of the Committee have tabled these amendments. While I am sure that they are probing amendments, I believe that they will increase uncertainty. It is true that Amendment No. 35 seeks to address one problem that has bedevilled court maintenance in the past: the risk that children will suffer because parents with care are forced to accept lower maintenance under duress. There is an amendment to that effect. I worry about this. I do not see how the CSA can decide whether a parent with care is under duress except on the word of the parent in question. I do not see how the CSA can decide that a court proceeding has taken place under duress. The CSA can properly decide the appropriate maintenance rate given the number of children and the income, but it should not be concerned with concepts of duress and improper influence during a court procedure to which it has not been a party. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, which I believe to be an honourable one, but I believe that this is a dangerous road to follow. I do not see how we can do it.

Amendments Nos. 36 to 39 would, if accepted, give back to the courts the power to set levels of child maintenance in any case where they made other financial arrangements. I hope I have made the point that those other arrangements, such as property or spousal maintenance, can take the strain. These amendments are inconsistent with what we seek to do.

I hope that, on reflection, the noble Baroness agrees that we have tried to bring together the need to recognise the discretion involved in private arrangements and not undermine the role of lawyers in trying to look after the best interests of the parties and the children, without at the same time deserting what may be the best interests of children by putting in the floor of the child support rate which both parties know is the fall-back if either is dissatisfied. Essentially, we are setting up a Mexican stand-off (if I may call it that) based on the rate of child support, in the knowledge that the other elements in the formula—spousal maintenance, property, pensions and the like—can take the strain of discretionary ones. We believe that, broadly speaking, under this arrangement there is a common standard of maintenance right across all child support cases, the CSA and courts alike, but where both parties in private cases have good reason to go above or below it, and agree that it is in their best interests and those of the child to do so, the CSA will not stand in their way.

I hope that with that slightly long explanation of what we seek to do—I thought it important to put it on record—the noble Baroness is able to withdraw her amendment and endorse what we seek to do. We believe that in this very difficult situation, in which principles pull in different directions, we have found a way through. While the solution is perhaps slightly subtle, we hope that it will deliver what we all want: regular maintenance based, where possible, on private arrangements reached by consent and mediation. I hope that, in the light of that, the noble Baroness feels able to accept that what we seek to do is decent and withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

The Minister has given a long and clear explanation of the Government's thinking on this matter. The noble Baroness has said that the long-term objective is that gradually what the courts do approximates to what the CSA is doing. My noble friend was concerned about the load on the CSA in the shorter term. Have the Government any estimate of the number of cases that might come to the CSA to overturn arrangements made in the courts in the first few years? On a practical basis, can the Minister give any figure?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. In my reply I overlooked that perfectly proper point.

In 1998 the courts made around 8,000 court orders in respect of children. The CSA handled around 350,000 new maintenance applications. The caseload builds up. Of that 8,000 I would expect only a tiny fraction to wish to come to the CSA except—and only except—in those cases where the parent with care has subsequently gone on to benefit in which case they must do so. The CSA handled 350,000 cases compared with 8,000 handled by the courts. The noble Baroness's guess is as good as mine. Perhaps a few hundred, perhaps 10 per cent, of those may have to come back to the CSA because the parent with care will go on to benefit. Of the remainder, the noble Baroness's guess is as good as mine on the default rate coming back to the CSA.

Because of the way the system will be set up, I hope that we have overcome the problem. Lawyers would know that they cannot depart from the CSA rate without the full and informed consent of both parties and would build into their arrangements at the court the CSA rate. If we are successful, then very few cases should come before us.

Baroness Buscombe

I thank the Minister for the full and clear explanation of Clause 2. We shall consider it fully and carefully between now and Report stage. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 30 to 35 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 36 to 39 not moved.]

Clause 3 [Applications by persons claiming or receiving benefit]:

Lord Higgins

moved Amendment No. 40: Page 3, line 13, leave out ("or any other benefit of a prescribed kind"). The noble Lord said: This amendment is similar to one moved by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. We think that the wording at line 13 of Clause 3 is somewhat comprehensive. It states: This section applies where income support, an income-based jobseeker's allowance"— I include the words the amendments would omit— or any other benefit of a prescribed kind is claimed by or in respect of, or paid to or in respect of, the parent of a qualifying child". The phrase, or any other benefit of a prescribed kind, seems extremely broad. It would be helpful to know what the Government have in mind. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

Perhaps I may ask two precise and short questions. First, could child benefit be a prescribed benefit under this clause? Secondly, could the old age pension be a prescribed benefit under this clause?

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Amendment No. 40 amends Clause 3 of the Bill so that on: y people claiming income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance can be treated as having applied for child support.

At present, Clause 3 provides that people in receipt of income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance, or any prescribed benefit, will be treated as applying for child support. The amendment removes the regulation-making power and would mean that should the need arise it would be more difficult to add other benefits in the future.

Under the current scheme, a parent with care who claims income support or income-based JSA can be required to authorise the Secretary of State to take action to recover child maintenance. She is not required to do so if there are reasonable grounds to believe that there will be a risk of her, or any child living with her, suffering harm or undue distress. This is known as "good cause". However,, child support arrangements can be made only after a formal application for maintenance has been received and no parent with care can be made to apply. Even if good cause is not accepted, the parent with care can choose simply not to respond.

Under the new scheme, parents with care who make a claim for IS or income-based JSA will be treated as having applied for child support unless they specifically request that child support should not be pursued.

The noble Earl asked whether the fact that someone was receiving benefit could amount to a sufficient definition. No, because someone could have child benefit and be a private case and therefore not fall within the framework of the Bill. As regards someone in receipt of a retirement pension, I suppose one could conceive of a pensioner having children of the appropriate age. I am not saying that it is not possible, but it seems fairly unlikely. It would be hard to imagine because the child would have had to be conceived after the age of 50. It seems unlikely, but I suppose that it could be possible.

As with the current scheme, there is a power to prescribe benefits other than income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance. In the past, DWA was prescribed, but as it has now been replaced by the disabled person's tax credit it no longer applies.

This amendment would mean that we would no longer have the power to prescribe benefits other than income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance. As explained in the memorandum on delegated powers, while we do not intend at the current time to include other benefits, it is desirable that we retain the power to be able to add others, as is currently the case, or, given changes that could be envisaged, to alter existing benefit proposals.

That would give us the flexibility to replace or add to the benefits set out on the face of the Bill should a new benefit be introduced to which parents with care may be eligible in future. It is only right that if these circumstances arise, all parents with care should be treated in the same way. It will also enable other existing benefits to be added should it be necessary.

Delegated powers are a feature of social security legislation. For example, Section 70 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 provides for entitlement to ICA to be linked to care of a person receiving attendance allowance, DLA or such other payment out of public funds as may be prescribed.

It is normal for any new benefits to be introduced by primary legislation. That would mean that if we wanted to add new benefits to Clause 3 we could do so by this route at the same time. In theory, child benefit could be prescribed but we have no plans to do so. Old age pension is not regarded as a benefit and could not come within the framework of the Bill even if by changes in fertility treatment and the like someone is a pensioner and also the parent of a dependent child.

Delegated powers serve a number of functions. We set these out to the committee which scrutinises these matters and it accepted the need for such powers. The delegated powers in Clause 3 will allow the child support scheme to be adapted to address the benefits system as it evolves to reflect the lives of parents and children. I am happy to assure the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that it would be an affirmative resolution. I hope that in the light of that explanation he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. She was perhaps a little dismissive of the implication of the old age pension. Perhaps I may remind her that, first, a man can be a parent with care and, secondly, that my father was 65 when I was born.

I was interested in what she said about it being possible for child benefit to become a benefit of a prescribed kind and I accept that she has no plans to do so. But should some future government want to extend the system to non-benefit cases, this would be an easy way of doing so.

Would it meet the Government's intention if instead of saying, any other benefit of a prescribed kind", they said, any other means-tested benefit of a prescribed kind"? Would that addition cost the Government anything and, if not, why not do it?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps I may reflect on that. The reason that I hesitated about means testing is because of payments such as WFTC; that is, payments that were benefits when they were family credit and are still income-related but not part of the benefit system as we envisage it—in other words, private cases. That is why I should like to reflect on what the noble Earl said.

With regard to the point about pensions: yes, mea culpa. Of course I should have realised that, unlike women, men's fertility may continue for very much longer and, indeed, men may continue to be parents with care. Therefore, I stand corrected on that point. The noble Earl is absolutely right. One wishes that his father had had even more children after the age of 65 to add to the inherited talent and meritocracy of this country.

Lord Higgins

Even at this late hour, it is perhaps tempting to enter into a discussion of the many talents of the noble Earl's father. However, perhaps it is as well not to do so at this stage.

The description which I believe the noble Baroness was seeking in relation to the probability of this event was, "it did not happen very frequently". I believe that that is what she should have said. However, I shall leave that on one side. I suspect that it is also rather late to have an overall discussion on the question of delegated legislation. However, the figure that she quoted earlier with regard to the number of statutory instruments, and so on, which are now coming forward is pretty frightening.

It has always seemed to me—it is a personal view—that if such a power is taken it is advisable that as much as possible should be put on the face of the Bill, even though subsequently it can be amended by order. The real problem with regard to delegated legislation is that it is not subsequently amendable. It is there on a take it or leave it basis. Therefore, if a particular item is to be considered in that context, I believe that it is always advisable that it should be on the face of the Bill, that we should have an initial crack at it and, in some cases, it should also be adjusted in a way which is open to amendment.

The noble Baroness has been very clear on that particular point. Subject only to denying the words that she put into my mouth about half-an-hour ago in relation to taxation and social security contributions, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Byford

moved Amendment No. 41: Page 3. line 16, at end insert— ("( ) All such claims shall be accompanied by identification documentation as follows—

  1. (a) a Department of Social Security smart card,
  2. (b) a current driving licence,
  3. (c) a current United Kingdom passport, or
  4. (d) a Department of Social Security payment book.").
The noble Baroness said: This amendment concerns the payment of benefits. I have specifically made four suggestions. As the noble Baroness knows very well, I have raised the matter in this House on many occasions. As, indeed, are many others, I am somewhat concerned about the way in which we are to change our benefit payments. It will not be by compulsion. As the noble Baroness said to me earlier today, people will still be able to choose to receive their payments through the Post Office system if they so wish.

It may be that I am raising this matter in the wrong section. My noble friend Lord Higgins and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will raise a similar issue with regard to benefit payments later in our discussions. However, I felt that we should have an opportunity to raise the matter at this point, and that is why I tabled the amendment.

I accept that the installation of ACT will bring, as the Government say, many benefits. However, at the moment some 2 million people are without bank accounts. For many, that decision has been made twice: first, probably because they are unbankable; and, secondly, because they choose to remain unbanked. It seems extraordinary to those of us who have bank accounts (it would seem strange to us not to have them) to imagine why people so choose; but choose they certainly do.

I tabled the amendment to try to find out from the Minister exactly how the Government expect people will identify themselves. At the moment they do so either through GIRO or through the payment book. If social security payment books are to cease, which I understand they are, one must still have some form of identification. There have been rumours that that may take the form of a smart card. If so, that is fine but at least we should like to know.

I have raised this issue on the post office Bill and in debates that we have had on other issues. We have been told that we are waiting for the PIU report which was due to be published after Easter. Easter has now gone. It then slipped from Easter to May and then from May to the summer. I am worried that it will slip from us completely and we shall not have the report before the Bill passes through both Houses. That would be a great mistake. I have some figures for March from the CAB which states that nine out of 10 income support claimants do not choose to be paid by ACT. I know that there are new claimants who the Minister will tell me prefer to be paid, in that way.

There are two problems. The first is the question of individuals having reasonable access to the payments at a time that suits them. Secondly, some people do not wish to have bank accounts for various reasons.

Some of the payments are absolutely essential. Where families have broken up, there is often a joint account. Couples do not always have individual bank accounts. In those circumstances, the caring parent, usually the woman, may find that the account has become overdrawn and therefore will not have access to those essential benefits in the way that she has now. Of course, at present she can go to the post office, as most claimants choose to do. Therefore, it is extremely important that we consider the matter today, although I know we shall debate it again later a t greater length.

The other side of the coin is that at the moment the payments are made through the sub-post office system. I am sure that all Members of the Committee will be aware of the extreme pressure that there has been on sub-post offices and of the major rally which took place three weeks ago. The Committee will be aware of the 3,128,000 plus people who signed the petition to express their concern about the future of post offices. That is because 40 per cent of the income that goes to post offices is derived from the handling of welfare payments by sub-postmasters and mistresses.

The closure of banks, whether they be rural or urban, has exacerbated the problem. I noticed in the Telegraph today an article about the fact that the loss of banks adds millions of miles to village travel. So there are the additional factors of travel, pollution and cost.

If one is looking at the social side, one will know that the local post office does more than merely provide payments for claimants. It is the heart of the community, whether it is a rural or urban sub-post office. Along with, I suspect, many other people, I have been extremely concerned over the past three weeks about what is to happen. The Government changed their minds about the original plans which my party had put in place and have scrapped some of those. But there is a big question mark over the whole issue. Perhaps the Minister will provide further clarification on this issue rather than merely saying that we must wait for the PIU report.

I understand that if a social bank is established, it may have 2 million clients. Who will cover the costs of that? Recently we were told that the cost of transfer will be only 1p. But I am sure that it will cost more than 1 p to provide banking facilities for 1 million people who have no assets. Are the Government expecting the existing banks to cover the cost of that or are they going to put money towards it to make sure that it is possible for it to happen? At present, there are too many questions left unanswered. If we do not put down one or two markers as the Bill goes through the House, in my humble opinion we shall be in the unenviable position of passing legislation without having real regard to the nub of the whole issue, which is payment to those whom the Government are trying to help.

When moving his amendment earlier today, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke clearly of the importance of people. We are talking about people and about payments and keeping them simple and accessible. At the moment all we have is theory and "possibles" which, with my amendment, I have tried to flush out. As I believe the noble Baroness accepts, this is a probing amendment. Perhaps she will clarify the position for us. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Earl Russell

The noble Baroness and I have cooperated before on the issue of post offices. I look forward to doing so again. The matter is raised in Amendments Nos. 180 and 181, on which I shall have a good deal more to say, including mentioning some of the reasons why people on benefit are not satisfied with the services they receive from banks. I believe that we shall speak with one voice, as we have done before.

Amendment No. 41 concerns verification of those who wish to claim benefit. The Minister and I have had exchanges on this subject since 1998 and she can probably foresee what I am about to say. Here we have a clash of right and right. The desire to know that the people to whom benefits are paid are the right people is a good, proper and necessary one. At the same time, the need of those who have suffered a sudden emergency to be able to eat that evening is a real and pressing need. When the needs of verification conflict with the needs of real hunger, we need to think again.

Recently. I was in conversation with a CAB bureau manager who, I am sure, would prefer to remain unattributable. Without any questioning, he introduced the subject of verification as one that causes problems within the area of his bureau simply because the process of verification takes a considerable time. People cannot instantly lay their hands on the necessary documents; many people leave home; some may not have access to documents; sometimes the documents are destroyed in a burglary or a fire. While they wait for verification to be completed they have no benefit and no income; they run up debts; fall into arrears with their rent; face the risk of eviction; and probably end up going to loan sharks.

In that situation the problem of verification is not a simple one. Maybe we need a procedure for paying benefits to people on an interim basis pending verification. One would have to put a time limit on that. That need particularly applies to women who are victims of domestic violence who, of course, often have to leave home in a great hurry and do not have time to pick up bank cards, birth certificates and so on. It also applies to children who have been thrown out by their parents—noble Lords may remember the Children's Society report of last January—which is more common than one would believe. Usually, their documents are in the hands of their parents. They cannot appeal for them without revealing their whereabouts, which is something they do not always want to do.

If the Minister will consider the possibility of an interim payment of benefit on a short-term basis, pending the completion of verification, she may possibly be in a position to save a good deal of hardship. I do not know whether she believes that that manages to reconcile right with right. It is something that needs doing. On the spur of the moment I cannot think of a better way of doing it. On the issue of post offices, we shall return to fight again another day and we shall fight hard.

Lord Higgins

I rise to support my noble friend Lady Byford who has put forward what can best be described as a trailer for a future major event as regards discussions on the Post Office. My noble friend has put forward most forcefully the arguments in favour of having a form of identification. That being so, I think it is appropriate to consider the proposals that she has made in her amendment. In that context, I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say in reply.

Perhaps I may say briefly that the Minister and I have had a number of exchanges on this issue. It seems rather difficult to put over the point that concerns us; namely, that it is the method of payments through the post office which is so widely regarded by people throughout the country. We shall need to return to that matter in the light not only of the Minister's reply this evening, but also in the subsequent debate to which the noble Earl has rightly drawn attention.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

We have heard two maxi-speeches and one mini-speech, none of which has been addressed directly to the amendment before the Committee. The amendment concerns verification, but the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has instead used it as a peg to put forward a trailer for a wider debate on the role of post offices. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has used it as a peg to raise issues concerned with the need for speedy access to funds where there is no obvious identification. Both of those are interesting issues, but not the ones identified on the Marshalled List.

Earl Russell

I believe that my remarks did address themselves to the matter of verification.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I agree that the whole debate concerns verification. Amendment No. 41 seeks to require those who claim certain benefits to produce specific evidence of their identity. We support the intention behind the amendment; namely, that barriers are put in the way of those who attempt to make claims under false names.

However, I would draw the attention of noble Lords to Section 1 of the Social Security Administration Act which already requires claimants to produce information or evidence to establish their identity. However, unlike this amendment, Section 1 does not specify which evidence the person must produce. They may produce evidence from a wide range of documents: birth certificates, passports, foreign identity cards or driving licences. Such documents are examined critically to ensure that they are genuine. For example, if it is thought to be necessary, birth certificates are checked against missing certificates and ultraviolet scanners are used to ensure that they are not fraudulent.

The noble Baroness's amendment proposes that a list of acceptable documentation is placed in legislation. However, I suggest that there are difficulties with all of her suggestions. This may be better left to the looser arrangements—if I may put it that way—that the DSS currently has in place.

The noble Baroness first asks for the production of a smart card. There is no such card. The noble Baroness may be referring to the payment card which has now been withdrawn from use, so that would not work. Secondly, as regards a driving licence, it must be remembered that many people in this country—in particular women, those whose eyesight is impaired or those whose age prevents them from driving—do not hold a driving licence.

Thirdly, as regards the requirement to produce a UK passport, a number of people have chosen to live in this country but hold a passport issued by another country, or they may not be eligible to hold a UK passport. Finally, if a person is making a claim to benefit, they would not have in their possession a payment book. While many of the people concerned may have a child benefit book they could produce, again we cannot assume that all parents will have one in their possession.

For those reasons, we are reluctant to include a specific list. Instead, we interview claimants to establish their history and background. This information is checked against a range of other sources, including DSS records and those held by third parties. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the current powers provided by the Social Security Administration Act are sufficient to meet the purpose in this area. However, I should point out that Clause 3 does not deal with claims to benefit; it deals with applications for maintenance calculations.

Perhaps I may return to the wider issue that was raised. The noble Baroness was specific that she was using this as a peg to hold an early debate on post office payments. Her noble friend Lord Higgins has happily joined in the discussion, thus repeating an exchange we had during an Unstarred Question a little while ago. I am willing to follow this up through correspondence or in any other way acceptable to the noble Baroness. However, perhaps I may make one or two basic points.

The noble Baroness is right to say that the PIU report has slipped. We expect it to appear in late summer, rather than late May or early June as we originally thought. It will be between 2003 and 2005 before the ACT proposals are firmly and finally in place. Many of the details she asked about will be explored and discussed with Post Office Counters Ltd and sub-postmasters over the next few years.

There are many myths circulating. Every year, partly as a consequence of choice, or death, 500,000 people stop using post offices. Post office closures in urban and rural areas have been accelerating in recent years, well in advance of any proposals to change methods of payment. Given what is happening in finance and IT, if Post Office Counters does not enter the 21st century, it will find itself with a shrinking customer base. The question is how post offices will turn a potential threat into an opportunity, as major clearing banks close their outlets in rural areas, cutting the number of branches from 2,000 to 1,500 or fewer. The Post Office is in a position to exploit that opportunity.

The Post Office already acts as a proxy bank for LloydsTSB, Alliance & Leicester, Co-operative and Barclays and continues to negotiate with others. POCL is also developing—we hope to see this exploited in the PIU report—a universal hank, to make good the shortfall of individuals who are not currently in the system. Some 20 per cent of the population do not have access to banking services but rely on pawnbrokers, cheque changers, mail order catalogues offering goods at high interest rates and so on. Such people are excluded from the benefits of paying bills by direct debit and enjoying reductions. They have to go to friends to write cheques on their behalf. It is difficult for them to manage their lives that way. It will be to their advantage to enter the banking system. We have to ensure that the Post Office is in a position to help them. They should be able to draw their benefits and the sums of money that they want without additional cost, while ensuring security against fraud.

The more we explore the possibilities, the more I hope the noble Baroness will be persuaded that the threat, as perceived by sub-postmasters, is not just an opportunity but a lifeline. Without it, many sub-postmasters will be on the skids. Their lifeline will be offering financial services to the substantial number of people who are currently excluded from banking and who should enjoy the mainstream of imam: al services that the rest of us take for granted. I hope the noble Baroness accepts my assurance that we will be able to do something important, not just for rural communities and sub-postmasters but for those who are at the edges of financial society.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, talked about delays caused to a battered wife, for example, in protecting against fraud. The obvious point of call is a Social Fund crisis loan which has been devised to provide bridging and emergency money until an individual's financial situation can be regularised.

Given, as I say, that the main input was to discuss post offices—the noble Earl perfectly properly asked questions about people who had no documentation—I hope that in the light of my explanation on that and on the detailed points raised by the noble Baroness, she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford

I thank the noble Baroness for her full response. As I said in my opening remarks, this was a probing amendment, particularly in relation to identification.

I do not fully accept the Minister's explanation. I was not talking about a lifeline to post offices; I was discussing the importance of easy access for people who need to obtain their benefit payments. If there are no banks in the community, they need somewhere to collect them and at the moment the most common feature is the post office.

Perhaps I might add that in the discussions I had with sub-postmasters I did not find them negative. They are looking to understand what the Government's intentions are so that they can plan and invest in the future. At the moment that is still not clearly defined. We have been told that the payments can be paid by X or Y; but until the scheme is set up there is bound to be uncertainty. Small individual businesses therefore hesitate to invest because they do not know for certain what is coming.

I should hate the noble Baroness to think that I am on the whingeing end on behalf of sub-postmasters. They would be equally dismayed if I reflected that, and I am certainly not speaking as a representative of sub-postmasters, though I go into many rural and urban post offices. If all were as well as the Minister suggests, why do so many people still prefer to collect their benefit locally in cash in the way that they have been able to do hitherto?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

In future, people will still be able to go to a post office to collect their benefit in cash. They will not have to dig into their pockets and pull out a paper order book. Instead, the Post Office will hold their account and instead of, as now, their having to withdraw the whole of the order for £67 in cash and walking home with the entire week's money in their pocket, they will be able to withdraw £20 or £40. So they will go to the local post office and withdraw their cash. But they will not hand over an order book which will be stamped and then take the cash and the order book back home. That is the essential difference.

I repeat that this should be seen as a real opportunity, both for the postmasters because of the other services they can offer with it and for people in our rural communities.

Baroness Byford

I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention. As she said, it is not a question of people carrying an order book. That is where I come back to my amendment. How will the postmaster know that I am Mrs Jones and not Mrs Smith if I do not have a book? What identification will I show? Will I have an identity card? That is why I tabled the amendment: to enable the Minister to say in what way people will be able to identify that they are Mrs Jones and not Mrs Snooks. If they do not have a book and do not have a smart card, which has been ruled out, how will the postmaster—he may not be the local one, who may be away on holiday—know which person is which? I happily give way to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The process of identification is something which must be discussed and explored. But the problem is no different in principle than the one the banks face now.

Baroness Byford

But when one opens a bank account one completes around four pages of forms; it takes for ever and a day. Surely the noble Baroness is not suggesting that benefit recipients will have to go through the process of opening a bank account.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

This measure will come into effect in 2003. The noble Baroness is pressing me, if I may say so, about extreme levels of detail; for example, the documentation that someone will need to produce in order to set up a Post Office account from which they can draw their money, which is portable between X and Y. That is precisely why we need a two to three year lead time of discussion to see what is acceptable, workable, inexpensive and fraud-proof.

I do not wish to be discourteous to the noble Baroness, but she is asking us to speed forward to 2003 and describe what we will have in place, whereas over the next few years, once we have the PIU report, we will be negotiating with POCL as to what is appropriate and acceptable.

Baroness Byford

I, equally, do not wish to be discourteous; it is the last thing that I would wish to be.

The PIU report was asked for in October 1999; six months have gone by and we are no further down the road. I accept that it will not come into being until 2003, and therefore the Minister feels that I am pressing for too much too soon. However, I hope she understands why people need this information. My worry is that the Bill will pass through the House and we will still be no further.

At this late hour, I do not wish to offend. I do not think the Minister has given an answer, but she feels she cannot answer the question as it is. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No.42. Page 4, line 21. at end insert— ("( ) Where the parent has complied with obligations imposed by this section, the Secretary of State shall be legally responsible for the confidentiality of information relating to her.""). The noble Lord said: I should also like to speak to Amendment No.100, which deals with the same point.

The amendments impose a duty of confidentiality on the Secretary of State where the parent concerned has complied with all the requirements of the Act. It makes the Secretary of State legally liable for any breach of confidentiality.

These amendments are principally, but by no means solely, concerned with the situation of women who fear violence from violent ex-partners, of whom there are a good many who come the way of the agency.

The amendment was moved by my right honourable friend Mr George, in the other place. The Minister gave him the most full-hearted assurances.

I am certain that those assurances were given in good faith, but I have received those assurances from every Minister who has dealt with this Act, right back to my noble kinsman Lord Henley in 1991. I am certain that all those assurances were given in good faith. Every Minister who has dealt with this matter has been determined to preserve confidentiality and the safety of women who are at risk of domestic violence. However, in spite of the evident goodwill of ministers of all kinds, the flow of cases of women whose ex-partners have discovered where they were through the CSA machinery and have come in pursuit of them, often with quite serious and dangerous results, still continues.

1 do not think there is any problem whatever with Government goodwill. The problem is that we need a change of culture about awareness of the danger of domestic violence lower down the scale and through the whole of the administrative machinery.

The Government are in agreement with that and have done their level best to help bring about a change of culture. However, it has not yet succeeded, not for want of trying, but because the task is a very big one. I do not think most people realise quite how much determination a violent ex-partner can put into the job of pursuit; quite how much cunning he can put into the job of finding the necessary information, and quite how much the man of property is still alive and well.

Since that is the case, we hope that a duty of confidentiality will serve to concentrate the mind wonderfully. It is something that a middle-rank official, as he thinks quite harmlessly, chatting about something that is not particularly explosive, may call to mind. When my wife was dealing with the local women's refuge she came across a case in which information leading to a violent pursuit had got out even through the police, who in general are more aware of the need for confidentiality in this area than almost anyone else. If such an error can happen in those circumstances, it can happen anywhere. Therefore, we need something more than assurances in this respect.

Perhaps I may quote just one case. I shall not trawl back over the flow of cases that I have brought to the attention of previous Ministers and which, I am afraid, have a certain sameness about them. This one comes from the Crossroads women's centre. The woman concerned was on benefit. She said: I thought I couldn't live on less money than I had, so I gave them his details and I explained that he would become violent as a result. They just said 'He won't know where you are'. I explained that I'd already moved twice and he had found out where I was. The day the CSA got in touch with him he came round to where I was living with the CSA letter. I refused to answer the door, and he was throwing stones at the window and talking through the intercom at my flat. I wouldn't let him in because I was too scared to. Fie said, 'Bring the baby to the window so I can just see her'. As I went to the window, he kicked a brick wall down and threw a brick through the window. Luckily it missed me and the baby". I am sure that the Minister joins me in being sick and tired of listening to such stories. We need something fairly urgent to instil into all CSA staff the need to take seriously this requirement of confidentiality. I hope that this amendment is what is needed. If it is not, I trust that the Minister, whose ingenuity and goodwill are considerable, may be able to suggest what is needed. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I listened with great care to the piece that the noble Earl read from Crossroads. However, I did not understand the situation. Did, the father know where the woman was living? Was it the fact that he was expected to pay maintenance that triggered the violence? If the father of the child did not know where the woman was living, I d o not see how he could have found out simply by virtue of CSA forms. I do not know whether the noble Earl can help me here. Clearly, the woman was not in a refuge or in some place of anonymity if the father could track her down. I may have misunderstood or misheard what the noble Earl said, but this suggests to me that he knew where she was and that the search for maintenance or, indeed, any contact was such as to trigger this extremely violent man into further acts of violence.

Perhaps the noble Earl can help me in this respect because the amendment does not deal with the sort of situation where such a man would be able to track down the woman. As far as I can tell, he did not do so because of any action by the CSA.

Earl Russell

I am handicapped by the fact that I have only a single source; namely, the woman's own account. Her description is that the man came round carrying the CSA letter, which, presumably, told him that he was being assessed for the purposes of maintenance. I can only suppose that something in that letter, or attached to it, must have revealed the woman's address. If the Minister wishes to see my source of information, she is perfectly welcome to do so. I can only quote what is in it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

In that case, the CS.A could only have known that he was the father if the mother had given the agency his name and address, together with information about his workplace, and had not asked to be assessed on grounds of having good cause—in other words, not to name him. Therefore, because the woman had co-operated by naming him and giving all that information, presumably the CSA proceeded in the usual way. Either the woman failed to make clear that she had good cause or, alternatively, he already knew where she lived. It seems to me that one or the other ought to follow.

I accept the noble Earl's point that there is only the one source of evidence and that, obviously, there are some gaps in the story that neither of us can fill in, if the noble Earl wishes to comment further on the matter, I am happy for him to do so.

10.30 p.m.

Earl Russell

My source made clear that she feared domestic violence and that she already had an injunction out against the man concerned. However, the CSA apparently threatened to cut her benefit if she did not give details. That is not the first time that has happened; I have put previous cases before the Minister. There are some people involved in the service who do not understand quite how important the good cause provisions are. The person I am discussing gave her name and authorisation but asked for her address to be kept secret, but it was not. That is her specific complaint. I do not know whether that helps the Minister sufficiently but I think that is all I can add on this case.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The noble Earl has been helpful. I find it extraordinary that the CSA did not accept an injunction as good cause. In all my experience of the CSA I have not come across a single case of a woman being exposed to violence as a result of unauthorised disclosure of information by the CSA. The noble Earl may, however, know of other circumstances and other situations.

If the person the noble Earl has mentioned has not been protected by being granted anonymity, I should very much like to see the case records to discover what is going on, as such a situation does not fit with my experience of the CSA. An injunction would be prima facie evidence of good cause, of all evidence of good cause. I do not know what information was conveyed in this case. As I say, I should like to see the case records. Even if the person concerned did not claim good cause, the CSA would not have revealed her address. The maintenance inquiry forms do not carry the address of the parent with care. The only thing I can think of is that the man knew her address independently. I am happy to explore the matter further as, like the noble Earl, I do not wish such a situation to occur. If the CSA has any responsibility for that situation arising, I should want to explore it.

Earl Russell

I am most grateful to the Minister. We are all to an extent in the dark here. However, there is another possibility which I have known in a good many other cases; namely, that the violent ex-partner may well have had a personal friend or acquaintance who happened to work in the CSA. That turned out to be the background in the police case that I mentioned just now. As it happened a long time ago we are not concerned with chasing an individual. I do not want to say which police station was involved. The CAB is the source of a great many of the cases that I have relied on. The CAB has experience of a good many cases where the parent with care has experienced violence as a result of the intervention of the CSA. It is possible that when this happens the CSA is not always the first body to know. However, if the Minister will consult the CAB on this matter we may get a little further forward.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I consult the CAB, NACAB and other organisations on a regular basis. NACAB—to an even greater extent than the CAB—is not slow to bring cases forward. I believe that, given the information we have, we have probably explored this point as far as we can. If the noble Earl has further information, I should be happy to follow it up. However, as I say, the circumstances that he mentioned do not fit my experience of the agency. I believe that some other factor is in play here. It may be the one that the noble Earl suggested; namely, that there was some improper relationship between the violent father and a CSA staff member. That is, of course, to be deplored.

Amendments Nos. 42 and 100 seek to create a legal obligation for the CSA to protect the confidentiality of information provided by parents with care on benefit who apply for a child support calculation. We take that obligation extremely seriously. Anyone working for the CSA is guilty of a criminal offence if, without lawful authority, he or she discloses information acquired in the course of that employment which relates to a particular person. Such an offence can, on conviction, result in a prison sentence of up to two years. Since 1995 there have been at least three dismissals of staff for unlawful disclosure of information even though that did not lead to violence, as far as I am aware. The unlawful disclosure may have occurred as a result of friendship networks, as the noble Earl mentioned.

Clearly information has to be disclosed to the other parent to allow him or her to understand how maintenance liability has been assessed. At the moment it includes, for example, details of a nonresident parent's net income and the relevant qualifying children. Legislation permits and specifies disclosure of this kind. However, the CSA must never disclose a parent's address or any other information which may lead to that person being located.

Parents also have a right to refuse to allow a tribunal or court to reveal such details. This is an important safeguard. It protects the whereabouts of parents, in particular of women who may be at risk of abuse from their ex-partners if their address becomes known. Certainly my understanding following all such cases brought to me by MPs and others very close to the subject—obviously there are hundreds of letters a year on CSA issues—is that the CSA, in this area at least, has an excellent record. The CSA also rightly reassures parents with care, when they are applying for child support, that their whereabouts will remain confidential.

I am, of course, aware of tragic cases in which parents have suffered violence as a result of being traced by ex-partners through official records—that happens—and we are trying to do what we can to avoid any repetition. But I am not aware of any case, in all the seven years of the CSA's existence, in which a parent with care has been harmed after being located through CSA records. School records and so on are matters over which we perhaps do not, unfortunately, have the same degree of control.

This guaranteed confidentiality carries with it the ability of the CSA to sort out maintenance without any need for contact between the parents. In addition, our reforms will ensure that maintenance liability is based on simple rules, which are easy to understand and hard to avoid. So that even where there is hostility between the parents, the reforms we are proposing will reduce that risk rather than increase it, simply because so little information is required from the non-resident parent. In other words, she should face a reduced risk compared to the current situation. Therefore Amendments Nos. 42 and 100 are both unnecessary. We already provide adequate and robust protection of personal information provided by clients to the CSA.

I could go on to talk about Section 50 of the 1991 Act, which makes it unlawful to disclose and so on. However, the amendment seeks to provide protection which is already provided under Section 50 of the 1991 Act, which prevents unauthorised disclosure of information for all CSA clients. As I said, if the noble Earl wishes to come back to me with any particular case, I shall be very happy to look at it, but, with that assurance, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell

I am most grateful to the Minister for the care and concern with which she has greeted this information. I would never for one moment have expected anything else from her.

That is the paragraph from which I have been quoting. I was not intending to make any specific criticism of the CSA. I said that I was dealing with a general problem about unawareness in our culture. In another of the cases in the letter to which I referred—not the same case—the CSA inadvertently disclosed without realising what it was detonating. The man rang up to say that he was going round to attack the woman, and the CSA immediately rang her up to warn her that he was coming. So, realising what it had done, in that case the CSA did its level best to make amends. I allege no ill will; I allege simply a lack of awareness.

I am faced here with two totally convincing stories, told by two totally impeccable sources, which are in fundamental conflict. When I am faced with that as an academic problem, I tend to assume that the sources of information available to the two parties are different, and that each of them is telling the whole truth as it is known to them.

The point that I made just now, that the people to whom this happens do not take the CSA as their first port of call to say what is happening to them, is perhaps the most important one. I am certain that these problems do not reach the Minister's desk; I am certain that usually they do not reach Faith Boardman's desk. But they go on happening.

I wish I believed that this amendment was unnecessary. If the Minister can persuade me between now and Report stage that there is another way of tackling the problem, I will be very willing to consider that. What I cannot be persuaded of is that the present situation is satisfactory, however great the good faith of those in charge. But, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Default and interim maintenance decisions]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Dean of Harptree)

In calling Amendment No. 43, I should point out that if it is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 44.

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 43: Page 4, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 5. The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 43 is a probing amendment. It deals with the provision to make default and interim maintenance decisions. This is another Cambyses clause which says that the Secretary of State can do whatever he likes. I ask: what does he like? And what else could he do if he did like? I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Amendment No. 43 seeks to remove the regulation-making power from Clause 4 which permits the Secretary of State to set procedures in respect of default and interim maintenance decisions. Does the noble Earl wish me to explain fully what the clause does? I am happy to do so but I realise the time of night. Does the noble Earl wish me to outline the purpose of the clause?

Earl Russell

In a cursory way.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

How could the noble Earl invite me to do something in a cursory way?

Earl Russell

The noble Baroness mentioned the time of night.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Every academic listening to the noble Earl should reject such a phrase.

The clause substitutes a new Section 12 which allows liability to be set at a default or interim rate where it is not possible to make a decision on full liability. In the existing scheme a punitive interim maintenance assessment is imposed where full information cannot be obtained or the non-resident parent fails to cooperate with the CSA. However, these assessments do not work. The interim maintenance assessments are very high—averaging about £90 a week—arid the vast majority of non-resident parents, almost 90 per cent, do not pay a penny. That is largely because by the time the agency imposes such a punitive interim maintenance assessment—hereafter known as an IMA—large arrears have already built up and enforcement becomes difficult. If there is a cliff to climb, people do not climb it, particularly when the non-resident parent is self-employed. There is no incentive on the non-resident parent to pay the interim assessment because when, finally, the information is supplied, liability reverts to the full maintenance assessment, which is nearly always lower.

In the new scheme we will be making decisions about maintenance in a matter of days. Where a nonresident parent refuses to provide information about his income we will be able to get it either direct from his employer or, in self-employed cases, via the Inland Revenue. Parents who refuse to provide information will also face fines of up to £1,000. However, there may be some circumstances where a final decision on liability cannot be reached straightaway; for example, where someone has recently started selfemployment—he has stopped being employed and has become self-employed—and it is not straightforward to estimate what his current income is and therefore what his liability is, or where a variation application remains outstanding. To ensure that some simple maintenance is, nevertheless, paid in these cases we are introducing a simple system of default rates to get maintenance flowing. We want to avoid debts building up and we want people to pay as soon as possible.

Clause 4 provides for default rates of liability to be used where there is not enough information to calculate a rate of maintenance liability. We intend that default rates of maintenance will be put in place quickly and that they will be set according to whether there are one, two or three or more children to be maintained. We envisage rates of £30, £40 and £50 for those children, which reflects the average net income of the non-resident parent. In other words, they are not punitive. They are simply an averaging—a default payment which someone will pay until the final determination has been made. This will prevent large amounts of arrears building up and, because default rates will be put in place quickly, they will be easier to enforce.

An interim maintenance decision will be put in place where an application for a variation was made at the outset but has not been determined at the point where the information is available to the Secretary of State to make a Schedule 1 calculation. The powers in this clause will be used to get maintenance flowing where all of the information needed to calculate final liability cannot be obtained quickly. The clause helps to ensure that payments will come regularly.

Regulations will be used to set out the procedures to be followed in making decisions about the imposition and amount of the default rate. Procedural rules are more suitable for secondary legislation and the default rate, which is intended to reflect average child support liabilities, will need to be updated from time to time to reflect changes in earnings. I am pleased to say that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, when it considered this legislation, found it necessary to comment on only a few delegated powers. It did not comment on the delegated power in Clause 4.

Amendment No. 43 would compromise our ability to deliver a flexible and responsive scheme which allows maintenance to flow. The scheme is not punitive but is based on the average earnings or the average income of non-resident parents and gets the maintenance flowing early. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Higgins

Before the Minister sits down, it may be more convenient to raise this point at this stage. Is it the case that if a person overpays, that person does not receive the money back?

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

If it is a default payment, yes. We do not envisage that happening very often. The kind of situation where we envisage a default payment occurring—an interim maintenance payment occurring—is where someone has, for example, been stringing the department along for quite a long period of time. The normal situation is that a maintenance assessment is sent out to someone within four to six weeks. Therefore, questions of default payments should not arise. Where we suspect they are likely to arise is where there is, for example, a collusive employer: it may be a small family business, a garage, for example, in which the son is working with the father and they are stringing the system along.

We want the default powers to be available if at the end of the day someone is, to put it colloquially, messing the agency around and we want the money to flow. The provision is not punitive in the sense that the figure is an average amount which we believe he should have been paying all along. If he pays properly, he will move on to his real assessment, which may be higher or lower. If his real assessment is higher, he will be expected to pay the rest; if it is lower, he will not be given a refund, so to speak, because he should not have got into a default situation. Had he come clean with the agency, an interim maintenance assessment based on his estimated income would have been in place. I suspect that the noble Lord is anticipating some other amendments which may arise later. With that information, perhaps he may feel able not to move them.

Earl Russell

My Lords, if the Minister will forgive my intervening, who is the judge of whether the person is stringing the system along?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

To produce a maintenance assessment, the agency basically needs only three pieces of information: the name of the nonresident partner's employer, his net earnings and the number of children he has. That information should be able to be produced by means of a telephone call in a matter of hours. There may be occasions when a person is, for example, away on holiday, but in the normal course of events that information should be available to the agency within a couple of days. The agency should, in turn, be able to set the estimate of the maintenance he should pay within a matter of a few days and that money should be flowing in four to six weeks.

If the process is drawn out—if he fails to produce information about his earnings and the like or the employer says that he cannot give certain information—at that point we may need the backstop of default powers. I do not conceive of their being used very often. Given the simplicity of the system and the alternative of using a fine and adding £8,000, that may be a more appropriate way of proceeding. But the default powers are there if after an appropriate period of time we have failed to obtain the information to make the maintenance assessment and to get the money flowing.

This provision replaces the interim maintenance assessment. The previous administration recognised the need for a punitive interim maintenance assessment. Our proposal is not punitive. It is based simply on average payments. But we need a backstop in case someone strings the agency along and elongates a process which can be completed in a 10-minute telephone conversation. We need that power for the sake of the children.

Earl Russell

Has the Minister, in a way that is not in the least cursory, told me that the Secretary of State is judge and party in his own cause?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Obviously, if this is regarded as unreasonable the person will have the right to go to a tribunal and to contest the matter. At the end of the day, the information required to determine an assessment is something that I suspect every person in this Chamber could produce simply by direct answer to a question and without referral to any other document.

We are not talking about the complicated arrangements that currently exist whereby it would be reasonable for the non-resident parent to have to consult records to see whether he has kept them and so forth. There can he no excuses for delay, apart from circumstances where, for example, someone is changing his occupation or seeking a variation on the grounds of high contact costs and the like—whereupon the assessment will then be an interim maintenance assessment which is not a default assessment but based, by discussion and negotiation, on the best assessment of the person's income. The default power is there where someone is failing to respond in a reasonable way and is stringing the agency along. We are setting down a working assumption of what he should pay. If he does like it, the answer is to get a move on.

Earl Russell

I accept that the Minister is making a perfectly sensible short-term case in a particular context. However, the Secretary of State is beginning to appear a bit of a Pooh-Bah. He is the legislator who lays down very wide powers for his own use; he then collects the money; he then decides whether people are stringing him along; and he then collects the money if they do. It is not a particularly controlled power: it is the Secretary of State wearing one hat, talking to the Secretary of State wearing another hat, passing on the power to the Secretary of State having a third hat. It is not a particularly controlled system and it does not seem a particularly constitutional one. Nevertheless, I do not intend to pursue the matter any further now. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 44 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 45: After Clause 4, insert the following new clause—

DETERMINATION OF BENEFIT ENTITLEMENT: MAINTENANCE DISREGARD (" . The Secretary of State shall by regulations provide that, in determining the entitlement of a parent with care or his partner (if any) to income support or income-based jobseekers allowance, there shall be disregarded as income the first £15 of any maintenance paid each week to the parent with care."). The noble Earl said: This amendment seeks to increase the £10 maintenance disregard to i15. Before I play Oliver Twist, I congratulate the Minister. The £10 disregard is one of her great achievements. We have worked together in this cause in the past. The noble Baroness is the one who has been able to deliver, and I congratulate her on it. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister will not blame me for playing Oliver Twist. After all, it is the duty of an opposition. Both of us have always argued that the best way to secure compliance is not by a series of threats and penalties but by giving people an incentive to co-operate so that children are better off. This measure does that, but we believe that if it is a little bigger it may do a little better. Since I am sure that the Minister can script the rest of the argument herself, at this time of night I shall say only that I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

It is late. Basically, one needs to give a full description of what the Government are doing for lone parents to show that this is part of a balanced set of proposals. We have gone for a £10 disregard as opposed to nil in order to get parents with care to co-operate with the agency and ensure that a direct benefit goes to the children to tackle child poverty. Obviously, it is also an encouragement to fathers who see that some of the money that is provided goes to the children.

The noble Earl proposes that we raise the sum to £15. We expect that over time our reforms will at least double the proportion of children and families on income support for whom maintenance is paid. Together with the new child maintenance premium, this means that about 600,000 children and families on income support will see the benefit of maintenance for the first time. Obviously, while lone parents would like a £15, £20 or £25 disregard, none the less £10 will make a substantial difference to the material wellbeing of such families. The average family headed by a lone parent receives an income of about £88 a week. The premium will increase family income by well over 10 per cent, which itself will have a substantial effect on child poverty. That is in addition to the increases which lone parents with children on income support have received under this Government since 1997. For example, the rate for a child under 11 has almost doubled over three years from £16.90 to over £30 in the autumn. In addition, it was announced in the Budget that there would be an increase in the earnings disregard. Consequently, parents on income support will see their incomes go up in terms of benefit levels and earnings disregard. Obviously, parents in work will see the application of WFTC and the minimum wage.

If the noble Earl views this in the context of everything else that we are doing for lone parents and the substantial cost to the child maintenance premium as is, which is an extra £65 million, I hope that he will regard this as reasonable. This is cost neutral. None the less, I believe that the £10 is a generous addition to lone parents' budgets over and beyond all the other changes by government. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Earl understands why the Government are not minded to raise the figure to £15 as he wishes.

Earl Russell

I thank the Minister for her reply and hear what she says. When the noble Baroness looks at the effect of this measure will she also monitor whether there is any increased compliance as a result of the introduction of the premium? That may affect the costings and, in turn, debates with the Treasury. If that could be done it would be rather interesting.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I do not think that there is any way in which we shall be able to determine the degree of compliance associated with the child premium as opposed to everything else we are doing—above all, making the formula so simple that CSA staff will be able to spend most of their time ensuring that there is compliance rather than trying to do a maintenance assessment which is then never delivered in terms of cash for children.

If the noble Earl can tell me how one could isolate that one variable amount from the 50 or 70 other variables involved in the changes we are making, I shall be interested to hear from him.

Earl Russell

I wondered about that question while I was on my feet. The answer has occurred to me at this moment: the Minister brings in the Bill with the £10 attached and after a year increases the amount to £15 and sees whether compliance improves. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Departure .from usual rules for calculating Maintenance]:

[Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 not moved.]

Lord Higgins

had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 48: Page 6, line 12, leave out ("one of the conditions") and insert ("the condition"). The noble Lord said: I do not propose to move Amendments Nos. 48 or 51 which stand in my name. However, the noble Earl may wish to move Amendments Nos. 49 and 50 with which I have considerable sympathy.

Earl Russell

I was wondering whether it was rather late at night to go into an issue as big as this. Does the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, wish me to move the amendment now?

Lord Higgins

That is a matter for the noble Earl. It seemed to me that it raised important questions. It is a matter for the noble Earl to consider whether it would be more appropriate to do so at a later stage. I do not think that it would be helpful at this stage to move my amendments, which are technical in nature.

Earl Russell

I shall go along with that. It is somewhat late for a really big issue, so I shall not move my amendment.

[Amendment No. 48 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 49 to 51 not moved.]

Earl Russell

had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 52: Page 7, line 38, leave out ("and") and insert ("or").

Baroness Buscombe

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for being slow in rising to my feet. I had expected the noble Earl, Lord Russell, to move Amendment No. 52.

I should like also to speak to Amendments Nos. 53 to 70. In essence we want people's financial arrangements to be determined on the basis of their income and commitments. The Bill in its entirety will not, we fear, stand up to the need to reform and improve the workings of the CSA unless the Government accept that not all situations are the same and uniform. We need to respond to that by helping people to cope.

Many of the relationships that brought about the happy event of the children in the first place have broken down because people are unable to cope. If we make it harder, who will ultimately lose out? It will be the children.

Our amendments in relation to Clause 5 and Schedule 2 are saying that we must respond to real life situations—everyday individual commitments—and then there is a chance that the children will fully benefit from what is already, for them, a tough situation.

As my honourable friend in another place, Mr Eric Pickles, said during Committee stage, what might be equal and fair justice for one person might be rough justice for someone else. That is why the variations we seek are important". We agree with the Government that the present formula is too complex. What we want to ensure is that a simplified formula is fair, equitable and flexible.

In that case, we believe that it is right to stipulate on the face of the Bill a number of foreseeable living costs which might impact on the welfare of children in any relationship; for example, costs in respect of any handicapped child or children with other special needs, the significant costs of childcare, costs of boarding school and the often high costs of travel to work. We list further examples in what I must make clear are probing amendments, albeit important, which we have tabled in order to seek reassurance from the Minister that her Government are as concerned as we are to ensure fairness and flexibility for the sake of the children.

As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said tonight in relation to Clause 1, if you set out to avoid complexity you avoid the real world. I entirely agree. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

As we have heard, all these amendments relate to the provisions under which the Secretary of State may agree to a variation from the normal rules of calculation. Perhaps I may spend a few moments explaining why we are making the change.

We believe that simple and consistent rules will provide a clearer and more efficient child support service for children and get money flowing regularly and reliably. Parents will be able to see at a glance how much maintenance they must pay even before they break up.

We believe that the new approach will result in a fair calculation of maintenance in the vast majority of cases. In other words, it is a straightforward rate. However, we recognise that there will always be exceptional cases where the child support rates do not properly reflect a non-resident parent's ability to support his children. For example, he may need to spend an exceptionally large amount of money keeping in touch with the children, or the net income used in working out his liability may not properly reflect the resources available to him. We therefore intend to provide for a variation from the normal rules in such truly exceptional cases and circumstances.

Members of the Committee will be aware that the current scheme also attempts to allow for expenses not covered by the formula assessment. The existing departures scheme was introduced in December 1996. Departures were heralded as introducing added flexibility into a rigid formula and they were widely welcomed. But departures produced more complexity, confusion and delay into a cumbersome system.

We have therefore looked very closely at the expenses which merit a variation of liability. We have two grounds. We believe that parents should put children, not other expenses, first. That is why we have sought to distinguish between, on the one hand, expenses which a non-resident parent should meet from income after meeting his responsibility to his children—for instance, housing costs and travel to work—and, on the other hand, primarily child-related expenses which could affect his ability to pay child support. We intend to allow variations only in respect of the latter. For the first time, they will include the costs of the overnight stay after travelling a long distance, not just the petrol costs and costs of travel for contact.

We also intend to allow variations to increase liability where the income on which the maintenance calculation has been based does not reflect the nonresident parent's true ability to pay. For example, the case of the student who may be exempt but calculated as a mature student with a high income, or where someone is self-employed and declaring an income of, say, £100 a week but none the less is managing to live in a rather large house, with a rather large car, taking rather long holidays and is clearly living a lifestyle that deviates from the declared income. Again, the parent with care may be able to seek a variation.

Equally, as capital and interest from capital will no longer feature in the normal calculations, we have already indicated in the Bill that we will be looking at cases where the non-resident parent has assets exceeding a value to be prescribed. That will prevent people shifting their living costs from income to capital in order to protect their money. The new Schedule 4B, as introduced by Schedule 2, provides details of the cases and circumstances where a variation may be allowed.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 55 to 70. The noble Baroness appeared to say that she was in favour of simplicity in general but that complexity may exist in a particular circumstance. I hope that she will accept the warning not only of her honourable friend Mr Pickles but of her honourable friend Edward Leigh, who said that we should avoid seeking to transfer to the appeals system the complexity which we are getting rid of in the assessment process. We are worried about what we believe she may assume is exceptional.

Amendments Nos. 64 and 66, for example, would enable every non-resident parent to claim a variation in respect of housing costs or high housing costs. Amendments Nos. 56 and 57 would allow the nonresident parent who maintained contact with his child to claim a variation in respect of any and all his expenses, regardless of whether or not the expenses are in any way related to the period of contact. Therefore, the allowable costs in those cases would include not only the costs of travelling to see the child, but also the parent's housing costs, travel-to-work costs and, indeed, any other costs. The noble Baroness's amendments almost precisely reinvent the complexity of the current formula.

Perhaps I may give an example of the complexity of costs on housing, which I believe was cited by the noble Baroness. As a starting point, if we were to include housing costs and were to continue to do so, staff would have to pick their way through the minefield of different mortgage and loan arrangements which currently exist in order to establish which applies in any particular case. They would have to establish how much of the repayment is in respect of interest, how much is in respect of capital, whether an endowment policy or investment plan has been obtained for the purpose of discharging the loan and whether it is intended to accrue profits. They would then go on to consider the extent to which any or all of the costs in question should be allowed by establishing who is responsible for the costs, whether the responsibility is shared, whether repayments of loans taken out for repairs and improvements to the property should be allowed, whether the property is used for both business and residential purposes, and, where the parent has more than one home, a decision must be made on which property is to be regarded as the principal home.

I could go on to talk about housing benefit, and so on, but I have tried to give an illustration with regard to only one cost—housing benefit—of the amount of complexity that would be introduced if we allowed it as a variation. I cannot conceive that any non-resident parent would not seek a variation on grounds of housing costs, even if that were to be rejected as not being exceptional.

Lord Higgins

I wonder whether the noble Baroness will allow me to ask whether she believes that any of the items specified would have some justification for variation?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I wonder what the noble Lord has in mind. Can he indicate to what he believes we should give particular attention?

Lord Higgins

I am looking at the question the other way round. We have provided a long list, and the noble Baroness proposes to reject all of them. I am asking whether she believes that any of them might reasonably provide the basis for a variation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am looking at the particular words. Amendment No. 56 concerns exceptionally high housing costs, travel-to-work costs, illness or disability costs. That includes all the items that are currently in the existing formula. Therefore, we are back to where we were. We then add to that payments made by the parent with care or nonresident parent to support an elderly or invalid relative. Yes, those would be new and would add to the complexity of the system, as would costs in respect of a handicapped child, joint debts incurred, and so on. Significant costs of childcare are also mentioned.

That shopping list not only takes the complexity of the existing formula and places it in the appeal process, but adds for good measure a few hundred other avenues to pursue. The amendments extend a whole range of additional items above and beyond those currently in the complexity of the assessment. They suggest that we take the assessment, go to appeal and add some new appeal grounds as well. Is that really what the noble Lord wants?

Lord Higgins

No, but that was not the question that I posed to the Minister. I understand that she has problems with items which duplicate existing provisions or introduce new ones. However, given the long list, I am asking whether she believes that any provide the basis for variation. Perhaps I may also quote an example. Does she believe, for example, that there is a case for variation with regard to costs in respect of a handicapped child?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

No, and I hope that noble Lords opposite may share this philosophy. Basically, we are reducing the amount of average assessment that the non-resident parent will pay. On average, that sum will come down from approximately £38 or £39 to approximately £30 or £31 per week. We are making that sum less. We are leaving more in the pocket with which to meet those additional costs. We are not saying that they are not perfectly proper items of expenditure. But we are saying that they should not be put ahead of the primary responsibility of maintaining the child of the first family.

The only two grounds for variation are where the non-caring parent is incurring costs which are associated with the support of the children of the first family, which it is proper should recognised; or, alternatively, where the basis of income on which the assessment has been made is not regarded as the proper basis of income by the parent with care and she seeks a variation on that ground.

Perhaps we may stay with the first of those. I have given the example of exceptional costs of contact—overnight stays. Another example may be where the non-resident parent—the father, in this case—is a sergeant in the army and the child has been at boarding school. The father does not wish to disturb the child's arrangements. Therefore the child stays on at boarding school. The father is paying for the boarding school maintenance costs—not the fees for the education—so that it would be unreasonable for him to be paying the parent with care for all the care and provision which she would normally provide. That is being provided by the boarding school and, in that case, the father would be asked to pay twice over. We take that into account.

Another example would be where the father, the non-resident parent, has taken over meeting the housing costs of the child—that is, the mortgage—but has retained no equity stake in the property. That would properly be regarded as a contribution to the child's maintenance.

But our touchstone is not what expenses he has to meet in his life after he has left the first family. The touchstone is whether he is supporting legitimately the child of the first family and whether there are expenses associated with that which we should take into account. That is our touchstone, apart from the second ground of variation which is the manipulation or misrepresentation of income.

The noble Baroness is welcome to press me further in relation to any of those grounds because it is an important issue. But that is our philosophy. We are saying that these are all perfectly proper expenditure items but the non-caring parent makes a decision on what he spends in relation to housing, travel to work, his car or support for other members of the family after he has discharged his primary obligation—the support of the children of the first family.

Baroness Buscombe

I thank the Minister for that very full and clear explanation. I shall consider carefully, when I am a little more lively, what she has said in Hansard. I may wish to return to this matter on Report.

[Amendment No. 52 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 53 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Substituted Schedules 4A and 4B to the 1991 Act]:

[Amendments Nos. 54 to 69 not moved.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Variations: revision and supersession]:

[Amendment No. 70 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clauses 8 and 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Appeals to appeal tribunals]:

Baroness Buscombe

moved Amendment No. 71: Page 10. line 4. leave out ("an appeal tribunal") and insert ("a county court"). The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 72 to 75 and 199. In tabling these amendments, we are highlighting our concern that the levels of maintenance are vitally important to all the parties and to the children and there needs to be a system of appeal where appropriate cases can be reviewed.

We believe that that appeal should be to the district judges at the county court who are already experienced in dealing with maintenance and have an existing and well-used procedure. District judges are not only well experienced in that sort of work but are given a wide discretion to take into account all the circumstances including, for example, the earning capacity of an absent parent to ensure that justice can be done. It would be quite possible for the regulations to make it clear that the formula would normally apply and exceptional circumstances would be needed before a court would adjust the formula.

Even in criminal matters, citizens are entitled to appear before the court to ask that their individual circumstances be taken into account before a fine is imposed. Here we are talking about assessments that may involve a person paying up to a quarter of their income for 16 years. It must be right that they have an opportunity to be heard in appropriate cases. An application to court would also enable the applicant to apply for funding by the Legal Services Commission so that they could be assisted if that were appropriate or necessary.

Although it is suggested by the Government that that would result in a significant increase in the work of the county court, we believe that that is unlikely. Ten years ago, before the CSA began, all maintenance matters were dealt with, in any event, through the courts and the courts were quite capable of coping. Here we are talking about the courts looking only at a minority of matters where there are good grounds to appeal against an unfair assessment. The absence of such a right has led to much of the resentment that has undermined the current CSA and, unfortunately, the Bill does not address that point. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, for introducing these amendments. I like the sound of them. To me they appear to meet a real need. In the course of discussing them I want to remind the Minister that on Clause 2 she said that the Government considered the possibility of allowing those cases to go to the courts using guidelines based on the CSA formula but with the licence to depart from them in exceptional circumstances. When we put the Minister's remarks together with the speech that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has just made and with my concerns, we have a basis for reaching common ground, which would be rather nice.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Amendment No. 199 would remove from Schedule 9, which lists repeals and revocations in the 1991 Act, the provision to repeal Section 46B(3).

Earl Russell

Perhaps I can save the Minister some time. I shall not move Amendment No. 199. so there is no need to reply to it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Amendments Nos. 71, 72, 73, 74 and 75 relate to Clause 10. To set this group of amendments in context I would like to outline, briefly, the purpose of this clause. Clause 10 sets out clearly the child support decisions which carry a right of appeal. It provides the framework for appeals and tribunal procedure which will be, as now, specified in detail in regulations.

In a reformed child support scheme, we want liability to be established quickly. That means that the agency should, wherever possible, settle disputes without the need for a formal appeal. Parents will have access to an efficient and effective disputes service. However, we recognise that the right of appeal represents an important guarantee of parents' rights. The tribunal system allows child support liability to be considered by an independent body with legal expertise where disputes cannot be settled in discussion with the agency.

As now, in the reformed scheme appeals may be made against decisions relating to child support liability. Where a benefit penalty is imposed, because a parent with care claiming income support opts out of child support without good cause, a right of appeal will still arise. There will also be rights of appeal against financial penalties for late payment of maintenance and, if and when those are introduced, any fees.

Our proposals build on changes to the appeals system for child support introduced from June 1999. These changes were part of the move to a simpler and more streamlined decision-making and appeals process across the Department of Social. Security. Where a parent is unhappy with a decision and chooses to appeal, the appeal should be handled and resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Perhaps I may turn to Amendment No. '71 and the consequential amendments, Amendments Nos. 74 and 75. These amendments would give child support clients the right of appeal to a county court rather than an appeal system. I believe that this would be a deeply retrograde step. The court system, although independent, was widely seen as having failed to protect children's rights to proper maintenance. Parents with care often found difficulty in getting a maintenance order enforced. Too often non-resident parents were able to avoid ongoing responsibility for their children. This left children in poverty and the taxpayer to pick up the bill.

Many parents find the prospect of going to court intimidating. They are more likely to feel at ease in an informal tribunal setting. Using the court system will result in further delays and may cause confusion because another jurisdiction will be involved. In addition, courts are adversarial in their approach, which would lead to greater confrontation in child support appeals. This conflicts with the need to set child support in the wider family setting and promote consensus between parents. Moreover, the tribunal system benefits from the presence of a presenting officer whose role is to explain the decision under appeal and assist in ensuring that all parties to an appeal get a fair hearing. The costs of involving the courts would also be substantially higher—around £20 million a year compared with £5.5 million for the appeals service.

Amendments Nos. 72 and 73 seek to place on the face of the Bill a right of appeal to a tribunal against the level of the maintenance assessed. Again, this is unnecessary. Parents already have a right of appeal against a decision about whether any child support maintenance is payable and, if so, how much.

I believe that to move out of the jurisdiction of the CSA to a court jurisdiction for appeals would effectively undermine much of what we are trying to do; namely, to keep this as a simple and straightforward administrative procedure. We wish to remain within the tribunal system rather than having the courts used for appeals which would start the process all over again in terms of what the CSA appeals system is seeking to do. I say again that I believe that would be a retrograde step. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will not wish to press her amendments.

Earl Russell

I know that it is late at night, but I do not think that I can let that response pass without comment. If the Minister is telling the Committee that people find the courts more intimidating than the CSA, that is something that I would find difficult to believe, even if it came from Rory Bremner.

As for the enforcement powers of the courts, the Minister knows perfectly well that it is the contention of the courts that they did not get help from other agencies, including the police and the DSS, which they might legitimately have expected. They did not receive adequate staffing for enforcement and they did not get sufficient funding or powers.

Furthermore, all the information on which the Minister relies dates from a period before the Children Act which put right some of these matters. I shall not spend time on that, but if the Minister does not wish to prolong our proceedings, I hope that she will not repeat too many statements with which she knows I will stand up and argue.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

On the contrary, I believe those statements to be right: that the courts were a form of lottery; they failed to deliver money to children; they were adversarial and inequitable. On the same day, cases could be heard of two people on the same income in which one person was asked to pay £5 while the other was asked to pay £50 on an income of £100. If the noble Earl thinks that that is reasonable and fair, then we have very different conceptions of what comprises fairness.

If the noble Earl widens the debate into deeper issues concerning the effectiveness and appropriateness of the court procedure, then I shall wish to challenge him all the way. The courts failed children and we shall not go back to that system again, either to make basic maintenance assessments or as a form of appeal.

Earl Russell

I did not introduce this. The Minister has introduced two different decisions. She has not told me the circumstances of those decisions and so I can have no opinion without knowing those circumstances.

As regards the point about the courts being adversarial, does she seriously maintain that that remained the case after the passage of the Children Act? I do not think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, would agree with that.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

If the noble Earl asks me which system I believe to be in the best interests of a child where a father wishes to reduce his maintenance payments, under the noble Earl's theory he can either go to court and slog it out in an adversarial setting saying, "This is how little I value my child; I want to pay less maintenance"—because that is the nature of an adversarial court setting; alternatively, a tribunal can sit which is informal, chaired by a person with legal experience but in which that adversarial climate does not dominate. I know which system I believe to be in the best interests of the child.

However, my argument does not rest only on the adversarial nature of the courts. The outcome of a court hearing depends on which lawyers are employed and which court hears the case. That means that people in similar circumstances could be treated in very dissimilar ways, usually to the disadvantage of the child and the parent with care. Usually they are the ones unable to afford the most hard-hitting lawyers.

I must tell the noble Earl that I have read and re-read the research which persuaded the previous administration to depart from the court system and move to an agency system. I believe that it was entirely right then and that we are entirely right now. It is obvious that subsequently the system became too complicated, but I refute any suggestion that it would be fairer for children if we returned to the courts. That would be good only for those non-resident parents who are still deeply angry. However, we are not seeking to produce a system that caters to the anger management of non-resident parents. We wish to produce a system that addresses the well-being of children. I am completely persuaded that the courts are not the right vehicle to do that, either at the assessment level or at the appeal level.

Baroness Blatch

I thank the Minister for her full and clear explanation of the amendments. I am concerned about her reply and I have some sympathy with the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. For that reason, I should like to consider carefully what she has said and perhaps return to the matter on Report. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 72 to 75 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 76 not moved.]

Clauses 11 and 12 agreed to.

Clause 13 [Information—offences]:

[Amendment No. 77 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Inspectors]:

[Amendment No. 78 not moved.]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Presumption of parentage in child support cases]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

moved Amendment No. 79: Page 14, line 4, leave out ("that person's") and insert ("the child's"). On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 15, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 79 [Tests for determining parentage]:

[Amendment No. 80 not moved.]

Clause 79 agreed to.

Clause 80 agreed to.

Schedule 8 agreed to.

Clause 16 [Disqualification from driving]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

moved Amendments Nos. 81 to 83: Page 14. line 18, at beginning insert ("in England and Wales"). Page 14, line 19, at end insert ("or 38"). Page 14, line 21, leave out ("a magistrates'") and insert ("the"). On Question, amendments agreed to.

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 84: Page 14, line 30, at end insert (", to buy his food, to take his children to school, or to attend medical treatment"). The noble Earl said: With this, I want to speak also to Amendment No. 86 and Clause 16 stand part.

This clause introduces the deprivation of driving licences as a penalty, which we believe is entirely inappropriate and out of place. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, on having pipped me to the post by putting his name to an amendment to delete the clause before I could do so—but I shall be with him when the time comes.

I am well aware that there is exemption for persons who need a driving licence to earn their living, but in our flexible labour market people who have a job now may not have it in six weeks or six months. If the Minister recalls our debates on housing benefit change of circumstances, she will be as aware of that point as I can possibly make her.

It is already clear that people who do not have a driving licence are disadvantaged in the search for employment, often severely. Amendment No. 86 provides that persons subject to that penalty shall be exempt from the actively seeking work rules for, the period for which they have no driving licence.

Amendment No. 84 deals with other reasons for needing a car. I specified those who need a car to provide food; to take the children to school which, in the case of shared care or in the case of children of a second marriage, may be a real need; or to attend medical treatment. I did not put in to attend the bank or the post office, but in the light of some of the remarks on earlier amendments I may do so before we return to this on Report.

The provision in this clause is another blow to rural England. There are a great many areas in England where one simply cannot travel about unless one has a car. If one should work in those areas, one is unemployable until one retrieves the driving licence. So the Government here are proposing to shoot themselves in the foot. In general, they want more people to be employed. But they are here introducing a provision which means that fewer people will be employed.

I observe that the Minister shakes her head. We have been known to disagree before and will be known to disagree again; and this seems to be one of those cases. I said that this is a blow to rural England; but it is not only rural England. If one is looking for a job in London, if travel to work is radial, across London rather than in and out of the centre, one may well find that one cannot do it without a car. My son, looking for vacation employment when he was a student, was offered a job doing night work in a warehouse, five miles away across London. There was absolutely no way he could do that job unless he had a car to travel to and fro. There was no bus service, even in the day time, and it was an area in which I would not advise anyone to work, and the job centre would not advise anyone to work either, if it meant walking afterwards.

There are plenty of other urban areas in the same situation. So we are introducing here a severe restriction on people's freedom of action; on their chance to be employed. Does the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, wish to intervene?

11.30 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

I just wanted to ask the noble Earl if he would agree with me that all that has to be done in order to retrieve the driving licence is to pay the maintenance.

Earl Russell

The whole basis of the disagreement between me and the Government is that I believe that there are a number of cases under the formula where people cannot pay what is required of them. We had the same argument over the poll tax. The government always said exactly that in defending the poll tax; that people only have to pay up. There were a good many who could not. I can recall struggling to make Ministers admit that. I never succeeded. I do not seem to be doing any better in getting Ministers to admit it in relation to the CSA. But the problems appear to me to be identical and I shall proceed on that basis.

Anyway, even if the person is totally in the wrong—let us assume that for the purpose of argument—does it do any good either to the children, the Government or to the economy of the country to render them unemployable? I should have thought there was a strong argument for saying no to that question. It is on that basis that I tabled these amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Higgins

This is a matter which I raised at Second Reading and one which we feel is important. When this proposal that people should lose their driving licence if they did not meet the requirements of the Child Support Agency was first introduced, it was not clear whether it was to be an additional penalty on top of other penalties, or a new penalty. Nonetheless, it was heralded as a breakthrough when the matter was raised. At Second Reading it was hammered pretty badly on several grounds, not least because there was no connection at all between the penalty on the one hand and the offence on the other. When the matter was discussed at Second Reading I formulated the arguments myself, because they seemed to be overwhelming. This is a strange way of proceeding.

The argument made out by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, was also somewhat strange. He said that this was somehow a blow at rural England. That seems to me to be overstating the situation since it is only a blow at those people in rural England who are not paying their maintenance. The argument put forward against the proposal could not possibly be as silly as that which the Government have in mind. It reduces the whole level of debate to come up with this kind of penalty for this kind of offence. I believe I will have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, in that view.

As I said at Second Reading, there is a huge range of arguments. I was not at that time aware that representations were also being made by the RAC Foundation. I must cover myself here because, although I was totally unaware of them, I should also stress that I did not write them. Noble Lords will know that when we are discussing pensions I normally declare an interest as chairman of a pensions fund. By one of the strangest coincidences, that pension fund may well take over responsibility for the RAC Pension Fund. I do not think it can conceivably be thought that I have an interest, but I mention it in case anyone thinks that that is so.

The arguments that they put forward are considerable and back up in some sense the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell; namely, that to take away a driving licence from someone who has not paid their maintenance agreement may well deprive them of the ability to pay the maintenance. That is a strange proposition coming from the Government.

At Second Reading the Minister put forward arguments based on the American experience. As I stressed then, the American experience is vastly different. I remember when I lived in the United States that one frequently produced a driving licence with a photograph on it for all kinds of purposes, for example cashing cheques. However, in this country I cannot remember when I was asked to produce a driving licence. Indeed, I think most people would have difficulty in managing to find their driving licence. Depriving people of a driving licence will not be an effective bar unless they happen to commit a motoring offence where they are required to produce a driving licence. It may mean that people drive when disqualified and therefore their insurance is not valid; and if they happen to hit someone and kill them, they might not be covered. This is a more serious aspect of the matter.

The Government, having made such a hullabaloo about this matter in the first place, ought seriously to consider whether it is an appropriate penalty. There are a number of other penalties in the Bill. We support the view that it is right to put more emphasis on enforcement and less on an arithmetical calculation of the amount due. We heartily support the Government in that regard and believe that there are cases for tougher penalties on those who fail to take responsibility and pay for their children. However, the introduction of this totally irrelevant penalty will pose a considerable danger. I hope that on reflection, despite the initial spin-doctoring that went on, the Government will think it appropriate to get rid of this proposal and stick to the other more serious penalties that are clearly set out in the Bill.

Baroness Crawley

We should remember why this provision is in the Bill. It is there because only 66 per cent of maintenance due is actually paid at present. Therefore, we have to look at serious ways of ensuring that maintenance due is paid. Although the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, dismissed the American experience, the evidence shows that the very threat of withdrawal led to a vast increase in the amount of maintenance due being paid. In fact, the number of people who had their driving licences withdrawn was very small when compared with the amount of money that came to children as a result of that threat. We return again to the central argument that has featured throughout our discussions this evening; namely, that it is the children who matter. The resources should be going as quickly and speedily as possible to the children. In that case, the threat of withdrawal actually led to some action.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, also referred to other possible penalties instead of removing driving licences. I understand that he was thinking of tagging as a possibility. Surely that would criminalise the parent in front of the child. It is a sanction that is over the top as far as concerns damaging the relationship between the parent and the child. I believe that we have much to learn from the American experience. For example, if the noble Lord wants to hire a video next Saturday night, he may, if he is a new hirer in the video store, be asked to produce a driving licence as evidence of his identity.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

He will be in Amsterdam, so there is not much chance of that.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

We really are in danger of going over the top here. My noble friend just mentioned tagging people who do not pay maintenance—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The proposition that tagging should be considered for non-payment was put forward by Mr Eric Pickles in another place. That would criminalise the matter and make it a criminal offence instead of a civil one. It would mean having someone tagged in front of his children for failing to pay maintenance.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

As I said, we are going over the top. Indeed, it seems that everyone is going over the top, except me. I have to say that I am opposed to this provision on principle. It is completely unacceptable that we should be considering withdrawing driving licences for some of the reasons outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. I do not see how this will improve the system.

I simply cannot understand why a government who are supposedly wedded to fairness and individual freedom should introduce such a proposal and such a clause. It is not good enough to say that this works elsewhere. What they do in America is entirely up to them: what we do here must respect our own conditions and our history. Indeed, what might work in America will not necessarily work here.

In my view, the proposal is very unfair. It is also extreme and discriminatory in that it is designed to punish just one section of the population, albeit one that constitutes 50 per cent of the population; namely, men. As we heard this afternoon, the main "culprits", if we can call them that, are men. Therefore, it is discriminatory. I thought that my noble friend the Minister and the Government were against discrimination on sex and other grounds. Moreover, many of those who are reluctant to pay maintenance have, in their view—though not perhaps in ours—very good and valid reasons for withholding payment. Indeed, one of the most common is difficulty of access. Everyone here knows about difficulties of access. That causes acrimony of the worst kind. Parents now, apparently, are to be treated worse than criminals. They are to be treated worse than robbers, muggers, rapists, paedophiles, drug dealers and IRA terrorists—I do not think that there are any proposals to take away their driving licences.

11.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I hope that I can help my noble friend. I wonder whether he is aware that in March 1997 the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, introduced a Bill on this matter. There are already pilot schemes in Norfolk and Greater Manchester which allow magistrates to withdraw driving licences for sentences other than those associated with driving. I hope that in the light of those comment; my noble friend will withdraw his somewhat over the top remarks, if I may say so.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I most certainly will not. Those are pilot schemes and therefore have not been introduced generally. We are including provisions in a Bill as regards people who do not pay maintenance in advance of introducing them for muggers and rapists and other criminals. I should have thought that my noble friend, who I think believes in individual freedom, would not pray in aid a proposal brought forward by the Conservatives in 1997. I was certainly opposed to that at the time. I remain opposed to it at the present time because the punishments are not relative.

Driving licences were introduced as documents to show that persons were fit to drive and could drive safely. They were not introduced as an internal passport, which they now threaten to become. This is the typical tool of control beloved of authoritarian states such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Those remarks may be over the top but that is precisely the kind of thing that happens in such countries. I am ashamed to say that it is now happening here.

My noble fried ought to explain how the clause will protect those whose livelihood is gained from driving. I know that provision is mentioned in the Bill, but is it intended that such people will be exempt from a ban when others are not? Usually there is no exemption from a ban. Will those people be in a different category? This provision introduces a new concept which does not apply to the general withdrawal of driving licences.

What about enforcement? How shall we enforce this measure? God above, the police have enough on their hands at the present time without chasing people who have not paid their maintenance to check whether they are driving without a driving licence! What about the police? Their resources are already stretched to the limit. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the measure will result in an increase in the number of people driving while disqualified, putting the rest of us at risk, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, mentioned.

I find it amazing that the New Labour Party—perhaps we should take the "Labour" out of it—should come forward with a proposal of this kind. The withdrawal of driving licences is bound to be seen as the thin end of the wedge. My noble friend says that pilot schemes already exist. This will pave the way for driving licences to be withdrawn for all kinds of other reasons, not just for criminal offences but for all kinds of other misdemeanours. This could be the thin end of the wedge. People should be loath to introduce this kind of legislation.

The local elections showed a growing alienation from government on the part of many sections of the community. When men realise how they are being singled out for special punishments, there will be further alienation.

This is a nasty, discriminatory, extremist and authoritarian clause. There will be no vote on it tonight, but it will certainly be voted on at Report stage. Even if I am the only one to vote against it, I shall make sure there is a Division. I sincerely hope that at Report stage the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and others will ensure that there is a vote to get rid of this unnecessary, unwarranted and nasty piece of legislation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I gather that my noble friend does not approve of this measure.

Let me go back a step. All of the changes to child support that we are proposing are to ensure that maintenance flows to children in a way which is as conducive as possible to mediation, negotiation and good relationships between the parents. That in turn will benefit the children. We want compliance and we are hoping to get compliance. We have a simple formula: men are being asked to pay less; parents with care will be offered a maintenance disregard; if maintenance flows, men will see the money going to their children; we will have the development of a local face-to-face service which can offer interviews in order to sort out problems and so on. We want compliance.

Enforcement, which is what we are now talking about, only kicks in when compliance fails. We want compliance to work and we want to change the culture in order for it to do so.

Lord Higgins

Is it not the case that, if this proposal goes forward, many people who are dependent on being able to drive for their living will find it completely counterproductive. Intrinsically, one is introducing a measure which will reduce people's ability to pay; therefore the possibility of compliance is reduced, not increased

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

On the contrary, the threat of this should help increase compliance. One will lose one's licence only if one fails to pay maintenance. We want people to pay their maintenance. Enforcement kicks in only when people do not voluntarily pay their maintenance. If I may say so, the noble Lord's point is back to front. This possible penalty would kick in only when someone has failed to comply. We are therefore talking about the area of enforcement.

Lord Higgins

Will the noble Baroness give way?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps I can respond to the noble Lord's point and then perhaps he can intervene. I shall of course give way if he wishes.

One has to ask what remedies are currently available. My noble friend is right, it is mostly men who are non-resident parents; therefore, by definition, it is mostly men who fail to pay maintenance liabilities. Any penalty which insists that men—that is, fathers—pay maintenance, can, on that argument, be regarded as discriminatory. By a definition of the statistics, this penalty will apply mostly to men. I hope that my noble friend will accept that argument. Whether it is a fine, imprisonment, a restraint order or a garnishee order, all penalties will be levied on those who do not pay their maintenance—and, statistically, they will be mostly men. It is men who are the non-resident parents and it is women, for the most part, who are the caring parents.

I hope that my noble friend will accept that this is not discriminatory, except in so far as most nonresident parents are men and, therefore, any kind of penalty for failure to pay will fall disproportionately on men by virtue of that fact.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Will my noble friend give way?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Of course.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

She is of course correct that the non-resident parents are usually men. Is she aware that one of the reasons for this is that men believe that if they go to court for custody of the children they do not stand a chance; that custody is usually—indeed generally—given to the woman? That is why men generally are the non-resident parents.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

It is too late to engage in that debate tonight.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

No, it is not.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am willing to, but I am not sure that my other noble friends are. To argue that men are unfairly treated by the courts in determining who gets residence is to put to question the whole of the developments in social policies since the Children Act 1989.

I accept that there may be cases where there should be greater contact between them. There are no saints or sinners in this story. I am not saying that all lone parents are perfect and that all non-resident parents are sinners—far from it. Nonetheless, I doubt whether few people would not agree, as the courts themselves agree, that, by and large, the parent with care tends primarily to be the mother. Where that is not the case, there may be good reasons for it. But I suggest to my noble friend that at this stage we do not go into that argument.

I was seeking to address the point that the penalty is discriminatory against men. I was trying to suggest that, on my noble friend's argument, all penalties are discriminatory against men simply because they are the vast majority of non-resident parents and the vast majority of those failing to do what they should. My noble friend's argument seems to follow the line that men have an inalienable right to drive associated with an inalienable right not to support children. I really do not accept that.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

That is not my argument. My argument is that the driving licence is a document which entitles people to drive because they have passed a test to drive and because they are safe to drive. That is my argument. That licence is being used improperly to enforce other parts of the law. .1 am sure that my argument is correct. It is a pity that my noble friend does not listen to it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I have listened very carefully to my noble friend. I simply disagree with him. He argues that it is improper. I argue that it is proper. That is simply a juxtaposition of different perspectives.

What we have at the moment is a range of penalties if a non-resident parent fails to pay his maintenance. They include a fine. They include a distraint order. We know that a distraint on goods is effective in less than 10 per cent of cases. They include a garnishee order, which is on the property. It may be 10 or 15 years before that property is sold and the garnishee order comes into effect. They include imprisonment.

We have heard about depriving someone of his livelihood. From the way noble Lords have spoken, one would think that imprisonment is not currently available. If we currently had as an option disqualification as a penalty for men and in addition we were introducing imprisonment for the first time, everything that noble Lords have said about depriving people of their livelihood and so on would be valid. On the contrary, what we are doing is proposing to the Committee that we add another penalty, one which we know from experience abroad—if we have not experienced it ourselves, why should we not turn to experience from abroad?—is more likely to lead to compliance than many of the other penalties.

The problem is making someone pay any money for maintenance. Adding a fine simply adds to the amount of money he is required to pay and does not deliver. Distraint of goods does not deliver. The bailiffs do not get access in other than about 10 per cent of cases. Garnishee orders do not work. With imprisonment, what you are saying to the child is that your father is in prison because he refuses to support his child.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend but I really must tell her that when we discussed the original Bill I and others opposed imprisonment. It is inappropriate.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Possibly, but the point is that imprisonment is one of the penalties for contempt of court. If the CSA has taken someone to court for failing to do something, the courts currently have that power to do so. I ask the Committee: which is better for the child; which is better for the parent with care; and which is better for the father—that he should have his driving licence taken away or that he should go to prison? I have no doubt in my mind that all of the arguments advanced about livelihood, children and rural society and all the other flimflarmmery that has been offered to defend men's inalienable right to drive their cars without at the same time supporting their children are based on a notion that somehow imprisonment is not a realistic option.

We are trying to find a way of ensuring that men comply with their obligation to support their children. This measure produces an additional penalty which is available not to the CSA but to magistrates. If magistrates so determine that they wish to pursue the removal of a driving licence rather than imprisonment, that must surely be in the better interests of the man, the better interests of him maintaining his livelihood and the better interests of the child; and, what is more, the moment he starts paying his maintenance his driving licence is restored. Once he is in prison, he does not have that choice; he is there until the end of the sentence for contempt of court. I know which is the more serious of the two penalties. If we ask which it is more decent to do, to threaten to remove a driving licence or to threaten to send someone to prison, I know which sanction is, first, likely to be more effective, secondly, less likely to damage a child, and, thirdly, more likely to ensure that maintenance will be paid, and that is the removal of the driving licence.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

It is fascist.


Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My noble friend uses the word "fascist". A lot of sanctimonious nonsense has been talked during this debate. I really will not accept this language—"Hitler", "This is fascist", and all the rest. What we are saying is that magistrates will have the option of another sanction in their repertoire which will not be a failure, as fines are—which simply add to the debt which is already causing the problem of payment. It does not end up imprisoning the man and does not try to seize his goods, which in any case is ineffective. My noble friend appears to be saving that he is in favour of all penalties just so long as they are not effective. That is his objection, I suspect—.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

0: I am not saying that at all.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

—that the provision will be effective, and will therefore bite and will actually make men pay. I am sorry to see that.

Amendment No. 84 would mean that magistrates would have to inquire into whether the non-resident parent needed his licence to buy food, take children to school or attend for medical treatment. We consider that requiring the courts to inquire into whether the non-resident parent needs his driving licence to earn a living, together with an inquiry into his means, is a clear and vigorous provision. The further inquiries suggested by the amendment would place an unreasonable burden on magistrates. It would be difficult to define the circumstances when the suggested provisions might apply. For example, the non-resident parent may have a partner who can drive. Some magistrates may decide that the new partner can take the children to school or buy the food; others may not inquire into the availability of alternatives.

We believe that all parents should accept responsibility for the financial support of the children. Those who refuse to do so, who can pay but are failing to do so, must see that we mean business about collecting maintenance. It is right that the Child Support Agency should have an adequate range of sanctions that will help achieve this.

Amendment No. 86 seeks to change the rules on availability for work and qualifying for JSA. The effect of the amendment would be to allow the non-resident parent to be exempt from the "actively seeking work" rules for the period of any disqualification.

Exempting a jobseeker who is deprived of a driving licence under this sanction from the "actively seeking work" provision would be at odds with the key purpose of JSA, which is to ensure that recipients maintain a clear labour market focus. There is nothing to prevent jobseekers who are disqualified from driving under this provision either paying their maintenance, whereupon they will have their driving licence restored, or from seeking other types of work not requiring a driving licence. We might expect a jobseeker who is deprived of a driving licence under these provisions because he is failing to pay his maintenance to realign his job goals to take account of the disqualification.

JSA regulations already provide protection for those who live in remote or rural areas. In determining whether a jobseeker satisfies the "actively seeking work" requirement, the regulations state that regard shall be had for all the circumstances of the case, including the location and availability of vacancies.

The clause introduces a new civil penalty, as opposed to a criminal penalty such as imprisonment, that will enable an order to be made by magistrates disqualifying a non-resident parent from holding or obtaining a driving licence. Under the current enforcement arrangements, the CSA would first apply to the magistrates for a liability order. Discretion would then be used as a method of enforcement in individual cases: for example, bailiff action, garnishee orders or ultimately going back to the courts for committal. This new penalty will be added as a final sanction to give magistrates an alternative to committal proceedings.

Lord Higgins

Is the Minister saying that withdrawal of the driving licence is a civil penalty rather than a criminal penalty?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

As I understand it, it is a civil penalty. We are talking about civil penalties. That is one of the virtues of the provision. We are trying not to cross the line between civil and criminal jurisdictions.

These are the procedures that the magistrates' court will have in mind. It is not the CSA but the courts that will decide the matter. The court will have to be satisfied that the non-resident parent has deliberately refused or neglected, through his own fault, to pay the maintenance owed. The courts have to be satisfied on a point which I am sure will concern the noble Lord.

This measure is a serious penalty, intended to be used where the non-resident parent has clearly and persistently failed to meet his responsibility to maintain a child. I would expect it to be used only when other methods of collecting maintenance, such as a deduction from earnings order or a distress action, has failed. I repeat, we are talking about people who can pay but will not do so and magistrates realise that.

We understand that the loss of a driving licence may have a particularly hard impact on people who live in rural areas. For this reason we have placed a specific duty on the courts to consider whether a licence is needed by a parent to earn his living. But it would fatally undermine the effectiveness of this penalty if it could never be applied where there was a risk of the non-resident parent losing his job as a result. In practice, it would give magistrates no alternative but to imprison those parents to whom the driving licence penalty could not be applied. In other words, if one lived in a rural area one would be more likely to be sent to gaol on the basis of the argument that one could not afford to lose one's driving licence, which would be perverse.

Lord Higgins

Is a magistrates' court a civil court?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

As far as I am aware, it deals with both civil and criminal matters. I am receiving support from elsewhere for the point that I have just made, but if I have misled the noble Lord I am happy to write to him about the nature of the jurisdiction. Parking fines are the subject of civil and not criminal offences. Some of the debts handled by magistrates' courts are not criminal matters. Magistrates deal with other matters as a first step on the road to the criminal jurisdiction; for example, assault, burglary or whatever, which are criminal offences. I do not know whether the noble Lord wishes to pursue this point, but if I can provide any further elucidation I am happy to try to do so.

This measure would be fatally undermined if it could never be applied in rural areas. If that happened the person concerned would, instead, be liable to imprisonment. We would far rather that the person concerned was in work and paid maintenance, but for those few hard cases we must demonstrate that to fail to support your child when you are able to do so is unacceptable. In each case the magistrates, not the CSA, will decide whether the current penalty of committal or the new penalty of removal of driving licence is the more appropriate sanction. If the maintenance arrears have still not been paid at the end of the disqualification period an application may be made to the court either for a further period of disqualification or committal proceedings. That penalty will apply equally to non-resident parents who live in Scotland.

Experience elsewhere shows that the threat of losing the driving licence ensures that money flows. In the past I have cited cases in Minnesota, Texas and elsewhere, but I shall not do so tonight. This measure works. We believe that the possibility of withdrawal of the licence will make non-resident parents thinks twice about trying to evade their responsibilities. Unlike imprisonment and some of the other penalties suggested in another place—for example tagging—this will not bite on the child.

I hope the Committee accepts that what we propose here is an added sanction that is available to magistrates when they determine what to do with someone who repeatedly fails to pay maintenance. We seek to introduce a new penalty, which is of a lesser order than some of the other penalties that are currently available, that may obviate the need for someone to go to prison. We hope that, as shown abroad, the threat of it will ensure that maintenance flows to the child without criminalising the father in so doing. That must be to the advantage of the child and mean that maintenance flows. I hope that as a result noble Lords will withdraw their objections to this proposal.

Earl Russell

Before I say anything else, I shall forgo any advantage which may be derived to my argument from the suggestion that this proposal is discriminatory against men. I am reminded of a rather wise remark by Christina Lamer in a book on witchcraft in which she said that prosecution of witchcraft was only anti-female in the sense in which prosecution of violence was anti-male. That remark set up a revolving door which I entered 15 years ago and from which I have not yet emerged. I am not quite so satisfied by the argument about whether this proposal is discriminatory as between drivers and non-drivers. It seems to me that if two people commit the same offence and one is a driver and the other is not the former will be the more severely punished of the two.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps I may dispute that. If he does not have a driving licence, the alternative would be for the magistrates to consider committal to prison. So it is not true that the person holding a driving licence would be more disadvantaged than someone who does not.

Earl Russell

That brings me to the point on which the Minister spent a great deal of effort about the argument of comparison between prison and deprivation of driving licence. It is an accepted point that if one breaks the law prison may be the ultimate consequence. But what we are comparing here is a spell in prison with being a second-class citizen living in the world outside. I do not think that that comparison is as easy as the Minister suggests.

I accept, of course, that people who are not safe in charge of a motor vehicle must be deprived of a driving licence for the protection of the public. But to turn individuals into second-class citizens in the course of their ordinary life in the world singles out a group of people in a way which causes me some anxieties. I do not want to reach any firm decisions on the question today, but it is a more complicated argument than the Minister realises.

Very much to my surprise, the noble Baroness stated that people who are deprived of their driving licences may obtain other types of work. I do not know what part of the country she is thinking about. There are some where that is possible; there are a great many where it is not. The noble Baroness talked about the driver getting his licence back. That may be so but by that time he may well have lost his job. He will have lost the ability, therefore, to pay maintenance, and the ability to comply.

It seems to me, as it does to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that the whole proposal is shooting the gander that lays the golden eggs.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I still do not understand what I regard as the back to front nature of the argument. A person is either actively seeking work or in a job. He fails to pay his maintenance. On the example given by the noble Lord, he knows that a driving licence is essential for his continued job. He will say to himself, "I am being asked to pay child maintenance. I do not want to pay child maintenance. If I do not pay child maintenance I may lose my licence and may lose my job." What is the response to that? "I had better pay my child maintenance."

Earl Russell

I was coming to that point which was raised most clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. Her argument is simply that this will increase compliance. Perhaps it will but, having lived in the United States, I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, makes. One cannot even write a cheque to pay for one's groceries without producing a driving licence in the United States. Therefore I do not think that the situations are comparable.

We have here people subjected to a penalty for not complying with a requirement on which they have never been allowed a hearing. That leaves two possibilities still open. One is the possibility that they cannot pay. I shall give way to the Minister in a moment, but I ask her to consider that she may be mistaken in asserting that there are no people who cannot pay what is assessed. She cannot know that without the individual hearing. Cases are infinitely various. She is beginning to sound very much like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, saying, "It is not a question of can't pay but a question of won't pay". I do not think that the noble Baroness can know that without a hearing. I give way.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The noble Earl seems to be suggesting that the CSA will take away the driving licence. It is the magistrates' courts which will do so if that is the sanction they propose. It will be they who will hear the case. So this notion that the individual will not be able to put his case to a magistrate and have those circumstances taken into account is simply not true.

Earl Russell

Will the person be able to argue to the magistrate that the CSA's assessment of him is unjust because he cannot pay it?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

No, because the CSA's assessment falls on his income and the number of children. By definition, it is not that he cannot pay but what priority he puts on that payment over other items of expenditure.

Earl Russell

In fact the Minister concedes my point.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I do not accept the noble Earl's point.

Earl Russell

So I observe. That is precisely the cause of our problems. Let me assume a particular case in which the debt is due to Her Majesty's Government. For many centuries Her Majesty's Government have made a claim that debts due to them take priority over all other debts. You cannot have two first priorities. If the person owes, say, for a back assessment of income tax a sum which he cannot pay without failing to pay his child maintenance, what then is his legal duty? When the Minister can give me a convincing answer to that question I may be a little more prepared to listen.

That is my first possibility and I do not retreat from it. My second possibility is that although the assessment may be perfectly just, the person concerned may be unwilling to accept it because he has not been able to have a hearing and to argue his case. The link in most people's minds between having a hearing and consenting to what is imposed on them is very deep indeed. One of the reasons why the CSA has failed so comprehensively, which is not changed in the Bill, is that that point has not been taken on board.

I take the Minister's point about the ineffectiveness of penalties, but I am not asserting an inalienable right to drive. My favourite remedy for the problem would be improvement in public transport so that driving was not so necessary. The Minister knows that perfectly well. She is saying that because other penalties are ineffective something must be done. That is the most dangerous cry in politics.

Lord Higgins

I am grateful to the noble Earl. Once an argument is put forward that the real effective penalty is removing driving licences, it will not be restricted to issues of child maintenance. Every offence one can think of will involve the removal of the driving licence and that is the real thin end of the wedge.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The proposals were introduced in March 1997 by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on behalf of the noble Lord's government. Why is he now so bad mouthing proposals introduced in the dying weeks of his last government?

Lord Higgins

The noble Baroness knows perfectly well that I do not bear responsibility for the last government. But perhaps she will tell us what the result of the pilot schemes were and whether any licences were removed.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I cannot tell the Committee about the results of pilot schemes. However, I wanted to ask the noble Lord since when it has been the usual stance of an Opposition Front Bench only a couple of years after departing government to take no responsibility whatever for the actions of his own government just three years before. I have heard about irresponsibility, but that is to put a new meaning to the word.

Earl Russell

As one who opposed those provisions when they were introduced, and still does, the ability to admit error is something which in politics I prize. I honour the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for doing it and I am perfectly ready to accept the points that he makes.

Lord Higgins

As the debate is becoming a little disorderly, perhaps I may intervene. The noble Baroness raised the issue of a pilot scheme, of which I was not previously aware. Having done so, I asked whether it was implemented and whether licences were removed and she said that she does not know. That seems a very odd way of proceeding.

Earl Russell

That was the next question I was going to ask. Would the Government consider deferring the introduction of the clause until the pilot schemes are completed and we can observe the results and debate them? That might save the Government a good deal of trouble.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The evaluation report of the pilot scheme, which, given that it was introduced by the previous government, the previous administration might have been interested in following through, was published at the beginning of March. The report shows that its use was not particularly high partly because one of the areas in which it was piloted was Norfolk. There, magistrates tended not to use it and went for fines.

The point I want to make is that they were opting for fines in cases in which the problem was not about failure to pay money and therefore people might have been willing to pay fines. Our problem as regards the CSA is that the obvious remedy, which is to fine someone for failing to do something, simply adds more debt to the outstanding debt.

Lord Higgins

Did the pilot scheme result in anyone losing their driving licence?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord. This is a Home Office matter. I gave evidence that the previous administration was quite comfortable to use the removal of driving licences for offences that were not related to driving. That appeared to be news to the noble Lord.

Earl Russell

When I first introduced this amendment very nearly an hour ago, I said that it might take some time. I did not intend it to take quite as long as it has done. I believe that we have gone on long enough. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

moved Amendment No. 85: Page 14, line 42, leave out from beginning to end of line 8 on page 15 and insert— ("(6) In this section "the court" means—

  1. (a) in England and Wales, a magistrates' court;
  2. (b) in Scotland, the sheriff.").
On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 86 not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

moved Amendments Nos. 87 to 90: Page 16, leave out lines 19 to 26. Page 16, leave out lines 42 to 44. Page 17, line 4, leave out ("40A(10)") and insert ("40A(8)"). Page 17, line 4, at end insert— ("( ) In section 164(5) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (power of constables to require production of driving licence etc.), after "Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988" there shall be inserted ", section 40B of the Child Support Act 1991". ( In section 27(3) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (offence of failing to produce a licence), for t he word "then," there shall be substituted ", or if the holder of the licence does not produce it and its counterpart as required by section 40B of the Child Support Act 1991. then,"."). On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 16, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 17 [Civil imprisonment: Scotland]:

Baroness Millis of Heigham

moved Amendment No. 91: Page 17, leave out lines 9 to 18. On Question, amendment agreed to. Clause 17, as amended, agreed to.

[Amendment No. 92 not moved.]

Clause 18 [Financial penalties]:

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 93: Page 18, line 45. leave out ("his absolute") and insert ("the reasonable exercise of his"). The noble Earl said: I hope that this will not take long. My purpose is probing in the first instance. I need to see the Minister's answer.

This amendment deals with the provision in Clause 18(2) that a penalty for arrears of child maintenance shall be, determined by the Secretary of State in his absolute discretion". My amendment would alter that to the "reasonable exercise of" his discretion. The real purpose of the probing is to discover exactly what the Minister believes to be the effect of the word "absolute". It is a word with slightly uneasy overtones. However, my specific question is: is it the Minister's intention that the clause should bar the exercise of judicial review? If that is her intention, what does she believe is the likelihood of it being effective?

Before she answers, I hope that she might bear in mind the ruling of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, which I have quoted before, in the case of Fayed v. Home Secretary, that if Parliament wishes to confer a power to act unreasonably it must say so in express words. I do not believe that these are express words within the noble and learned Lord's meaning. However, that is something on which Ministers might wish to take future advice. Therefore, in the hope of hearing an answer which might reassure me that I do not need to take the matter further, I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Amendment No. 93 relates to the provision which will enable the CSA to impose a discretionary financial penalty of up to 25 per cent of the maintenance owed where payments are unreasonably late or missed altogether. Penalty amounts will be set at the discretion of the Secretary of State and will be used by the agency basically as a tool in negotiations. The aim is to persuade non-resident parents to meet their responsibility to their children in full and on time rather than to impose the penalty.

The amendment alters the wording on the face of the Bill to specify that the use of discretion should be reasonable. This amendment is unnecessary. The penalty will not be imposed automatically. The circumstances which have led to a late or missed payment will be taken into account when considering whether a penalty would be reasonable. The nonresident parent's position is further protected in that he will be able to appeal to an independent tribunal against a decision to impose a penalty and/or the amount of the penalty.

The noble Earl asked also whether it will remove his right to judicial review. My understanding is that it will not.

The Government are determined to ensure that nonresident parents meet their financial responsibilities and, obviously, as we discussed earlier this evening, we shall seek to get tough on those who do not. This simple administrative penalty is to recognise the additional work involved when payments are received late or not made at all. The money will not be kept by the agency; it will go to the Treasury. We believe that it is right that the taxpayer should not have to foot the bill for the extra work that the agency has to do when maintenance has not been paid.

Earl Russell

The Minister does not need o explain the policy intention. I only want to know the effect in the Bill of the word "absolute".

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I do not understand the noble Earl's question because any power must be operated reasonably. Therefore, there is no effect of the word "absolute". When the noble Earl asked me the second question about judicial review, I was able to tell him that that right is not lost.

Earl Russell

If the word "absolute" has no effect, why not withdraw it from the Bill?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Because we believe that it is right to protect the authority of the Secretary or State in that situation.

Earl Russell

How is that authority protected by the insertion of the word "absolute"?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Because, as far as I am aware, that is consistent with the arrangements under the Social Security Administration Act, which we discussed earlier, as regards how the structures of decision-making, the workings of tribunals and so on are organised.

Earl Russell

Either this confers an arbitrary power or it is an example of the complaint of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, about the prolixity of the statute book. Either way, I am afraid that we must return to this matter. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 agreed to.

Baroness Amos

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes past midnight.

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