HL Deb 09 July 2002 vol 637 cc649-53

8.19 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved [34th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved. I shall also speak to the Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) (Modification and Amendment) Regulations 2002.

The first of those two child support provisions involves the revival of what has become known as the deferred debt scheme.

This set of regulations will modify subsection (5) of Section 27 of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 and Regulation 3 of the Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) Regulations 2000 to revive the deferred debt scheme. The reason is that the scheme was good and benign but was time-limited under the existing legislation until 31st March this year.

The regulations before us today provide for agreements under the scheme to be made until 31st March 2005. Those agreements will expire by 31st March 2006 and final compensation payments will be made in 2006. There is no significance attached to those dates. We have simply given ourselves plenty of head space.

I hope that your Lordships will be pleased that the scheme is to be revived. It helps non-resident parents who are faced with substantial arrears, partly through no fault of their own, and provides encouragement for them to keep up regular payments of maintenance.

Essentially, where the CSA has been responsible for a delay of at least three months, the deferred debt scheme allows the agency to come to an agreement with the non-resident parent. If the non-resident parent agrees to pay at least six months' worth of his arrears, as well as his existing continuing liability, the agency can suspend any collection and enforcement action on the balance of the arrears.

It is possible that a person will have arrears of, say, £20,000. He may be self-employed and may not enter the system. The regulations will enable us to negotiate with him and, if he pays his current liability reliably for the next 12 months, he need pay only six months' worth of that debt, which may be, say, £5,000 or £3,000. The remainder will be suspended. If that money is paid, the agency may then make a compensatory payment to the parent with care if the money is owed to her or him, as the case may be. Sometimes the money is owed to the Secretary of State and sometimes to the parent with care. As a result, if the non-resident parent keeps to his agreement, he will cease to be liable for the remaining arrears. However, if he defaults, the remaining arrears will remain payable.

The intention behind the regulations is to ensure that where the agency has been in part responsible for the delay, non-resident parents do not find themselves with a hill to climb that they cannot manage. In this way, we hope that we may get them into the habit of paying regular maintenance. It is good for the child; it is good for the parent with care, who will receive the remainder of the arrears; and I hope that, as a result, we shall have brought someone out of the shadows. The regulations are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

I turn to the Child Support Appeals (Jurisdiction of Courts) Order 2002. This order has been made by the Lord Chancellor under the power in subsections (1) and (7) of Section 45 of the Child Support Act 1991. It has been made by the Lord Chancellor because it relates to the family courts. However, it mainly covers child support policy, which, as noble Lords will be aware, is my responsibility. Therefore, the Lord Chancellor has agreed that it is sensible to debate this order alongside the amending child support regulations.

Appeals against child support decisions are made under Section 20 of the Child Support Act 1991. Such appeals are normally determined by an appeal tribunal established under the Social Security Act 1998. But appeals on the ground of disputed parentage are routed to a court instead of an appeal tribunal by the Child Support Appeals (Jurisdiction of Courts) Order 1993.

Of course, declarations of parentage have a wider legal application beyond child support. They are binding, for example, in immigration and inheritance disputes in the same way as they are binding on child support issues. Therefore, we believe that it is sensible to import the existing powers to go to the courts into the new child support regulations. As a result, this will be binding on the agency.

A non-resident parent can declare and reply directly to the court at any time. Such a declaration is then binding on the CSA. If the person in question is found not to be the parent of the child, any child support maintenance that he may already have paid will be refunded in full by the agency. As I said, the question is simply where the appeal goes. We are suggesting that it is appropriate that it continues to go via the court simply because the declaration of parentage has implications which go wider than child support.

I could elaborate but I do not believe that I need to do so unless your Lordships wish to push me on any aspect of the order. It is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved [34th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I shall not detain the House long. So far as concerns the Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) (Modification and Amendment) Regulations 2002, perhaps I may ensure that I understand what the noble Baroness has just said. The scheme provides that, in cases where there has been a delay of more than six months in making a maintenance assessment and where at least three months of the delay was due to the Child Support Agency, the absent parent may be allowed to pay only the last six months' worth of the arrears of child support maintenance that has accrued.

I am not absolutely clear whether that concession means that the parent with care will receive any less than he would otherwise have done or whether the difference is made up by the taxpayer. That is essentially the point which has given me some cause for concern.

I also understand that the arrears are suspended if the individual concerned agrees to pay the future charges regularly. But is it the case that that suspension will continue indefinitely, even though the individual continues to pay on a regular basis? Is there a time limit?

So far as concerns the order, as I understand it, effectively it perpetuates the existing situation introduced by Statutory Instrument 9396 and maintains the position that decisions on parentage should be decided by the courts rather than by a tribunal. That seems to me eminently sensible. Indeed, it has some topical interest in that it relates to a case which hit the headlines this morning. It is obviously a decision that should be made by a court. Therefore, I have no reason to object to what is proposed.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I, too, have no objection either to the order or the regulations. The temporary compensation scheme has always been a sensible approach to a problem which has been capable of turning into an avalanche falling on to the head of a parent whose assessment has been delayed. Its continuation is clearly necessary because of the delay in the introduction of the new Act. I believe, first, that that delay is no fault of the Minister. Secondly, in the course of proceedings on the Tax Credits Bill we have already had our pound of flesh. I do not believe that we are entitled to a second and I shall not ask for one.

With regard to the jurisdiction of courts, I believe that clearly it is sensible that questions of paternity, which have wide ramifications and raise rather complicated questions about rules of evidence, should go to the courts. Like the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I believe that that case appears a great deal stronger today than it did yesterday.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their response. I believe that the precise questions to which I need to return are those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, concerning the parent with care and her position under the regulations. Your Lordships will forgive me if I use gendered language in relation to this matter.

The parent with care would not receive any less, although she may well receive it later. Let us assume that a person is self-employed. He has arrears of £10,000. As a result, he has been ducking and weaving. He may still be seeing the child but not paying any money. He is liable for £30 a week, but he regards the £10,000 as too much to pay and therefore continues to operate in the shadows.

We may be able to come to an agreement with him whereby he pays the £30 a week. He pays off six months' worth of arrears, which, although I am unable to work it out, may amount to approximately £1,500. He pays regularly over the next 12 months and also, over that period, pays back six months' worth of the arrears. If he does that satisfactorily for 12 months, those arrears will then be suspended indefinitely and he will not have to pay any more. However, if, in the process, he falters, the arrears can still come back into play.

As for the parent with care, at the end of 12 months some of the £10,000 which is owed in arrears may be owed to the Secretary of State if the individual is receiving benefit. Some of it may be owed to the parent if she has entered work. If it is owed to the Secretary of State, it is put aside. If it is owed to the parent, the taxpayer will make up the difference. Therefore, the parent recovers the money that would have been paid because we accept that, to a degree, the agency was culpable in not getting the money to her earlier. For our purposes, the important point is that that arrangement has proved successful in bringing people out of the shadows and into paying maintenance reliably in future, thus reducing future burdens on taxpayers to support parents on benefit.

On Question, Motion agreed to.