Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill
Lord Northbourne (Crossbench)
My Lords, in Committee, I expressed concern that the narrow emphasis of the Bill and of the Child Support Act 1991 on the financial responsibilities of a non-resident parent could well be misleading, by suggesting that they were the only important obligations on a non-resident parent. In their White Paper, the Government say:
"As explained in the Green Paper, we are convinced that one of the reasons for the failure of the existing child support arrangements is that they do not work properly with other family responsibilities".
However, the Bill perpetuates that situation, not making the slightest reference to other responsibilities, such as nurture, love, care, guidance and education.
In Committee, I suggested that we should use the Bill as a vehicle to define the obligations and responsibilities of the absent parent. That suggestion was rejected by the Minister. I now accept that she was right. With the help of the Library, I have done a lot of research and I now realise that the law of parental responsibility in this country is in a state of chaos compared with even such a near neighbour as Scotland. The Minister is right to say that to attempt to define parental responsibility in the Bill would be too ambitious.
However, there remain two things that we need to do in the Bill. The first is to ensure that it is crystal clear what the word "maintenance" means in the Bill--that it means only financial maintenance, because that is what the Government want it to mean. Secondly, we should make it clear in the Bill that neither it nor the 1991 Act in any way subsumes or reduces the responsibilities of a non-resident parent, other than the financial responsibilities to the child.
Section 1(2) of the 1991 Act absolves the absent parent of any responsibility for maintenance beyond paying over the money laid down in the Act. The Bill does not change that situation; it merely alters the basis for the calculation of the sums to be paid.
That is why the definition of the word "maintenance" is very important. I have found no definition in the Bill or the 1991 Act. The Government want the word to mean no more than financial maintenance, but is that really what it means? If "maintenance" were to be held by the courts to mean more than financial maintenance, it could seriously prejudice a child's right to other forms of care from the absent parent. There are grounds for believing that the Government's assumption about the meaning of the word could be challenged.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives nine meanings or usages of the word and 16 meanings for the word "maintain". These include two usages that support the interpretation of providing financial support, but there are several others that support other interpretations. They include
"The action of giving aid, countenance or support"
"To keep up friendly relations or correspondence with".
It would be useful to have a definition in the Bill. I have suggested one possible formulation in my Amendment No. 3.
My other two amendments address my concern that the 1991 Act does not make it explicitly clear that the Government and Parliament intend that the financial maintenance that is dealt with in the Bill is still only one part of the totality of a non-resident parent's obligations. My Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are suggestions for achieving that objective. They would not detract from the Government's purpose or intentions for the Bill, but they would make a point that needs to be made--a point that I believe has the support of all sides of the House. I beg to move.