Clause 43

Welfare Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 3rd March 2009.

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Child support maintenance: offences relating to information

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 11:00 am, 3rd March 2009

I beg to move amendment 83, in clause 43, page 49, leave out line 8.

The clause requires a person liable to make payments of child support maintenance to notify a change of address, or any other change of circumstances. The amendment leaves out the line that says

“any other change of circumstances”.

This is a probing amendment to ask the Minister to give the Committee more detail about the type of information that the Government envisage being used.

On the face of it, the clause is drafted incredibly widely: someone would be guilty of an offence for not notifying any other change of circumstances with no information as to what that might mean. Ministers clearly envisage some of that detail being contained in regulations, but I should like to set out for the Committee some of the areas of concern in order to inform the nature of the regulations and how tightly they are drafted.

Some of the information and some of the concerns have been raised by Families Need Fathers, which is keen to campaign in this area. It has spelt out the concerns about the lack of due specificity on the face of the Bill. It has also raised concerns, which I know the Government share as they set out in their document how they thought the regulations might be used, that, should those regulations not be defined tightly enough, it will generate a significant number of flows of information into the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission. That would have the opposite effect to what the commission is seeking. The commission is trying to streamline its future case load by reducing the number of cases in which it carries out reviews of change of circumstances; for example, it is reducing the number of times it will look at a child maintenance award where the income varies by less than 25 per cent. It would seem that, unless this provision is narrowly drawn, it would generate the inflow of a huge amount of information to CMEC, which would offset the work it is doing to reduce its work load in order to focus more effectively on the cases that require the most attention.

I have not seen any evidence—perhaps the Minister could supply the Committee with some—about the kinds of information that should be supplied to CMEC under the clause, and how that would make the payment of child maintenance more effective and more likely to reach the family in which the child is resident, which is the purpose of the test.

I have looked at the document that the Ministers have published detailing how they plan to use regulation-making powers. They have said that the definition of “other change of circumstances” would be left to secondary legislation, which would allow the commission flexibility and time to consult stakeholders as part of its process for developing policy. That sounds sensible, but there is nothing in the Bill that constrains any of that—no guidance is provided.

On a positive note, to be fair to Ministers, paragraph 376 of that document does say that Ministers are

“mindful of not creating unnecessary offences” and that they want regulations to be

“tightly and precisely termed to ensure there is a clear understanding of any requirement placed on parents.”

In fact, Ministers have acknowledged the concern that I and Families Need Fathers have outlined about the burden of information coming into the commission. They have said:

“Indeed, the changes of circumstances to be notified to the Commission must be narrow enough to enable the system to process the information without becoming over burdened.”

So I think Ministers recognise that the clause is widely drawn and that the regulations will need to be narrow and tightly focused so as to be fair to parents and so as not to burden the commission. It will help the Committee—as it has not seen the regulations— if the Minister will give some idea of the kinds of information that the Government and the commission have in mind. The Committee can then be reassured that Ministers will be committed to the objective of having tightly defined terms when they bring the regulations before the House.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I am delighted to be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman. We absolutely want to be able to define precisely the types of change of circumstance that people will be required to notify to the commission. If I give some history of the journey of the policy, it may help to explain why this is in the legislation.

During the passage of the 2008 Act, the Government rejected an Opposition amendment that would have made it a requirement for non-resident parents to inform us of any change to their circumstances that would affect their liability; the onus would be on them to decide whether a particular change would affect their liability. The amendment was rejected because we felt that it would create precisely the problems that the hon. Gentleman now says he wishes to avoid. Individuals might not know, or they might be so cautious that they would overburden the commission with lots of minutiae of changes that did not affect their liability.

Subsequently, we introduced an amendment to make it an offence for non-resident parents not to inform the commission of changes to their address. The reason for that is practical: it should be an offence if someone moves house and does not notify the commission, to avoid paying the liability that they owe to their children.

After some reflection, we would like now to explore with stakeholders whether there are other clearly defined circumstances under which we would like to make it an offence for people not to notify the commission of changes of circumstances. The primary power is not drafted widely so as to have a wide responsibility, as with the amendment we rejected last year. It is drafted widely to give us the opportunity tightly to define in regulations following consultation precisely what would be included in the power—I cannot be precise about what that will be because we want to consult to work that out. However, I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that it will be simple to understand and designed not to overburden either the commission or the non-resident parent.

The type of avenues that we may wish to explore with anyone who has an interest are, perhaps, significant changes to employment, significant changes in earnings in either direction, a change of job, or losing one’s job and leaving the work force for a while. I do not want to say definitely that those will be the avenues because we want to explore the issue.

I am aware of the concerns that Families Need Fathers has rightly raised, I understand, in a conversation last week with the chief executive of CMEC. We will continue to work with it and other groups and we will not propose regulations until we are sure that we have a simple, workable way to ensure that children are more likely to receive what they are owed. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the Minister. Although the amendment to which she referred was not as brilliantly drafted as this one—not having had the benefit of parliamentary counsel—it clearly had some merit, as Ministers have thought about it again. It was tabled on the basis of making sure that parents would have to disclose relevant information and that the burden was not put on the parent with care or CMEC, who might have to go on a hunting expedition.

I am pleased that the Minister confirmed that it is intended that regulations be tightly drawn. Clearly, as has been acknowledged, it would not be in the interests of the commission to have widely drawn regulations because it would simply be overburdened by information. She has clearly indicated that the changes likely to be consulted upon are to do with employment status, earnings and income. I am pleased that she wants to ensure that the commission engages with all the stakeholder groups to have a proper conversation about those. We will obviously scrutinise the secondary legislation when those regulations are brought before the House, but in these circumstances and with those reassurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.