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Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

(Second Day)

26: Clause 2, page 1, line 15, after “to” insert “encourage when appropriate and to”

The noble Lord said: Here we are again. It is somewhat distressing to find the Minister on his own. He has an enormous set of advisers behind him, but he is looking lonely over there. I am glad to say that I am not lonely as my noble friend Lady Verma, who sometimes keeps me on the straight and narrow, is beside me.

Amendment No. 26 is investigatory. It seems to me that the legal framework for CMEC, as set out in Clause 2, imposes an express bias on the objectives of the commission towards encouraging the private ordering of maintenance as opposed to the use of the statutory scheme. I am sure that the Minister will say straightaway that that is not intended and that it does not do that at all. He will have to work quite hard to persuade me. I have tabled Amendments Nos. 26 and 32 to suggest a redress of the bias and to reinstate the statutory route as a viable option.

These two amendments are attempts to make CMEC and its statutory scheme more accessible and to convince parents that the CMEC route is the most efficient and effective route to negotiate and to realise child maintenance arrangements. I use them to ask the noble Lord whether this bias will work in the interests of parents with care and their children. Surely the statutory system should be available and accessible as a measure to protect vulnerable parents with care from being forced into unequal bargaining positions when negotiating voluntary arrangements. The statutory system, therefore, should never be tarred as being inferior or somehow substandard in comparison with private ordering.

To encourage that, CMEC needs a friendly human face—much more friendly than that which was exhibited, certainly towards the end, by the CSA. Arguably, I suppose, it never had a friendly face, or was never seen to have had one, by the parents we are talking about. Without such encouragement, there is a danger that the parent will not claim child maintenance at all or will feel obliged to settle for unsatisfactory, low amounts.

I am pleased to say that this amendment was prompted by the lobby group, Gingerbread. As I suspect that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, comes from the same source, it is hardly surprising that it chimes in with my own. His amendment is perhaps slightly different. Although much of the Bill is committed to promoting the voluntary side of CMEC which orchestrates mediation and negotiation between the two parents, his amendment seems to enforce the superiority of the statutory scheme. Parents must have faith that, in either system, there will be an adequate resolution and that children, therefore, will be protected either way. I beg to move.

I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in the style in which he has introduced this group of amendments. Clause 2 is the core and kernel of the Bill. It enshrines the objectives of the commission and therefore, if we get that wrong, the commission will have less chance in succeeding in producing the policy outcomes to which we aspire. We have four important groups of amendments on that. There was one in our last Committee day on debt, here we are looking at voluntary agreements, and we will go on to discuss child poverty and definitions of key terms in Amendments Nos. 31 and 37. This is part of what I consider to be an important probing of what is in the Government’s mind on the setting of objectives for the commission.

I concur with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said on Amendment No. 26, but this is also an opportunity to allow us to test the claims that are in the regulatory impact assessment. In particular, I would like further information, if there is any extant, on the estimated rise of 40 per cent in the number of parents making voluntary arrangements. It is anticipated to rise from 500,000 to 700,000. That is a key part of the business plan. I guess the Minister will cleave to the view that the business plan is for the commission, but it is important and significant, and we need to get some confirmation that the figures that have been there for some time are still robust. In particular, is it the currently held view in the department that there will be a saving in administrative costs of something like £200 million? That is an important part that lies behind the amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord is right to stress that poorer parents are those who will have to struggle most to come to a satisfactory voluntary agreement, if anyone does at all. Yet, that is the group that will pose the most difficultly to the statutory administration and that is where the cost of collection of the maintenance is disproportionate to the amount that it wins back by way of the amount recovered. Therefore, there is a predisposition to think that there is other, lower-hanging fruit that the commission could access more easily, thereby meeting targets faster, and there is obviously, rightly, a temptation to strive to do that.

If CMEC and the commission are doing what we hope they will, the Section 6 client group—the people who will be invited to contemplate voluntary arrangements for the first time—are almost certainly going to be better off if CMEC is working properly. It will act as an intermediary, and it will have a firm hand, especially at the start. Bear in mind that we are not just talking about families at the point of breakdown. Often relationships stabilise after a breakdown and then, after some months, if not years, the relationship turns hostile again and the two parents have to do some reconciliation of their respective financial positions. It is not just once and for all; we could be contemplating a pretty continuous process.

I have looked at the Bill’s wording carefully, upside, downside and sideways, and it demonstrates what I consider to be a deliberate bias in the duty to encourage appropriate voluntary arrangements. That is obviously part of the Government’s policy, but no such equivalent duty exists to encourage statutory arrangements. I cannot understand what it will cost the Minister to resist this kind of amendment, if he is going to do so. If he were disposed to accept the amendment, he could have the satisfaction that it would deal with the power imbalance in the relationship, which we all understand is likely to be the case in these circumstances. He will understand too that parents with care will very often settle for less than what they are due, because they will do anything for a quiet life. There may be violence at the end of any continued and sustained objection against a potentially violent non-resident parent.

The Child Support Agency is in any case a pretty unpopular organisation, so staying out of its grasp is something that people may want to do if all other things are equal—again, for a quiet life. Finally, non-resident parents need to be sent a very strong signal that the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission understands that they have a duty, knows where they live and will come to look for them if they do not do what is expected of them. The amendments in the group that suggest some changes and some rethinking there are essential.

I will quote again from my favourite Australian of the month, Professor Patrick Parkinson, in the Times of 19 January, when he talked about the danger of our whole system becoming essentially voluntary. He said that was the gravest danger; that was the first thing that he pointed out. He said:

“The second danger is that the resident parent, usually the mother, ends up acquiescing to the first offer made [by the father] on the grounds that at least they will get it”.

That is what we are facing. There has to be a duty on the commission to encourage the use of the statutory scheme. Amendments Nos. 26 and 32, if not perfect in their drafting, raise the question in a clear and stark way and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to them.

I sincerely apologise for missing the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. Forgive me, I was caught on the telephone and was not diligent enough to get off it quickly enough. I support the push of the noble Lords in the amendment, which I think is very wise. Many of us have what I hope are ill-founded reservations about the efficacy of a voluntary system. I understand that in Scandinavia, for example, the parents with care could not even claim good cause to allow them to remain anonymous. The reason for that, which was not the path that we followed in Britain in either 1991 or 2000, was to remove absolutely the burden of responsibility from the mother on to the organisation, to ensure that maintenance floated to the children. If it appeared to be discretionary as to what she sought and how much she would settle for, it was more likely that she would be at the end of harassment, bullying or even violence.

I remember seeing a NACSA website which said, “Go and break the window of your ex and tell her that if she pleads good cause, that she is afraid of you, you will pay her £10 or £15”. I saw that website; it was then taken off when it was realised that I had had access to it. One should not underestimate not just the fecklessness of some payers but the reluctance of men who feel that they have no continuing relationship with the parent with care and no continuing relationship with the child. Anything that sends agreements into the voluntary sector encourages him—I say him; I accept that some parents with care will be fathers, but 90 or 95 per cent will be mothers—to seek always to press down on the payments that he would otherwise make. That is especially true, from my experience, when he moves into a second relationship in which there is another player, possibly a woman with children of her own in a fairly tight financial situation, who is seeking all the time, understandably, to maximise the second family's income.

My first point is that I have very deep worries about a voluntary system, given the inequity of bargaining power. A lot of European experience suggests that that is an unwise path to go down. My second concern is that, if we are going down that path, we must ensure that there is at least some way to give her some muscle. I know that she can come back to CMEC and the statutory system, but that will be discouraged, because the whole of the business case is based on trying to get as many individuals into the voluntary sector as possible. At the very least, I would like my noble friend to see whether it is worth exploring, alongside the amendment, reinforcing it by making it possible to have a registration system, as I understand there is in Scotland, so that voluntary agreements can be registered. They will not have statutory force, but will appear to stiffen and formalise the situation. If then by consent she seeks to depart voluntarily from the minute that she has registered—perhaps because she is trading a reduced sum for extra money for school trips or trains and so on—that is fine. At least it may balance some of the imbalance of power that may result.

The third thing that worries me about a voluntary arrangement relates to an amendment to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, later, with which I have some sympathy, although, again, I am not sure that it should be in the Bill. I am confident that my noble friend says in his speeches to staff and to public organisations all the time that getting child maintenance flow, along with getting lone parents back into work, is one of the most effective ways of tackling child poverty. That is undeniable.

However, if we have voluntary arrangements, how do we know what money is going to children? How do we know, as a result, how many lone parents with children are above the 60 per cent median line? We would know the benefit income, but we would not know what additional income she is getting from the father if there is no way even to register it. I accept that a registration system is somewhat flaky and that it may be more observed in its absence than in its presence. But at least it gives us a benchmark which allows us to track what is happening to children who may or may not be just on the poverty line. If that money is flowing, at least we could see whether we are beginning to meet our targets, including the extremely challenging target of trying to reduce by half the number of children in poverty by 2010.

For those reasons, I am worried about any voluntary system. First, it increases the father’s potential all the time to negotiate the money down because he has the power and the knowledge. He knows what he is earning, whereas the mother almost certainly does not. Secondly, we should at the very least stiffen it with a registration system, as in Scotland. Thirdly, I also want to see that registration system or a version of it, if at all possible, in order to track what is happening to child poverty. If we do not concern ourselves with this, we will not achieve one of the main outcomes that we are striving for in this Bill. We want to ensure that child maintenance flows to children, not just so that biological fathers rather than taxpayer fathers bear a proper responsibility for their child’s well-being, but so that we can tackle what is really a scar on the face of the nation—too many children bumping along at the very bottom level of income support.

Amendment No. 26 and the first part of Amendment No. 32 would require the commission to encourage applications to the statutory maintenance service in addition to and to the same extent as the commission is required to encourage appropriate voluntary arrangements. I want to be very clear on this. However, all other things being equal, we want to encourage people into voluntary arrangements as opposed to statutory ones where that is appropriate. It is not a question of a voluntary arrangement being superior to the statutory system and the statutory system being somehow second-class. That is not how we approach it. A key part of our reforms is based on the evidence that many parents would prefer to have a voluntary arrangement and that where this can be agreed between themselves, it is the best way forward. Voluntary arrangements can be tailored to the unique circumstances of the parents in question and are associated with higher compliance rates. But that is not to say that we do not recognise that for many parents arriving at voluntary arrangements will not be desirable or even possible. Certainly, in the specific circumstances that my noble friend Lady Hollis described, no one would wish to encourage voluntary arrangements in those situations.

Amendment No. 32 would,

“require the Commission to have regard to the choices of individual parents”,

unless there is a conflict, in which case the parent who wishes to use the statutory scheme shall have priority. I assure Members of the Committee that nothing in the objectives or the rest of the Bill prevents the parent with care or the non-resident parent from making an application to the statutory maintenance service at any time, including where there is an existing voluntary arrangement.

Furthermore, I also confirm that the objectives, as drafted, do not require the commission to encourage voluntary arrangements when they are against either parent’s wishes or their best interests. We have built in two safeguards against this. First, as I have said, the commission can only encourage appropriate voluntary arrangements which are suitable to the circumstances of both parents, particularly in terms of the level of any arrangements.

Secondly, everything the commission does must contribute to the achievement of its main objective to maximise the number of effective maintenance arrangements. Were the commission to encourage an arrangement that either party was unhappy with, it would be unlikely to work. In other words, it would not result in an effective arrangement. To encourage such an arrangement would put the commission in breach of its objectives.

More specifically on some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and my noble friend Lady Hollis, none of us wants to push parents into arrangements that do not meet their needs. We want to encourage as many people as possible to have maintenance arrangements in place. It will be for parents to decide what sort of maintenance arrangement is most effective in meeting their responsibility for the maintenance of their children, and for the commission to provide information and guidance to help parents to do so.

We recognise that pressure on one parent by the other is a potential risk in some cases. That is why we are establishing a service to provide both parents with impartial high-quality information to ensure that both parents can make informed choices about their child’s maintenance. If a separating parent feels that an enforceable arrangement is appropriate to their needs, they could go straight to the statutory scheme where they would be guided and supported to make a formal maintenance arrangement.

My noble friend raised the issue of a registration system for voluntary arrangements. She will be aware that the plans for the new arrangements have been discussed. Such a system might be appropriate in the future, but we leave it to the commission to look at the possibility and to advise on it, possibly on some sort of piloting basis. It is not something which under the legislation we wish to impose from day one.

Unequal bargaining power is a very real issue, and we recognise the risks involved. That is why the information and support services will be so important. As we discussed on Tuesday, if the parent with care has no idea what the income of the non-resident parent is, the automatic starting point would be an engagement with the statutory system.

My noble friend asked how we know whether our child poverty targets are being met or contributed to by voluntary arrangements. We would use the various family surveys for that information, which are the same sources that we currently use for voluntary arrangements.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, suggested that the strategy system was being portrayed almost as a second-rate service, to be used only if everything else fails. That is not how we approach it. We want a high-quality service and to make sure that it is available to parents if that is their end choice and they do not feel that voluntary arrangements are best for them.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked about figures for the increase in voluntary arrangements. The current business plan retains the increase of 200,000 to which he referred. Obviously the business plan is being refined as time progresses. We recognise that there are judgments in all this and in some of the underlying assumptions about how people will react to the new system and what their responses to it will be. On that basis, in steady state there would be an administrative saving of the order of £200 million. That figure is still in the system.

The noble Lord referred to Professor Parkinson and his article in the Times. I, too, met him. He said that he did not think the article entirely reflected the view that he had expressed. In particular, I talked to him about his view of a voluntary system. I do not think he would maintain with the force that that article seemed to suggest that we should make the system entirely voluntary. That is absolutely not what we are doing. At the centre of these reforms is a determination to get an increased number of maintenance arrangements. That is the overriding objective of the commission and the Government. I hope that that has covered the issues that have been raised, but I am happy to have another go if noble Lords think that it has not.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to the Minister being lonely. My spies tell me that he has been moved from having responsibility for this subject and actually has nothing to do with this amendment. That is annoying. His 15 months are obviously up; he is just beginning to get hold of this important subject at a key time, and now some other Minister is doing it. That is completely bad timing and no reward for merit, competence or any damn thing. If that is true, the Committee commiserates with him. If it is anything to do with Mr James Purnell, who used to serve under me on a Select Committee in another place, if I find him in the House of Commons locker room and he is to blame, I will wait until he is in his Marks and Spencer’s best, and I will poke him in the ribs and complain because I cannot think who else to complain to. If the Minister has been moved, that is not at all helpful for the Committee, the policy or anything else, and I commiserate with him, but perhaps he has better things to do with his time. That was a diversion, and I am probably completely out of order.

How do we know when voluntary arrangements are appropriate? We are coming on to talk about definitions in a moment. The two parents will get access to the information and guidance, and we hope that will be as good as it can be, but they will go out of the door. What happens then? How do we know what goes on outside in the street, or down the pub, or back in the drawing room? They may never be seen again. I do not understand. The idea of a register is appealing because at least we will have some confidence that we will get some handle, even on a pilot basis. The statistics are difficult enough. I understand the case that is being made, but the noble Baroness’s point continues to obtain until the Government can find some way of giving us assurance. I fear that they will lose control and will not be able to monitor the situation in the way that enables us to take account of the policy objectives in the long term.

On average, a parent is a lone parent for three to three and a half years. She then usually moves into work or a new relationship, and if she moves into a new relationship, she also moves into work. That means that she will be dependent on a voluntary arrangement by virtue of being a benefit case for a relatively short time. That is an average; therefore many lone parents will be lone parents for far less. I cannot help preferring a system in which when people become lone parents they are automatically within CMEC. We know that if maintenance does not flow from the father within six weeks, it is not likely to flow at all. We also know from the Australian experience that after about 12 months to two years, his maintenance has often fallen off or fallen away, often because he has moved out of the area and no longer sees the kids or he is in a new relationship. Sustaining it is then very difficult. I would like a register at the very least, but I would be much more confident if we had a system in which for the first year or two they were in the statutory system, and then if both agree because regular payments have been made, they go into a voluntary arrangement.

I would be entirely comfortable with that, because if he voluntarily embraces his responsibilities, it is so much better for him, her and the children than the state bearing down on them. I do not disagree with that at all, but I have absolutely no confidence that we will get the outcomes that we want by allowing an immediate movement into a voluntary system in the way that is proposed. The other option would be to require people to go through the portal of a statutory system for at least the first 12 months and then after that if they wished move into a voluntary arrangement, by which time maintenance payments should be flowing regularly, she will know what she is entitled to and we can hope that with any luck a stable state will be maintained. I am very worried that if we do not put some safeguards in, other than just leaving it to the commission to see whether it is working a year or two or three down the line—because a pilot would take a year to set up and another year to get results from and another two years to roll out—it will be too late.

Will my noble friend mull over this matter, as I am sure he will want to, and see whether he can help us a bit? We all want the same outcomes; we want him to pay voluntarily and with grace. As a result, the kids will feel that their dad loves them because he is contributing and supporting them as they would wish, in a voluntary way. That is terrific, but I am simply not confident that that will apply for one-third or more of our client base who may go into the voluntary system. For many it will, but for far too many I fear that it will not. Will my noble friend use his experience and ingenuity to look at other ways of at least getting the entry point into maintenance firmed up, to give her greater strength?

We should recognise that voluntary arrangements are not new to the UK system. What is new is that those people who are on benefits have the choice, as everyone else has had, to have a voluntary arrangement or use the statutory system. I am a little nervous about the underlying assumption here that poorer people who rely on benefits are innately more feckless in their arrangements. We need to be a little cautious in that regard.

The distinction applies because in a voluntary system, where the mothers are not on benefit, as opposed to where they or even both parents are on benefit, the couples are far more likely to come out of a divorce situation. When you come out of a divorce situation, questions of child maintenance are regulated by the courts and in the shadow of the CSA; there is often a long period of bonding with the children and he is anxious as a committed father to continue that relationship of parenting. The problem is, surely, that when she is on benefit and he is too, and being recycled between JSA and work, at best there may have been a fairly tenuous cohabitation and quite possibly they have never even lived under the same roof together. So there is a real distinction between the types of couple. We know that there is a 25 per cent overlap or churning between the two categories every year, but none the less there is a real distinction, in broad terms, between the commitments to their children of those fathers who have come out of a divorce.

I was asked under what mechanism we will know whether the voluntary arrangements are secure and effective for those entering into them. We do that at a macro level, through the various surveys that take place routinely, but we also have the information and support service. Right at the start of these arrangements, we envisage that that service will explain to parents what the statutory system might produce and the sort of factors that they might take into account in a negotiation. A pro forma standard maintenance would be offered as part of that discussion and there would be reference to the need to comply with the arrangements.

Moreover, the information and support service is being designed so that when people enter the benefit system there is a clear link to align them so that the service can make contact with them. There is another route into that service for people who claim tax credits. Again, there will be an arrangement with HMRC of referrals into that information and support service, providing another link for those parents. If people are in and out of benefits and tax credits, and their lives are as my noble friend suggests, already loops are being built into that information and support service to enable them to be reached on an ongoing basis. So I think that there are protections.

I would not for a moment suggest that there are not risks for the most vulnerable people in all of this, and we need to work very hard to make sure that the most vulnerable are protected and properly advised. I envisage that a significant number of them would and should use the statutory service, which is why we also need to make sure that it is effective and is delivering. There are a number of routes on an ongoing basis to keep contact with that group. It is an important issue, and the information support service, as it is being built, will particularly have to focus on that.

I confess that when I first looked at the Bill and saw Clause 2 and realised the connotations of the voluntary maintenance arrangements system—which is not proposed in the Bill because you cannot propose a voluntary system in an Act of Parliament—which is in the Minister’s mind, my first reaction was that there is no way of policing this, so you do not know what is going on. The Minister says, “There is this wonderful new system up in Sheffield of advice and support, and we will know exactly what is going on because they will be giving advice”. Who will they be giving advice to? The person who is going to go to Ventura is almost certainly the parent with care on their own. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, would know better than me, having been responsible in this area. I imagine that where advice is being sought, it is very much applied for on one side or the other. Surely to goodness it is most likely to be the parent with care of the child or children who will want to seek advice.

There is a sort of self-policing mechanism in the Bill, because as the Minister has rightly said, if the parent with care fails to strike an agreement with the absent parent, or does so but the money is not forthcoming, they can always turn to the statutory system. We know that, on average, absent parents lose contact with their children after about three years. By the time the parent with care has gone to seek advice for moving to the statutory system, she will have been out of pocket on behalf of her children for a considerable length of time.

A registration of voluntary agreements looks to me to be a good idea, but it would only tell us in the broadest terms—like any of the statutory bodies that produce research and figures—whether the voluntary service is contributing to poverty among children, the reduction of which is, rightly, a stated aim of the Government. When the Minister talked about information flowing because of tax credits, I was very surprised because, yes, tax credits are applied for because of a level of income, but maintenance arrangements have a 100 per cent disregard in tax credits, whereas these arrangements go only to a maximum of £40 disregard. Unlike the noble Lord, I am no mathematician so I do not know the answer. However, there must be a difference in those two arrangements for the money which ultimately flows to the children.

A thought has just struck me as a result of the noble Lord’s thoughtful remarks about the non-resident parent. If the non-resident parent is on benefit, he is known to the CSA. Even if he moves away, it has a fair chance of tracking him through the previous employer, the this, the that and the other. Obviously, in theory, there is access to HMT records. However, let us suppose that there has been a two or three-year voluntary agreement during which time CMEC has had no contact with the non-resident parent, and that then he moves away and the mother comes to CMEC saying, “I now want to come into the statutory system”. How easy will it be for CMEC to get hold of him?

That is an extremely useful adjunct to what I was saying. As usual, the noble Baroness, being rather more fluent than I normally am, has put flesh on the bones of my argument.

I do not think that we will get further with this proposal today. All sorts of inhibitions are built into the system preventing the voluntary arrangements working. I am all for them in theory, but I am doubtful about the practice.

Perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting, but I am trying to follow the line of his argument, specifically in relation to his example of someone having a voluntary arrangement that was not broken for three years, leaving a big gap. If that situation arose, there would be no reason why the parent with care must wait for three years. If a voluntary arrangement is not working, there can be immediate recourse to the statutory system.

The issue with regard to tax credits is not that they feature in the calculations, but that when it is clear that an applicant for tax credit is a parent with care, there is a route down which they can be referred to the information and support service on a direct or indirect basis. It is a means of capturing those individuals so that information and support can be provided.

Is the noble Lord suggesting that we should not allow everyone the choice of a voluntary arrangement, but that we should continue to have a category of people who will be forced to use the statutory system? Ultimately, that is the nub of the issue. If we are going to say that there is a category of people who must use the system, what are the criteria for that? Whatever the challenges of allowing people the choice—and I accept that there are some—if we do not do so, we in part stick with the current system. How would the noble Lord respond to that?

I suggest that the noble Lord is putting words into my mouth. I have never suggested that I disagree with a voluntary system—provided that it works—sitting side by side with a statutory system. What I am suspicious of is those cases where violence might be involved, and those cases in which for some reason a much lower amount is struck in the voluntary system, even though, presumably, the advice and support service would say what the statutory-system amount was. But there might be all kinds of reasons, as the Minister predicated, why in a voluntary system the two parents might come to a much lower figure.

Later, we will discuss what the courts might do, which is another complication in all this. I do not think that we shall get much further today, but if we all sit down and read what we have discussed, we might well come to a sensible agreement. It need not be a compromise, but a sensible agreement. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 not moved.]

29: Clause 2, page 1, line 17, at end insert—

“( ) to promote an open competition to replace the Child Support Agency Information Technology System when the current contract ends”

The noble Lord said: We now turn to technology and Amendments Nos. 29 and 204. Amendment No. 29 requires an open competition to replace the Child Support Agency information system when the current contract ends. I wonder whether I could be allowed to start with a cheap shot at the Minister because his computer statistics do not add up. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and I did not meet over breakfast, but no doubt, like me, he has looked at the quarterly statistics from the computer. Table 19.5 is wrong. How do I know that? Because the summary of the statistics shows that in December 2007 maintenance collected or arranged for the year ending 31 March was higher than the next year’s target by quite a margin—£5 million. That cannot be right because it is hard for a target to be reached, never mind for the next year’s target to be reached. Table 19.5 should read £741.7 million not £975 million, but maybe someone will check that. What I think has happened is that the period over which that maintenance has been collected has been misallocated not as April to December but as December 06 to December 07. Maybe someone will put me out of my misery about that. One would think that after spending that amount of money on a computer it would be able to add columns up right. No doubt someone will tell me whether that is right.

These two amendments are important. We have to look at the history and at the information technology relationship with EDS. On Tuesday, I referred to the National Audit Office report, which is an important precursor for understanding what has gone on in the past. I had it mind to go in some detail into how we came to be here, but I shall not as that would tax colleagues’ patience. Suffice it to say that in August 2000, the information technology services agency, which retained all the corporate knowledge within the department, was outsourced to EDS. EDS then got the contract, and the contract has never worked. It was fundamentally reworked in 2005, and it still has not been fully developed. It has two years to run and, as far as I am concerned, the development work is still ongoing. I think there are a number of important questions around it. A lot of them were raised in the National Audit Office report. Apart from anything else, we spent £91 million on external advice— consultants—and we have a negative net present cost outcome. The net present cost forecast for this new reformed computer when it was put in place in 2003 was a net asset of £71 million.

The Child Support Agency computer system may not be running after 1 April because the contract is due to run out in April 2008. If that is the case, I do not know who is going to be running the old cases after that date, unless there has been a roll-on of the contract. There are still 600 manual worker rounds. The computer is not producing management information that is fit for purpose. It is a contract with the department and I do not know how that will be transferred cleanly to the commission—I assume that the commission will be responsible for all the contracts that deal with technology in future—and how it will manage to disentangle the relationship that is already done through the Accord/EDS system of contracts without making it difficult for what is left of the department. I do not understand. I would like to be told a little more about that.

Obviously, there is a key decision to be made—and it is looming—by the commission when it is put into place. We have the prospect of the operational improvement plan being completed by March 2009. Only then will the National Audit Office be able to look at how effective the operational improvement plan has been in terms of its objectives. There will probably be a Public Accounts Committee report in 2010; there will probably be an election in 2010; and it will probably be around 2010 or 2011 before we really see how effective the operational improvement plan has been, by which time the new commission will have to decide what it will do next.

The new commission has two years to make a decision about what it does next in terms of sustaining the EDS contract. The EDS contract is a contract for services; it is worth £1 million per week. We do not have a big shiny Apache server with terabytes of memory in the Minister’s office; we have a service agreement. We can use the services of the contract. If the contract stopped for some reason on Monday, there would be nothing left that would be tangible by way of systems, software or anything else. It is a service-only contract. It is a very big ask to leave. The Minister regularly suggests to the committee that we should leave all this to the commission. I do not believe that we can.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, used her best endeavours on the CS2 reform—and she tried hard. There are genuinely difficult questions about commercial confidentiality, which Ministers are protected from. I understand why that is important. Ministers for their own safety often cannot be told what is going on in case they go around to the pub and speak to somebody who is a competitor. Then you have a class action against you in the courts, and all that stuff. It is not easy. Ministers find it difficult to stay on top of what is happening in current circumstances. We went through the CS2 reform. The whole policy platform that was put together in 2003 suffered and has never really recovered from the fact that the computer is not fit for purpose.

The two suggestions I make here are based on lessons—and I promise I can speak without hesitation and deviation and not even with repetition about all this for a much longer time—that we really need to learn in terms of what went wrong in 2003, and to make sure that we do not make the same mistakes again. The Commons Select Committee, which I had the privilege to chair, produced a report on this in 2003. One of its recommendations was that there should be a full-blown review of CS2 at the earliest possible time, as soon as it had settled down and become stable. We are not there yet, so we cannot do that. As I say, it will probably be 2009 or 2010 before we get the results of that. It would only then be safe for Parliament to make a decision about which route to take. We do not have that time. The commission that we are creating in the Bill does not have that time.

Therefore, we are faced with what Parliament is asking the commission to do. These two amendments in very simple terms say that it is not safe in 2010 merely to continue the contract without going back to the marketplace with an open tender for contracts, and all the rest of that. It is complicated. It may take time and cost money as you may have to encourage alternative contractors to take part in the competition because it may not be what they want because it is so troubled.

I do not see how else we can get any satisfaction in Parliament. We were kept in the dark last time around. The only way I can think of getting any kind of influence over what is happening with the decision the commission will have to take—and take very soon—is that it should engage in an open process of tendering before it makes that decision.

Amendment No. 204 simply seeks to get what comfort we can. The full OGC gateway reviews are now part of the established way of doing these things, partly as a result of the disastrous consequences of the EDS experience earlier with the IT for the CSA. There is now quite a lot of corporate knowledge within the Office of Government Commerce. It has got, if not full-blown gateways, health checks and access to Gartner which can do reviews and give assurance on some of the things and try to get a handle on what the risks really are before we actually get the commission to take the big decision that it will have to take about what platform it uses for technology in the future.

My personal suspicion is that it has no choice. I would be very surprised if it was not just tied, hook, line and sinker, into this contract. The people who entered into this contract in the department deserve to go to jail. It is a proprietary contract, which ties people to the suppliers with no room for manoeuvre. We may have to go with another version of an EDS contract. I hope that once it has finished being developed, it will be fully compliant and all the other bugs and defects will have been wrung out of it.

However, I say seriously to the Committee that, if Parliament does not have a method of getting assurance that we will not make the same mistake as in 2003, there must be something in the Bill. Otherwise, it will be left to whatever operational decisions force it to take decisions that have to be made very quickly. Parliament should be part of that process and these two amendments are designed to achieve that end. I beg to move.

One thing is certain: no computer owned by CMEC or the CSA can take any account whatever of voluntary arrangements because no one knows what they are or what they will be. We spoke briefly of the trials and tribulations of the CSA computer problems, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and I referred to them at Second Reading. For the noble Lord to accuse me then of the pot calling the kettle black—or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, might say, were she here, “du”—as he did on that occasion, was somewhat over the top. Neither I nor my party have had the 10-odd years to do anything about those undoubted problems that the Government have had.

On Tuesday, yet again we heard from the Minister that the EDS computer system is now expected by the end of the financial year—I think that he said the end of March, which would be about right. He keeps making these assurances. A few months ago, in a discussion on an order, the Minister assured me that proper contractual and tendering arrangements are now in place across government, which includes the CSA, the DWP, HM Revenue and Customs and so on. We have yet to have proof that that is correct. We will await the new computer at the CSA by the end of March with great interest. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that the prognosis is far from good.

However, this Bill forces the promotion of an open competition to replace it, should it then need replacing because it is yet again defective, overdue, perhaps again over budget and either under or over specification, but until it is up and running none of us can make any judgment about it whatever.

Promoting an open competition is what should have happened throughout the past 10 years; it certainly happened under a Conservative Government. Sometimes, I freely admit, the open competition did not produce the results that one expected and desired. I cannot see that putting such a condition in the Bill will make the situation any better now. What is necessary is for the people with knowledge to take a grip on the situation.

Amendment No. 204 is perhaps slightly different. I understand it to be a probing amendment asking the Minister to give us adequate assurance that inaccurate information will not be transferred or—as we have seen recently—be lost in an attempt at transfer when the various bits of information that will go between CMEC and HMRC, for example, travel backwards and forwards. It is essential that we are given confirmation of that.

I thank the noble Lord for tabling the amendments, both of which suggest ways to ensure the standard of IT systems used by the commission. Before I get into my speaking note in some detail, perhaps I can specifically respond to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, in relation to the QSS. I do not have the full pack in front of me, but we are looking at two different totals. There is a 12-month rolling total up to December 2007; I think that the figure of £975 million collected is right. Then there is a year-to-date figure, which is for nine months, which is £742 million collected. So we have not yet hit the target, but if we maintain performance for January to March 2008 as we did for January to March 2007, we are on track to meet that target.

Amendment No. 29 is intended to ensure that, once the current contract for the CSA IT system ends, the system should be replaced by a new one, with the development work done through a new contract awarded following open competition. IT services within the CSA are, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, identified, currently provided through department-wide contracts. These contracts contain clauses that cover the possibility of future changes in our organisation. These will be used to ensure that the commission is able to continue to make use of IT services in the same way that the CSA does now.

However, although IT services will initially be provided through the current department-wide contract, it will of course be for the commission to decide the right approach for the future.

My understanding—perhaps I misunderstood—was that under the EDS contract, it owned not only the system but the information on it, so that had one sought to transfer contracts, none of the data would have gone with it, so one would have had to have started from scratch. Obviously, that was always impossible. Is that still the case, or did I misunderstand the situation? I am perfectly willing to believe that I did misunderstand it, as I claim no expertise at all in computers or contracts.

It is not a matter that has been brought to my attention in the various discussions that we have had over the month, but I will specifically check on that and revert to my noble friend.

As I was saying, at the highest level, there are two questions that the commission must resolve. The first is whether to seek provision of IT services independently, or whether to remain within the scope of DWP contracts and negotiate in conjunction with the department. The second is whether to replace or maintain the existing CSA computer system.

These are obviously hugely important matters and I believe that it would be wrong to impose a solution, as would the amendment, on the commission. We are, after all, recruiting an independent and expert board precisely because we want it to take decisions such as these.

Furthermore, on perhaps a more technical point, I believe that the amendment oversimplifies the range of potential options. It is possible, for example, that the commission would want to maintain the current system for some services and functions, but develop a new solution for others. The proposed amendment would prevent such an approach. However, regardless of the approach that the commission takes, I can be absolutely clear that whatever contracts it may enter into, they will be let through open competition in accordance with government procurement rules. These rules state very clearly that any government procurement exercise must be through competition that is open, fair and transparent. Importantly, that automatically applies to the process of renewing a contract that has ended. These are rules to which the commission must adhere.

Amendment No. 204 would require the Office of Government Commerce to provide assurances that the information technology system meets all the standards and specifications in the contract to supply information before the HMRC data are supplied to the commission, or to a person providing services to the commission in relation to its child support functions. As I am sure we are all aware, the intention in Schedule 6 is for the commission to benefit from the information gateways which already exist between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Northern Ireland Department and HMRC. So it has access to all the necessary information required to carry out its child support functions. We are all aware that the information provided by HMRC will be essential to the operation of the commission, and so we will take all precautions necessary to ensure the smooth and effective establishment of systems suitable for this purpose.

I want to inform Members of the Committee that we are currently investigating, and I am in discussion with HMRC on the details of the HMRC data transfer. Additionally, the Office of Government Commerce is already involved and is providing assurances on the overall child maintenance redesign programme within the department that oversees the establishment of the commission. For those reasons, I believe that the proposed risk assessment from the Office of Government Commerce is not necessary. I would also want the commission carefully to consider and make decisions in its IT requirements, clearly undertaking appropriate reviews, and in time before the planned maintenance system comes into operation in 2010.

Perhaps I may pick up on a couple of comments that were made about EDS and the existing system. Clearly, there have been problems with it. A great deal of work has been carried out to improve the stability of the new computer system—CS2—and operational performance has improved to the point where contracted service levels are consistently being met. The agency is planning a major IT release by the end of this financial year, which will resolve many of the remaining performance issues. Of the 506 system defects agreed in 2005, 219 of the most critical were resolved as of October 2007. The enhanced systems will establish a more stable IT platform on which the commission will be able to build. In particular, the agency’s telephony has shown tremendous levels of improvement. The average time taken to answer calls from the queue fell from one minute 40 seconds in 2005 to only 21 seconds in September 2007. So progress has been made.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made broader reference to the OIP, but perhaps we should find another occasion to go through some of the detail of that. Perhaps I will just use the opportunity to say that if you look at performance to date—we are not two thirds of the way through the three-year programme—more children are benefiting; maintenance collections have risen; the number of uncleared applications has fallen; and the telephony has improved dramatically. So there are positive results from that work and it is only nearing the end of its second year, with one year to go.

I hope that with that explanation, the noble Lord with withdraw his amendment.

Obviously, I will withdraw the amendment. I will study carefully what the Minister has said. I think that Parliament needs more reassurance than he is prepared to give us collectively. There are issues with commercial confidentiality and so forth. If the Office of Government Commerce is involved, is there not some way that, with the commercially sensitive parts of the reports removed, Parliament can be given first sight of the assurance about the gateway and other processes that are going through as the reletting process unfolds?

I am prepared to leave the matter there and return to it. I really do think that this is an essential element of getting this new policy area right.

Perhaps I can take the opportunity to tell the noble Lord that my note says that EDS own the intellectual property rights to the system but the data on it are ours.

On that happy note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 30 not moved.]

31: Clause 2, page 1, line 17, at end insert—

“( ) to contribute to the reduction of poverty among children who live apart from one or both parents”

The noble Lord said: This is my first contribution on this Bill. The amendment would insert a provision into Clause 2. As my noble friend said at the start of today’s proceedings, the heart of the Bill or the driving focus seems to be in Clause 2. The aim of a reduction in child poverty should be seen upfront in the Bill. Why is that seen to be necessary? Probably because it is nowhere else. As we go through the names of the clauses we see the objectives, the functions, the promotion of child maintenance and the provision of information and fees. It is conceivable that certain types of activity will be prioritised because they are administratively more rewarding and easier to fulfil than ones that might actually assist with child poverty. For instance, there may be areas in which the amount of effort and resources required to deal with cases can become difficult. Those cases may be at the edge, involving those who are closest to the poverty line, when smaller amounts of money are pushed into the budget to ensure that children are maintained properly, to give the greatest benefit to the children and the caring parent. Those may be areas that take up an inordinate amount of resources and it might be decided that they are outside the box.

This is not so much a probe as a dig to find out where that duty is hidden in the Bill to maximise the benefits for children who are potentially in poverty or close to the poverty line. If the duty is not hidden in there somewhere, it should be. I invite the Minister to show us exactly where it is, and where it is implicit in the Bill. It would reassure a lot of people outside that this issue has a drive and focus to it that we could all applaud. I beg to move.

I find this a rather curious amendment from Gingerbread. I am not sure that it is appropriate to put words such as this in a Bill such as this. We all know why child maintenance is important; it is to ensure that a child who lives with one parent has sufficient financial support so that at least financially they are not disadvantaged in comparison with their counterparts in two-parent family homes. However, I wonder how and why the amendment is useful, and whether the reduction of child poverty needs to be stated as one of the objectives of CMEC. Not every case of child separation necessarily means child poverty. Does the noble Lord, Lord Addington, not agree with me that in a situation demanding the allocation of funds what is needed is fairness, which is the prerequisite for trust? Positive discrimination is not needed, as there are always some who object to the discrimination no matter how virtuous it seems.

I do not like the amendment, nor do I see a need for it.

I support my noble friend’s amendment for a pragmatic reason. One could put forward all sorts of arguments. There is a body of academic evidence. I was looking at some work done by the University of York, which has recently produced an analysis of poverty in England. It is a very thorough study, talking about the challenges of families living on low incomes being aggravated by the experience of abuse, domestic violence, relationship breakdown and so on. I am certain that there is a very clear link between family breakdown and poverty.

However, that is not the reason why I believe the amendment is important. It is important because the next three years of the public spend in the Comprehensive Spending Review will rightly be focused on child poverty. If that is the grade of public policy at strategic level, it makes sense in this Bill to focus on some of the lines of attack to try to bear down on the poverty experienced by parents with care—with non-resident parents elsewhere—so as to try to shoehorn them into the Government’s direction of travel. I would put money on the fact that, between now and the end of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government will start to look more seriously at this route for driving down child poverty to reach their targets by 2010. They will have to do something. They have done a lot, which is acknowledged, but they will have to do more. How will they do more? What options are open to them? This is one of them.

If the Bill gives the commission more authority in the heart of Clause 2, as my noble friend says, that will enable the Minister, or his heirs and successors, whoever they may be, to go to the Treasury and say, “Here is a way forward; this commission, with a little help from its friends, could get to a government target more easily”. So, if we take it, we are staring an advantage in the face. By putting child poverty into Clause 2 as one of the objectives of the commission, that will make it easier for the commission and the Government to get to where we all want to be in 2010.

Even if one does not accept the academic, the political or the philosophical basis, there is a pragmatic, practical reason for doing this right now, because if we do not, we will not get the money that we might otherwise get. If people do not understand that, they need only look at the public service agreements that have just been published in the 2007 Pre-Budget Report, because they are very focused on child poverty. There used to be a PSA target for child support, but that has gone, so where will we get the purchase on the Treasury if we do not use child poverty as a lever to get extra money, to get the resources that the commission needs and to get the job done properly by 2010?

I support the position of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for two reasons. I am not sure how my noble friend will respond to this amendment, but my first reason is a philosophical point. I would be amazed if in the number of speeches that my noble friend has made about the Child Support Agency to staff, at conferences, to voluntary groups, he has not emphasised the ability of child maintenance to make a huge difference to the number of children in poverty. I would guarantee that one of his key arguments in his speeches is about the need to address child poverty and that the staff are not debt collection agents, but are in the forefront of trying to overcome child poverty. I would guarantee that my noble friend has made that speech on a number of occasions and that is where I believe it belongs—in speeches made by Ministers on the wider context of the Bill. While I do not dissent from one word of the wishes or outcomes addressed by the noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendment, like the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I am, however, wary of what I call rhetoric in Bills as opposed to the practical things that Bills seek to change and to effect by legislation.

My second point is a practical concern. Perhaps the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Kirkwood, can help me on this point before my noble friend responds. Is the implication of this amendment that CMEC would be expected to distinguish between parents to ensure that it helps the poorest parents first at the expense of other parents, irrespective of the cost? For example, to overcome child poverty and to get an extra £5 to a child, it is legitimate to spend £10 or £15 chasing that child who is poorer, as opposed to giving £20 to another child for which one would need to spend only £10 chasing it up. I understand the honourable nature of that intent, but that brings one up against the constraints of the business and value-for-money contexts within which the agency may work. At that level, it may be more appropriate to deal with it through other channels—not just through child maintenance—such as encouraging lone parents back into the labour market and pursuing the connection, therefore, through to tax credits.

I am sure that everyone, not only in the Moses Room but throughout the country, wants to support the reduction of poverty among children—children with both parents and those who are separated from one parent. On this occasion, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in thinking that this is not an appropriate phrase for this Bill. I have the gravest doubts that the Treasury would take such great interest in the fact that the commission is under an obligation, according to this amendment, to reduce child poverty. I wonder how on earth it is thought that the commission could do that. It does not seem to me to be part of the commission's job to do that, although clearly it is part of the commission's job to try to get money from absent parents. For those reasons I, too, oppose the amendment.

I tabled the amendment in an attempt to try to work out where the Government believe the duty ties in with what they have done to reduce child poverty. Members of the Committee know that when I started talking about how the different government departments talk to each other to achieve the aims—they seldom do—I am really asking how this internal department is chasing around to achieve its aims. How would everything come together? I want to dig out where the incentive is to ensure that child poverty is part of the overall strategy. That is the real aim behind my amendment.

On whether one should go to greatest need first, and bearing in mind the cost of equity to someone else, possibly one should. The costs and the savings may be much greater for the entire government machine. However, that was not the primary objective of this amendment. I wanted to find out how the whole comes together.

This has been an interesting, if short, debate on what is clearly an important issue. The Government are with the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my noble friend Lady Hollis, for the reasons that they have outlined. Getting more child maintenance to more children is central to the reforms introduced by the Bill and central to the commission’s objectives as drafted. The key DWP strategic objective is to contribute to the elimination of child poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred to the PSA target.

To the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I say that the whole issue has been dealt with across government. The Children's Plan in particular mapped out joint arrangements across government, led by the DCSF. Of course, the commission contributes to it by ensuring that we maximise the number of effective child maintenance arrangements that are in place. That is a contribution. It cannot reasonably have a broader contribution to touch on all the issues and levers which impact on child poverty, which have been mentioned: employment, the role of tax credits and the broader issues concerning decent housing and breaking broader cycles of deprivation. That is part of the whole but it is not more than that and we should be wary about building in a greater role.

By working towards its main objective, to maximise the number of effective—that is, working—arrangements in place, the commission will already be making a significant contribution to the reduction of child poverty. It is difficult to see how, in regard to the payment of child maintenance, the proposed amendment would help to reduce poverty among children who live apart from one or both parents to any greater extent than the main objective. The noble Lord will be aware that this main objective is supported through two subsidiary objectives. These supporting objectives require the commission to encourage and support appropriate voluntary arrangements, as we have discussed, and to support applications to, and compliance of, the statutory maintenance service.

All the functions and services for which the commission has responsibility will be shaped to meet the commission’s main and supporting objectives. As part of this, we would expect the commission to focus resources on those groups most in need of support, particularly those on benefits who will be taking their own decisions about child support matters for the first time. For example, while the information and support service will be available to all parents, we are working closely with Jobcentre Plus and HMRC, as I outlined earlier, to ensure that separating parents on low incomes can be identified and proactively referred to the information and support service.

However, the commission does not have responsibility for the many other matters that have a bearing on child poverty. The level of the maintenance disregard, for example, is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as is the New Deal for Lone Parents, while the tax credit system is a matter for HMRC. As a result, we do not consider a wider objective on child poverty to be appropriate for the commission. Therefore, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

When there are so many voices against me, I am well advised to pull back. I saw this amendment as trying to clarify how the whole matter comes together. The clarification of the limitations of role is also quite useful. It is well worth having information on where levers and monitoring should be applied. I thank the Minister for giving us slightly greater clarification on that. Having heard what has been said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 32 to 36 not moved.]

37: Clause 2, page 1, line 19, at end insert—

“( ) The Secretary of State shall by regulations set out the circumstances in which—

(a) maintenance arrangements under subsection (1) are to be regarded by the Commission as “effective”; (b) voluntary maintenance arrangements for children under subsection (2)(a) are to be regarded by the Commission as “appropriate”.”

The noble Lord said: This is the final subject of the quartet. The Committee is rightly spending some quality time looking at aspects of the objectives of the commission. This takes us to the definitions. Earlier in the Grand Committee, we had discussions on that. The Public Bill Committee in another place also looked at some of these matters. The amendment seeks further clarification of what is meant by words such as “effective” and “appropriate” at their respective places in the Bill as it stands. We know from what Mr Plaskitt said in the Public Bill Committee in another place on 19 July that “effective” means an arrangement that works and “appropriate” means an arrangement that is suitable to the circumstances of the parents in question. It is the right type of arrangement at the right level and it is sustainable. There was further discussion about that on Report and at Third Reading in the other place.

I submit that questions still arise from these words, such as what they mean and how they will affect the work of the commission. In seeking to meet its objectives, to maximise the number of effective maintenance arrangements, an arrangement that “works” is a crucial part of the consideration of the way in which the process will work. It will determine what information the commission will need to gather to check that it is meeting its main objective, which is important, and how its action in ensuring that it is an arrangement that works stems back to what an “arrangement that works” means. Given that the voluntary agreements are just that—voluntary—there is no duty to report such arrangements to the commission. We talked about that a little earlier. Neither is there one to say how they compare with the amount available under the statutory scheme. How will the commission establish whether voluntary arrangements reach the right type or level and are sustainable? Those are all words that have been used by Ministers at earlier stages.

The Minister said at Third Reading—and I should like some special comment on this—that the Government expected most voluntary arrangements to be in line with the formula. That should not surprise anyone; it certainly did not surprise me, because that was what I expected to happen. But he then went on to say:

“We do not want the commission to interfere in an attempt to ensure that arrangements are closely linked to the non-resident parent’s income”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/12/07; col. 600.]

What is the basis for their expectation? How do they expect to measure whether that is the case or not?

From 2010, statutory maintenance will be based on historic tax information—the non-resident parent’s gross income. That can be up to two years out of date, so how will the caring parent in particular, in those circumstances, get access to that information so that she can work out what she would receive in a statutory scheme?

There have been attempts to drill down to what this measure actually means in practice and how it will influence the outcomes of the commission’s approach to the important work that Parliament is asking it to do. It is useful for the Committee to spend some time trying to understand these definitions, even at this stage, with the knowledge that an attempt has been made to clarify the definitions. They are fairly innocuous words, taken by themselves, but in the context of the Bill and where they are in the Bill, they could be quite crucial factors in ensuring that the policy works successfully. I beg to move.

My noble friend and I put our names to this amendment. Words of such a subjective nature in Acts of Parliament are far from helpful. Clearly, it is Parliament’s role to debate Bills, which cannot be very easily achieved if they are expressed in vague allusions as to what will happen in practice, or what is expected to happen, and what will actually happen. What will actually happen is not very often—especially under this Government—expressed in Bills; it is expressed in orders, which we cannot amend, although we can discuss them and argue for or against them. It takes a very rare Minister to withdraw an order after a debate; in the past few years there have been three—no, four, because the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, did it the other day. But in the general scheme of things it is very rare indeed. This is why as early in the legislative process as possible we need absolute clarity on what in this case the commission is intended to achieve.

I hope that the Minister will agree that objectives are a necessary and useful yardstick against which we may in hindsight judge CMEC’s performance, in this case. It is important that the Bill contains as many checks and balances as it can to prevent a failing body continuing to fail. I know that the Minister will say straightaway that this is a new body, but I have already given my point of view on that. I would be very much interested in just what is the criteria for judging, “effective maintenance arrangements”. Will it be quantified by a cash amount or reliability or what?

Equally, what is meant by that slippery and frequently overused term, “appropriate” when positioned as it is here in the context of voluntary arrangements? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, on that matter. The inevitable but nevertheless crucial question is: appropriate for whom? Is it appropriate for the Government, for the civil servants behind them, for CMEC to achieve quick resolutions, for the parents or for the children? Perhaps “appropriate” should mean that the arrangements are at least comparable in amount with what would be available under the statutory scheme. I cannot see any good reason why Ministers should say that they would expect most voluntary arrangements to be in line with the statutory scheme. I do not think we have the slightest idea.

The amendment requires the Secretary of State to define in regulations the meaning of effective maintenance arrangements and appropriate voluntary arrangements. The noble Lord is right that these two terms are critical to the commission’s objectives. As such, throughout the passage of the Bill we have been absolutely clear about their meaning. Effective arrangements are arrangements that have the desired effect; in other words, arrangements that are working. Typically that would be where maintenance is flowing, but it is wherever both parties are complying with the arrangement they have agreed to or, in the statutory maintenance scheme, the arrangement imposed on them by law. That seems pretty straightforward. Appropriate voluntary arrangements are arrangements that are suitable to the circumstances of the parents in question, particularly in terms of the level of any agreement. By definition, that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis and is therefore not suitable for secondary legislation.

Overall, it is difficult to see what further clarity regulations could bring in this area. We are also concerned that in an attempt to provide a detailed definition in secondary legislation, we lose some flexibility of application that is important for dealing with the incredible variety of personal circumstances facing the commission. For example, only the parents in question can determine the arrangement that is appropriate for them. The system would not work if the commission was attempting to apply a standard, legal interpretation of appropriateness or suitability.

The noble Lords, Lord Kirkwood and Lord Skelmersdale, asked whether arrangements will automatically mirror what would come from the statutory system. They will not inevitably mirror them if they are voluntary arrangements, but I expect that voluntary arrangements would be entered into with the knowledge of what the statutory system would deliver and therefore what wrap-around or alternative is available to parents should the voluntary arrangement not succeed to be effective. I do not see any particular difficulty in that. Although I would expect that voluntary arrangements would not inevitably be linked to the formula, I would expect them to have regard to that formula; otherwise there is a risk that they would be unsustainable. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment. I do not see that secondary legislation will be helpful in adding to the words that are already there.

I do not think that takes us any further. Regulations could make the situation clearer by taking careful account of the circumstances in which the advice might go forward. I perfectly well understand that the commission may want to have some say—once it gets formed—about some of these things and perhaps, on this occasion, Parliament should not second-guess how it would play different circumstances and different definitions. I still think these are important words. There is still a lot of flexibility in how they may be implemented, and that is still a cause for concern. We will look carefully again at what the Minister said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

38: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—

“Approval of operational plan

(1) The Commission must—

(a) prepare an operational plan (“the plan”) to establish how it will meet its objectives under section 2 of this Act and; (b) publish the plan in such manner as the Commission considers appropriate.(2) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a copy of the plan published under this section.

(3) The plan shall not have effect unless, within three months of the date on which it is laid before Parliament, a motion has been made in each House considering the plan.

(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations determine the categories of information to be included in the plan.

(5) Regulations made under subsection (4) may include details of staffing levels the Commission considers it appropriate to maintain in order for it to fulfil its functions.”

The noble Lord said: We can deal with this group of amendments with some despatch. The amendments deal generally with parliamentary scrutiny once the commission is up and running. It is sensible that we should take a little time to reflect on what we would like to see happen once the commission is up and running. Obviously, there will be a flurry of interest at the beginning and as things settle down, but I am thinking more about the relationship between Parliament and the commission as it evolves and once it gets into a steady state, as I hope it will, and in the longer term.

Amendment No. 38 tries to set out an operational plan. I guess that is something that you could integrate into an annual report, and I understand perfectly well that there are provisions for that later on in the Bill. I would take more comfort if there were some guidelines, framework or template that Parliament could request that the commission adopts and develops on an ongoing basis, so that we can track over a period of time exactly what is going on in this important body that we are creating. The annual report or the operational plan could be debated in the Chamber, if nowhere else. An expectation that there be a continuing relationship between what the commission is doing in the future and parliamentary approval—harking back to the discussion that we have just had about technology—might be of interest to some, if not most, of us as the commission starts life and starts to deploy policy.

Amendment No. 66 may arguably be nugatory to the extent that, since I tabled it, it has been made clear that guidance and directions from the Minister will be made public, although I am getting quite negative signals from the Minister at the moment. The power that Clause 10 gives to the department—whoever is in charge of it—needs to be thought about carefully. I can perfectly well understand that, as a residual last-gasp emergency, if everything that can go wrong does go wrong, or if something unexpected happens, the Secretary of State, of any political stripe, could not stand by and watch the thing go wrong for whatever reason, because this is such an important area of policy. Maybe the Secretary of State needs a residual power of guidance or direction. I certainly think it would be worth taking a moment or two to think about this. I am not asking the Minister to use a crystal ball and fantasise, but there must be some sense of the circumstances in which this power is envisaged to be used. Some thought must have been given to it, or else it would not be there. Exactly what evidence would there be for the rest of us if these are not to be published or laid in front of Parliament when the guidance and directions are given?

What is the difference between guidance and a direction? In what circumstances would guidance be given, and in what circumstances would a direction be given? What possibilities are there for the commission to say, “Thank you very much, I understand this guidance but I do not agree with it, so we are going to do what we want anyway.”? To what extent are these mandatory, and to what extent are they discretionary? These are important questions, and the Committee would benefit from the Minister giving us some background feel for what those two words mean in practice and the circumstances in which they may be deployed.

Amendment No. 210 proposes a duty to consult relevant interests before making regulations. I confess that I think the department did very well. It certainly used the time. It was a long time coming. I was complaining about that the other day, but I have since cheered up a little.

The consultation process that took place in advance of the Bill’s publication was commendable. The Minister took part in some of the seminars and in some of the work with the stakeholders to some effect. We were grateful for that. It makes a big difference if Ministers take the trouble to come and not just make a speech and march off, but to sit and listen to what is being said to them and to soak up some of the questions. That is what happened. I was pleased to see that, but there is no guarantee that, if a Minister has been taken on to higher pastures, the next Minister will be as assiduous. Perhaps Parliament should make it a duty to consult relevant interests before making regulations.

The trio of amendments all seek to do the same thing. They try to tie Parliament into the proceedings and the development of the commission’s work as it unfolds. They may be belt and braces, and I guess that is what the Minister will say—that none of it is necessary because it is all going to be done anyway. I would like to believe that. Indeed, in his ministerial hands I might be prepared to believe it. However, we are setting legislation for the long term, and we do not know who will be implementing it in future. On that basis, Parliament would be better to play safe and to put these amendments in the Bill so that we can guarantee that Parliament will stay advised and properly informed about the work of the commission in future. I beg to move.

Before putting the amendment, could I remind the noble Lord that while he can, and of course almost invariably will, speak to a group of amendments at the same time, only one amendment can be moved at any one time? It is then when we get in chronological order to it, in this case Amendments Nos. 66 and 210, the noble Lord can move or not move as the case may be.

I do not think this is a very good idea. It is an unusual idea altogether. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, clearly has a notion that the plan should be discussed in both Houses. While I, like him, am all in favour of calling the Government to account and criticising them when things go wrong, I am definitely not in favour of trying to second-guess the government machine.

If we were to accept this amendment, where would it all end? Would we expect Parliament to have sight of and comment on the operational plans of, say, the Army in Afghanistan and Iraq? Would we expect Parliament to discuss the day-to-day administration of the passport office or the Immigration Service? I doubt that very much.

As the Grand Committee knows, the Government have gone a long way in revealing their plans for the current CSA in the Green Papers, the White Papers, the Statements in Parliament, and so on. They, in part at least, have resulted in the Bill.

CMEC will, as I am sure the Minister will confirm, have its own operational plan and will publish the annual report. We will be discussing amendments a little later on as to what should go in the annual report, when it should be published, and so on.

Once the annual report is published, there is nothing to stop any Member of Parliament debating it. That is absolutely as it should be. In passing, I have to confess a to fair degree of angst regarding the media, who do not seem to understand, or perhaps do not want to, that Parliament consists of two Houses, and that your Lordships, as well as Members of another place, are Members of Parliament.

Furthermore, if your Lordships are sitting, say, on a Friday and the other place is not, then Parliament is sitting. Have your Lordships, who are about to debate a Private Member’s Bill or whatever, woken up on a Friday morning to be told by the “Today” programme that Parliament is not sitting today? I do not know about other Members of the Committee, but it makes me choke on my cereal and at moments almost drown in my bath.

Having got that off my chest, the amendment says that the operational plan is to be abandoned if a Motion has—and this is curious wording—not been made within three months of this being published by the Secretary of State. I suppose that means laid and debated, but what happens if it has not? Presumably it becomes null and void and the plan comes to a grinding halt. I fail to understand how any of that is going to help in a stressful situation for the agency. To my mind it is, again, overkill. If the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, wants to be more definite about what goes into the annual report, we can discuss that and I shall listen to him with interest, but for now I am content to leave things as they are.

However, that being said, the noble Lord raises a fair point in Amendment No. 210. We are anxious that too much is decided by statutory instrument. Her Majesty's Government employ the tactic of writing little into the Bill and what they write is, typically, vague. This means that passing a Bill through Parliament becomes easier and faster to do because there is so little to scrutinise. The skeleton of the Bill is then fleshed out by civil servants into regulation, which we then debate. I stand behind the amendment because it makes the Government’s evasion of the parliamentary process a little more complicated.

Moreover, with there being a staggering 16 new regulations created every day in this country and our regulatory system becoming more and more hideously complex and bureaucratic, surely we should attempt to limit any pointless or needless regulations being implemented by insisting on a consultation process. Talking to all persons with a relevant interest will only help to ensure that CMEC works in a more sympathetic and effective manner. CMEC will find its inauguration into the benefits infrastructure far easier if it is seen to be communicating rather than instructing. So, half a mark, perhaps.

Amendment No. 38 introduces a new clause requiring the commission to produce an operational plan. This could take effect only once a debate on it has been held in both Houses.

I recognise the concerns the noble Lord raises but I believe it would be inappropriate for us to make the operational business plan of a non-departmental public body subject to the procedure outlined in the amendment. We believe an NDPB is the right governance structure for the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission precisely because of the independence this model allows. The commission will be led by an autonomous board. As we can see from the appointments already made, board members will be highly qualified for their role and will be the people best placed to decide the direction and plans for the commission.

The commission should provide documentation that allows effective parliamentary scrutiny. Treasury guidance already requires that all NDPBs prepare and agree a corporate plan that looks three years ahead, and a more detailed operational business plan for the year immediately ahead, as part of the financial and management documents that must be agreed and between a sponsor department and NDPB. These plans must be published. In addition, Clause 9 requires the commission to provide a comprehensive annual report alongside its accounts, and the Secretary of State must lay this before Parliament. In all these respects, the commission will follow precedent for the relationship between NDPBs, government and Parliament.

Amendment No. 66 would place a statutory requirement on the Secretary of State that guidance and directions must be laid in both Houses of Parliament. As the noble Lord will be aware, ultimate accountability for the commission’s performance and actions remains with the Secretary of State. As such, in line with the legislation for other NDPBs, Clause 10 provides powers of direction and guidance. After listening to thoughts provided in another place, as to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, we brought forward a government amendment providing that any directions given by the Secretary of State should be laid in Parliament. That is now in Clause 10(5).

I would hope to persuade the noble Lord that this provision should not be applied to guidance, as his amendment would require. There are significant differences between guidance and directions. The commission is required to follow a direction issued by the Secretary of State and we intend that this power is only used in emergencies. Guidance, on the other hand, is less rigid. The commission should take it into account but it does not have to be followed to the letter and is likely to be used for relatively routine, low-profile matters. As a result, we do not consider it appropriate to lay all guidance before Parliament as a matter of course. However, it remains open to the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament any guidance he thinks appropriate. We would also expect guidance to be published and the implementation of guidance to be reported on by the commission through the annual report.

Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 210, which found somewhat more favour with the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. It requires all persons with relevant interests in child maintenance to be consulted before any regulation under the powers in this Bill or the 1991 Act can be made. We are committed to consultation as an essential part of the policy-making process. The Bill has emerged from the Henshaw review, which gave rise to a consultation on a White Paper. Both the Bill and the broader child maintenance redesign programme have been built on consultation with stakeholders and cannot possibly succeed without it—both noble Lords acknowledged that. I can confirm that the department will consult stakeholders as it draws up draft regulations and the Secretary of State will ensure that the commission does likewise in line with the Cabinet Office code of practice on consultation. However, I am not convinced of the case for putting a consultation requirement in the Bill. In view of what I have said, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

I am happy to do that. We have had a fair enough debate. If the annual report does what the Minister hopes, we might get there. It is true that it is open to any of us at any time to raise these matters on the Floor of the House. I hope that the relationship between Parliament and the commission is close and that we are able by whatever means and devices to stay ahead of what it has in its plans so that we can make appropriate comment in time to make sure that Parliament is not left behind in the way that it has been in some of the policy developments in the history of the Child Support Agency. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Promotion of child maintenance]:

39: Clause 4, page 2, line 15, leave out paragraph (a)

The noble Lord said: This is a large group. My Amendment No. 39 starts it off, and it includes Amendments Nos. 40 to 46 and 48 to 50. These amendments are grouped so that we can consider a major new aspect of CMEC. We might call it its human aspect, which is intended to make it more than the money-extracting agency that the CSA was believed to have become. The CSA is not liked; more than that, it is resented. As a result, it has not succeeded in its role of administering child maintenance. I have tabled my amendment to ask the Minister what he considers child maintenance to be. On Tuesday, we had quite a long debate on this subject, but he has not yet satisfied me. How much of it is a financial duty and how much an emotional duty? More specifically related to the debate in hand, how much of CMEC’s role will be financial support for the parent and how much of it will be emotional support? Have the Government considered looking at the successful reformed Australian child support scheme as a precedent for our own currently unsuccessful scheme? Indeed, Amendment No. 40 acknowledges why the information and guidance facet of CMEC is needed.

The need to protect the parent with care is great, but in so doing, CMEC must not alienate the non-resident parent because if the latter believes that CMEC sees him or her only as a target from which to demand money, he or she will feel alienated from the agency and resentful towards it. The result will be coercion, not co-operation; which is far from ideal.

Only around one third of eligible families receive child maintenance in this country. In such a climate, where child maintenance is not valued, it is crucial to change child maintenance into something that is unquestioned and unchallenged. I know that is the Minister’s hope. Clearly, that necessitates getting the non-resident parent on side. As we have heard, 95 per cent of them are fathers.

On Amendment No. 43, what does the Minister propose that the information and guidance suggested will be? If this is to be one of the obvious differences between CMEC and its predecessor, why is the new information and support service not even loosely defined in the Bill? A local and face-to-face service that is on hand for all parents is only going to make parents feel more consulted and included in the scheme. However, the Minister sent me—and I am sure other noble Lords—a letter on the appointment of Ventura some time ago. In it, he talked about Ventura operating from a central place, I think, in the north of England; I happen to think it is Sheffield, but I may have got that wrong. The point is that it will operate from a central place. If the inter-relationship with parents with care is going to be by e-mail, that does not matter at all, but if there are to be face-to-face interviews, it will have to set up some sort of local system to do that. There will not be many parents with care in the situation that we have been talking about who have the money to go from, say, Cornwall, up to Sheffield, or wherever in the north of England it happens to be. Clearly, it will have to set up some sort of subsidiary organisation.

I hope that CMEC will be part of a large drive to help to improve the quality of life for Britain’s children and Britain’s struggling parents. That is why Amendment No. 48 is useful, because it points to how child maintenance, both financial and emotional, needs to harness all available resources. If HMG are so keen on joined-up government, why is that not in the Bill?

Amendments Nos. 41 and 42 are obvious examples of drafting amendments, but they crucially tighten the relationship between CMEC and its commitment to giving information and guidance and turn it into a duty. While all so far has been well and good, I am afraid that I cannot agree with Amendment No. 49, which states:

“The Commission must devote at least 15% of its total annual budget”.

That is inflexible, and it is not always appropriate. The percentage of money to be devoted to this area cannot reasonably be decided until the commission is up and running; and it is likely to change from year to year. A figure plucked out of the sky, uncorroborated by practice, is dangerous because it either threatens unrealistic demands or sets too easy a goal. I beg to move.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that this is an important and dense group of amendments, which covers a range of issues. The lead amendment is key; but the others in the group deal with the essential area of advice and guidance. The amendments in this group in my name and that of my noble friend are all about trying to beef up, underline and emphasise the importance of getting the information and guidance right. There is a difference between information, guidance and advice, and I think we all understand the difference. Advice needs to be made available to people who are asking questions about what they should do in certain circumstances to be sure that they are getting the best opportunities to improve their life chances and those of their children. The question is how you do that and how you guide the commission to put those services in place.

I must say first that I am confident that the commission will have access through various means to parents with care. There are a number of ways, points of contact and steps in the system that give me confidence that it is possible to stay in touch and make contact with that set of parents as the system is currently constructed and as the commission is being asked to operate. I am not confident that we will have anything like the same contact, if any, with non-resident parents.

That is my first question: where will the commission look to find non-resident parents? In order to have any chance of having a quality of service between what is made available to both sets of parents—there is an underlying gender equality question there—it is essential that we understand that parents who are absent and are paying maintenance, mainly fathers, are part of the advice and information setup. They are just as important as anyone else. From what I have seen and understand at the moment, I am not confident that that is guaranteed to happen unless we make it happen. Amendment No. 40 in my name and that of my noble friend addresses that question.

Amendment No. 41 looks at what is information, what is guidance, what is to be provided, Ventura and all that. My experience with call centres is very clear. Where you are dealing with a client group, for example, in the Pensions Service, who have landlines, who are confident and who know what they are doing, they can sit at home with a glass of malt whisky in their hands and make arrangements. That is a perfect way for the service to be delivered. But I am sure that there is a 10 or 15 per cent residue of clients in that category who will struggle to deal with telephones. A lot of them only have mobile phones; they only have pay-as-you-go SIM cards. Often, they have to resort to landlines—God help them, BT land lines and the like—to make contact. That is not an atmosphere conducive to public service delivery.

I understand that Ventura is merely the preferred contract bidder at the moment. It would help the Committee if the Minister explained a little more about what the envisaged contract may look like. We all know what a call centre looks like and we understand that the success or otherwise of call centres depends on how the scripts are worked up and how the professionals who are manning the call centres deal with unexpected questions, because there will be many. They will not just be about how the percentages add up or how the maintenance is calculated; they will get other questions as well. I wonder how the call centre can be configured to deal with the disadvantaged, those who are waiting in long queues outside Jobcentre Plus offices trying to access phones.

We have recently had debates about the Social Fund, where some of those real problems were raised. If we are not careful, we will end up condemning clients of the future service to real access difficulties through a call centre. I understand that the call centre is not the complete picture and that other services will be put in place. Contracts are being considered for those and the voluntary sector is being encouraged. It would be good to know what is the up-to-date situation there as well.

There is very clear evidence that clients have a very clear disposition and are much more comfortable in a face-to-face situation. The Minister knows that, because his own recently published research reports show it. Again with regard to the Australian experience, face-to-face interviews are particularly important for fathers. If we do not get a process put in place that is robust and looks after people, particularly non-resident parents who want to come to reconnect with their estranged children, the system will fail. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is absolutely right that that requires a local dimension; it must not be delivered through Jobcentre Plus or any other HMRC offices. It must be done somewhere where people can feel comfortable. The location of the local service is important.

I was interested to read David Varney’s recent report on transformational services. Some of this will be brigaded in the DWP, in terms of taking the government-wide agenda forward. The point that he made, which I found interesting, was that you do not actually always need buildings for local face-to-face contact. There may be—I nearly said travelling circus; I do not mean that—a peripatetic service that can be deployed. Perhaps there could even be some house visits. I am old enough to remember the days when social security services used to do house visits. You often learnt a lot more from one of those visits than you do from any form filling, the internet or call centre contacts.

The local service, face-to-face and voluntary sector dimension to all this is critical to getting the information and guidance that the Government propose to where I want it to be—which adds up to an advice service in all but name. Amendments Nos. 44 and 46 harp back to the mediation services and the prospect of a one-stop shop, where you can go through the door and, even if it cannot deal with all your needs, at least you will find someone who is intelligent and well trained enough and has the back-up to be able to signpost you to where you really need to be to get the guidance, advice or information that you need.

The penultimate amendment in my name and that of my noble friend takes a stab at 15 per cent of a budget devoted to mediation and advice. I have no idea how much that is or anything about it. I am trying to guess at a level below which it is not safe to fall. It is important as to command something like 15 per cent of the totality of the energy, finance and back-up procedures that the commission will need if it is to have any chance to get a really successful sensitive, face-to-face system that is intelligent in guiding parents of whatever kind, non-resident or with care, to where they want to be.

The final amendment refers in passing to the costs of telephony. The telephony in the agency has improved, which is welcome, but it is not fair to expect people to run up big telephone bills, as they may if they are using pay-as-you-go SIM cards on mobile phones. I should like some reassurance that whatever shape or form the guidance or information takes, it will not prejudice financially those who have no access to landlines or other means of making contact.

This is a big agenda. An enormous amount is covered in these amendments. If we get the subjects contained in this group of amendments right, the policy has a much better chance of succeeding. Contrariwise, if we do not, it is even more likely to fail.

The amendments have given us an opportunity to debate an important part of the Bill. They would amend Clause 4, which places a duty on the commission to raise awareness among parents of the importance of taking responsibility for the maintenance of children and to make appropriate arrangements for securing that maintenance.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, pressed again on definitions of maintenance. We had quite a wide-ranging discussion around that on Tuesday. The statutory system is very much geared to financial support. The Government are not saying that that is the end of maintenance and responsibilities; it is a much wider issue than that, as we discussed on Tuesday. The maintenance arrangements we are talking about here are concerned with the provision of finance and facilities if they are voluntary arrangements. Of course emotional support ought to be an integral part of supporting parents and that is what we would encourage both parents to provide for their children, but that emotional part is specifically, directly and deliberately not part of the Bill.

I would argue that it is. What happens when you have a parent with care who is exploding in tears down the telephone because they have had threats of being battered by their former partner? There will inevitably be an emotional aspect, for want of a better word, to the advice service. The question is: how will that be delivered?

To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that the emotional turmoil that arises from the breakdown of relationships will not be a common feature of the situations that the information and support service and the commission will have to face. The information and support service will have to engage with that; in some measure, by signposting to other voluntary organisations or to mediation. It will be part of the wider picture that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is leading on, and I shall come to that in just a moment. I shall hold on to the point that when we are talking about maintenance in the context of the Bill, that is geared to financial support.

Two amendments to Clause 4 have been tabled. Amendment No. 39 would remove the commission’s ability to raise awareness among parents of the importance of taking responsibility for the maintenance of their children. We cannot accept the amendment because it aims to remove one of the two interlocking elements underpinning the promotion of the new package of reforms. I understand that in a sense it was a probing amendment. If the commission is to successfully empower parents it must have the ability to raise general awareness, understanding and acceptance about the importance of parents recognising their own personal responsibility for financially supporting their children, as well as promoting understanding of the ways that can be done. The amendment would prevent the commission from raising general awareness.

Amendment No. 40 would place a duty on the commission to demonstrate that it has taken steps to engage both non-resident parents and parents with care equally in any awareness-raising campaigns that it runs. I reassure the noble Lord that I have sympathy with the principle underlying the amendment, but I do not think it necessary. We have deliberately cast the clause broadly and used the word “parents” precisely because we recognise that the commission must have the power to promote the importance of child maintenance to all parents in society to meet its central objective. The amendment will also constrain the commission from running targeted campaigns, which could lead to an imbalance in the level of engagement with particular groups of parents and would force the commission either to drop campaigns or to run additional, less necessary campaigns to ensure that it was achieving that balance. For those reasons, I cannot accept the amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, rightly raised the point about how this will serve non-resident parents as well as parents with care, an extremely important issue. One of the ways it will seek to engage them is through awareness-raising campaigns targeted at non-resident parents. If we had to do everything equally at every stage, that would be a distraction. I am not sure that that was the intended import of the amendment but, as it is written, that could be a consequence.

Clause 5 places a duty on the commission to provide parents with the necessary information and support to help them choose, make and keep effective maintenance arrangements while providing some basic information and signposting on a wider range of issues as part of that process. Ten amendments have been tabled to this clause, and I will address each in turn.

I have assumed that Amendments Nos. 41 and 42 are trying to prevent the commission from providing a limited information and support service for parents, and that Amendment No. 43 has been tabled to ensure that the commission is committed in legislation to providing certain key products as part of the information and support service. The amendments are helpful because they give me an opportunity to set out in a little more detail our thinking on some of the key aspects of the information and support service that we expect the commission to provide at the outset.

At present, there is no dedicated service providing parents with impartial information about the child maintenance options that are available to them; yet ensuring that parents can make an informed choice underpins the success or failure of the new system. The current absence of information and support reduces our prospects of realising our objectives, reduces our prospects of putting child poverty at the centre of the reform programme and increases the chances that low-income families will end up making no arrangement at all.

So we expect the commission to provide a comprehensive new service that will reach out to newly separating families on low incomes and will be delivered through three channels: a national contact centre, a web-based online service and a face-to-face support service. We expect that those services will be nationally available from around October this year, having tested elements of the service through prototyping prior to that point.

At present, we anticipate that the national contact centre will be the primary channel through which the commission will provide parents with information about child maintenance. Although parents will be able to contact the service independently through a freephone number, we are also working closely with Jobcentre Plus and HMRC to enable the commission to ensure that separating parents on low incomes can be identified and referred to the information and support service. Such proactive contact is particularly important given the removal of compulsion, and strong evidence that personal communication with this client group can greatly improve outcomes, for example in a welfare-to-work context.

As announced on Monday 14 January, the department has entered into a contract with Ventura to start to develop and run a national contact centre. Ventura has significant experience working with the public sector, through initiatives such as the pension credit application line. I think it is in Rotherham rather than Sheffield; each is north of Luton.

We expect information and support service agents to receive comprehensive training developed in conjunction with the voluntary sector and other government departments enabling them effectively to identify parents’ information needs. This will enable national contact centre staff to provide parents with the appropriate information on a range of issues, including the child maintenance options available to them, what those options mean in practice, how to negotiate with an ex-partner, how maintenance affects other benefits and tax credits and a child maintenance estimate of the level of maintenance that a parent would be expected to pay or receive under the statutory scheme. Agents would also help parents to understand what support would be available and their rights and responsibilities under the statutory scheme. Agents would not be expected to directly support parents needing CSA case-specific detail, however, such as the action that the statutory scheme has been taking to secure non-resident parent debts.

We also want to ensure that the commission supports parents to act on the decisions that they make—for example, by ensuring that parents can be passed across to the statutory maintenance service where that option is preferred. In addition, we expect that the national contact centre will provide parents who are interested in a voluntary arrangement with tools, such as a standard maintenance form, to guide them through constructing and agreeing their own arrangements. This form will also act as a record for parents to review and maintain their voluntary arrangement. We expect this service to be large-scale, potentially supporting 500,000 parents a year.

As I outlined earlier, we recognise that some parents will need additional support to understand their child maintenance options. Evidence strongly suggests that a face-to-face service will be needed to ensure that parents have access to that level of support. We plan to provide that service where a specific need for more personalised support is identified. We need to ensure that there is not just nominal access to the information and support service but real access for those who cannot do so via a contact centre.

Research shows that many parents, particularly fathers, prefer to access online services for information. For that reason we expect that the commission will make available a comprehensive website that will provide online information about child maintenance options. It will also include electronic copies of all the information and support guides, leaflets and the standard maintenance form. We also expect that the commission will provide an e-mail function so that parents can receive information without having to contact the telephone service.

Research shows that during the process of separation parents often have a number of issues to address in addition to child maintenance, such as those that we touched on earlier. We are keen to ensure that the commission is able to respond to parents who raise wider separation issues during their discussions. We are already working with the voluntary sector and other government departments to ensure that the information and support service can provide parents with a basic level of information or can signpost parents to more specialist help on the key areas that also affect parents during the separation process: debt, housing, employment, legal responsibilities and emotional issues.

In light of that, Amendments Nos. 41 and 42 are unnecessary as, in practice, we have every intention of providing a comprehensive and personalised service to both parents. Amendments Nos. 43 and 50 are also unnecessary, for two reasons. First, we fully expect the commission to provide virtually all those elements as part of the overall service, even without a direct mention in legislation. Secondly, we would not want legislation to force the commission to provide particular products and services to parents because future research may well show that those tools proved unhelpful in practice.

Amendments Nos. 44 and 46 would commit the information and support service to raising the profile of family mediation services and how they can help parents reach effective maintenance arrangements as well as dealing with non-maintenance issues. We are currently working with the Ministry of Justice and looking to put in place referral arrangements to the family mediation helpline. That should ensure that parents accessing the information and support service can be quickly linked across to local mediators where appropriate. I am happy to confirm that we will be letting people know about mediation and how it can help.

Amendment No. 45 would restrict the provision of information and support given to parents to child maintenance issues only. I agree that the commission needs to focus its service on helping parents to make financial arrangements for their children. However, evidence shows that separating parents have to deal with clusters of problems and, as such, it is important that the commission is not prevented from offering some degree of support on the wider issues that often get in the way of their making financial arrangements for their children. We therefore do not accept that amendment.

Amendment No. 48 would provide the commission with the power to provide information and guidance in conjunction with public bodies or departments that deliver family breakdown services. The amendment is unnecessary because there is nothing in Clause 5 or any other part of the Bill that would prevent the commission from providing its services alongside other public bodies. In addition, Clause 7 goes even further than that by enabling the commission to carry out work on behalf of other government departments or public bodies and vice versa. We genuinely believe that the suggested amendment is unnecessary to achieve the noble Lord’s aim.

Amendment No. 49 would commit the commission to spending at least 15 per cent of its total annual budget on the provision of information and support services. I assure the Committee that we are clear about the critical role the information and support service can play in helping the commission realise all its objectives. In light of the importance of the service, sums have been clearly allocated to ensure that a robust and comprehensive service is put in place. Our approach towards agreeing the commission’s finances will be dynamic and linked to its achievement of particular outcomes. It will not be based around compelling the commission to apportion certain funds towards any particular aspect of its business. We therefore cannot accept the amendment, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was of the same view.

I hope that I have made it clear how important I believe the information and support service to be in supporting low-income parents, in particular, into effective arrangements supporting our child poverty objectives. In doing so, I hope that I have addressed and provided assurance on the issues raised by Amendments Nos. 39 to 50.

On the more specific questions raised, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred to the expense of telephones. There will be a freephone number and call centre agents can call back anyone who asks. Low-income parents using a Jobcentre Plus or HMRC can be contacted directly via that source. The noble Lord also raised interesting questions on the scripts for Ventura. Obviously, we are engaging the voluntary sector on that, which will be an important part of the service. I emphasise again that this service has to be available for both non-resident parents and parents with care.

The face-to-face service will need to be local so that it is properly available. We are looking at how that service can be built and, moving forward, how the voluntary sector can be engaged in that. I am very keen and very clear that we need to have a robust and sufficient face-to-face service in place by the time Section 6 compulsion is removed. That will be a critical point in the development of the new system. Having said that, I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured and feel able to withdraw his amendment.

I am delighted to hear that the department is proposing to use child contact centres as places where a draft voluntary agreement might be provided to families. That is an extremely good idea. I declare an interest as a patron of a Welsh child contact centre. I hope that the Minister appreciates how many of these child contact centres are in danger of not staying open. I am a governor of Coram, which is closing its child contact centre in March because it does not make any money. The Government, in the DCSF, are very good at providing for the opening of child contact centres and helping to fund them for three years, but they are not good at continuing them. The Minister’s department might like to encourage the DCSF to help contact centres to remain open for the very valuable extra service that they might provide. I thought that the Minister should know that a lot of contact centres are in real danger of closing down.

I am grateful for that intervention, and I will certainly discuss that point with appropriate colleagues. I am not sure whether contact centres are the same as children centres. We are building 3,500 children centres across the country, which I think are due to be on stream by 2010. In recent months, I have had the chance to visit several. That will be an ideal opportunity to engage with parents. We need to identify as many of these opportunities and natural places where parents would go as possible, so that we can spread this information.

I am very glad that we have had this debate. I certainly agree that there has been no dedicated service on information and support up to now, which has been a great weakness. I more than agree that it is important: it is absolutely vital. I cannot see the whole scheme of voluntary arrangements working without a properly organised and competent information and support service.

However, I am afraid that I got a little confused when the Minister was speaking. I do not know whether he has in front of him the letter to which he and I referred; I am afraid that I do not. In that letter, he referred to Ventura providing face-to-face facilities, as far as I can remember. If I am wrong, I apologise, and I am sure that we will have discussions later.

I do not have the letter in front of me, but it is not my understanding that Ventura will run the contact centre. We are looking to see initially how staff internally can be involved in providing that face-to-face service. Certainly at the starting point, we know that the voluntary sector does not have sufficient capacity. My understanding is that it would not be delivered by Ventura, and I am reassured by nods from behind me.

I also saw the nods and I saw the frown when I was quoting the letter from memory, which is always dangerous on these occasions. I am not encouraged by what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has just said about mediation centres, but I was interested in what the Minister said about child centres being built around the country. There is also the opportunity to use various voluntary organisations and, I assume, Citizens Advice would fit into this too, which would not exist without government subsidy. It is virtually entirely paid for by the Government. I think we agree that face-to-face bears no relation to phone-to-phone. There is no doubt about that.

Ventura has been doing an advice service for the Pension Service for some time and I understand that the Pension Service is more than happy with the advice that it is giving. Is it not true to say that pension credit take-up, although it has improved slightly recently, is nothing that the Government can write home about? One would have thought that part of Ventura’s remit would be to encourage that. However, I leave that for another day when we will have many happy hours discussing pensions in the fairly near future.

The noble Lord has provoked me in the mildest possible way. The record on pension credit take-up is increasingly robust—certainly, the guaranteed minimum element of it. I have a note here which says, “Don’t go there”.

The noble Lord got up rather too early; I acknowledged that it was improving, so we should leave it at that. Last but not least, however it is provided, whether from a central office in Rotherham—not Sheffield—through the telephone, through computers or through different organisations at a much more local level, it is important that a comprehensive service should be provided for both parents. I certainly agree with the noble Lord on that.

This group of amendments was far too large for what the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, might have described as my “dense brain”. He referred to the word “dense” earlier—I hope that he was not referring to my mental capacity, but to the group of amendments. Be that as it may, I shall read with great interest what he, the noble Baroness and the Minister have said. I may need to come back to it at the next stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 40 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Provision of information and guidance]:

[Amendments Nos. 41 to 46 not moved.]

47: Clause 5, page 2, line 24, at end insert—

“( ) The provisions of this section shall be provided by members of the Commission staff and be exempt from the provisions of section 8.”

The noble Lord said: We now turn to the question of contracting out. The amendment is in my name and that of my noble friend, and it deals with a vexed question. I have mixed views about contracting out, which is probably reflected in the shape of the amendment. I did this all before Christmas. I was worried, first, about the state of mind of the staff, who the last time I had anything directly to do with them—at a much earlier stage—were extremely concerned about exactly what was going to happen to them. The amendment was tabled so that I would have a guaranteed slot to make representations and seek assurances from the Minister that members of staff were being properly kept advised of what the Government and the commission may have in mind in relation to the exercise of these powers.

Amendment No. 56 deals with the assurance that might be provided by independent audits before any such powers were made use of. Amendment No. 57 looks at the prospect of getting regulations laid in advance of any contracting-out provisions being enacted. David Henshaw made great play on the question of opting out. His concept was that the commission would be a commissioning body and not very much more than that. I see the force of that argument, in that there should be a dedicated professional service which should be efficient above all else, delivering the level of service that the parents with care, in particular, would expect. But for my money, although I am a bit ambivalent about it, I think that it should still be a public service in its essence. That does not mean to say that at the margins there might not be occasions when it is demonstrably shown that the private sector can do things better, such as tracing parents. That is a small niche activity that could conceivably be considered sensibly for contracting-out.

The evidence that we have to date, such as the debt collection service, some of which we have privatised, had an early flush of success when the bailiffs’ letters started coming through front doors. But although the Minister may say that it is too early to judge, and I might be prepared to accept that, the early results are not good in terms of collection rates for arrears that have been put into the private service for debt collection. In that regard, the move towards privatisation has not been demonstrably more successful than the professionals who are already working hard, have the experience and know what they are doing in the agency.

Another example is the experience of Vertex in Bolton, which was set up as a great experiment. The private sector was going to bring in efficiency savings and David Henshaw, rather naively, seemed to think that all you needed was a professional money collection service. In other parts of the commercial world, they are demonstrably more successful than the Child Support Agency, but that naively ignores the determination of this client group—namely, non-resident parents—to avoid the responsibilities at every conceivable point, in some cases. It is a minority but they are a dedicated minority, and there are some who feel so strongly about what they are being asked to pay that they will go to any lengths, including going to jail, to try to avoid their responsibilities. The Henshaw analysis ignores that dimension of that tricky problem.

With the Vertex experience of running the Bolton centre, looking at stuck and manual cases, the information that I have from people working with and within that centre is that the experience has not been a happy one. The stuck cases are still stuck and the manual cases are still manual, and the really difficult ones tend to come back to the people who really know what they are doing at the regional centres. That is what I am told. Again, that may be the early experience. Maybe it is early days, and if we are patient this may all work out in the long run and privatisation will prove its worth. If I was a professional working within the agency, I do not think that I would have any confidence, given the experience that I am aware of to date, that privatisation helps. The Minister may say that this is all up to the commission. That is his fallback defence for everything. The commission can look at this, and maybe it will and maybe it will not.

For my money, I would want clear demonstrations that the privatisation powers in the provisions could effect significant step changes in the service levels before I had got anywhere near them. Why? It is because it demotivates the professionals already in the service who are doing this job against very difficult odds and providing a dedicated public service. The fact that they are public servants is important to them. The fact that this work can be taken away from them and given to people who in their opinion do not know what they are doing does not make them any more reconciled or increase their job satisfaction. That has been my experience as I have gone around.

I am absolutely prepared to be attacked again by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for having technically incompetent, or whatever, amendments. I do not care about that. The important thing is that the subject is raised and that it is understood by the commission that if it is to be given this power it can only be used very carefully, if at all, and it can be used only where it is going to demonstrate evident efficiencies that are clear for all to see. If we do not do that, we risk ticking off the whole body of staff—and they do not deserve that because they have been working so hard for so long to try to keep the service going through some very difficult times.

The issue is not the wording or the defence of the fine print of the amendment, it is the very important issue of sending a clear signal not just to those non-resident parents in the main, who are eliding the service, but also to the staff that they are not going to be second-guessed by private contractors who really do not know what they are doing and who create messes which the public servants in the service then have to spend time clearing up. It is against that background that I move Amendment No. 47. I beg to move.

I shall avoid following my noble friend in attacking the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. On Amendments Nos. 54 and 55, I should like to ask the Minister for clarity. Clause 7 concerns agency arrangements between the commission and any “relevant authority”. What is that relevant authority? The Minister may point me to its apparent definition in Clause 7(4), but I still remain unclear. The relevant authority may be,

“a public body specified in regulations”.

That is not a definition. It may be a diversion, but it is not a very good one. I do not wish to remind the Minister that ambiguity in legislation is never a good thing because it often leads to confusion and, more dangerously, misinterpretation.

I thank noble Lords for tabling these amendments, which raise interesting points. On Amendments Nos. 54 and 55, which relate to agency arrangements, perhaps I may explain why we have included agency arrangement provisions in the Bill. As a statutory body, the commission will have only the powers conferred on it by statute. The provisions under Clause 7 allow the commission to set up closer working arrangements with other public bodies. A current example is the co-operation between the Child Support Agency and its counterpart in Northern Ireland. Looking forward, the commission might decide to work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families as part of a wider initiative to provide information to parents, which we have just debated. The agency arrangement provisions would enable, for example, other departments to provide child maintenance information to the public on the commission’s behalf, or vice versa, in respect of information that it seeks to disseminate.

I am not sure that it is possible to put the definition of the words “relevant authority” much clearer than in Clause 7(4), the provision to which the noble Baroness directed me. There is clarity and the interpretation of that provision would be well understood. Amendments Nos. 56 and 57 seek to prevent the commission from contracting out work unless two criteria have been met; namely, that Parliament has given approval to the detailed provisions of the contract and that an independent audit has first been performed to ensure that contracting out represents long-term value for money.

I now turn to issues relating to staff at the CSA. I shall use this opportunity to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said. Like him, I have visited a number of centres and have always been impressed by the professionalism, dedication and commitment of the staff at the CSA. On my first ministerial visit about a year ago, I did not expect it to be like that, given the difficult backdrop that the CSA has encountered in the popular press. So I take this opportunity to give credit and to acknowledge that work that it has done.

On Amendments Nos. 56 and 57, I believe that the noble Lord seeks to ensure that future contracts contain robust provisions that will lead to successful, efficient delivery and provide adequate redress for poor performance. Those are important points, but I do not believe the proposed amendments are the best way to achieve those goals. This Bill makes it clear that the responsibility for efficiently and effectively discharging functions rests with the commission even if those functions are contracted out. As such, the commission is already bound by this Bill to ensure that any decision to contract out represents value for money; and it will be a priority for the commission to make sure that the terms of any contract are rigorous enough to enable them to ensure effective performance.

In order to meet this legal requirement, in the initial stages of considering whether one of its functions should be contracted out, the commission will undertake a comprehensive review of those functions. Value for money is one of the standard criteria for such a review and would always be taken into consideration. If the commission decides to contract work out, it would have to adhere to government procurement rules which require any government procurement exercise to be open, fair and transparent. They also require that, when evaluating any response to a tender, one of the main criteria should be whether the contract would provide value for money.

I recognise that this does not add up to a full independent audit of any decision to contract out. However, in view of the safeguards already in place we consider that such a requirement would be unnecessary. On occasion, the commission may contract out work of a very low value. It may do so to assess the benefits that a larger scale exercise could bring. Having to complete a full, independent audit beforehand would not represent an effective use of taxpayers’ money. However, for significant outsourcing we might expect the commission to seek an independent audit to prove that it is meeting the legislative requirements already placed on it.

With reference to Amendment No. 57, it is also difficult to see how the process of laying contractual terms before Parliament would work in practice. Contractual terms are often commercially confidential and it would not be appropriate to subject these to the public scrutiny given to affirmative regulations. As we have discussed, the commission will be led by an independent board which is expert in what it does. I believe it is the body best placed to determine appropriate terms of individual contracts and will bring in any expert advice it feels that it needs. Surely, Parliament’s role is to hold the Secretary of State to account for the overall performance of the commission. It is supported in doing so by the comprehensive reporting requirements set out in Clause 9, which will cover any functions contracted out. In light of this, and given the importance of agency arrangements in helping to make joined-up work across the public sector possible, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Picking up on a couple of specific points that the noble Lord raised about where contracting out has occurred, we know that the Vertex experience was a challenge, certainly initially, but we should recognise that contracting out clerical cases to the private sector—Vertex in Bolton—is already helping to get more money to more children. Since December 2006, Vertex has arranged and collected more than £30 million in maintenance payments. This is the first time that one of the department’s agencies has contracted out core work on this scale and, as with any significant change, some areas have not progressed as smoothly as wanted. Clearly, the lessons from that need to be learnt and factored into any future proposals for contracting. On contracting out to debt collection agencies, £9.3 million has been collected, so that is making a real contribution to getting more money for more children. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

I thank the Minister for his consideration, but he missed the point about clarity. What relevant authority it should be counts. One area may interpret the relevant authorities differently from another. If there are to be budgeting issues, there needs to be clarification of what we mean by relevant authorities because it will make a big difference.

The definition is in Clause 7(4):

“any Minister of the Crown or department of the Government of the United Kingdom”


“public body specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section”.

When regulations are brought forward, that will produce clarity for other public bodies that might be involved. If no regulations are made, it would be any department of government or any Minister of the Crown. That is a clearly identifiable group of people and organisations.

Perhaps I am just very confused. I feel that that does not pin down the relevant authorities for people to know which authority will be looking after their interests. Perhaps it is just the way I am reading it, but I do not think there is a specific clarification.

I accept the point that the noble Baroness may be pressing. The commission has not drawn up detailed plans about how it expects to work with other departments of government. In a number of our debates, we have identified that there is a clear link to the work of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and that there would be cross-working and joint working with that department. What other departments might be involved depends on how the commission draws up its business plan and its corporate plan, and how that all fits together. It is not as though there is now a complete list of what the commission has in mind and which departments it will work with because it does not yet exist. It is the opportunity of working across government.

I find this discussion quite extraordinary. In what he has just said, the Minister relied on Clause 7(4)(a). My noble friend and I understand quite readily what,

“any Minister of the Crown or department of the Government of the United Kingdom”

means, but we do not know what “other public body” means. The noble Lord has suggested that such an order, naming whichever bodies CMEC decides are appropriate, will appear only once that decision has been made. For the moment, neither he nor I nor anyone else has the slightest idea who might fall into Clause 7(4)(b). Is that the situation?

Regulations have clearly not yet been produced to specify which public bodies might be involved. I fail to understand why this is creating such a problem. I do not think it is unusual.

We will write to the noble Baroness. We will rack our brains to try to give a broader range of appropriate examples. At the end of the day, no list has been drawn up and it will depend on the commission. Quite rightly, it would largely focus on government departments because of the importance of cross-government work in this area. I mentioned the engagement with Northern Ireland. Child support arrangements are dealt with separately in Northern Ireland, but work is provided there on behalf, particularly, of the eastern region of the CSA. There is access to the systems of the CSA, and that might be one example. However, I do not think that that would be a public body, but a government department. I shall write to Members of the Committee and we shall see if we can produce some clarity on that.

The debate has been valuable. I want to reflect on what has been said. I have two queries. First, the commission will have such a difficult birth and early period before it gets into a stable state, if it ever does. I am prepared to believe that the work done in Bolton, such as it is, and the work that the debt collectors have done, such as that is, has helped a little, but I do not think that that is the point. The question is whether the public servants in other parts of the system, having been tasked with a certain amount of work, get the same results with less effort, less energy and less expense. That is still an open question.

If the commission goes heavily into contracting out at an early stage, it will have so many other fronts on which to fight that I do not think that would be advisable. I would like from the Minister, during the passage of this legislation, some sense of what the Government believe should be done. Of course, I understand that you do not set up a commission and then do everything for it. His default defence is that this is a matter for the commission. However, the Government must have some idea whether to go for the Henshaw model, which was strictly a commissioning body stripped down and doing nothing but arranging contracts and ensuring that they work, or whether to stay with a model that is more embedded in the public service. The department must have some view about that. It need not be a definitive or final view, but rather than leave all this with such a wide variation, with the potential to unsettle the confidence of the existing staff, at some stage we need a clearer idea of what the Government have in mind. I am prepared to be patient and to wait, but we shall need to press for further and better particulars under the heading of contracting out in future. I am content to leave it, unless the Minister wants to add anything.

I have two points. The noble Lord presses me, but it genuinely is for the commission to develop the business model. That is why we are going down this route. If it planned to do something that the Government thought was outrageous, the protections are in the directions and guidance that we talked about earlier. At this stage, it has genuinely not been fully developed; it has not been developed to any greater sense that I, as a Minister, have been engaged in.

I will take the opportunity to save myself or officials writing; a public body, for example, might be CAFCASS, which could in theory work with the commission to reach separating families. That is one example; I am sure there are others. I hope that helps to clarify what we are thinking about.

If the Minister is using CAFCASS as an example to reassure us, he is only making us even more sceptical. No doubt we will all study the record, and I think that we will have to return to this. The commission has much better things to do than start looking for contracts with private contractors, certainly in the early days. I would not have this clause in the Bill. We will watch the legislation as it unfolds; we cannot take this any further this afternoon. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 48 to 50 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Fees]:

51: Clause 6, page 2, line 27, at end insert—

“(1A) The Secretary of State may only make regulations under subsection (1) when he is satisfied that the Commission is providing a satisfactory service to parents and children in terms of its duties under this Act.

(1B) In subsection (1A), the provision by the Commission of “satisfactory service” shall be assessed by an appropriate body to be determined by the Secretary of State by regulations.”

The noble Lord said: Clause 6 deals with fees. Amendment No. 51 attempts to say that unless the service is going to be dramatically improved, why are fees being charged of people who are trying to get payments? I have had considerable briefing, which I could go through at length, but the gist of much of it is that if the fees are charged to the parent who is looking after the child, is not that a disincentive to use the service? That is a danger, and we need some clarification of that. Here we are talking about people for whom every penny counts. Can we have a clarification about the intention and some guarantee that this will not happen? It is very worrying.

In Amendment No. 51, we are asking for “a satisfactory service”. I hope that the Minister does not take this as any kind of affront, but it is not unreasonable to ask for a satisfactory service. At the moment, people do not perceive the Government to have a moral right to charge a fee for this service. There are a variety of historical reasons for that, and I do not know who gets the most blame, but that is an unproductive game. They have effectively failed. We do not know what is going on with the new commission. Can we have an idea of what fee will be charged and how much pressure might be applied to charge fees to parents with care? I beg to move.

I understand that Amendment No. 51, which makes conditional the commission’s powers to charge fees on its performance record, was drafted by the Law Society of Scotland. It is a rather sensible amendment, because it prevents the commission charging fees until it is properly up and running and has proved itself as a body that is both efficient and effective. The Minister must surely agree that if a failing body starts demanding fees from parents it will do considerable damage to the reputation of the British system’s ability to provide and protect. More pertinently, is it fair to charge parents for a service that is not being adequately delivered?

Amendment No. 52 and the question of whether Clause 6 should stand part of the Bill look to me to be probing. Our worry from this side of the Committee is much the same as that registered by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. We know very little about these fees, such as how much and, indeed, even more importantly, what are they for? These questions could go on and on and Clause 6 does not answer them. My Amendment No. 52 is an attempt to learn in a bit more detail from the Minister—if he can give it this time, promptly—what are these fees that are not related to costs? I realise that every instance cannot be spelt out, but surely we need some precedent to act as a safeguard against the commission unreasonably charging the parents to come to it for help.

Amendment No. 53 would bar the charging of fees for parents with care who wish to use the statutory scheme. Sir David Henshaw’s original plans for child support reform envisaged the use of fees as a way of disincentivising parents from using the statutory scheme and thereby encouraging voluntary arrangements. As I mentioned earlier, this Bill persistently places voluntary arrangements over statutory schemes. I do not agree with this; I think that the situation should be pari passu. The Bill does not recognise that there is a significant number of non-resident parents who will avoid paying maintenance until they realise that the parent with care will bring in the state to enforce this obligation. The state is invaluable as the bailiff, as it were, for the parent with care, when they have nobody to turn to, and it is naïve and over-optimistic to think that voluntary agreements are always possible. Why seek to deter a parent from using what is clearly going to be—or at least we all hope that it will be—a very valuable service indeed?

The Minister—and I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Bach, the same Minister as we have here today, although my memory may again be faulty as it has been shown to be already this afternoon—gave evidence in one of the first two evidence sessions in July of the Select Committee studying this Bill in another place. He said that the thinking behind charging is not to use the system unnecessarily if it can be avoided and if it is not appropriate. It is not a direct quote, because there is a gap in the middle, but I hope that it is a fair summary of what he intended to say even if he did not actually say it. In his rose-tinted world of child maintenance, the noble Lord ignores the possibility or rather the likelihood that there may be a conflict of view between the non-resident parent and the parent with care regarding the former’s willingness to pay child maintenance and whether he will pay amounts on a regular basis. The recent DWP report supports that argument really rather clearly.

The Survey of Relationship Breakdown and Child Maintenance: Interim Report, which has already been referred to in debates—DWP research report No. 468—documented that while 54 per cent of non-resident parents using the CSA thought parents should make voluntary child maintenance arrangements, only 22 per cent of parents with care using the CSA thought the same thing. There are clearly two different views there, and those differences are going to be reflected in reality and what actually happens on the ground. There is even more reinforcement in the report going on to say that the 54 per cent of parents with care using the CSA thought that child maintenance should be arranged by a government agency, compared to only 28 per cent of non-resident parents. We should not be shy of recognising that it is often, although not always, the parent with care who struggles financially and emotionally with the duty of looking after their child. This amendment is appropriate because it makes the statutory system a viable option for those with no real alternative. That is how I would like to look at things.

I thank the noble Lords for the amendment, which seeks to achieve three things: to prevent the commission charging fees until its services have been assessed as satisfactory; to limit the circumstances in which the commission may charge fees; and to prevent the commission charging a fee to a parent with care who applies to the commission for a maintenance calculation.

I recognise the concerns that have been raised, and I am grateful for the opportunity to offer, I hope, some reassurance. I turn first to Amendment No. 51. The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that any fees charged do not dissuade vulnerable or low-income parents from applying to the commission in the first place. Indeed, that was made clear in the White Paper, A New System of Child Maintenance, which stated that,

“the clear burden of charging should fall on the non-resident parent and not the parent with care”.

Charges could be incurred for a number of reasons. Most of these, such as penalties for late payment and enforcement measures, could fall only to the non-resident parent. However, there may be a few situations where allowing the commission to charge a fee to both the person with care and the non-resident parent could provide it with a valuable tool to help achieve its objectives. For example, where appropriate, it might be possible to envisage a small application fee, which might encourage both parents to consider whether a voluntary arrangement might be more effective for them. Such a fee is already the case in a number of child maintenance systems around the world and could be waived for those on benefits and low income.

By way of reassurance, the details of any charging regime will be subject to the commission’s overarching objective, which is to maximise the number of effective maintenance arrangements in place. Any decision the commission makes about fees must be made within the context of that objective, and it will be as concerned as we are not to dissuade vulnerable parents applying to the statutory maintenance scheme.

We also believe that it is important to recognise that the correct charging regime, properly designed and applied, could play a pivotal role in helping the commission to achieve this overarching objective; for instance, by incentivising non-resident parents to supply information to the commission, and to meet their parental responsibilities regularly and on time. In other words, charging could be an integral part of the new scheme rather than an add-on once the scheme is up and running.

However, Amendment No. 53 would prevent the commission charging fees until its services have been assessed as satisfactory. We have said all along that it should be the commission who decides the details of any charging scheme. That will include when charging should start. We do not want to hamper the commission at this stage, by restricting how it is able to use this key part of its toolkit.

Members of the Committee may find it reassuring that we do not intend any charges to be introduced until the launch of the new scheme in 2010 at the earliest. By that time we will have made a number of changes to the existing schemes, such as stronger enforcement powers. The success of those changes, together with the overall performance of the schemes will, of course, provide the context in which the commission will advise the Secretary of State on charging, and the context in which the Secretary of State will take decisions. Importantly, the business case for the reforms does not depend on any income from charging. Furthermore, the regulations required to introduce any charges will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Whether a service is “satisfactory” remains a subjective measure, but I am sure that the Committee will agree that in any assessment of the commission, a key performance indicator will be how successfully it is meeting its key objectives. I am sure that Parliament will have this, and the commission’s performance in mind when scrutinising the regulations, and will also ensure that any proposed charges meet the needs of the most vulnerable parents.

Amendment No. 52 would remove subsection (3) from Clause 6, which highlights that the commission may charge fees not related to the actual cost of carrying out its functions. There is a simple reason for including such provision. Without it, based on Treasury definitions, it could be presumed that “fees” means a charge directly related to actual administration costs.

However, as we have already discussed, fees will not be purely for cost recovery purposes. The fee structure could provide a key tool in incentivising parents to meet their responsibilities on time. To achieve this and, just as importantly, to ensure that fees are fair and transparent, the commission might want to charge, for example, a percentage of maintenance owed. Subsection (3) makes clear that such charges are within the scope of Clause 6. I hope that has been a sufficient explanation as to where we are in our thinking on fees. There will be opportunity in due course for affirmative regulations, but in any event it is not proposed to introduce any charges before 2010.

If I were in a mischievous frame of mind, I would immediately whop down a manuscript amendment to, wherever I could find the word “fees” in the Bill, insert “fines”. To a great extent, that is what the Minister has been talking about. A fee for late payment, for example, is not a fee; it is a fine. I will have to examine what else he said, but that is the example that springs immediately to mind.

It would be right to say “if”. It is not contemplated, so far as I am aware, but if there were to be a fee related to late payment, I guess that that would have some sort of interest factor or penalty attached to it; but if the fee were for joining the scheme in the first place, it would not. We are not inevitably and only talking about a structure that would involve penalties or fines, to use the term used by the noble Lord. That should not be concluded from what I said.

I think that the Minister said that roughly what is suggested in Amendment No. 51 is what the Government have in mind anyway. There is a meeting of minds here, at least in direction. Can the Minister confirm that there is a degree of consensus? We have to see how the system is constructed; it will be done in phases; and it must go through a series of approvals. That is what he said; that is correct. So the objectives of Amendment No. 51 are certainly not a hundred miles away from his speech.

The thrust of Amendment No. 51, in particular, is to say that there will be no charging until there is a satisfactory service. I have said that we are not contemplating this until 2010 anyway, so we have got at least part-way through the transition.

No, not of itself. I was going to say that it will be done against the backdrop of the annual report that must be made to the Secretary of State and laid before Parliament, so that when the regulations come before Parliament, Parliament will have an opportunity to consider them in the context of the performance achieved. I should have thought that the commission would not want to revert to the experience of the early or mid-1990s, when a charging structure was in place on a more limited basis, I think, that could never be successfully implemented because there was no confidence in how the CSA was operating. That pretty much follows, but I do not want what I said to be misunderstood.

In discussing what is a satisfactory service, that probably depends on where you are standing at the time. As for the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, about fines, why do we not just settle for “penalty fees”? I think we will probably be doing okay.

I thank the Minister. His necessary clarification is helpful. Those outside who have more expertise—we are often conduits for people with expertise—will have to look at this, but I suspect that we have moved closer than I expected in the Minister's reply. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 52 and 53 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Agency arrangements and provision of services]:

[Amendments Nos. 54 and 55 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 [Contracting out]:

[Amendments Nos. 56 and 57 not moved.]

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [Annual report to Secretary of State]:

58: Clause 9, page 4, line 22, leave out “for each financial year” and insert “at the end of the first complete year and thereof annually”

The noble Lord said: The amendments are intended to improve the provisions in the Bill that relate to the commission's annual report to the Secretary of State. The Opposition always ask for reports—and the Minister has heard me ask for them on several occasions before now. This Bill predicates having a report, so I do not feel embarrassed asking about it and suggesting what I believe would be some very real improvements to it. It is important to get these mechanisms right. Strengthening the way in which progress is monitored is essential in ensuring that this new body is truly accountable for its efforts—its successes as well as its failures. Both the Secretary of State and Parliament need to know about both of those.

The amendments that we have tabled are an attempt to do precisely that and to make the provisions for reporting more robust and transparent. Amendments Nos. 58 and 65 relate to the timing of the report. Amendment No. 58 tidies up the language to ensure that the report comes at the end of the first complete year of the commission’s activities. At the moment, the Bill gives precious little guidance as to when the first report is likely to come.

Amendment No. 65 places a duty on the Secretary of State to lay the report before Parliament within one month of receiving it. That might be regarded as a slightly eccentric idea but it is necessary to ensure that what takes priority in the presentation of the report is its content and not, perhaps, its political implications. In drafting that amendment I have been generous to the Government; I should have thought that a fortnight would be quite long enough to concentrate their mind before laying it before Parliament. However, as the Bill stands, the Secretary of State could choose any time that he or she liked to present the report to Parliament, waiting until it would not be noticed to report bad news—perhaps on the last day before a parliamentary recess. That has happened. Or he or she may use potentially good news to mask another failure. I hope that that would never be the intention but it is important to remove as far as possible the chance of politicising the commission’s report or even appearing to do so. The report must be scrutinised for what it contains, thus placing a duty on the Secretary of State to present it to Parliament promptly, which relieves him of even appearing to choose his timing based on political expediency and goes a long way to ensuring that the report receives the sort of attention that it deserves.

The other amendments in this group refer to the contents of the report. We feel very strongly that the report should flag up the details of complaints that the commission might have received and how they were dealt with. We understand that creating an agency that will be truly effective is a dynamic process. The Minister has talked in the past two days about stages in this operation that have already started. Inevitably, however, there will be bedding down—and bedding down means some problems initially, which one hopes will not go on for too long but will certainly be there in the first two years. Thus if the commission is to be effective there must be a sensitivity to the problems that may arise. By including complaints in the report, the commission is made more accountable—but it also serves as a way in which to shed light on areas that can be improved.

This part of the Bill allows the commission to empower any of its employees or other authorities to exercise its duties. Authorising employees of the commission to carry out its functions would certainly be a necessary tool in effective implementation, but it is still important to assess whether these authorised agencies are actually meeting the goals that they were assigned to meet. Essentially this is a point about responsibility. We understand that effective management demands empowering other bodies to execute some duties, but the responsibility must ultimately lie with the commission. Thus we propose that the report should include an assessment of the commission’s attempt to meet not only its overall goals but the goals of the bodies that the commission has empowered. Our interest here is in making the report paint the most accurate portrait possible of the progress of the commission’s efforts. The more that we understand about its work and impact, the better placed we will be to improve its effect.

Amendments Nos. 67, 73, 74, 75 and 85, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, are allied and consider how secondary legislation will be scrutinised. I shall probably return to that a little later. I beg to move.

The annual report is an important document. The amendments in this group tabled in my name and that of my noble friend require that nothing in any future annual report will interfere with the flow of the quarterly statistics, which are currently published through the Office for National Statistics. I assume that that is taken for granted, but it would be useful to have it confirmed. The quarterly statistics enable us to look at developing trends in the performance of the agency in a way that an annual report cannot, so they are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary. The annual report will provide a chance to look at some of the longer-term things and the quarterly statistics will enable us to look at trends in performance. I hope that that can be confirmed.

Two of the amendments tabled in my name and that of my noble friend require the commission to be a bit more transparent about agency agreements. If the Minister is looking at the commission doing other things in other departments as part of joined-up government, those objectives should be fully reported. If the commission is likely to do bits and pieces of additional activity, they should be in the annual reports so that people know what is going on.

The analysis of outstanding client debt is important. I am still struggling to understand the difference between historic and outstanding client debt. I think that the definition changed in the recent past, and somebody may be able to help me with that. If we are going to have a meaningful annual report, getting a regular annual update on the outstanding client debt, the steps taken to recover it and an estimation of their success or otherwise will be essential. I concur with what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, and I hope that the Minister will also consider the suggestions in the amendments tabled in our names.

The amendments in this group provide a helpful opportunity to discuss issues around the annual report and Clause 9. This is a standard clause in the founding legislation of non-departmental public bodies and places a number of specific reporting requirements on the commission. Subject to the passage of the Bill, the commission will come into being later in 2008. It is our intention that the first annual report will cover the period from the commencement of the commission to the end of the financial year and then each complete financial year thereafter. That would bring the reporting cycle into line with that of other NDPBs and, indeed, other corporate bodies. Furthermore, it keeps the annual report in line with the period that will be covered by the annual accounts, which must cover financial years.

Amendment No. 58 requires that these two key reports cover different periods and would run against Treasury guidelines. Perhaps more importantly, it would hinder the ability of stakeholders, particularly Parliament, to scrutinise the commission and monitor the efficiency and effectiveness with which it is performing its functions.

That brings me to Amendment No. 59, which I think is intended to probe the meaning behind Clause 9(3)(c). Noble Lords will be aware that Clause 3 places a statutory requirement on the commission to exercise its functions effectively and efficiently. As such, we have provided through subsection 3(c) of Clause 9 that the commission must report on the steps taken to monitor its performance in that respect. Amendment No. 59 removes that requirement, but I hope to convince noble Lords of its importance. While reporting on objectives and targets, as required by subsection 3(b), is very much about what the commission has achieved, this subsection of the clause requires the commission to report on how it has been working. It requires that the commission details the steps it is taking to monitor how it is exercising its functions, specifically how it is assuring itself that it is doing so in a way that is both effective and efficient; in other words, to prove that it is providing value for money for the taxpayer. In light of that, I believe that this amendment would remove a requirement from the annual report that is important for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the commission.

Amendment No. 60 inserts a requirement to report on the details of any complaints received and how they were dealt with. I fully understand the reasoning behind this amendment. However, in subsection 3(c) the Bill already places a requirement upon the commission to report the steps taken to monitor its performance in ensuring that all its functions are exercised effectively and efficiently. As with all public bodies, customer service is important and that includes complaints handling. We have every intention that the commission will report its performance against any complaints targets set within the annual report, much as the Child Support Agency does now. We do not feel that that requires specific legislation. It is also our intention that the commission will take into account any of the recommendations made by the independent case examiner who will continue to produce an annual report on complaints received in the area of child support. There is also a requirement under Schedule 7 to the Bill for the commission to report on the standards achieved by the commission in decisions that can be appealed to an appeal tribunal. There is also a separate requirement for the president of the appeal tribunals to report on the standards of decision-making based on the cases that have come before appeal tribunals.

Amendment No. 62 raises the important issue of contracting out and inserts a requirement into the Bill to report on the extent to which organisations operating under contract to the commission are achieving their objectives. It is entirely proper that Parliament should be given the opportunity to scrutinise not only the extent to which the commission has contracted out functions, but also how effectively those functions are being performed. This is already provided for through Clause 9. Subsection (2) makes it clear that the commission must report on all its activities, including any activities contracted out. Subsection (3) then adds specific requirements. For example, subsection 3(b) requires the commission to report on the steps taken to meet its objectives and the progress made. Again, that must include the functions delivered by contractors.

This amendment goes beyond that and requires a specific report on the performance of each individual contractor. We are concerned that such a specific requirement could present difficulties, perhaps impinging on commercial confidentiality. For example, if potential contractors can see how existing contractors have performed, it would put the commission at a disadvantage in future contracting exercises. It is the commission’s responsibility to deliver its functions efficiently and effectively regardless of how they are delivered. Clause 9 places comprehensive reporting requirements on the commission that, as I have made clear, will cover functions delivered by contractors and will therefore enable Parliament to hold the commission to account for its responsibilities.

I can understand the noble Lord’s reasons for tabling Amendment No. 63. It places a specific requirement on the commission to report on the steps taken to recover outstanding debt and to detail its level of success in this area. We consider the collection of existing debt to be an extremely important function and we have provided for increased enforcement powers within the Bill to assist in the collection of debt. However, we consider that this amendment is unnecessary. The existing provisions of Clause 9 require the commission to report on all its activities and also on progress towards its objectives. So not only must the commission report on the effectiveness of debt collection as an activity, it must also report on its objective to secure compliance with parental obligations; in other words it must report on how it is getting all parents to pay all that is owing.

The amendment also places a specific requirement on the commission to report on the measures used to assess progress towards objectives. As I have just mentioned, there is already a requirement to report on the steps taken to meet objectives and targets and the extent to which they have been met. In meeting this reporting requirement, the commission must adopt and explain a measure of performance for each objective. As such, the amendment would only serve to duplicate an existing requirement.

Amendment No. 64 provides the opportunity to explain how the commission will publish its annual report. In accordance with Treasury best practice, the report will be laid in Parliament by the Secretary of State at the same time as the annual accounts. We would then expect the annual report to be made available on both the departmental website and the commission’s internet site. As is usual, we would also expect hard copies to be produced and distributed to the commission’s stakeholders and made available to the public on request. This is the approach that is currently taken by the Child Support Agency. The amendment would remove the obligation on the commission to publish the report, and I am aware that this is not what the noble Lord intended.

Staying with publication, Amendment No. 65 places a requirement that the annual report should be laid in Parliament by the Secretary of State within one month of receiving it from the commission. Current Treasury guidance would mean that the commission’s annual report would need to be laid in Parliament together with the annual accounts. There is currently no timeframe for when the annual report should, as such, be produced. The annual accounts, however, are required through provisions in the Bill to be sent to the Comptroller and Auditor-General for examination by the end of the August following the financial year that the accounts relate to. That is the key reassurance that I think the noble Lord is seeking, that there is a timeframe attached. Under the procedure as set out in the Bill, it is unnecessary to provide a timeframe for the Secretary of State, who has no role in approving the report. Both the annual report and the accounts will be laid as soon as possible following the certification of the annual accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor-General.

Finally, Amendment No. 61 would require the commission to report on the extent to which it has relied on the provision for agency arrangements, effectively bringing it into parallel with the provision for contracting out. Noble Lords may be aware that Sir David Henshaw’s report placed an emphasis on the contracting out of functions. As such, we felt it appropriate to provide an explicit requirement on the commission to report on the extent to which it has contracted out any services. In contrast to Clause 8(1), the provision in Clause 7(1) enables the commission to enter into arrangements with other public bodies and departments, which enables a variety of joint working across government. Clause 7(1) will allow for the continued arrangements with Northern Ireland. Consequently, we do not see the merit in placing an explicit provision for the commission to report on these arrangements.

However, just as the CSA currently reports on any arrangements that it has with any relevant authorities; it is likely that the commission would report on any arrangements made under Clause 7(1) when reporting on its activities in the previous financial year. In light of the above, I urge noble Lords to withdraw the amendment. However, in recognition that the inclusion of Clause 7(1) alongside Clause 8(1) would add symmetry to the reporting provisions, I am prepared to take that away to consider it further, and I will possibly come back to this issue at Report stage. I hope that shows noble Lords that we are willing to consider and act on appropriate suggestions and that we are a listening government.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for proving what I said in my opening sentences on Tuesday—I do not have Tuesday’s Hansard with me—about the Minister’s way of operating. I am extremely pleased that he will take this away and will hopefully bring back an amendment that is drafted better. Oppositions are never allowed to draft things for themselves; the government draftsman is always very insistent. I remember one occasion when a private secretary in the department of social security, as it then was, said, “Minister, you must not do that; you will have the draftsman spitting blood”. I do not try to pretend that I am any better at drafting than he or she is.

As far as the other amendments are concerned, I will have to study very carefully what the Minister has said. He has produced some technical arguments against this set of amendments. However, I have to say that in all fairness I found one or two of his arguments a little strange. For example, I am sure that potential competitors to whichever organisation is being contracted by the agency will look at the reports and think “Ah, here is a commercial opportunity for us”, but I am not sure that what I have suggested gives the commission the need in the annual report to go quite that far. I shall look at all these matters again. In the mean time, with quite a lot of hope and expectation, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 59 to 65 not moved.]

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Directions and guidance]:

[Amendment No. 66 not moved.]