Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
My Lords, my link with this service goes back a long time. When I became Lord Chancellor in 1987, I quickly discovered that many parents who had been deserted had been successful in getting orders from the court for maintenance. But, unfortunately, no sooner had they got the order than the husband disappeared, and they had no resources available to them to try to find out where he was or to raise the money that was due. Needless to say, his attitude was not to come forward—that was not his business; his attitude was to hide himself as much as possible.
I found this an extremely difficult problem. By that time, I knew a little bit about Northern Ireland, which had a state system for enforcing decrees of the court. It seemed to me that this was what we would need: some form of state system that helped to find the person in question and formulated the responsibilities that he had. Eventually, this became government policy in the Act to which my noble friend Lord Farmer has already referred, which set up the Child Support Agency.
As the Lord Chancellor at that time, I had responsibility for divorce law, and a question arose as to whether we should take into our department the necessary work to set up the computer necessities of the CSA. My department very wisely suggested that that was better done in the department that my noble friend represents today. That was very wise advice. Originally, it was thought that this new organisation, with its mighty computer, would be able to adjust the requirements of each case according to the circumstances; but, first of all, that was a very major task, and, secondly, the circumstances changed very rapidly, and therefore quickly became out of sync with the requirements.
The real difficulty in arrears from that source was the arrears of the CSA following the paying parent. It took a long time to get around that problem, with the gradual simplification of what was done via the computer—in the end, it became a job that depended on help with the revenue and so on, and with the fixed sum which was due by the paying parent in respect of the child. That shortened the process quite a bit.
Unfortunately, divorce arrangements remained the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor’s Department. It is now the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice to adjust the kind of arrangements that will be needed to adjudicate on these where necessary. My view is that it is important that a separation happens with as little animosity as possible. Animosity is a natural reaction to it in many quarters, and a degree of help is needed to overcome that. At the moment, I think that is with the Lord Chancellor’s Department, along with the process of mediation and so on, which we discussed so fully all those years ago in the original proposal for no fault.
I have never seen how allegations of fault get rid of the animosity, because it is very seldom that the parties are agreed about what happened. People who can tell what actually happened are rather scarce, because they will not have been there on most occasions when animosity is shown and the basis for fault arises. It seems to me that that kind of investigation must be in a higher court than any that we can have; it is a matter that should not be allowed to blossom in our system, as I think has now happened.
Collecting money is still an important matter. So far as I can see, at the moment, it is a distinct factor and function in trying to resolve problems with the family. I was very concerned about this when our first Conservative Government after I left office came into power. I was anxious about the arrangements that were made, as they seemed to be fairly heavily disposed against the receiving parent, as well as the paying parent. I am glad to see that the system now operating is 20% extra to the paying parent and 4% to the receiving parent, but I still find it very difficult to accept the view that, because of the attitude of the parents, this particular system is required to achieve payment. The difficulty is that the 4% is really coming off what is due to the child—