Previous Section Home Page

Wheeler, Sir John

Whitney, Ray

Wilshire, David

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Young, Sir George (Acton)

Younger, Rt Hon George

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Nicholas Baker and

Mr. Irvine Patnick.

Question accordingly negatived.


Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)

That the draft Health and Personal Social Services (Special Agencies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 12th December, be approved.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]

Question agreed to.

Column 133

Paternal Support

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]

11.41 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : I am pleased to have this debate to adjourn the House on the issue of paternal support for single mothers. However, before I put my main points, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you and the House will allow me to make a couple of introductory remarks.

This issue has gained considerable public coverage recently, largely because of the Prime Minister's comments. Opposition Members know full well that when the crew opposite are unhappy with the captain, they do not make criticisms directly ; they talk about the message not being put across to the country effectively. I shall use similarly coded language to begin the debate, and will ask the Minister if she will pass on to the Prime Minister the question that I and my hon. Friends would like answered : where have the Prime Minister's officials been for the past 10 years?

The issue of non-payment of maintenance has arisen largely during this decade. Far from being able to blame the swinging 60s, the real issue of concern for most of us has been the significant increase in the number of young single mothers, and that is not an issue of the 60s ; it is very much a product of the decade dominated by the Prime Minister.

Although I shall suggest a number of reforms on this issue, I do so tentatively and with a fair amount of humility. One of the characteristics of Government is that they can be very clumsy with people's lives. Although I am anxious to hear what the Government have to say on this issue, I am aware that we can make the wrong decisions. However, I do not want the danger of making wrong decisions to be a case for not doing anything. There is a balance to be held in this, and I am anxious to understand the Government's balance.

The main theme of my speech--I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) wishes to speak as well--will be to consider the extent to which the Government are facing up to the hard issues involved. So far, the Prime Minister has made great political capital out of dealing with generalities and the practical side of the issue of paternal support for single-parent families. However, I maintain that at least five other issues need some answers also, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's.

First, to what extent can we expect single mothers to name the fathers of their children? The rules are such that, if a mother says there is a threat of violence or of potential violence if the father is named, the local office will ask no further questions. I come from an area in which the potential for violence in such cases is very real. I do not want to play down the anxiety that it causes mothers and the officials concerned. If, however, fewer people were on means-tested benefits--the Government have done nothing but shove millions more people on to them--and if we paid our civil servants more suitably, we should now have many experienced officers in the services who could tackle this delicate problem.

If the problem of the fathers were linked with a series of reforms, single mothers would perceive a risk, but many of them would be prepared to take that risk. All we hear

Column 134

from the Prime Minister is a scheme for mothers on benefit. I hope that the Under-Secretary will not tell us that the Government are contemplating a scheme only for those on benefit ; all single mothers should be included in it.

If I understand her thinking aright, the Prime Minister wants a scheme in which mothers on benefit will be able to make over the collection of their maintenance orders to the state. If the scheme is to be successful, it must apply to all single parents. If not, I ask the Government to consider the penalties for mothers moving from benefits to work. They will have to leave the certainty of an income, if only a low one, and move to a wage that may or may not come in each week. Their maintenance orders will have been paid because the state will collect the money and pay it to them, but if they find a job they will have to take on that responsibility themselves. Unless, therefore, we extend the scheme to all parents, it will not get off the ground for most mothers ; nor will a majority of them consider the option to work--

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that maintenance is not a way of getting women off benefit and back into paid employment. However low their benefit, women at least know that it is guaranteed and regular, so they can plan. Secondly, my hon. Friend made an important point about violence. Many women escaping from violent, intimidatory relationships need to make the break emotionally, economically and socially in order to reconstruct their lives and their families' lives.

Thirdly, men may think that payment of maintenance gives them certain rights over their former families. That poses a problem. Finally, there is no evidence that making a father pay maintenance will result in his becoming more committed to his family.

Mr. Field : I thank my hon. Friend for those pertinent points. Before I deal with the point about access, I want to talk about disregards, which follow logically from what I was saying. Even Opposition Members have said that the scheme that the Government have tentatively suggested should benefit the mother. But I maintain that it would create new forms of unfairness. I would not support this scheme. What about mothers whose former husbands have died? Why should they be put at a disadvantage? What about mothers who, because of violence, cannot name the fathers? They should not be disadvantaged. We know that large numbers of people are prepared to work the system, so there will be trendies who will use the system to put their families in an advantageous position.

Many of those mothers in my constituency look forward to being able to afford to go back to work. If they have the maintenance order paid over to the state, they should have a right to some of the money, not as weekly cash but to be paid into personalised training accounts. In that way, when training opportunities arise while they are on benefit, they will have the right to choose their training scheme as consumers, with the money to pay, rather than have to accept some of the Government's schemes. I hope that the Minister will comment on that proposal when she replies.

I have been reprimanded by a man in Somerset who objects to how I talk about single-parent families. He is

Column 135

divorced, pays his maintenance, has a good relationship with his ex-wife and says that his family should not be regarded as a one-parent family. He says that where parents, like him, are divorced, the children are not bereaved :

"Indeed my three children aged 10, eight and six are still nurtured, loved and cared for by two loving parents. Albeit mother and father live apart."

I applaud that. Nevertheless, we think about access, as there are real problems of violence in some families. There should be no question of access if violence has taken place or is threatened. Mothers have told me that they regard the father of their child as a jerk and do not want him in their lives. They make it difficult for their child to meet the father in satisfactory circumstances, so social workers take note of that. I understand why many women do not want the father to have access to them, but access to their children is different. I hope that those with no record of violence who want to play a part will be considered sympathetically.

While we think of immediate changes, we should also think of long-term changes. We need to give a moment's thought to what is happening in our schools. I applaud the Bartonhill group which visits schools and has the support of one-parent families. Young mothers tell pupils that it is a wonderful joy to have a child but that it is not necessary to have the child at 15 or 16. It can come later in life. I hope that we can match that by teaching young male pupils about the cost of fathering a child. The most conservative estimate puts the total cost at about £15,000. We should make an issue of telling young men the cost of fatherhood.

I have raised five hard issues. To what extent should fathers be named? Will we cover all single mothers or only those on benefit? What will happen to the disregard? What are the rights of access? What will we do in our schools?

11.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on securing this Adjournment debate, and I am grateful to him for providing the House with an opportunity to discuss this important issue. I thank the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) for her intervention.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of interesting points and asked some specific questions to which I shall return. I am aware that he is an expert in this and many other social security policy areas, and does not need reminding of the figures, but much has been said about lone parents in recent debates and I think it would be helpful to set out some background. The number of lone-parent families in Great Britain has increased rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, there were estimated to be some 570,000 lone-parent families. By 1979, that figure had grown to 840,000, and by 1986, the latest date for which figures are available, it has grown to slightly more than a million.

I must remind the House that the term "lone parent" covers a variety of situations--from the young unmarried mother with a very small child to a divorced mother in her thirties with teenage children. The hon. Gentleman touched on that point. I say "mothers", because some 90 per cent. of all lone parents are women. While the rate of

Column 136

increase for unmarried mothers is faster than for other groups, as the hon. Gentleman said, marriage breakdown accounts for by for the largest proportion. Some 60 per cent. of all lone- parent families are headed by separate or divorced women, while 23 per cent. are headed by lone mothers who have never been married. It would be difficult to apportion the blame for the breakdown of marriage or the numbers of lone parents to any Government, although the hon. Gentleman attempted to do so.

Even more striking than the increase in lone parent numbers has been the increase in dependency of lone-parent families on supplementary benefit and its successor, income support. In 1979, about 40 per cent. of all lone- parent families were dependent on supplementary benefit, but by 1988 the number had risen to about two thirds. Part of the reason for that is the maintenance situation. Of course, there are a number of reasons for that. For instance, the absent father may not be able to pay maintenance for a period if he is sick, unemployed or on low earnings with a second family. It may not be possible to trace him, or we may not have his name. Obtaining or enforcing a court order may take time, especially when the absent father is being unco-operative. Whatever the reasons, the position is totally unsatisfactory.

Taxpayers are currently shouldering an enormous burden of more than £1.5 billion a year because absent fathers are not doing enough to provide for their families. Those facts are important, and not just because of the cost to the taxpayer. It is quite wrong that absent fathers who can contribute towards the cost of bringing up children fail so do so. Most people accept that absent fathers should meet their responsibilities, in so far as they can, for the sake of their children, their families and, indeed, themselves.

The benefit system gives considerable help to lone-parent families. The Government are concerned that social security benefits should contain some recognition of the additional needs of lone-parent families and they are structured so that, while not requiring lone parents with children up to the age of 16 to be available for work, they are nevertheless not unduly discouraged from working if they wish to do so. Many do want to work, and help is provided in a variety of ways.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned disregards. For those who work part time, there is an earnings disregard of £15 a week within income support, which is higher than the disregard for single people and couples. For those who work full time, the same adult credit is given for lone parents as for couples in family credit, one-parent benefit being completely ignored when family credit is calculated. We have recently announced an increase in the housing benefit earnings disregard from £15 to £25, which, with the lone-parent premium and together with the community charge benefit, is expected to help some 95,000 lone-parent families.

That is what the benefit system currently does, and regular payments of maintenance from the absent father, as well as being right, would also be a great help, as that would provide a useful basis of income to lone parents wanting to start or to continue in work. The benefit system should help families in difficulties, but that does not diminish the absent father's responsibility. The benefit system does a great deal to help families with children in difficulties, but, when all is said and done, it is

Column 137

unacceptable that the state should shoulder a burden that is properly the responsibility of the absent father, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, something must be done.

As the hon. Member will know, the Department has already commissioned some independent research on the situation of lone-parent families. This has involved interviewing about 2,000 lone parents, drawn from a sample of local DSS offices, about their circumstances and perceptions, and we shall look very carefully at the results, which should be available later this year. But because maintenance is ultimately a matter for the courts, as well as for the DSS, we need to look not just at how DSS arrangements are working but at the whole system and at possible alternatives. We have been working on this with the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office and the Scottish Office. As the problem of increasing numbers of lone parents dependent on benefit and diminishing maintenance payments is faced by many countries, it is worth looking at what is done elsewhere, particularly where there are systems that appear to work well, and we have already begun to do this.

I should like to take a moment to describe what happens in Australia--one example that is being studied. There, reforms were introduced in two stages. The first stage established a child support agency as part of the tax office responsible for the collection of maintenance. Wherever possible, child maintenance is collected by the automatic withholding of income at source. In the second stage, which was introduced last October, Australia implemented the more radical component, which also transferred the responsibility of assessing maintenance awards from the courts to the child support agency. Maintenance is assessed by applying a formula that takes account of both parents' incomes and circumstances and the number of children for whom the absent parent is responsible. The first results look very promising. Stage 1 alone doubled the number of families receiving regular payment.

However, Australia is not alone. In the United States, federal legislation has also been considerably tightened to ensure that all states are doing the maximum to make certain that maintenance is paid. All states must introduce strict guidelines on the level of maintenance awarded ; some, like Wisconsin, have introduced a formula--as in Australia--for this. In addition, all states must introduce the means of automatic withholding from earnings by November this year. In New Zealand, a formula is applied to calculate maintenance for lone parents on benefit, while in France maintenance is collected through the tax system. There is a lot to be learned over the coming months from the experiences of these countries and many others.

But we need better information about how existing arrangements here work, so the Department, together with the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office, the Scottish Office and the Lord Advocate's Department, has commissioned a survey of information from a sample of courts and DSS local offices. The survey will obtain information on amounts of maintenance awarded and collected by the courts and on amounts of maintenance paid for those on benefit. The scope will therefore be very wide. That answers, in part, one of the questions put by the hon. Gentleman. The two sources will produce information that we need to enable us to determine what maintenance we can reasonably expect from a different system. We expect results in the summer, and we shall look very carefully at them.

Column 138

One of the hon. Gentleman's questions related to the education system and what can be done in schools. He will appreciate that that is really a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. However, I can say that those of us who have studied what is going on in some of the schools in Bristol have been very interested in the experiment that he has described. The hon. Member asked a number of other specific questions, including one about the requirement that a mother who has not been married should name the father of her child as a condition of receiving benefit. In the real world, it would be very difficult to insist that a mother name the father of her child. She may genuinely not know his name. As the hon. Member for Bristol, South pointed out, she may have very good reasons--such as the fear of violence--for not naming the father.

In any case, the birth certificates of 70 per cent. of children born outside marriage bear the names of both parents, so the problem is not quite as great as the hon. Gentleman has suggested. He is right to say that it is very important that the staff who do this work be aware of the difficult and sensitive issues involved. We aim at discussing the entire situation carefully with the single mother who has never been married and at ensuring that the staff concerned are as experienced as possible. Schemes such as those operated in New Zealand and in the United States impose such a requirement, but I understand that in practice it is not strictly applied.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Department could collect maintenance payments when the mother is not receiving benefit. That is an interesting idea. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate as well as anyone that such an arrangement has enormous implications--not least for the Department, in terms of additional work load. The study is aimed at studying the collection methods used in other countries to establish which would work most effectively in Britain.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead asked also about access. The Government have already made clear their view that absent fathers should do more to support their children, but access is a separate issue. We believe that there should be one set of procedures for determining access issues and another set for determining maintenance issues. Clearly the child's welfare must be the main consideration in both cases.

I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bristol, South understand that one is dealing with an extremely sensitive area and that the possibility arises of straying into relationships into which many people would feel that the state should not intrude. In any case, the Government's view is that maintenance and access are separate issues.

Mr. Field : But the state already intervenes. It intervenes through the courts.

Mrs. Shephard : The courts are another matter. The hon. Gentleman sought, in a sense, a reward from the state benefit system in return for access being allowed. I hope that I have not misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but that is what his remarks implied.

Mr. Field : I was agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) that the issue was very delicate, but that if a person paid up and if there

Column 139

was no record of violence, and so on, then if the matter went to court, that is something that the court should consider--and would not automatically ignore.

Mrs. Shephard : We all agree that it is a delicate matter and that there is widespread support for the line that the current situation is unacceptable. In the interests both of children and their parents, effective action must be taken.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead asked many detailed questions, and the answers to many of them depend on the outcome of the study. We aim at an efficient system that

Column 140

will strike a fair balance between giving lone-parent families the financial support that they need, and which is their due, and taxpayers who are currently shouldering an enormous burden because absent parents--absent fathers--are not doing enough to provide for their families. That is a considerable task and the issues are complex. That is why we need sound, up-to-date information on what is going wrong, what we need to do about it, and what we can learn from other countries. We are compiling that information as a matter of urgency.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.


  Home Page