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Mr. Davis : I suspect that that will fall to the Department of Trade and Industry but we, too, will consider it. It is a matter of obvious and international interest, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) asked when we expect the report on women in science to be published. Without seeking to redefine the autumn, I shall say that the target date for the report is now 24 February. I have no reason to believe that that target will not be met.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage and others raised specific and detailed concerns about Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton laboratories. Following the end of SERC, they will come together under common management and for an interim period become the responsibility of the new EPSRC. The separate identities of the two laboratories will, however, be preserved. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, a review is now under way to consider the options for the running of the laboratories as a self-standing institution after an interim period. No conclusion has yet been reached, but I understand the wish for a rapid conclusion. My right hon. Friend has already stated clearly how much we value the laboratories. There is no doubt that they are first-class institutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage presented a persuasive case which will, of course, be considered carefully. He also made a more subtle point about the role of the research councils in that connection. It follows from the new missions of the research councils that they should support research where appropriate for the fulfilment of missions, but the maintenance of the overall health of the science and engineering base is also part of that mission together with the effective use of funds.
The White Paper, "Realising Our Potential", recognised that science and technology provide the fundamental underpinning of the United Kingdom's ability to compete in international markets. It is given in the House that competitiveness is a fundamental theme in all that we debate. The White Paper set out a strategy, the bare bones of which are an emphasis on quality and relevance of research, an emphasis on partnership between industry and academia and the use of Technology Foresight and the "Forward Look" in guidance, and I am referring to long-term guidance.
We have introduced, or are introducing, new structures to permit such a strategy : the Office of Science and Technology was already set up before the White Paper was published ; the DGRC, Sir John Cadogan, has recently been appointed ; and the Council for Science and Technology is now established, as is the Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee, a body about which I should like to speak at length and will perhaps have the opportunity to do so during a "Forward Look" debate. In addition, we are now reorganising the research councils.
The creation of the three new research councils encompassed in the orders is an imortant step. The BBSRC will have an important role to play in underpinning life sciences where we are beginning to see radical new developments. I shall try to deal quickly with the points raised in this connection by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked about representation for agriculture in the Foresight process.
Of course, agriculture is not explicitly represented on the Foresight steering group, but that institution is not
Column 942intended to be representative. It consists of 10 expert members selected solely with a view to Foresight expertise. However, there will be an agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector panel, so the interests of agriculture will be properly represented.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West wondered how agricultural efficiency and food safety would be dealt with. That will be part of MAFF's role but the new BBSRC will take over the AFRC's responsibility for food and agriculture, as specifically outlined in one of the orders. I hope that my comments have helped the hon. Gentleman.
As everyone has said, the EPSRC will have close links with industries underpinned by the physical sciences and engineering and building on good work already done by SERC.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon mentioned the appointment of the chief executive of the EPSRC. The hon. Gentleman is very well informed. We shall be making an announcement soon. We have gone about the selection in the same way as we proceeded in the appointment of the chief executives of the NERC and the PPARC. It was the method used by previous Labour Governments. They are important posts so it is important to get the right people but we shall be making an announcement soon. The PPARC involves special commitments and special problems, involving foreign currency subscriptions and long-planning timetables. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy mentioned international commitments. The United Kingdom is a signatory of the treaty governing CERN and there is no question of our reneging on our commitments. The United Kingdom supports a globalisation of CERN and the involvement of the United States, Canada and Japan in the LHC--the large hadron collider--following the demise of the roughly equivalent superconducting super-collider, or SSC.
We believe that the new British Director General of CERN, Professor Llewellyn Smith, will work with member states and non-member states to come up with a sound scientific and financial package to enable the LHC to go ahead, but the formal decision comes before the CERN council in June and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not wish us to pre-empt it at this stage.
The PPARC pays subscriptions to CERN and to the European Space Agency as part of its mandatory science programme. As has been said, they are affected by currency fluctuations. One of the roles of the DGRC is to ensure that the fluctuations are absorbed by more than just the small budget of the PPARC. I shall have to leave it at that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon raised a specific constituency interest about the reform of the research councils in general. We hope to take the opportunity offered by the reorganisation to streamline pension arrangements, introducing a single pension scheme for all Swindon-based research councils. It is purely an administrative change and will not affect the pension or redundancy entitlements of staff.
Column 943The new research council structure and the new council mission statements, with their commitment to contribute to wealth creation and the quality of life, are key elements in delivering the new partnership which is at the heart of the White Paper. I want to make it clear that we intend to maintain basic research, and the White Paper contains our clear commitment to do so. Research councils will have the responsibility of ensuring an increased emphasis on the relevance of research to the users of that research, but their missions also refer unambiguously to the support of high quality basic research. We do not believe that those are mutually exclusive. Industrialists have given us the clear message that they value greatly the basic research produced by our science and engineering base. They will wish that to be maintained. In the words of Richard Sykes of Glaxo Holdings plc, what he wants from the country in which he invests are
"well-trained people and good basic research."
The strategy designed in the White Paper and the structures that we are discussing today are already leading to real actions. The new Director General of the Research Councils is already introducing pilot mechanisms to develop real partnership between the science base and industry. Money squeezed out by improved efficiency is being devoted to the "Realising Our Potential" awards that we have heard about. Other efficiency-generated research funds will go to areas identified by industry as being of strategic importance and further cash for Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering fellowships. The system is already beginning to work.
It has been a truism for a long time that Britain is brilliant at generating good basic science--perhaps the best in the world--but for many decades it has not been as good as its competitors at translating that scientific dominance into technological excellence. It being Seven o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker-- proceeded to put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion, pursuant to order [28 January].
Question agreed to.
That the draft Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 17th December, be approved.
That the draft Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 17th December, be approved.
That the draft Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 17th December, be approved.
That the draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 13th January, be approved.
I am aware of the wide interest in the Child Support Act 1991 and in the changes to it that we are debating tonight. It is most important to set that interest in the wider context of child maintenance and to establish again the principles that underpin the Act and the Child Support Agency.
The Child Support Act was introduced with all-party support on the back of a deteriorating situation in respect of child maintenance. Nearly 1 million lone parents and their children depended on income support, yet only a quarter of those received any regular maintenance. The old system of obtaining maintenance through the courts or the Department of Social Security offices was obviously failing those parents and their children. It was slow, inaccessible and led to low and inconsistent settlements. The Child Support Act was designed to halt the significant decline in the payment of maintenance that had occurred during the previous decade and to move away from a system that, all too often, involved the taxpayer as an unwitting party in the settlement.
The basic principle behind the new system, as the House well knows, is that both parents should be responsible for maintaining their children where they can afford to do so. The taxpayer should have to help only where parents do not have the means to meet their obligation. That basic principle is widely supported, but it means in practice that those who have responsibility for children must shoulder a greater degree of the financial burden for them than in the past. In other words, in many cases parents must pay more if other taxpayers, often on low incomes with families of their own, are to contribute less. Those who support the principle must recognise the need to support putting it into practice.
We always made it clear that we would keep the operation of the scheme under review, and we were aware that other people would also do so. It is no exaggeration, therefore, for the all-party Social Security Select Committee to have described the Child Support Act as "the most far reaching social reform to be made for forty years". We recognise also that there have been genuine worries about the way in which the new system is working in detail. We have, therefore, conducted a thorough review of its operation, during which we considered all representations from hon. Members, the public and other interested parties. At the same time, the all -party Social Security Select Committee examined the policy and the operation of child support. The Committee had the opportunity to suggest tearing the whole thing up, but did not. Instead, its thoughtful and balanced report is unequivocal in its support for the basic principles of the scheme.
In drawing up the regulations, we have especially sought to answer the worries of those absent parents most affected by the new scheme, while bearing in mind that any change that is beneficial to an absent parent is potentially of disadvantage to a parent with care and her children. Some of our conclusions coincide with those of the Select Committee, some do not and some have gone further.
We agree with the Select Committee that it is better to leave absent parents more financial choice to meet other
Column 945demands on them than to try to incorporate into the formula a range of specific costs, such as travel to work, visiting first families and other debts. Such a move, we believe, would provide a shopping list of items that would be viewed as essential by some but not by others, and would have the effect of reducing the priority given to child maintenance. The Select Committee said, and we agree : "We believe, however, that child maintenance in the form of money should have first call on a parent's income."
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : I accept all that my hon. Friend has said so far, but does he accept that in some regions, such as the one that I represent, for many people the cost of travelling to work is greater than the cost of the mortgage? Will he consider that in his future deliberations about the development of the scheme?
Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend makes a fair argument, but my response is the same as that of the Select Committee. The difficulty is that my hon. Friend has mentioned a special issue relating to his geographical location. It is precisely for that reason--hon. Members in different parts of the country can draw attention to similar matters--that one would end up with that shopping list of special exemptions that needed to be included in the formula. The argument that I put to the Select Committee, and the argument that the Select Committee accepted, was that, rather than creating that shopping list, it was better to ensure that sufficient residual income remained to meet the costs. I note my hon. Friend's interest in that point, but I would refer him to the Select Committee's response to it.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : I am glad to confirm that I agree with my hon. Friend on the general principle on which the Act is based. I am, however, seriously worried about the detail, which, as he says, obviously is not working.
I have written to my hon. Friend about eight specific cases. I can assure him that in each case the details of the Act have caused great hardship to hard-working men who now have two families to support. On each of the eight occasions on which I have written to my hon. Friend I have had the same anodyne reply, drafted by a civil servant, which has wholly ignored the individual points that I have put to my hon. Friend, and which has ignored the plight that the individuals are suffering as a result of the details of the Act. I ask my hon. Friend not to rely entirely on formulae, but to look with some compassion at the individual cases in which huge hardship is being caused and to amend the Act and the regulations accordingly to ensure that that injustice ceases.
Mr. Burt : I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to develop the case for the regulations tonight. He will find that some of the worries that he has mentioned in his letters are met by some of the changes that we propose.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) rose --
Column 946Let me take as an example a situation that is not confined to a region of the country, but is common to the whole country--the complete lack of recognition when a settlement is made on a former partner, including sometimes the marital home, with mortgage payments, often considerable, that continue when the second family starts. It promotes a very strong feeling of injustice, and a feeling that the Child Support Agency is more interested in the Treasury than in the child.
Mr. Burt : Perhaps I might develop my argument. I shall discuss clean breaks later. When the House passed the Act, all hon. Members were conscious of the pressure placed on taxpayers--ordinary men and women, often on low incomes, with families of their own--and the worry that they had for too long supported other people in the costs of their separation. When I hear arguments about the Treasury, I sometimes feel that hon. Members fail to realise that what lie behind the Treasury are everyday men and women who make their contributions to it.
The Government accepted the Select Committee's conclusion that there was no sensible way in which the capital value of past settlements could be reflected in current maintenance assessments, even if that were thought desirable. So-called "clean break settlements" are, essentially, ways to settle the question of spousal maintenance. There can be no clean break between a parent and his children. In any event, the formula already reflects the practical consequences of property settlements. Where an absent parent has not taken his share of any equity in the matrimonial home it is likely that he will incur higher costs when rehousing himself. As housing costs are taken into account pound for pound in the calculation of assessable income, his maintenance bill will lower.
I shall now outline our specific proposals
Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East) : Before the Minister does that, let me tell him that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, there is great dissatisfaction among people who are contributing, as opposed to those who are not contributing and who have disappeared. I urge the Minister to think again about the basic principles in the Act. It is not working. People are showing it up to be what it is--a fraud. Something ought to be done about it.
Mr. Burt : With respect, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Select Committee, which had the opportunity to say, "Tear the whole thing up, because it is a fraud, and it is not working", did not do so. [Hon. Members :-- "Rubbish."] I hear some hon. Members saying that the Select Committee was rubbish, but I suspect that that would not be the view of the House as a whole.
Several hon. Members rose--
Mr. Burt : I should like to make some progress now and outline our specific proposals. As well as introducing some important changes in child support arrangements, they make, as always, some technical drafting improvements designed to ensure that the original policy intentions are fully achieved. It might be of assistance to the House if I dealt with the most significant changes first. I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall confine myself to those changes.
Regulation 4 modifies in several respects the amount of maintenance calculated under the Child Support (Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases)
Column 947Regulations 1992. Paragraph (2) concerns the assessment of maintenance to meet the basic needs of a child or children aged under 16. When maintenance is assessed, the calculation includes an amount in respect of a child's need to be looked after by an adult--the so- called carer element. The amount is set at the single adult personal allowance for income support, and it is included in recognition of the fact that children cannot look after themselves. In drafting the amendment, we recognised that, rather than ending suddenly, that need reduces gradually as children grow older. Accordingly, it provides for the amount to be reduced by 25 per cent. when the youngest child reaches the age of 11, and by 50 per cent. when the youngest child reaches the age of 14. As now, that element is removed altogether when the youngest child reaches 16. Other allowances for children in the formula continue to rise as children grow older, recognising that some other needs increase as children grow older.
Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : As the Minister has pointed out, under the regulations the absent parent has to pay the entire amount calculated by social security for the attendant parent maintaining the child. That now results in a payment of £44, on average. At the beginning of his speech the Minister said that the purpose of the legislation was to ensure that both parents accepted their responsibilities. Will he therefore explain why only one parent has to pay the entire bill for the attendant costs of caring for the child under the formula, both as it was originally drawn up and as he is now describing it?
Mr. Burt : That happens because the child is physically present with only one of the two parents. Because the child is present with one parent and needs care, that care has to be provided and paid for. That is why the other parent, who does not have the physical care of the child, makes a contribution in financial form, by way of the carer element.
The new provision introduced by paragraphs (6) and (7) concerns cases where a person has care of the children of more than one absent parent, and is a consequence of the reduction in the carer element that I have just explained. In such cases an absent parent's maintenance assessment will reduce when his youngest child reaches the age of 11 or 14, even though the parent with care may have other younger children.
Paragraph (3) concerns the calculation of the additional amounts of maintenance paid by better-off absent parents. Where the absent parent has income left after meeting the basic maintenance requirement, he is currently required to pay 25 per cent. of that balance in additional maintenance. That element ensures that children share in the increased prosperity of their parents, even though they may live apart. The deduction rate is set at a lower rate than the 50 per cent. taken to meet the basic maintenance requirement, in recognition of the fact that parents are likely to spend a smaller proportion of their income on their children once they have met their basic needs.
The amendment will reduce the rate of deduction for the additional element of 20 per cent. where there are only two children to be maintained, and 15 per cent. where there is only one child. That provision recognises that extra expenditure on children, over and above their basic needs, is not likely to be as high for one or two children as it is
Column 948for three or more, and will moderate the very high amounts that some absent parents are expected to pay. That change goes beyond anything recommended by the Select Committee, and will alleviate some of the concerns put to us by hon. Members.
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) : I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend and the Government have listened and have made some changes. However, in my view, those changes do not go far enough. My hon. Friend is talking about expenditure on children. One problem that has arisen in my constituency concerns stepchildren. Will my hon. Friend explain why such children are not considered? The idea sems to be that the step-parent should simply adopt them. I find that an extraordinary approach.
Mr. Burt : Again, one of the principles of the Act was that parents should, as a priority, be responsible for their own natural children. We believe that the formula sometimes protects stepchildren--the children of a second family--at the expense of the first family, especially where income is near the basic protected income level. At that level, it is possible that, while no payment is being made to a natural child in a first family, there is still protection for the child in a second family. We believe that the principle is important, and we therefore felt unable to accept the recommendation on stepchildren. However, we felt that by increasing the amount of protected income--I shall deal with that later--we would be able to provide extra for the stepchild. The principle that a natural child should have first call on a parent's income is important, and we did not wish to devalue it.
Paragraphs (4) and (5) substantially increase the level of protected income for absent parents--that relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). Protected income is the minimum amount that an absent parent and any second family must retain from their disposable income after payment of maintenance. Instead of only £8, as at present, absent parents will now keep a minimum of £30 above the level of help that they, and their new family if they have one, would get if they were on income support.
In addition, absent parents to whom protected income level applies will be able to keep an additional 15 per cent. of the difference between their basic protected income level and their total family income, instead of only 10 per cent., as at present. They will improve incentives to work by ensuring that the absent parent keeps an additional amount from any extra that he earns, and that will benefit not only the absent parent but, ultimately, the parent with care and the children. Again, that recommendation goes further than what the Select Committee suggested. I hope that that will be for the benefit of hon. Members and those whom they represent.
Regulation 4(8) streamlines the calculation of housing costs allowed in exempt income. It provides for the full amount of premiums on an insurance policy to discharge the mortgage on a parent's home to be allowed in the calculation of the parent's exempt income where the mortgage does not exceed £60,000. Where the mortgage exceeds £60, 000 the existing provision will continue to
Column 949apply, so there will be a reduction in the amount of premiums allowed to take account of any "with profits" element of the policy. That, too, goes beyond the Select Committee's recommendations. Regulation 5 amends regulations 1, 3 and 4 of the Child Support Fees Regulations 1992, which make provision for the charging of the collective service to absent parents where the application for maintenance has been made by a parent with care in receipt of income support, family credit or disability working allowance. Regulation 5 proposes that where a parent with care is in receipt of one of those benefits and the absent parent is making regular child maintenance payments direct to the parent with care, the Child Support Agency will not make a charge for the collection fee to the absent parent. Fees in such cases will become payable only where the agency becomes directly involved in either collection or enforcement action. That, too, was a Select Committee recommendation strongly supported by hon. Members.
Regulations 7 and 8 provide for a significant extension to the current provisions by introducing new arrangements for phasing in the higher awards under the new scheme. Absent parents with second families or care of a child for at least two nights per week, and with an existing court order or written maintenance agreement, whose maintenance assessment is over £60, will have any increase in their liability phased in over an 18- month period in six-monthly steps of £20, or 25 per cent. of the difference between the old and new liabilities if that is higher.
The new provisions also ensure that absent parents who are not entitled to the original phasing scheme, because all the qualifying children were not named on the maintenance agreement or because they did not have a second family, but nevertheless retained care of a child for at least two nights per week, are now included in a similar scheme. The new arrangements will help absent parents to adjust to their commitments over a period of time, while gradually increasing the amount that they pay. Those orginally on the phasing scheme will continue to be assessed under those rules as they are more beneficial to those on lower incomes.
Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) : Will my hon. Friend explain to the House why, in framing the changes to the regulations, welcome as they are as far as they go, he has distinguished between those absent parents who have families to support and those who have a sick wife to support? Both have calls on their income, but only one is recognised.
Mr. Burt : We took the view that those in greatest difficulty in meeting new commitments to their children would be those who had taken on a second family. Clearly, all changes in circumstances force a certain amount of reconsideration, but the greater problem lies with those who have a new family and therefore new responsibilities to those families. Therefore, we believed that it was better to make the adjustments to allow them to have a greater period of time to pay because it was on the new children that the greatest burden would lie.
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : We have all listened with a great deal of interest to the reforms that the Minister has proposed for the benefit of absent parents. What proposals does he have that would be of any benefit whatever to parents with care of children? Would not he
Column 950agree that there are thousands of parents with care who are suffering from the Child Support Act as it exists and see precious little benefit from his proposals? Those parents have the responsibility of looking after their children on an income that is depleted through the harsh regulations of the Act.
Mr. Burt : The hon. Lady puts the case that I made in my opening remarks. Any concession made to the absent parent who is paying has a consequent effect on those who expect to receive the money. The whole point is to recognise the fact that extra expense improves the circumstances of the parent with care of the child. If those who are required to pay maintenance pay less, somebody has to make up the difference. Either it is the parent with care of the child or it is the rest of society. All of us cannot have it all our own way. Somebody, somewhere bears the burden of looking after children. We firmly believe that where people cannot afford to look after their own children, the taxpayer and society in general have a responsibility to step in.
Also, because of various pressures on all the people who may be on low incomes and who have children of their own to support, where parents can shoulder that responsibility, they should do so. That was the whole point behind the Act. No hon. Member disagrees with that principle but when it is put into practice, the House finds it more difficult, because shifting the burden from the taxpayer to individuals means that, as the taxpayers pay less, some individuals may pay more. We tried to ensure that the burden was placed on those most responsible.
Several hon. Members rose --
Regulations 10 to 14 relate to the procedural changes needed to implement the important changes. We should not underestimate the extent of the massive task that the agency faces to implement the changes. However, I thought it essential to introduce the changes as soon as feasible, even if that may cause some difficulties and delays to the normal day-to-day business of the agency.
The changes that I have announced tonight and that are contained in the regulations are designed as a measured response to concern from constituents, hon. Members and independent commentators, who welcome almost without exception the Child Support Act, but are worried about aspects of its implementation.
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : Should not my hon. Friend's regulations take into account the fact that, where mothers do not give enough care to their child, there are caring fathers who replace some payments by seeing that the children have clothing and so on, which they would not have otherwise had ? Should not they also take into account the fact that the father who is paying has to spend money on travel ? In my area of north-west Leicester, most people have to travel to Leicester, to Derby or to Burton to work and it costs around £60 a month.
Mr. Burt : With respect to my hon. Friend, I dealt with his latter point earlier. I would appreciate us considering the way in which the Select Committee dealt with the same argument. My hon. Friend's first point is important. In the initial consideration of the Act, we considered the instance
Column 951in which a woman with care of a child was often not given so much money in maintenance. Instead, the absent parent would say that, while he was not giving the mother much money, he would see the children all right for clothes or shoes or something like that. The problem was that where those arrangements worked, all was well, but in many cases they did not and the woman was left wondering whether the extra offers would come through.
In putting the Act together, the House took the view, which was confirmed by the Select Committee, that it was better to receive a regular sum of maintenance money in the hand than to wonder whether that extra support in kind was coming through. Because of that practical reality, the change was made to ensure that maintenance money was delivered.
Several hon. Members rose--
Mr. Burt : I am coming to a conclusion and want to allow more opportunities for hon. Members later. I shall be winding up and I shall have an opportunity later to deal with their concerns. It is not possible to meet all concerns that have been raised by the Child Support Act. [ Hon. Members :-- "It is."] No, it is not. If we did so, we would end up renouncing the principles so soundly endorsed by the House in 1991 and again by the Select Committee report more recently.
In recognising the difficulties of those with second families in meeting adjustments to bear a heavier responsibility by allowing them longer to come to terms with payments, by reducing the level of payments in certain circumstances and by safeguarding still further the basic protected income, we believe that we are making more acceptable the balance in those matters between children, parents and the taxpayer. Each has a legitimate interest and a voice, and I am determined that the voice that has tended to be most silent in the matter, that of the mother with care of the child, will not be the voice least regarded.
For too long, an inconsistent and ineffective system allowed a sad decline in the payment of maintenance, and the taxpayer became the sleeping partner in separation agreements. I should emphasise to the House that in 96 per cent. of cases currently handled by the CSA, whatever may be the circumstances of the absent parent, there is dependency on benefits by the parent with care of the child. We should not return to that system. I hope that the changes will embed the principles better, and ensure that the system is fulfilling its aim of securing more maintenance, more regularly for more children. I commend the regulations to the House.
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : One thing is clear about tonight's debate--it has underlined that every Member of the House knows that for many of his or her constituents the introduction of the Child Support Act has been traumatic and painful. I use the word "traumatic" almost in a literal sense, because it has been a shock which has in many cases threatened the process of rebuilding lives. Whatever we may think of the ultimate solutions and the merits of the regulations, every hon. Member must have been impressed by the anger, the genuine bewilderment and sometimes fear of people who wondered how they would manage in new and strange circumstances.
Column 952I recognise that I have repeated many times before, but I shall do so once more, the sentiment that, of course, Opposition Members share a good deal of common ground with the Minister-- for example, we accept unequivocally that there is a duty on parents to support their children in all circumstances and in all the ways they can. I personally do not believe that financial contributions are an adequate substitute for the protection and support that full parenting brings, but I want to emphasise that they are an important part of the process. I also agree with the Minister that, having made the decision, Opposition Members must live with the fact that implementation is not easy and will inevitably cause problems and difficulties. I entirely accept that ; there is no way that we can escape from that.
One of the most important factors in the new system is certainty of collection. I certainly want us to end what I think can fairly be described as the scandal whereby only one third of absent parents regularly contributed maintenance to their children. I hope that the Child Support Agency--with certain reforms which I believe we ought to consider--will move against that scandal.
Let me make it clear, too, that I can offer no comfort to the writers of many of the letters that I receive. Take the case of someone who writes and says, "My maintenance payment has gone up by 400 per cent." If it becomes apparent from the second paragraph of that person's letter that he has hitherto been paying on the basis of an outdated and inadequate court settlement bearing no relation to the true costs of educating and bringing up a child, we must reply that he will have to accept the fact that he will face a considerable increase in his contribution. Those facts are not an issue between us. I repeat, however, that there is pain and suffering and that there is perceived injustice, and those are not factors that the House can ignore.
I should at once make it clear that I do not propose to advise my hon. Friends to vote against the regulations. I welcome them as far as they go, although I do not believe that they go far enough. They are not just adjustments : some of them are--I want to make that plain--but some of them are quite significant. One of the difficulties of assessing these matters arises from the fact that the complexity of the whole financial system attached to the Child Support Act would drive anyone who tried to master it into a home for the bewildered. It is an extraordinarily difficult thing to come to grips with--I say that with some personal feeling as my lower mathematics creaks under the strain. My real criticism is that, although the regulations are specifically helpful on particular points, they do not soften the harsh outline of what is happening and will not affect or ameliorate the storm of protest.
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) : Before I came down to the Chamber, I telephoned a constituent of mine who had received a letter outlining the six points that the Minister raised. I asked that very intelligent man whether he understood it and he told me that he had absolutely no clue. He said, "Tommy, I'd need a Philadelphia lawyer ; what the hell's going on in the House of Commons?"