Mr. Dewar : I want to make it clear, first, that as a sort of retired refugee Scottish lawyer, I certainly do not offer myself as a Philadelphian version of the animal, although I agree with my hon. Friend that the complexity of the system is a problem.
Column 953The most significant of the proposals before us is the increase in protected income, which, according to the Government's own estimates, will mean that, in 1996-97, something like £60 million a year less will be gathered by the Child Support Agency. I have no doubt at all that the substitution of the £30 addition for the £8 addition will ensure that there is a much more healthy gap between net income less maintenance payments and what a family would receive if it were driven on to income support. I do not want to belittle that change ; it is of some significance and it is welcome.
I am not so impressed by the remainder of what is on offer. It is interesting that the collection fee, which was much hated for very good reasons and of whose demise I thoroughly approve, has gone at what was put to me in a parliamentary answer as "negligible cost". I suspect that, if one went through the regulations, one could find further practical changes that would help the atmosphere. The phasing applies more widely as a result of the changes and is extended over 18 months--at a price in revenue forgone of about £15 million. I accept that it is practical and sensible to suggest that the £44 carers element of the maintenance requirement should be reduced to £33 when the youngest child reaches the age of 11 or £22 when the youngest child reaches 14. I have some sympathy, though, with the point made about stepchildren, which may be a point of some contention in the implementation of the change.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East) : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major problems with the Act and the regulations is the position of second families, whether there are stepchildren or other children? A constituent of mine came to me saying that he had adopted a child but had thought about going back to the court to give it up because the burden on him and his new family was oppressive. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Child Support Agency has set itself up as judge and jury and that is a bad thing? Should not there be an independent appeals procedure? Will my hon. Friend also deal with the question of the clean break, because that is a major bone of contention for families?
Mr. Dewar : I will indeed come to those contentious and difficult issues. On the first point, I agree that language is important. I understand how convenient it is, but the very term "absent parent" causes great distress to parents--usually fathers--who cannot live with their families for all sorts of good and practical reasons but who maintain a very close personal interest and give as much support as they can. I must say that my own warmth of feeling for the Child Support Agency suffered somewhat when a very senior official of that agency started talking to me about the circumstances that would change when an absent partner "repartnered". I realise that that is a useful technical term, but it took me a little while to get up to speed on the phraseology.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : Does my hon. Friend accept that the real problem is one of trust and that as long as anyone dealing with the agency believes that its members are operating on the basis of financial targets, the trust felt very strongly in relation to normal civil service procedures will be lacking?
Mr. Dewar : I understand that point, although I accept that certainty of payment is very important. I do not go along with the argument advanced in one intervention that it is satisfactory for people to say, "We always get on well together. When I have a few bucks, I pass them over."
I was discussing the reduction in the £44 element of the maintenance requirement, which I described as sensible and practical ; I think that it will also do something to reduce the resentment that is felt when an absent parent cannot understand why he should be paying what he regards as his ex- partner's income support. That particular change will be useful.
As I said, these are minor changes. Even more minor, and rather more puzzling, is that not recommended by the Select Committee--the reduction from 25p to 20p and then to 15p in the pound in the payment that has to be made from excess income once the maintenance payment has been exhausted. That will apply to those on rather higher incomes and is a concession to the better-off absent father. I must say that that would not be my priority given the problems faced by others in the system, especially those who have to care for a second family. The package is not enough to restore confidence and encourage hope, although it has some useful points in it. The present settlement--if it is to be the final one--will be seen by many as unpleasantly like an effort to do the essential minimum to diffuse an awkward political situation. I entirely accept the Minister's word that that is not the intention, but if that is the perception it will be extremely damaging.
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare) : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the vast majority of complaints that we have received are perfectly genuine complaints from people who not only pay their first wives but are trying to establish a new life with a second family? My hon. Friend the Minister used the words "and can pay". The sad thing is that many cannot pay. It is that element of the whole business that causes so much distress.
Mr. Dewar : The balance is extremely difficult to strike. I agree that one of the simple facts of dealing with matrimonial breakdown is that, very often, two into one does not go. If two families have to be supported, it is extremely difficult to do that from one income. As someone who once did matrimonial legal work, I am painfully aware of that fact.
I do not believe that the package goes far enough or that it strikes the right balance.
Ms Gordon : My hon. Friend says that the package does not go far enough. Does he agree that the package should include abolition of the benefit penalty for women on income support who refuse to give authorisation to the agency, even if the agency is not satisfied? Is it not clear that, if a woman were to derive financial benefit for herself
Column 955and her child without feeling under any threat, she would willingly give the authorisation and that, if she did not, her opinion should be accepted?
Mr. Dewar : I am sensitive to the concerns that were expressed, particularly by people representing the women's movement, about the CSA when it was last set up. The number of people who have had a reduction, at the latest count, is 87 ; the House might say that it is 87 too many, but it is a small number.
This is a time when we have to be frank. I am not in favour of making it a voluntary principle that people co-operate or do not co-operate as they will. It is important that there is co-operation, but I should certainly like to see an end to the penalty if we can encourage co-operation in other ways, if that is possible. That takes us to other changes that I will certainly try to discuss briefly. At Question Time, when referring to the Select Committee report, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), said that it was
"a good day for the Child Support Agency".--[ Official Report, 6 December 1992 ; Vol. 234, c. 12.]
I am not sure whether there was a touch of triumph or, perhaps more realistically, relief in his voice, but it is unwise to use the Select Committee report as a cover for closing the file and toughing it out. For the Select Committee--hon. Members can speak for themselves--the package is a pick 'n mix--the Secretary of State's selection. Someone will correct me if I am wrong, but it is the Select Committee's intention to return to this matter, and it does not regard what was clearly an interim report as the final word on the matter.
I have never heard my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) so unfairly used by Ministers, as he and his colleagues have become a walking alibi for doing nothing more. That is not a particularly helpful approach to the problem.
Mr. Dewar : I take that point. I have read the minority report of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, which was printed. In fairness, I should say a word or two about what should be done. At this stage, I have no intention of arguing at length the case for the points that I shall make, because many hon. Members want to speak. Also, there is to be some Opposition time during the coming week, and we hope to devote it to a debate on the Child Support Agency, on a motion which will allow us to test in the Lobby the opinion of the House about further change. That will also allow hon. Members to express more widely not only the anxiety that is felt by absent parents and other constituents but the hopes and concerns of parents with care, because both must properly be weighed in the balance.
Column 956The matters which should be considered are, first, the possibility of having a right of appeal to a review officer. In other systems--the Australian system is the one that we always mention-- there is power to order a departure from the normal formula if specific circumstances tested against criteria defined in statute justify it. Of course, there are differences between the Australian and the British systems, but the similarities are much more striking and the purposes are similar. I must say--we should not shrug it off--that the Australians tell me that their system has been an important safety valve. Anyone who has dealt with the range of anger and dismay that have arisen over the present system will recognise the importance of a safety valve.
I do not want to pretend that such a safety valve will be a wide-open gate through which thousands will be able to go, but there are undoubtedly cases --all hon. Members can recall them from experience--in which factors directly related to the care of children are not taken into account because they cannot be taken into account. A review officer would be an investment for every one of us in terms of public confidence in the system.
I will return to that matter in some detail if we have such a debate next week. That should be done, subject to discussion about the details.
Secondly, we should consider the clean-break problem. I accept entirely what the Minister has said--that one cannot have a clean break with one's children, that one should not have a clean break with one's children. Again, the Australian system--it is worth looking at it because it was implemented in stages in 1988 and 1989--has been running for four or five years, so there is a body of experience. Under that system, if parties are separating or divorcing and they have a formal agreement about, for example, the transfer of the matrimonial home or a major financial settlement, they can specify in that agreement, both parties being signatories, a reduction in the maintenance payments in recognition of that transfer. If that is registered and lodged with the Child Support Agency and it collectes the maintenance, it will observe that reduction. If one party subsequently goes on to benefit, it is still possible to vary that benefit, although within well-defined limits, the top variation being 25 per cent.
I am not standing on every detail of that system, and I am not suggesting that we lift it as it is and pop it into our legislation, but there is a strong case for considering what appears to have been a successful system and then looking at the monumental problem that we face and seeing whether there is some way in which we can learn and improve the position.
The third matter--I use my terms carefully--is the possibility of a disregard. I have always been attracted to the idea of a disregard, because there is one compelling argument, and that is that the system is supposed to be
Column 957about more money being collected from more parents for more children. On the figures available to us, that does not fit with the facts as they exist in the real world.
I recognise that there are competing arguments and that, for example, there is worry that an overgenerous disregard will make work less worth while. I recognise also that there are always problems with the financial implications of a disregard. That is why such matters should be thrashed out and discussed. They should be on the agenda for discussion, if only because my conscience does not live easily with the fact that I know--that the children who are most at risk economically, the children who are living with families who are dependent on income support, will almost certainly get no direct benefit at all from additional maintenance that is paid. Just because of that fact, such matters should be considered.
Those are meant to be three positive proposals for discussion. There is a very positive commitment on my part to consider the proposal on the right of appeal to a review officer. Of course children should be at the centre of the system--that is the point of the Child Support Act 1992, and that is why, in many ways, we have got the balance wrong. Children's interests must be balanced, but they should not be subordinated to the interests of absent parents, and certainly not to the interests of the taxpayer, the Treasury or whatever term the Minister likes to use. We all agree that it is difficult to get it right, but the confusion and the pain surely justify further movement.
I am fearful--I might sound a little like an academic constitutional lawyer --about what I see around me. A legal system must command respect. There is a danger that if disrespect grows to the point at which consent is withheld, we will bring everything into disrepute. We are near to doing that. Despite the changes that the House will approve tonight, I trust, we should not ignore the continuing and dangerous unhappiness that underlines and reinforces our duty to get the balance right. In answer to a question in Hansard, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Bury, North, said :
"There are no plans for further change."--[ Official Report, 1 February 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 578. ]
In the light of the opinons expressed in every part of the House, I hope that the Minister will reconsider that position.
Several hon. Members rose --
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross) : I have had many contacts with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), including contacts in consistorial practice. He and I have both dealt with many of the tens of thousands of marriages that have broken down, and we know about the difficulty and the sadness. The children and both parties have to make sacrifices, as do succeeding parties. It is strange that quotas are to be allotted to parents in certain circumstances. In my experience, these matters were dealt with by the courts, which saw the mother, the father and the children, knew the locality and
Column 958comprehended the circumstances. I cannot understand how a vast new bureaucracy in Belfast will be able to do that simply by asking ordinary people to fill up a form.
Mr. Stephen : On the issue of court orders, does my hon. and learned Friend recall that, under the old system before the child support legislation, the lawyers for the husband and wife would often put together a settlement which paid no regard at all to the interests of the taxpayer? It was often designed to place the maximum burden on the taxpayer. For example, it could transfer a house with a large mortgage, which the taxpayer was expected to pay. Does my hon. and learned Friend approve of that?
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : I am glad to say that I am a Scottish lawyer, and that what my hon. Friend outlines does not apply in our civilised society. If it applies in England, that increases my contempt for the absurdity of its law.
We are dealing with the terrible sensitivities of former human relationships and with children. I was horrified by the Minister's index of what people receive. A person who has four children and has been married for four years gets tuppence, and so on. But I was even more horrified to hear that, as I understand it, the matter is to be taken out of the hands of the courts in April and put into the hands of a bureaucracy in Belfast. What do the bureaucrats know about these matters? On what possible basis can they be sensitive to the needs and realities of the children and the families?
Mr. Burns : I appreciate that my hon. and learned Friend is not an English lawyer, but does he accept that a problem with the court maintenance system in England was that the people who suffered most were the child and the mother? That was because of the extremely low maintenance that was set, and in three out of four cases no maintenance was collected.
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : That increases my contempt for the law of England, because it is certainly not my experience in the law of Scotland. My experience there is the reverse. I am glad to say that at least civilisation starts at the Tweed.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : I think that my hon. and learned Friend will accept that no hon. Member is suggesting a return to the old system. Does he agree that the system under the Child Support Agency is at least as unjust as that which preceded it? A compromise, taking account of the hardship that the Child Support Agency logistics is causing, could allow the court to review, in appropriate cases, the special circumstances that I put to the Minister and to which I got only a standard response from the CSA. It had no relevance whatever to the individual circumstances of my constituent's concern.
Could we have a compromise arrangement, whereby the CSA remains but the regulations are amended to make sure that such injustices do not occur?
Column 959decided to reduce the amount that the court had awarded. What right has the agency to do that? Are the people in the agency gods, lares et penates, who oversee our lives?
A committee of bureaucrats in Belfast is directing people in the courts who have seen the facts, the family, the children and the circumstances. Upon what possible basis do those bureaucrats across the sea have the effrontery to reduce the award that a judge and justice thought was appropriate? The award was not opposed by the other spouse. He came to me and told me that he was appalled and that the CSA had said that his contribution to his family should be reduced.
The whole development of this matter is offensive in principle and in application. As it develops, it will get more hubristic, more bureaucratic and more unfair. I cannot see any justification for the ordinary citizen not having a right to go to court. I have done tens of thousands of consistorial cases in the Scottish courts. Some are easy, and some are difficult, but the children are always the principal concern. I do not see how a bunch of bureaucrats can do that armed with a form.
I cannot fill up forms, and I am supposed to be a Queen's counsellor. How is Mrs. Snodgrass to fill up a form? When it has been completed, some bureaucrat will read it and say, "You will not get this or that." For the Minister to rabbit on about £42 for this and £42 for something else is totally insensitive. We are talking about families and children ; we are not talking about buying postal orders and paying taxes.
I find the Government's whole approach grotesquely offensive. We are dealing with children and families, with human frailty and human difficulties. Such issues cannot be dealt with by a committee or on a form, and I disapprove of that completely. Let us ensure--let the Government be warned that I shall try to ensure--that the matter is left to the courts, who comprehend it. At least they are in reason and in knowledge of the locality, the families and the relationships. I plead, please, for humanity.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : I shall be brief. There is good reason why today's debate will sound to many outsiders as though we are set on representing the views of some men against their families. That response is understandable, but it is not adequate.
Many of our male constituents feel that the ground under their feet has shifted markedly over the past 15 years. One in five of all males are now unemployed. If they are unskilled, the figure is one in three. Those males feel disfranchised. The lack of a wage packet means that they no longer feel head of the household ; they no longer feel equal to their partners, and they find it difficult to carry out their role as fathers. There is disquiet on those grounds. There is disquiet on other grounds too, and the Government are even more directly responsible for them than for the unemployment figures. Under the stewardship of the present Government, until the advent of the Child Support Agency, we witnessed the near- collapse of the collection of maintenance for those mothers who are on income support and who were on supplementary benefit. The proportion has halved. The word went out, therefore, that the Government were not interested in ensuring that those on benefits also received maintenance. That trend continued for 15 years. Many males will have made arrangements with second
Column 960families which they will be unable to sustain if an Act is introduced retrospectively forcing them to pay a large proportion of their income towards their first families.
The Government have to approach the debate with more humility than usual. Many of those people who thought that they were totally free to make new arrangements with their second families now find that, late in the day, the Government have changed the ground rules under which they are to be judged, and the grounds on which they will have to pay. That is one reason for humilty, but there are also others. The Minister was generous in his selective quoting from the Select Committee report. If I had introduced the debate tonight, I would have made similar partisan use of that report. However, Ministers will not have forgotten that there is unlikely to be a vote tonight. It is the only night this week when hon. Members do not have to stay, yet we have a presence in the Chamber far in excess of what we normally have at this stage when there is a three-line Whip, especially in social security debates. It gives those on the Treasury Bench some idea of the temper of the House tonight.
As the Minister quoted from the report, I should mention that the Select Committee considered the regulations to be the most far-reaching change since the Attlee settlement of 1945. That means that, if the Government are wise, tonight's debate will be the beginning and not the end of the reform of the Child Support Agency. The bigger the reform, the more important it is for us to listen carefully to what our constituents tell us and for the Government to take into account what we relate in the Chamber and in private to Ministers, so that the Act can be reformed to make it workable in the way that we all hoped it would be.
Any major change means a resettlement between the three parties that have an interest--taxpayers, first families, second, and perhaps third, families. There are five reforms which the Government will have to consider sooner of later, and the sooner they consider them, the more credit they will get. More importantly, not only will our constituents feel that the House of Commons listens to them, but the Act will win widespread support rather than hostility.
First, the agency is the only body in existence to look at what is happening to family budgets. It has all the details. Despite the attempts of our constituents, we often get an incomplete picture. May we have some information as to the income ranges with which people manage with their second families?
Secondly, the Select Committee backed away from the idea of raising the clean break settlements. We could not get agreement on that, and we hoped that the courts would rule in a way that would have broken open the whole debate. It is not good enough to rely on the argument that some people have managed to hand over a house which is largely a debt for taxpayers to service. Such matters can be considered, justified and calculated.
It is monstrous for those who have made a large settlement--and often acquired debts in order to make that settlement--to be penalised, particularly as the whole House believes that it is a good thing to own houses.
It is absurd that, despite some adjustments to the formula, in all circumstances it now pays for a man to put his first wife and children out of their home and to sell it, and, if there is anything left from the settlement, to buy
Column 961something very much smaller, and then for the man to get the biggest, most expensive house he can, as that is taken into account in calculating his income.
It cannot make sense to have a formula that puts mothers and children at risk of homelessness and for single males, perhaps less single if they have new partners, to occupy the most expensive premises they can possibly find.
Mr. Burt : The hon. Gentleman will concede that it is not solely a decision for the man at the time of separation. It would require a court to force a mother and children out of their house in the circumstances that he has described.
Mr. Field : One of the reasons why the courts stand convicted tonight, although clearly in Scotland they have a much better system, is that the courts have generally worked in favour of men and against women and children. It was the men that were represented by lawyers and, generally speaking, women and children were not. If they wanted time to push the court around, the men's lawyers got the proceedings adjourned. There are certainly many complaints from women and children about how the procedures work. I have had no request from women and children in my constituency to go back to the old English court system to settle disputes.
Thirdly, because we wanted the formula adjusted so that those towards the lower end of the scale would be able to keep more of their income and thereby maintain their incentive to work, we plumped for a big increase in the amount of income that people could keep when the formula had been applied.
But it is clear from two Question Times, let alone tonight, that travel-to- work expenses are massively important for some of our constituents, particularly if they live in what are called satellite towns or areas and travel far. Again, the Child Support Agency will have more information on that than any other body in the country. If other constituents are like my own, they will have told the Child Support Agency what those fares are. It is important that that information should be published.
Fourthly, it is meanness on stilts to say that, because it takes 13 or 14 weeks for the Child Support Agency to send out an assessment, a person should begin the arrangement in arrears. We hope that the arrangement will work and work fairly, and to the advantage of all parties concerned. To begin by having to pay off a debt is, in any circumstances, difficult, but it is doubly difficult if the brown envelope contains a statement saying that a person's disposable net income for his or her second household will be considerably less than it was hitherto. Surely we must bear in mind the Select Committee's recommendation that people should not have to begin the new arrangement with a large debt around their necks.
My last point is one on which I have changed my view. When we first debated the matter in the House, I argued against the first family on benefit being able to keep part of the money paid in maintenance. I thought that it was unfair between those mothers, the fathers of whose children are unknown or cannot be traced, those who are widowed and those, the fathers of whose childen have been found and are paying over money. There were grounds of equity there.
There were also other considerations. I do not approve of the attitude that has gained currency that somehow it is
Column 962our responsibility in the first place to pay income support and that any money that fathers pay should be a bonus, rather than a relief of taxpayers who have been paying up to that point. The failure to chase people for maintenance payments, which I have highlighted in questions during the past 15 years, was an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
But although those points stand, when I put forward my views about grounds of equity in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) simply said, "That's life." She said that life is often unfair, but because it is unfair to some does not mean that all women and children should be disadvantaged. The Child Support Agency now needs above everything else large numbers of mothers and children to speak up in favour of it. That could be done quite cheaply with a small disregard. Therefore, my last suggestion--
Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) : As my hon. Friend is an influential person, and as the Minister seemed to frame his concessions with my hon. Friend in mind, will he consider adding a sixth point to his list on the business of phasing in?
The Minister has made a concession on phasing in, but he has limited it to certain people. He does not seem to have accepted the general principle and the fact of life that people do not exist in a vacuum, and that, when one relationship breaks down, it is entirely natural for people to get on with their lives and build other relationships, and perhaps other debts and financial commitments. For the Child Support Agency to drop on a person, whatever his or her domestic circumstances, at a point in the future, completely ignoring financial commitments that that person has genuinely entered into, is most unfair.
Mr. Field : I am grateful for that invervention. The reason I will not disappoint my hon. Friend when I say that I shall not add his point to my list is that it is in the report, although it has not been fully endorsed by Ministers tonight.
They are the outlines of an agenda that I hope the Select Committee will consider in its second report--
I hope that that will act as a basis for an agenda for what will be the Select Committee's second report. That itself will not be the final report that the Select Committee will need to bring to the House.
I said at the beginning that I thought that this was the most significant change in the way that people have had to behave toward one another since the Attlee settlement of the great 1945-50 Government. The bigger the change, the more important it is that we are sensitive to how the reform works.
It is important tonight that Ministers win this and other victories against the Treasury, so that the Treasury's mean-minded policy in trying to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement to a more satisfactory level does not put at stake the principle of the Act. The force of interventions will have shown Ministers that hon. Members will not go away, and that, if further reform is not forthcoming, the Act will be at risk.
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Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : Listening to the debate reinforces my view that the vast majority of hon. Members wholeheartedly support the principle that fathers should pay for the support of their children when they are financially able so to do, and for the state to maintain support through the benefit system when fathers, for whatever reason, unfortunately do not have the necessary income or are not able to do so because they are in receipt of benefit. Since the Act was brought into operation in April 1993, there has been much concern about certain aspects of the operation of the formula, but not the principle behind the Act. I trust that even after this debate that almost bipartisan support for the principle will be maintained because it is essentially the right principle : parents should be financially responsible for their children. On the other side of the coin, it is interesting that we hear little about the mothers who, all too often before April last year, suffered a significant drop in their standard of living or found it difficult to make ends meet on the benefit system because far too many fathers had simply abandoned them without meeting their financial responsibilities.
Several hon. Members rose --