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Mr. Burns : I shall not give way because there is little time and many hon. Members wish to speak. [ Hon. Members :-- "Give way."] I will give way once and no more. I give way to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).
Mr. Cryer : The Act was presented to the House on the principle that fathers should be responsible for their children and that non-paying fathers should be made to pay. No one disagreed with that, but that principle has been set aside and fathers who are paying and who are exercising responsibility are now being subjected to further burdens and being hounded by what many people consider to be "Lilley's Gestapo".
Mr. Burns : I reject the last part of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but I was about to deal with the first part. There is an impression among responsible fathers who are being asked to pay through the Child Support Agency that they are the soft target and that the Act is not being used to target absent parents who have abandoned their responsibilities. I can understand them thinking that. They are an angry group of people and the more the point is made, the more acceptable it becomes. With respect, I urge the hon. Gentleman and others to look at the facts. It is unfair to say that the agency is ignoring irresponsible fathers who have never paid anything. They are, rightly, being pursued. Perhaps the CSA, or we as Members of Parliament, have failed to convey that it is not a lone attack on responsible fathers ; the CSA is also going for fathers who pay nothing. I urge Opposition Members to study the facts before perpetuating a myth.
I welcome the regulations because they respond to the Select Committee's report with proposals which seek to alleviate some of the problems that fathers face. I welcome also the phasing-in arrangements, the increased level of protected income and changes to the additional reduction rate. However, my constituents have raised a number of
Column 964points, which I suspect are not unique to Chelmsford, and those matters ought to be considered once the effect of the regulations on existing and future assessments is known.
The precise aim of and philosophy behind paying for the upkeep of children should be identified. Is the purpose--as I believe it should be--to meet the cost of looking after a child or children at an acceptable level? If so, just because an individual's income increases each year, perhaps through salary rises, it does not necessarily follow that further significant amounts of his income should be taken to pay towards the upkeep of his children. While it is important that a sufficient amount is provided to provide care to an acceptable level, thereafter money should not automatically be taken from the father according to a sliding scale.
One constituency case causes me particular concern. It involves a man who fathered three children by his first marriage, and who is now remarried and in work. His first wife has also remarried. My constituent and his second wife look after two of the children by his first marriage, while his first wife cares for the third. Her second husband has been out of work for five years and one might deduce that, whatever the situation in the employment market, that husband has no intention of getting a job.
Mr. Burns : The hon. Lady makes a noise from a sedentary position. That accusation is made not by me, but by my constituent and his second wife, who look after two of the children from his first marriage but are required to pay the carer's allowance of £44 through the CSA to the children's mother. I question whether my constituent and his second wife should be required to do that.
The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), other hon. Members and I have raised in parliamentary questions the issue of commuter costs. That is not special pleading as such, because usually only the belts around metropolitan areas have a commuter system of the sort found in London. Such a system is not common to all parts of the country. A monthly season ticket to commute to work from Chelmsford to London exceeds the monthly cost of a £30,000 non-endowment mortgage. That significant take from an individual's income, more so than an average figure, should be borne in mind.
Can anything be done about fathers or mothers who deliberately make themselves unemployed to avoid being required to pay child support so that they may contact the CSA to claim that support from their former partner? I appreciate that in some circumstances there can be substantial disadvantages in making oneself intentionally unemployed, but in others that is not the case. It is particularly irksome to a working couple to be traced by the CSA because a former partner of one of them has deliberately taken himself or herself out of the employment market, either to avoid paying child support or to make themselves ineligible for it.
There is widespread concern about the time taken by the agency to reply to cases raised by hon. Members and to members of the public who have complained or challenged assessments. I was heartened by the written reply that I received from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, saying that measures would be taken to speed up the CSA's response. However, on the assumption that the regulations will be approved, in the short term an even greater burden will be placed on the agency. I urge my hon. Friend the
Column 965Under-Secretary to do all that he can to ensure that assessments and other matters are dealt with by the CSA as quickly as possible, even if that means taking on extra staff on a temporary basis. It is unfair to those who are assessed to have to wait an inordinate amount of time because of bureaucratic processing.
All those aspects are of vital importance to our constituents. I trust that the regulations will make a genuine difference, and I suspect that they will. However, we may have to keep a watching brief on other aspects of the agency's activities, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said at Social Security Question Time on Monday. 8.27 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : To the extent that the regulations will make a difference, I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that they should be supported in the Lobby this evening. Nevertheless, I do not want the Government or the Under- Secretary to go away thinking that will be the end of the story.
The regulations are detailed, and the Under-Secretary described--in his usual competent way--the changes that they will make. However, he has not begun to address the anguish, anxiety and concern that is evident the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman has any time to respond to the debate, he must give an indication this evening of the Government's intentions after the regulations are introduced.
I listened carefully to the reasoned speech by the hon. Member for Garscadden, which made a positive contribution to the debate. I should be grateful to him and to the official Opposition if they would make use of a valuable Supply day further to debate the subject, for that would greatly benefit the House.
Even though short speeches have been made, many other hon. Members will not have an opportunity tonight to represent their constituents' interests in the way that they would like. In fact, given the tight confines of the regulations, it might not be in order for certain points to be made--but the Under-Secretary has not made any difficulty about that.
I emphasise that the issue will not go away, and the House should not allow it to do so. It must be raised again, by the Select Committee, the House itself, or as a result of public pressure--which is increasing, judging from the volume of post on the subject that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House are receiving. The power to make necessary changes resides in the hands of the Under-Secretary and the Department.
I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State is here, and appreciate his presence. We are all struggling to try to get an appropriate response, which the regulations do not provide. The Minister knows me well enough to understand that I do not make rash or casual threats. I do not want it to be put by way of threat, but there has been much discussion across the Floor of the House, with everybody agreeing to the principle of the Act.
I agree with that. In Scots law, parents have always had financial as well as other legal liabilities and duties to their offspring. That has always been the case, and was so before 1991, when the Act was introduced. I say this carefully and
Column 966urgently. There are circumstances in which I would recommend to my colleagues that support for the principle of the Act should be withdrawn if the implementation of the Act is not substantially changed. It would be a serious matter for the Minister if support were withdrawn, and for Opposition Members.
The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred to the system that must be put in place. It has a 15-year time span--or longer. If it is to be responsible and respond to the needs, it must survive changes of Government. The Government must take that into account, because if they do not change the practice in a way that is acceptable to the House, were there to be a change of Government, which, I presume, will happen eventually, but goodness knows when--that can be debated on another day and is in the hands of the electorate, not just here--he has a responsibility as a Minister to ensure that a system is in place that will withstand the test of time and changes of Government. I assure him that it is a fact that he does not have such a system.
I took part in the consideration of the Bill in 1991. The House gave it quite thorough scrutiny. I was not on the Standing Committee, but many concerns were raised about the agency and were dealt with in the way in which the Government introduced the Bill. There was much pressure and worry about mothers being forced to divulge. The Government have dealt with that, but the circumstances have changed dramatically since then. The element of retrospection is a far greater problem in practice than I ever aniticipated. That problem was referred to earlier.
The selection of the Government's target of trying to recover £530 million in the first year of operation, against the background of the fact that they have professional staff who are on performance-related contracts, is one of the most difficult things for people to understand. The people who are being hit by this legislation believe that it is by people who are making their own pay. I do not believe that that is the case. I consider the people who are running the agency to be professionals who are doing the best they can, although that may not be everybody's experience.
There is real concern that the selection of the target of £530 million in the first year was a bridge too far. The transitional arrangements were inadequate. Something has been done about that, but not enough. The whole question of the way that the Act is impinging on second families is completely contrary to natural justice. Because of the pressures of the Act, I have constituents who are threatening to emigrate, stop work or walk away from their second families. There are also tales of suicide. I do not know how much truth there is in them, but some of the newspaper reports are a cogent body of evidence that cannot and must not be ignored by the House and the Government.
The simple fact, in my experience, is that second families are being asked to pay amounts that they simply cannot afford. One of my cases last week was of a father whose offspring are in Plymouth. He is desperately trying to keep a relationship between himself and his two young children. There is no way in which the current formula can take account of the travel costs involved in seeing his children. He has had to sever the relationship with his children or borrow money from his parents to maintain it. It is a nightmare. It is a mess. There is no administrative machinery available to exercise any element of discretion.
The hon. Members for Birkenhead and for Garscadden listed five or six suggestions. I shall add a couple. In the
Column 967longer term, if one put money into a proper system of conciliation, that would be a better way of saving Govermment money. Child care services may be technically out of order in the debate on social security, but those are two important parts where social investment would reduce the long-term costs of the breakdown of families that we see in this country. A whole series of issues could and should be raised, such as getting a proper appeals system and dealing with capital settlements. A raft of things must be considered. When the Minister comes to reply, if he gets any time, he must address the question of the future. Tonight's regulations are welcome as far as they go. I will recommend that my colleagues support them on that basis. But if he says, "This far and no further," he is storing up trouble for himself, and deservedly so.
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) : Despite my hon. Friend the Minister's best intentions, some of my constituents still view the CSA as a cross between the Court of Star Chamber and the Spanish inquisition. They see their second marriages at stake, and the actions of the agency not only burning a hole in their pockets but threatening or destroying their relationships and jobs. We all have a mass of cases. I have mine here tonight. I shall refer only to two. First, a car worker in my constituency came to see me a week or so ago and said, "Must I really give up my job because of the proposals?" I found that distressing. He was complaining about the scale and the speed of change that had been brought about by the Act. Secondly, a newly remarried man told me that the enforced change in his circumstances was already undermining his second marriage. Again, I found that a distressing case.
I must tell my hon. Friend that I have had more letters, more approaches and telephone calls on this issue this Parliament than on any other. I voted for the Act. I approve of the principles, and I want to see it work. I welcome the new provisions, which, in my view, are fairer. They might persuade that car worker in my constituency to hold his job. They might help the second marriage of the other gentleman to whom I referred. I question whether the relief package--perhaps we should call it a transitional relief package--is enough. I hope that it is.
Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said to my hon. Friend, "Please do not regard this as the final settlement." We must regard it as the next stage in the evolution of the CSA. I am mindful of the fact that, tomorrow, 300 aggrieved parents will attend a meeting in Leicester, that there is an action committee in my constituency, run by a Mr. Klenk, and that marches are being organised. There is a body of opposition from a large proportion of the population. When marches are organised and there is that level of activity, as we saw over some of the legislation in the last Parliament, we ignore it at our peril.
I do not wish to detain the House for long ; I shall refer to a few points of particular concern, some of which have not been raised. The first is the intrusive and unsympathetic nature of telephone calls from the CSA to families, frequently at night or when they are with their families at tea time. At times they are rung at the office and it is made
Column 968perfectly clear that it is the CSA. Those actions are damaging the reputation of the CSA at the very least, and are certainly damaging families and job prospects.
Hon. Members have asked for an appeals procedure. I must say that I consider the CSA's powers too final. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) expressed concern about the removal of the courts' powers ; I understand that move, because I think that the system was breaking down, but my goodness, the CSA seems all- powerful now. My hon. Friend the Minister must think seriously about some form of appeals procedure.
Then there is the whole issue of former spouses having access to personal and financial details. Until the CSA came along. I thought that an Englishman's home was his castle ; the agency, however, seems to have powers similar to those obtained by Customs and Excise over VAT. I find that alarming : the data protection provisions are too weak, and it is threatening second marriages. Something must be done.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton) : Surely it is wrong in principle for the operation of the CSA to force a second wife whose divorced husband is perfectly capable of meeting his obligations to his children to give all the details of her income, or of shares that she possesses. The present Government, after all, introduced separate taxation for husbands and wives- -which I think is absolutely right. The information is given to the first wife, and the income concerned may well support not only her and her child, but her
Mr. Tredinnick : That might have been a planted question. I have already referred similar cases to my hon. Friend the Minister. There is a general feeling that second wives are supporting first wives : I raised the matter in a parliamentary question before Christmas. For a number of reasons, a highly undesirable "arcing" of cash payments is taking place between first and second families.
Ms Gordon : Not only is confidentiality being breached because the agency is able to inquire into the financial affairs of a second partner ; it even reaches for information about the financial affairs of the second partner's children. If grandparents have invested money and some interest is due, that can be taken into account as well. I think it is outrageous.
Mr. Tredinnick : My hon. Friend the Minister is receiving a clear message from all quarters in the House that people are very unhappy about that aspect. I hope that he will deal with it when he winds up.
We have heard much about the "clean break". I may not be as sophisticated as some, but I always thought that a clean break meant precisely that, I have subsequently learnt that children's interests are paramount, that the old system was not working as well as I had supposed, and that adjustments were necessary. It strikes me as strange, however, that a visitor to my surgery should tell me, "I pay for the clothes and the holidays, repair the car and do a host of other things, but that is not taken into account."
I respect my hon. Friend, and recognise the work that he has put into this, but it is all very fine to say that it is too complicated to consider a range of individual points--travel costs, for instance ; he must consider such matters. If we are to do away with the courts and impose a new agency, we cannot operate such an unsophisticated system.
Column 969The attitude of the CSA staff is of concern, too. Generally, when we telephone a Minister's private office--or when an experienced secretary or research assistant is briefed to do it--we are given a courteous and prompt response.
I must tell the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State, however, that several experienced secretaries--and one or two hon. Members who are not present--have told me that the response of CSA top management is less than forthcoming : in fact, it is downright insolent. Those people had better wake up to the fact that we are elected representatives. When we raise issues, they had better listen.
Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan) : When people refer to a "clean break", they often misunderstand the situation. What is really at issue in the event of a clean break between husband and wife may be a nominal, or even significant, maintenance order in favour of children. Because people think of a clean break as referring to the entire family, they may feel hard done by when the matter is reopened by the CSA.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) spoke eloquently about travel costs. My hon. Friend the Minister explained why it was better to bundle the separate charges and requirements into a single package, but I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford.
My constituency is in the middle of England : people commute from such areas as Hinckley to London. We are not that far away--only about 100 miles --but the rail fare is very expensive. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford provided another dramatic illustration of this argument. Such factors cannot be ignored : commuting and other travel costs are astronomical. One constituent told me, "I love my little girl dearly, but it is costing me a fortune to go to see her. I can no longer manage it." Something is wrong, and my hon. Friend the Minister must deal with it.
The Act is good in principle, but it needs a good deal of polishing. The measures announced tonight will go some way towards alleviating some of the problems, and I welcome them ; but Ministers should not go away believing that they have done their job. This must be seen to be one stage in the process of getting the CSA right. 8.46 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : I hope that the Minister will not assume from the fact that we are not voting against these measures that any hon. Member receives them with approbation. I am sorry that we are not voting against them : I think that this part of the legislation should be junked entirely. It is defective ; it was rushed into operation without being thought through ; and the pressure on those operating it is such that they are not exercising the highest standards.
One of the dangers of this unfortunate legislation is that many people now feel genuinely and deeply angry about what is happening to them. Trust is very important--
Column 970people must believe that the Government, in particular, are dealing with them fairly, and there is now deep unease in the population. I have encountered many such cases in my constituency and have attended two or three exciting and lively meetings of people suffering from the CSA's attentions, but I do not want the House to run away with the idea that only the male of the species is suffering. The ineptitude of the whole business was revealed by a letter from a constituent, who wrote :
"In April 1993 I applied to the CSA, because I wasn't receiving any maintenance for my two children, then aged 8 and 5. At about the same time I moved in with my new partner after being on my own for 3 years. A while ago my new partner was sent a form from the CSA, as he has a child, aged 12 On Saturday 22.1.94 we both received the outcome of our cases. Mine having taken 9 months.
We were shocked at the outcome. I am to receive £2.20 a week for my two children from my ex-husband, who is working full-time and has no second family, and my partner is to pay out £88.79 a week for one child, whilst he has to support us as well.
My ex-husband is self-employed and is apparently showing accounts that don't compare with his lifestyle."
The woman went on in considerable detail to point out what happened to her.
Another woman instituted proceedings for divorce on 20 April 1993, then made an application to the Child Support Agency for an assessment against her husband on 7 June 1993. That assessment related to two children. She heard nothing in reply for some time and eventually ascertained that the inquiry form had not been sent to her husband until 9 September 1993. She eventually received an assessment on 30 October. She was informed that it would be backdated but, because of the delays, her husband is now in arrears of £1,300. As no agreement or order was in force in respect of the children before April 1993, the lady has had no support whatever from her estranged husband. Because of the Child Support Act, she was also unable to apply to the court for an order for interim maintenance.
Those two cases sum up starkly the fact that the machinery simply is not working. All hon. Members can produce examples of cases in which people are suffering hardship and unhappiness and are being put through the wringer in an extremely short period. It is destroying them and I am genuinely frightened about what will happen to the children of both sets of partners. Numerous people complain to me that they will be forced to sell their house and tell me of the pressure on their relationships--those relationships may have been fragile, but a form of stability existed. No matter how the CSA's efforts are justified by the Minister, they are putting so much pressure on people that not only previous partnerships but existing partnerships are directly threatened.
I received a long, sad letter from a woman in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), saying that she had written to me because her Member of Parliament seemed unable to take up her case. She was deeply concerned about the mental health of her new partner and described in detail what had happened to him since he received an assessment for amounts which he knew that he could not meet. That is the reality.
I am also horrified at the number of people in high-stress jobs who come to me because the CSA's actions are having a direct effect on their jobs. If people in the police force get into debt, their jobs are at risk because they have broken the terms of their contract.
Column 971The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley) indicated dissent.
Mrs. Dunwoody : It is no use the Secretary of State shaking his head. If he does not know the effect of his legislation, he should ask somebody to tell him. I have raised the matter with the Home Secretary, who wrote to me saying that it was a matter for the chief constables of each individual force. I have received no guarantee that the CSA's efforts will not cause policemen to appear before a disciplinary board. Indeed, two or three of them have already resigned and I know of at least two more in the same position. Firemen are experiencing similar problems. A social scientist would find the effects of the legislation revealing because those in stressful professions, including Members of Parliament, seem to have second and third marriages.
The implementation of the Act has a direct effect not only on adults but on children. It affects the children's relationships with their parents, the amount of money available for the children and the atmosphere in both partnerships at every level.
I do not wish to go on for ever but I believe that this legislation was not put on the statute book to improve conditions for children. If I believed that it was wholly devoted to improving the lot of the children of divorced and divided families, it would have my wholehearted support and I would not criticise it in any circumstances. I believe that it was put on the statute book for just one reason, and many of my constituents have the same view. It was to obtain money for the Treasury. It does not help those whom it purported to help and should be taken back to square one so that the Secretary of State can start again. He has got it all wrong. Why will he not admit that and at least try to put it right?
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham) : Like so many other Members, I supported this legislation enthusiastically when it was introduced because of the number of women who had been to my surgeries who were desperate because they could get no satisfaction on maintenance from the court. They were also desperate to get their wriggling absent husbands, ex-husbands or partners to pay something towards their children's maintenance.
Having supported the legislation, however, I am desolated by the effects of the agency. Some hon. Friends have complained about the agency's attitude in answering them on the telephone or by letter. They were lucky to have had an answer at all. I have received no answers to letters that I sent to the agency as long ago as October. Constituents who come to see me complain that the agency simply will not answer their questions, either by telephone or by letter ; all it does is send those draconian assessments. Even when a response by the agency is received, it is belated and does not solve the problems that have been put to it.
Like many other Members, I have many commuters in my constituency. It costs some £2,000 a year to travel the 30 miles from my constituency to central London, although many thousands of my constituents do so. Many of them do not have well-paid jobs and the fare represents a substantial proportion of their income, once the cost of housing has been taken into account. To be forced to decide whether to travel to work or feed the family is a stark choice indeed.
Column 972The complaints that I receive are the same as those received by many other Members--that no account is taken of the many essential household bills such as gas, electricity, water, insurance, mortgage arrears and council tax. None is taken into account, yet they are all essential expenses faced by every household. Another peculiarity is that only 50 per cent. of pension contributions is allowable as an expense. Many people have no alternative to making pension contributions ; indeed, the Government encouraged them to do so. What worries me is the attitude of the Child Support Agency. Like the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I am particularly concerned that reviews of decisions take for ever. I welcome these changes, as far as they go. However, I should have liked to ask the Minister, during the course of his speech, to answer one very simple question. I am not absolutely clear about whether the changes will apply to all those who have been subject to assessments up to the present. I should be grateful for an answer on that matter.
If the changes are applicable to everyone who has been assessed hitherto, they will make a substantial change in the case of my constituent Mr. L, whose assessment for one child increased the £10.75 a week payable under a court maintenance order to £122 a week, even though he has a second family. Will he be helped? His assessment included the reimbursement of his travelling expenses. That amount was added to his income in arriving at the assessment. He asked in October for a review of his case. Goodness knows when it will take place. In the meantime, paying £122 a week, he is building up enormous arrears. I agree absolutely with the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that such arrears must not be allowed to get out of hand simply because the agency is not carrying out the reviews that it should be undertaking.
I am worried by the fact that many ordinary, decent folk are harassed and hounded by the agency. In the case of at least one person, I wrote personally and urgently to the Secretary of State because I was so worried that she would do something desperate as a result of demand from the agency. There must be a taming-down. The CSA is too mechanistic in its whole approach. There is no sensitivity whatsoever towards the first, second or any other family. Like the constituents of many hon. Members who have spoken and, no doubt, of many who have yet to speak, people in my constituency are darkly suspicious that the main motive of the agency is to save income support money. It is no coincidence that every constituent from whom I have heard pays some form of maintenance. Court maintenance assessments are often hopelessly low, and people are receiving new assessments. I have received not a single letter from among the absent fathers whom I hoped would be caught by this legislation. I am sure that that is no coincidence.
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) : I agree with the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) in that he seems to be yet another advocate of doing away altogether with the Child Support Agency. The legislation was brought in hastily and for the wrong reasons. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that there were two reasons for the introduction of the Act. The first was moral indignation. Here we had the first sign of the Tories' "back to basics"
Column 973policy. It may be that in this case the moral indignation was justified. In any event, it was fuelled by the Treasury in an attempt to cut back on the social security budget.
The proposals contained nothing that would help children. There was nothing to reduce child poverty or to protect the family, as the figures tend to prove. Of the £530 million being collected, only £50 million-- less than one tenth--goes to the family or to the children ; the rest goes directly to the Treasury. I try, and I hope that others will try, to avoid taking the moral line of those who seek new scapegoats. The unemployed man living with the first wife is now being paid by the second wife for the children. What we have here is an attempt to find other scapegoats. The truth is that the situation must be looked at in a sensible but compassionate way.
It would be very difficult to disagree with the principles of what the Government proposed in the first place, but it is very easy to disagree with the practice, with what has acutally been happening. Many of the constituents who come to see me are not just angry or mad, but desperate. They are desperate because they have nowhere else to go. They come to me, but I cannot give them any advice. They put their wage slips in front of me and show me their expenditure figures. They are in a Mr. Micawber situation : their expenditure after CSA payments is greater than their income. They ask what they can do because they clearly cannot pay, but I have no answer. The CSA does not take into account people's real needs. The main problem is the lack of flexibility and the use of a crude and unsophisticated formula. Under the formula, children of a new relationship are not considered to be natural children and so do not count. In other words, stepchildren and adopted children are presumably unnatural children. The CSA considers people's protected income, but not their ability to pay. There is no point in having a protected income if it is worked out according to the formula. I was not as impressed as my party's spokesman about the significance of the proposed changes. Indeed, everyone to whom I have spoken about them says that they are not significant and I do not believe that they have made a real difference to the majority of our constituents. I shall not vote against the proposals because they may help individuals, but they do not help the majority.
When I first read about the changes, I was impressed for a moment because I thought that something radical might happen. The leaflet, "Proposed changes to child support maintenance", published by the Department of Social Security states that the formula
"takes account of the income of both parents, by allowing for tax, national insurance"
--we knew about that--
"and essential expenses such as rent or mortgage costs." I also knew about the rent or mortgage costs, but I wondered what other "essential expenses" were taken into account. I thought that the best thing to do would be to ring the CSA and I did so today--not once, but five times.
The first four times I reached an answering machine which told me that the lines were busy. On the fifth occasion, I spoke to a young woman who was very helpful. I explained that I wanted to know about the "essential expenses" other than rent or mortgage costs which were taken into account. Were there one, two or three additional expenses? The truth is that not one other item is
Column 974considered, which makes nonsense of the changes. It means that the formula is dealing not with reality but with theoretical sums. The use of the formula to decide what they should be paying is leading people into despair and I probably have a better example of that in my constituency than anyone in the Chamber.
One of my constituents committed suicide, although I hesitate to refer to him. His family have my greatest sympathy and I do not want to add to their grief, but I believe that I should be failing others in a similar situation if I did not mention his case. The day after receiving notification from the CSA that his contribution was to be increased by 300 per cent., Graham Clay was found hanging at Newstead abbey. Even if the coroner was not prepared to say so, I am convinced that he hanged himself because he had nowhere to turn.
I ask very little. If the Government are not prepared to scrap the CSA, will they please provide some method of appeal? Will they provide desperate people such as Graham Clay with somewhere to go where their needs will not be assessed according to a formula and where some discretion will be involved in assessing their payments, where they will be considered as individuals and not as numbers? I am not saying that the CSA is unsympathetic. We cannot blame the Child Support Agency, because we are telling it to work to the formula and if it works to the formula it will seem as though it does not care. I have one request. The Australian scheme gives a right of appeal from the Australian agency. Let us have that right so that people can be considered as individuals. Even at this late stage, let us try to put a human face on the CSA.
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne) : I begin by congratulating my right hon. and hon. Friends in Government on listening to my views and those of many other hon. Members about the implementation of the Child Support Act 1991. I welcome the changes that are before the House tonight. I think that they demonstrate that we have a listening Government who are prepared to take action and make changes when the need has been proved. I also congratulate the Social Security Select Committee on its report, which made a valid contribution to the debate on the subject.
However, I think that it is important that the changes do not undermine the principle behind the Act, which many of us, including agencies such as the National Council for One Parent Families, supported and still support. It is important that we ensure that what was previously a poor system becomes better. The principle is that both parents should be responsible for supporting their children, even when they split up. The taxpayer should have to help only where parents do not have the means to support their children. Sadly, before the establishment of the agency, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, nearly 1 million lone parents and their children were dependent on income support.
I attended the Lobby meeting against the Child Support Act and the Child Support Agency that took place in the Grand Committee Room on 2 December 1993. I sat on the platform and listened to the representations that were made. As promised, I discussed the many arguments that were made to me with Ministers in the Department of Social Security.
Column 975One point that struck me forcibly was that there seemed to be a predominance of police officers, firemen and members of the armed forces in the audience. When I queried that, I was told that they were there because they were extremely concerned about the implications of the Child Support Agency's financial demands on them, because those demands might cause them to run into debt and thereby affect their job security. That point was mentioned by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I should be most grateful if the Minister would kindly clarify the Government's position in relation to the CSA's claims on those people's income when he replies to the debate, because it will be helpful for all of us to know the correct position on that understandable anxiety. At the meeting, I made it clear that I too had reservations about the aspect of implementation, especially in two respects. First, I was concerned about the impact on a family budget of an immediate increased claim upon it and, secondly, I was not sure that the formula levels relating to the protected income went far enough. Therefore, I am pleased that those issues and others have been tackled by the Government.
During the meeting on 2 December, a number of major
misunderstandings and misinterpretations came up repeatedly. The first is that the agency concentrates primarily on people who already pay some maintenance and neglects the pursuit of fathers who have not acknowledged any responsibility for their child or children. It must be made clear that 96 per cent. of cases handled by the CSA involve children supported by benefit, and that nearly two thirds of cases taken on by the CSA this year will be ones where no maintenance is being paid. In more than 15,000 cases where the lone parent has been unable to provide the address, the absent parent has been tracked down by the CSA. That represents 89 per cent. of completed cases. It also shows that the CSA is not only seeking absent fathers but finding them.
There is no doubt that the old system of obtaining maintenance through the courts was slow and uncertain and led to low and inconsistent settlements. That procedure was clearly failing. However, it must be explained that where both parents are content with existing maintenance arrangements and the taxpayer does not have the burden of supporting the children, the parents are not forced to apply to the CSA. Therefore, in every case that the CSA has taken on, the existing arrangements were to the disadvantage either of the children or of the taxpayer. We must remember that many outstanding maintenance orders are indefensibly low--£5 or £10 a week. No one can pretend that that is adequate support from a father on a reasonable income.
Another misunderstanding concerns clean-break settlements, which were touched on earlier in the debate. I stress again the fact that there can be no clean break between parents and their children, and there never has been, even under the court system. The term "clean break" refers to a spouse's rights, including ownership of assets acquired during the marriage. That would frequently include settling half the house on a wife. However, frequently the couple's mortgage is transferred to the parent with care, along with the house, and if she is on income support that leaves the taxpayer to foot the bill. Another important result of improved maintenance is that it will make it easier for lone mothers to return to work. That fact is often overlooked by critics of the CSA.
Column 976Maintenance gained through the intervention of the CSA will provide a portable income for mothers, which they will continue to receive even if they go back to work. The first £15 of maintenance is ignored for the purpose of calculating benefits if a mother is receiving, or is entitled to, family credit.
I participated in social security questions last Monday, and I was appalled that not a single Opposition voice was raised in support of the lone carer, usually the mother, and her children. I heard a male chorus, promoting in unison the absent father's point of view alone. Tonight I fear that both sides--
Both sides of the House have again presented a one-sided story, and I must tell the House that many women in this country--