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"I didn't know what to do until the CSA took on the case" [Interruption.] The Opposition should listen to this. They are proving my point ; they are not interested in lone carers and their children.
The article said that, as a result of the intervention of the CSA, Mrs. Richards had received more money for the support of her eight-year-old daughter in the past two months than she had received from her estranged husband during the whole of the previous year. She originally received only £65 a month from her husband, which was totally inadequate. Out of just over £15 a week, she had to pay £8 for her daughter's school meals and bus fares. The remaining sum--£1 a day--was supposed to pay for her daughter's food, clothes, shoes, occasional treats and school trips.
Mrs. Richards said :
"Whatever happens in my case, I cannot fault the CSA".
I shall also read from a letter that I received from a constituent who supports the Child Support Agency. She said :
Column 977"For many years mothers have been left to feed, clothe, and care for the children on very little money, while the fathers walk out and continue to enjoy their income regardless of the fact that they have left their children living in poverty.
Many fathers are encouraged to leave their families once they realise that their wives will receive income support who will also pay the interest on their mortgage, leaving them to enjoy their new found financial gain.
When my ex-husband left me and our two children, he left income support to provide for us and pay the mortgage interest, while he lived in a rent free police house. When I finally received maintenance for the children from their father he ensured that I would receive minimum maintenance by purposefully committing the majority of his income to various loan and debt repayments stating to me that I wouldn't be able to have what he hadn't got so he would ensure his available income would be virtually non-existent by taking out as many loans etc. as he could. While myself and the children have been living in poverty for the past four years, he has been enjoying his police inspector's salary with holidays abroad, new clothes, new car and all the luxuries he desires, with no thought or help with providing his children with even the basic essentials they need."
That letter came from that man's second wife with two children. The taxpayer is funding the mortgage and providing income support for that family. The taxpayer is also providing exactly the same for his first family. He is now on wife number three. Surely it cannot be right for other working families to pay through their taxes to support the children of absent fathers on reasonable incomes. Fathers who can afford to do so should pay the full cost of maintaining their children.
As responsible Members of Parliament, we must listen to both sides of the story and ensure that children receive the support from both parents, which they deserve and need. It will take time for people to adjust to a new system such as the CSA, but we should give it the support that it merits. Let us not forget that bringing up children is an expensive business. What matters are regular payments for their day-to-day living expenses. Children's welfare must have the priority.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : Before I embark on my speech, I shall clarify one point. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) was absolutely wrong when she said that the question of carers had not been raised by Opposition Members during Question Time. The hon. Member for Croydon North-West (Mr. Wicks), as he rightly said earlier, said then, inter alia :
"Will he reform the measure to ensure that the vast proportion of money goes through to mothers with children, and that we have in reality a Child Support Act?"--[ Official Report, 31 January 1994 ;: Vol. 236, c. 602.]
It may be in order for the hon. Lady to withdraw what she said. I speak on behalf of my party and the Scottish National party and I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) for asking me to raise some points. I shall be brief as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.
Perhaps I should begin by declaring an interest. No, I have not fallen foul of the "back to basics" purge. I am a lawyer who practises in divorce law. It is basic good sense that an absent parent should maintain his or her children, provided that he or she can afford to do so. The final words need emphasis since they do not appear to weigh heavily in the balance at the present time. It would be wrong to deny that the underlying theory behind the Child Support
Column 978Agency is a right and proper one. Of course society should ensure that children are given proper financial support. Therefore, my argument is not about the principle of the CSA, but about the operation of the agency under the present regime.
I read with great interest the Adjournment debate of 31 January. I have also read numerous letters from the Under-Secretary of State on the subject because, like all hon. Members, I have received numerous letters about it. The Under-Secretary said :
"The principle of parental support for children is not new. However, there is no doubt that the old, court-based system was failing the majority of children."
Alas, the Child Support Agency is failing the majority of absent parents because the rigidity with which the formula is applied is mischievous. As many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, we have all had dozens of letters of complaint. People have suddenly been finding that maintainance orders evaluated by the county courts and regularly paid have been trebled overnight. Many absent parents have another home and another family, and the pressure is passed on to that new home and family.
In my years of practice as a divorce lawyer, I often saw clean-break orders --indeed, such orders were actively encouraged by practice directions and under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Frequently, a husband would transfer his equity in a substantial property to the wife and pay maintenance to the children. I know that the courts could never sanction a clean break between father and child, and I would not wish them to do so because that would surely be insidious. The Government, however, through the agency, have missed a very important point. Any lawyer who knows anything about divorce law knows that part of the reasoning behind making a clean-break order with the extra capital being transferred was to enable the wife to provide more than adequately for the children. Allowance has therefore been made in clean-break orders
Mr. Burt indicated dissent.
Mr. Llwyd : The Minister shakes his head. I will take the matter up with him at another time because time is short this evening, but as a practising lawyer I can tell him that that is absolutely correct-- [Interruption.] As a part-time lawyer, then. That point appears to have been completely missed by the CSA under the current rules. The Minister was also wrong when he said in the Adjournment debate that there were no investigative powers available to the courts. That is nonsensical. Courts often ordered that specialist accountants should become involved in investigating matters and ensuring that they were thoroughly looked into. If those in the legal profession were doing their job correctly, the courts naturally worked properly and adequately. It is wrong--and a slur on the profession and on courts--to say that maintenance orders were based on slipshod evidence and were the result of arbitrary decisions.
I respectfully hope that the Minister's somewhat facile knowledge of divorce law is not colouring his attitude to the debate. Closing the Adjournment debate, he said :
"I hope that the changes will help."--[ Official Report, 31 January 1994 ; Vol. 236, column 711-8.]
That is not exactly an inspiring sentence. The changes suggested by the Select Committee will have to help because we are dealing with misery, depression and even deaths as a result of the introduction of the Act. We are
Column 979now attempting to amend the legislation to ensure that the changes help. Anything less simply will not do. After all, politics is the art of the possible.
I pay tribute to the members of the Select Committee for the urgency with which they investigated this matter and for the breadth of good sense in their report. No doubt that urgency is a fair barometer of hon. Members' bulging postbags.
To return to the main principle--the paramountcy of the child's needs--I am deeply concerned about the effect that even the amended legislation will have on stepchildren or children of a subsequent union. In a wide-ranging and informative debate in the other place, Lord Russell urged the Minister to look again--this time favourably--on paragraphs 81 and 82 of the Select Committee report. I echo that call. Time does not permit me to quote from the report, but I believe that it is as vital to secure the needs of the second family as it is to secure those of the children in the first family. The report deals with ways of achieving that.
At school--on reflection, to my utter regret--I was often told by teachers that I could do better. The Government can do better, too, and I want to concentrate on three or four cardinal points that need to be addressed. I understand the rationale behind the statement that the obligation to maintain a child adequately comes before any expense or cost, but it is a signal failure of the Act--and, sadly, of the amendments--that an absent father's travel-to-work costs and his right to have contact with his children are not taken into account. Both are vital components in the exercise and should be fully deductible.
I know of many cases, and I have read of many more, where absent parents take the view that without an allowance for travelling it will not be worth while working. That places a further burden on the state. Travel costs are as essential as those for food and clothing and should be recognised as such.
I make a plea to Ms Hepplewhite, if she is within the confines of the building or wherever else she may be, and her happy band of performance- related employees to target the people who decline to pay and then to move on to more lucrative preserves. Even under the amendment, absent parents on modest incomes will pay an additional element of 50 per cent. That is clearly regressive and it would be far better to reduce the 50 per cent. taper for second families so that low-earning as well as high-earning absent parents gain. The present proposals will cause hardship and is, prima facie, unfair. I accept that there is an improvement to £30 a week in the protected income level, but it should be increased to £40 to enable lower earners to gain some benefit and to cope. The additional reduction to 15 per cent. is welcome, but there is leeway to reduce it to 10 per cent. Before Treasury Ministers tell me how much it will all cost, I remind them that this exercise was intended not to recoup money for the Treasury but to meet the needs of children. I welcome the amendment to the formula to reduce the amount payable for care of children, but a 50 per cent. reduction across the board for children aged from 11 to 16 would be reasonable. It would be simpler to apply. It is just tinkering with the problem to say that reductions will go up from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. It would surely be simpler to apply a 50 per cent. reduction.
I sincerely hope and trust that further amendments will be considered because the regulations are widely viewed as
Column 980a knee-jerk reaction to intense media attention and, of course, to the concerns of constituents, which have been expressed by all hon. Members.
We have seemingly gone part of the way, but we need to go the extra mile to ensure fair play to all concerned. I echo the view of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is experienced in these matters, that the amendments are not the last change that is needed to the Act. Without further amendments, there will be a widespread call in both Houses for changes in primary legislation.
We have an opportunity to stem the tide of widespread injustice. Let us take it for the sake of our constituents and, above all, in the interests of our children.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride) : What has happened tonight has been a tale of two debates. One debate has been on the narrow issue of the Government's regulations, which, I remind the House, were sneaked out three days before Christmas and after the House had risen for the recess. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is muttering from a sedentary position, but the way in which the regulations were introduced showed an extreme nervousness in the Government. As was argued at the time, it was also discourteous to the House and a denial of democratic accountability. In short, it was a transparent attempt by the Minister to seek to massage the media without proper scrutiny or debate. Belatedly, the Secretary of State has now introduced the measures.
The second debate that has surfaced tonight is the one that the House really wants. It is a debate on the effects and function of the Act that the hundreds of people--absent parents and parents with responsibility for care alike--have demanded should take place. It is worth pointing out that on two separate occasions in the past few weeks the Government have denied time to the Opposition to allow a full and free debate on a motion on the wider aspects and implications of the Act and on the activities of the agency. I see the Minister shaking his head. I hope that he will deal with that matter in his reply.
Clearly the Government recognise that they have an unsustainable case. That is why they have denied the two debates on those two separate occasions. Such debates would expose the Government to even more ridicule and criticism from Conservative Members than there was this evening.
The Minister might be able to run away from a debate on this issue but, as hon. Members have said, he certainly cannot hide from it. "The debate will take place in the near future." We have heard that before, and Government business managers change the business to stop the debate taking place. However, a debate will take place in the future and it will allow proper examination of the many criticisms of the Act and its effects on families throughout the land.
Column 981Members have not acted unreasonably. There has been a deliberate attempt to stop the debate taking place. It is clear that many Conservative Members want such a debate.
It is worth bearing in mind that the regulations are a reaction by the Government to the substantial and sustained pressure which has been put on them to ease the financial burden imposed on absent parents and on the second families of absent parents. The Government do not intend to introduce any further changes to the Act.
Time and again, the Minister has made it clear that the Government do not intend to introduce any further changes to the Act. In fact, in a written answer, he stated :
"There are no plans for further change."-- [Official Report, 1 February 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 578.]
Of course, the Government have said that before : "There are no plans to raise VAT, no plans to increase national insurance contributions, and no plans to increase taxes." Perhaps we should doubt such statements.
Mr. Frank Field : Does my hon. Friend accept that, as most people who will be affected by the legislation have not yet received their forms and as the build-up will be towards the next election, it would be foolish of the Government to abide by that statement?
Such a statement by the Government will come as a great disappointment to the many organisations and charities involved with parents with care and with the care of children. It will also come as a great disappointment-- indeed, it will be viewed with great anger--by groups who are springing up all over the country in opposition to the Act. Given the contributions by Conservative Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), it will be greatly resented by hon. Members who face escalating demands for a further fundamental and detailed review of the Act and for changes to be introduced to reflect the many criticisms of the Act.
The Minister cannot ignore those demands. Is he still not prepared to go any further than the regulations? Does he stand by his statement in Hansard ? If so, does that mean that he rules out any possible changes to build flexibility into the system? That was the main thrust of hon. Members' arguments. Such an argument was made with great passion by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell).
Does the Minister still say that representations that he has received to take into account clean-break settlements, travel-to-work costs, access costs, the effects on children of second marriages and many other financial consequences are to be ignored? Does he really say that, especially in view of the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the very hon. Member behind whom the Minister has hidden ever since the Select Committee report was published and who clearly set out his own trenchant criticisms of the Act and the way forward in terms of a review?
Column 982First, will the Minister confirm that the regulations bring no benefit to parents with care or, more important, to their children? I direct that point especially to the hon. Member for Broxbourne. The Minister will be aware that the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that a case can be made for an income report disregard payable to the parent with care. Is he completely ruling out that possibility?
Secondly, does the Minister accept that, depending on the family circumstances of both the absent parent and the parent with care, it is possible, even with the regulations, for parents with care to find themselves floated off income support because of the level of maintenance? At the same time, they can be denied other passported benefits such as free dental care, free prescriptions and free school meals. Is that fair? If the Minister thinks that it is not, why will he not accept the need for a further review of the legislation? The next issue relates to the payment of family credit to a mother who is in part-time work and in receipt of maintenance. Family credit is payable on a six-monthly calculated basis, and if the maintenance stops or is reduced for any reason the mother's reduced family credit entitlement will remain unaltered for the remainder of the six months. Ironically, the new regulations could worsen that situation. I hope that the hon. Member for Broxbourne takes note of that. The new transitional arrangements may help some absent parents but could also cause parents with care to suffer a reduction in income during the phasing in of payments for which family credit would not immediately compensate. As adjustments to family credit payments can already be made at any time under a reduced benefit direction, the Minister could act to introduce more flexibility on behalf of the parent with care. Surely even this Minister and this Government must accept that imposing a drastic fall in living standards for parents with care and their children is simply unacceptable. Is he still determined to rule out a review? Why has he not introduced regulations to deal with that problem?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said, the regulations, both separately and jointly, are welcome, but, as he also said, they do not go far enough. Much has been said about the problems being encountered by absent parents--usually, but not always, the fathers. We accept that the changes will help them to some degree. The new phasing- in arrangements are welcome to the extent that they will help to prevent the ludicrous situation of some absent parents with second families having their maintenance contributions trebled overnight.
It is regrettable that the Government did not follow their thinking through and extend the provisions to single absent parents, to those who are not part of a second family, or to those who may not already be paying maintenance because of a previous clean-break settlement. Those absent parents also need help in making transitional arrangements. Their needs should be taken into account, but they have been ignored in the regulations.
The phrase "clean-break settlement" has been used time and again in the debate. It is not acceptable that the Government should dismiss the issue. They maintain that it is not practicable to build into the process a way of dealing with significant clean-break arrangements of whatever type, but that is simply not true. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden said, the successful
Column 983Australian child support scheme does just that by giving powers to an independent review officer to vary the formula determined assessment.
The increase in the protected income for absent parents is welcome as a step in the right direction. However, the proposed changes highlight the regressive nature of the formula which places disproportionate burdens on parents with low incomes compared with those on high incomes. Is that what the Government are trying to achieve with the legislation? Do they want to give the rich better benefits than those on low incomes? In a letter dated 28 January 1993 which he sent to The Guardian the Minister said :
"The new partner of a parent has no liability for the maintenance of the parent's children from a previous relationship. The implementation of the Act has shown this not to be totally accurate."
The Minister should have known when he wrote that letter that the earnings of a second partner or any adult in the household of the absent parent are taken into account in determining the second family's ability to pay full maintenance to the first family. Perhaps he will set the record straight.
Only one conclusion can be reached on the debate that is raging outside and has been reflected in the House tonight : the Government have not satisfied their critics by tabling the regulations. As they are an improvement to the Act, we do not intend to vote against them. It is good to get something out of the Government even if it is not much.
In principle most people viewed the Child Support Act as a potentially helpful and necessary piece of legislation, but it is clear that, unless a fundamental far-reaching review of the Act and the agency is undertaken, the legislation will become no more than a poll tax in nappies for the Government.
First, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. Although right hon. and hon. Members have different views about whether the regulations go far enough, there is a feeling that there will not be a vote at the end of the evening, so I do not intend to be combative in my winding -up remarks. There will be a further debate about the principle of the agency, and that might be dealt with rather differently.
I want to respond to the mood of the House. It has been an interesting debate which leaves a number of questions unanswered. Some of the remarks that were made go to the heart of the issue of child maintenance and some thoughtful speeches were made. Whatever we say here, we are left with the fundamental issue of how to handle child maintenance and who is to pay for the responsibilities of bringing up children.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), in an extremely good speech, did not shy away from the issues. He said straightforwardly that people cannot have it all ways and some difficult questions were raised for those who could be expected to pay more and that it was not always possible to reach a solution in which no one would be hurt and everyone had to pay for their children. He said that the hard facts had to be faced. Not all hon. Members took that approach.
The first issue that was raised--one that could detain us for a long time-- was whether to scrap the agency and return to a court system or move to something else.
Column 984Although hon. Members are quick to say, "No, we must not do it," that was certainly the tenor of the remarks of the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn). It is clear that there is a dispute among hon. Members now that did not exist some two and a half or three years ago when the issue was thoroughly debated.
The problem that we confronted then was how to deal with a system where there was total discretion but widespread recognition that the system did not work. We had to decide how to deal with that and how to move on. The House at the time strongly held and endorsed the principle--but not the practice tonight--that it was better to move to a system which provided greater consistency. However, there is a price to pay and I fully accept that. That is what we are debating now.
I remind those who want to return to total, partial or increased discretion of some of the issues that were faced by women at that time. I refer to the remarks of Sue Slipman of the National Council for One Parent Families on a radio programme when she described her experience of the former arrangements. She said :
"Before April last year, only 30 per cent. of lone parents got any maintenance for their children whatsoever in this country. Most of it was at derisory levels and I'll tell you what happened when you went to court to get someone to pay maintenance. Maybe he would turn up to the hearing, but maybe he wouldn't, and if he didn't, it would be postponed for six months. You would then get a whole range of debts that would be presented and a whole range of other excuses for why maintenance could not be paid. You might then at the end of that get an order, and it might be paid for two or three weeks, no-one enforced it and no one was ever interested. And as a result of that, the experience of over 1.7 million children in Britain was abandonment by one parent and a life in poverty with the other." Hon. Members are quick to say that they do not want to go back to that ; but if we do not want a system that provides certainty and consistency, which is what the House wanted two or three years ago, and we want to increase the element of discretion, we run the risk that that situation would increasingly occur. That is a genuine issue, but the House must decide--
If we do not want to return to that situation, we will not move away from some formulaic system to deal with the problem and we would be dishonest with the country if we pretended that that could be avoided. That is a fundamental and crucial issue which some have raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) spoke of the problems faced under the previous system and she mentioned some of the successes of the Child Support Agency. Hon. Members sat in silence and listened to the distressing case histories, which they all come across in their surgeries, as I do in mine, but when my hon. Friend spoke of the sort of problems that people once had and then put forward points made by people in favour of the Child Support Agency, there was much less concern. Hon. Members talked through that and tried to dismiss it. That will not do. It is not an either/or situation.
There are problems in dealing with child maintenance, whether one is the absent parent or the parent with care. No
Column 985system is perfect. If the House is trying to be honest, we are trying to find a way through to a better system. The regulations are moving us in that direction.
Mrs. Gorman : My hon. Friend will be aware that many criticisms have been levelled at the agency. I have sent 12 cases through and I have received comprehensive explanations on each. I have also corresponded with Mrs. Hepplewhite and she has been most courteous and informative.
Many of my hon. Friends raised problems in dealing with the agency. It will be no surprise when I say that the agency has been under extreme pressure. It is working hard. I apologise to all hon. Members who have had to wait too long for responses. We are doing all that we can to try to speed that up. However, my hon. Friend makes it clear that that is not everyone's experience in dealing with the agency, whether hon. Members or not.
Mr. Bennett : The Minister has made a powerful case, referring to mothers who received no help in the past through the courts. The trouble is that the Child Support Agency has so far done little to help my constituents ; rather it has penalised those who have conscientiously made payments. When will the Government direct their attention towards the people who do not pay as opposed to those who do?
Mr. Burt : I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that at the moment about half the cases taken on by the Child Support Agency concern those where no maintenance at all has been paid. By the end of the agency's first year of operation, some two thirds of its cases will involve those who have never paid any maintenance. It is false to say that no search is made for those people.
The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) raised the problem of good cause and similar matters. Hon. Members will remember that, when the agency was set up, that subject was of great concern and the Government worked hard to deal with it. I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that some 36,000 cases, about 5 per cent. of all applications issued, have involved the consideration of good cause. Good cause put forward by the parent with care has been accepted in some 20,500 cases--about 57 per cent.--and some have still to be decided. To date, only 160 cases have been referred to the Benefits Agency for a reduced benefit direction. If one considers that the agency has some 500,000 cases on its books, that puts the issue into some sort of perspective. We did care about that, we did think about it and we have responded as well as we can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) made some fair points in favour of the agency, but he also raised issues about which he is concerned, of which I take note. I repeat my apologies in relation to the correspondence. We are working hard to clear it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) raised a number of issues. In relation to the disclosure of information, I am sure that it is clear to all
Column 986hon. Members that, in dealing with the financial aspects of a case, just as in the past affidavits used to be swopped in ancillary proceedings to ensure that both sides knew the financial circumstances, that has to happen here. That is why information about income, and the like, is revealed to both parties. There can be no way through that. The provisions of the Data Protection Acts apply to the CSA as well. However, we are taking steps to reduce the information requested from second partners in cases where protected income will not be at issue, because that is where it has most impact. I am sure that the House will welcome that.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke of the problems raised for members of the police force. When such cases arose, we discussed that aspect with the Home Office. It advised that policemen would not be dismissed solely on account of increased maintenance liabilities under the Child Support Act 1991. A policeman who is negligent in managing his financial affairs can be subject to disciplinary procedures. In extreme cases, that can lead ultimately to dismissal. However, cases in which maintenance increases are causing difficulty will be dealt with sympathetically, and appropriate advice and counselling will be provided.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) asked whether the changes announced tonight would apply to those who had previously had maintenance assessments. He cited the case of a constituent with a second family, whose assessment was made some time ago. The answer to that question is yes. The changes will apply to those who have had assessments made previously. I hope that also assists the House.
I enjoyed the comments of the hon. Member for Garscadden because they were sensible and dealt fairly with some of the issues. He did not try to hide from the fact that somebody, somewhere, must pay for children after their parents have separated. I thought that it was accepted by the House in the past that where such a situation occurs, that responsibility must rest primarily with the parents involved and not with the rest of society. That happened previously, and the previous system supported it. If we are to move away from that principle, that will be a major departure for the House.
The hon. Member for Garscadden again raised the issue of appeals. I understand his point in relation to a pressure valve, but I will repeat my earlier argument as to why the Australian system should not too easily be viewed as a counterpart--although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not want it introduced root and branch. The Australian system works on gross income and does not take account of housing costs, a personal allowance, tax, national insurance and other costs. It simply applies a crude percentage. The crudeness of the system gives it an appeal base, but appeals are restricted. They are not open to all--there are strict gateways. The sense of the House was clear, in feeling a degree of unease about the legislation--I understand that. However, there is a danger of suggesting that an appeal mechanism is an abracadabra--that it would be available to all and that all the people who are currently worried would have their problems solved.
The hon. Member for Garscadden was fair and straightforward enough to say that would not be the case. But who among us would go to any of the constituents who have come to us over the past few months and say, "There will be an appeals system, but it will not apply to you"? We