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intrusion on his privacy, the overthrowing of arrangements, the spying on people, the overturning of court agreements and the lack of an appeal or hearing--were very British. I am sorry but I had to say that, after 14 years of arrogant government under the Tories, it seems to have become a very British system. It is a system that flies in the face of the rule of law.

Mr. Heald : The Opposition voted for it.

Mr. Davies : But the Conservative party is the party of government, and it has to do something about it.

If the Secretary of State thinks that this issue will go away, he is making a big mistake. The system is fundamentally flawed and will have to be changed. If it is not, it will probably bring down the Government and the Tory party.

7.34 pm

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : The Child Support Act 1991 has benefited some people--for example, lone mothers whose male partners have not supported them in the past, but have deserted them and been traced, and are now being made to pay proper maintenance for their child or children. However, for others the Act has become a bureaucratic nightmare, with which hon. Members, legal advisers and others are unable to deal. Unless something is done, I fear that the beneficial aspects of the Act will be far outweighed by the hardship that it is inducing in many people.

Legal advisers are telling their clients that they cannot understand the elaborate formulae that have been devised. They can tell them, however, that there is no appeal against the CSA's findings--only a review conducted by the very civil servants who made the assessment in the first place. It is not in accordance with natural justice that the assessment of child maintenance should be completely removed from the courts and applied by civil servants in accordance with ever-changing rules. Nor does it seem fair that CSA decisions can be retrospective.

I am aware that the clean break settlements between the parties can never be clean breaks for the children. I am also aware that too many fathers were leaving their children dependent on income support. I do not resile from that. However, when civilised arrangements have been made between parties to a former marriage, often sanctioned by the courts, it is wrong and unfair that those arrangements should be wholly ignored when calculating what is proper for a parent to pay for the maintenance of a child.

Civil servants now substitute their judgments for those of the parties and the courts--not for future cases, which would be understandable, but for past cases, in which parties have lived for many years under the arrangements. Those arrangements have been made within the law and often have the sanction of the law.

I have had to deal with many cases relating to the CSA. There have been many such cases in my constituency, but perhaps not so many in the constituencies of colleagues who are happier with the way in which the Act is working. No one has questioned the need for the Act, but, in every case with which I have dealt, the couple--it is usually a couple, not only a father--have said that the pendulum has swung too far against so-called absent fathers, and that there is very little fairness in the way the system operates.

As the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) said, it is often unfair to describe these fathers as "absent"

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fathers. They try to maintain close relationships with their children, but those relationships are being made more difficult by the demands of the CSA.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) to accept that we have to allow second families to live decently. It is not only the children of first marriages whom we must look after--second families must live decently, too. We must be more compassionate in calculating a father's protected income.

These days, the mobility of labour means that travel-to-work costs must be taken into account. Certainly in my constituency it is often difficult to find work without travelling away from home. Travel-to-work costs, the costs of travelling to see one's children who are often in distant parts, the insurance on a second home, the council tax and water rates are all essentials in a second marriage. They are not luxuries. Because the assessment is so high, many parents also believe that the costs even of employing a child minder should be taken into account as essential.

I have been dismayed to be told by fathers about the way in which they have been treated by the CSA. They have reported indifference, rudeness and smart alick answers. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that civil servants are encouraged to show more humanity than they have hitherto shown to many of my constituents? Unless we tackle the way in which people are dealt with, we shall have produced a system that is inhumane and builds up resentment, which will not be easily forgotten. It is often the decent parent who is penalised under the regulations. Violent partners often escape, as women whose former partners were violent are not obliged to name them.

Parents have said that the Child Support Act 1991 is squeezing them, even when they have usually done everything to maintain their financial and emotional links with their children. The result is an enormous strain on second marriages. I urge hon. Members and the Minister not to be blind to the unacceptable pressure that swingeing, unfair demands place on second marriages. Taking any of the second wife's income into account penalises someone with no responsibility for the children of the first marriage.

I support the Government's proper concern for the children of the first marriage, but I doubt their lack of obvious care and compassion for the effects on children of the second marriage. I am anxious that my right hon. Friend should be aware of that. We can all accept the broad aims of the Act --there has been little dispute about that across the Chamber--but it will not save money for the taxpayer if its operation breaks second unions and encourages fathers to give up their work and their family responsibilities.

Many of those who have been to see me say that that is what they will probably have to do--and that is not an empty threat. We must not create clear financial advantages for people to be feckless and unemployed, and stay single rather than marry, if there are children from a first marriage.

I support the ideas and aims of the Act, but my charge relates to its unfairness, unpredictability, retrospection and lack of an appeal mechanism. Another serious charge is that it may discourage many men from marrying for a second time, and thus increase the number of never-married single parents. I urge my right hon. Friend to give greater thought to many of those implications, and to do so soon.

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7.43 pm

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : The Act imposes punitive assessments on non-resident parents and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, resolutely refrains from passing on any maintenance to the parent with care. It causes turbulence in the lives of countless children of first and second families. Families who have come through bitter times to reach an uneasy peace are thrown back into the melting pot, causing turbulence.

If the Act were really about children, first and foremost it would consider the roof over the head of the child. The Act does no such thing ; it endangers the roof over the head of the child. The Minister cast much scorn on clean break settlements, but they were proposed and, indeed, encouraged by courts and by the Government in 1984 to preserve homes. That was a worthy objective.

The Secretary of State said that that objective was still taken into account because the parent's next mortgage would be taken into account. But not all non-resident parents have another mortgage. Some of them rent and some live with relations. The housing costs of those who live with relations are not even counted. The housing benefit of their relation, however, is deducted. The Government try to have it both ways.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) that the retrospective element should be removed. In the future, it should be possible to make a notional calculation of equivalent income if a capital settlement is made to preserve the children's home. That is particularly important in view of the ferocious attacks made on the housing rights of lone parents by the Government. Under the Act, children may lose their homes, but not even have the rights of homeless families.

The punitive assessments do not count travel-to-work costs. Much has been said by Conservative Members about that and I agree with their comments. There is one danger ; I would not like the Secretary of State to say that arrangements will be made if the travel-to-work cost is very high, as it may be if one commutes many miles to and from London. Some travel-to-work costs may not seem high to hon. Members, but they will seem high to many of my constituents on low wages.

Travel-to-work costs of £10 a week are common and they take a big slice out of the wages of many of my constituents. Those costs should be exempt, whatever their level. I agree with the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) that council tax and water rates should also be exempt. If parents defined such expenses as non-essential and refused to pay them, the courts would soon have something to say about that. Council tax and water rates are clearly essential expenses.

There should be a right of appeal and it should be widespread. It is normal to have an appeal system that is open to everyone who has a complaint. That system should allow special circumstances to be taken into account--not everybody lives a straightforward life. Some people have the "temerity" to take on responsibility for aged relatives. Is the cost of looking after such relatives taken into account? No, it is not. The appeal system and some discretion would allow such expenses to be taken into account. There should be a recognition of other responsibilities, as well as the cost of parenting and access. Parents with care can also be worse off. It is often said that the great advantage of the maintenance benefit over income support is that it can be continued after one finds

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a job. That theory is based on the assumption that there is a job to be found. The jobs of most women in my constituency pay low wages, which are getting lower as a result of Government policy. If those constituents claim family credit, they are allowed to keep the magnificent sum of £15 ; yet the absent or non- resident parent might be paying £100 a week. That is unsatisfactory. There should be a substantial disregard to provide an incentive and to put children first.

I tell the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State that, when the first statement was made on the proposal, I asked a critical question. My gut reaction was that nothing good would come of it. Unfortunately the Opposition were misled, because we actually believed the title of the White Paper--"Children Come First". In reality, children come last. Conservative Members talk about children as a burden on the taxpayer, which they want to transfer to parents. Only people such as they can think of children as a burden. Last Wednesday one of the principles of the Act was enunciated by the Under-Secretary of State :

"The principle that a natural child should have first call on a parent's income".

Just before that, he had said :

"one of the principles of the Act was that parents should, as a priority, be responsible for their own natural children."--[ Official Report , 2 February 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 945.]

So if someone is trying to build a second family, in which there are stepchildren, and trying not to make the same mistakes that he made with his first family, that is just tough. The stepchildren are regarded as "unnatural" children. The Under-Secretary of State talked about "natural" childen and refused to take the cost of parenting stepchildren into account. The concept of deserving and undeserving children is disgusting ; yet that is what the Conservative party is introducing into family life, and it will cause more family breakdowns.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli that this is not a matter of men against women. A woman spoke to me this week who has been driven to such despair that she is threatening suicide, because the Child Support Agency is threatening to deduct at source. She says that she will have no money left to live on. I have her budget here, and it is frugal in the extreme. That woman works six days a week and manages to bring home an income of £146 a week after tax and national insurance. She has been driven to threatening to commit suicide ; she may not actually do that, but she will have a breakdown, and that will be a cost to the state. No wonder there is a big public sector deficit if that is the way affairs of state are managed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) talked about people being driven into a cul-de-sac, but it is worse than that ; it is a trap, which is driving them to desperation--men, women and especially children. Children will see the disturbance and bitterness and they will feel responsible. Any calm that may have been achieved will be disturbed and if no calm has yet been achieved, the Act makes sure that it never will be. It is a disgraceful Act ; indeed, its effect on family life makes it a wicked Act.

I speak as a Member of the House who believes in stable relationships and has a moral appreciation and a stable marriage. Conservative Members, with all their moralising, which is not in any way backed up by their personal

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behaviour, are causing unlimited harm to countless children and other people who simply want to be able to live peaceful lives--

Mr. David Shaw : At the taxpayer's expense.

Mrs. Wise : There we hear it. There is the truth of it. They will not be able to sustain the tax cuts--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order.

7.53 pm

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley) : I thank Ministers and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)--Ministers for the way in which they have looked after my constituency cases, and the hon. Member for Garscadden for having remained calm, sensible and reasonable.

There is no doubt in my mind that children should be the responsibility of their own parents. Everyone with whom I have spoken agrees with that-- although I am not sure what the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) really believes. My speech will necessarily be brief, so people will have to read the rest of the debate and take the arguments about travel-to-work costs, absent fathers being consulted, and so on, from what other people have said.

There is a general acceptance of the Child Support Agency, but it cannot continue as it is. It must be continually reviewed, or it will ultimately damage the young women whom it is meant to help. Make no mistake ; we must realise that there are thousands of women whom it can help. I went to a meeting about child support recently and before I set off a young lady rang me to say, "Don't let them bully you. There are a lot of us who are very glad that the Child Support Agency has turned up."

My three main concerns are flexibility, the clean break, and the mistakes that the CSA has made. The agency sometimes rolls on despite the wishes of the people likely to benefit from it. A lady in my constituency, whom I have known for some time and have helped with other problems, has two children by one marriage and now has another young child. She heard about family credit and applied for it by filling in the forms, but then she found that her former husband was immediately dunned by the CSA. The woman is appalled. She does not want to fall out with her former husband and is willing to give up the family credit. She and her new husband are willing to manage without it, but there is no retrospection and no unpicking the situation. The good relationship that the sons have with their father, who does not live with them any more but sees them every weekend, is now in jeopardy.

Flexibility must be the watchword of any new legislation and any changes that we make to it. But inflexibility is revealed in the following letter written by the CSA in Merseyside to a constituent of mine :

"Further to my telephone conversation today, I am writing to confirm the information that you requested :

(i) Payments that are made monthly, are made monthly in arrears. (

(ii) I asked you to pay £335.75 today for your regular maintenance whilst I clarified the position regarding your arrears.

Also it appears that an error has been made by the Child Support Agency and that the information previously given was incorrect. I am looking into this matter".

As a result, my constituent says that he is now £800 in arrears, and he is bitter. He wrote to me :

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"I still find this very hard to believe that from the point of the CSA, that if things were left as originally planned, I would not be suffering with over £800 in arrears. So I have to suffer from somebody else's negligence. I await your comments".

I shall comment ; I shall send him the Official Report of the debate, advise him to read it all and say that I have written to the Minister. As I have said, Ministers have been most courteous. Finally, I shall deal with clean breaks. What are we to make of the following document from Keighley county court if it does not mean a clean break--not with the children but with the former wife--and that the money can be adjusted later? It is headed "By Consent", and continues by saying that one party is to get 75 per cent. and the other 25 per cent. of the goods and chattels when sold, and the house,

"upon the parties acknowledging that neither has any further claim in respect of the contents of the former matrimonial home." Referring to the child of the family, the document also says that there will be

"periodical payments at the rate of £15.00 per week payable weekly until she shall atttain the age of 17 years Upon compliance with Order 36 Rule 1 the Petitioner be at liberty to register the aforesaid periodical payments order in the appropriate Magistrates Court."

Finally, it says :

"This Order be in full and final satisfaction of all claims the parties hereto have against each other of a capital and/or income nature and the Petitioner's prayer in the Petition for periodical payments for herself be dismissed."

That is a clean break. Or at least, back in 1989 the recipients of that document would have thought that it was a clean break. I can understand that £15 a week. The rates set out in a typically good document from the Library state that payments are made of £15 for children aged under 11, £22 for ages 11 to 15, £26 for ages 16 to 17 and so on. I can understand why the periodic increases should be set by the Child Support Agency, but my constituent says that he has had a clean break from his wife, so he wonders why he should have to pay £44 a week to look after his children. I could continue, but I shall not.

I was appalled in the previous debate at the ways in which the Opposition sneered at my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) when she tried to convey women's point of view. It was a poor display from Opposition Members who have mostly been compassionate. The Government are rightly trying to correct many things which were wrong in the original Bill. Hon. Members have unanimously accepted those elements.

Without being partisan, I feel that there is growing feeling among young women and in the country that the male-dominated unions are urging the Opposition to push the Government to return support for the child from the natural father or the parents to the taxpayer. The union lads are feeling disgruntled. Many of the constituents whom I have met are rightly fed up with the rough justice. If that pressure grows from the male-dominated unions, it will rebound on the Opposition and on the House.

I shall finish as I began. Parents are responsible for their children. To make that possible, the CSA will have to be continually reviewed in a flexible manner in ways in which we have heard already. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends will continue along that path.

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8.1 pm

Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : The Secretary of State said that there are 1.3 million lone parents in the country and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said that 70 per cent. of those are on income support. Of that figure, 53 per cent. are women who were married to the fathers of their children and who were separated or divorced and 32 per cent. were never married to the father. Considering those lone mothers, the fathers and the children together, one can see that the lives of a large percentage of the population will be affected by the Child Support Agency and by the Act. It was absolutely important that the Government got it right and, tragically, they got it so wrong.

The courts had a lot to answer for when they made maintenance assessments which were often low and which varied in different parts of the country. The system for pursuing defaulters was imperfect to say the least and there could have been a time lag if the father refused to appear in court. The system needed altering, but one important aspect that that system had in its favour was that the courts had discretion and they could assess all the valid factors when making a maintenance order.

The CSA has a rigid formula which has caused misery and fear and has wrecked relationships. The more people that it pursues, the more the turbulence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) termed it, will increase. Groups throughout the country are mushrooming in opposition to the agency and the Act, which is unusual.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor) : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Gordon : I have only 10 minutes, so I shall not give way. There is a clear divide in the House between Members who are worried about the enhancement of their electoral chances if the Government are not in a position to give another round of tax cuts and Members who think that the interests of children should come first. I am pleased to say that there are Members on both sides of the House who support the latter. The Act's purpose to facilitate tax cuts is clear because it has been said that only £1 in every £10 will go to the family and that the rest will go to the Treasury. That tax-cutting angle is certainly clear when one takes into account the benefit penalty. I asked the Minister the other day if he would abolish that penalty. He answered that only 160 cases have been referred to the Benefits Agency for reduced benefit and that 20,500 cases where good cause was pleaded had been accepted. The Minister said that that was about 57 per cent. Therefore 43 per cent. of such cases have not been accepted.

Are they to be directed to suffer a benefit penalty? What about all the other mothers who have the threat of a benefit penalty hanging over their heads? No Government who care about children would have a benefit penalty for people on income support who are already below the poverty line so that £8.80 of their income is taken away--leaving less money for food, clothes and all the things that children need. That cannot be right. It is evil.

The collection fee should also be abolished. Mothers who feel that contact with absent fathers is threatening ask the agency to collect the maintenance. Those very fathers

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threaten the mothers when they are asked to pay the collection fee. That fee will engender violence and should be abolished.

Another sore point is that of absent parents who are on income support and who are being pursued by the agency for a measly £2.20 a week. A constituent of mine is a father with care. His ex-wife is mentally ill and has been sectioned innumerable times. He has begged the agency not to force him to sign the form to pursue his wife because he says that it would drive her into hospital from where, drugged up to the hilt, she would phone and upset their child. Even if she receives the order, she would not be able to manage her affairs properly and would never regularly pay that £2.20, but he and the child would lose it. There are many such cases and the section should be abolished.

The Government will not have an income disregard for parents on income support because they think that that would be a disincentive to taking a job. However, they say that a £15 disregard for caring mothers will

"enable them to take a job with considerably lower take-home pay than if there had been no disregard."

Those lucky women will be able to take a low-paid job in addition to looking after their family and doing the housework and can claim £15 a week disregard plus family credit.

Many, perhaps most, will be worse off, because they will get no help with the mortgage interest payments and no more free school meals--with a number of children that is significant. They will lose other passported benefits such as for glasses and for dental treatment and they may get £28, as the Government have promised, for child care. That may pay for looking after an older child after school until the mother comes home, but in my constituency, I believe that the standard rate for having a young child looked after all day is £90 to £100 a week. Mothers who need such care will be in trouble. In addition, on family credit, it takes six months to review a change in circumstances, whereas on income support, changes can be reviewed at once. Many of those mothers will be far worse off.

Fathers who have previously paid the mortgage payments on the home of their first families will have to choose whether to meet their CSA assessments or stop paying the mortgage, and repossessions will result. The Labour party will be monitoring carefully how many mothers and children will be thrown out of their homes because of that dreadful law.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) rightly said, separated fathers object to being called absent parents. One such father came to my surgery and told me that his former wife had moved to the north of England. Once a month, because he wants to keep close contact with his children, he pays a high fare to travel north. He has to rent a hotel room, pay for looking after the children for the weekend and take them out. It is expensive. After the assessment, he will not be able to afford that. He will become an absent father and he does not want to be one. He, his ex- wife and their children will all suffer. That cannot be right.

Separated fathers need a discretionary body, but the Government do not want one. What factors need to be taken into account? What factors require discretion? Travel to work is one. A commuter may pay £2,000 to £3,000 a year, and even when the cost is less, it is a significant part of a person's income, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston said. No account is taken of the cost of travel to see children, the cost of keeping them, the cost of taking them

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out and the cost of providing treats and all the extras that children need, such as sports gear. There is no discretion about that. There is no discretion about the cost of looking after elderly parents. There is no discretion about paying the mortgage for the first family. Voluntary payments are ignored.

When an assessment is made, it applies from the date that the maintenance inquiry form has been sent out. That can create huge arrears. The courts used to take past maintenance paid into account and they gave credit for it. All those matters require a discretionary body which could take them into account. This is real life ; we cannot use an abstract formula to rule people's lives and drive them to despair.

A constituent who was deeply in debt came to see me. He had been honourably paying off his debts, which he had incurred because of illness. He has now been assessed and he will not be able to continue to pay off his debts. He does not know what to do. He said, "Shall I give up my job? What shall I do? I cannot pay my debts and pay the assessments." He was already making voluntary payments and buying equipment and clothes for his child.

Another factor that has not been taken into account is that of families abroad. There are immigrant fathers in my constituency who have children abroad and who send money to them. No discretion is allowed there.

The case for a discretionary body is irrefutable. Such a body could take a family's whole situation into account. In our debate last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that the Government had got it wrong, that the agency should be wound up and that they should start again. I fully agree. We need a system that is responsible and workable and which puts the interests of children first.

8.11 pm

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) : It is clear that the Opposition are speaking with many different voices in the debate. They would have been better advised not to press the matter to a Division tonight. I do not believe that they foresaw the current situation any more than the rest of us did. The reasoned amendment moved by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) on Second Reading of the Child Support Bill contained not a hint of the problems that might arise for absent parents.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Haselhurst : No.

Miss Lestor : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Haselhurst : No.

Opposition criticism then centred mainly on the welfare of the children and on the needs of the caring parent. For most of the time, they looked in the opposite direction. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) seems to be getting quite excited about what I am saying. She came nearer than any other Opposition Member to recognising that there might be some problems of the type with which we have been preoccupied in this debate. By and large, it is clear from the reports of the Committee and Report stages that the Labour party was looking in completely the opposite direction and cannot claim now to have foreseen the present problems. I find it faintly odd that Labour Members now seek to present themselves as

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leading the pack in defence of the absent parent. Although I am critical of the status quo, I shall not be tempted into the Labour Lobby this evening.

I am content to rely on the continuing close review offered by the Government. I note, however, the words in the Government's amendment :

"as further experience is gained".

Considerable evidence is accumulating and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will take good note of it and learn some of the lessons from it.

It would be preferable for this debate to be approached not in a spirit of partisanship, but in a shared acceptance that our scrutiny process at the time of the Child Support Bill was defective. Many of us simply did not anticipate what was to follow the implementation of a reform that we were all happy to support in principle. We may have accepted that it would change people's lives, but we did not realise how drastic the change would be in may cases. If we are honest--one or two of us have been very honest in this debate--some of us thought that the legislation was directed mainly at absconding rather than merely absent parents.

The main problem has been the dramatic nature of the change that we have wrought. Fairly or not, divorced parents have lived their lives on certain assumptions. New marriages have been made and new families have been created. It may be right for Parliament to impose suddenly on those people the judgment that they must bear a heavier responsibility for their natural children, but we must at the same time appreciate the impact that that can have on the life they are now leading and on the people who are part of that life. The CSA has seemed, in many cases, to have no appreciation of the effect that swingeing increases in maintenance payments will have.

The affected people feel that they are being retrospectively censured for doing something that was not in itself wrong--separating from an unhappy marriage and starting all over again. The new demands have been the cause of worry and despair which, in some cases, has turned to tragic extremes. When society's judgment about what parents in this position should pay is being delivered with seemingly impervious bureaucratic zeal by the Child Support Agency, their despair turns to deep resentment. Many of us have felt that deep resentment in our mail bags and through our surgeries over the past few months.

Like many of my hon. Friends, I am very unimpressed by the performance of the CSA. It has been bad in responding to the anxious queries of the clients whom it has contacted. Its response to letters from Members of Parliament has, for the most part, been extremely wooden. If the explanation for the poor performance of the CSA is that it is overwhelmed with work, that is surely a reason for implementing the new requirements more gradually and on a phased basis. Ministers seemed to be under pressure from the Opposition throughout our proceedings on the Child Support Bill to promise that everything would be done with all possible speed. The Opposition are the last to have the right to criticise the Government for some of the consequences.

We have been told that 50 per cent.--I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested that the figure might be more than 50 per cent.--of the cases so far tackled by the agency are those in which no maintenance at all has been paid. If that is the case, why did not the agency confine itself exclusively to such cases to start with? Why did it not get those out of the way before

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moving on to people who had already made settlements, as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) has recently described?

The trouble with the formula is that it gives insufficient regard to the current circumstances of the client. I welcomed very much the changes that we approved last week. They may make life bearable in a number of cases. It is perfectly fair for the Government to say that not until those changes have been implemented can we see the effect on assessments. The mists may then clear, allowing us to gauge the degree of injustice that may remain. On that count, it is right for the Government to say in retaliation to the Opposition that their motion is premature as well as presumptuous.

However, I contend that the formula is not right. Mention has been made of clean breaks, and I emphasise that too. It may be difficult to quantify, but the plain fact is that a property settlement, heavily biased in favour of the parent with care at the expense of ongoing maintenance and accepted as a reasonable deal by a court, affects the resources available to the person who becomes the absent parent. A greater allowance in the formula for housing costs is simply not adequate compensation for some of the housing and financial settlements that were made. My right hon. Friend should not rely on generalities in dismissing that factor altogether from the equation.

I also add emphasis to what has been said about travel-to-work costs. It may be easy from an administrative point of view to want to ignore those costs, but they are creating genuine difficulty in many cases. On the clean break factor and the travel to work factor, I ask my hon. Friends to look at the consequences of making such sweeping exclusions from the formula. In some cases, it is having a devastating and totally unfair effect.

In conclusion, the figures contained in the formula still need some moderation, even if it takes longer to reduce the burden on taxpayers. Taxpayers have borne the burden for many years. We now have arrangements in sight which are intended to reduce that burden, and I do not disagree with that. Surely, the speed with which we reduce the burden must be governed with an eye on the effect on those who will be affected.

There needs to be some further degree of phasing. I want to hear less about administrative convenience in any future discussions of this matter, and more about fairness to all the parties concerned. It cannot be right to have swung the pendulum so violently that we have shifted the misery and deprivation across the spectrum from the parent with care to the absent parent.

All I say to the Government is that we must recognise that this is not yet a closed chapter. We must have a guarantee of more attention to the details which many hon. Members have raised tonight, and a promise of further action if equity so dictates. Surely, all of us want to ensure that we get the balance right in determining how the burden should lie between the various parties involved in these matters.

8.20 pm

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