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Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West) : I think that all hon. Members agree with the principle that parents have the responsibility of looking after their children, certainly in

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my territory of west Belfast, where there is great poverty and deprivation and, for many reasons, there are many lone parents. I shall start by making a point about poverty and the lone parent and her children. The majority of lone parents, certainly in my constituency and in other parts of Northern Ireland and elsewhere, experience various degrees of poverty. Their children require a coherent strategy of family support covering social security and child care and a positive employment strategy, rather than an approach that is characterised by a single Act solution, as in the Child Support Act 1991.

Punitive measures have been referred to a number of times. Such measures for achieving compliance with the operations of the Child Support Agency will risk further disadvantaging children in lone-parent families who rely on benefit, as well as the second families of absent parents. As to family violence, it is important to appreciate that theemphasis placed on parents to provide information about the identification and tracing of liable parents fails to recognise that some mothers have good reasons for refusing to name an absent father.

I make no apology for referring directly to my constituency of west Belfast where, no matter what indications of deprivation are used--whether it is the Jarman index of social deprivation or social class distribution--there is more deprivation per 1,000 of the population than anywhere else on these islands. I should point out that in, west Belfast, there are more people in prison per 1,000 of the population than anywhere else on these islands. Taking those points together, one realises that the question of the lone parent is a major one.

As I said, the emphasis on parental responsibility is welcome. Many hon. Members have put great emphasis on that. Unfortunately, most fathers are not responsible for the children when parents separate. The people who must be looked after are the children. The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) made many of those points earlier and I congratulate her on an excellent speech.

Family breakdowns, terms of maintenance and related child care disputes are complex and stressful. Families in that position need a co-ordinated package of support services. It must therefore be clear that detailed monitoring of the implementation of the Act is fundamental in assessing whether the objectives of decreasing child poverty and increasing parental responsibility are achieved. Inclusion of the personal allowance for the caring parent in the maintenance bill conflicts with the recent adoption of divorce legislation which promotes a clean break between partners, and may be strongly resented by caring parents and absent parents alike. I appreciate the fact that that point has been covered by a number of hon. Members.

Another point is that the provision for children with disabilities and special needs requires additional costs. I am not convinced that that aspect was covered adequately in the legislation. What we need is a comprehensive child care policy--that is what should be developed. The Child Support Agency should not undertake any child support activities on behalf of a family without the formal authorisation of at least one of the parents. Parents should also have the right to appeal against a proposed maintenance assessment before its implementation. Finally, there should be a continuing review of child care and child support.

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8.25 pm

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : I oppose the Opposition's motion because I believe that they are morally wrong. They are supporting the continuance of anti-social behaviour and seeking to undermine the position of 1 million single mothers. They are arguing that pensioners and others on low incomes should pay more for the children of absent fathers. That is wrong.

During Prime Minister's questions today, the Leader of the Opposition showed his skills as a lawyer. Three years ago, he used his skills as a lawyer to support the Child Support Bill and the Child Support Agency. Today, he used his skills to undermine the Act and the 5,000 staff in the Child Support Agency. Having made a tough decision, he now finds that he cannot live with it and seeks to run away from it. That is not acceptable.

The Child Support Act is, first and foremost, about children. It is concerned with the priority of parents in relation to their children. If people have children, they must make up their minds whether they will be responsible for them, or try to pass them over to other people. It is surprising and sad that the low priority some absent parents give the first family is often seen in our constituency surgeries. It is sad that not enough attention is paid to the first family by absent parents in their second family.

Recently, I was extremely saddened by one case that came to my office whereby the second family showed in their budget that they put a higher priority on dog food than on the child in the first family. I was staggered that dog food appeared in the long list of items of expenditure that were deemed to be a higher priority than the child in the first family. That is not acceptable. We cannot expect the child in the first family to go without so that the dog in the second family can be properly fed.

The old system was totally unfair. It was inconsistent and the administration often broke down. In our constituency surgeries, we saw many cases where that happened. I have seen court assessments for £15 a week or less. They are totally unacceptable. Such assessments meant that pensioners and others on low incomes had to pay for the children, and the absent fathers were simply not paying.

We are concerned not just with taxpayers but with the children of taxpayers. We must make sure that they have equality of treatment and that those children in a one-family situation do not suffer so that absent fathers can have two or more families. Priority must be given to those families who are united and who intend to stay together, otherwise many more families will break up.

The work of the CSA and what is contained in the Act should be supported. I wish to make a few comments about the CSA's work. I have met the local staff in my constituency, and they are courteous, knowledgeable, and well trained. They deserve the support of hon. Members, and it is sad that not enough has been said in their support today.

I should also like to pay tribute to those who work in the Hastings regional office. I took up a case on Christmas eve with the Hastings regional office on behalf of a constituent who was concerned about his assessment. The office staff devoted considerable time to the case. They were helpful and efficient, and they wanted to ensure that they were correct in dealing with the case. I believe that that was very much in their favour.

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Dr. Spink : I have had exactly the same experience with the Hastings office and the staff were very helpful.

Mr. Shaw : My hon. Friend confirms the hard work which is put in by the CSA. With colleagues on the Social Security Select Committee, I interviewed Ros Hepplewhite, the chief executive of the CSA. I was left with the impression that she was knowledgeable and sincere, and that she was an effective and capable manager who was concerned with doing a good job. She and her colleagues should be congratulated on the good job that they are doing on behalf of the nation's children and on behalf of the many women who are benefiting by receiving maintenance in proper amounts for the first time.

There was all-party support on the Committee for the principle of the Act, and also for the vast bulk of the operations of the CSA. There was support for the way in which the Government had implemented the Act. It has been a difficult Act to bring into being because it requires people to pay, including many people who have not being paying enough and many who have beeen been evading payments. Consequently, the Act was never likely to be popular with everybody. It is the duty of hon. Members to be prepared to stand up and explain to people why they have to pay more. We have had to do that to many taxpayers and to absent fathers. We cannot single absent fathers out and give them special protection from paying more, and then say to our taxpayers that they have to pay more in VAT or more in taxation generally. The Committee's investigations showed that the Act was operating in a fair and balanced manner, but the problem unquestionably was that it was tough on some fathers who had not planned their budgets. Those fathers had married for the second time and had not properly worked out their finances.

Clearly, that is not something for which either Parliament or the Government can take the blame. If an absent father does not budget properly for his second household, that father somehow has to re-budget, as everybody else does. All our pensioners will suffer if they have to receive less in their pensions to support absent fathers.

The Government have adopted many of the Committee's recommendations, and they have shown that they are capable of being flexible in relation to the Act. They have also shown courage in realising that there is a point where one must stand up and be counted. The Opposition will not do that. They have gone weak at the knees at the thought of having to stand up for something. That shows that they will be unfit to govern this country, if they are ever in a position to do so.

Clean breaks do not adequately take into account the distribution of capital. Clean breaks do not look at deferred pensions, which some absent fathers have, and wives often come off second best in them. Such settlements are about capital and its distribution, but I do not believe-- nor did the Committee--that capital in a marriage can be worked out to the extent that is necessary to get a fair settlement. Consequently, there would be enormously complicated calculations if the Government adopted any arrangements to take into account clean breaks on capital. The CSA would not be qualified to work out those calculations. Even the Inland Revenue finds it difficult to assess capital and valuation, and the CSA is not in a position to take on that job.

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The appeals procedure for which the Opposition ask would be unique because it would be based, so they say, on fairness. I am aware of no other appeals procedure in government or in administration which is based on fairness. The Inland Revenue appeals procedure is based on the law, not on fairness. The social security appeals procedure is based on law, not on fairness. We have to accept that the law sometimes operates unfairly and, until Parliament has the opportunity of reviewing and changing the law, all appeals procedures must be based on law. It is not possible to have an appeals procedure in any other way.

Hon. Members have a chance in the Lobby tonight to show whether they support fair payments--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order.

8.35 pm

Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen) : The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) made a characteristically robust speech, but he was somewhat unfair about the motion and the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). Given the hon. Gentleman's small majority in Dover, it might also be regarded as a somewhat reckless speech.

As a member of the Select Committee, I welcomed the Government's decision to accept the recommendations which allowed absent parents to keep more of their income. I believe that that addresses the real problems which absent parents have been experiencing.

The Government could have gone further in their response to other issues-- particularly asking absent parents to pay retrospectively from the moment that the assessment form is sent to them. The Government should carefully consider the recommendations by the Committee that the payment should be made from the time the assessment is made after the form is sent back to the CSA.

The CSA has been criticised by hon. Members today, and the Committee did so previously, for the way in which it has been working. It has been suggested that the CSA is swamped with work. Hopefully, further changes might be made to the formula which will affect the targets the CSA has been set and the way in which it manages its work. We need information about how the CSA has been affected, and what assistance will be given to the staff to meet the changes.

I turn to one area which has not been mentioned in the debate. In the letters which I have received from constituents, and from people from all over the country--as a Committee member, I have been sent letters from different groups--what has come across to me is the bitterness, hurt and anger which people are feeling about the work of the CSA.

I have been somewhat surprised to hear hon. Members say today that they have been surprised at that reaction. Surely, if the Government set out with the task of requiring parents to take financial responsibility for their children, there is bound to be such a reaction. We should have known that that was going to happen and been prepared for it. Perhaps we should have taken more seriously the idea of phasing in. We should have thought about it.

What has happened demonstrates to me a certain myopia in the way that we have dealt with families and family issues in social policy. We have sought to make

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divorce easier and more civilised by making it easier to arrive at. We have enabled couples to divorce in a way that allows them to maintain a relationship with their children and, necessarily, with their former partner. We have not sufficiently taken into account the effects of all that on children.

Anyone who saw the "Panorama" programme on Monday night could not fail to be impressed by the anguish that had been caused to children. Parents believed that they were doing the right thing and helping their children by separating and ending an unhappy marriage. But they caused anguish to their children which the children did not express because they were unable to do so, given their relationship with their parents.

Perhaps the Government should take some of the taxpayers' money that we have been talking about--the rights of the taxpayer are recognised by Opposition Members, too--and use it to help families to stay together. If they used it to fund research into the effects on children of the child support policy, other policies, long-term unemployment, divorce, separation and becoming members of new families, we could start to see a real return from the work of the Child Support Agency.

We would not simply be in defensive mode, trying to justify the work of the agency. The agency is hurting people. There is real hurt out there. Genuine hurt is being expressed to all of us, if we are honest about what people are saying to us. If we used some of the money in the way that I have suggested, we could make something positive come out of the experiences of the past few months. 8.41 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) : I agreed with the tone and substance of the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy). The problem that we are grappling with today is how we frame arrangements for divorce. We are rightly asking parents to take responsibility for their children. Often, those parents have entered into financial arrangements or commitments to a second family on the basis of ground rules that Parliament has now altered dramatically.

My concern is not so much for families who divorce now, after the Child Support Agency has come into operation. My concern is the extent to which we can and should mitigate the dramatic effects that the legislation is having on families who, under previous arrangements, made commitments in good faith for themselves, their second partner and their second family.

I found it difficult to take seriously some of the comments made by some Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon), who is no longer in her place, wanted to see the whole system swept away. She condemned any idea that there was merit in using revenue from the Child Support Agency to offset benefit payments provided by taxpayers.

The point about tax was well made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when he pointed out that maintenance provides the parent with care with a portable income. It enables the parent with care to take employment, without the risk of benefit automatically being withdrawn, leaving her no better off than before. Certainly, women have come to my surgery since the general election to complain to me that, under the previous

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arrangements, it was impossible for them to take a job, because they would have been no better off in employment than remaining on income support.

Nor should we dismiss the idea that it is important to put money back into the Treasury. I believe that about £4.9 billion is spent by the taxpayer on income-related benefits for single-parent families. That is roughly equivalent to half the total annual spending of the Department for Education. It is not a small sum.

To be fair to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), to his credit he has never shied away from the fact that any arrangements that we may make to mitigate the impact of the Child Support Act 1991 on the absent parent will mean either that less money goes to the parent with care or less accrues to the Treasury, with consequences for Government spending or taxation in the broader sense.

Some Opposition Back-Bench Members have neglected the extent to which the old system was inadequate. It was arbitrary. Decisions were inconsistent. Far too many parents with care of children were left without any support.

My right hon. Friend gave the statistics. He said that 90 per cent. of CSA cases involved children whose parents were so poor that they were on benefit. In two thirds of cases in the first year, no maintenance whatever had been paid. Three quarters of lone parents receive no regular maintenance whatever. That is evidence that reform was urgently needed.

I am afraid that I am unpersuaded by the notion that a review process is the way in which to address the matter. If an independent review body is to meet the expectations of the people who complain about the impact of the CSA, it will have to go further than the four or five constituency cases to which my hon. Friend for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) referred in an intervention. Then we will be into a discussion of what should be the criteria for a review. Either we would risk returning to a system of pure discretion, with arbitrary and inconsistent decisions, or we would have to list the criteria very clearly.

The hon. Member for Garscadden gave us some illustrations of the type of rules that might apply in such a review procedure. I am afraid that they sounded as if they were couched in general terms that would give rise to demand for an additional tier of appeal beyond appeal at first instance, or to attempts to seek judicial review of a decision on the grounds that the independent reviewer had failed to interpret the rules properly in the specific case before him.

An area in which we could take further action, following the welcome changes announced by my hon. Friend the Minister last week, is in some of the details of the formula. The arguments about stepchildren have been well aired in the Chamber. I simply refer my hon. Friend the Minister to the case of one couple in my constituency who are both now in their second marriage.

The man is being asked by the CSA to make a much higher maintenance payment for the children of his first marriage, who live with his ex-wife. His stepchildren--the children of his second wife--receive virtually nothing from his second wife's ex-husband, because he is unemployed and receiving benefit. When there is that discrepancy in payments, it makes for neither trust and support for the arrangements that Parliament has put in place nor for healthy family relationships for any of the couples or parents.

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Travel-to-work costs have been mentioned by several of my hon. Friends. Certainly the cost of travelling from Aylesbury to London is not small. I would not expect the Government to enter an open- ended commitment to pay any amount of travel-to-work costs of an absent parent for all time, but I wonder whether they should consider a time- limited or cash-limited arrangement to enable people to make the transition.

Even with the 18-month transitional period announced last week, there is no doubt that the new arrangements put in place by the CSA can make life extremely difficult for absent parents who have entered into financial and family commitments on the basis of previous rules.

On the operation of the Child Support Agency, when I have phoned the parliamentary desk at the Dudley regional office my queries have been answered courteously and efficiently. However, I am concerned for those of my constituents who have not had such a fortunate experience. I have been told of forms lost, letters going without response and telephones left apparently permanently engaged. However, the hon. Member for Broadgreen alluded to the worst problem--the great gap in time which so often elapses between a request for a new assessment being made to the CSA and that assessment being served on the absent parent. As a result, the parent is faced all at once with arrears, which may run into many hundreds of pounds, with no opportunity to make provision for the payment. My right hon. and hon. Friends should therefore consult the chief executive of the Child Support Agency to find out how those administrative and managerial problems can be overcome. That task, as well as possible further changes to the formula, needs to be tackled, if the agency and the principles that underlie the Child Support Act 1991 are to win the public support that they deserve.

8.50 pm

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : Although it is tempting, because of the time factor I will not respond to some of the remarks made by Conservative Members. Suffice it to say that I find that the arrogance of some of their remarks--especially those of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw)--does little to enhance the democratic processes. We are trying to resolve a difficult problem which, as constituency Members of Parliament, we all face.

It is also easy to think that we are debating the abolition of the Child Support Agency, when we are trying to resolve the problems that have confronted certain people and to consider how they affect children. Sometimes, one would think from hon. Members' comments--especially those of Conservative Members--that children are inanimate objects, who can be moved around like pieces of furniture. We are talking about children--the children of first marriages, second marriages and stepchildren. We are also talking about the hurt and concern that has been caused not only to children but to all the other family members.

There has been an element of hypocrisy in the debate. Conservative Members say that they care about children, when in reality they are talking about saving money. They talk about the rights and responsibilities of taxpayers, but as a taxpayer who does not have children I am happy to pay my taxes for their benefit. I think that they are a greater

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priority than spending money on Trident. Those are the sort of political priorities that we are here to decide, and hon. Members would be well advised to heed them.

My colleagues and I on the nationalist Benches will support the Opposition motion. The Minister and the Secretary of State should realise that we are being asked to absorb a series of complex changes in the working of the agency. Announcements were made before Christmas, and the officers with whom I have had to deal were not sure how and when they were supposed to implement the changes. Another series of changes was announced last week and today, and the Secretary of State said in his opening speech that thousands of reassessment letters would be sent out during the next two or three weeks. That will place the agencies and their representatives under a huge amount of stress and it also places continuing stress on the parents involved. Whenever a new letter arrives, they do not know whether it is good, bad or indifferent news, or whether they will face yet another problematic form, which they have to fill in to resolve the situation. There should be a clear time scale for implementation of the changes. Our constituents should be given that reassurance.

I have had to deal with a substantial number of cases in my area. Other hon. Members have referred to the fact that they represent constituencies where armed forces personnel live. There are two Royal Air Forces bases in Moray--RAF Lossie and RAF Kinloss--which are well recognised and respected. The bulk of the cases that I have had to deal with have involved people from the bases. They seem to be readily identifiable, and have already been paying maintenance for their children from a first marriage or previous relationship, yet they seem to be the first people to be landed with a reassessment. They are also not allowed to get into debt.

At my surgery on Friday, I learned of a flight lieutenant who has taken early retirement from the Air Force because of debts that he could not meet, caused by his reassessment. As a result, he will lose some of his pension rights. There is a strong argument for reviewing how we deal with the people we expect to go into any conflict on our behalf, if that is how we treat them.

The formula lacks flexibility. The Secretary of State seems to be arguing for a rigid formula, but when one is dealing with families and children, we cannot have that rigidity of rule. We need flexibility.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) would agree, given his legal training, that we need the sort of attitude that has been tried and tested in the sheriff courts of Scotland for centuries, where decisions on aliment and maintenance were based on very sensible grounds. The men in those courts listened and understood the reality of life. They knew all about hard knocks, and ensured that all aspects of people's lives were taken into account before decisions were reached.

I must emphasise that the retrospective aspect of the legislation is intolerable, as other hon. Members have said. Also, in a rural constituency such as I represent, travel-to-work payments are important, and I ask for discretion on that matter.

The Secretary of State did not understand my argument earlier. Perhaps I did not express it effectively. From my work with one of the legal companies in my constituency,

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I know of a girl who is seeking to raise a paternity suit in the Scottish courts. She has been denied access to legal aid because, until she proclaims the name of the child's father to the Child Support Agency, the legal aid forms cannot be signed.

That role is not suitable for the CSA. Surely it should be restricted to the legal profession. I shall send the papers to the Secretary of State and the Minister, as the matter concerns me greatly. I may have come across only one such case, but I am sure that other hon. Members will have encountered similar ones. It is very difficult for these young women to decide to raise paternity suits. Such a course is not undertaken lightly ; it requires courage, especially in small communities where people tend to know a great deal about each other's business.

I should like to refer now to a matter about which I wrote to the Secretary of State this week. A couple from my constituency who separated last year decided to reconcile. In such a situation, will money be reclaimed from the wife if she received income support during her husband's absence? Will there be any exchange, or will the separation be deemed never to have occurred? A couple trying to get together again should not have to face such a debt. This is an unusual aspect of the situation, but it is an important one as people do try to work out their differences.

The Secretary of State has said that the chief executive of the Child Support Agency did not receive performance-related pay. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of evidence that was taken on 2 November 1993. On that occasion, Mrs. Hepplewhite made it quite clear that performance-related pay was involved. It was stated that clear targets had been set, and that if they were not reached, there would be an alteration in pay structure.

I have it in black and white. This is one aspect of the whole affair that our constituents find difficult to accept. They feel that they are being penalised in order to pay someone else. What we are asking for, in the name of all humanity, is not performance-related pay for executives but flexibility and a humanitarian attitude towards our constituents and their families.

9 pm

Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West) : I welcome in particular the last part of the amendment, which indicates that the Government will

"keep the arrangements under continuing close review as further experience is gained."

Like many other hon. Members, I am sure, I shall gain further experience of the Child Support Agency at the constituency surgery tomorrow night. When one is confronted with such cases one never knows what problem is going to arise.

During the debate on 2 February, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), referring to constituents rather than to himself--as I am doing--said :

"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."--[ Official Report,

2 February 1994 ; Vol 236, c. 968.]

The Child Support Agency ought to make much better use of the telephone when contacting fathers about their assessments. If it wonders what sort of standard it should aim at, let me suggest one. My constituents and I received

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nothing but help from the disability living allowance telephone unit in Blackpool when we encountered difficulties with the introduction of that allowance. If the CSA aims at such a standard, progress will be made.

However, it must phone at sensible times. It is obvious that people who go out to work should be called when they have returned home. That will mean evening calls. My experience is that when, occasionally, people manage to get through to the CSA by telephone, problems can be solved, but the agency must demonstrate flexibility and sensitivity.

I agree with those hon. Members who have said that they do not like the term "absent parent". It is a misleading and upsetting term. On 2 February 1994 my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State--my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt)--said : "There can be no clean break between a parent and his children."--[ Official Report, 2 February 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 943.]

It would be much better to refer to the parent without custody. As I have said, the amendment refers to the Government's intention to undertake a close review as further experience is gained. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will remember that many fathers not only are in touch with their children but contribute over and above maintenance payments. Sometimes they take the children on holiday or buy them clothes and presents. In other words, there is no clean break. These people are making an additional contribution towards the well-being of their children.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the question of travel-to-work costs. As a Member from the south-east, I want to emphasise this problem. Some system of relief ought to be built in. Of course, such relief would be time- limited, as children get older and maintenance changes accordingly. If, as I suspect, the Child Support Agency is anxious about how this might be worked out, let me suggest that there is a case for looking at the tax system to see whether it can be used to provide some relief in respect of travel-to-work costs. Some people have a company car or receive a mileage allowance for using their own car or have their British Rail season ticket paid for by the firm. Anyone who does not receive such help could be granted a temporary adjustment in his income tax code.

It cannot be beyond the wit of the Government to use the tax system to provide a temporary help to people who want to stay in work but find, as a result of their assessment, that their travel-to-work costs swallow even more of their taxed income so that they face difficulty in staying in work. Throughout the debate, the Government have endlessly emphasised that they want as many people as possible to stay in work or get back to work. Will they use the tax system to help people pay their travel-to-work costs?

People are understandably worried about what will happen if their income suddenly drops. Will their assessment be changed quickly or will they be pursued immediately on the basis of their previous income? The Child Support Agency sometimes makes the mistake of not differentiating between salary and earnings. Earnings fluctuate and some bonuses are paid not monthly but annually, if one is lucky. I had a dreadful job trying to get it across to the Child Support Agency that a constituent received an annual bonus if he was lucky and that a

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monthly bonus was not built into his earnings. The agency must take the greatest care to differentiate between straight wages and earnings.

Another problem experienced by constituents arises when the father can genuinely no longer pay because he has lost his job or been sacked. In that case, will the mother be able to return to benefit quickly and without difficulty? That problem needs attention. I welcome the Government's assurance that details of the second wife's income will not be passed to the first wife where it is irrelevant to an assessment. I hope that there will be more publicity on that, because it is one of the greatest causes of complaint. We should stress and explain to people that, if the second wife has a very low income or no income whatever, taking it into account for an assessment means that her husband will pay less. People do not mind giving intimate details of their financial affairs if it means that they pay less.

In the previous debate on this subject, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) spoke of the welcome changes which the Government are introducing. He said :

"However, I thought it essential to introduce the changes as soon as feasible, even if that may cause some difficulties and delays to the normal day-to-day business of the agency."--[ Official Report, 2 February 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 947.]

That sounds a little ominous. It is a political decision to introduce more phasing in and alter assessments. Those changes are welcome and I support them, but I am worried about

"delays to the normal day-to-day business of the agency" because that might mean further delays for people who are in the middle of dealing with the agency.

I appeal to the Government to make the Child Support Agency more sensitive, courteous and customer friendly. They have made political decisions in the right direction and assured us that further changes will be made in the light of experience. I appreciate the fact that they do not do the day-to- day administration. It is done by the Child Support Agency. I hope that the agency will strive for better standards, because those are vital.

9.7 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham) : While many of my constituents would put out the flag if they heard that the Child Support Agency was to be consigned to the scrap heap, I hope that we can, by less drastic means, adapt the working of the agency to the mutual benefit of absent parents and parents with care. I hope that we can reassure parents that the agency can do its job without striking fear into the hearts of people who are paying three and sometimes four times what they were paying under a court agreement. We should also send the message that we are listening to their concerns and are prepared to take action.

Reassurance can only come from a change to the fundamental workings of the agency itself. We all agree that an absent parent must fulfil a financial obligation to his children. The CSA can never function fairly unless that is its only objective. The powers of the CSA go far beyond that basic principle. In many cases, the formula has given rise to such huge increases in maintenance agreements that it is hard to believe that the assessment was based on the needs of the child. Indeed, we have all heard of the classic case of the absent parent who can no longer afford to visit his children because of increased maintenance payments.

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Under the present system, many absent parents are being asked to increase maintenance payments substantially, with next to no consideration being given to their financial obligations towards any children that they have by a subsequent marriage. When a maintenance settlement previously agreed in court between parents is trebled, or sometimes quadrupled, can it really be said that it is for the sake of child maintenance? If a perfectly reasonable court settlement is destroyed by increasing the maintenance payments, in many cases far beyond the amount that the individual can afford to pay, such action will act against the interests of the child.

Even after the recent changes, the scheme will disproportionately benefit the wealthiest parents. The poorest absent parents will pay an additional 85p in maintenance for every extra £1 of income. Those whose disposable incomes allow them to meet the basic requirement will pay an extra 50p, while the wealthiest absent parents will pay only a further 25p maximum, and less if they have fewer children. If the child support scheme is to succeed, it must be fair to all parents. How else can it be said that it protects the interests of the child?

I believe that the formula for maintenance assessment is designed specifically so that the maximum amoung of money is extracted from the absent parent. That is the root of the problem. If the formula is to remain unchanged, at the very least the public should be given the right of appeal to the agency for a review of the assessment, although I am sure that we would all have preferred to see a fairer system in the first place. All too often, there is no justification for the agency's involvement. I refer, for example, to a couple who made an informal mutually acceptable and long- standing financial agreement based on the needs of the child. Why interfere in such cases? What can the agency achieve by its involvement that has not been achieved already by the parents?

One case came to my attention of a woman who has had an informal agreement with her ex-husband for many years and received money from him every month on the same day without fail. The CSA came along--not at her request--and upped his maintenance payment. She readily admits that she did not need the increase. The result of that interference was that the ex-husband now pays the money direct to the CSA, which is supposed to pass it on to her within a few days. She has not once yet received her money on the appointed day. When she telephones the CSA to complain about that, it can never tell her when she will receive the money. The reason that the agency give is that the cheque may be in one, two or three different places.

Who benefits from that? The absent parent who pays more does not ; nor does the parent with care who does not receive the maintenance on time, although the CSA has received it on time. Quite clearly, the interests of the child are not the motivating factor in the CSA's involvement in such a case. Why does it need to be involved in a mutually successful arrangement? I hope that the Secretary of State can explain who benefits from that and perhaps clarify whether it is to prevent child poverty or simply to raise money for the Treasury as a form of indirect tax.

I would dearly like to see the CSA doing what we were told that it would do --chase absent parents who pay no maintenance or pay it at inadequate levels. Like my colleagues, I have cases in my constituency where people

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