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Column 536are vowing to leave work rather than work to pay such huge increases and be left with just a pittance. Recently, a gentleman wrote to me :
"I have no objection to paying sensible, affordable maintenance but the CSA has left me financially worse off working than being on benefits I would prefer to work but I am not stupid and if the CSA make it easier to be unemployed, that then is my obvious option." The issue of clean break settlements has been widely discussed, and rightly so : it is a bone of contention that will not go away. For years, the courts have encouraged property transfer as part of a comprehensive divorce settlement ; any parent who walked away from the marital home with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes he or she was wearing has a right to feel aggrieved when told that that now means nothing at all--which is fundamentally wrong.
A gentleman who came to see me recently had been party to a once-and-for- all break. He told me that he had left the marital home with a cut-glass vase that his mother had given him for his birthday, and nothing else. He was paying £100 a month in maintenance for his children. The CSA became involved. Now he has to pay £400 a month. He feels aggrieved, and no wonder.
Many absent parents simply cannot afford to pay what is asked of them. I examined the weekly budget of one family in which a parent had remarried, had one stepchild and was responsible for the maintenance of a child from a previous relationship. That parent could pay his maintenance only by ceasing to travel to see his son, and by paying for no more school trips, clothes, holidays, pocket money and telephone calls : those were the only voluntary elements of his budget. That gentleman lives in my constituency, in Durham ; his child lives on the Isle of Wight. That is why I mentioned the travelling.
I believe that the Government misled us by suggesting that the agency's purpose was to pursue maintenance dodgers. It exists simply to reduce social security costs. It is not too late to reassess the workings of the agency, and to refine them--in short, to enable it to carry out what I was led to believe was its purpose : securing maintenance payments for children who would otherwise receive nothing, or next to nothing.
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : There is plainly an enormous amount of common ground on the assertion that the problems we have encountered with the CSA stem not from the principles of the Child Support Act--which are fundamentally sound, and generally approved of--but from the consequential regulations and administrative provisions that the House empowered Ministers to put into practical effect.
We--by which I mean hon. Members on both sides of the House, including busy Ministers : they have constituents too--trusted, perhaps too readily, that a measure containing so much justice in principle would be justly administered from the outset, and would be seen to be so. The Child Support Agency was introduced into an extremely sensitive and emotionally charged area. I remember the matrimonial cases with which I dealt during my practice at the Bar in the early 1970s ; nothing much has changed since then. The bitterness, anger and resentments that are inseparable from divorce proceedings--particu-
Column 537larly where children are concerned--are all too frequently of a harrowing magnitude that no one could fully understand without experiencing or witnessing them.
The CSA set out to unpick many of the arrangements that had been so carefully constructed, and so often finally settled after months--even years--of recrimination and sorrow. That required very sensitive handling. Unfortunately, the whole thing got off to a poor start owing to bad publicity based on, for instance, a leaked report of priorities, and the reporting of examples that, by comparison, almost rehabilitated Shylock.
Initially, I had a sense that my serious concerns on behalf of some constituents with genuine grievances were not being dealt with sympathetically enough. Since then, Ministers and the CSA itself have been working fast to improve matters--to publicise the true facts effectively, and to persuade us, our constituents and the media of those facts. Those moves include the welcome concessions on which we voted last week, which will help matters significantly when they are properly understood. That is a crucial condition.
I do not intend to go into individual constituents' cases. I shall continue to take them up by letter and by personal meetings with my hon. and right hon. Friends the Ministers most directly concerned. My main purpose today is to mark my continuing concern about certain features of the operation of the agency and of the rules and regulations which apply. I reinforce what the Government amendment makes clear : that the present arrangements will be kept under continuing close review. Of course they must be.
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme) : I feel as though I have become the Marjorie Proops of the House of Commons as I have brought into the Chamber a pile of letters--more than a foot high--that have been sent to me from all parts of the country about the so-called Child Support Act. Those letters express the anger, bitterness and despair that many men, women and children and their families feel about how the Act is working.
I received one letter this morning ; it is the last one on the pile. It says :
"As a person who has always supported my children and has done so not because it was the law but because I take pride in my duty as an absent parent, I now find myself unable to comply with the unrealistic demands of the CSA formula and unable not to comply with the CSA demands for fear of criminal prosecution this crippling increase, implemented in a haste destroyed mine and my partner's life we are not unwilling to pay we are unable.".
When we examine any legislation, we should consider whether we support the principle and the way it is to be put into practice and agree that the result is what was intended. Each letter supports the principle of parents maintaining their children. Far from wanting to abandon their children, there is an overwhelming feeling of wanting to maintain contact.
The Minister should see some of the letters that I have received from Families Need Fathers to know how desperately fathers battle against women who use children to spite their former partners and deny them access, and how they struggle to maintain contact. Even where there is no conflict, it is mostly men who travel many miles to reassure their children that they still love and care for them. So there is no disagreement about the principle of the Act, but there is a huge tide of feeling about how it is being put into practice.
Column 538Many of the letters speak of clean break settlements under the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings act 1984 which had been agreed in courts and not discouraged by the Government at the time. How can the Government now turn that Act on its head and say to absent fathers, "You may have given up your home and its contents and given a lump sum to your wife as well as paying some maintenance to the child. You may have taken out a large mortgage and bought a car on hire purchase, which is essential for your work, with any money you had left. You may have other purchase agreements and responsibilities, but we shall ignore your commitments and previous court settlements with the statement that your first responsibility must be to maintain your child." What do the Government consider such a man had been doing under the court procedure?
The inflexibility of the formula is damaging the lives of far too many people. The Government say that the vast majority of those approached so far have never paid maintenance. That is good, but what about the remainder, the responsible parents who have been paying maintenance, who have taken over family debts and who are now faced with long-term commitments which they can no longer meet? They may have long-term commitments to new families or other children. Do they have no rights?
Are those responsible, caring men and women to be threatened and treated in a way which reduces them to pleading desperately in those letters, "I cannot pay this amount. Please can someone help me?" When did it become right to act arrogantly, without even a spark of decency or understanding, when dealing with families and children? What of the children? Not very much has been said about the children by Conservative Members, but have the Government no understanding of the strain that divorce and family break-up cause to children? Do they not understand the need of children to know that both parents love and want them? Does the standard formula that produces predictable and realistic amounts--as the Child Support Agency describes its formula--take into account the warmth and reassurance that children need to grow and the contact that they need with both parents? As many of the letters show, contact between parents and the children does not enter the calculations of the Child Support Agency.
Is that what the Child Support Act 1991 was intended to do? Can we not find a halfway house, another way--something that takes the children's feelings into account? Is there not some other way of assessing maintenance which considers children and their needs--not the need for money, but for care, for contact and for their feeling and the way in which they wish to grow to be taken into account? I would not wish the decision to be made by courts again, for they, too, failed miserably in dealing with maintenance payments. The principle of the Act is right. The inflexibility of the formula is wrong. Surely an Act with a formula that puts so many decent people into debt and drives them to despair, causing them to write letters in such vast numbers to me, cannot be what was intended.
The Minister must reconsider immediately and amend this flawed and unsatisfactory Act.
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Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : Since time immemorial, women have been left holding the baby in poverty and it has taken until 1993 and the present Government to put the matter right. If the teeth of the Act are to be drawn, we shall return to the situation of relatively rich father and relatively poor mother, and we do not wish to do that.
There has been a black hole in much of the debate--one that was referred to by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) in his opening remarks, in which he said, blatantly, that the majority of people in the House were in favour of major changes. That is simply because the hon. Members who have been able to speak--or perhaps have come to speak--have largely spoken for an articulate minority of men who have sat down and written to us or come to our constituency surgeries. However, I shall speak for the great number of women--the silent women--who benefit from the reforms and are grateful for them.
I shall also speak for another silent minority in the country, those who pay for the reforms. I have received a letter from a pensioner who says :
"As a pensioner, no State benefits, I was delighted to hear" that the Government have at last decided to ensure that people who have children do not expect them to be supported by
"single people, pensioners and childless couples".
She says that she has saved and paid for her pension all her life and that she
"should not be expected to help men shirk their responsibilities." That is another silent group of people that we need to take into account before we start speaking about changing the Act.
It is interesting that in the debate all that we have heard about is men not wanting to part with more money for the children of their first marriage. That has been the basic theme. We have heard about the little treats that they give children--the extra pair of trainers, the sweeties, the trip to the zoo, the holiday. Why should they not pay? They should pay a proper amount so that their children do not have to wait for daddy to turn up and give them a few crumbs from his income. That is not how we should expect people to behave. Reference has been made to the way in which the Child Support Agency operates. I am glad that some of my colleagues complimented the agency because every case that I have brought to its attention has been handled courteously, promptly and kindly. I have nothing but good to say about the job that Ms Hepplewhite is trying to do under new legislation which is extremely contentious.
I am sure that all hon. Members will admit that most complaints have come from men. It is almost axiomatic that it is articulate, middle-class men-- or sometimes their second wives--who are writing to us because it is the better-off fathers who are expected to pay more. By definition, poorer fathers are not expected to pay, if they are expected to pay anything at all. Their second family responsibilities are taken into account before the payments for their first families are calculated, and stepchildren are included in the calculation. There must be no suggestion that the Government reverse the changes that have been introduced. The
Column 540changes were greatly needed and were welcomed by all the women to whom I have spoken. I have only one further suggestion to make to the Government.
The women to whom I speak are grateful for the help that the Government are giving, but, in addition to keeping the extra payments, they would like to be able to go out to work and earn a little more. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to talk to the Treasury team about giving these women a little more support. They do not want to be dependent on state benefits or have to hold out their hand for a little extra from the father of their children. They want to be independent and the Government are helping them to be so. 9.31 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : This is the International Year of the Family, an irony that has not escaped me as I have listened to the catalogue of complaints from hon. Members of all parties about how a Government agency acts against the interests of parents and children. One of the aims of the IYF, according to the Government-funded office in London, is to be
"a catalyst for building a more family friendly society." The IYF booklet tells us :
"Opinions may vary about what family means, but we all agree now more than ever before, that families matter and their well being and that of each individual member of the family is crucial to the well being of society."
The Children Act 1989 also put centre stage the interests of the child.
I am glad that that the Secretary of State seems to have moved on a little from his appalling speech at the Tory party conference two years ago when he talked about single young ladies trying to jump the housing queue by becoming lone mothers. I hope that some of his remarks tonight mean that he has a little more understanding of the situation.
From what we have heard today and from our constituency post bags, it is abundantly clear that the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency are not working in the best interests of children and families--they do not have their interests at heart--and that they are not working in quite the way the Government predicted. Last week we debated the Government's regulations to amend the agency. The changes were welcome, but they were not sufficiently far reaching or comprehensive.
The Secretary of State, and the Prime Minister only today, said that the agency would be kept constantly under review. I think it was the Prime Minister who said that we should need more evidence before we make any more alterations. Presumably, we have to wait for the other 250,000 cases to come forward. We are all aware that the agency will have to be altered before long if its principle is to work without the hardship that its application causes to many people. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) rightly said that some mothers--4 per cent.--have benefited from the legislation, and I welcome that fact ; it is great. Most of us support the principle of non-resident parents--mostly men--supporting their children financially and emotionally. Precious few have said that it is not a matter of either/or--just because 4 per cent. are benefiting does not mean that the rest should suffer as a result. That is the implication. As we have heard tonight, some will be worse off, as they will be floated off income support, with the subsequent loss of passported benefits.
Column 541The hon. Member for Billericay ridiculed the loss of one-off payments. There is nothing wrong or worthy of derision in a father agreeing to pay for a holiday, buy the shoes and contribute--that is what fatherhood is all about and I welcome it. Those are some of the things that the non-residential parents are doing.
Miss Lestor : I shall not give way. With great courtesy, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that both the Government and the Opposition Front- Bench teams agreed to cut the length of their speeches so that more Back Benchers could speak. I have a lot to say and, although I speak quickly, I might not have time to advance all my arguments. Some people have lost benefit because they have refused to co-operate with the agency. That is terrible. It may involve a small number of people--160, I believe--but if people had an incentive and a disregard, it might assist in bringing irresponsible, absent fathers to book.
We are all aware of the devastating impact of the Act on second families and stepchildren. It puts a strain on new relationships and causes hardship to the children. It is the children about whom I am concerned. All those problems were predicted when we first discussed the then Child Support Agency Bill. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) referred to my speech in that debate, because the Government refused to listen.
The then Minister, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), accused us of political deceit when we tabled our reasoned amendment. He said that we were trying to undermine
"in the mind of the public the wholly honourable intentions of the Bill."-- [ Official Report, 4 June 1991 ; Vol. 192, c. 240.] A lot of history has been rewritten tonight. I want to make it clear that we supported the principle that men should be responsible for the children that they father. That was why we did not vote on Second Reading of the Bill. We tabled the reasoned amendment to show some of the difficulties that would arise from the Bill.
We argued that clean break settlements should be properly taken into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) now supports the principle that the impact of the Act on second families should be taken into account. Indeed, Ministers were keen during discussions to play up the moral argument, but they did not take account of the fact that many people were already contributing. I remember one hon. Member referring to "tower block stags", who tend to jump from one flat to another with no responsibility for the children they father. That got a "Hear, hear" from Ministers. The message was clear and many people were misled.
The Child Support Agency was supposed to be the means by which non- resident, irresponsible fathers who did not contribute a penny to the families they had abandoned were to be brought to account. I am afraid that it has not worked out like that. CSA staff have been advised to go after the soft targets first--parents on higher than average incomes, parents with second families, parents who rent rather than have a mortgage and those who are in regular contact with their first families. Those are not the Jack-the-lads whom we were told were the principal targets of the Act. It is disgraceful that those who refused to name the father of their children have had their benefit taken away or reduced.
There is another difficulty. The agency has made many mistakes. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr.
Column 542Ashton) gave me the example of a man who received through his letter box a demand for £75. He was told that he was responsible for a child he had fathered and for whom he had not paid. The demand bore his name, but it was not his child. When he asked for details, he was told that he could have them. What happened? His marriage temporarily broke up and, as the man had had a vasectomy, the efficacy of medical science was also undermined. That is not on. Surely to goodness when an agency or anyone else is chasing an absent father, it should make sure that it has the right man before it makes a move.
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : Even worse than that has happened in the same neighbourhood. A father committed suicide when he was told how much he had to pay, and the inquest said that it was all because of the Act.
Many such parents are responsible caring parents, who pay regularly and who share the care of their children. The hon. Member for Billericay dismisses such matters, but those fathers take care of their children, take them on holiday and buy them clothes and all sorts of other extras above the maintenance levels agreed in court. The White Paper "Children Come First" has been totally undermined. Because of the agency's involvement, some first and second families are financially worse off, and some children are seeing less, or even nothing, of their father if he cannot afford visiting costs on top of the increased maintenance. Is that putting the interests of the child first?
Indeed, some fathers have been told that they would be better off if they became unemployed, because the sums demanded from them are unworkable. Who would benefit from that? Not the family, not the father and not the Exchequer. Some fathers slip through the net altogether. I was advised that when fathers are really absent, because they are resident abroad, the agency can take no action. The giveaway was making the agency chief executive into a bounty hunter. When the Secretary of State opened the debate--
Miss Lestor rose --
The giveaway was making the agency chief executive into a bounty hunter through the introduction of performance-related bonuses. The Secretary of State said that that was not so, and that the arrangement was no different from what happened everywhere else. However, he said that there were no plans to make the document available in the Library ; so if what he says is true, will he publish the details of the enforcement and special tracing section? My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) has already asked for that, and his request was refused.
When the Bill was passed, it was said that it would operate on a straightforward principle, aiming to improve
Column 543on the existing court system that had failed so many mothers and their children, leaving more than 80 per cent. of lone parents on income support. We were told that that was the principle--but family policies are never that straightforward, and Acts of Parliament, especially those such as the Child Support Act, which have such a strong and direct impact on the lives of ordinary families, cannot be viewed in isolation.
The backdrop should be a coherent family policy which embraces employment opportunities, a national child care strategy and a mediation and conciliation service to help families cope with the stresses of separation and divorce. The CSA is operating in a vacuum. Although this is the international year of the family, there is no Minister for the family to develop a co-ordinated approach to support for families ; instead, the Government are concentrating on penny-pinching short-term measures that increase costs in the longer term, both financially and socially.
At the beginning, when the agency was first set up, the Government argued strongly that the taxpayer should not be left to pay for other people's children. I do not regard money spent on children as wasted, unlike the tens of millions of pounds that were lost pushing ahead with the iniquitous poll tax and then scrapping it, or the administrative bungling recently unearthed by the Public Accounts Committee, the £48 million Whitehall project. There have been all sorts of losses. I say to hon. Gentleman, and to the Minister in particular-- [Interruption.] --and hon. Ladies-- that most people in this country would prefer-- [Interruption.] Don't be so stupid. Given the choice, I know how I should prefer my taxes to be spent, and I think most people in the country would want to put children first. Cherishing children is an important principle, yet today their interests are being sacrificed to feed the Exchequer.
Most of the hon. Gentlemen who spoke--not the hon. Ladies--said that they were dissatisfied with the working of the agency. They pointed out the hardship that it was causing and they were absolutely right to do so, as were all my hon. Friends who spoke. If that is true and if that is what those hon. Gentlemen believe, I ask them to join us in the Lobby tonight. There have been hardly any supporters of the Child Support Act 1991 here tonight.
Miss Lestor : The hon. Lady said that they are not here, but outside. Few have got up and stood for the Act-- [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman ought to get up and say what he has got to say and not snipe.
Mr. Burt rose--
If Conservative Members who have spoken are concerned--I share their concern and we know that what they say makes sense--about the operation of the Act, if they join us in the Lobby tonight, we can begin to alter the Act and establish a principle that, yes, not only makes people responsible for their children but does not impoverish second families and put the interests of children at risk. Those are the principles and that is why we
Column 544have moved the motion. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen who have complained about the operations of the agency will join us in the Lobby tonight.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : This has been a lively debate with a variety of speeches. They have been mostly measured speeches on both sides of the House, and there have been one or two that we would have wanted to listen to again. As I said in the past week--the debate is second on child support recently--I am not 100 per cent. certain that all the speeches made in the House showed an acceptance of the basic principles of the Child Support Act 1991. I should like to develop that theme and suggest to the House why our amendment is the best way to move forward in the circumstances.
The Child Support Act 1991 did a number of things. It certainly reiterated a principle which we all find easy to sign up to--that parents should be responsible for their children. No one seriously disagrees with that. However, I must remind the House that the Act did other things as well which we now find not so comfortable with which to identify.
First, the move from a discretionary system to a formula system was deliberate. My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) said clearly, and with some degree of honesty, that hon. Members had not appreciated the full impact of the move from the discretionary system to the formula, and he was right.
Secondly, the Act gave a retrospective ability to the agency to consider settlements. I wanted to make the point to the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) that it is by Act of Parliament that the agency does what it does and it is not for us to say that it is a bureaucratic organisation that acts on its own. The House must recognise its responsibility for creating the Child Support Agency which works to the formula that we set.
I am grateful for the variety of comments made about the CSA by my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), for Newark (Mr. Alexander), for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) and for Bedforshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel).
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) spoke about those who worked in his local CSA. As with all public servants, we probably all have constituents who are Child Support Agency officers. As with all other civil servants, they work according to what we wish them to do and try to do their job. I found some of the criticisms of the Child Support Agency made by Opposition Members quite uncalled for. Those who work for the agency are civil servants doing a job. I wish that all colleagues would take the opportunity to see their local field officers and to talk to them about their work.
I shall now respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy), who made an excellent, measured contribution to our debate. She especially asked what assistance we were giving the agency with the changes. We are giving assistance to the agency. We recognise that the changes will make a difference to targets and that they will make a difference to administration costs.
I hope that I have reassured the hon. Lady. She was the first Member this evening to raise the point about the sheer
Column 545misery of divorce and separation, and about our growing awareness of its impact. No hon. Member of any party can safely ignore that point. The hon. Lady was right to raise the matter in the way that she did.
I spoke earlier about the House's responsibility for the Child Support Act 1991. The move from a discretionary approach to a formula and the reasons for acting retrospectively were justified. Colleagues must understand the position from which we moved. Few hon. Members have pointed out how bad the previous system was. It was because so many women did not receive maintenance through the courts that we realised that we could not go on as we were. It was because we recognised the effect on the taxpayer that we had to look at all aspects of the previous position.
I shall quote, justifiably, from the report by the Select Committee on Social Security. I want to quote this paragraph because Opposition Members repeatedly made the point about the taxpayer. I want them to see what a Select Committee--not the Government--said about that point, and I want to remind them of what they clearly intended to do a couple of years ago.
At paragraph 20, the Committee says :
"The Committee has received complaints that causing absent fathers to pay money which was formerly paid by the social security system is a distortion of the original purpose of the Act. There have also been criticisms that the money being sought from absent parents does not provide any extra benefits for the children. Given what was said in the White Paper, these criticisms are misconceived. One of the purposes of the changes was to provide a secure income that would enable parents with care to take paid employment without losing another part of their income, as would be the case with Income Support. However, it was always intended that, in cases where it was assessed that the absent parent could afford to do so, the financial responsibility for the care of children should move from the social security system to the absent parent. In some cases maintenance will be a substitute for Income Support ; in others, the sums received by the children will certainly improve their circumstances." That is what we passed ; that is what the Select Committee recently said we were right to pass. That is the principle that we should all live up to, it may be uncomfortable for hon. Members.
As we did last week, we have today confronted a number of genuine issues. The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) was right when she talked about how she wished to spend her taxes. How do we strike the right balance for our children, especially in relation to separation? How do we get the balance right between the interests of both parents and the interests of the taxpayer? Three years ago, the House was clear--let us make no bones about it--about what was the best thing to do. We felt that the first family had been disadvantaged for too long. We knew that we had to redress the balance for such families, and we knew that we had to redress the balance for the taxpayer as well.
The mood of the House has now changed ; we are not quite so clear about the issue. That is the honest truth. Having seen the Act in operation, we are not quite so clear about the balance. It is because the House is less clear than it was that I invite the House to support the Government amendment. I believe that it more accurately reflects the mood of the House than does the Opposition motion, which tries to come up with a solution before the issues have been thought through.
We made our position clear with regard to the legislation. As the Select Committee said, it is the most major social change in 40 years. We made a commitmenmt
Column 546that we would review the Child Support Agency once it was established. When a piece of considered work came to us reflecting the concerns of the House, our constituents and many commentators, we listened and responded. That pledge is not the empty words suggested by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). When we said that we would keep something under review, we meant that if something came up, we would respond--and we did so. That is what the House approved last week in the proper terms that we proposed.
It is right to allow the changes that we made, prompted by the Select Committee, to have effect so that we can judge the impact. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the impact on the changes will be significant. It is right to assess the impact. From the variety of issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I do not believe that simply accepting the hon. Gentleman's solution is the right answer. He suggested that there was one easy panacea.
I refer to the debate that I had with the hon. Gentleman this morning--I have had the same debate with him on one or two previous occasions--about what an appeal means. I still cannot get it out of my head that what he means by an appeal, which sounds attractive, is that in some way all those people who are concerned and upset about the changes will have a way out.
I did not think that that was a genuine and honest proposal to put to the people. We must define the gateways to the appeal system because, if everyone appeals, we would go back to the discretionary system to which the hon. Gentleman in his next breath said the House did not want to return.
As I cannot be sure that the hon. Gentleman is clear about what he wants the appeal system to do, and how he wants it to be drawn up, I cannot recommend it to my colleagues tonight. I simply say that, because of the degree of concern and uncertainty raised by my colleagues, we meant what we said in terms of keeping the Act under review. In the past, we have proved that we are able to respond, and that is what I offer my colleagues tonight.
Once again, a voice not heard so much in this debate was that of lone parents--that silent group mentioned by the Select Committee and one or two hon. Members in this debate, and championed so strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). They made the point that the House must not forget why we made the changes in the first place. If we move too precipitately to change--the House should have some experience of this now- -and if we lose the gains that we have made, that would be wrong.
I shall quote from a letter that I received yesterday morning from a lady in Northampton :
"I am just writing to say as a single parent through no fault of my own, I am very grateful for the CSA's help.
After two and a half years of no maintenance, it is now being sorted and feel I can now get on with my own life.
As a nurse I can now seek employment, as the maintenance will help with costs for a childminder giving my son and myself to have a better future to look to.
You have my full support and I just hope that any changes wil not affect us too much."
That is the honest and straightforward voice of a woman who has seen a number of changes.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) rose --