Previous Section Home Page

Column 1107

through the system have ended up paying more. The feelings of injustice expressed to me by those who were already paying is beyond description. It seems to them like a double punishment. I do not believe the Government when they tell us that two thirds of the absent parents contacted were paying no regular maintenance. My experience in Halifax is not unique, as other hon. Members relate the same experience.

When Ros Hepplewhite gave evidence to the Social Security Select Committee, she admitted that, when dealing with a caring parent on benefit, the agency would deal first with the absent parents who were paying maintenance under previous agreements. She said :

"We are taking payers first."

That is reflected in my constituency cases. I emphasise that none of the absent parents who have contacted me--we have now reached 63--paid nothing before the introduction of the Child Support Agency. They had taken responsibility for their children. There may be an argument that, in some cases, that payment needed to be raised, but they had all taken responsibility.

The reason for taking payers first is obviously so that the Child Support Agency's financial targets are met. It is extremely distasteful that the chief executive of the agency is on performance-related pay. As a result, those who have suffered financially, rather than those who have shirked their responsibility, are being caught up in that nightmare.

I remind the House that £480 million of the £530 million that the Child Support Agency is to raise in its first year will go to the Treasury. I have said all along that it is a tax. It is not about helping children ; it is about benefiting the Exchequer. The Minister has said that the formula-based scheme would provide consistent and predictable results. The results have certainly been consistent and predictable, in that they are placing both parents with care and absent parents in the poverty trap.

The Minister said that Ros Hepplewhite's performance-related bonus would be based on arrangements of maintenance for people with the care of children keeping to the agency's agreed budget, the achievement of the specified level of benefit savings and the level of claimed satisfaction. That is a particularly cruel statement to make because of the misery which the agency is causing.

My colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), believes that the Child Support Agency should be fundamentally reformed. I think that we should scrap it and start again.

Absent parents have a duty to support their children. I agree that the old court system did not work, but it could have been made to work for a fraction of the cost of setting up the Child Support Agency--or should I say the Treasury Support Agency ? A system could have been devised to pursue defaulters and enforce payments. Had it been done that way, we would not have been pursuing those already paying but tackling some of those who are getting away scot free and still not paying a penny because we are concentrating on the soft targets.

At least the courts would have had discretion. They could have assessed all the valid factors, including children of second marriages, who should not be considered to be less deserving than children of first marriages.

How much has the reassessment of payments cost taxpayers ? That question has been raised previously, but I do not know whether it has been answered. Has the Minister apologised for the many mistakes that have been made, particularly to the family that I mentioned ? That

Column 1108

case was outrageous. Will the payments be backdated ? Treatment has been particularly unfair for those caught in the trap first. The Child Support Agency is causing great harm to many families. I believe that the weight of public opinion will force the Government into major changes sooner rather than later. The agency is divisive, unfair and damaging to family life. Sooner or later, the Government will have to listen to the opposition to it. It might be a shout at the moment ; it is going to develop into a roar that will engulf the Government, just as the poll tax did.

9.54 pm

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West) : I did not vote for the Act that set up this agency, for the simple reason that I was not in the House at the time. [Interruption.] I am explaining my own position : others will have to speak for themselves. If the Minister wants to intervene, I shall be delighted to give way to him.

I first became aware of the operation of the agency last September when a couple of policemen came to see me about problems that they were having with their assessments. They also drew my attention to problems that a number of their colleagues in the station were experiencing. As a result, when we reassembled here I tabled an early-day motion which attracted a small amount of press interest. I was astounded by the ensuing overwhelming explosion of letters from people all across the country describing the problems that they were facing with the Child Support Agency.

The phrase that struck me most often in those letters was, "Our world has been turned upside down." That is a heartfelt cry from people who had carefully built up their lives or who often had rebuilt them and then found that everything was to be put at risk by a drastic and dramatic change in their circumstances.

Perhaps it would have been better if Ministers had looked at the world upside down, by which I mean that they should have carefully scrutinised what has happened in Australia. Australia has a Child Support Act that seems to be working fairly successfully. The Australians do not face the problems that we are facing or the enormous degree of upset in this country. Many of us have attended mass meetings around the country where we have heard about that upset. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) has, with some of his colleagues, organised two or three extremely successful meetings in recent months, the last only a couple of weeks ago. At these meetings we have met irate, indignant and desperate families.

None of this is happening in Australia. The fundamental difference is that the Australian scheme is not retrospective.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South) : In the Standing Committee considering the Finance Bill, one of the main criticisms levelled at a particular clause by Conservative Members was the fact that it was retrospective. Retrospective taxation makes it difficult for people to adjust their financial circumstances. Exactly the same applies to the CSA. The retrospective nature of the Act has meant that it is impossible for families to adjust their finances to accommodate the massive increases forced on them by the agency.

Column 1109

Mr. Spellar : I thank my hon. Friend. He reminds us of a number of occasions when Conservative Members have been extremely concerned about retrospection. It has generally been a principle of legislation that it should not be made retrospective. That applies particularly to financial legislation. I am sure that colleagues recall the successful attempt to remove penalties for councillors who had fallen foul of housing legislation. That retrospection caused uproar among Conservative Members.

Unfortunately, the CSA operates retrospection with a vengeance. People have made choices in arriving at their settlements with their partners--sensible settlements based on the law at the time. They were given advice on the best ways of resolving their differences so as to ensure that their children could remain in the family home in the same neighbourhood and attend the same schools. They wanted to make sure that their children's standard of living was maintained. Usually the wife stayed in the family home, debts were covered by the husband and he moved off to set up a new home. That was their legal and sometimes financial advice at the time and they made prudent and sensible decisions.

Now, that is all being torn up ; they are told that it is irrelevant and counts for nothing. All those arrangements have become meaningless and they will be assessed merely on their income. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South said, they suffer dramatic and drastic changes in their circumstances.

In other circumstances, such as when the Government introduced the council tax, and in other areas of taxation--even in national taxation as introduced by the Chancellor--transitional arrangements were introduced. Obviously, when people are facing a change in local taxation and the results will be dramatic, especially if that occurs around the time of local government elections in the London boroughs, transitional arrangements are made to soften the blow. There is no such softening for those who are hit by the Child Support Agency. They get hit by the full amount right away from day one. They sometimes face a doubling, trebling or quadrupling of the amount they pay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said that some people were paying too little, although when one looks at all the surrounding circumstances, things are not always as they seem. An increase in taxation of £50, £60 or £70 a week is drastic and dramatic and can have a devastating effect on people's standards of living, way of life and security.

The decision is in the Government's hands. Quite simply, 90 per cent. of the money that is recovered goes directly to the Government. That is partly due to the take-up strategy. It was clear from the Select Committee report that the first groups to be targeted were those where the parent with care was on income support and the absent parent was already paying maintenance. Those groups are the prime targets and 90 per cent. of the money recovered from them goes directly to the Treasury.

When that point was made in previous debates, the Minister's reply has been that moving away from that would mean increasing public borrowing. I caution the Minister against using that argument tonight. If he does, he is admitting that the Child Support Agency is a tax--a tax that falls directly and particularly on certain limited groups in society : divorced and separated people. It is a divorced and separated tax.

If he is suggesting that people should have to change the arrangements they make for their children, it is legitimate

Column 1110

to do that over time. The evidence from Australia is that the percentage of parents with care on income support and other benefits is falling--but steadily, not dramatically and drastically. That is the Government's problem. The financial bind that they are in means that they cannot take the matter slowly and steadily and in an acceptable manner ; they have to rush to get the money all in one go. That is the fundamental difficulty at the root of the problem. I shall address some of the detailed problems that are arising. They may be details, but for many individuals they are enormously important and cause immense difficulty and heartache. One example that has been raised by a number of Conservative Members, particularly those representing towns some distance from London but dependent on the London travel-to-work area, involves travel costs. Workers in central London receive higher incomes in recognition of the fact that they experience higher travel costs. Unfortunately for them, however, the higher income is included in the assessment, but travel costs are not offset against it. Although that has been the main problem raised, it is not unique in this country. A considerable number of construction workers and long-distance lorry drivers throughout the country experience significant travel costs, and that is recognised in their remuneration. The problem is that their remuneration counts ; the other is not offset.

On the issue of retrospection, problems are also being experienced throughout the country, as I can see from my mailbag, by those who build up huge debts between the initial letter and the assessment. Considerable delays occur, even in straightforward cases, and people then build up 10 or 12 weeks quite normally, and longer periods in many cases. That means that they then face debts of £1,000 to £2,000. That is quite dramatic.

We all know the problems of people once they are in debt : they fall into the debt trap and start to borrow from high-cost areas, not pay off their visa and access accounts and are then juggling between their various accounts and starting to pay a lot more money. Those problems have arisen not, I would argue, because people have been evading or avoiding answering the form, but in this instance merely because of the amount of work that the CSA has taken on and the delays in the system.

We must also be concerned at the errors in the system. A new problem that I have found, which has not been mentioned in debates on this matter before, is where an assessment is agreed, the DSS is notified of the amount of the assessment, which is then deducted from benefit and, for one reason or another, the money is not then paid to the parent with care.

Sometimes that can be because perhaps the money is not paid in, but one woman who came to see me was concerned about her daughter's welfare as she had been losing a considerable sum of money. The mother had seen her daughter's ex-husband's paying-in book and he had been paying for the past 13 weeks. Unfortunately, the money was not coming across. It is all very well to say that there will be administrative problems in every system, but the difficulty is that in such an unresponsive system people then find that they are short of money week after week and get into increasingly desperate circumstances.

I am sure that we have all seen people whose assessment was based on the amount of overtime that they were paid, or the amount of holiday pay that they received. They have

Column 1111

a high assessment, but are now on basic time and find again that they are desperately short of money and cannot make ends meet.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most frustrating aspects for hon. Members when raising these cases is that no matter how much detail we provide in our letters to the Minister, we are always sent a standard letter from the chief executive which does not deal with any aspect of the case until the second or third last paragraph, and even that is a standard paragraph ?

Mr. Spellar : My hon. Friend had obviously been looking over my shoulder, because the next item in my notes was responsiveness. That problem is faced not only by us, but, of course, by our constituents as well. For them it is even worse. I will check with my colleagues on the time that it takes us to receive a reply, but it is usually between four and six weeks. I note my hon. Friend's comments on the nature of many of those replies.

Many of our constituents are given telephone numbers to call, but they get answering machines ; the telephones do not get answered personally. It takes them eight to 12 weeks to get a reply. Often those replies do not address the particular problems. The responses that they receive are often in computer-speak. It is almost as though standard paragraphs are built into the machine and those replies come out. They cannot find any way of getting a response from the system to their questions. That is immensely frustrating, particularly because, under the scheme, the money keeps clocking up. It applies from the time when the first assessment was set up.

I referred earlier to the take-on strategy. We should urge the Minister tonight to look at a new take-on strategy of saying that the legislation should be changed so that we take out the retrospective element. That would remove a huge amount of work from the system ; it would mean that the agency would be able to concentrate on new cases and therefore be able to take into account many of the factors that we have outlined so that people could deal properly and responsibly with the maintenance of their children, but without being forced into desperation and bankruptcy and being put in the position, as some of them are, of having to decide whether it is worth staying in work. We are already encountering cases of people giving up work. I am told by shop stewards in the midlands that union members are approaching them and saying, "Next time redundancies arise, put me down on the list ; I shall be unemployed, but at least I shall be able to draw benefit." If those workers left their jobs early, they would not be able to draw that benefit ; if they take redundancy, two families will be on benefit, rather than only one being on a lesser benefit.

The CSA and the Department must get to grips with the problems that people face out there in the real world. I congratulate the Minister on meeting parents from the north-west recently. On that occasion, he experienced the sheer frustration and anger that they are experiencing.

Some may say that people do not like paying more money. I am sure that that is true, but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about people who are desperate--whose world is being turned upside down, and whose lives and second families are being threatened by the changes. Some of the stories are heartrending : couples are having to decide whether to embark on a second

Column 1112

marriage, and whether they can afford to have a child. I have had two letters saying that a second wife or fiancee is pregnant, and is having to decide whether to go through with the pregnancy. We can all imagine the traumas that that is inflicting on people.

I do not think that the CSA and the Department have assessed the difficulties being caused throughout the country. It is time to step back and examine the details, particularly the fundamental problem of the legislation--its retrospective nature.

10.11 pm

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : I apologise to the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) for having missed her opening speech. Only in the last few minutes was I released from a Standing Committee, and I came straight to the Chamber to try to catch part of her speech. I did, however, listen to the speech of the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), and I have great sympathy with almost everything he said.

Perhaps inevitably, one hon. Member after another will refer to the particularly harrowing cases that have been brought to them. Earlier this week, I asked my hon. Friend the Minister how many letters on the subject he had received so far from hon. Members. The answer was 5,089. I must be responsible for some 70 or 80 of those letters, on behalf of my constituents, and I suspect that other hon. Members who are present have been bombarded with letters from people suffering the effects of the legislation.

Like the hon. Member for Warley, West, I must begin with the question of retrospection, which is a killer for too many families. Let me give the House a small example from my postbag. A couple in a second marriage waited to have their first child until the one child of the first marriage had passed the age of 16 : that was the age at which the court order applying to the couple had said that maintenance would end.

Thirteen months after the child turned 16, the CSA

decided--retrospectively--to insist that maintenance should have continued at the higher level. The couple were therefore faced with 13 months of retrospective maintenance payments. They have no means to pay that, particularly as they have started a second family and face all the bills associated with a young child. I fear that the same circumstances have hit young and less well-off families up and down the country in a horrible way.

Second on what I would regard as the short list of problems caused by the Child Support Agency must be the failure to take into account existing binding, legal, financial commitments such as loans that people take out to improve their lives. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not do so, but it would be easy for him and the agency to say that people should have thought of that. How could they have thought of that when they had no idea that a ton of bricks was about to descend on their heads ? It is fine that we take into account the mortgage and the council tax, but if we do not take into account major financial commitments, whether it be a loan for a car or for home improvement or whatever, we deliver to those people something from which they cannot recover and with which they cannot cope.

Third on the list is the problem of the tightness of resources with which couples are left as a result of the assessment that they have received. There is simply not enough money for them to continue to care for their

Column 1113

children on a part-time basis. Many fathers with a second wife are happy to take the children of the first marriage over a weekend--it may be one weekend in three or one in four. That has stopped in at least five cases that have been brought to my attention because there is no longer the money to go and pick up the children, bring them home, feed them and look after them over the weekend. It cannot be right that we are driving children away from their fathers when the fathers are anxious to play at least some part in looking after them.

Fourth on the list is the problem of wrong assessments. That may be caused by bureaucratic error, but it may be caused because the income of the father or the couple has changed. Income may change because of shift work or overtime, where payments change from week to week. A particularly high figure may have been used in the assessment, but that may become rapidly out of date. There may be a loss of income--not a loss of job--and there is then the question of how long it takes for a fresh assessment to be made. In the meantime, the debt continues to mount month after month. That is the sort of problem that is drawn to my attention.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North) : Is not the essence of the problem the rigidity and vindictiveness of the system ? There is an insistence on total rigidity and a refusal to understand individual circumstances and to take into account changed circumstances, such as travelling expenses. Circumstances have changed for one of my constituents. His job has moved from Blackpool to Preston and he has increased travelling expenses. He has been clobbered by the Child Support Agency, which has increased his payment from £5 a week to £31 a week. He now has to maintain a car on top of that. The Child Support Agency totally refused to take that into account, because of its insistence on the bureaucratic procedures that it has set. That is what ordinary people find incomprehensible and iniquitous.

Mr. Coombs : I suspect that officials at the Child Support Agency were only carrying out the rules with which they were confronted. I wish to say nothing in the House that in any way suggests criticism of the way in which officials are carrying out their duties on behalf of the agency. I am aware that there have been stories of that nature, but I do not want to dwell on that.

Having heard that intervention, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on it. Clearly, that rule should be changed. If the Government are saying that people should not take a job if it means that their travelling expenses are increased so that they are no longer able to afford their maintenance payments, I hope that they will think again, because clearly that is wrong.

I had high hopes for the Select Committee when I heard last year that it was going to look at this issue. Sadly, the Select Committee spent a short time taking relatively few accounts of the position and produced a report that did not go to the heart of the problem. I hope, however, that it will return to the issue as soon as possible. I asked the Clerk to the Select Committee today what were the chances of its doing so and was told that there was interest in pursuing the subject again but no fixed date had been given for an inquiry. I hope that the inquiry will begin soon. I have the highest regard for the Select Committee procedure, and if

Column 1114

only the Committee would give weight of evidence to what hon. Members have said in this and previous debates, we might begin to make progress.

On Sunday morning, I shall attend a meeting of 150 victims of the Child Support Agency. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say something that I can pass on to them, rather than my simply saying sorry. Like the hon. Member for Warley, West, I was a Member of the House when the Child Support Bill was given an unopposed Third Reading. All of us who were Members of the last Parliament must accept some share of the responsibility.

Mr. Andrew Ingram (East Kilbride) : Does the hon. Gentleman recall that Labour tabled a well-argued reasoned amendment on Second Reading--if he remains for the rest of the debate he may hear its exact terms--in support of which Labour Members expressed their opposition to the Government's proposals ?

Mr. Coombs : I am aware of that, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will explain why the Opposition were prepared to give the Bill a Third Reading without a vote. I hope that he will not try to say that the agency is the responsibility of Conservative Members only. In the past few weeks, I have heard many of his colleagues accept that they did not fully appreciate what would develop, and I see the hon. Member for Halifax nodding. I am trying not to score a point but to say that none of us realised what would happen. I certainly did not, and all I shall be able to say to the meeting on Sunday is that I am sorry but that I shall go on trying to persuade Ministers to make the necessary changes.

When I was in local government, there was a saying--other hon. Members will recognise this--that if one wanted a pedestrian crossing, one could go on hoping and hoping but, until somebody was injured, one would not get it. What will it take to change the rules under which the Child Support Agency works ? Will it take defaulting on loans, which I see from my constituency case work is imminent ? Will it take giving up jobs and going on the dole ? Will it take the break-up of second marriages ? Will it take even worse consequences than those before we say that enough is enough and that we cannot go on like this any longer ? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will answer that question, as my constituents and, I suspect, those of other hon. Members present wish to know what the future holds. 10.23 pm

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) : I believe that the issue that we are debating is not about administration or a formula of Einsteinian complexity but about politics. To clarify that, I wish to say where I start from.

We need simply to ask who has benefited from the introduction of the Child Support Agency and whether, on balance, it has benefited society more than harmed it. If we examine the costs and benefits, one beneficiary is immediately obvious. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said, it would be more appropriate to have called the Child Support Act 1991 the Treasury Support Act, because, of the £530 million targeted for the first year, almost £480 million is due to go to the Treasury. On that basis, the Treasury will do very well indeed, but that is not the only way in which the Government and the

Column 1115

Treasury will benefit. There are hidden "benefits" that are as yet uncosted but have serious consequences for the rest of society. At some stage, someone will ask what is the cost of the "loss" of 11,000 women from the benefits system as a result of requiring them to name the father of their child or children. The disappearance of those women will also constitute financial savings for the Treasury. A further uncosted element is the loss of access to passported benefits' for some households. I am sure that I am not the only Member of Parliament whose constituents have complained that, as a result of the new formula imposed on them, they are poorer in terms of their net disposable assets. When we do the full accounting, we shall be surprised--some of us will be alarmed--by the full cost to society and the full benefit to the Treasury.

Those are starting points, but it is worth going back to the notion of what propelled the House to believe that the previous arrangements needed to be changed. Three issues were at stake. The first was that, under the previous arrangements, children lost out. The second was that women lost out on maintenance payments under the separation and divorce arrangements, because the court system did not deliver a structured basis of family support from fathers who were in a position to pay for their children but were not doing so. The third was the notion that fathers should take responsibility for their children.

I believe that the House shared those three important concepts but then reached some conclusions about which I can say only that, if I had been a Member at the time, I would not have dreamt of supporting them within the framework of the CSA. We have not stuck to the most important premise, which is that the child comes first.

Under the Act, children do not come first and they are not treated equally. I shall run through some of the ways in which the Act is phenomenally divisive. Stepchildren are not treated as the equals of biological children. Households that were not previously divided are now divided by the Act. Children in the United Kingdom are not treated as the equals of those outside it. Many people with parenting responsibilities have sought, and continue to seek, to maintain children who are not in the United Kingdom, but the financial obligations that they seek to discharge are not recognised under the Act.

I have already raised with the Minister the position of members of the armed forces serving in Germany who have second families with German citizens. For such people, those families are their permanent family, but they are not recognised for the purposes of maintenance. Such personnel have to ask themselves not merely whether they can afford to work but whether they can afford to serve their country and pay what is required under the Child Support Act. It is ludicrous that we have such an absurd disregard for the parenting obligations of fathers who currently maintain children outside the United Kingdom.

The children of second relationships are not treated equally with those of first relationships. I know of cases in which the children of second relationships have been deeply disturbed by the fact that their bank accounts have to be examined when their stepfather's contributions to his first children have to be assessed. It was said that that would not be assessed, but it forms part of the presumption about the available income of the second family. As has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, the break-up of second families will be a dreadful

Column 1116

consequence of the way in which the legislation has been working. We may well end up seeing more relationships destroyed than supported.

Children in second relationships are also divided. When there are children conceived in a second relationship and children conceived in former relationships there is a new divide. One has to start thinking in terms of family activities that no longer take place on a unified basis, and about whether a father outside the family is willing to pay for a share of them. It seems to me that that division of children is a most cruel consequence of the way in which the Government have structured this system.

As I have said, children who are no longer the beneficiaries of passported benefits lose out, as do those who are caught in conflict between separated parents. Some children are now the victims of fathers' having to make a choice between supporting them financially and seeing them. There are men who cannot afford the cost of seeing their children. The need to make provision for the development and maintenance of a relationship between a father and his children is not recognised in the formula. Those are the victims of the cruelty of an Act that does not treat children equally and does not start from the premise that we want to develop the best models of parenting, not the worst.

What should we be doing to support the notion of better fathering ? Well, we would not have begun with a premise that hits contributing fathers rather than those failing to contribute. But that is precisely where the Child Support Agency did begin. It has made no bones about the fact that it is the contributing father, rather than the one discharging no responsibilities and providing no financial support, who has been pursued. It has made parental contact more difficult and for growing numbers it has turned work into an uneconomic activity.

As has been pointed out by my hon. Friends, a further cost will be the number of fathers who find that it is no longer cost-effective to work. What an absurdity it is that an Act should have that consequence. The system has turned civilised separations into civil wars, and the cost will be borne by society and will eventually fall into the lap of the House in the shape of additional demands on social services and local authority support services.

To have a sensible starting point, we need a different set of principles. I should like to outline two things that must be done. First, we have to address the question of whose responsibility this society's children are. In other debates, Conservative Members have made the point not only that there should be direct parental responsibility for children but that, if the cost cannot be afforded by parents, we should turn to the grandparents for a contribution. That is an individual line of responsibility that fragments the notion of common and community responsibility for our children. It must be understood that we all have a common interest in the well-being of children. For the next 50 years at least, there will be an increasing proportion of retired people and an increasing dependency ratio. It is in the interests of all of us to have a well-brought-up, well- educated, well-trained set of generations of children, as they will be the wage earners and pension contributors on whom some of us will end up being dependent. We have a common interest in the parenting of children--not just a set of separate and individual interests.

Secondly, we must ask ourselves what the models of "best parenting" are, and how a Bill that goes through the

Column 1117

House can encourage them. I say to Ministers and to my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench that, if we want to put the child first, we should concentrate on payments that go directly to the child. We already have such an arrangement in child benefit. A doubling or more of that would be an extremely efficient way of delivering the money to the child. If the money is not to be delivered through child benefit, the litmus test of whether the method works is simple : does it benefit the child ? The test is not whether the money goes to the Treasury but whether it reaches the child.

The second question that we should ask ourselves about separation arrangements concerns family courts. We could learn a lot about those in other parts of the globe. There are family courts in Scotland and in Australia, and they address many of the shortcomings of the previous system in England. The notion behind them was to develop sensible and responsible separation arrangements, with enforceable maintenance payments.

Thirdly, if we want to make adjustments, the best way is through the tax system. Some of the people who do not pay at the moment are those who cannot pay--irregular earners, and people who are in and out of work or whose hours of work are uncertain and unpredictable. Through the tax system, through the imposition of a higher tax coding, we could even out the payments without doing so at the expense of the child and of the parent with care.

I believe that, in the end, the Act will be scrapped, as the poll tax was scrapped, because society and the public at large will not tolerate it. The cost that they know is being borne because of the divisiveness of the Act will force the Government to abandon the CSA. It will be replaced with arrangements that begin and end with the questions, how do we deliver support for the child, and how do we give children in this society the best experience of being parented, in whatever sort of household they happen to be brought up ? 10.36 pm

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on obtaining the debate. As on every other occasion when we have debated the subject, it has provoked a wide range of criticisms and views of the Act that set up the Child Support Agency. I fully recognise my hon. Friend's strength of feeling on the subject ; she made some extremely valid points. My hon. Friends the Members for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) added to her arguments and criticisms.

Only one Conservative Member has spoken tonight, but contributions by Conservatives in previous debates on the subject have given the impression that the Child Support Act and the way in which it has been implemented have reached the same high level of parliamentary opprobrium that was accorded to the hated poll tax. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South made that analogy, too.

It is now clear that the Government have badly misjudged the commitment of Conservative Members to a measure that cuts social security spending by imposing cash penalties on their constituents. They seem to say, "We agree with the principle of cutting social security spending,

Column 1118

but do not visit the cost upon our constituents." That message is coming over in many of the debates on the subject.

As each day passes, it becomes clearer to Conservative Members that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South said, the Act is not really the Child Support Act but the Treasury Support Act, and it is a deeply flawed and socially damaging measure. We all know from our surgery cases the widespread anger and dismay felt by the many thousands of families whose lives have been affected by the Act. As more and more individuals are brought within its ambit, the number of those who oppose it has grown in direct proportion.

As the Minister knows, the problem is not declining ; nor will it go away. It will be with us until the Government act on it. I must remind him that many of the concerns now being raised and all the main criticisms now made of the Act were stated in June 1991 when, as a Bill, it received a Second Reading.

It is salutary to look back at that debate and read what hon. Members said at the time. All the Opposition Members who spoke in the debate expressed serious reservations about the Bill. That was not matched by the contributions from Conservative Members. I have no doubt that Conservative Members who participated in the debate or who went into the Lobbies and voted for the Bill have changed their minds, now that they have seen the Act in operation. Much is made by Ministers and by Conservative Members of the Labour party's position on the Act, and we have had the same view expressed by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) tonight, as if, somehow or other, we have to be sucked into the consensus on the Act.

It would be useful to put on the record the reasoned amendment that was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) to the Child Support Bill when it was given its Second Reading. It read :

"this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which, while providing that absent parents should contribute to the support of their children, leaves lone parents on Income Support not one penny better off, makes lone parents worse off where they receive maintenance just above Income Support levels and thus lose access to passported benefits, allows maintenance payments to be disrupted if the absent parent defaults, does not take account of property settlements which could lead to an increase in orders for the home to be sold, leaves unclear in which cases the lone parents will be exempt from the requirement to help the agency trace the absent parent and therefore from the penalty of loss of benefit imposed on the caring parent, and does not tackle more serious problems facing lone parents and their children, notably the provision of better child care facilities.--[ Official Report , 4 June 1991 ; Vol. 192, c. 194.]

I know that the hon. Member for Swindon did not vote in that Division. He obviously had very good reasons for not being there. But for him to come along now and to accuse Labour Members of somehow being tied into the consensus on this legislation is a piece of genuine nonsense.

Mr. Simon Coombs : It is very good of the hon. Gentleman to give way and I hope that, having had his moment on the reasoned amendment at Second Reading, he will turn his attention to the Third Reading and explain why Labour Members did not oppose the Bill then. It seems to me highly relevant. Before I give him that chance, let me say that I was not seeking to suck in the Labour party in a party political sense ; I merely wanted to indicate that there were hon. Members on both sides who genuinely did not anticipate the effect that the legislation is having.

Column 1119

Mr. Ingram : The usual way, if hon. Members have reservations and a reasoned amendment is put forward, is to vote for the amendment. If the hon. Member had been present--I accept that he had reasons for not being there ; I do not know what they were--he could have come into the Lobby with us. Opposition Members made the very same points that he has made tonight, and the reasoned amendment set out their criticisms of the Bill. Hon. Members who shared those criticisms had the opportunity to express them in the Lobby, but they did not do so. I am pleased that they are now on our side, but, at every opportunity that we are given to vote to bring about a sensible change to the legislation, Conservative Members are noticeable by their absence from the Lobby for those voting against the Government. That is a very important point, which Conservative Members should note. The criticisms set out in the reasoned amendment are just as valid now as they were then. It must be a matter of regret to the 221 hon. Members who opposed the amendment and supported the Bill. They must feel, on second thoughts, that they should have done something different, in the same way as, on second thoughts, they approached the hated poll tax. If only the Government had not been so pig-headed and inflexible, and if only they had taken greater cognisance of the points made in the amendment and during the debate, perhaps they would not be in the mess that they are in with the Act.

We now have the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security acting like King Canute, standing in the way of change as wave upon wave of mounting criticism threatens to overwhelm him. Not even the most insensitive of Ministers--I do not put the Under-Secretary in the bracket of insensitive Conservatives ; indeed, I put him in the higher bracket of sensitive Ministers--could be impervious to the pressures that the Under-Secretary is under.

We know that a case has been made time and again for the Government to undertake a fundamental review of the Act. We know that that demand has the support of many Conservative Members. We can hazard a guess that even the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Social Security, with his little hit list for attacking those in poverty, are perhaps secret supporters of the demand that changes should be made. If they take that view in secret, they perhaps do so only because they want to get themselves off the hook on which they are now impaled.

The only message that we hear from the Minister time and again is that the Government have no current plans for further changes to the scheme. That message was stated as recently as 28 February by the Under-Secretary of State at column 643 of the Official Report . I could almost hear the groans of despair and howls of outrage of the tens of thousands of families and individuals affected by the Act when that message went out on 28 February. The one message that those who are affected by the Act do not want to hear from the Government is that there are no further plans for change. That is the message which the Minister is getting from his own Benches.

I do not know how much credence can be given to press reports about people who have committed suicide as a result of the actions of the Child Support Agency. We can probably discount most, if not all, of those press reports. But I know that genuine hardship and misery have been visited on tens of thousands of hard-working citizens who have been caught in the trap of the Act.

The Minister will argue that the Government have shown a willingness to listen and adapt. He will give the

Column 1120

example of the changes in the regulations introduced in the House on 2 February. We all accept that those changes were welcome. At least they were an improvement on what was there before. They were an overall improvement and had to be welcomed. They certainly gave a measure of relief to certain categories of parents who had been asked to pay substantially increased maintenance.

However, it was pointed out when the changes were introduced in the House that, as a side consequence, they had a deleterious effect on certain parents with care in receipt of family credit. Those who were paying maintenance benefited. Those who were supposed to receive the benefit were affected in a damaging way as a consequence. The Minister has claimed time and again that one of the purposes of the Act was to help parents who were left to bring up children on their own. Yet the Government have introduced changes to the regulations which achieve the very opposite.

The effect of the changes on family credit recipients was pointed out to the Minister during the debate on 2 February, when the regulations were passed. On that occasion, I asked him to recognise the problem. It is interesting to note that if people have been paid too much family credit, the level of payment can be reduced by a reduced benefit direction from the appropriate Department of State. Yet if people have been paid too little family credit because of changes introduced by the Government, they have to wait six months before they can be given their full entitlement. Surely that cannot be right. The Minister has ignored the points made to him on 2 February and continues to penalise mothers in certain circumstances in receipt of family credit.

In recent parliamentary answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), the Minister tried to play down the full effect of the regulations on those who receive family credit. The Minister tells us that he estimates that fewer than 1,000 families are affected and that the average loss per family will be less than £100 in total. Of course, that is an average figure and it means that some families will lose substantially more than £100.

I said earlier that the Minister was a sensitive Minister. Surely, he must be aware that someone with limited resources who loses £100--£2 per week--from a very tight budget faces difficulties when trying to make ends meet. That has been the effect of the regulations--if only for 1,000 families--for those on family credit. The Government must have known that that would happen. They did not balance the figures and they did not take action to protect such parents with care.

I should like to have raised a number of other issues in the debate. I am grateful that so many of my hon. Friends contributed to it. I want to give the Minister sufficient time to answer the questions raised so that we can have a proper debate on the subject. More important, tonight the Minister must take all the criticisms that have been repeatedly made inside and outside the Chamber, from many bodies, including the organisations that have been established to campaign specifically against the Act. He must take on board the arguments and undertake a fundamental review of the legislation. If he does not do so, like King Canute he may well drown.

Next Section

  Home Page