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Two Algerian asylum seekers took part in a peaceful demonstration last Saturday outside Campsfield detention centre. When they signed on at the local police stations in Leyton and Islington yesterday, they were promptly arrested and taken back into custody, with no reason given. An answer I received on 24 March says that Group 4 has a contract to look after people at Campsfield detention centre. It says :

"All Group 4 Total Security Limited staff employed under contract to provide detention management services receive a minimum of 15 days initial training on all aspects of health and safety, race relations, domestic management and duty of care towards immigration detainees. A refresher course is provided after one year's service".--[ Official Report , 24 March 1994 ; Vol. 240, c. 346-7 .]

It is alarming that they are given only 15 days training before being responsible for the health and welfare of a large number of people.

We have now discovered that those people have been moved to a series of prisons and police stations. When we asked the Secretary of State the cost of holding people in asylum, he said :

"The available information does not identify separately those detention costs which relate to people who have sought asylum."--[ Official Report , 25 March 1994 ; Vol.240, c. 442 .]

I find that surprising.

The BBC contacted me the other day saying that, of the 47,000 people in this country who have applied for asylum in the United Kingdom, only 645 are presently being detained. They asked me to admit that that was an insignificant number. I said that it sounded like 645 denials of justice.

If people seek asylum, they should be treated properly. If there is a case against them, it should be out in the open and examined in court. But it is not right that those who seek asylum end up in prison with no charges against them, and no right of appeal other than to bodies appointed by the Home Office in the first place. It is a scandal of the greatest proportions, and it is time that the lid was taken off it. We do not want more hunger strikes or deaths as a result of people seeking safety in this country from oppression in other parts of the world.

11.18 am

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing this debate. May I express my support for his views ? It is significant that my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Leicestershire, East (Mr. Vaz) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) are here. If arrangements were easier, many more hon. Members on both sides of the House would be here, because of the growing concern about the extent of detention to which people, including those seeking asylum, are subject. Detention has now become a central part of the Government's immigration control.

The latest figures show that, during the past 12 months, about 9, 000 people were placed in detention, from all immigration categories, including asylum seekers. At present, 645 asylum seekers are in detention ; 70 of them are refusing to eat ; and about 23 of the 70 are at Campsfield house, which I visited on Tuesday. Ten of those 23 men and women have been refusing food for 18 days, eight for 17 days, one for 16 days and one for 11 days.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, at the peak of the campaign to refuse food, which started in February, with a second phase starting in early

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March, about 120 people at Campsfield were refusing food. Their refusal to eat is not a protest against the building in which they are kept--facilities there are much better than those in any prison or detention centres that I have visited in this country and abroad- -but a protest about the length of time for which they have been held in detention, and the Government's refusal to allow more applications for asylum to be considered while applicants are living in the community and reluctance to grant what is called "temporary admission".

Of the 180 people detained in Campsfield house when I visited it on Tuesday, 43 had been held for between three and six months, 44 for between six and nine months, three for between nine and 12 months and five for 12 months or more. About 55 men and women at Campsfield house have now been held there for between three and 12 months, which is disgraceful. There is no reason why people should be held in detention for that length of time.

I thank all the officials I met at Campsfield house on Tuesday for the time and attention they gave me when showing me the facilities and answering my many questions. A qualified doctor was brought to Campsfield house on a regular basis only as recently as 10 days ago to monitor the health of people refusing to eat. I was told on Tuesday that two detainees had been referred to hospital, one for refusing treatment and the other because the doctor felt that he was in need of psychiatric treatment.

It is clear that it was some weeks after the hunger strike campaign began before a qualified doctor and nurses were brought to Campsfield house to monitor their medical condition properly ; that fact is reinforced by the chairman of the visiting panel and the doctor. It is also clear that the Home Office had not envisaged the need for psychiatric help, counselling and support, which is required by asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing from torture, violence and unknown horrors. It is wrong not to have made such arrangements for detainees at Campsfield house. I am also confident that they are not made at other detention centres.

The Government are wrong to propose additional detention places. A more appropriate use of Campsfield house would be as a detention centre for young offenders, which is what it used to be. Harmondsworth should be closed, and there is no case for the 500 additional detention places that the Government are planning. The other urgent reform is to give detainees rights. A detainee, including an asylum seeker, has no rights. It is high time that they should have the right to apply for bail, that there should be independent scrutiny of the length of time that they are held in detention, and that they should have free access to qualified and proper legal advice and representation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North on securing the debate, and on his extensive work to highlight the plight of asylum seekers, their conditions and the need for reforms in the way in which they are treated. I hope that the debate will play an important part in securing those important reforms. 11.25 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington,North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing this debate. The treatment of asylum seekers in this country is an important issue, which has recently been

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the target of much misinformation and ill- informed comment--we have heard some examples of that this morning--within a narrow band of public opinion. I welcome the opportunity to explain Government thinking.

Before I expand my remarks, I shall mention some of the errors of fact. The hon. Member for Islington, North will recall from the Standing Committee on the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill, in which we both participated not long ago, that a statutory obligation is placed on all local authorities to provide accommodation for people who have been issued with a standard acknowledgement letter after applying for asylum. He is aware of that fact.

I am sure that it was a slip of the tongue when the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) said that, altogether, 9,000 people are in detention--the figure that he had in mind was probably 900. About 940 people, and not 9,000, are in detention at any one time.

Mr. Madden : I was careful not to say, at any one time. I said that the latest figures for the past 12 months show that 9,000 people, in all immigration categories, were held in detention. I was also careful to say that 650 are being held in detention.

Mr. Wardle : The hon. Gentleman is correct, and I accept his point. There are 650 asylum applicants. The reason for the misunderstanding between us was that, including all immigration cases, there are a few more than 9,000. His statistic is right, but he did not say that many of those people are detained only overnight before leaving this country.

On the remarks that the hon. Member for Bradford, West made about medical care, I want to make it clear that, from the moment that Campsfield house opened, qualified medical attention was on hand, in the form of general practitioners. Any reference to hospital is based on medical advice.

The hon. Member for Islington, North concentrated his remarks on the use of detention, but he also mentioned the wider subject of asylum. I hope that the House will allow me to comment on the broader picture.

In recent years, every western European country has faced a steep increase in the number of people seeking asylum. The United Kingdom has been no exception. The number of asylum seekers entering the United Kingdom rose sharply from about 4,000 in 1988 to a peak of 45, 000 in 1991. Following the introduction of new screening procedures, the number of applications fell to 25,000 in 1992, but that was still about five times higher than the figure for 1988. Last year, there were a further 23,000 new asylum applications.

As anyone who sat through the debates on the Bill that became the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 will know, only a small minority of those applications are made by people who are genuine refugees under the terms of the Geneva convention, which obliges signatories to consider asylum applications carefully and deliberately.

This country has a proud and consistent record in its treatment of refugees. We will take no lectures from anyone about our willingness to protect those people in real danger of persecution. Our humanitarian record is second to none.

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Mr. Corbyn : If the Government are so proud of their record of caring for people in detention, will the Minister at least apologise for the deaths of Siho Igguven in Harmondsworth detention centre in 1989 and of Lamumba in Pentonville prison last year ?

Mr. Wardle : The hon. Gentleman knows that there have already been responses to those cases. I am talking about this country's humanitarian record ; on reflection, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me.

Asylum applications on the scale of those of recent years put a great strain on decision taking systems. Delays have occurred in most western countries. Delay is the friend of the unentitled and of the person who wants to spin out his or her stay for as long as possible. The large number of asylum applications that this country has received has put severe pressure on the system, but as a result of various measures that we have taken, the backlog at the end of 1993 stood at about 46,000, compared with about 70,000 at the end of 1991.

The great majority of asylum seekers are therefore people who would simply like to settle here and who have no reason to fear persecution if they return to their own countries. That is not just the British view ; it is the experience of many other countries, including our European partners.

Fewer than 5 per cent. of applications in the United Kingdom are found to be justified under the Geneva convention--that is to say, that the people in question have a well founded fear of persecution. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figures show that countries such as Belgium, Germany and Italy have broadly similar recognition rates.

We are determined to maintain a firm approach, to avoid encouraging opportunist applications from persons who have already reached a place of refuge. The 1951 convention does not confer any right on individuals to travel from country to country in order to reach their preferred destination. Asylum seekers are expected to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. When they arrive here, having passed through a safe third country, they will usually be returned to that country for consideration of their application. Nevertheless, under the 1993 Act they have a right of appeal against such a decision.

The purpose of the Dublin convention is to combat the twin problems of asylum seekers shuttling from one country to another and "asylum shopping" within the member states of the European Union for a preferred place of residence. It does so by setting out clear criteria for establishing which country has the obligation to examine applications for asylum.

The 12 member states of the EU are committed to a work programme that leads towards harmonisation of asylum policies and procedures. Harmonisation, however, does not mean uniformity, and changes will not come overnight. That is because each member state's approach is embedded in national laws, procedural approaches and traditions. All discussions among the 12 take full account of member states' broader humanitarian traditions and obligations, including those under the European convention on human rights.

This is the essential background to our short debate ; reading and listening to some recent commentary on detention, one could be forgiven for thinking that all asylum seekers were by definition refugees. In a recent

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editorial in one national newspaper, those refusing food at Campsfield house were described throughout as refugees. In fact, three quarters of them were people who had already been refused asylum, and many had also had appeals refused. They were simply waiting for documentation from their home countries so that they could return to them.

As I have said, the widespread use of asylum seeking to secure entry to a country for which no such leave has been given represents a real threat to effective--firm but fair--immigration control. We have a responsibility to receive and care for those who are genuine refugees, but we also have a responsibility to deal firmly with those who are not.

Our experience is that, to have any chance of achieving this, it is necessary to maintain detention facilities for use in a small minority of cases. Neither my right hon. and learned Friend nor I relish that ; but it is a fact of life that, without these facilities, some people who have no right to remain in this country would have every incentive to disappear into the community, to live here, and quite possibly to work or draw social security, and use local authority housing, the NHS and the state education system. Decisions to detain, I can assure the House, are not taken lightly. It is the immigration service's policy to use detention only as a last resort. The initial decision is taken by a chief immigration officer. If it proves impossible to release or remove the detainee immediately, the decision to detain is reviewed within 24 hours by an immigration service inspector. Thereafter, all detention is reviewed locally at least every seven days. After one month, the case is reviewed at immigration service headquarters, monthly and at an increasingly senior level--so that all those detained for six months or more are reviewed by a director of the service.

The criteria applied are strict. Detention is used only when there is no alternative and when there are good grounds for believing that the person will not comply with the restrictions voluntarily. Staff taking these decisions are expected to take account of all the relevant factors, including a person's history and links, if any, with family and friends in this country.

The consequence is that detention is resorted to for any length of time in a tiny minority of asylum cases. On 17 March, there were 654 people in detention who at one stage or another had claimed asylum. That is less than 1.5 per cent. of the number of outstanding asylum applications. In fact, the true percentage is even lower, since most of the 654 had already had their asylum applications refused. Opposition Members have today made much of the fact that the number of those in detention who at one stage or another have claimed asylum has increased significantly in the past year. It is true that there has been an increase in the number of those detained, but that is hardly surprising, as one of the purposes of the new asylum legislation was to streamline the process so that more cases could be brought to a conclusion more promptly.

Typically, detention is used towards the end of the process for short periods before a person is removed from the country--that accounts for the vast majority of those to whom the hon. Member for Bradford, West referred. Some are detained earlier, and for a few detainees overall periods of detention are still--the procedures introduced by the new Act last year notwithstanding--longer than I would wish.

It has been alleged that no detention decisions may be challenged. That is either a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding of the facts. In the great majority of

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asylum cases, detainees have an opportunity to apply for bail to the independent appellate authorities, appointed not by the Home Office but by the Lord Chancellor's Department. The exceptions are when they have been detained as illegal entrants and, having been apprehended, have claimed asylum. Other exceptions are when appeal rights have been exhausted and all that remains is to effect removal. But anyone refused asylum has a right of appeal under the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993.

Anyone who has an appeal pending may apply to the independent appellate authorities for bail. It follows that all people detained who have been refused asylum and who have appealed may apply to the appellate authorities for bail at any stage until the appeal has finally been dismissed. That includes people given notices of intention to deport them and illegal immigrants who have been refused asylum.

Mr. Corbyn : Our point is that people should be able to appeal against decisions in open court. They should also receive legal aid to have their cases properly heard. We object to this internal system which employs people appointed by the Government. Asylum seekers should enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

Mr. Wardle : I do not agree. I do not think that a separate detention review body would make sense. The independent immigration adjudicators, appointed by the Lord Chancellor's Department, are well respected experts. It goes with the grain of our system to place in their hands the power to grant bail on application in suitable cases. I see no reason to alter that arrangement. The picture that has been painted, of a system out of control in which detention is used on whim and indiscriminately, is thus very far from the truth. The hon. Member for Islington, North also mentioned accommodation. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Bradford, West, who visited Campsfield house earlier this week, say some complimentary things about the facilities there. Campsfield house is a well appointed, newly refurbished new centre, opened in December for this purpose. The difference between it and Haslar is that the latter has more educational facilities. Haslar is used almost exclusively for immigration detainees, and it operates on lines similar to the immigration detention centres at Harmondsworth and Campsfield house. These apart, there are rather more than 200 immigration detainees in prisons. Some are so violent or disruptive that there is no alternative, but I should still like the numbers in prison to be reduced. What we can and do ensure, however, is that, where detainees are held in ordinary prisons, they have full access to their representatives and are, wherever possible, held separately from convicted prisoners. Anyone in those circumstances who chooses to leave the country can leave detention and leave the country straight away.

Partly in an effort to enable less reliance to be placed on the prison service, there is a programme in hand to create new purpose-built facilities, and Campsfield house is an example. We are planning a total of 350 additional places.

Ample arrangements exist at Campsfield and other detention centres for access by advisers, representatives and other visitors. Information is provided in a number of languages, and at Campsfield there is an introductory video for new arrivals.

One newspaper recently described Campsfield house as the Department's special isolation unit. Having seen it

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myself, as I know the hon. Member for Bradford, West has done, I know that it is nothing of the sort ; it is a decent, well-managed environment in which to carry out a difficult but essential function.

That brings me to the refusal of food by detainees, which has attracted the attention of some of the media to the detention arrangements in recent weeks. This morning, just three detainees at Campsfield, and a total of 28 detainees across the country, are still refusing food. I regret that some people have decided to take this course. If they have done so in the belief that it would assist their cases or lead to generalised release of those taking part, they are sadly mistaken.

No one will alter the merits of his case by refusing meals. We cannot stop people abusing their health in this futile fashion, but it will do no good whatsoever. We cannot force them to eat, and I take the opportunity to state categorically again that there has not been and will not be any force feeding of detainees. It is mischievous to suggest otherwise.

Our main concern throughout has been to ensure that those who have been harming themselves by refusing food should have adequate medical attention. The procedures which have been followed are those adopted by the prison service in similar situations. These involve examination by a doctor after four days--doctors are there daily--after which there will be daily monitoring and 24-hour nursing care. After about eight days, the detainee is examined again by a consultant physician or psychiatrist. Food is made available throughout. There is the option of transfer to a hospital for medical examination or treatment, and this has been done in some cases.

The Government's aim has been and continues to be to handle a difficult problem in a measured and responsible way. Our ability to do so has not been helped by the often hysterical and, at times, aggressive behaviour of the rent-a-mob crowd who frequently gathered outside Campsfield house recently. It has been a motley coalition of the Oxford Trades Union Council, the Socialist Workers party, the Revolutionary Communist party and others of that ilk, including, last Saturday, the hon. Member for Islington, North. I understand that he was seen on television and was amongst a crowd who trespassed on Campsfield house property. Some people in that crowd--I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman was included in their number--were hurling lumps of concrete at Group 4 and immigration service staff. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell his constituents about that. I am glad that the number of people refusing food is falling. I should like to congratulate the staff at Campsfield house, the board of visitors there and all those members of the immigration service who have demonstrated such professionalism and sensitivity in the face of this so- called hunger strike.

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Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) rose

Mr. Wardle : I give way to the hon. Lady if her point is brief.

Ms Abbott : Briefly, the Minister has told the House that the fact that people are refusing food will not alter his decision making in any way whatsoever. Is he saying that he is willing to allow people to starve to death in Campsfield house ?

Mr. Wardle : No. I am saying that I will not be subjected to blackmail by anyone who says, "I will put you under threat by endangering my health." We will not do so. It is an individual's own choice to refuse food. I bitterly regret that people should take that decision, but it will not alter the merits of their case in any way. I hope that this short debate has helped shed light on what is an undoubtedly difficult issue. The Government's position is clear : the United Kingdom will continue to honour to the fullest extent its obligations to genuine refugees.

I strongly refute any allegation that our detention policy in any way puts us in breach of the 1951 UN convention on refugees. Nothing in that convention prevents the detention of asylum seekers. Our powers of detention are set in rules which flow from the Immigration Act 1971. It has been on the statute book for more than 20 years. In the interests of the effective immigration control to which the Government are committed, the exploitation of the asylum process by those who have no conceivable claim to refugee status must be dealt with firmly. The limited use of detention is a necessary part of that process, but detention is used sparingly and administered in a professional and humane way.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of people in Britain of all ethnic origins agree with our firm but fair approach to immigration control. I have no doubt that they also accept that the Government are striking the right balance and discharging their responsibilities sensitively in a difficult and controversial area.

Mr. Corbyn : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister referred to a demonstration outside Campsfield house last Saturday. It also included people from Churches and many political parties. He also claimed that I was there, and witnessed the throwing of lumps of concrete. I witnessed no throwing of any lumps of concrete. Indeed, I took part in an entirely peaceful demonstration. That is the point I made to the crowd and the television cameras. In view of what he said, perhaps the Minister will at last agree to meet Members of Parliament to discuss what is going on.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that he is making a point of substance, but not a point of order for the Chair.

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Child Support Agency

11.45 pm

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale) : I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the problems created by the Child Support Agency.

Earlier this week, when I was called in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee of Selection to move a motion on the vexed question of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland, I had a much greater audience than I have this morning. Perhaps something I said did not appeal to the hon. Members who were present that day. There is one great satisfaction, however--in no speech that I have ever made in the House have I had so many interruptions as I did on Tuesday, and I am unlikely to have many interruptions this morning.

I make no apology for raising the issue again, although the vexed question of the Child Support Agency has had many airings this year. That demonstrates the misgivings about how the Child Support Agency is working.

When the legislation was introduced, I welcomed it. I believed that strenuous efforts would be made to ensure that absent husbands who were evading their responsibilities would be made to pay something towards their children's maintenance. I have been quickly disillusioned because the Child Support Agency has concentrated on the easy option and gone for ex-husbands who were paying what they could afford. I have now reached the stage when every advice bureau that I hold includes someone complaining about his treatment by the Child Support Agency. At one advice bureau earlier this year, I had to deal with four such cases.

My anger erupted when I received a reply dated 23 March to a letter that I had written on 29 January. My constituent's name was mentioned in the first line, after which there was no mention of his name and no answers to his problem. The letter was merely a statement of the aims of the Child Support Agency. The last line was :

"I hope this reply answers most, if not all, of your constituent's concerns".

It did not refer to any of my constituent's concerns. The man's take-home pay is between £150 and £180 a week. Yet he is being asked to pay £178.22 per month. How can he be expected to pay that much out of what most people would agree are modest earnings ? The letter that I wrote on 29 January was a waste of time because my constituent's personal circumstances were never referred to in the reply. I am not complaining only about ministerial replies. The agency takes ages to respond, and its replies do not address the problems put to it. My constituents complain that the CSA will not answer their questions by telephone or letter. It seems only to send out draconian assessments. I am told repeatedly of the difficulties of obtaining any response by telephone--the number rings and rings, but no one seems to be there. One constituent wrote that when he telephones the agency, the number is permanently engaged. When, after persevering, the number answers, the staff are invariably rude and aggressive.

One case involves a couple who were divorced in 1990. They have a 10-year- old son, and the ex-husband agreed to pay £150 a month maintenance for his son and to transfer the family home to his ex-wife. He also pays the capital element of the mortgage. Despite being unemployed for 12 months, he maintained those payments and remained in weekly contact with his son. He now makes debt

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repayments also because of a failed business. In October 1993, the Child Support Agency approached the ex-wife and asked for her ex-husband's whereabouts. She was told that if she failed to reveal them it would jeopardise her income support. The ex-husband, despite his loan repayments, was assessed to pay £95.40p per week. He has been drained dry by those payments and only survived by borrowing from his parents. What particularly enrages him is that not one penny of that money has gone to his ex-wife to support his son. On 10 February, I wrote to the CSA's chief executive about that problem. I wrote again on 10 March. As yet, I have received no reply. That falls a long way short of the improved services promised in the citizens charter.

I encountered another difficult case at my last advice bureau, involving a marriage that broke up in 1987. The ex-wife lives in Wales with the two children. No animosity existed between the couple. The ex-wife works full time and receives £4.3p per week family credit. The son is now aged 19 and working, and the daughter is seventeen and a half years old and still in full-time education. The ex-husband was paying £25 per week maintenance for his daughter. That was acceptable to the ex-wife because at the time of the divorce a substantial settlement was agreed under which the ex-husband bought a home for his ex-wife in Wales. However, because she is in receipt of family credit, the law demands that her ex-husband is assessed by the CSA--and his assessment is £201.50p a month. Because there was no animosity between that former couple and the ex-wife feels that her ex-husband has been fair to her, she asked to come off family credit but was told that she could not do so for six months, which is nonsense. In that case, all was amicable before the Child Support Agency intervened.

I will cite another case, of a young man who came to see me last Saturday. His weekly living costs, which comprise repayment of two bank loans and other liabilities and expenses, amount to £242.34p per week, and his housing costs are £112.80p plus council tax of £9.85p--a weekly total of £364.99p. That constituent wrote :

"The large number of debts that I have are the result of a failed business venture and from being out of work for eight months last year. During that period of unemployment, I did not claim the cost of the mortgage even though I was eligible to do so.

I originally left my ex-wife in August 1988. At that stage there were no children involved and we had been living in her mother's five-bedroomed house. I had left for a week when I was informed that my ex-wife was pregnant. It was totally unexpected and unplanned on my part. I decided to move back in to help with the pregnancy and the initial few months. I also agreed to buy a house for them to live in.

I left in February 1989. I made regular cash payments during the course of 1989 and 1990, and I also bought her a car at her request so that she would be able to take our son to her mother or to friends, thus allowing her to work. I also paid for a holiday for them both to go to Switzerland. In February 1991 my ex-wife took me to court in order that more maintenance could be obtained. I defended myself, with the judge ruling that the payments I was making were sufficient and that we were to continue in the same manner. I continued to make regular payments through 1991. In January 1992 I applied through my solicitor to standardise my payments through an official court order, to which she did not reply. I then offered her £35 per week, which was rejected. At the beginning of 1992 my business fell apart, with my ex-partner departing for Hong Kong, leaving behind a company in debt. I was then struggling financially and not in a position to make payments to my ex-wife on a regular basis.

Towards the end of 1992, whilst unemployed I once again made an offer of £30 per week to be enforced once I resumed working, to which she did not reply. The offer has been on the

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table for the last one and a half years . . . I understand that my ex-wife has worked since the separation but do not know whether she is at present."

That constituent faces enormous financial difficulties. Yet all that he asks is that

"in the light of some of the horror stories you hear in the media . . . a fair assessment is made taking into account all the facts." That letter raises the important point of how much notice the Child Support Agency takes of essential expenses. What is the logic of a scheme that takes vast sums of money from the ex-husband that he cannot afford, particularly in cases where husbands have been paying their dues and no dispute exists between the ex-partners ? That is a recipe for bitterness.

One hon. Friend told me that when a CSA case arose in an advice bureau held, unusually, on a Friday afternoon, he imagined that the agency's office would be open and telephoned it. He was passed from one office to another, and was eventually put in touch with an office in Scotland, where he received an abusive reply from the man who answered the telephone. That is not good enough.

The CSA should make better use of the telephone when contacting fathers about their assessments. I give as an example of the proper way to behave the disability living allowance telephone unit in Blackpool, which is invariably helpful and deals efficiently with problems put to it. The Child Support Agency should also telephone at sensible times. If people are at work, there is not much use calling them at home during the day. Perhaps calls to ex-husbands, for example, should be made in the evening, when they will be at home. I hope that the CSA can be made more sensitive, courteous and customer friendly. It must be aware of the ill feeling that it has engendered. There is a suspicion that its principal motive is to save income support money. It is strange that every constituent who has seen me about the agency has been a decent person who always paid maintenance. I have not come across one absent father who dodged maintenance--the sort of individual the legislation was designed to catch.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister replies it will be interesting if he can give an indication of the number of absent fathers who have been brought into the net. The CSA's workings must be closely examined. Taxpayers have borne the burden of missing fathers for many years. Agency arrangements are intended to reduce it, but the speed at which that burden is reduced must be governed by consideration of those who will be affected. I want to hear less about administrative convenience and more about fairness to all the parties involved.

The scheme started as a good idea. It was greeted with approval from both sides of the House and it was passed without a vote against, but it has not worked out as we envisaged. I was distressed when a hard-working father with a decent job told me that if the assessment that he had been given was not reduced he would be better off giving up his job and going on benefit. That surely is something that we must avoid at all costs. It cannot be right, and it was certainly not one of the aims of the legislation. It is essential that we get the balance right in determining how the burden should be distributed between the various parties involved. I believe that it is urgent, because we shall

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keep getting those cases at our advice bureaux until action is taken. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can give some indication of what is being done.

12 pm

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham andSale (Sir F. Montgomery) on securing this important debate. As ever, he has made a constructive speech, drawing my attention and that of the Government to several issues. He discussed the policies underlying the Child Support Agency, but the main thrust of his speech was about the impact of the new arrangements on a number of his constituents who have exercised their right to mention their worries to him. I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that I will consider the details of those cases and take careful account of the arguments that he has made.

Whatever detailed reservations my hon. Friend may have--I will discuss some of those subjects later--I am sure that he still agrees with the underlying principle of the Child Support Act 1991, which is that it should be concerned with the welfare of the children in such cases. I hope that he will accept that we are all genuinely trying to find our way through some new and difficult issues so as to develop a satisfactory and sustainable system in the long term. As I believe that my hon. Friend will understand, these matters are normally the detailed responsibility of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), the Under-Secretary of State ; due to a minor indisposition, he is unfortunately unable to take part in the debate, but he will read with great care the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale has made.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has explained on several occasions, the principles that underpin the Child Support Agency are right. I believe that it is right that taxpayers' interests should be taken into account. I cannot understand why there should be circumstances in which taxpayers, who may be only marginally, if at all, better off than many absent fathers, should pick up the bill for the maintenance of children who are not their responsibility. We should not lose sight of that principle as we properly take account of the way in which the administrative and other arrangements are developing from the early days of the new policy. I believe that the taxpayers' interests should be taken into account.

A second immensely important part of the policy is that a parent with care- -usually, but not always, a woman--should have the assurance of a guaranteed regular income, which she knows will be there regardless of whether she decides to work. It is an important underlying principle of the policy that that should be a part of the system. At present, if a parent with care is on benefit and decides to take work, even at a modest level, her income will reduce the amount of benefit and eventually eliminate the benefit to which she is entitled. That, manifestly, is not the best incentive to encourage lone parents to go out and earn their living, as many of them wish to do. If a woman has a guaranteed--and, in a sense, portable in terms of her circumstances--amount of money coming in week by week or month by month, it is an important underpinning of her standard of living, which she can improve if she wishes to add to her income by working. As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale acknowledged, the 1991 Act was passed with the universal

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approval of the House, responding to widespread anxiety about the lack of proper financial provision for children whose parents live apart. That in itself is a significant burden for those children and causes considerable anguish to many of the parents. We faced a situation in which nearly 1 million lone parents and their children depended on income support, yet only one quarter of those received any regular maintenance.

The old system of obtaining maintenance through the courts or Department of Social Security offices was obviously failing parents with care, and their children. It was slow, inaccessible, unpredictable, and often led to low and inconsistent settlements. The 1991 Act was designed to halt the significant decline in the payment of maintenance which had occurred during the previous decade as people increasingly realised that it was possible to turn to the state to support children for whom they ought to have accepted responsibility.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : I hope that my right hon. Friend will answer the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) about the large number of parents who have not paid maintenance or who have paid maintenance very irregularly. Those surely should be the prime target of the Child Support Agency, as the House believed when it passed that legislation without controversy, as my hon. Friend said. There is a widespread suspicion, which I believe is borne out by the evidence, that the Child Support Agency is going for the easy target of people with reasonably high incomes who are already paying maintenance and are therefore easy to locate.

Mr. Scott : I will answer the point made by my hon. Friend when I discuss more detailed points. However, the House should acknowledge that to endorse the principle but to argue, as many Opposition Members tend to, against almost every detail of the implementation of the Child Support Act is not a very constructive way forward. I do not accuse my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) of that, and he properly draws my attention to what I believe to be a misunderstanding, although perhaps the pattern of cases that he receives has led him to that view. No doubt he will take that up with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, as he may have done already, and have that worry removed.

I believe that it was important to move in the direction of the 1991 Act. It is worth reminding the House that this week the National Council for One Parent Families published its report on the first year's work of the Child Support Agency. In introducing the report, Sue Slipman, who is director of the council, did her best--as someone who has not been afraid to be critical of Government policy in a number of different sectors--to put the criticisms of the Child Support Agency into context. It may be useful to read two or three sentences that Miss Slipman included in her report :

"What has been forgotten in the uproar is that the Agency was set up to redress a great social wrong. The court system failed to deliver maintenance for children. Before the Child Support Agency, only 30 per cent. of lone parents got any maintenance for their children and, even those few who did, received woefully inadequate sums. As a result of this the growing experience of thousands of children was abandonment by one parent and a life in poverty with the other."

I have no doubt that it was right for us to tackle that situation, and that was a clear indication to us all of the reasons why we needed a Child Support Act.

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