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Column 1088The basic and unassailable principle behind the new system is that both parents should be responsible for maintaining their children when they can afford to do so. The role of the taxpayer should be limited to those cases in which parents do not have the means to meet that obligation. I believe that that principle has widespread support within the country. However, no one could have been in the Department of Social Security since the introduction of the scheme without recognising that there were genuine concerns about some of the ways in which the new system was working.
Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth) : This is an important matter and many people in my constituency have come under undue pressure from the Child Support Agency when we should be chasing absent fathers. Has my hon. Friend noticed that the Labour party, which has been huffing and puffing about the issue for some time, cannot be bothered to have a representative here to listen to this important debate ?
Mr. Scott : That is a matter for the judgment of Labour Members. I can understand the temptation to be otherwise engaged on the last day of the Session, and I cannot say that the thought did not cross my own mind as to whether I might be better employed. However, in view of the important points put by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, I am delighted to be able to play a small part in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will recognise that we have made recent changes in the operation of the system to meet some of the concerns raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House during the early months of the Act's operation. Those changes included a substantial increase in the minimum amount of income that an absent parent will keep after meeting his maintenance liability, a reduction in the additional element where there is liability for only one or two children, a reduction in the amount included for the care needs of the children as they grow older and an extension of the arrangements for phasing in the new amounts.
It is early days for us to be judging how those easements, if I may so describe them, are working. As we have greater experience of their impact, I believe that they will represent a significant easing of some of the problems raised by my hon. Friend and by many others in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in recent weeks. They are important reforms and they will have a substantial impact on the amount of maintenance that some absent parents will have to pay. The other side of the coin is that they will have an impact on the amount of maintenance received by some parents with care. No doubt there will be voices from both sides as to where the precise balance should lie. I believe that the changes will be of particular benefit to absent parents on low incomes or with responsibilities for second families.
I understand that the changes have not met all the criticisms of the scheme and it is understandable that some absent parents continue to be dissatisfied. However, I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon Members who have raised points in the debate will give the changes a fair wind to see how they settle down and the extent to which they meet the concerns that their constituents have rightly raised with them.
Column 1089take note and communicate to our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary the concerns of which we are all aware about the way in which the Child Support Agency pursues the regulations. My right hon. Friend knows that there is controversy about the regulations laid down by Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale talked about maladministration and I sit on the Select Committee which looks after the parliamentary ombudsman. The ombudsman is being encouraged to take up a number of cases in which maladministration has taken place, quite apart from the argument about the formula and the regulations.
Mr. Scott : I know that there is concern about this matter and it is shared by the chief executive of the Child Support Agency. The agency has devoted considerable resources to training its staff to provide prompt and courteous replies. In the early days there is no doubt that the agency was under considerable administrative pressure. However, the chief executive has deployed considerable resources and effort to seek to overcome those problems. There is now a customer service manager in each agency centre, as well as a national inquiry line for those who need particular help. The agency has recently restated its aim to provide a good service. I am always sorry when any part of what I call the social security family fails to deliver the quality of service to which people are entitled when they turn to it for one reason or another. I hope and believe that in the coming weeks and months we shall see a substantial reduction in the level of dissatisfaction expressed.
Points were made about the priorities that the agency had set itself. It is important to remember that in almost every case that the Child Support Agency will handle this year the parent with care and her children will be on benefit. In contrast, the vast majority of absent parents--I do not pretend that it is 100 per cent.--including many of those who have been in contact with the Government and have condemned the scheme, enjoy a much higher standard of living than the parent with care. It is right that their children, for whom they cannot brush aside their long-standing responsibility, should share in that prosperity.
The Government stand by their commitment to keep the child support scheme under review. The changes that we have made are proof of that commitment and of our determination to move swiftly in making adjustments as the need arises. The fact that we have already acted quickly shows that we intend to honour our pledges. The
Column 1090administrative shortcomings that have been mentioned are being tackled urgently. There is still too high a level of outstanding correspondence on this issue, but it is being tackled with great energy by those responsible within the agency system.
It has been said that the Child Support Agency has concentrated on the easy option--those already paying. However, at the end of January, 50 per cent. of assessments made were for absent parents who paid nothing at all. We believe that by now, the end of the financial year, that figure will have risen to about 60 per cent. So the agency is getting its priorities right.
I hope that I have dealt with the administrative problems. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and the chief executive are anxious to be made aware of any shortcomings in that area and, as I have already said, we are determined to address that as a matter of urgency.
In general, we must allow the changes announced by my hon. Friend the Under -Secretary of State to bed down and we must allow absent parents and parents with care to feel the real effect of them. I believe that when that happens, criticisms of the scheme will begin to abate. I have no doubt that there will continue to be individual cases that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to raise with Ministers, and we shall take those seriously. I took the trouble to look at some of the letters that have been written by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale expressing particular worries and I can assure him that they are being considered with great care. He has had some replies already and I know that others will follow. We shall look at the individual cases responsibly and carefully and see whether there are patterns that need to be addressed in any future changes that we make to the agency. I reaffirm my belief and the Government's corporate belief that the Child Support Act represents a major step forward in the provision of child maintenance in Britain. Details may still have to be fine-tuned, but a formula-based scheme producing consistent results is a much better guarantee for the future of our children than the inconsistent and unsatisfactory system that we left behind. I repeat my commitment and that of my colleagues in the Department to keep the matter thoroughly under review and to take careful account of any continuing concerns that hon. Members may have.
Sitting suspended .
Column 1091On resuming :
Water Bills (South-West) 12.30 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I have sought a debate because residents in the South West Water area are being hit by a crisis. They are struggling to pay the highest water bills in England and Wales. This year average bills for the region are £340. The charges have more than doubled in the past five years, and they are set to double again.
The reason for that is simple. Less than 3 per cent. of the nation's population--the people of the south-west--are being forced to pay to fund the clean-up of 30 per cent. of the nation's beaches. South West Water predicts that, even without taking account of inflation, in the year 2000 a typical bill will be at least £450 a year. If we allow for inflation, average bills could be £700 a year by 2000. Without help for those on low incomes or living alone, already many people simply cannot afford the bills. Some bills facing pensioners and others on low incomes are already more than £600, yet no help is available.
The Government have repeatedly claimed that they were unaware of the huge problems and of the huge bills that would face South West Water rate payers. More recently, they have claimed that they are doing what they can to tackle the problems. However, ever since privatisation was proposed they have been repeatedly warned that the problem of water charges in the south- west had to be addressed and solved.
In the final stages of the water privatisation debate on 8 December 1988 I said :
"I represent an area where people are on low incomes, where some villages do not yet have their own sewerage systems, and where many beaches are polluted. It is they who will have to foot the bill for the improvements that are required".
I warned that both future British Government support and much of the European funding available to the public sector but not to the private sector could be cut off by privatisation, saying
"The work is essential to bring our beaches up to the European standard, and I hope that the Minister can assure the people of Cornwall that they will not be expected to meet all the costs of cleaning up the beaches, which are used by citizens of the United Kingdom and Europe, purely because the Government, by their ideological approach, are cutting off the potential to obtain money in other ways".--[ Official Report , 8 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 535-36.]
Yet Ministers now say that they did not see the problem coming. And so far as I recall, with the honourable exception of the then Member of Parliament for Falmouth and Camborne, David Mudd, no hon. Member representing the south-west joined me in opposing the Water Act. In practice those worries were quickly confirmed. In February 1989 I wrote to the then Secretary of State for the Environment protesting at proposed increases of 13.1 per cent. for South West Water customers. Such was my concern that I then sought and won an Easter Adjournment debate on water and sewerage in the south-west, almost exactly five years ago, on 13 March 1989. I cited then the concerns of local people and again stressed the particular problems of the area and said :
"I am concerned that people in Cornwall will have to pay to clear up the mess after privatisation simply because successive Governments"
this is true of Labour as well as of Conservative Governments "have failed to invest properly in clean water and proper sewerage systems.
Column 1092Although only 1.5 million live in the South West Water area, at times there are up to 500,000 tourists supplementing that number. Local people therefore have to pay for the infrastructure to support a heavy influx of visitors. Those visitors are welcome, but I am sure that they expect the beaches to be cleaned up through national intervention and Government money, rather than depending on an over- stretched local private company."
I concluded :
"Prices are already rising from the privatisation burden and so falling on local populations. It is time that the Government started to think about the public good rather than private affluence. After all their words about the environment, they could not do better than to start by investing some of the Chancellor's surplus billions in tomorrow's Budget into cleaning up our water. They would be doing so by public demand."--[ Official Report , 13March 1989 ; Vol. 149, c. 67 and 69.]
That was when the Government had money to spare for substantial tax cuts for the wealthy. They did not invest the money to help low-income families.
Ministers still say that they could not see the problem coming. Conservative Members of Parliament across the region had still not woken up to the scale of the problem that was to emerge. A little over a year later, on 16 July 1990, I won a further Adjournment debate on the subject of sewage pollution in Cornwall and the cost of treating it. It followed new Government announcements that they were bringing forward the clean-up programme dramatically, but not increasing the so-called green dowry allowed to water companies at the time of privatisation to meet the then environmental obligations placed on them. That is a crucial point for those Conservatives who have sought to blame Europe for the rising costs.
Not only is it a fact that European standards could be set only with the agreement of British Ministers, who had a right of veto, but the British Government took the decision to increase and accelerate the clean-up. In 1989, the EC had drafted the municipal waste water treatment directive, the precursor to what is now the urban waste water directive. In 1990, before it was agreed, the United Kingdom Government not only brought forward the beach clean-up, but jumped the gun on the municipal waste water treatment proposals by unilaterally adopting them for immediate application.
The Government responded to the fourth report of the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment published in December 1990. In the introduction to the response the Department stated : "the Government decided to press its own review to a conclusion and not to await the results of the Committee's deliberations . . . In March the Government announced a major change of policy to require higher standards of treatment before sewage effluent is discharged to sea. The Secretary of State for the Environment said that in future all significant discharges of sewage to sea should first be treated at sewage treatment works : the additional cost associated with this change was put at around £1.5 billion".
That was a United Kingdom decision, not a European one. I do not disagree with the decision--the clean-up is welcome. But it is not possible for the Government to blame others for decisions that they took in advance of European decisions.
The introduction to the response to the Select Committee concluded :
"Government policies in this area are in advance of Community environmental policy developments as contained in a draft EC Directive on Municipal Waste Water Treatment which is currently the subject of negotiation. This Directive if adopted will establish uniform minimum standards throughout the European Community. The Government strongly supports this draft directive and is working towards its early adoption."
That confirms that the Government took those decisions in
Column 1093advance of Europe and were instrumental in persuading Europe to adopt them. It is good that they did so, but the Government cannot now shift the blame on to others.
Due to my concerns I sought an Adjournment debate on 16 July 1990. Referring to the privatisation of water I said
Referring to the privatisation of water, I said :
"To show how powerful that problem is, South West Water has been unable to provide me with a figure for the cost of introducing secondary or tertiary treatment for sewage outfalls in Cornwall. It says that the implications of the Secretary of State's announcement are still being assessed, but will the Minister clarify that ? By how much, and when, does he foresee charges rising to tackle these problems ? Massive investment is needed. For such a policy to be introduced on the back of water ratepayers, pensioners and others who are struggling to pay their bills is unacceptable and the Government must seek an alternative route."
I concluded :
"Given all the sources of finance available to Government, they must make available the money to meet these costs."
It did not take long for the extra burden on the already rising water bills to be confirmed, together with the fact that the Government would not in any form help with the costs of the bills, which were set to fall so hard on South West Water rate payers. At the end of the Adjournment debate, the Minister, the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), concluded :
"It is much better for private companies to raise money from charges to customers. The Government apply that system generally and Cornwall will be no exception."--[ Official Report , 16 July 1990 ; Vol. 176, c. 836- 42.]
The director general of water services was formally notified of the Government's decision on 14 November 1990 and he had, therefore, to raise the limit on South West Water price rises as the Government had not announced any funding or increase in the green dowry to help meet the costs of the new standard. He announced that South West Water's increase over and above inflation would be allowed, not at 6.5 per cent., as planned after privatisation, but at 11.5 per cent. plus inflation each year. In other words, prices have doubled in the past five years, which has everything to do with the Government's decision. Yet Ministers still say that they did not see the problem coming.
Looking through the relevant press cuttings throughout the period, I cannot find south-west Conservative Members arguing the same point. Perhaps some did. However, it was 1992, especially the general election campaign, that really seems to have woken them up. The Minister should realise
Column 1094that there is now a strong, cross-party case, echoed not only by Members of Parliament of all parties in the south- west, but by many independent organisations.
The first reaction about which we read was on 6 May 1992. Following substantial gains in the south-west by the Liberal Democrats, the Western Morning News reported :
"MPs returning to Westminster after the election campaign have spoken of widespread anger and concern on the doorstep over soaring water bills."
The article said that the Members of Parliament believed that it was unfair that local people were having to pay for the clean-up of the region's coastline when it was a national asset enjoyed by millions of holidaymakers every year. A separate article in the West Briton on 21 May reported the then chairperson of the west country Conservative Members committee, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), as saying :
" We all found that this was one of the main issues locally in the General Election . . . People are right to complain about the escalating charges'".
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I have already ruled that it is up to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) to decide whether to give way or not. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has been here long enough to know that.
Mr. Taylor : In a further Liberal Democrat-initiated Adjournment debate on 2 June 1992, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who was newly elected, again pressed the issue. He pointed out the low incomes of the area and told the Minister : "There is therefore now a major affordability gap between what is expected of the water charge payers of the south-west and what they can afford . . . what can the Minister do, post privatisation, to reintroduce national Exchequer support, by way of a green dowry or by any other means, to ensure equalisation between the richer and less well-off parts of the country and to ensure adequate investment in national assets such as the south-west coastline ?"
Despite echoes of our concerns from Conservative Members, the Minister was dismissive, describing South West Water's rising charges as
"good value to a household."--[ Official Report , 2 June 1992 ; Vol. 208, c. 798-808.]
Apparently the Government, although not Back-Bench Conservative Members, had still not realised the severity of the problem. When Cornish Conservatives met the then Secretary of State for the Environment on 9 July, the Western Morning News reported the Minister as saying :
"There is no question of water users elsewhere subsidising the clean up in the West country, nor of any Treasury help."
In August, the regional office of Ofwat called on the Government to give special cash to the region to ease the problem, but it was turned down straight by the Minister. In November, Ofwat released figures showing that South West Water prices were rising at almost twice the rate as those in other parts of the country and that by the year 2000
Column 1095bills were likely to be twice as high as those in the affluent south-east. In January 1993, Liberal Democrat Members presented the Prime Minister with our document calling for a fair deal and some 30, 000 signatures in support of the campaign to get water prices cut. The Government's position became increasingly confused.
On 4 March, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister wrongly argued that I would find that water prices were
"similar in other counties to those in the west country."--[ Official Report , 4 March 1993 ; Vol. 220, c. 451.]
The following week, however--after an outcry throughout the west country-- the Prime Minister gave a more positive response when I questioned him again on 11 March, saying :
"I am examining the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment."--[ Official Report , 11 March 1994 ; Vol.220, c.1105.]
The news that the Prime Minister was acknowledging the scale of the problem was extremely welcome, and gained him positive coverage. On 12 March, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) told the Western Morning News :
"Ultimately the Government is the only thing that can come to the rescue of the South West."
It seemed that the Government were taking action. At this point, the hon. Member for Teignbridge may wish to intervene.
Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Gentleman's generosity overwhelms me. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that a party that would apply qualified majority voting to everything, and then dispense with a national veto, would actually have used the Luxembourg compromise to defeat these directives ?
Mr. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman has not been listening. I said that I agreed with them ; I also said that the British Government introduced them, not the European Parliament. That is made absolutely clear in the Government's response to the Environment Select Committee's report in December 1990--and, in fact, this occurred before Europe had set those standards.
Mr. Nicholls : My point is that the directives that have inflicted this level of water charges on the south-west were imposed by Europe ; they have never been imposed by the House of Commons. It is a disgrace, even by the hon. Gentleman's standards, that he has had the bare-faced, brazen cheek to pretend to the House that the Liberal party--which would give away our ability to veto--would have vetoed in our place.
By April, the Prime Minister was writing to Conservative Members to tell them that there were now difficulties in lowering bills. That led the Western Morning News , correctly, to predict catastrophe for the Conservatives in the county elections. Meanwhile, the environment Minister disclaimed any responsibility, arguing in a letter to south-west Liberal Democrat Members on 27 April :
"Responsibility for water charges rests with the Director General of Water Services",
denying that the Government were considering a review of water prices and refusing even to attend a meeting to discuss the issue.
Column 1096That confirmed comments made to the Western Morning News on 23 April, when a Department of the Environment spokesperson --named, unusually ; I shall not name that person, as he or she is not present to answer--said :
"Why should we give South West Water any money ? That was why they were privatised. It is up to them to get the money they need from their customers."
The news report continued :
"Mr. Howard's Department said yesterday there was no review, and stressed that curbing water prices was a matter for the industry watchdog, Ofwat."
Within two weeks, however, the Director General of Ofwat, Ian Byatt, was reported in the Western Morning News on 7 May as confirming that
"only the Government can stop South west Water bills spiralling". He said that price limits were
"based on environmental obligations laid down by the Government, and he had little room for manoeuvre."
In September, the National Consumer Council published a report entitled "Paying the Price", arguing that water privatisation had produced a bonanza for shareholders but a raw deal for customers. People in the south-west would certainly agree with that. The sense of a Government in complete confusion over the issue was greatly increased in October, when the new water Minister told the Western Morning News :
"Ministers had no idea how much the coastal clean up would cost when they signed up".
According to the newspaper,
"he agreed that Ministers had to take some blame."
At the beginning of December, Downing street officials briefed Sunday newspapers that the Government had won "important concessions" on relaxing standards to cut the rise in bills, only to have to backtrack. On 14 December, The Independent reported :
"The Department of the Environment has admitted that nothing agreed at last week's summit would change the price of water or the rules governing its quality for several years to come."
The Government are apparently still examining ways in which to minimise the clean-up, although that would hurt the tourist industry and would only slow down the increase in bills--and would not even do that for several years. In 1993, the Secretary of State for the Environment wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), saying :
"The work is proceeding urgently but it may take some time." The work now appears to hinge on redefining sensitive coastal waters as less sensitive waters, and therefore pollutable. Under EC rules, that process was due for completion by December 1993 but the Government have not even met that target. The Government have failed to meet the deadline by more than three months. It is rumoured that many projects in some of the most important tourist and environmental sites in the area, including St. Ives and Newquay, could be affected.
The Minister must take the opportunity today to stop making excuses and recounting the history lesson that he gives every time. He must answer a few straight questions : what is happening now about less sensitive waters ? Has a list been drawn up ? If so, when will it be published and approved, and what EC approval is required ? We have proposed solutions that would cut bills now. First, the Government should replace the outdated water rates system with a system based on council tax charges, which would help people living alone or on low incomes.