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was still possible for local, elected representatives to use their own initiative to introduce programmes, which had been placed before the electors in a democratic way, and when those councillors were at least allowed to try to get on with those programmes and to prove that they were achievable. As I have said, there was partnership at that time.

During those years, I was elected as the chairman of the economic development committee of Merseyside county council and I helped to promote a scheme to help small businesses known as CHASE--county help for active small enterprises. That scheme was able to generate 9,000 jobs on Merseyside--not small beer when one considers the economic background against which it was done. Also, it was cost effective in the creation of those jobs--even more cost effective than the regional aids which were then available to local authorities and to the regions. We helped to create 30 worker co-operatives. In other words, the partnership was not only between central and local government but between local government and the people in the areas that we represented.

We created a Merseyside enterprise board and a training board. We helped to promote the interests of Liverpool airport. We stretched out a hand to all parts of the communities in our area, including the churches. The Archbishop of Liverpool and the Bishop of Liverpool, who have done so much to promote the positive image of the area that I represent, were members of the Merseyside enterprise forum, along with trade unionists and representatives of the business community. We were the greatest promoters of the arts of all local authorities outside the area covered by the Greater London council. We were the originators of the maritime museum and, in a sense, of the Albert dock development, which has been much discussed and is an attraction to tourists throughout the world. In my constituency, we promoted the development of Croxteth hall and country park. As I have said, in those days we were allowed to use our initiative in creating, in that case, an enterprise, which became 20th in the league of attractions for tourists entering this country.

Since those days, the county council has gone, many of the services for which it was responsible have disappeared and the expenditure of that county council has fallen in large part to Liverpool city council. However, there has not been any considerable additional funding and the city council finds it difficult to fund the programmes to which the Minister referred, such as the urban development corporation. The Merseyside urban development corporation has been moderately successful, but in the area for which the corporation was responsible there were 1,000 fewer jobs after its first six years than there were before. Indeed, a report was discussed in the House which emanated from the National Audit Office some years ago.

The Minister also mentioned the city challenge programme. In fact, the urban programme, the urban partnership fund, estate action, the expenditure of the UDC and city challenge are to be integrated into one budget, which is referred to as the single regeneration budget. The total Government expenditure for that budget for 1995-96 is set at £1.5 billion, but the only new money--money over and above that which would have been available under the separate schemes and which is now to be covered by the single regeneration budget--is some £100 million. Liverpool will receive between £4 million and £5 million from that sum, whereas under the previous schemes, which include those mentioned by the Minister for Local

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Government and Planning in his reply, Liverpool would have expected £25 million. So under the single regeneration budget there is less emphasis on areas of real need such as the city of Liverpool or, indeed, Merseyside generally.

In earlier times, the rate support grant was fair to the people in my area. Under the present Government, there have been increases in the revenue support grant, but they have been due more to changes in legislation and the way in which local government is funded by the introduction of new taxes and different funding formulas than to any compassion by the Government for an area which should be regarded as a priority in our country. With the abolition of the county council, much of the expenditure for the police, the fire services, passenger transport, waste disposal and trading standards fell on the city of Liverpool and on other districts of Merseyside.

In 1991-92, the revenue support grant included a one-off grant to keep the poll tax down, while in 1992-93 the increase was to offset the council tax. In other words, those grants were to offset the policy failures of the Conservative Government. They were to cover for the poll tax, which was such an utter disaster for the people of this country and which led to the demise of the dreadful predecessor of today's Prime Minister. The only function for which Liverpool has gained control since 1979 has been in the area of care in the community and nobody in Liverpool would suggest that that has been properly funded to meet the needs of the area.

Government controls over local authorities have meant that Liverpool, like other cities, has been placed very much in a centralised straitjacket. The standard spending assessment, which was introduced by the Government, is fundamental to determining the level of central Government revenue funding available to the city council. It has a major impact on the level of council tax which is raised by the city. Under the rating system, the poll tax system and now the council tax system, there has always been the possibility of the local authority's being capped. So levels of expenditure are controlled by the Government. But if the council wishes to raise the money to improve the conditions of people in Liverpool, it can meet possible Government action at another level.

Changes in the methodology for working out the SSA for 1994-95 will have severe consequences on many of the services provided by the city of Liverpool, not least on children's social services. The Government talk about a feeling for the family and care in the community, yet in the year following a tragic happening in Liverpool which affected children, they have reduced the SSA for children's services--what Liverpool city council is allowed to spend on such services--by £11.6 million. Indeed, the total reduction in Liverpool's SSA for next year is £16.8 million. Of course, it is the children who will suffer. The national total that the Government allow for children's services under their SSA formula is to be increased by 3.3 per cent., but Liverpool, in the year after the tragedy to which I referred, is to receive 30 per cent. less. That is despite all the often publicised social and economic difficulties that face my city. Ethnicity is used as a factor in the formula for calculating SSA. That has meant that Birmingham, for example, will receive for children's personal social services £4,954 per child at risk. Yet because Liverpool does not have a large ethnic minority or the problems that sometimes arise in an area with large ethnic minorities, it

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will receive only £807 per child at risk. Birmingham £4,954, Liverpool £807--the difference cannot be justified by ethnic background. I ask the Government to examine that when they review the SSA formula. In total, Birmingham received £5.8 million more than Liverpool for children's services. Next year, Liverpool will receive £16.1 million less than Birmingham to support children. However, the SSA changes also have an impact elsewhere. There has been a reduction in the SSA for the provision of education for the under-fives. Liverpool has a proud record in nursery school provision despite the difficulties and obstacles that have been created by the Government. The SSA for education for the under-fives next year for Liverpool will be reduced by £400,000. The SSA for highways maintenance will also fall by £400,000. For other county services, there will be a reduction of £2.1 million. The SSA to cover land drainage will be reduced by £100,000 and that for capital financing will be reduced by £3.2 million.

Liverpool city council recently sent a deputation to the Minister. It acted in a very responsible way. Its submission, which asked for a review of Liverpool's SSA, was supported by all the parties on Liverpool city council, including the Conservative party. All the members of the delegations were absolutely astonished when, instead of reviewing the SSA upwards, the Minister rebuked the deputation and the SSA moved downwards.

One of the replies that I tend to receive from Ministers is that Liverpool has a rather shaky record. During the 1980s, I and others, including the present leader of the city council, opposed the highly centralised tactics of Militant Tendency. In my view, the power of Militant Tendency in Liverpool was the other side of the same coin to the restrictionist, highly centralised activities of the Thatcher Government. Thatcher was on one side and Militant Tendency on the other.

There can be no doubt that Liverpool city council has acted in a responsible way in recent years. That responsibility has sometimes been recognised even in the speeches of Ministers. Harry Rimmer, the leader of the city council, is a responsible leader of the people of Liverpool. Liverpool undoubtedly has not been given the priority that it deserves.

I refer to a report of the Minister's own Department entitled "Index of local conditions". It was highlighted in a report in the Liverpool Echo on 19 May, the day after I was greeted by the tirade from the Minister for Local Government and Planning when I raised the issue in the House. The headline of the article was :

"City is second in the poll of poverty".

The Liverpool Echo correspondent Mark Davies said :

"Liverpool is the second most deprived city in England according to a new Government poverty league. Birmingham tops the table but the figures show that Liverpool has the worst unemployment in the country and the highest number of families without a car. Only four London boroughs and Birmingham are more run down according to the Department of the Environment survey. Only Manchester has more children living in low-earning households and more people on income support. Knowsley"

another part of the Merseyside metropolis

"is 12th in the league table of the country's most deprived areas."

The article is based on the Government's own statistics. Every constituency in Liverpool has a male unemployment rate of more than 18 per cent. In my constituency of West Derby, 23.6 per cent.--almost a quarter of the male

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population--is unemployed. It is no use the Government saying that the unemployment is caused by the recession. It may be partly caused by the recession, but unemployment has been endemic in my constituency throughout the period of office of the Government. Indeed, on the Croxteth estate in the mid-1980s, youth unemployment was no less than 94 per cent. No wonder there has been an increase in juvenile criminal activity and a drug problem on an estate that never suffered from that before. On the Norris Green estate, where I was brought up, drugs were unknown. People were never well off, but crime, despondency, poverty and dereliction were never known in days gone by.

In Liverpool, the Riverside constituency has the highest male unemployment- -indeed, the highest unemployment--on mainland Britain, at 33 per cent. That fact has come about after the "economic miracle" which the former Prime Minister told us that we had all enjoyed. How often have we heard Ministers in the House say that we are all better off now than we were 10, 20 or 30 years ago ? They should ask the people of Riverside or those who live on the Norris Green and Croxteth housing estates in Liverpool.

There are people who recognise the needs of my area. The European Union has recognised them by designating Merseyside as the only area in England eligible for objective 1 status. The great fear is that the money from the European Union will be regarded by the Government as an indirect means of financing the Exchequer. Grants from the European Union have often simply been used to cover what was previously provided by central Government. We also fear that the elected representatives of Liverpool and the other districts will not be consulted about how objective 1 funds will be used, but the bureaucrats, placemen and other people in my area who are not elected will be consulted.

One can contrast the way in which Liverpool has been treated over the years with the way in which, Westminster city council, that flagship--I suppose that I should put the word "flagship" in inverted commas now--of Tory local fiefdom is treated. The rogue Westminster city council featured on the "Panorama" programme not long ago. In Westminster, for every £100 spent by the council, only £4 comes from the council's tax payers. Many of us in the House, including myself, know that that means that council tax in the city of Westminster is quite low. The rest of the £100 comes from central Government grant and other external supports such as the business rate, which is set by central Government. In Liverpool, for every £100 spent by the city council, the council taxpayers of the city pay £20--so it is £20 in Liverpool, but only £4 in Westminster, which has some of the richest people in the country living within its boundaries.

Westminster does not qualify for objective 1 status. It can even afford to sell its cemeteries cheaply at 15p a time. But it is the flagship and, despite the roguery for which it is now well known, the Conservative party's local election campaign earlier this month was started by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), in Westminster. Apparently, he thought that it was a worthy council to project the intentions of the Conservative Government towards local authorities.

In the social index produced by the Government, Liverpool has been ranked 85th in the country and Westminster fourth. Is it possible to believe that Liverpool is richer than the city of Westminster ? Nobody but a fool

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would suggest that. According to the Government's social index, it falls below Salisbury, Bath, Hereford and Hove in terms of deprivation. That is scandalous and the Government cannot be seen to have been fair. The Tories have said that the system is fair. The Minister should search his heart and ask himself how he can argue the case for the present system.

The Minister might ask himself why the Conservative party does so badly in Liverpool. It may not be readily known that between 1845 and 1955, with the exception of one year in the 1890s when the Liberals were in charge of the city council, Liverpool was ruled by the Conservatives. Now there are but two Conservative representatives on the city council, one of whom survived by seven votes in the recent local elections. There are just two Conservative representatives out of 99. The Liberal Democrats have taken the place of the Tories. I must admit that some of them have done the job well. The Liberal Democrats who were on the council before 1979 outdid Thatcher before Thatcherism. The Conservatives are not the main opposition to the Labour party in the city of Liverpool ; it is the Liberals. When we consider the history of Liverpool and the importance in the early part of this century of Liverpool's Conservative working men's clubs, we see that the Conservative party has to ask itself why the change has come about. That change is largely due to the attitude and arrogance that I encountered in the answer to the question that I asked the other day in the House of Commons.

I say to the Minister and to the Government that we who represent Liverpool have a great pride in our city, which was the second city of the empire at the beginning of the century. Its greatness is still there to be seen, not just in things from the past--its regal architecture is testimony to its great past and some of its new structures are testimony to its future. When one looks at the work of the two universities one sees that Liverpool is a city which qualifies for the title of city of learning. One must also consider its music, arts and its profitable port. Its achievements are not the result of Government policy but of the hard work of the people of Liverpool--those achievements have been gained despite the Government, not because of them.

I pity those who stand for local councils these days. What can they do when they are elected ? They are reduced to the pawns of central Government, albeit the unwilling pawns of autocratic central Government. The draconian measures that have been employed by the Government since 1979 have all but ended local self-government in this country. Only in this Chamber, of all elected chambers throughout the European Union, would it be possible for a Minister to threaten to cap local elected representatives. Only in this Chamber would it be possible for Ministers to refer to the surcharging and disqualification of councils. Locally elected people are, therefore, thwarted by the Government.

The people of Merseyside are angry at the way in which so much has been inflicted on them and at the unfairness of local councillors being surcharged--not, in the majority of cases, for lining their own pockets or gerrymandering as in the case of Westminster--and they compare the lot of elected representatives in Liverpool to that of the rogues who still rule Westminster city council.

Irrespective of party, Liverpool councillors are willing to put a hand out to Government and to welcome partnership on an equal basis, based on an acceptance that in this country plural democracy is the essence, not the

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natural centralisers in the Government who have ruled so long. We would be willing to work with any Government who have the priorities of ordinary people at heart and not simply the interests of their own party elite.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : I am frankly astonished that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) continues to wheel out such outdated, discredited and negative arguments. He appears to have taken exception to the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Planning at Question Time the other day. He knows full well that he protests too much and that my hon. Friend's comments were very much tongue in cheek. Of course, throughout our relationship with Liverpool, the development of strong partnerships has been central to everything that we have done.

Local authorities have a key role to play in the economic development of their areas. That is why the Government are working very closely with Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral councils as partners in the three city challenge initiatives--successful partnerships, embracing the private and community sectors, which I know from having visited them that the local authorities welcome, even if the hon. Member does not. The three city challenge partnerships will receive Government grant of £112.5 million over five years. That is taxpayers' money which has already levered in large amounts of European funding and private sector investment for all the people of Merseyside. Equally, the Merseyside development corporation has attracted public investment of more than £300 million and has levered in much greater private investment, to the benefit of the people of Merseyside. The results of the MDC and the three city challenges, in terms of jobs and economic development, are real and there for all to see. I suggest that the hon. Member looks at what is happening in Liverpool and on Merseyside. It is very exciting.

Since the early 1980s, we have dedicated a range of urban regeneration measures to assist Merseyside. Most of those have now come together in the single regeneration budget, which will be administered by the Government office for Merseyside, working with local partners, including the local authorities. The single regeneration budget brings together 20 previously existing regeneration programmes into a single budget with an annual value of £1.4 billion, which is a very large amount of money. I must correct the hon. Gentleman, as it does not include the money made available to the urban development corporations, such as the MDC. The purpose of the single regeneration budget is to provide a flexible mechanism for supporting regeneration initiatives that are based on local need, rather than on rigid grant rules and guidelines set out in Whitehall. Local authorities have for many years requested such an initiative and it has been generally welcomed throughout the country. On Merseyside, the SRB includes about £110 million of committed money--money that will be spent on Merseyside this year and will complement a variety of mainstream spending, such as the training and enterprise programmes and regional selective assistance. It will support other money that is also being spent on Merseyside this year. The bidding round for the financial year is under way and local authorities, training and enterprise councils

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and others locally are developing partnership bids with vigour and enthusiasm. That is no less true on Merseyside than anywhere else. My officials in the Government office on Merseyside have been holding meetings to discuss potential bids. The lessons of city challenge have been learnt on Merseyside, with a clear understanding that the regeneration process depends for its success on an approach that is comprehensive in its planning, targeted in its application and based on strong local partnership. I have no doubt that SRB bids of very high quality will come forward on Merseyside.

As for central Government support for Merseyside, local authorities for all councils except Liverpool had increases in standard spending assessment for 1994-95, at or above the average for metropolitan authorities. While it is true that Liverpool's SSA shows a decrease compared with comparable figures for previous years, Liverpool has been fairly treated. SSAs are calculated on principles that are applied to all authorities. The decrease for Liverpool is straightforward and is due to a combination of data changes, not least loss of population, and the inclusion of the new 1991 census data and methodology changes. However, the decrease in Liverpool's SSA has been cushioned by SSA reduction grant of almost £2 million. It is absolute rubbish for the hon. Member to suggest that Liverpool has in any sense been rebuked or penalised. He also seems to suggest that the SSA allocation is rigged in some way and that Liverpool has been penalised, to the benefit of other authorities such as Westminster. That is cheap, tawdry and unworthy of the hon. Gentleman.

In evidence to the Select Committee on the Environment, the local authority associations said :

"The distribution of grant to 420 authorities in England on an equitable basis is a complex task and it is not surprising that the extensive analysis and research over the years has shown there are no simple answers."

We carried out a review in co-operation with local authorities this year and the Environment Select Committee subsequently produced a report. One of its first conclusions was :

"We welcome the openness with which this year's SSA review has been carried out, and we trust the approach will continue in future years . . . We recognise that the changes to the SSA methodology this year have led to some commonsense

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improvements in the 1994-95 proposals."

As to any scintilla of a suggestion of the SSAs being rigged, I commend the hon. Member to read the evidence given to the Select Committee by Mr. Tony Travers, who is widely respected and recognised as an independent and objective commentator on those matters. He said :

"A number of commentators have accused SSAs of being politically rigged . . . Yet there is no evidence of such political intervention".

Liverpool's SSA, like that of every other local authority, reflects the level of its population. That is why, at £875 per head, it is the highest of all the metropolitan districts--higher than that of Birmingham, any other council on Merseyside and any other metropolitan district.

A major plus for Merseyside in the next six years will be its designation by the European Union--with the whole-hearted backing of the Government-- for objective 1 status for structural funds.As the hon. Member will know, objective 1 has been taken forward by a partnership, with officials in the Government office for Merseyside working closely and in co-operation with a broadly based local partnership, including all the local authorities--an essential and invaluable partner--together with the TECs, the private sector, the voluntary sector, colleges of further education, the universities and a number of others, all of whom want to, and can, contribute to the success of their bids. At the beginning of November-- precisely on time--the partnership submitted its proposals to the Commission for using objective 1 money. We have made it absolutely clear that the money--the drawdown of more than £600 million at current prices--will be more than matched by contributions from other public sector and suitable private sector investment. In total, it will be a massive investment and have a major impact on Merseyside.

I do not believe that the bleak picture painted by the hon. Member for West Derby will be recognised by most people in Liverpool. Our policies are designed to encourage the greatest possible investment in Merseyside. Objective 1 offers unparalleled opportunities to improve the quality of life on Merseyside and I am sure that Merseyside is determined to seize those opportunities. We are determined to maximise them and I am confident that together we can ensure that Merseyside is able to move into the 21st century, take on the world and win.

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Child Support Agency

11 am

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) : If George Orwell were alive today and looking for a sequel to "1984", I suspect he would have based it on the Child Support Agency. Here we have an agency just one year old, set up with the best possible intentions to make mainly absent fathers responsible for their offspring, but something has clearly gone wrong. Is it because, as has been suggested, it seeks arrogantly to impose one social rule on millions of unconnected lives, thereby unleashing the law of unintended consequences, or is it something else ?

In today's debate, for which I am very grateful, I hope to explore some of the issues and I hope to offer my hon. Friend the Minister some constructive criticism. However, it must be said that, unlike the governance imposed in Orwell's book "1984", the CSA was not imposed on a reluctant people ; rather, it was introduced with widespread support both in the House and outside.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) indicated assent .

Mr. Tredinnick : My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State nods in agreement.

The principle of the Bill had cross-party support. For example, on Second Reading, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said :

"The concept behind the Bill--which is that parents should be responsible for their children's maintenance--is entirely unexceptional. It is only right and proper that we should support it. No father should escape his responsibilities."--[ Official Report , 4 June 1991 ; Vol. 192, c. 211.]

The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), speaking for the official Opposition and summing up for the Labour party, said :

"Nobody has objected to the principle, which is, wherever possible, to make parents financially responsible for their children."--[ Official Report , 4 June 1991 ; Vol. 192, c. 234.]

The Bill was not opposed on Second or Third Reading, although, in fairness to the Opposition, I should say that there was a reasoned amendment.

My hon. Friend the Minister has the task of making the best of the CSA within the constraints of the current law, and, I hope, in due course of bringing before the House proposals to improve it. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has stated his commitment to keep the Act under review, and that has been widely welcomed, but it is my hon. Friend who has one hand superglued to the poisoned chalice while the other fends off a multitude of complaints. I intend to be constructive, and hope to offer my hon. Friend some antidotes for his cup.

Before I proceed, I should like to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), who will also be contributing to the debate.

There are four main areas of concern. The first is the general competence of the CSA office, and the way in which it is administering the current law. The second is the quite clearly demonstrated failure of the current assessment formula to take into consideration what it needs to take into consideration when making these assessments. The third is the CSA resources devoted to checking absent parents' returns. Are we satisfied that the CSA checks

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returns that are sent, properly to ensure that the minimum amount of fraud and disinformation is absorbed ? Fourthly, are we happy with the review procedure ?

Half my advice bureau cases relate to the CSA. I currently have 65 cases under review. The general competence of the CSA has been called into question before. It is with some regret that I say that the agency, despite no doubt some very fair efforts to do the right thing, is failing in some respects.

In one case, the details of an absent parent's pay and income were sent to his ex-wife. Confidential details of the absent parent's pay and finance should not be revealed in that way. It is for the agency to make the assessment.

Secondly, there is the failure of the agency to liaise properly with the courts. I have a difficult case with a constituent, Mr. Ault. The CSA failed to inform the court that it had taken over his case, and he has received bills from both the court and the CSA. He is angry and worried about that, and I am trying to sort it out. It has been a problem for him, because he has had a poor response to his reasonable request that one of those payments should be annulled. Thirdly, there are still problems with the application forms, due to their complexity. My constituent writes :

"I have an IQ of 147 and I struggled with the forms. God only knows how educationally disadvantaged people cope with them.". He has a point. They are not that simple.

Fourthly, there is the failure of the CSA to acknowledge change of address of absent parents. It should not be too difficult to sort out that administrative muddle, but it has led to the imposition of the so-called interim maintenance assessment, which is rather like a bank surcharge for having an overdraft which has not been approved. People are getting huge assessments which are very frightening. The agency has to look out for that.

Fifthly, there is the failure to make special allowance for those working abroad, on sabbaticals or even on a long holiday. Interim assessments have been issued when, for example, an insurance salesman or a salesman in industry is on a long visit overseas. The sensitivity with which the agency addresses such cases should be reviewed.

Sixthly, there is unacceptable delay in assessing the forms. My constituent Mrs. Hollis had to wait from September 1993 to May 1994 for her ex- husband's form to be assessed before receiving maintenance. In the meantime, she received only income support. The helpline response is also inadequate. I had a complaint from a constituent who said that he has tried to telephone the agency in Belfast ; he is put on hold and simply cannot get through. It is costing him a fortune in long-distance calls. Is it right that so few resources have been put into the helpline, when so many assessments are going out ?

I am not convinced that the agency is administering itself properly at the moment. Quite an interesting, well-publicised case involving agency employees has been in the papers recently. I should have thought that the management would have done well to keep that out of the courts and in- house. It does not reflect very well on the way in which the agency looks after its employees.

The key problem at the moment is the need for a revised assessment formula.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : Hear, hear.

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Mr. Tredinnick : My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) agrees with me. The current formula is absolutely unacceptable.

Some 95 per cent. of the cases with which I deal concern absent fathers, and I believe that the assessments made are grossly unfair. Having seen those fathers in my advice surgeries, I am convinced that most of them want to love and care for their children by their first marriages, but they see the so-called protected income as quite unrealistic, because their essential living costs are grossly underestimated.

What are the essential living costs that the CSA does not take into consideration ? They include bank loan repayments, mortgage protection and house insurance, the general debts resulting from the separation and, most important, the cost of visiting the children. I have a constituent whose children live in the Isle of Wight. He wants to visit them, but cannot afford to do so. Nor can fathers generally afford to send train tickets to the children to come to visit them. There is also the cost of telephone calls and car travel. Many parents want to buy clothes for their children. Indeed, one of the nicest things a father or mother can do is to buy their children some clothes. That cost is not taken into account. What about gifts ? A bicycle now costs more than £100 ; surely that should be taken into account.

There is also resentment at the fact that any reduction in maintenance liability occurs only when a child stays for two or more nights with the absent parent. Very often, children want to spend only one night, or perhaps it is possible to arrange for them to stay for only the one night.

Mr. David Nicholson : Does my hon. Friend agree that the sort of cases that come to my surgery and, I suspect, to his, tend to be the most responsible of absent parents, who have paid maintenance regularly and who very often, at the time of divorce or separation, made what is called a clean-break settlement ? They made a fairly satisfactory arrangement through giving the house to the wife, for example, and taking perhaps only half the proceeds. Unfortunately, the CSA formula takes no account of such an arrangement.

Mr. Tredinnick : My hon. Friend makes very well a point that I had intended to make later. I have always opposed the overturning of clean- break settlements, because it is wrong to introduce retrospective legislation. Most, if not all, of those who come to my surgery love the children they created by their first wives. They may intently dislike their first wives, but, by and large, they love their children and want to do the best they can for them. That is an important point. However, I shall not pursue it further, other than to say that another instance of the failure of the CSA formula is that it does not take account of cash gifts. The CSA simply refuses to recognise them.

The third area of concern--in a way, it is the other side of the coin--is whether the forms returned by absent parents are correct. I have said a great deal about the problems facing absent fathers, but sometimes they wilfully falsify their returns, either out of malice towards their first wives or for some other reason.

I am aware of the case of a lady who was violently assaulted by her husband. She fled the marital home because both she and her sister had been assaulted by him and she feared for the safety of her child. Of course, she

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probably should not have fled the marital home. She is now in rented accommodation, and her husband is making as small a contribution as possible.

The CSA made an assessment that appears to be incorrect, because the person concerned is running a successful business, living in a luxury flat and running an expensive car. I understand that it is possible that he has put those assets in the name of his brother or some organisation in order to circumvent the CSA. Can the Minister say what steps the agency is taking to investigate false submissions ?

The final area of complaint to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is the failure of the review arrangements. My perception is that the internal review mechanism, as currently constituted, is inadequate. It does not command confidence and it is too heavily centred in the agency. We need some form of independent review, and I ask my hon. Friend to consider that important point.

What are the consequences of the shortcomings within the agency for those affected ? There is much resentment among fathers, which makes it hard for them to maintain good relations with their children. There is a tendency among second wives to say, "Is this marriage really worth it ?" There is a feeling that many of them are being forced to pay for first wives, and that is widely resented. Furthermore, second wives now wonder whether they can afford to have children, and so question the whole basis of their relationship. I need hardly tell the House about the stories of abortions and worse connected with that problem.

I believe that the system encourages first wives with care not to work, especially if their partners are out of work. That can be used as a weapon against the second wife and as a tool to damage that relationship. I am not suggesting that those circumstances always exist, but I am convinced that, on occasions, the agency's system is being used as a way to get at ex- husbands.

Another consequence, especially among blue-collar workers, is that they simply say, "I am not going to put up with this ; I am going to give up my job." I tell them that they must not do that, and that the way forward is to talk through the problem carefully, but they just say--I shall not use the word in the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, especially with you in the Chair, but it is a short word. They leave my surgery saying, "I am not going to pay ; I am going to pack in my job." That has a negative impact.

Earlier, I told the Minister that I had not come here today to hit him over the head ; I am here to be constructive. I tremendously respect--I mean this most sincerely--all the effort that my hon. Friend has put into making the CSA work. In fairness to him, he was handed the package ; he did not create it. He may have an opportunity to change it ; that is why we are here today. During the next few months, we hope to hear about some specific changes.

The solutions that my hon. Friend should consider obviously include examining the formula used by the CSA. It is perceived as grossly unfair and against natural justice. We must get it right. My hon. Friend should also examine the cost effectiveness of the agency. There has been a great deal of dispute about the benefits it brings, compared with what some suggest is a cost of £600 million. I wonder whether we are getting value for money. My hon. Friend must also think about some of the administrative problems that have occurred. I should like my hon. Friend to consider making available local rate telephone lines between the agency's

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offices and the people calling them. It is possible to do that ; indeed, we know that such a service exists. Why should my constituent make umpteen calls to Belfast at the higher rate, when, with just a little generosity from the Department, he could make those calls at local rates ?

I think that we are going to have to eat a little humble pie over the way in which the agency has been set up. We need to look at the system in Australia. Why has Australia managed to set up a similar agency, but one that is widely respected and has not caused half the problems that we have experienced here ? There are two answers. The first is that Australia did not rush into doing everything at once and combine all the stages with, perhaps, limited resources. It is rather like soldering the lid on the kettle and turning up the gas. Secondly, their review procedures were perceived to be fair. We must ensure that the CSA is also perceived to be fair : if my hon. Friend the Minister can achieve that, he will have done us all a great favour and made many people's lives much happier.

11.19 am

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and the Minister for allowing me time to speak.

I entirely agree with everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth about this important matter. Five to 10 fathers at a time regularly visit my surgery ; I expect about 150 to attend a meeting that will take place the week after next. All those fathers have been paying maintenance for a long time, and they are all very angry. They are not absent fathers. When they ask me for help, support and guidance, I can only say, "What help can I give ?" As my hon. Friend said, the problem is the sheer inflexibility of the system.

My hon. Friend the Minister is trying to replace a system based on justice and the judgments of wise people following argument and discussion, with a system that is perceived as authoritarian. He will say that he is trying to bring about justice, and I accept that the Child Support Act 1991 is not really his baby ; he had to take over the Bill. If we are to have justice, however, the system must not be merely authoritarian. There must be mercy and understanding, and both sides of the argument must be heard.

There cannot be justice in an authoritarian world and there cannot be justice without any agreements for review or appeal. The system is fundamentally flawed, as is the Act. We should do away with it and start again ; there is no point in reviewing a system that is transparently authoritarian and has inflexibility built into it. Hon. Members are annoyed by the fact that, when they write to the Minister about aspects of the Act that concern them--normally matters of policy--they receive no reply from him. Their letters are sent on to the agency and Mrs. Hepplewhite replies to them. Hon. Members who want change think that very wrong.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : May I say in the Minister's defence that, when I have written to him about principles of the policy, I have received a very full response--although it is true that letters drawing attention to specific cases are referred to the agency's chief executive ?

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