Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) rose
With permission, I shall put together the 14 motions on statutory instruments.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)
That the draft Alcan Aluminium UK Ltd. (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft British Gas plc (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft British Telecommunications plc. (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Caledonian MacBrayne Limited (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Electricity Generators (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Forth Ports plc (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Glasgow Underground (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Lochaber Power Company (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Mercury Communications Ltd. (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
Column 22That the draft Railways (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the draft Scottish Hydro-Electric plc. (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Scottish Nuclear Limited (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Scottish Power plc. (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Water Undertakings (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1994, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]
Question agreed to.
Mr. Banks : I cannot necessarily guarantee that, Madam Speaker. On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It actually concerns you : I am rather worried about you. I do not know whether you read in the newspapers over the weekend and today about the alarming deterioration in the quality of London's air. You may have to breathe more central London air than the rest of us, who can retreat to our leafy constituencies in places such as Newham. Given, however, that we have Health questions tomorrow, and given that the matter involves you and your health, could you arrange for an appropriate Minister to make a statement about the quality of the air in London and elsewhere ? We should probably all have to be dead before the present Government recognised the existence of even a slight problem.
Because of the great interest in today's debate, I have had to limit speeches to 10 minutes between 6 pm and 8 pm. I ask hon. Members who speak outside those hours to exercise some voluntary restraint ; then I may be able to call them all.
That this House believes a parent has a duty to contribute to the maintenance of his or her child, and that duty must be at the heart of any system of child support ; recognises the anger and dismay felt by many families whose lives have been adversely affected by the activities of the Child Support Agency in its first year of operation, the collapse of public confidence in the system and the ever-increasing administrative problems besetting the Agency ; and calls for an urgent and fundamental review to eliminate injustice by tackling key areas of concern such as the inflexibility of the financial formula, the failure to recognise, in calculating maintenance, financial and property transfers at the time of divorce or separation, the lack of an independent appeal procedure and the need to protect the interests of children in whose name the system was introduced.
The Opposition tabled the motion, and devoted a day of Opposition time to the Child Support Agency, because we feel--and I suspect that our feeling is widely shared--that we cannot allow the situation to drift. Discontent can be found on every side, in every constituency in the land, and support for the agency is vanishing at an alarming rate. Tolerance is in increasingly short supply ; public confidence is collapsing, and public anger is rising. I believe that any Government who pursue a "wait and see" policy at this point are fuelling the crisis and playing a very dangerous game.
When we have tried repeatedly to raise the matter at Question Time and during debates, the reaction has been unsatisfactory. To be fair, the Under -Secretary of State--who occasionally gives a good impression of the White Rabbit, running around in anxious confusion--has shown worried concern, but in the background has been the glacial silence of the Secretary of State for Social Security.
This morning, we have seen the agency's annual report and business plan. It is remarkable that it is here at all : on 22 April, the agency's chief executive told me that it would be published by "late summer". It would be extremely unfair, however, to complain about its arriving earlier than expected. I think that there has been some honesty about the report, and credit has been given for that. The agency admits that it has made mistakes, that its performance is substandard and that it will have to do better. Mrs. Ros Hepplewhite writes in the foreword :
"Many things went well"--
which is questionable
"but there were other areas where we needed to make improvements. Overall our standards of service did not reach acceptable levels and we did not achieve some of our key targets. We apologise to our clients for the difficulties they have experienced because of our shortcomings."
Column 24It is unusual for such a note to be struck in an official report. Indeed, the evening papers carry the headline "Child Agency Says Sorry". Many people will feel that an apology is merited, but that that is not enough in itself and that there must be changes to the way in which the system operates.
The annual report is unsatisfactory because it gives remarkably little information about what has been happening and, in some ways, adds to the confusion. In a number of areas, it contradicts what we had understood and had been told to be the position. It gives an incomplete picture of the agency's financial results and activities. It is inadequate, and it mirrors the chaos that is convulsing the system. I and, I am sure, many other hon. Members looked for fundamental facts--what one might describe as backbone statistics--such as how much maintenance the agency had collected in its first year of operation and how much had been paid by parents as a result of assessments that had been levied.
Despite the interesting intervention by the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security during Question Time, few of us will have any confidence that we have a clear and definitive picture of the position. It is very much through a glass darkly, and a great deal of confusion reigns. I give notice to the Minister that we will pursue the points that the Under- Secretary made and we shall be looking for a very full response.
Let us not forget that it was estimated originally that, in the first year of operation, £530 million would be paid in maintenance, £480 million of which would go in benefit reduction to the Treasury. That £530 million collected was translated, rather mysteriously, into £530 million-worth of benefit savings--a fact which was drawn to my attention by a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on 28 March.
In reply to another parliamentary question, this time from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), which appeared in Hansard on 12 May at column 235 , we received another set of figures. Benefit savings were to amount to £335 million, but probably more because at least some, to use the jargon of the moment, would be scored retrospectively.
The scene was further complicated by the fact that £195 million of that £335 million came not from CSA assessments but from assessments carried out by the liable benefits section in the previous year. We now hear that benefit savings will be £418 million. It is important that we know to what extent that hides a figure that is not the responsibility of the agency. I am sure that either the Secretary of State or the Under- Secretary can supply the answer.
Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor) : The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he was looking for facts, and I agree about the need to do so, but he also condemned the wait-and-see attitude. He has adopted such an attitude. He has been telling many groups that he supports the maintenance disregard. How much would be disregarded by the Labour party ? Will he give the House the figure, rather than adopt a wait-and-see attitude ?
"Opposition Members must live with the fact that implementation is not easy and will inevitably cause problems and difficulties. I entirely accept that ; there is no way that we can escape from that."--[ Official Report , 2 February 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 949.] Does he stand by that, or will his speech amount to an escape from it ?
Mr. Dewar : The answer to the last question is no. I have never retreated from the fact that there would be real difficulties in introducing this system, just as I never retreated from the fact that parents have a duty to contribute to the maintenance of their children. I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the difficulties of being unpopular, and I have been booed off more platforms on this issue than on any other because I have tried to stand by what I have said and the difficulties that I have anticipated. I am not ashamed of that. I accept that there are problems, but it seems that they are being worsened because of a persistence with parts of the system that are clearly causing injustice and difficulty. We must therefore move on constructively to find answers to those problems.
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) rose
As I said, the original prediction was £530 million, which then became £335 million ; but the agency's letter of 27 May, which has been in the newspapers a great deal as a result of my activities and which was put there in good faith, suggests that the expected total collected would be £210 million, of which £203 million would be benefit savings-- £3 million would go to children, while £4 million was unallocated.
In my defence, I stress to the House that I spoke twice to the office of the CSA's chief executive, and it stood by the figures. The Minister has now popped up and put a very different complexion on them. I want to examine the matter carefully, but I am still deeply sceptical about the amount of money that is going to children, simply because the system as it stands insists that those children most at risk economically, of whom there are a very large number living in households dependent on income support, are very unlikely--I put it no higher than that--to benefit financially because of the £1 for £1 clawback.
I recognise that there are a few cases in which the family will be floated off income support and will benefit from the probably small amount of maintenance over and above the income support level which they can retain. I make no apology for saying that I do not know how many are involved, because when I tabled a question to the Secretary of State on this issue, I was told that the figure was not available and could not be obtained except at disproportionate cost. I regret that, because it is a fundamental figure, especially as Ministers have repeatedly paraded the fact that a certain number of families are being taken off income support as a primary justification for the system. Against that background, it is especially unfortunate that we are not being provided with figures to illustrate the truth or otherwise of that point.
I want to finish with the statistics on an important point. I am sure that hon. Members have studied the report that has just been published and will have seen that £210 million--the figure that I was given on 27 May-- has suddenly become £310 million. That is still substantially
Column 26below the figure given earlier in May to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). It may be because the £310 million excluded any revenue from assessments under the liable relative section. However, there are many discrepancies, and a better explanation must be given before those figures carry any conviction. I ask the House to consider an important point. The report states that not only is the estimate of the amount of money being paid under assessments £310 million--£100 million up on what I had been told so recently --but that only £14.8 million has been handled by the agency itself, which seems an astonishingly small amount when measured against the £310 million. We are also told, without any explanation, that the savings in benefit arising from the £310 million collected amount to £418 million. At the very least, I should have thought it important to explain how £310 million paid in benefit under assessments could result in benefit savings as high as £418 million--it is a saving not just of £1 for £1 but of well over £1 for £1.
It may be--I want to be fair to Ministers--that the figure refers to the number of assessments that were not completed because of the withdrawal of claims for income support. I accept that some of those may be what, in the jargon of the day, are called collusive desertions, but it seems implausible that the extraordinary gap between the money collected and the benefit savings can be explained in that way. I very much hope that the Minister will make a fist at an explanation, because the figures read peculiarly at the moment.
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : The hon. Gentleman seems to think that there is something wrong in the Department of Social Security being reimbursed out of recoveries made by the Child Support Agency. Surely he accepts that, if a child is on benefit, the right person to support that child is the absent parent and not the taxpayer ? As we all know, many taxpayers are themselves on low incomes and have their own children to bring up.
Mr. Dewar : The hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) is being very kind to me by asking an extremely easy question. I merely have to repeat what I have said on almost every occasion when I have addressed the issue. I accept, of course, that there is a duty to pay maintenance and, as I have always said, there is a legitimate interest on the part of the Treasury, or on the part of the taxpayer, if the hon. Gentleman prefers to put it that way--Ministers do, understandably. What I object to is that the whole pot is scooped--to use a betting term--by the Treasury and little is left, particularly for the children who are most at risk. That is the point that I have repeatedly tried to make.
The Minister has said today, for the first time, that something short of 30 per cent.--but still a quite significant figure--is being retained by families. I do not believe that that is the right balance, but it is a lot better than any of the figures previously produced. I find it extraordinary that such an important matter was not mentioned, as far as I can recall, at any point in the report published today. It is an absolutely basic factor which we should take into account, and I am sorry that we are considering the matter on the hoof when we had the benefit of the report this morning.
Mr. David Willetts (Havant) : The hon. Gentleman has accepted that there is an obligation to pay maintenance. In the light of that, will he take this opportunity to condemn the activities of organisations such as the Network Against
Column 27The Child Support Agency, which clearly engage in intimidation and threats, and undermine the work of the CSA ?
Mr. Dewar : I make it perfectly clear that I have no sympathy with, and offer no comfort to, those who demonstrate violently, those who deface private residences and those who harass staff of the CSA who are only doing their job. None of that conduct has been, or will be, defended by me at any point.
The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), however, must accept--I suspect that he does--that much of the anger can be traced to difficulties in the system and to areas of concern that are proper and well founded, but which the Government have not addressed. In just a minute, I shall turn to some of those.
The other basic question I ask the Minister to address, for which information is not available, is how much maintenance should have been paid under the assessments that have been levied. That, too, is a fundamental parameter to the argument. I understand--perhaps the Minister can confirm this--that the computer system is being adapted to gather that information at some future stage. I find it remarkable that the information is not available at the moment, and I am sorry that it is not.
I conclude on the organisational side by saying that a vast organisation has now been built up which employs 5,200 people in Great Britain and 686 in Northern Ireland, who have been missed out of the graph that is provided in the annual report and for whom no figures appear to be supplied. Those figures represent a massive work force and I understand that 700 are to be added. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that.
I fear that one of the difficulties is that, for many people, dialogue with the CSA has become a dialogue with the deaf or the dead. It certainly is a dialogue that has brought no satisfactory responses. I know that Ministers are seized of the point that we must bring about improvement, but I hope that we shall see that improvement quickly.
I have no particular importance in these matters, although, tactically, correspondence with me may come to the top of heaps just to save trouble. I have found that letters that I have written in April have been answered in June. I know that that is speedy service compared with the experiences of many of my constituents. The Secretary of State in a radio studio today sitting at my side--a most unlikely scenario into which nothing should be read--described this year as a very difficult year. I think that one can say that again, and say it again.
Another important matter is the plans for 1994-95 which are attached to the annual report. Ros Hepplewhite described them in the media at lunchtime as challenging. In some ways, I find them a little depressing. I have four points to make about them. First, I notice that the net expenditure this year of £106 million--well below expectations ; we ought to be grateful for that--will increase next year to £184 million. That is a spectacular increase in costs by any standards.
Column 28Secondly, the target for client satisfaction remains the same in 1994-95 as it was in 1993-94, at 65 per cent. I note from the report for 1993-94 that the satisfaction index achieved was 61 per cent. I greet that with stark disbelief. Even if it is a genuine figure, 65 per cent. is not exactly a dramatic improvement on it. That is disappointing. Can the Secretary of State assure me that exactly the same basis of calculation of the satisfaction index is used for the CSA and other Government agencies and other parts of the public sector ? That is a fairly technical question, but I put it briefly to the Minister. Satisfaction ratings are a common form of machinery. I want to be satisfied that the satisfaction index is calculated in an exactly comparable fashion.
Thirdly, no more than 40 per cent. of outstanding maintenance applications are to take more than 91 days or 13 weeks. That is a serious matter. At present, 42 per cent. take more than 100 days. So the target for next year is not a dramatic change. The Minister knows that the problem with the extended time limit is that arrears mount up frighteningly. Many people can find themselves setting out on a career as a client of the Child Support Agency with £800, £900 or £1, 000 of arrears. I immediately recognise that some of the most difficult cases have an element of non-co- operation which has contributed to the problems. However, it is essential that we get the processing time down if the Minister is to stand by the present arrangements under which the till starts ringing on the day the inquiry form goes out.
The fourth point is the £460 million benefit saving. It is down from £530 million last year. That is perhaps realistic. Again, there is no target figure for benefit collected and no target figure in percentage or money terms for cash going to the families and children in whose name the system was introduced. I put it to the Minister that that is a sad and important lack.
I am anxious to move on to some of the changes that we should like to see made to the Act.
Ministers are determined to be unhelpful about the changes that we should like to see. Let us make it absolutely clear that the starting point was that the system was designed to help children. Again and again, the right hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) has referred to more money from more parents for more children. Despite the improved figures that have been thrown into the debate in the past half hour or so, I do not believe that a system advertised as giving help to children is meeting its target.
I noticed that, in an interview rather wittily called "Doing What Is Right", which the Secretary of State gave to a magazine called Third Way , which aims to present biblical perspectives on a wide range of current issues, he said, I thought rather prophetically and acutely, that the Child Support Agency was
"not proving as popular as some people imagined."
I will not fight about that. He went on to say that it is men who are complaining and that
"a lot of the articles are written by journalists who themselves .. are recipients of demands"
from the CSA. I thought that that was a little fanciful. He continued :
Column 29"We are now getting protests from the corresponding 30,000 women who receive less money"
because of the changes last February. He then said :
"we hear very little at all from the children, who are the people who have to be our ultimate concern."
I agree with the Minister. In this system, the children were always to be our ultimate concern. It was to be child-centred--that was the phrase that we heard time and again. It is not child-centred, judging by the figures available to us, and I do not believe that it is child-centred judging by the figures that the Under-Secretary of State just produced.
Will the Under-Secretary of State say whether he is satisfied ? He gave us a figure that was below a third--on the figures that he mentioned, it was probably not much more than 25 per cent. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether he regards that as a sensible and satisfactory equilibrium. We do not, and that is why we have always argued that a disregard should be on the agenda. Several hon. Members rose
A disregard should be considered. It is of particular importance to the people whom the Minister looks to for support and help--the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Council for One Parent Families, Gingerbread and a large number of people who want some recognition of children's needs.
If the Minister is not prepared to consider the principle of the matter, he might at least consider the tactical advantages of making a concession that would make the system seem relevant to the people who are caught up in it, and win him many friends--friends he badly needs.
In principle, the disregard should be on the agenda and in any package. I do not know what the cost figures will be [Hon. Members : -- "Oh!"] Let me tell the House why.
Mr. Dewar : No, not at all. I cannot get the figures from the Government. The Under-Secretary of State may recall that I got a parliamentary answer, which was presumably based on the assumption that the Child Support Agency was meeting its targets and would ultimately produce a collection of around £900 million. Now, none of us knows what the agency is producing, or the figures.
Clearly, the smaller the amount of money that it produces, the less the cost of a disregard. If one had a disregard on the basis that everyone on income support and in a position to apply actually applied, and an assessment was levied and paid, one would be in big money--at both ends of the equation. What is ludicrous and intellectually dishonest is to apply that assumption to the figures that are being produced.
I would certainly be prepared to consider and discuss with the Government the sort of figures that should be forgone, but that would have to be on the basis of practical examples and the reality. That is just one of the matters that should be dealt with, but it is by no means the only one, and I shall mention the others in short order. One problem is that in some cases--I am not saying it is an enormous number, but it is an important number--
Column 30there is a growing gap between the demands made in maintenance and a person's ability to pay, which poisons people's perceptions of the whole system.
I repeat--my views are known to the Government--that we should take a long hard look at how we can make the system a little more flexible. In some cases, charges that have to be met by the parent who does not have care of the child are relevant to the child and to the break-up of the partnership. Those include the cost of access to children ; mortgage payments, when the father may be paying for a house in which his children live, but he does not ; disability in the family, either of the child or another member of it ; and debts incurred jointly during the partnership that have to be met entirely by the father. Some more controversial considerations should at least be looked at--including, for example, travel-to-work costs, which I know are of particular importance to Conservative Members, because it is in no one's interests that anyone should be driven from work. Child care costs are also important.
Mr. Dewar : No. I have a great deal of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's constituency problems relating to the CSA, and I hope that he supports many of my points. I am sure that he does. Should he be fortunate enough to catch Madam Speaker's eye, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman expressing his support not just from the Conservative Benches but in the Lobby.
Certain considerations should be imported into the formula. Apart from that, an independent review system of the kind that is familiar in other systems should also be introduced. It is of basic fundamental importance in terms of justice that those who feel that they have a grievance or have been hard done by should have some form or system of redress. That does not mean, of course, that they will receive redress, but they should have a constitutional right to put it to the test. At present, there is no such right.