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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) : The hon. Member talks about people who feel hard done by having redress, but, as a taxpayer, I feel hard done by and so does the nation. [Interruption.] It is interesting to note that the Opposition do not want to listen to this. Yesterday, we heard a lot of talk about social and civil responsibilities, but I see little responsibility from fathers who will not pay for their children. They expect everyone who walks the streets or travels on the Clapham omnibus to pay. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that individuals should live up to the responsibility of fathering children ?

Mr. Dewar : I am very sorry to say to the hon. Gentleman that I found that a rather tiresome intervention. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not have the humility required, but it is not too difficult to construct a mainstream CSA case--many of his hon. Friends would agree with me--in which one puts oneself in the place of a man who has been asked to pay, looks at his circumstances and his second family commitments. One can then at least understand that man's feelings of frustration. If the hon. Gentleman cannot do that, he displays a level of intolerance and lack of sympathy that are not much to his credit.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to a review body, for which

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I have a great deal of sympathy. I believe that, to an extent, he is right. Given the inflexibility of the rules, what will that review body be able to do ? Are we not talking about going back to a domestic court, which would give a proper decision, having taken everything into account ? Surely that is how the review would operate.

Mr. Dewar : I know that the hon. Member is learned in the law, and he should consider the Australian and New Zealand examples, in which the areas against which an appeal can be tested are defined and criteria laid down that must be met. That could and should be done in this case.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Dewar : No, I am getting into trouble. I will conclude my speech quickly. I am conscious of the need not to take any further interventions, because it is not fair to the House.

An independent review procedure is important, but I understand from press speculation and heavy briefing that reform is likely to be granted on what are sometimes inaccurately called "clean break" settlements, under which substantial property or financial transfers are made. They are intended by the parties to influence maintenance, but they must be set aside and ignored by the CSA. That seems to be ludicrous.

I know that, in his broadcast this morning, the Secretary of State sheltered behind the fact that, in its first report, the Select Committee on Social Security sympathised with him about the difficulties encountered. It is not for me to anticipate what may emerge from the second report, but it is likely that there will be some rethinking on that point--to my mind, for what it is worth, there should be. What has happened to many people has been an offence, and one which could be corrected without too much difficulty. I do not suggest that a disregard, an independent appeals procedure or a clean-break settlement will sweep away all the problems that we face. I read the fetching little press release put out by the Under- Secretary of State after his discussions with heads of the CSAs from New Zealand and Australia. It sounded like a comfortable set-up between a collection of old lags, but I know that it was not. I recognise all the difficulties and know that, after a reform package, the sun will not shine every day and the Secretary of State will not be everyone's favourite uncle. But I seriously believe that this House has a duty to tackle people's concerns if we believe that they are justified. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have reached that conclusion in large measure and the Government would be extremely unwise to refuse to recognise that point. We should take the complaints seriously.

I was genuinely surprised to see an article in a local newspaper in the name of the Under-Secretary of State--he may not have written it himself-- that produced the pet food theory. It said that there could be no form of discretion because, in the old days when we had discretion, people met the cost of their pet food before meeting the cost of feeding their children. That is not a helpful thing to say. I noticed that, in the subsequent correspondence columns of the same paper, his remarks were described as "offensive". I agree that they are offensive. We do not need to go to those extremes in building a little justice into the system. I hope that we shall make some progress on that.

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The system needs friends, because disenchantment and

disillusionment are growing. The Child Support Agency needs allies and must have public confidence if it is to survive. If the Government do not change the rules and the rigid framework in which the agency operates, I fear that it will not survive. Those who have looked for benefit have found none, and many of those who have looked for justice have been left waiting in vain. Too many of the demands that have been made begin to look detached from the ability to pay. Laws rely on consent. We are near the point--complaints made by Ministers about non-co-operation make this point--at which consent is being withdrawn and the law will become unworkable. It may surprise Tory Members to know that I do not want to reach that point. I have tabled this motion because I believe that we must make that point forcefully. The worst may still be to come, because the recent interim assessments have the power to reinforce demands. The last figure that I saw showed that only 2,600 deductions from earnings orders have been made. There are thousands more to come and the temperature is likely to rise. The House would be irresponsible if it did not take that into account.

Action is needed fast. I pressed my colleagues for this debate because of a brief exchange that I had with the Under-Secretary of State in the House on 16 May. I asked him whether there would be a statement about the Government's intentions before we rose for the long summer recess. I asked him whether changes were on the way and whether the Government had decided to introduce a reform package, but he could not assure me on either point. I hope, for the sake of the good order of our maintenance system, that the Secretary of State will be more forthcoming when he replies to this debate.

I said the other day that there is a danger of an embarrassment becoming a disaster. It need not happen, but it can be prevented only by building confidence and giving a genuine impression that the House and, perhaps, the Government care. I tabled this motion not to be provocative or partisan but as an opportunity to reflect on the concerns felt in every corner of the land and as a chance to press in the House and, I hope, in the Lobbies, for reform which all of us believe is necessary. It would be widely misunderstood if Parliament rose for the summer recess and hon. Members dispersed to their constituencies without debating this subject and expressing our opinions on it.

There are many people--whether they are parents waiting for news, vocal parents struggling with a formula that they do not trust or children who, as the ultimate beneficiaries, have not yet seen any benefit--who want some sign of hope and some news. I believe that great damage will be done if we do not respond to that. The ultimate price would be if we ended up undermining the very principles of responsible parenting which the system was set up to defend. It is because I do not want that to happen that I commend the motion to the House.

4.10 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley) : I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof :

reaffirms its support for the principle, to which the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency give effect, that parents should support their children where they are able to do so ; accepts that the taxpayer should only have to provide this support when

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parents cannot afford to ; welcomes the help the Agency has already been able to give many parents with care and the support it has received from organisations representing lone parents ; condemns deliberate attempts to obstruct the workings of the Agency ; recognises the changes introduced in February and the urgent steps being taken to improve the service the Agency gives parents ; and acknowledges the continuing concerns over child support issues and therefore welcomes the Government's commitment to continue to keep the scheme under scrutiny and to bring forward further changes should these prove necessary.'.

I begin by welcoming the fact that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)--despite his criticisms and his desire for change--has maintained and reiterated his support for the Child Support Agency and the principles on which it is based. I know that he has been under pressure to abandon that support, and I respect him all the more for sticking to his principles.

The Child Support Act was passed by the House on 18 July 1991 without a single dissenting vote. It has always had cross-party support. Despite all the controversy over the past year, I am still struck by the broad agreement on two key points : first, virtually everyone now accepts that parents are responsible for supporting their children and that taxpayers should be involved only to the extent that parents do not have the means to support their children ; secondly, nearly everyone accepts that we cannot go back to a system which failed children, parents and taxpayers in the past. I recognise, however, that there are deep concerns about how the new system has been working in practice--concerns both about the impact of the formula in particular cases and about how the formula has been administered. Because of those concerns, we responded immediately to the first report of the Social Security Select Committee. We accepted the bulk of the recommendations and went further in some respects than the Committee advised, and we implemented those changes as speedily as possible at the beginning of February.

At the same time, we made it clear that we would keep the new system under review. That is no empty form of words : my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reaffirmed that we are prepared to make further changes if and when we are persuaded that they are necessary. Moreover, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, whose sensitive handling of this very difficult issue has won universal respect, has been consulting a range of organisations involved in the area of child support.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : Will the Secretary of State give way ?

Mr. Lilley : Perhaps I may make a little more progress. I will certainly give way in a moment.

The Select Committee is also carrying out a further review in the light of the first year's experience. I shall not predict the Committee's recommendations or prejudge my response, but I can give hon. Members two assurances today : first, I shall continue to uphold the principles on which the agency is based ; secondly, I will consider ways positively to strengthen those principles so as to improve the agency, to ensure that it is fair and to make it more acceptable.

Mr. William O'Brien : I appreciate the opportunity to intervene. Will the Secretary of State take into account a serious anomaly in cases where an absent father is prepared to maintain his children but is aggrieved because he also has to maintain his former wife in addition to his new

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family ? Is the Minister prepared to adjust that to ensure that the absent father does not need to maintain his former wife ?

Mr. Lilley : Obviously, spousal maintenance remains covered by the courts. The changes introduced for the Child Support Agency affect only child maintenance, and the Child Support Act does not cover the issue of spousal maintenance. However, I am happy to look at all the detailed points that hon. Members continue to put to me and to my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State, and to approach them in the light of the assurances that I have just given.

Those assurances apply not least to improving the operational performance of the agency. There is no doubt that the response of our constituents to the requirement to pay maintenance has been aggravated by delays, problems of communication and other difficulties that have arisen in the first year.

The report published today sets out very frankly the scale of those problems, their origins and the steps that we are taking to set them right. There are three reasons why the problems have arisen. The first is the sheer scale of the task which, after all, had defeated the court system. Every part of the process is new, and we needed to create a wholly new organisation.

We are not alone in experiencing the difficulties that have cropped up during the first year. The hon. Member for Garscadden lightly dismisses the difficulties that other countries have had, but the director of the New Zealand Child Support Agency said in London last week :

"Our first year with the Child Support Agency was extremely difficult. Faced with a reluctance on the part of many absent parents to meet their obligations and the difficulties of settling in entirely new business processes, we substantially missed our targets. Only now as we enter our third year are we beginning to turn things around."

So our problems are not unique.

The second cause of the delays in Britain was the changes that we introduced in February. I believe that the changes were necessary, and they were widely welcomed, but they inevitably delayed most other work, as the agency had to review every assessment already made. There is, however, a third reason for the problems of the agency and one which should shame all those responsible for it. The agency has been the target of organised groups deliberately trying to disrupt its work. I have no objection to people voicing criticisms of the agency and seeking to influence the Government by legitimate means of persuasion. Indeed, I have had constructive talks with groups of absent parents, from Sheffield to Plymouth and from Bradford to Bournemouth. But there are other organisations which do not seek simply to lobby for their cause. Their undisguised aim is to undo the legislation passed by this House by undermining the agency that carries it out. Their weapons are disruption, harassment and intimidation.

One such organisation is the Network Against the Child Support Act, NACSA. In its January newsletter it called on its members to "delay co-operating with the CSA . . . make it as hard as possible for the organisation to work . . . fill in the assessment form with information missing . . . swamp the CSA staff".

Even worse than non-co-operation are the campaigns of harassment and threatened violence directed against innocent civil servants carrying out the duties laid down by this House. I quote from a leaflet issued by another of these organisations :

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"all CSA and DSS workers are targets . . . you can hit their homes, cars, personal lives . . . put them under extreme stress . . . ring every time you can . . . remember to harass, insult, swear". I pay tribute to the courage and dedication of Ros Hepplewhite and all her staff for carrying on in the face of such attacks. No one can tolerate people who send hypodermic needles, razor blades and excrement through the post to innocent officials.

I am glad to say that the Select Committee did not stand for it and the hon. Member for Garscadden, to his credit, has not stood for it either. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's repeated opposition to it today and I give the House and CSA staff my promise that we will not stand for it. The Child Support Agency will not be deflected from its task by these groups.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale) : No one would condone the sort of attacks that the right hon. Gentleman has been describing, but I should like some reassurances from the Secretary of State for my constituents. Besides the people who are setting out to destroy the agency, there are many others with perfectly genuine cases. Some of my constituents have been waiting several months for their appeals to be heard. Meanwhile, they are experiencing a great deal of difficulty supporting their second families. One mother has been waiting since October

Madam Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions are for asking questions or making brief comments. I fear that she is trying to jump the gun and make a speech. If she wants to catch my eye later, I suggest that she brings her comments to a close.

Ms Lynne : What is the right hon. Gentleman doing about the Child Support Agency ? My constituents are extremely worried.

Mr. Lilley : The hon. Lady is right : a lot of people who are behaving perfectly lawfully have concerns. Those concerns are aggravated by delays, which are made worse by campaigns of non-compliance. Those matters are all interlinked ; that is why we are determined to ensure that the campaigns of non-compliance, harassment and intimidation do not work.

Dr. Spink : Before my right hon. Friend moves away from the subject of non-compliance campaigns and wilful obstructors, may does he agree that we need more interim assessments and attachments of earnings so that we may care better for the mothers and children who are left without maintenance ?

Mr. Lilley : Yes, we certainly want to do anything that will bring about better compliance. We are doing that, and greater use is being made of direct deduction from earnings. I shall explain in full what we are doing to try to cope with the problems.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Lilley : I shall give way when I have answered the points already raised by hon. Members.

The emerging operational and compliance problems became increasingly apparent before Christmas. Therefore, with Mrs. Hepplewhite, I took steps to strengthen the management structure, appointing a new senior operations director and senior managers seconded from leading consultants. The agency then developed a plan to get its

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operations back on track. That plan aims to restore to the service the speed, effectiveness and sensitivity that parents and hon. Members have the right to expect. I approved that and secured the necessary resources, and the first steps were implemented in February.

The plan involves more staff, streamlining the handling of inquiries, and better working practices. It has five main points. First, we are giving staff better information technology support. Secondly, we are hiring new staff and putting 400 staff on a dedicated service to handle telephone inquiries. That will mean a better service for parents and for hon. Members without disrupting maintenance work. Thirdly, we are deferring the take-on this year of 100,000 existing income support cases while we tackle the backlog. Fourthly, we are setting up specialised teams to clear the backlog. Fifthly, and finally, we are copying the best practice in each of the six Child Support Agency centres and making sure that it is used in all of them.

Mr. Ashby : My right hon. Friend will understand that I should like to dissociate the organised opposition about which he spoke from the opposition in my constituency, which is constructive, helpful and useful to me. A topic which comes up time and again is the benefit fraud by many wives. When fathers reasonably try to tackle that fraud they are told that there is not time to do it now and that it will not be tackled until September. Benefit fraud is not being dealt with at all. Once we tackle that, we shall tackle many of the objections to the Child Support Agency.

Mr. Lilley : I agree with my hon. Friend and I dissociate ordinary law-abiding people with legitimate and often strongly held complaints from those who indulge in organised disruption. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the aggravation of concern in cases in which one parent thinks that the other is fraudulently claiming benefit. In the past two months, 2,200 such cases have been referred by the CSA to the Benefits Agency which says that that is resulting in a significant number of benefit cases being altered or withdrawn. I shall deal with the full scale of that problem in a moment.

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan) : Will the Minister give way ?

Mr. Lilley : Perhaps I may be allowed to make a little progress between interventions.

We have evidence that our changes are beginning to work. We have provisional figures for the first quarter of this year--April, May and June. Compared with last year, they show that we are completing maintenance assessments twice as fast. We have doubled the number of cases in which we are enforcing maintenance. Hon. Members will particularly welcome the fact that we have cleared more parliamentary correspondence in the first quarter of this year than in the whole of last year, although it is still not being cleared as speedily as we would wish. We intend to get back to our targets by the end of this Session.

The organised campaigns against the Child Support Agency have failed, and such campaigns will not stop us delivering the results that parents deserve and hon. Members expect. We have a long way to go and I am sure that this will not be the last debate before we get there. But performance is improving and more maintenance is at last being paid.

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Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) : Although I deplore what has happened to members of the Government--people sending things through the post--I am extremely concerned that my constituents cannot afford medicine which keeps them alive. I have letters from constituents who cannot afford the medicine because of the amount of money that the CSA is taking off them. Surely to God that is not right. We should leave people with enough money to survive on and at least have their medication. I will provide the Minister with the letters, but I am sure that I shall still get the same reply : nothing will be done.

Mr. Lilley : I will certainly look at any correspondence that the hon. Gentleman sends me on that, but he must be aware that, because of the protected income system, virtually every absent parent and his or her second family will be at a standard of living significantly above that of the lone parent caring for his or her children and dependent on income support. Some 1 million lone parents are dependent on income support, and remarkably little concern has been shown by Opposition Members for the steps that we are taking to ensure that those parents receive adequate maintenance in future.

Mr. John Watts (Slough) : Does my right hon. Friend agree with some of the figures announced recently in The Economist showing that the proportion of lone mothers receiving support from the fathers had halved during the past 10 years, and that that trend shows no sign of tracking the levels in unemployment ? Will he say something about free will in all this ? If the CSA did not exist, would we not still be seeing in our surgeries the mothers of the first families who do not receive support ? Whether the CSA existed or not, going for a second family, having abandoned the first, surely means opting for a life of comparative poverty. We would then see the casualties in a different set of circumstances.

Mr. Lilley : I agree with all those points, and they should be borne well in mind by those who think that justification inevitably lies with all the complaints that we receive.

There is no doubt that concerns about the work of the agency have been exacerbated by a number of misconceptions about its work. Some people have claimed that it has been tackling only parents who have been paying maintenance. That is untrue. In some 60 per cent. of cases taken on so far, the absent parent was paying no regular maintenance at all. Others have claimed that we have done nothing to track down the so-called "feckless fathers". That, too, is incorrect. We have traced 85 per cent. of absent parents for whom the parent with care had no address. That is 32,000 people.

There are, of course, also cases in which we are asking fathers already paying some maintenance to pay more. The 1990 White Paper spelt out the fact that one of the aims of the new system was "to produce maintenance payments that are realistically related to the costs of caring for a child."

That was not happening before the CSA was set up. There is no more conclusive proof of that than the fact that 96 per cent. of the children for whom we are seeking maintenance have been dependent on benefit, whether or not they were receiving a modicum of maintenance.

As has been mentioned, a number of hon. Members have found that their constituents' resentment of the

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agency is heightened when one parent believes that the other is fraudulently claiming benefit. I can assure the House that the Benefits Agency investigates such claims, but for reasons of confidentially it clearly cannot report the outcome of specific cases to the parents who reported them. Those claims are being investigated at the rate of more than 1,000 a month, which is leading to a significant number of benefit alterations and withdrawals. There is no doubt, too, that the agency's work has had a beneficial impact in reducing the level of fraudulent claims in the first place. In the first year, some 44,000 parents withdrew income support claims within a month of being contacted by the agency. In some cases, that would have been just a coincidence. In others, however, the parent may have been claiming as a lone parent while living with the child's father or with someone else, or was receiving adequate but undeclared maintenance and realised that that would emerge if the claim was pursued. It is estimated that those withdrawn claims alone result in savings for the taxpayer of £138 million.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : Does the Secretary of State accept that the voice of the absent parent has been slightly louder in this debate than the voice of the parent with care ? If the agency is to succeed, there must be a sea change in public attitudes. Too many quite well-meaning absent parents, provided that they saw their children regularly and paid pocket money, were content for income support to bear the brunt of the real costs of bringing up their children.

Mr. Lilley : I am glad to have the hon. Lady's robust support. She echoes the views of many organisations which represent lone parents. I remind the hon. Lady of their belief that there should be no further changes, and that they would entirely reject the motion. The hon. Lady must consider whether or not she will vote for it. Of course, criticisms of the agency are not just the result of misunderstandings or operational difficulties. There has been strong criticism of how the policy bears on particular groups and circumstances. In response to those concerns, I introduced a package of reforms in February. The changes nearly quadrupled the margin above income support below which the income of a second family would not be allowed to fall ; they extended phasing so that, normally, no one with a second family would face an increase of more than £20 a week above their previous agreement ; they sharply reduced additional payments ; and they progressively cut the carer element when the youngest children reached the age of 11 and above.

Those changes have given more help, more rapidly to more people than many anticipated during our debate at the time. Some 43,000 absent fathers immediately had their maintenance bills reduced. Contrary to what the lobbies assert, those reductions were quite substantial. Maintenance bills previously received reduced on average by 20 per cent., excluding the impact of phasing-in. Typically, that reduction was worth more than £450 a year to the absent parent. A further 4,000 parents will receive small reductions of £50 or less at their annual review. Any assessments starting since February have automatically been at those markedly lower levels.

Needless to say, the changes have not ended complaints about the system, but the volume of correspondence from

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hon. Members has fallen markedly since the changes were implemented, despite the rapid increase in the number of assessments made and enforced in recent months.

The Opposition motion seems to want the House to commit itself to specific action now, before the Select Committee has completed its work--but the Opposition have not fleshed out their own proposals. The hon. Member for Garscadden again calls for some sort of discretionary appeals mechanism. He knows that that was considered and rejected when the Bill was going through Parliament--and he knows why. Nobody wanted a return to an open-ended, discretionary system. If a court or tribunal is given open-ended discretion to give other costs priority over the cost of maintaining children, it will do so. It is always easy to transfer the cost of child support back to the taxpayer. In our last debate, the hon. Member for Garscadden tacitly recognised that problem and called for narrow gateways and restricted grounds for appeal. Today he suggested that anyone who feels hard done by should be allowed access to the appeal system. The hon. Gentleman had several months to think about how to limit access to the appeals mechanism, but he has not produced any proposals. We need to hear what would be the grounds for appeal and, more importantly, what grounds he would not allow if access were narrowed in the way he previously assured us that he would do.

Mr. Dewar : I cannot in one intervention canvass my argument in detail, but I am anxious to put the record straight. If I gave the impression that there should be an open-ended, totally discretionary appeal system, which simply second-guessed the formula in every case, I did so unintentionally. I said that there should be grounds against which an appeal should be measured and that those criteria should be defined in statute. It is important to make that point as the Secretary of State has-- unintentionally, I believe--misrepresented my position.

Mr. Lilley : I take the hon. Gentleman's clarification. In the past, he has said that the system should be narrow. I was surprised at his later form of words, and I obviously put the wrong emphasis on it--I accept what he is now saying. We now need some indication of how he intends to keep the system narrow. What grounds will he not include ? If he does not give those grounds, he will be suggesting to all absent parents in this country that their cases are open to appeal while saying that in the small print that they will not. If he does that, he will be trying to sell us a pig in a poke.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House seek an element of flexibility and a recognition that commitments were entered into between the parties during their marriage and when they divorced. There should be a recognition that the second family is also entitled to a certain standard of living. Provided that that element was built into the reforms, the system would give great benefit.

Mr. Lilley : I entirely accept the point made by my hon. Friend and the widespread feelings that he expresses. I am not here today in the business of ruling in or ruling out specific proposals. It would be premature for the House to commit itself to vague proposals about an appeal

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mechanism based on experience in New Zealand and Australia, where the gateways are narrow and the formula more rough and ready than here. Such a system could well result in more arbitrary treatment of, for example, housing costs, which are not allowed in the New Zealand and Australian formula. Only very few people there are granted set- aside to allow for high housing costs.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford) : I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is handling the subject with skill and judgment and does not want to be rushed into decisions or to anticipate the Select Committee's report, but will he at least consider that one of the grounds for appeal might be when the Child Support Agency assessment is in excess of the total agreed and established disposable income of the father or mother ?

Mr. Lilley : I find it hard to see how those circumstances could arise, but I will happily consider the point made by my right hon. Friend. It is only possible for the assessment to be 50 per cent. of the assessable income, after deductions have been made from the net income of the household. However, I shall happily consider the point raised by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Wray rose

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) rose

Mr. Lilley : I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) later.

The hon. Member for Garscadden suggested that something should be done about past property settlements, but he is unspecific about what he wants done. If Parliament wants to give further recognition--we must remember that the formula automatically gives some recognition, often to a greater extent than is the case under the Australian system, as a result of transfers of housing resulting in increased housing costs and reduced maintenance requirements for the absent parent--some formidable difficulties would first have to be overcome. How would the house in the past property settlement be valued--at its present value or its original value ? If the latter, what would happen if no valuation was made at the time ? How would it be possible to know what trade-off was intended by the court between the transfer of the house and the amount of child maintenance set ? If the hon. Gentleman expects his ideas to be taken seriously, he must at least address those questions before further progress can be made.

Mr. Jim Lester : All of us who have handled many such cases recognise that interpreting the variations requires the wisdom of Solomon. It is possible to fall into the trap which lies between the comparative rigidity of the formula and the difficulty of feeding in the variations involved in individual cases ; that applies particularly to retrospective court orders.

Mr. Lilley : I entirely agree. However, if the Opposition are serious about the narrowness of the grounds for appeal that they propose, and if they are basing their proposal on experience in New Zealand, which is very similar to ours, they should bear in mind that for as long as that system has operated--somewhat longer than ours has--it has allowed only 1,200 appeals to be heard, which have resulted in some 500 departures from the formula. That really is a narrow system. If that is the kind of system that the hon.

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Member for Garscadden is proposing, he should inform those outside who are expecting him to offer an easy way out.

Mr. Dewar : I have never represented the easy way out to anyone, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. I think that I have now been slightly misrepresented at both ends, as it were. Having persuaded the right hon. Gentleman that I did not want a completely "open door" discretionary system, I am now being accused of trying to do a camel-through-the-eye-of-a -needle job. In fact, there is a via media, if that is not too much of a mixed metaphor.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that it is possible to define in statute a number of the grounds that I mentioned as at least serious considerations ? I thought one or two of them self-evidently sensible, while one or two others, being controversial, would require discussion. According to the last figures that I saw, 12 per cent. of cases had gone to appeal in Australia and 6 per cent. had resulted in variation of maintenance awards. If we apply those figures to the many hundreds of thousands of cases in our system, it is clear that we are not talking about a negligible number.

Mr. Lilley : There are rather more cases in Australia, but they tend to result in increased maintenance assessments because many involve parents with care protesting that the income of the absent father is higher than has been suggested.

Mr. Wray rose

Mr. Lilley : I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, in recognition of his persistence.

Mr. Wray : The Secretary of State is finding it difficult to convince the House of what he is saying about the Child Support Agency, which has created nothing but havoc and misery. If its purpose is to trace absent parents and make them pay, why did it send out a memo saying that those who have already paid should be targeted ? Why are Members of Parliament receiving thousands of letters from people baring their souls about all this misery ? Why have the clean break agreements been thrown aside, regardless of the Minton v. Minton agreement ?

Mr. Lilley : The hon. Gentleman must be as much opposed to the views of those on his own Front Bench as he is to mine if he believes that we should abandon the CSA, and if he denies that pursuing our current course is preferable to reverting to the old court system. A third change was mooted by the hon. Member for Garscadden, who called for a partial disregard of maintenance in the setting of lone parents' income support. No Opposition speech would be complete without a spending pledge, and there it was. Again, the hon. Gentleman refused to cost his proposals ; he now says that he wants to assess the costs not on the basis of a steady rate, but on the basis of the early days when the number of maintenance assessments is smaller.

Mr. David Shaw : My right hon. Friend may be suggesting that the Opposition could find a way of avoiding the costs. Have not Labour Members been saying that social security benefit rates--on which many payments by absent parents are based--are too low in relation to children ? Surely if a Labour Government raised those benefit rates, absent fathers would pay more. Perhaps that is how Labour wants to achieve a "nil savings" result.

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Mr. Lilley : There is certainly a disparity between the attitudes of some Opposition Members to the level of income support received by lone parents and to income support when used to assess the maintenance requirement.

I question the case for a maintenance disregard because it would cost the taxpayer money. The hon. Member for Garscadden has mentioned a figure of some £340 million for a £10 per week disregard. Not a penny of that would go towards reducing the burden on absent parents ; perversely, it would mean that a lone parent receiving maintenance would be better off than a widow looking after children and dependent on income support--and, indeed, better off than other lone parents receiving no maintenance.

The case is distinctly weakened by the figures given earlier by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, which showed that about a third of the maintenance paid in the past year has increased the incomes of parents with care, many of them on family credit. Low-income households have benefited significantly.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : Will my right hon. Friend give way ?

Mr. Lilley : I should like to proceed, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

From time to time, the hon. Member for Garscadden has claimed that his proposals would be a step towards the Australian system. Australia does indeed have a limited appeals system and a maintenance disregard, and excludes settlements made before the establishment of the agency. The hon. Gentleman, however, should not delude himself--and none of us should imagine--that such a system would empty our surgeries or our postbags.

When I met the deputy commissioner of the Australian CSA last week, he told me :

"even after six years, Australian Members of Parliament receive more complaints about child support than any other issue". Australia's CSA is also currently the subject of a Select Committee review, as is New Zealand's. The Australian Committee has received more submissions on the subject than have been received by any other Select Committee in the history of the Australian Parliament. The lesson is not that we should abandon our principles or our determination to make the Child Support Agency work better, but we should recognise that anything to do with children, family breakdown and money is bound to raise strong emotions. We must handle such matters sensitively and with patience, and we should not imagine that there is a simple cure-all that will make the issues go away. It is right to listen to the genuine concerns of absent parents, but we must also remember the 1 million lone parents on income support. Before the agency existed, three out of four could expect to receive no regular maintenance, while others usually received small and uncertain amounts.

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