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Lone parents increasingly resent the attention given to complaints from absent parents, almost all of whom have a standard of living well above benefit level. We must be careful that we do not empty our surgeries of absent
Column 43parents, only to fill them with angry lone parents. Mothers have been understandably disappointed by delays which result in part from non-compliance with the agency.
Mr. Lilley : I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I complete my remarks so as to allow the debate to proceed. That is why I place great emphasis on restoring the level of service, and on ensuring effective and speedy payment of maintenance. That is also very much in the interests of absent parents, as it reduces uncertainty, problems with arrears and punitive levels of interim assessment.
We must not put the improvements in performance that we are achieving at risk by introducing unnecessarily disruptive changes ; nor must we revive the belief that those who delay will not have to pay. However, we shall continue to keep the system under review, and we shall study the Select Committee's forthcoming report very closely. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself promised, we are committed to making further changes if we are persuaded that they are necessary, and we shall continue to improve the working of the system. Above all, we shall keep in mind the interests both of absent parents and of lone mothers, of children and of taxpayers--but those of the children most of all.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : I have said before, but I say again because it is important, that in discussing the Child Support Agency we are discussing the most significant change in the welfare state since 1945. The House therefore wants answers to a couple of simple questions : is the agency succeeding, or does it look as though it is doing so ? If that question cannot be answered, does it appear to be working ?
The plain fact is that we cannot answer either of those two crucial questions, which we need to answer today. At the end of the debate, Conservative Members will have to decide whether to vote with the Opposition or quietly to express their concern about the agency to Ministers. Like Opposition Members, they will be forced to base their judgment not on available information but on what they feel is happening with the agency. They will have to put together the information that they have received from their constituents. They will have to have a feel for what they think is happening to all the people who never complain when something is going well, and they will then have to make a judgment.
I sympathised with the Secretary of State for Social Security in his efforts to provide us with increased information over the past few days. Despite that, I believe that he feels that a big question mark remains over the working of the agency.
The Select Committee report will be ready when hon. Members return after the summer recess ; it may or may not be radical--that is for the Select Committee to decide. It will be important that hon. Members keep an open mind regarding the extent of reform that may be necessary and that, although they may be loyal to the Government tonight, they make it clear to the Government that they believe that the jury is still out.
Column 44The increased information given in the past few days does not tally with other information that we have received. Hon. Members will have noticed the caveats--"This is estimated" or "The projection says". We can say almost nothing certain about the agency. The crucial information that we want is who is benefiting and how much mothers and families are receiving, but we cannot answer those questions. I should like to compare the way in which the debate would have been conducted 100 years ago with the way in which it is being conducted today. Local government board reports in the age of quill pens, before anyone had dreamt of computers, were different from today's. Shortly after the end of each year, the most detailed information was gathered on subjects of interest to hon. Members. I have read reports on the poor law period. Riots in Peckham or Birkenhead were covered in reports at the end of the year. Hon. Members could be told what their constituents in the workhouses were eating on particular days.
We should compare that with our search for information on how the agency is working. The paucity of data is extraordinary. The unit responsible for establishing the agency, which set the computer programme on what information should be collected, should be sacked very quickly. Ensuring that the unit does not get its sticky fingers on the next project that the Government may establish is in the interests not only of the Government but of all hon. Members. I do not want to state my views now because if I did, people might think that I was trying to bounce the Select Committee into making a report--and everyone should know that that is the last thing that I would want to do. I do, however, want to raise two issues. First, we must decide what proportion of income the agency may take from the second family. We are assured that families are left with 70 to 85 per cent. of net income, but none of us has met anyone whose experience tallies with that figure.
It has been impossible to obtain the most basic information from the agency --such as why a constituent has to fill in six application forms. It takes the chief executive three months to reply to such queries, let alone more detailed questions. If we can obtain information on how much money is being taken from net income, we shall be able to make a judgment in the autumn on whether we should try to get every penny from the second family or whether we should take a more rounded view and have a formula that delivers an appreciable sum that will regularly be paid and which mothers caring for their children will know will be paid, particularly if they have opportunities to work. We need that information badly and we will need to return to that important point in the autumn.
The second issue relates to the nature of the formula. I know that he is not listening to me, but the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is probably the only person in the Chamber who understands how the formula works. If I asked hon. Members how many of them understood and could explain the formula, no one would ask me to give way. If we do not understand the formula, how can agency officers, constituents and employers cope with it when they try to work out contributions ? In the autumn, we shall have to make a crucial second decision : do we want to modify the existing formula, which none of us understands, or should we choose a simple formula that exempts income and levies a rate of tax that all of us, including our constituents, can understand ?
Column 45The Select Committee has asked the agency to explain the formula. We have been told that we must set aside at least two hours for an explanation. Last week, officials from Australia and New Zealand wanted, sensibly, to speak to the Secretary of State. They managed to explain their formula not in two hours, but in two minutes and most, if not all, the members of the Select Committee, understood it. The other question with which we must deal in the autumn is this : will we solve matters by having a byzantine formula, believing that, if we can only add a little bit more to it, it will work, or should we go for a simple formula ? We cannot sensibly propose reform until we get the formula right. We cannot think about introducing an appeal system if the formula is believed to be so unworkable that 6 million people will use that system. That would swamp and destroy it.
Mr. Stephen : We all accept that a simple system is more desirable than a complex one. But does the hon. Gentleman accept that the simpler the system is, the more chance it has of working justly in individual cases ?
Mr. Field : That is a good intervention and it helps to underline the point that, when we debate any proposal for reform of the formula, we shall have to decide how much money will be taken from the first family. When we have set the level, we shall have to decide whether to hold the line on exemptions. We may have to set the figure at a level that will not deliver what we thought the present formula would deliver but that will be workable and accepted in the country. There would then be no sympathy for those who did not pay, because most people would understand the formula and would say that such a proportion of income should be paid.
I conclude by saying that
Mr. Field : No. In spite of my respect for the hon. Gentleman, I shall not give way, as many other hon. Members wish to speak. It is extraordinary that none of us can answer the crucial questions : does the agency look as though it will be a success, and do we know much about how it is working ? We have a feeling about it from our postbags and from what our constituents have told us but, at the end of the day, and in the absence of hard facts, we shall be called on to make a judgment. Even if Conservative Members cannot accept our motion, I hope that they will make it plain to the Secretary of State as they go through the Lobby that the jury is still out on this issue ; that we shall have to return to it in the overspill session after the summer recess ; and that we shall not act decisively until we have the information that we need to enable us to judge who is being affected, and to what extent, by this important reform.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : A debate on the Child Support Agency can give the House an important opportunity to discuss fundamental pressures on society and how they can be dealt with ; or alternatively it can descend into special pleading and an unconnected string of demands designed to avoid responsibility. I believe that, in the face of huge pressure, it is vital that the Government stand firm on the core principles encompassed by the creation of the CSA. There has been
Column 46a campaign of vilification against the agency and especially against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt). Both of them have handled the issue with courtesy and care, and I especially congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who has replied to all the questions that I have asked on behalf of my constituents, some of whom I took to see him a few months ago. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend and he will continue the work that they have begun and will not cave in to special pleading and the unparalleled campaign that has been waged against them and their officials.
I support the principle behind the agency, which is that one cannot evade responsibility for one's own actions ; one cannot shuffle off responsibility to some convenient repository of all problems--the state-- working on the myth that the state does not comprise other people with a need greater than one's own.
We all subscribe to the theory that fatherhood is for life, but I want to explore what that means. Do we have the moral courage to accept its literal meaning ? Surely it cannot mean that, if a father loses his first family, he is entitled to insist on the state--other people, strangers--taking on a share of the care of the children of his first family because he wishes to start a second and can do so only if other people take on the burden of providing for the first. It may not be his fault that he lost his first family--he may be entirely blameless, although other people will perhaps never be able to make an entirely fair assessment of that--but, whatever the circumstances, the first family remains his complete responsibility.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : I know of a case in which a couple divorced after having two children. The young man remarried and took on two of his second wife's children. He and his second wife then had a fifth child between them. But that young man is still only a trainee nurse and manifestly should not have taken on additional responsibilities and placed extra burdens on other parents who are also bringing up children.
Mr. Leigh : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention because she makes my point precisely. We have to stand firm on this principle. It would be easy for us to shuffle our responsibility on to the state, but we must not do so. We should support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the hilt and not make a series of concessions that will weaken the principles behind the CSA. It is often said that a court order should in no circumstances be overruled--a point often put to me by my constituents. I have some sympathy with that view if two equal, separating partners decide to divide their assets and incomes in such a way that the state is not in any way involved. However, I do not believe that a court order can be defended if it is predicated on the fact that the state will take on part of the burden of looking after the first family. I know from my experience of practising in divorce courts many years ago that, in the past, many maintenance orders were finely tuned to ensure that some convenient third party--the taxpayer--picked up a substantial part of the burden.
Column 47interests of the state ? Nobody stood up to speak for the ordinary taxpayer who was often on a low income and unable to afford high taxes.
Mr. Leigh : Again, my hon. Friend makes my point. I well remember that, during my pupillage, my pupil master advanced the same argument, but he was very skilled at ensuring excellent settlements for his clients and used to laugh at how idiotic the state was to pick up the tab.
At first sight, the philosophy that I am expounding may seem to be pretty hard-nosed as far as the father is concerned ; but it is not, because I believe that the full financial responsibility of the father should be balanced by full access, care and control rights. That is central to the debate. Absent but responsible fathers--my constituents--never complain to me about what they are required to pay for their children, but they do complain about what they are required to pay for the carer with whom they no longer live or to whom they are no longer married.
Philosophically, I want to try to resolve the dispute by making the absent father more responsible and less absent. I regard the absent father--I hate that phrase and would prefer to say simply "the father"--not as a distant sugar daddy required only to pay the bills but as an ever-present part of children's upbringing.
Parents may regrettably divorce in the sense that they refuse to live together or can no longer do so, but, if they have children, they cannot divorce their lives. Society should state that clearly and boldly. There can be no clean break. Young people must realise that parenthood is a lifetime system of care.
Of course the Child Support Agency mechanisms need to be reformed--that is inevitable with a new organisation--but not so that fathers are let off the financial hook. They should, if anything, be impaled on it more securely-- but only on the basis of continued access to, care of and involvement in their children's lives. If they want to act responsibly, they should be considered equal to the mother in being allowed to bring up the children.
Equal time may not be feasible or wanted, but children need to be made aware of the traditional concept of their father having to be absent some of the time in order to work to earn money to care for them. Only if the father refuses to act responsibly, takes himself off and refuses to visit his children is the state entitled to view him as the impersonal source of child support and child minder taxation.
I accept that my argument flies in the face of much modern thinking to the effect that life is entitled to involve nothing but the pursuit of happiness, pleasure and self-fulfilment, and that relationships with other people and their children can be discarded when they cease to be a pleasure or mutually acceptable--with the sole proviso that a bill from some distant impersonal bureaucracy, together with a demand for a cheque, may fall with a thump on one's doorstep. Such a society degenerates into a mechanistic or even a cruel one.
If what I say is discounted as an unrealisable myth or as romantic poppycock, my reply is that, although it may be difficult, it is true. So many of the problems associated with the CSA are due to the fact that we have lacked the intellectual courage and clarity to state that complete personal divorce between parents is impossible where children are involved. We have required a Government
Column 48agency, based necessarily on inflexible rules and procedures, and necessarily remote, to pick up the pieces that parents working together should have to hand.
I see the CSA evolving as a much more individualistic and personalised structure, evaluating individual needs and resources and committed to bonding parents more closely to the children whom they have brought into the world. Implicit in that view is that the CSA will have to maintain links between parents who may have fallen out with each other and who may not sleep under the same roof, but who must have a continual and continuing relationship based on the children.
Society has made divorce far too easy and it has made marriage far too easy. It has fostered the dangerous delusion that relations with children can be dissolved ; they cannot.
The debate about the CSA is an interesting pointer to a wider debate about society as a whole. The 1980s may have been an era of dismantling inefficient, distant state structures. The problem with that was that people drew the wrong moral from the story. They came to believe that individuals could divorce themselves from each other and from society. Society came to be seen as a disparate collection of largely professional and expert groups. That view goes right through society. Business is first regionalised, then
internationalised. The Army is seen as a professional elite divorced from society and the Territorial Army. Involvement in the community is downgraded in many parts of our society. It is bureaucratised, and not enough credence is given to individuals.
The real villain of the piece is social security policy, in assuming that we are all strangers to one another and to society. A vast churning process involving £80 billion of expenditure has erected a vast, rule-ridden, depersonalised bureaucracy in which the CSA is just one particularly painful cog, taxing and dispensing, often to the same people. Social security, including the CSA, is a convenient repository of problems, whether divorce, the underclass or single parents, which we would rather not solve ourselves as individuals.
When, at some distant date, our social security policy, including the CSA, is debated, it will be looked on in much the same way as we now look on Dickensian England. We should make the CSA and social security generally more personal, more human and more designed to empower people out of dependency and back into family, rather than state support. People will then have more faith in our social security system.
People may say that the Government and the Opposition lack a vision for the 1990s. Our disputes on the nature of ownership may be coming to an end. Surely one vision that we can share is the restructuring of social security across the board into something that is much more personal and positive, and that will ensure that we provide for our children in the way that they deserve in the next century.
Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh) : I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Stephen Milligan. Stephen's sudden death was a shock to the many people in Eastleigh who had come to know him as a hard-working and enthusiastic Member of Parliament. Stephen and I campaigned against each other in the 1992 general election. Although we disagreed vigorously on many aspects of policy, Stephen always argued on the issues. He
Column 49never tried to gain advantage through personal attacks on his opponents. In this, he set a fine example which is all too rarely followed in political life today.
Stephen worked hard for his constituents. He was proud of Eastleigh and, I would add, with just cause. Eastleigh is unique among towns along the south coast of England in that it owes its origins to the expansion of heavy industry. With hon. Members' indulgence, I shall follow tradition and take a few minutes to talk about Eastleigh before I come to the points that I want to make about the Child Support Agency.
In the 1890s, the London and South Western Railway Company moved its wagon and carriage works out of London to a convenient railhead in Hampshire, and thus Eastleigh was born. In the 20 years that followed, Eastleigh's population increased sevenfold. With its excellent rail links, Eastleigh beckoned to industry and so a tradition of a wide range of manufacturing and engineering skills was established.
In more recent times, Eastleigh's factories have played a major part in the development of Britain's aero industry. Avro, Hawker Siddeley, De Havilland and Supermarine are just some of the famous names in British aviation associated with Eastleigh. Today, Hamble Aero Structures is Eastleigh's major employer. The tradition of railway engineering has continued in the railway maintenance works at Eastleigh, while in Woolston, the most westerly ward in my constituency, Vosper's shipyards continue to lead the world in minesweeper technology. In rail, sea and air transport, Eastleigh's industry continues to play its part.
Even today, almost a third of Eastleigh's work force are engaged in manufacturing industry. With the M3 and M27 motorways complementing the rail network, more than a quarter of all jobs in Eastleigh are in the distribution sector. If the much needed investment can be found to complete the development of Eastleigh airport, thousands of jobs could be provided to replace those slipping away from our traditional industries. Furthermore, investment in high-quality training for local people could ensure that they grasp these opportunities. People in Eastleigh, however, feel insecure, not just about the operation of the CSA. One third of those unemployed have been out of work for more than a year. Many young families who bought their first homes in and around Hedge End in the 1980s' boom are now bust, trapped by negative equity. Energetic, able men and women are unable to move to take up better jobs and advance their careers because they are shackled to houses with values that are now far less than their outstanding mortgages.
People are worried, not just about the operation of the CSA, but about increasing crime in their area. It has increased by more than 20 per cent. in some places over the past few years. They do not understand why their chief constable's request to recruit 223 more officers just to bring the county force up to strength has been turned down.
People in Eastleigh are worried about career prospects for their children. They want investment that will guarantee high-quality education and training to provide young people with the skills they will need if they are to make their way in the modern, highly competitive world.
Hon. Members will know that by-elections bring into sharp focus the mood of the people, and Eastleigh is no exception. The people of Eastleigh have taken the opportunity to tell the Government that they want policies that recognise their concerns. I remind the House that the
Column 50overturning of a Conservative majority of almost 18,000 in the 1992 general election to a Liberal Democrat majority of more than 9,000 just two years later is a powerful message from the voters of Eastleigh. It is a message to the Government that they should listen to the people and change their policies.
Of all the concerns of my constituents, the need to review and change the operation of the CSA is the greatest. Hon. Members will know from their own constituency postbags the extent of the anxiety and sense of injustice caused by the activities of the CSA. There is broad support from my constituents for the principle of the Child Support Agency--that both parents should be responsible for the maintenance of their children. However, the draconian operations of the CSA and the clear evidence that it is the Treasury--and not the children--that is far and away the major beneficiary only serve to underline the need for urgent and fundamental review of the current system for the collection of maintenance.
Just such a case concerns a constituent in Eastleigh. He divorced his wife seven years ago. He made a clean break settlement through the courts, with agreed maintenance payments for his two children. Two years later, he remarried, taking on the financial responsibility of two stepchildren as well as caring for his elder child, who by then had decided, again through the courts, that he wished to return to live with his father. Another three years passed. His first wife, who had also been married and then divorced for a second time, was required by the Department of Social Security to seek an increase in the maintenance paid by my constituent for the child still living with her.
The courts reviewed the case and determined that the original maintenance award was fair and just and should stand. This year, some seven years after his divorce, my constituent was contacted by the CSA. He sought its guidance on how to respond to its questionnaire. He was shocked to receive, instead of guidance, notice through the post that an interim assessment was about to be made. The assessment was estimated to be some seven times greater than the level of child maintenance that he is currently paying. It was some seven times greater than the amount set by the courts, subsequently re-examined by the courts and judged to be just and fair.
How can it be right for a Government agency to be able to overturn judgments made in the courts with no right of redress and no right of appeal ? I believe that to make the CSA acceptable, far more radical reforms than those supported by the Government will be necessary. Formulae will have to take into account the father's necessary expenditure--for example, the cost of travelling to work. Calculations should be based on disposable income rather than gross income. Provision should be made for the costs of absent parents' access to their children. The CSA cannot be in the child's interests if a father's maintenance payments mean that he can no longer afford to visit his children.
Finally, there must be some mechanism whereby parents can challenge demands. No system can claim to be infallible. The very high number of mistaken demands shows that the CSA is no exception. It has been said that allowing for an appeal would simply mean a return to the previous discretionary system. However, there must be some place for discretion in a system which so directly influences people's lives. The Australians have established a successful appeal system, so there seems no good reason why it should be impossible to do so in this country. To
Column 51provide no possibility for appeal is seen by many, not only in Eastleigh, to be in breach of natural justice. I urge the Government to make the provision of a facility of appeal for parents a top priority when they come to review the operations of the CSA. 5.23 pm
Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley) : I did not expect to be called so early in the debate. I am glad that I have been because it gives me a chance to thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) for the gentle way in which he referred to our colleague Stephen Milligan. Both Conservative and Opposition Members thank him most sincerely for that. We are sure that in the next year or two we shall hear one or two more of the hon. Gentleman's speeches. We look forward to that.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh is fortunate to be here on an important but not a cantankerous political day. He has heard the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Chairman of the Select Committee, make excellent speeches. The hon. Gentleman can be sure that they will read his speech in Hansard tomorrow because they will read their own speeches and will come across his in the course of events. The hon. Member for Eastleigh has also heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State make a very good speech. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join us in voting for the amendment tonight, which concludes with the words :
"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 am sure that, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his able Under-Secretary say that, they mean it. I am sure that when the Select Committee has reported, changes will be made. Marriage or parenthood is not a limited liability contract. One is not married as a limited company. One cannot put a limit on that. Nor is it an unlimited contract as at Lloyd's of London. When I got married 40 years ago, we were told, and we have been told ever since, that when a man gets married he gives his wife half his property and a third of his income for life. She can cash that in whenever she wants to walk through the door with the children, for whatever reason. That has always been so. It was so under the courts and it is so now.
Children are the responsibility of us all in the last resort. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) said, for the rest of the time they are the responsibility of their parents. Initially, they are the responsibility of their parents and they continue to be the responsibility of their parents whomsoever they live with afterwards.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told us that two thirds of absent parents contacted by the Child Support Agency in the first year had not been making regular payments. He also said that 96 per cent. of the families of those absent parents had been supported by the state. He said that 90 per cent. of the absent parents whose whereabouts were unknown and for whom the agency looked had been found. That is what the House hoped for and it is why we almost unanimously voted for the system.
Column 52However, many of my constituents are unhappy. It is my job to report as succinctly as possible their grievances. They are not violent or nasty. They come to my advice centres as sensible and reasonable men with problems such as the hon. Member for Eastleigh outlined. One young man said, "You daren't even go to t'disco and say owt to do wi't'CSA now." We all know exactly what he means. My constituents say that the Child Support Agency must cost more to administer than the old system. I am not sure about that. The old system cost between £230 and £1,000 for every legal aid case. The lawyers are £80 million down, so no wonder they are complaining. I shall mention some of the objections of my constituents, bearing in mind that they will read every word of the Hansard reports that I send them and comb out every word. As we all do, they will agree with what they agree with and pooh-pooh what they disagree with. The first thing that my constituents say is that clean-break settlements ought to be accepted or at least taken into account, especially where there is benefit fiddle or perhaps where they say that the wife does not deserve the £40 a week spending money that the formula directs. Secondly, my constituents say that the formula is too rigid and should allow for personal circumstances.
Most controversially, or perhaps least controversially, they cite the cost of access. No one automatically allows access to children by fathers. It is often, if not always, opposed because people say that access by fathers disturbs the children. It is better if the fathers are not there. My constituents have been advised to complain that their children have been molested by their father rather than to allow access to the children. My constituents also say that the formula ought to include an allowance for the cost of travel to work.
My constituents ask for more flexibility. I cannot see the difficulty in allowing more flexibility. Everyone in the House of Commons will have a different motor car insurance policy. Those policies will cover a range of special exclusions, special experiences and the lot. They will cover motor bikes, beginners, old people, young men aged under 23 and the rest of it. Such policies are put into being by a computer system with no difficulty. It may take a year or two to achieve flexibility in the CSA, but the systems are already available and could be used.
My constituents want a faster response to their correspondence and telephone calls. That includes both women appealing to the CSA to be included in the system and men appealing to be excluded. They need to be told more quickly, sharply and precisely where they are and what is going on.
My constituents say that retrospective legislation is destructive. Often, after a clean-break settlement has been agreed, an ex-wife spends her children's inheritance. The money is not used to support the child, as the lawyers intended five, six or seven years before. She has sold the house, the equity has gone, she has gone back on benefit, and her ex-husband is being asked to pay again. We must look into clean-break settlements, not only when they have endured and been fair and reasonable, but when one or other of the parties has taken advantage of them.
Finally, the Child Support Agency and its complicated formula are persuading men not to take promotion, move up the ladder or work harder because they know that any extra income will be creamed off. The formula is debilitating for people who are in business because, with
Column 53the CSA as a silent partner, they cannot treat business profits in the same way as they would if it were a family business.
Those are the matters that my constituents have raised with me and about which I have often written to my right hon. and hon Friends on the Front Bench. The majority of my constituents--about 80 per cent.--accept that the CSA is a reasonable and sensible way to ensure that those people who are responsible for children bear that responsibility properly. It would be a disaster if that near-consensus crumbled because of inflexibility and bad administration.
Since the CSA was set up, the amount of money that has gone to children has increased from about £16 a week to about £40. That increase is welcome to the children. I am sure that this debate and the excellent report of the Select Committee, which is to follow, will help to clear the Government's mind and make the CSA more effective.
Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen) : First, I must congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) on his excellent speech and the accomplished way in which he made his debut. When I made my maiden speech about two years ago, precisely four other Members of Parliament were present, apart from the Deputy Speaker, and only my mother and my two children were in the Public Gallery. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his obvious ability and look forward to hearing him speak again many times.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) said, but I was somewhat worried about the way in which he began his speech. He said that this is not a controversial debate and that, unusually, there is general agreement today. I warn the Secretary of State, his colleagues and Conservative Members that if they make the subject of this debate party political, it will be to the detriment of the CSA and the children whom we want to help to get through all the mess created by the working of the agency during the past year. I detected a party political tendency in the Secretary of State's speech and in some of the comments his hon. Friends made from the Back Benches--albeit from a sedentary position.
I spoke on the issue when the House debated the report by the Select Committee on Social Security, so I do not want to be too long as I know that other hon. Members want to contribute. The Child Support Agency was set some targets when it began its work about two years ago. Very few of them appear to have been met, as the agency's report makes clear. It appears almost to have met the target for satisfaction. It claims that 61 per cent. of its customers are satisfied with its work and the target that it set out to achieve was 65 per cent., so it has done well in that respect, if not in any other.
If hon. Members, irrespective of the side of the Chamber on which they sit, are voicing the concerns of fathers, or absent parents--however one wants to describe them--it is not because they do not recognise the work that the agency is doing to assist those parents who care. For the most part, they are lone mothers, who are feeling the benefits of the agency's work. We want to articulate the real fears of the many constituents who, for the past year, have been plaguing us with their concerns about the way in which the agency works.
Column 54I am one of the luckier Members in this House in that only a small number of constituents have mentioned their worries about the agency to me--four or five at the last count. Other hon. Members have received many more complaints. Judging from those few cases, I am worried about the way in which the agency has been working and must bring one case to the attention of the House--that of Mr. Anthony Howard. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State about the matter. I have been working with Mr. Howard, as his Member of Parliament, and trying to help him understand the way in which the agency has calculated the formula and applied it in his case. He is a systems analyst and works for British Telecom. He is used to dealing with complicated formulae--it is his bread and butter and he knows how such things work. He cannot understand why he is unable to work out how the agency has arrived at its final figures in his case.
When the original assessment was made, he came to me in real distress because he felt that it was a serious threat to the well-being of his family. In his case, it was not a second family, as he had married only once. He is required to pay maintenance for a 14-year-old son, whom he had in a previous relationship. As soon as he was made aware of his responsibilities, he undertook to pay maintenance, through a court order, and continued to do so until the CSA became involved.
He was not trying to evade his responsibilities. He took them seriously and still wishes to do so. He is anxious to make the maximum payment that he can afford, without damaging the family that he has created with his wife, which is a long-term commitment. He is worried that the agency's assessment is seriously jeopardising the stability of that marriage and his ability to care for the children he has in that relationship.
After the agency made its assessment, Mr. Howard followed the work of the Select Committee closely--I was a member of the Committee at that time. He read Hansard and the Committee's report. In December, that report was presented to Parliament and the Secretary of State and his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State, accepted many of its recommendations. I agree that they went further and we welcomed many of the changes that were made-- especially the changes to the formula. I agree entirely with the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who spoke earlier. If we cannot get the formula right and make it work, we cannot save the Child Support Agency in its present form. Things have got so bad that, unless we make the formula workable, easy to understand and simple, it will not stand the test of public support.
What subsequently happened to Mr. Howard was inexplicable. After he had read the Select Committee report and heard what the Government had decided to do in response, he wrote to tell me how pleased he was with the work that had been done. He genuinely felt that, as far as he was able to understand them, the changes would assist him, especially as the child he was paying maintenance for was 14 years old. He wrote thanking me for my work--not that I did a great deal--and was especially grateful to the Select Committee for its work and for the way in which the Government had responded.
The CSA wrote to him in terms that I do not understand. I sent a copy of the letter to the Minister. The agency acknowledged that his payments would be reduced. He expected a reduction of about 25 per cent.
Column 55In fact, the agency then started to use vague phrases. In a letter of 13 June, it tried to explain why Mr. Howard would not receive the 25 per cent. reduction in the maintenance assessment that he had expected. It merely offered the following explanation :
"because a fresh maintenance assessment following Anthony's birthday would not make the maintenance payable significantly different. This is known as the tolerance rule."
The agency offered no explanation of that rule or how it applied to the formula. Mr. Howard, who could be expected to be able to understand such explanations, began to tear his hair out. The agency cited in another letter that, because Mr. Howard's income was regarded as high and
"in accordance with the principle that children should share in the wealth of the absent parent as if they had continued to live with them",
that also meant that his maintenance requirement would not be reduced. I do not disagree with that principle, but the CSA offered no figures or any explanation for how it had arrived at its assessment. Mr. Howard felt that the arguments that he had presented to me and to the agency over many months had been entirely disregarded.
I recognise that agency staff are working under extreme pressure and I agree with those who have said it is unacceptable that those staff should be attacked at work or at home. Such behaviour is entirely unacceptable in a democracy. The House should be aware, however, that Mr. Howard has been on the receiving end of harassment from agency staff. The Government should recognise that it is not acceptable for people who are already suffering from heightened anxiety because of maintenance problems to receive telephone calls at work while going about their daily business. Those calls were not made to ask for information that had not been provided or for clarification of a particular point--they can only be described as abusive telephone calls. Mr. Howard received calls in which he was asked, "Why have you not completed your standing order ? What is the matter with you ? It is only £400 a month. Get on with it." That is how agency staff responded to Mr. Howard's correspondence and his efforts and mine to get to the bottom of his case.
I accept that agency staff do not behave like that all the time, but they have done so sufficiently often to cause concern. That is why people get so angry. People are not justified in taking out their frustration on agency staff and I would not seek to condone that, but one must also recognise that such harassment from the staff is also unacceptable.
I know from talking to staff of the agency that their training is very good, so I do not understand why, once they are back in the workplace, they sometimes adopt unacceptable methods, which cannot be condoned. I can only assume that they have been set unattainable targets and that they are working under such pressure to achieve them that they sometimes stoop to methods of which we would not approve. According to some publicity earlier today, the Secretary of State intended to use today's debate to announce changes in the targets. I did not hear him make such an announcement, but perhaps the Under-Secretary will. I believe that those targets should have been changed when the formula was changed as a result of the Select Committee's report. If the formula is not right and CSA
Column 56staff are working towards unachievable targets, the agency will not function in the manner that we all intend it to do. That benefits no one--the people we are trying to help or hon. Members, as we seek to implement legislation that works.