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Mr. John Horam (Orpington) : Before the CSA was established, all the relevant matters were handled by the courts. Whatever their particular disadvantages, those courts are concerned with justice and are empowered to take account of individual circumstances. When the Government created the CSA, they transferred that sensitive and personal material to a state bureaucracy, which was required to impose a standardised approach. That was a curious thing for a Conservative Government to do.
My hon. Friend the Minister will say that the transfer was necessary because the courts were producing unsatisfactory results. That is undoubtedly correct. They were slow, were inconsistent in their approach and, in particular, left the taxpayer to pick up a huge burden. All those problems obviously had to be tackled. Was it not possible, however, to deal with them directly by passing legislation that required the courts to minimise the call on Government funds ? In addition, the Government could have seconded people from the Department of Social Security to chase up absent parents to ensure that they paid what the court had said they should pay. If that had been done, we would have adopted a more modest and less expensive approach to the problem.
I am surprised that that approach was not adopted by the United Kingdom, because it is the basis of the Australian approach, which has been more successful than our own. Stage I of the Australian Child Support Acts of 1988 and 1989 made it clear that the Family Law Act 1975 had been amended to take no account of custodial parents' eligibility for benefit. When the legislation was reviewed--my right hon. and hon. Friends would confirm that that is a continuous process--it was confirmed that the law should not be retrospective in that regard.
That raises another question about this phalanx of British law--it has been made retrospective. That is another thing about which people rightly complain. It is one thing for a group of people to be told, "From here on, if you do this, the consequences will be such and such." The fact that several years of law have been set aside, in circumstances that people could not have foreseen, is fundamentally opposed to traditional notions of British justice.
The fact that the legislation to set up the CSA was rushed through the previous Parliament with remarkable speed is one reason that the various alternatives were not explored thoroughly. The then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, made her speech to the Pankhurst group on 18 July 1990, and exactly one year later the relevant legislation received its Royal Assent. No Green Paper was published, so it was not possible to have wider consultation with relevant groups and individuals.
Many of us on both sides of the House are deeply critical of our legislative procedures, in particular those of the past few years, which have produced over-hasty legislation with many things at fault. The Child Support Act 1991 was passed unanimously, but, given the fact that
Column 57it has had such adverse consequences for many individuals, we must all reconsider it. Individual citizens should not be penalised because of the faults of our legislative procedure.
I support the principle behind the CSA. I do not deny that parents, even though they live apart, should be responsible for their children. It is the methods about which I am concerned. I should like to relate the story of someone who came to my surgery only the Saturday before last. That young man's wife left him. He looked after their two children for at least a year, before, finally, the mother took the children to live with her and another man, 200 miles away. The father earns £127 a week net and out of that he has to pay £40 in rent ; £15 for gas and electricity ; £30 for food ; £5 for car insurance and road tax ; £7 for council tax ; £3 for various other items and £20 for petrol to get to work. That totals £120 a week. The CSA wanted £28 a week from that man. As a result of my right hon. Friend's changes in the regulations in February, that £28 was reduced to £18.
In addition, the man is now in arrears and owes the CSA £466. It is demanding a further £5 a week, so he must now pay £23 a week when his net surplus--the money that he has left to pay for everything once he has paid his essential costs--is only £7 a week. No wonder he cannot concentrate at work and breaks down in tears all the time. No wonder he talked about suicide when he came to my surgery only a fortnight ago. I am concerned about such individual cases. Life is now a nightmare for that young man.
Although I fully recognise that none of that is the fault of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who have taken a consistently concerned approach and been considerate in handling matters--I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State for agreeing to meet a group of people from the Croydon, Orpington and Bromley group against the Child Support Agency, COBACSA for short, organised by Mr. Brian Reavill--none the less, it is the essence of the problem which the House must deal with.
Two or three changes are essential. First, the standard assessment must be widened to take into account other costs such as travel, access and house insurance. Secondly, the formula should, if possible--I agree that a conflict exists--be simplified. It should not take two hours to explain it to the Select Committee on Social Security. Anyone should be able to grasp it quickly.
Thirdly, payments should begin when the assessment is finally settled. The young man that I mentioned faces a total bill of £466. He is being asked to pay just £5 a week, but other people have much greater bills. Not only should the existing power for people to spread payment over a long period be improved, but some of those debts should be cancelled.
Although my hon. Friend would say that that is giving in to people who refuse to pay, it would also take account of people who cannot pay. Because of the problems faced by the CSA, the gap between the time when the initial assessment is made or when people are first written to and a final settlement is much longer than was originally envisaged. Ordinary citizens should not be penalised for the mistakes that we make in the House or civil servants make at our behest. All those changes should, as far as possible, be made through regulation or administrative order because they need to be made quickly. Obviously, my right hon. Friend
Column 58the Secretary of State will want to wait until the Social Security Select Committee has reported, but once it has had its say, action must follow extremely swiftly.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North) : I am grateful for an opportunity to speak in this debate. From speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House, it is obvious that we needed to have this debate. People outside can be assured that hon. Members on both sides of the House are fighting for a fair and effective system and to make the Government aware that the system of child support maintenance which they set up is close to collapse.
The country desperately needs a system of securing maintenance for children which works, is fair and takes unusual circumstances into account, which commands the support of parents but which, most of all, benefits children. That children should benefit is essential. The fact that so few have done so is central to the Government's failure.
In my experience, parents on both sides want a system that works. There will always be people who want to avoid their responsibilities and they should be pursued vigorously. Equally, however, many parents want to pay. They want a fair and efficient system that allows them to make and receive regular payments for the benefit of their children. Most hon. Members have had a crop of cases from constituents who feel aggrieved at how the CSA has treated them or are concerned about their ability to cope on the income which they have left. Concerned parents come from both sides--those with care and those who have left the family home.
A parent with care who contacted my office was horrified to learn that she would probably be worse off receiving child support maintenance. As a parent on income support, she was told that her income would be the same but that she would lose other benefits to which income support can be a passport. Parents can lose free school meals, which are worth several pounds a week, school clothing grants, and housing and council tax benefits. My constituent's hopes were built up only to be dashed, and she was potentially far worse off than before.
Many women who have not previously received maintenance but are on income support and receive help from practically no one now find themselves even worse off than before the system was introduced. The Government claim that those were the people they wanted to help. That shows the depth of their failure. Many parents with care on income support, many of whom are women, who may have no savings and manage from week to week, will soon receive no support whatever from the state.
By taking away their income support, the state is effectively denying them the help to which most people are entitled and throwing them to the mercy of their former partners. That does not represent progress for women in our society. If their former partners default and either do not pay or make payments erratically, they will have no money and will be forced into a crisis.
The lengthy procedures for reclaiming arrears and forcing people to pay are fine in theory, but how will those parents and children manage to eat in the meantime without the guarantee of regular payments ? How can driving struggling families further into insecurity be considered putting children first ? The Government are putting families on even lower and far less secure incomes while claiming that they have done so for their benefit.
Column 59That is an appalling attitude. It is little wonder that people have so little respect for the Government when they show so little compassion for individual human circumstances.
Absent parents and sometimes their second families are finding themselves under pressure from the system, especially when they are in unusual circumstances. A constituent of mine has been left with thousands of pounds' worth of jointly incurred debts, but none of the repayments will be taken into account for maintenance purposes. An official of the Government's quango is now telling one of my constituents, "You must pay that amount of money, even though we know that, in reality, you can't afford to do so." The state is literally asking the impossible, yet that man's children will see not a penny piece of that money, as it will be spent on taking his ex-wife off benefit.
We are all aware of cases in which the formula has been inflexible and unresponsive to individual circumstances. The Government must respond to that problem and treat those delicate matters with the sensitivity and common sense that they deserve. They have failed to set up a sensitive and effective system of delivering maintenance because they do not have the welfare of the people involved at heart. Their overriding priority has been to save money first, second and last. By setting the £530 million target in the first year of operation, they gave the CSA a licence to pursue soft targets where maintenance was already being paid rather than first trying to help those who receive nothing.
The £335 million--the figure has now been questioned--that has been saved so far should be benefiting the children, but it is being used as part payment for the Government's economic incompetence. The end result is a system from which many thousands of children will see no benefit at all, and it will take thousands of parents with care--mainly women--out of the income support safety net.
The Government must review the system so that it guarantees that maintenance will be paid regularly and all children will be better off at the end of the day. They must also ensure that there is a right of appeal on both sides when there are circumstances that need to be examined in more detail. It is not good enough to say to people, "Those are the rules. I know that they do not work and have no relevance to your circumstances, but they are the rules". Yet that is what the Government have sought to do and are doing.
The Government cannot be short of evidence. With many letters from hon. Members, charities, pressure groups and individuals who are affected, even they should have worked out by now that a fundamental change to the system is needed. As well as the failure of the system, we have also been faced with the chaos of administration which seems to be rife throughout the CSA and which adds insult to injury for many people who are dealing with personal matters that are often urgent.
In the past few days, one of my constituents found that her case as it stands today has not advanced one iota since November. Last year, when she notified the local office of the change in benefit that she was receiving, the CSA said that the next step was an interim assessment--and the agency said the same thing to my office on the telephone only last week.
In another case, employers were contacted for information when no approach should have been made at
Column 60all, causing potential problems for the constituent at work. In another case, the new name and address of a constituent and his wife were given to the former partner who had caused a nuisance in the past, despite repeated verbal and written requests that the address should be kept secret.
A catalogue of similar examples of misinformation, incompetence and delay have characterised the experience of many of my constituents with the CSA. Many hon. Members will have cases on their files which have lingered on for months, and many will have shared my experience of writing to the CSA and not having had a reply for more than three months.
The system is close to breakdown in terms of both organisation and support, and that is why I want to see a fundamental review of it. A number of positive suggestions about how the system could be changed could be made to the benefit of all those involved. Many hon. Members who attended the lobby on the Child Support Agency last week will have been impressed by some of the proposals raised there. Certainly the south Yorkshire contingent representing absent parents, second families and parents with care produced a persuasive case for change.
Mr. Frank Field : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because it allows me to put it on the record that, although the Select Committee received about 5,000 submissions in response to its inquiry, the submission from the South Yorkshire group was by far the best.
Mr. Hughes : I am grateful for that intervention.
It is high time the Government took some notice of the hundreds of letters that they have received on the subject rather than simply passing the buck and evading the issue. They have got the matter dreadfully wrong. They have an absolute duty to act to introduce changes which will address the chaos that they have caused to so many people's lives. The message from my constituents is that we need a fair system but, most importantly, one which delivers benefits to the children and one which can be relied on. I hope that the Government will now hear that message and act on it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : I must remind hon. Members that Madam Speaker has declared that speeches between now and 8 pm shall be no longer than 10 minutes.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : Like most speakers in the debate so far, I strongly support the principle that we should have the Child Support Agency. It has almost become commonplace to say that we have a society with too many rights and not enough obligations. Of course, it would be completely empty words if we were to say that obligations will simply be achieved through exhortation and never through the bite of the law. There is no more important obligation in the ordinary way in society than caring for one's own children. Before I come to some criticisms of the existing system, I shall stress three aspects of which we essentially must keep hold. The first is the principle that, even in the era of artificial insemination and all the other facilities available, every child has two biological parents, and if they are both alive and fit and well, they should both be involved in caring for the child, and not only financially.
Secondly, we are absolutely right to take the maintenance of children away from the courts. It is
Column 61outrageous that for years the courts were allowed to get away with dumping two thirds of all cases wholly or largely on the taxpayer. Indeed, if the appeal system is expanded--at present there are limited grounds for appeal--it is essential that it should not go back to the courts.
Thirdly--to reiterate the point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State--it is absolutely essential that, if the appeal system is extended, it must be only on a limited number of clearly articulated headings, not some sort of general appeal with weasel words such as "personal circumstances" or whatever, which would simply lead to everyone appealing and the formula being undermined. I have four criticisms of the existing system--some of them have been aired already. First, the Child Support Agency must be allowed to take account of genuine working costs. Indeed, that is one area where there is room for appeal, because there is an unavoidable element requiring discretion. As other hon. Members have already mentioned this, I shall not dwell on it, but it would be a bizarre anomaly if, just as the Department of Social Security has made the strongest possible commitment--it was reiterated on the wireless this morning by the Secretary of State--to find ways of easing the unemployment trap, we turned a blind eye to the fact that the formula does not take full account of working costs, especially travel-to-work costs, and many absent parents, of which 10 per cent. are women, find themselves paying such sums of money that they are pushed into an unemployment trap.
My second concern rests on the agency's lack of legal bite. At present, I am dealing with a constituent whose former husband applied 10 months ago to have his case assessed by the CSA and, as a result, the court maintenance order which he had paid for many years ceased. For 10 months, the woman has been living on income support while her former husband skilfully evades the system by prevaricating over details. If the CSA eventually manages to sort out a payment for him and he then chooses not to pay it, it will still take several months to get an attachment order on his earnings. We must give the CSA some of the powers which the courts used to enjoy, so that it will be a clear offence if someone fails to fill in forms in a timely manner, gives a false statement of earnings and so on.
My third concern, on which I shall spend a minute or two longer, relates to the failure of the present system, in a different way from that which has been raised by Labour Members, to deliver money to the children. I do not mean the suggestion of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that there should be some sort of fixed disregard. It seems to be totally wrong that we should end up with a position in which some people are potentially better off with a family split than with it joined together. It would be wrong that in two neighbouring houses there should be a widow on income support and someone on income support whose marriage has broken down with identical family commitments, but the latter enjoys more money than the former.
A curious flaw in the present system is that there is nothing in it to say that the money has to go to the children. There is no way even in principle that an absent partner can chase up a case by appealing if he strongly believes that little or none of the money is being spent on the child.
I know of two almost identical constituency cases of wives running off with other men. Both former husbands were in reasonably well paid jobs, while the women's
Column 62lovers were and remain jobless. Maintenance was being paid in both cases before the CSA was set up ; it has substantially increased the maintenance now, with the result that the women's lovers have been able to enhance their life styles--spending more in the boozer and on various other activities.
In both cases the effect of the increased payments has been that the deserted fathers--at least one of them did not want the marriage to break up--can no longer buy their children the presents and gifts that they used to give them. Both fathers used to give their children clothes, holidays and so on, but they can no longer afford to do that. So the children are suffering, while the new boy friends only stand to gain.
I would not naively suggest that the state should interfere in the budgets of every household--that would be monstrous and unworkable--but absent parents in these more extreme cases should have access to some appeal procedure when it is clear that little or none of their money is going to their children. An appeal procedure should be able to provide them with an order stipulating that, if they give their children gifts in kind, those can be counted against their cash payments. In that way they can be sure that at least some of the money is spent on the children.
My fourth and last point relates to custody, but it fits in closely with the subject of this debate. Before the CSA was set up, I dealt with a bad constituency case involving an agricultural worker whose wife had run away with another man, abandoning him with the three children. Some months later, when their money had run out, the wife and lover realised that the way to acquire accommodation was for the wife to claim custody of the children whom she had abandoned--such is the imbalance in this country's laws of custody that she could easily and quickly do that, even though the children begged to stay with their father and have several times run away to see him.
With other areas of law, most strikingly in the White Paper on housing, it has now been acknowledged that state benefits can create perverse incentives. Teenage pregnancy to gain a council house is offered as an example of this. To some extent, child custody arrangements have always involved a perverse incentive, because they provide an incentive for someone who cynically wants to gain housing. I am sorry to say that I have had to deal with several such cases. The downside of the good provisions of the CSA, which do ensure that real payments are made, is that they can sometimes add a second edge to this perverse incentive. I am afraid that I am talking about the woman, not the man, because child custody arrangements are biased towards the woman. On top of this possibility of acquiring the family home--regardless of whose name the home was in--the CSA can provide the added incentive of a large income which the woman and the new man can then spend.
Here, then, is a second reason for looking again at our child custody laws. I am aware that I am speaking against the White Paper on divorce law. I believe that we must go back to some of the pre-1969 ideas and ask where some of the fault may lie. If one partner has clearly abandoned the marriage and left the children with the other, that should be a prime consideration when subsequently awarding custody of the children.
I end where I started by expressing strong support for the principle of the CSA. In all the areas that I have described, however, we need reform, and it is important that it comes as early as possible.
Column 636.14 pm
Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : One would think, after the fiasco of the poll tax which cost the country dear, that the Government would have learnt the lesson that they cannot operate an Act without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the majority of people in this country if we are to keep our democracy intact.
The Secretary of State has tried to demonise the campaigning groups, implying that they consist of nothing but violent, selfish fathers who do not want to pay maintenance for their children. That is totally untrue. There may be some fathers of that sort, but most members of the campaign network are decent men who care about their children and want to maintain them. The networks also contain single mothers with care and second wives-- they are a mixture, not just groups of fathers.
The Government are already trying to reduce the democratic rights of these groups. The latter wanted to hold a rally in Trafalgar square on father's day, but the Heritage Commission banned it on the spurious grounds that large numbers would attend--as, indeed, they would--and that it would be dangerous for the large numbers of children who might be brought across the road. Will that be the pattern for the future when groups who might bring children with them apply to hold rallies in Trafalgar square ? I hope not. Will the Government go further, as they did with the poll tax, and bring in bailiffs and imprisonment to deal with the men who cannot find the money to pay the huge debts that have accrued owing to retrospective awards ?
Not only are the campaigning networks mushrooming all over the country and holding rallies of thousands of people who are against the Child Support Act 1991, but the legal profession has declared itself against the Child Support Agency and in favour of a court-based system. Even groups of lawyers who deal with family matters and divorce are of that opinion. I believe that we should take their expertise and advice into account.
The voluntary organisations which have thus far supported the idea of a formula are getting more and more worried too. Looking through the voluntary organisations' reports from the end of the first year of the CSA's operation, I find that the Child Poverty Action Group's report lists about 34 changes which should be made to make the formula function more fairly, the National Council for One Parent Families lists about 20 changes, and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux wants no fewer than 44 changes. Other organisations could add to that number.
It is time the Government realised that the agency is not going to work and that what is needed is a court-based system with an organisation to enforce the maintenance on which the court-based system decides. That would be much more efficient than the discredited CSA, but the Government should attempt it only after widespread consultation with the public. By now, millions of people are aware of the problem of child poverty and are discussing it, and thousands of people have been to meetings to suggest what system they would like--how the Government's system can be improved or done away with and replaced. The Government should therefore consult the public and the campaigning organisations about what can be done, because it is clear that what the Government have done so far is not working at all.
The central question remains the poverty of children. In
Column 641990, Breadline Britain showed the true extent and nature of the poverty of many children in this country ; 2.5 million children were living without certain basic necessities, such as three meals a day or being able to take a full part in school activities-- despite the fact that many parents went hungry to prevent their children from suffering the stigma of poverty in school.
On Government statistics, 3.9 million, or 30 per cent., of our children were living in households with less than half the average income in 1991. That means that they were living in poverty or on the margins. We need up- to-date figures so that we can compare what happened before the CSA with what has happened afterwards, but the 1992-93 figures have not been published. They have been ready for a long time and the Government have said that they will be released soon. Is it too cynical of me to think that they are being held back until the House rises for the recess ? I challenge the Government to publish the figures before the House rises so that we can see what is happening.
The Government must take account of the fact that a man on average wages cannot keep two families. When the Act tries to make him do so, it simply spreads the poverty so that not only the families of single mothers but also the second families will live in poverty. The Government must face the reality that a low average wage will not keep two families decently.
The Act was introduced on the pretext that it would alleviate child poverty, but it is doing nothing of the sort. It seems to have become a grubby device to fill the Treasury's coffers. On 2 July the Evening Standard published figures showing that less that 2p in every £1 went to parents with care for the benefit of the children. Most of the money went to the Treasury. That may be good for the public sector borrowing requirement, but it is not alleviating the poverty of this country's youth.
Many people have come to see me or written to me in distress because of the activities and demands of the CSA. With the 10-minute restriction on speeches, I do not have time to go into these cases, and in any event it might bore the House as I am sure that many hon. Members have had mailbags full of letters too. In many cases, the CSA is acting illegally by not giving women, and especially single mothers, proper information about their rights. It may also give false information about the right to withdraw authorisation if a woman changes her mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) spoke of women being forced back into dependence on former partners with whom they wished never to have contact again. Some of them are even forced into financial dependence on their former partners' second wives, whose income is also taken into account. The Act has caused widespread misery and despair. It has disrupted many relationships which had been painfully rebuilt after the bitterness of separation and divorce, where parents had got together and established some kind of modus vivendi for the sake of the children. That has been shattered by the activities of the CSA.
Single mothers have been threatened with benefit penalties and fathers have often been saddled with huge debts because of the retrospection of maintenance demands. As hon. Members have said, some people have been brought to the point of suicide. The agency has acted with great insensitivity. I have had reports that wives who have been battered by their husbands or threatened by men have been interviewed by a male officer sent by the CSA. That also causes great distress.
Column 65The Child Support Agency has been dilatory and inefficient and it must go. The Child Support Act 1991 must also go. We are all concerned about proper maintenance of children and want to do away with child poverty, but this is not the way. The Government must go back to the drawing board. There must be public consultation and a Government rethink.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, not least because--in common, I am sure, with many hon. Members--I have had a substantial number of letters and surgery visits as a result of the introduction of the Child Support Agency. I have discussed the recent visit of representatives from Australia and New Zealand with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), who takes a close interest in these matters. Unfortunately, that discussion gave me little room for hope that, within the next five years or so, matters will improve, as, after six years of the operation of similar legislation in Australia, there are still many complaints about its working.
That is hardly surprising, however, as we are fighting a whole culture which has built up in this country, not least with the encouragement and support of some Opposition Members. As a result, many people assume that at the heart of the way we run our society is the fact that, if people are not minded to pay for the upkeep of their children, the state will pick up the tab.
In dealing with correspondence and surgery cases, it is easy to get a slightly slanted view of the reality. I do not think that I am alone in saying that I have not had many representations from single deserted mothers, many of whom already benefit from the legislation. There has been a well organised and well orchestrated campaign against the Child Support Agency. As we have heard, that campaign has sometimes slipped into violence and intimidation and a kind of strike against filling out forms which are needed for assessments. Almost all those who visit my surgery or write to me begin with the mantra that of course they support the principle of the CSA, and I am sure that some of them genuinely do, but as one strips away the layers of truth or untruth, one discovers that many do nothing of the sort as they plainly rely on the assumption which has existed until recently that, come what may, there will be state support. The job of hon. Members is to separate the wheat from the chaff before we come here to debate the issue.
We must remember that the balance must be tilted towards deserted parents, of whom we tend to read little in the newspapers and hear little in these debates. Just as important is the taxpayer. At the moment the average person in work pays £15 each working day towards the cost of maintaining the social security system. Those people have children and mortgages and have chosen a traditional family unit. They may have had their ups and downs, like all families, but they have stayed together and met their obligations ; yet they are being called upon to pay such amounts.
It does no good to talk about the Treasury taking the benefit, as the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) did, because the Treasury is another word for the taxpayer. Money clawed back for the benefit of the Treasury benefits the ordinary taxpayer. I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social
Column 66Security outlining the extent to which benefit fraud is being exposed as a result of the agency's actions. That has certainly been my experience in several constituency cases, and my right hon. Friend's figure of £138 million already recouped was impressive. No modern industrial state can afford to ignore this problem. In a speech made a couple of weeks ago on the welfare system in the USA, President Clinton spoke about
"the toughest child support enforcement measures in the history of this country".
President Clinton, a Democrat president, went on to say : "How are we going to do that ? First, by requiring both parents to be identified at a hospital when a baby's born. Second, by saying, if you don't provide for your children, you should have your wages garnished, your license suspended, you should be tracked across state lines."
In August last year, the New York Herald Tribune said : "Seventeen US States now deny driving, professional, fishing and hunting licenses to divorced men who are behind in their child-support payments. In Maine 18,000 deadbeat dads' owing a total of $150 million were mailed warnings this week from the . . . State Department of Human Services. Licenses to drive, fish, practice law, work as a beautician or in any other state- licensed field are at risk."
[Interruption.] As Opposition Members should know, the problem is not limited to this country, and other countries have different ways of dealing with it.
The changes in the working of the CSA are welcome and Ministers have not ruled out the prospect of future changes. I shall touch on a couple of problem areas that I have identified in my constituency cases. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will deal with them in his winding-up speech.
The problem of travel costs is particularly prevalent in the south-east, where people often pay substantial sums to travel to and from their place of work, mainly in London. Some even take out a loan for that purpose, which means that they are doubly penalised. I have some sympathy with those people, and I ask my right hon. Friend to look at the problem again. I appreciate that the general question of loans is a difficult one. Very often a divorced father has to set up a new household and borrow money to buy furniture and other things ; yet I understand that those loans are not taken into account. At the other end of the scale, a gentleman came to see me recently--he shall remain nameless--who before his marriage broke up was earning £40,000 a year. He had been paying some £1,000 towards child maintenance. After receiving the attentions of the CSA, he has set up a new business, is no longer making voluntary payments and is claiming that he cannot afford anything, because in the nature of starting a new business, his drawings figure is very low indeed. He seemed quite outraged by my suggestion that he was expecting the taxpayer to subsidise the start of a new business enterprise. As for my somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion that, when the business eventually took off and succeeded, he should send a retrospective cheque to the Department of Social Security, the thought had clearly not crossed his mind.
Although that is an extreme example, I appreciate that there are difficult cases. It is difficult to find a rule that would do justice to an extreme case such as that--someone who has given up a well-paid job and is starting a new business--and also to more deserving cases. But the fact remains that the system is necessary and useful. It is a system that is already being applied in a number of other countries. We have heard how Australia and New Zealand
Column 67are still fighting to achieve an acceptable system and to make it as practicable as possible. Our job in the House is to ensure that the system works.
Some of the contributions that we have heard from Opposition Members suggest that they would like to see the whole system done away with and a return to the bad old days. The bad old days were totally unacceptable, because they involved a consensual burden being placed on the state and on the taxpayer, with the connivance of the courts. That resulted in an enormous bill for the maintenance of children when in many cases the parents were perfectly able to maintain them in the style to which they had become accustomed. If other changes are to be made to the workings of the Child Support Agency, I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will consider their merits in due course.
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West) : Like many hon. Members who have spoken today, I recognise the importance of this subject. We are talking about one of the most important issues to have arisen in social policy over the past 10 or 15 years. It is important largely because of the force of family changes that are occurring, as has been acknowledged, in many societies such as our own, which mean that more and more children are being brought up by only one parent rather than two.
The evidence from the general household survey shows how rapidly some of those changes have occurred. In 1979, 83 per cent. of children under 16 lived with both their natural parents. By 1991, that figure had declined to 71 per cent. So only seven out of 10 of our children under 16 are living with both their natural parents. That rapid change, which makes the debate all the more important, is being fuelled by two forces in particular. One is marital breakdown, which probably means that some one in four children under 16 will have mothers and fathers who divorce. The other--a peculiarly British issue in the European context--is the rise of those families headed by the single unmarried mother. It is a particularly vulnerable--certainly very poor--family. The issue of parental responsibility is crucial for the welfare of future generations of children. The futures of literally millions of our children depend on our getting the debate right and fashioning an effective child maintenance policy for children.
Although my own analysis of family change would not be all doom and gloom-- a proper analysis would talk about the strengths associated with some changes as well as the insecurities, and proper social policy should play to strengths and not just recognise
insecurities--nevertheless, in the context of the debate, we must acknowledge that the revolution of family change, which we have seen over the past 20 years, has not been a bloodless revolution. Although many are affected, including many men, the major victims of that revolution have been women and children.
In handling family change, our approach, implicitly, has been women and children last. I say that because, although I am sympathetic, as are many hon. Members, about the position of the many men who find that they have second family responsibilities, there is a sense in which the debate
Column 68is affected by a major hypocrisy--we should be spending most of our time worrying about the position of women and children in one-parent families, the families with care, but the debate is becoming increasingly dominated by the interests of men.
There is something strange about that, because we know that, in the past, after a marital breakdown, the men were often not only unaffected financially but were better off, because they no longer had to pay the maintenance for their children. Invariably, the women and children have been worse off. If there were any justice in the debate, about the concern that we feel about the position of men--I share that concern, and we need the Select Committee report to show us how we get the right formula for second families--we would hear rather more about the poverty of women and children.
Although many of those women and children are beginning to come to our surgeries, we are letting the men's agenda dominate the debate. Unless we have the courage--sometimes it requires courage when discussing this with some of those affected by the CSA--as a Parliament to listen hard for the silent voices of poor one-parent families, we will make major mistakes.
The costs of social change are considerable. We must recognise that the debate is so controversial because it highlights questions about the costs of children. Any parent knows that children are very costly, and are increasingly so when one considers the demands of training, education and higher education. One way or another, our society, through partnerships between the family and the state, and perhaps other institutions, must invest more, rather than less, in our children in future. At the moment, the costs of social change and family disruption are being shouldered in the main by women and children through poverty. They are being shouldered negatively. There is no getting away from the fact that children are costly. The York study, which sought to draw up a modern budget, showed that, for children under 11, a modest but adequate budget per week would be about £59. When one thinks of that, perhaps multiplied by two children and a monthly rate, it is not so surprising that so many absent fathers are shocked by the size of their child support bill. I think that, if parents in this country totalled up the costs of clothing, food, shoes and the rest, or had some Government agency doing that and sending the bill every week, they might well feel that they too would want nothing to do with those costs.
I am making a serious point. The issue highlights the costs of children, and there is no dodging that. The parents should share those costs in an equitable way through a revised formula ; the mothers and children pay for it negatively--as I have argued, through poverty--or the state pays it. That is the issue. I am not one of those who talk about the state and the Exchequer--although I was one of the first on the day that the White Paper was published to call it the "Exchequer Support Act"--in some faraway fashion. I know that many poor parents in work in my constituency, struggling on low incomes to bring up their children, have been asked implicitly--perhaps explicitly--to help to pay for other people's children through social security.
Perhaps I may say something with which Conservative Members would not agree. I am one of those people who want a new formula and believe that major reforms must be made, but I regard the key criterion to be the attack on child poverty. I first studied child support legislation in
Column 69Australia, where I spent several weeks some years ago. I was struck by the fact that, when Brian Howe, Canberra's Social Security Minister, introduced his child support measure, it was part and parcel of a strategy to attack child poverty. That was important. For that reason, there was a disregard.
In Australia, most of the money collected goes to the mothers and children. When I spoke to Ministers, officials and members of the Australian tax office that does the work of the CSA, I was told that, without the disregard, it would not have been possible to introduce the legislation with the degree of success that it has enjoyed. I know from talking to groups in Australia that it makes a difference to Australian mothers when the dollars come in every week. I argue for a disregard, but many Conservative Members--some briefed, no doubt, by strange offices in squares nearby--like to challenge Labour Members, and in particular members of our Front Bench, saying, "Where would you find the money ?" We are debating a policy that is in deep trouble. It may not exist in a year or two unless it is sorted out and it wins public confidence.
The Government are quibbling about the cost of a disregard--which I acknowledge would be substantial--when that may save the scheme and one day result in a measure that will make sense for children in poverty but also for the taxpayer and other parents. That displays the peculiar short- termism that makes the Treasury so badly fitted to be the lead Department in social policy.
I urge the Government to think again. It should not always be the story of Mrs. Thatcher and the Treasury. We must find ways of making this a decent piece of social policy. We are about cultural revolution. We are about saying to parents, "Whatever the circumstances, you as parents have a long- term responsibility for your child. Yes, there will be a framework of rights"--such as child benefit and one day, I hope, child care and nursery education--"but you have a responsibility." If we are to succeed with that cultural revolution, there must be urgent reform of child support to make it not Treasury or fiscal policy but decent, child-based social policy.