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Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : There are two dimensions to this debate--policy, and the administration of the child support system. I will confine my remarks to policy.

The starting point must be the amount of money each week that the Child Support Agency requires an absent father to contribute. I do not believe that anyone can say that that amount is generous. It is determined by the formula and is much less than the amounts recommended by the National Foster Care Association.

However, the principle behind the legislation is that the child who is not living with, usually, his father should not be confined to income support level but be entitled to benefit from any increased prosperity enjoyed by his absent father, just as if his father were living with him.

Having examined the formula and a large number of constituency cases, as have other hon. Members, I do not believe that it can be argued that the agency is asking absent fathers to pay more than is reasonably required for their children's maintenance.

It is often said that, if a court had been involved in the past and a clean break settlement reached, that should not be disturbed by the CSA. Having practised 15 years at the

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Bar and been involved in a good many such cases, I can let the House into a secret. Most of those cases were not considered by the judicial mind at all. The lawyers for the husband and for the wife got together and worked out an agreement that was acceptable to both parties, and that was rubber-stamped by the court. Neither the advocate for the wife, nor the advocate for the husband, nor the judge had to consider the interests of the taxpayer. Many orders cannot be left undisturbed, because they failed lamentably to take account of the interests of our constituents--the taxpayers--who fund all the social security benefits.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : Does my hon. Friend agree that a concern shared by many of our constituents is the quality of the scheme's administration ? That seems a recurring theme in debates on the agency's operation.

Mr. Stephen : The system's efficient administration is immensely important, but, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have only 10 minutes and want to confine my remarks to policy.

A major part of a settlement between a husband and wife would usually be the transfer of the marital home to the wife. In effect, the husband usually transferred not the property but a large mortgage. The wife would then expect the state to pay the interest on the mortgage, which accounts for the lion's share of the monthly payment.

I do not believe that anyone is arguing that we should return to the old system. I remind the House that, under that system, three out of four lone parents received no regular maintenance and where maintenance was paid, it was wholly inadequate. The average payment was £25 a week. Some ex- husbands have come to my constituency surgery and said indignantly, "I have always paid. Why does the CSA expect me to pay more ?" When I asked how much they had been paying, one constituent told me that he was paying £25 a week. I replied that I did not think that was very much to support a child these days and he replied, "Three children." Some people have no idea how much it costs to maintain a child these days. If the agency has done one thing, it has brought home to everyone that parenting a child is an expensive business.

Earlier, the question was asked why absent fathers should be expected to maintain their ex-wives as well as their children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right when he said that there was no obligation as such to maintain an ex-wife, but there is an obligation to maintain an ex- wife in her capacity as the carer of the child. If she is unable to go to work to earn her own living because of the need to care for her child, who is to support her--the father or the taxpayer ? Clearly, the father must pay in so far as he has the means to support her.

It is said also that the agency is a law unto itself. That accusation should be refuted here and now. Clearly, the CSA is not a law unto itself. It can only do what Parliament has authorised by the Child Support Act 1991, and any officer of the agency who sought to step outside his statutory powers would be brought to account by the courts.

Many absent fathers are, of course, taxpayers, but if everyone who was paying taxes had the right to have his or her children maintained wholly or partly at public expense, the whole system would collapse and no one would get anything.

Reference was made in a derisory way to cases in which fathers are spending money on pet food and say that they

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do not have the means to pay for their children's maintenance. That is actually a serious point. Does one put the interests of one's dog before those of one's child ? Anyone who thinks about that for a moment will know the answer.

It has been suggested that the formula should be adjusted to include the cost of travelling to see the children. From my experience at the Bar, I know that that formula would be open to abuse. There would be arguments about whether the husband had actually been on that particular day. There would be endless disputes between the husband and the wife as to whether the husband was entitled to deduct an amount from his maintenance payments. Rather than going into specific details such as the travel-to-work costs or the costs of travelling to see the children, it is better to have a simple, basic formula that leaves sufficient income in the hands of the parent who is paying, for him or her to discharge those reasonable expenses.

I am conscious that any new scheme, particularly one as ambitious as the Child Support Agency, which has social as well as administrative and political consequences, is bound to produce teething troubles. Those problems have perhaps been worse than any of us expected, but we must not be defeated by that. It is, in essence, a sound system. No hon. Member has suggested that the system is not essentially sound and fair. We must get it right.

I congratulate the Government on responding positively to the Select Committee's report. The Government have made important changes which have benefited absent parents. From the outset, parents with second families whose maintenance liability was less than £60 a week had that liability phased in over 18 months. That phasing has now been applied to people with higher incomes. The protected income level, which ensures that absent parents and their new families stay above income support level, has been increased. Collection fees have been abolished in many cases.

Absent fathers sometimes ask why the CSA becomes involved when they have a reasonable maintenance agreement with their ex-wife which has been operating well. As I understand it, the CSA does not become involved in those cases. It becomes involved only if a party is on benefit, or asks it to become involved. If I am wrong, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would correct me. Another amendment that has been made is that, as the children become older, the amount payable to maintain the parent with care is progressively reduced. Clearly, the parent who has care of an older child is more able to earn his or her own living than a parent caring for a young child.

The Select Committee is continuing its valuable work, and we all look forward to reading its report. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give that report serious consideration and bring before the House those changes to the system that he considers necessary.

6.52 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South) : My reading of the debates that took place before the Child Support Act 1991 shows that they were based on two discussions : first, that absent non-paying fathers should contribute to the maintenance of their children, with which everyone in the

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House will agree ; the second underlying theme of the debate was that we should try to tackle child poverty. I used to think that there was a hidden agenda and that the Child Support Agency might bring money to the Treasury that could be used to reduce either the public purse or taxes. That argument was introduced at a late stage. The Government's amendment states that the Government

"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". There is no distinction between non-paying fathers and paying fathers with care of children, but that distinction is important. If there were any truth in the suggestion that Conservative Members were concerned about the tax bill on those least able to pay, the Government would not have introduced the 8.5 per cent. value added tax on fuel at the last Budget, and they would not be contemplating increasing it to 15 per cent. in the next one. If the Child Support Agency were targeting non-paying absent fathers, half of today's debate need not have taken place, because that aim has the support of all hon. Members.

But the fact that the CSA targets parents who have consistently paid generous support for their children has clouded today's debate. That aspect of the CSA is getting in the way of the marginal benefits that could accrue to parents who currently have care of their children. The CSA is clogged up with bureaucracy, because people are using all the means they can to delay its effects. If the Government had tackled absent, non-paying fathers, that would not have happened.

Mr. Stephen : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Hall : No, I shall not give way, as I only have 10 minutes and I must make progress.

The marginal benefits have been stopped.

When I listened to the Secretary of State today, I waited for him to say that there were still major problems for the CSA and that he was announcing measures to alleviate some of them. However, I heard nothing of that sort from the Secretary of State for Social Security, whose message was the usual one of wait and see--a recipe for doing nothing about the problems of the CSA. The message that the Secretary of State gave to all families and second families facing poverty was that he was not prepared to listen to their arguments and announce changes to CSA today. The message was that the Government are clearly trying to tough it out.

The Government's amendment states that the House

"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."

The hon. Members for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who is not present now, and for Calder Valley (Sir. D. Thompson, who is also not present at the moment, gave many reasons why action was needed on the CSA. The idea of retrospective action is wrong. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I believed that Parliament could not legislate retrospectively on tax issues. But all those involved in the system of paying maintenance to children are having their circumstances looked at again, which is wrong. Fathers who have consistently paid for their children's welfare are finding that the agreements that were reached in court are being ripped up. The CSA is

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replacing agreements made in court with other agreements that ignore the generous financial settlements that were originally made. There is one case about which I have written to the Under- Secretary of State--I am glad that he is present. One of my constituents agreed in a clean-break settlement to give all his equity to his wife, together with the contents of the house and the car. He paid the endowment insurance on the mortgage. He pays all the household bills and a second loan for double glazing. On top of that he pays £142 a month in maintenance to his children. The CSA took over the agreement and imposed an increase, bringing the child maintenance up to £250 a month. That father was not avoiding his responsibilities, but was totally committed to the children of his first marriage--a fact that was ignored by the CSA.

The financial calculation that has been mentioned by other hon. Members is too mechanistic and is not based on ability to pay. Another fundamental problem with the CSA is the false concept that men who are divorced and who have second families or partnerships have disposable income that they can pay to the CSA. There should be a more sophisticated mechanism to deal with the financial calculation. The Government could then say that they had listened to the arguments and were trying to do something to deal with the problem.

I am extremely worried about current families--to use the jargon, new families. I do not know whether they are new or current, but I know that some of my constituents tell me that, because of the actions of the CSA, they and their partners are unable to provide the basic means of support for their current families. That is clearly causing distress throughout the country, not merely in my constituency of Warrington, South, which is quite affluent and prosperous.

I know of no other Government policy related to benefit in tax that charges people for the so-called privilege of having their means assessed. One of my constituents, who was already paying maintenance to his former partner, was contacted by the CSA. The agency worked out the calculations and found that my constituent was paying the right maintenance. It charged him £44 for the privilege of knowing that what he was doing was in line with what the CSA had outlined. The most fundamental problem, however, is that the agency does not attempt to deal with child poverty, which we should be trying to eradicate ; indeed, that concept is completely ignored. The Government's original estimate that the agency would collect some £530 million, of which £480 million would be recycled back into the Treasury, shows how little extra money would have gone back to the children. According to the latest assessments in the agency's annual report, about £418 million has been saved for the Treasury--but how much extra money has gone to children whose parents are divorced and subject to the attentions of the CSA ? I can find no mention of that in the report ; perhaps the Minister will tell us precisely how much they have been given in this fiasco.

Let me say directly to the Minister that the system would be much fairer if it were seen to be fair. If an independent appeal tribunal were there at the end of the process, half the Government's current problems would disappear. If that tribunal had the ability and the discretion to re- examine the issue and make a fairer assessment, more people would be willing to go through the process : they would have confidence in the independent tribunal, and would pay what they were eventually asked to pay. That

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would remove the Government's three main problems with the Child Support Act, and by refusing to adopt such a course they do themselves a disservice.

Families are now considering the possibility of separation because of the bills being forced upon them. My constituents are afraid that they will have to pack in their jobs, or that their businesses will fail, because they cannot afford the settlements. Some tell me that the problems are causing friction between the children of their first and second partnerships. Families are being forced against each other, which surely was not the purpose of the CSA. Men are even contemplating suicide.

Another issue has not been mentioned. I am convinced that custody hearings following divorces will now be contested because of the CSA's actions. On television this morning, the Secretary of State said that the Government would build on the CSA's successes. I have seen no successes, and I should like to think that the Government would listen, recognise the agency's failures and remedy its problems.

Conservative Members must make a choice when it is time to vote this evening. They can accept Labour's motion, which asks the Secretary of State to act on the CSA's failures--in other words, they can do something positive--or they can join the Government in the Lobby, and vote to do nothing. Clearly, they should put their constituents' interests first on this occasion and vote with Labour.

7.2 pm

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) : I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall), not least because--as frequently happens when we sit on the Public Accounts Committee--I agree with a great deal of what he says. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have encountered cases in my constituency which lead me to believe that there is a clear choice between the motion and the amendment.

Many hon. Members have identified failings in the workings of the Act and the formulae adopted by the CSA. The choice is this : do we need to wait for a further indeterminate time for those failings to be corrected, or do we need to send the Government a signal that at least some of them can be corrected now ? I feel that some of my constituency cases--which I have been examining for many months, while still awaiting any sign of positive movement to correct the obvious failings of the formula--have already lasted too long.

I shall refer to cases by initial letters and summary addresses, but I have conveyed the full details in a letter to my hon. Friend the Minister so that they are available to him and his officials. The first--which illustrates a couple of points that are becoming increasingly important--is that of Mr. H of Stoke Gifford. He and his wife separated about three years ago, when they made the great mistake of not being clairvoyant. The arrangements that they made for the care of their children, for who should take over existing debt and for who should pay the costs of the divorce were made under the existing law ; the changes introduced by the Child Support Act and the agency have made their lives virtually impossible. Moreover, arrears of payments under the CSA's order now exceed £3,000, which is a great deal for someone on a moderate income.

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That couple made two mistakes. First, they accepted that the legal fees resulting from a fairly acrimonious divorce should be paid by the absent parent--in this case, the father. Unfortunately, such decisions are not acceptable to the CSA. The legal fees for both parties, payable by the absent father, amounted to some £7,000. Although it is possible and, indeed, legal for the CSA to say, "You must reschedule the debt : we come first," the lawyers to whom the money is owed do not necessarily agree.

I never expected to see such a case, at least under a Conservative Government. I never expected, following the making of a legal contract when the law operated in a particular way, to see the wherewithal to fulfil that contract being retrospectively removed from one party. I do not consider that acceptable in any branch of English law. Indeed, I found myself in a certain amount of trouble when we were debating the Finance Bill last year and--using an only partially transparent device--I exposed the Labour party's desire to introduce retrospection into tax law. I find that no more acceptable than the introduction of retrospection into the contract by means of the Act.

Mr. Stephen : Will my hon. Friend give way ?

Mr. Stern : I am afraid that I have no time.

The second mistake made by that couple setting up their settlement before the Act came into force was to assume that the absent parent would look after the children for as many days a year as he could. Unfortunately, because of their circumstances, that amounted to only 87 days. Of course, the husband should have been clairvoyant and realised that anything under 102 days did not count ; nevertheless, according to the arrangements that he made with his ex-wife and wishes to observe, he continues to look after the children for 87 days and to bear the costs.

Indeed, he often bears more than he should. One of the agreements that he made with his ex-wife was that he should purchase more of the children's clothing. Of course, none of that is of the slightest account under the current formula : inevitably, the absent parent builds up arrears on arrears while seeing no hope of doing anything about it under the present law. As I have said, I find it difficult to envisage a Conservative Government introducing what is effectively retrospective legislation.

The second case to which I want to refer concerns Mr. G of Bradley Stoke, who is a police officer. Regrettably, police officers--like Members of Parliament--are probably more prone to marital difficulties than those in many other professions. I am told that, in the case of police officers, that is due to the stress involved in their work. In this case, the officer concerned was presented with a huge bill for arrears and was told that, unless he did something about it fairly quickly, there would be an attachment of earnings order. Inevitably, because of the standards of conduct demanded of police officers, he would have to leave the force : police officers, rightly, are not permitted to get into debt of that nature unless they have serious proposals for dealing with it. The debt was so large that he could not have dealt with it.

A fortnight before the agency's action was due to take effect, the agency discovered that it had made a mistake and that there was no debt. Fortunately, the police officer did not face that extreme difficulty, but it caused me to wonder why a Conservative Government are putting the

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careers of serving members of the police force--public servants, whom I greatly respect--at the whim of an impersonal and inaccurate agency. That is unacceptable.

The final case to which I wish to refer involves a Mr. P. of Filton, who received an assessment from the CSA and was foolish enough to calculate, on the basis of that assessment, that he could just about afford to take out a second mortgage to provide an adequate house for his second family and pay his obligations to the first. He duly went ahead and purchased the property, only to discover a few weeks later that the agency had made a mistake. My attempts to get the CSA to acknowledge the horrendous financial tangle that it has created for that gentleman have so far been met with the response, "There is nothing we can do about it."

We have created a monster and it is not sufficient to say, as the majority of hon. Members have said, that we shall get round to tackling it in time. The agency is causing real hardship and we are entitled to expect the Government to take more radical action to deal with it.

7.11 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : I have some sympathy for the Under-Secretary, who carries the most poisoned chalice in the history of the House. In previous debates, the hon. Gentleman said that he did not think that the investigative powers of, for example, the civil courts are such as to ensure that all available financial and other information could be disclosed to enable the setting of an accurate and fair figure for child maintenance. As I said before, that is a slur on the courts--and I speak as a practising lawyer with more than 15 years' experience in matrimonial law and practice. The Government's attitude has rightly outraged lawyers and judges. The Government had previously displayed their mistrust of the legal system, and said that the Child Support Agency brought with it far greater uniformity in terms of approach and results. I venture to suggest that that is a double-edged claim. The sheer inflexibility of the process is bringing it into disrepute. Under the courts system, there were often substantial variations, but--this is the crux of the matter--they reflected the way in which courts considered the minute detail of each couple's circumstances. Naturally, those circumstances varied widely, which produced different results.

Some absent parents have to spend a good part of their free income on travelling to work and purchasing a vehicle to do so ; others do not. Some absent parents will have contact orders that enable them to have weekly contact, with the financial commitments that they bring ; others do not. Such variations mean that a substantial charge may be placed on a person's income. A just system, employing the necessary flexibility to meet the requirements of each case, must take those and other factors into account.

This afternoon, I was interrupted by Madam Speaker when quoting from the report of the Select Committee on Social Security. Let me again quote what the chief executive said :

"We do not have discretion in relation to the size of the maintenance bill. We operate according to an administrative formula."

She went on to detail the glorious appeal system, which, to say the least, operates slowly.

Investigative powers are at a premium under the new system. The husband of a constituent of mine, Mrs. Susan Macnally from Tywyn, left her in August last year, taking

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with him pass books and documents providing access to the family capital. Their investments totalled £12,000 and he had recently benefited to the tune of more than £20,000 as a beneficiary under an insurance policy. He left on 16 August, and on 18 August Mrs. Macnally reported his departure to the Department of Social Security and the Child Support Agency, making it clear that he had access to all their capital. Shortly afterwards, I sent the agency photocopies of the investment books and full details of the case, which would have satisfied any court of law. Incidentally, Mrs. Macnally gave her husband's current whereabouts as well.

Weeks later, the agency informed me that, when he completed the agency's form, the husband had no capital or investments. I wonder where the investments went. He said that he had no money, and the agency was blissfully satisfied. What a way to run a system! To add insult to injury, in May, the husband was refused a legal aid certificate in relation to the divorce on one of two grounds--either he had too much capital or he had too much income.

I do not know what the agency is up to or whether it is trying to do the job. I do know, however, that one lady in my constituency is desperately unhappy. She looks after her two teenage children but does not receive a penny piece from her estranged husband. That cannot be right. That is one of many examples that hon. Members can cite.

Should the current system therefore be preferred to the courts, which have come in for some grotesquely unfair criticism in this debate ? I do not speak from any standpoint of vested interest when I say that I have heard time and again that the courts somehow connived at transferring financial responsibility for the family on to the state. To my great surprise, some of the hon. Members who made those allegations professed to be lawyers. If that is so, they should know that registrars in the county courts-- latterly, district judges--have long since been subject to practice directions, going back five or six years, which specifically constrained such action. Clean-break orders were introduced to ensure that that did not happen. I have previously spoken at length about clean-break orders. I understand that perhaps the Government now propose to take action on that-- I certainly hope so. If a person divests herself or himself of all capital to ensure that a child has a roof over its head, the system should take account of it. If recent press reports are to be believed, the Government are at long last dealing with that important anomaly, and it is high time that they did. Will the Under-Secretary give an assurance that there will be movement on that issue ? In opening the debate, the Secretary of State for Social Security said that he was open to suggestions on how the value of property should be assessed--at the time of transfer or concurrent value. He went on to say that in many cases no valuations had been prepared for clean-break orders. I can enlighten him on the matter. In each and every case involving a clean-break order, a valuation is made and a redemption figure is set for the mortgage--ergo, the figure for the equity. If the Secretary of State's facts are untrue, it makes one wonder about the quality of the latest review.

As I said, more flexibility should be introduced into the present system. Standard formulae may be fine for many things, but they cannot produce fair results when there are so many individual variants, which may be extremely telling. I question whether the agency is capable of fixing

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maintenance. It has no experience in that matter, and the way in which it has operated leaves a lot to be desired. Clearly, the system is too rigid, and grossly unfair on many thousands of people throughout the United Kingdom.

Like Members of all parties, I of course do not argue with the principle that, if an absent parent can afford it, he or she should be the first to maintain the children. However, I am also acutely aware of the fact that the present rules discriminate against the children of second marriages or second unions, where fathers or stepfathers have to pay hundreds of pounds a month more than they can afford. Why should the children of those unions suffer when they are as innocent and as deserving as the children left behind ? Is it right for second partners' incomes to be taken into account in any event ?

I endorse what the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) said about police officers, but would extend it to members of the armed forces who are in a not dissimilar position. They are also having a very difficult time, which, as the hon. Member said, is not of their own creation. I hope that the Government will take on board what has been said and reconsider the position of those serving in the armed forces.

Why should the Government recover more than they pay out in income support ? What is the basis for that ?

I conclude with one or two general points that I hope the Minister will take on board. Full housing costs need to be allowed for, including any endowment assurance element of mortgage payments. The Government have made clear their view on pensions, and I believe that pension payments should be taken into account. It has been said that the cost of transport to work should be considered, especially in the south-east. I can assure the House that it is even more of a problem in rural Wales--and, I am sure, rural Scotland.

The cost of exercising the right to contact one's children should also be borne in mind, or the children will again be the innocent victims. The carer element should be substantially reduced if an ex-wife remarries, is cohabiting or is caring for an additional child or additional children.

To their credit, the Government have already made some changes to the Act, largely in response to the report published by the Select Committee on Social Security, but I ask them to consider the Act anew, because many thousands, if not millions, of people throughout the United Kingdom are being hurt by it. Many millions of children are suffering badly at the hands of the Government. The time has surely come

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order.

7.21 pm

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne) : I have listened carefully to all the contributions to this debate, from which two major points have emerged. First, this is a highly emotionally charged issue, because we are dealing with the breakdown of relationships between individuals, and one can claim that each will have an axe to grind. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, the constant theme that emerges from our deliberations is that most hon. Members appear to support the principle of the Child Support Agency although there is frequently a "but" which then undermines and destroys the whole structure of the scheme.

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During a previous debate on the CSA, I spoke in support of lone carers and their children, because it seemed to me that there was no balance in the arguments being advanced--the voices heard were nearly always those putting the case for the absent parent. I think that the same is true today.

On 29 March, I sponsored a meeting in the House for the National Council for One Parent Families, to provide an opportunity for the case of the lone carer to be heard and the other side of the story to be considered. I regret that very few colleagues from any party attended, yet when the absent parent lobby took place here some weeks earlier, every Labour Member seemed to pass through. One might conclude that only those who shout the loudest will be heard and believed.

One of the main concerns of lone parents is that they do not have the resources to organise themselves to mount a campaign in favour of the CSA. They do not have the money or the contacts or the access to telephones, faxes and cars enjoyed by many absent parents. They do not have the time or the means to go on marches and demonstrations ; they are on their own, often isolated and vulnerable.

The threat of suicide by absent parents has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. Lone carers are incensed by the media hype of "CSA suicides". They tell me that it is a luxury that is not open to them even though many feel despairing--their children rely on them too much for them to threaten or commit suicide. I draw the House's attention to an article in The Sunday Times on 27 March, which showed that the CSA was cleared of responsibility for suicides which had been blamed on it. Many of the cases outlined in the press were not accurate but wholly misleading.

There is no doubt that lone parents welcome the CSA and the fact that they might finally receive appropriate maintenance for their offspring. Why ? Because all the evidence shows that, whereas lone parents and their children sink deeper into poverty after separation, absent parents quickly recover their former standard of living. Lone carers and families on income support want the CSA to deliver ; they do not want the Government to give way any further.

There has been endless debate about the hardship caused to second and third families, but there has been little or no discussion about the hardship experienced by one-parent families. Many of the huge maintenance payments about which absent parents are worrying are in fact interim assessments that have been imposed because they have failed to co-operate with the agency.

Lone parents are convinced that the negative effects of the changes last February have not been fully appreciated, and that any further changes to benefit the absent parent will push lone parents and their children further into poverty. For example, in cases where the CSA has effectively delivered higher maintenance to lone parents, it has clearly given them the first opportunity in a long time to return to work and make plans for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, for many, the decision to return to work has now been seriously undermined by the February reforms, all of which resulted in a reduction of the maintenance due to one-parent families.

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Shortly after my contribution to the previous debate in the Chamber on the CSA, I was subjected to a barrage of letters from absent parents and their current spouses or partners. Some politely admonished me for standing up for lone carers, but others were abusive and vicious. It appeared that a carefully contrived campaign was being orchestrated against me, almost to the point of harassment.

I was therefore interested to read in The Independent of 20 June 1994 an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in which she described the unbelievable persecution that she encountered from absent parents and their friends. She explained that, within 24 hours of starting to research her article, her telephone was virtually jammed with unsolicited calls, mainly from second partners telling her their side of the story. When she asked one caller why she was doing this, the woman said that she had been told to ring her. When asked by whom, the woman said :

"Well we have this network and this is what we do when we hear when somebody is writing about the CSA and we don't want you to say things like These whingeing men' and that."

The article goes on to describe further persecution tactics inflicted not only on the reporter but on CSA staff. As a result of my own experience, I believe everything that she says. It seems that intimidation and thuggery are par for the course in this business. I think that colleagues should be aware that there are people in the anti-CSA campaign who are determined to get what they want at any price.

I should like to cite an example of the wholly unacceptable pressure being placed on lone carers by absent parents to destroy the CSA's work. I have here two draft letters recommended by an anti-CSA organisation. The intention is for absent parents to persuade the carers of their children to sign them, thus withdrawing authority for the CSA to continue their application. The first instructs the sender to "Put in own address", "Put in date", and "Put in CSA Address". It reads as follows :

"Dear Sir

I hereby withdraw my authority to pursue my ex-husband/wife . . . Mr./Mrs. . . . for any monies. The reason is the distress that is being caused to my child/children, as he/she/they . . . are obviously aware of what is happening to their father/mother . . . This also affects myself and my ex- husband, as we are both upset whenever our child/children . . . are. This and the fact that the MAF that I filled in was misleading in its content, and asking me to sign under duress.

I even get comments such as, I'm not having children when I grow up, they're too much trouble.' Your actions are actually causing some problems that will only resolve themselves in the future, and who knows what damage this will do to young minds. If you are causing children to blame themselves for what is happening to their parents, then can you really feel you are doing a good job, I no longer can, so I must ask you to stop hounding my ex husband/wife immediately. Yours faithfully."

The instructions continue :

"Sign and send . . . only enter the words applicable . . . put in ex- partner's name. Send the above as a hand-written letter, but keep a copy. Send it Recorded Delivery, so you have proof of sending. Amend anything that will help explain your own circumstances more clearly."

The second letter reads :

"Re : Child Support Act.

I am writing with reference to the forms which I recently completed, giving authority for the Child Support Agency to review, on my behalf, the maintenance payments made to me by my former partner.

I now wish to inform you that I am withdrawing this authority with immediate effect, and do not wish the CSA to take any action in my case. This is because I am opposed to the way in which the Act is operating, and believe that the involvement of the CSA will have a detrimental effect on the welfare of my children.

Column 81

I understand that this withdrawal of authority may lead to a reduction in my personal benefit of up to 20 per cent. for six months and 10 per cent. for a further 12 months. I am willing to accept this reduction in order to allow my children to continue to have a relationship with their father/mother.

Please therefore discontinue all action in this case immediately. Yours faithfully".

Those are the draft letters being sent out for absent fathers to get the lone carer to sign.

With the sample letters goes a briefing which states clearly the way in which an absent parent can manipulate the system. It says that the lone parent, by refusing to give authority, will be at most £8.80 per week worse off and that that can be alleviated by the absent parent helping out by buying more clothes and so on. How very misleading that is! Not every absent parent provides anything like as much as all those extras. In addition, there is no obligation on an absent parent to make up the £8.80 to £9.14 difference, and the parent with care has no comeback on the absent parent if he or she does not do so. It is claimed that this contrived declaration has been used successfully in the Fylde area. Such a tactic should be made known in the Chamber. I hope that those who are perpetrating it will stop doing so.

7.31 pm

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