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Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) : I sympathise with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), but I do not share her belief that the Child Support Agency is addressing the whole area of child poverty in the way that seems to have been her experience. From my experience and contacts with many lone parents, I know that they have certainly not found themselves better off as a result of the CSA, because many of them are on income support and remain at that income level whatever the actions of the CSA. They are not able to come off income support and go out to work because the low wage that they would get from the part-time work available is not sufficient to cover the costs of child care, let alone all the other essentials.

I too take this opportunity to raise some constituency cases, and to raise them directly in the Minister's hearing, rather than being fobbed off with yet another letter referring me to Ros Hepplewhite. I raise these cases because I too want to emphasise the widespread and justified criticisms of the financial rules and administration of the Child Support Agency.

Like all hon. Members who have spoken so far, I believe that every parent has a responsibility for his or her child, and that that includes a financial responsibility. I echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), especially those about the armed services. I have a considerable number of armed services personnel and retired service personnel in my constituency. I certainly support the points made about the need to reform the CSA, the need to reform the financial formula, the need to introduce an independent appeal procedure, and the need to recognise the contribution made by the parent who no longer has care to the provision of what was once the family home. I also support the points that have been made about the disregard of income support. I now raise directly some of the cases with which I have dealt. The first is the case of a gentleman from Rosyth who writes to me : "Since my separation I have willingly paid £130 per month, which is the maximum I can afford and still afford to travel to work and keep a roof over my head".

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He is now being asked to pay an extra £114 a month. He continues by saying that if he has to find that money, he will not be able to afford to carry on travelling to work. He feels that he would be better off giving up work in that case.

The second case is of a constituent from Crombie who contacted me several months ago to tell me that, after he had paid the maintenance being asked for, all essential bills, travel-to-work expenses, housing insurance and heating, he would be left with the princely sum of £6.49 a week on which to live. He was upset that his travel expenses were not taken into account because he had made the deliberate decision, when he and his wife separated and she moved to west Fife, that he, too, would move to west Fife to be close enough to his children to be able to see them during the week after school as well as to have them regularly at weekends. That involved making an 80-mile round trip to work and back every day of the week, but that was not taken into account, and nor was his regular contact with his children, as it did not quite go over the 104 nights level. The third case is that of a fireman from one of the west Fife villages. He is being asked to pay £82 a week from a net income of £141 a week. Again, he now has a second family and he is the sole breadwinner in that family. As other hon. Members have said, such cases highlight the immediate need for change to the financial formula. It is not only Opposition Members who are asking for that. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has pressed for several changes to be made to the rules, on which other hon. Members have touched.

There is also a widespread view about the need to ensure that there is an independent right of appeal. So far, I have had only one constituent who has found the appeal process to be effective, and in his case the assessment was reduced by the grand total of £5 a week. Opposition Members feel that there needs to be an independent appeal procedure.

Many hon. Members have raised the point about capital settlements. My constituent from Crombie who moved to west Fife to be near his children is one of many who, when the home was sold for £40,000, left his wife £30,000 and the furnishings to try to enable a suitable home to be set up for his children. That has not been taken into account. Other hon. Members have also raised the whole question of the interests of the children and whether the agency is in their interests or whether the operation of deduction from the level of income support is leaving families no better off, if not worse off. I have recently come across a case in which the Secretary of State is apparently refusing to use his discretion to involve the Child Support Agency under section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991. A constituent who had separated from his wife and was told that he had a maintenance assessment form to complete found that his ex-wife was both working and claiming income support. He has reported that, but he still finds himself and his actions being apparently disregarded by the Minister and no discretion being exercised.

I join other hon. Members in expressing my complete dissatisfaction with the administrative delays that have occurred. To mention just one of many, a constituent had a maintenance assessment last February. His wages fluctuate--with performance-related pay, and so on, and overtime. He wrote asking for a review on 28 February. He was told last Thursday--30 June-- that the agency had not

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got to the top of that pile yet : it was still dealing with letters from January. In the meantime, deductions are being made from his wages at source on the original assessment.

I conclude that, while none of us disputes the aims of the Child Support Agency, least of all our constituents--both men and women have largely raised anxieties about the way in which it operates--it is important to ensure that it is seen to operate in a more fair, reasonable and just way than it currently does.

7.40 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North) : I can certainly go some way with what the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) said about some of the administrative difficulties with the Child Support Agency. There have been problems partly because the agency has been overburdened, partly as a result of the actions of some of those who oppose it and partly because it perhaps needed more staff than it initially had. It is only right to mention to my hon. Friend the Minister two examples of the difficulties which can damage public confidence in what is otherwise a very important and useful system. One lady in my constituency had been receiving maintenance regularly. Her former husband arrived on the doorstep with a letter from the CSA saying that he was entitled to £30 repayment. There was a scuffle on the doorstep, the police were called and an unpleasant incident took place. The following morning a letter arrived from the CSA saying that the former husband should have the money repaid to him at the rate of £1 a week. He had thought that he was entitled to his £30 immediately. If the letter had been clearer and a little more thought had been given, that difficulty and the incident on the doorstep would not have occurred.

Another recent example involved a police constable who had agreed to pay some arrears off at the rate of £19 per month. Two months later he received a letter saying that £300 per month had not been paid for two months. His ordinary monthly payments had been set against the arrears, in breach of the agreement that had been reached. When he took the matter up with the agency he was told that the file had been lost. Such problems do nothing to help the agency to establish itself.

It is right that the Social Security Select Committee, which is reviewing the issue, should have its report seriously considered by the Government. Its first report showed the way to make some important changes for the better. My constituents who are members of the North Herts Campaign for Fair Maintenance, particularly the two chairmen, Mr. Etienne and Mr. Howe, have submitted evidence to the Select Committee. I am sure that they are confident that their thoughtful contributions will be fully considered by the Committee and also, if those points form part of the recommendations, by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has throughout dealt with the issue with courtesy and great care.

Having criticised the work of the CSA to some extent, we should recognise that the duty to contribute is a duty to contribute fully : it is not a duty to contribute as much as one feels one can afford, given one's current standard of living. My experience as a lawyer for many years dealing with divorce cases was that there was a difference between the expectations of men and the expectations of women

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when it came to divorce. The women almost invariably expected to have a difficult time and to struggle by on a low income. They expected and always have expected that the man would often be unreliable in paying his maintenance. So the mother always wanted to have the home. In any agreement they always said, "Get me the home because that is some security for me."

The men had a different attitude. They were always extremely anxious to maximise the income available to them for the future. That was partly because they knew that it was extremely unlikely that they would have the home available to them for the future, so they knew that it was in their direct best interests to maximise their income. We would thus arrive at the court, with both parties on legal aid, and we would cut a deal which satisfied both parties : the wife would get the house and the man would get his income.

The principle in law is that one can never have a clean break from children, but in practice all too often the husband would receive an order to pay an unrealistically low level of child maintenance and the wife would receive no order, so both parties would achieve their aims at the expense of the state. I see the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) semi-nodding : when he said that the old system was a mess and unworkable, he was right. All hon. Members should accept that it was important to go to this new system and to make it work.

When the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) said so graphically that one income would not satisfy the needs of two families, she was right to an extent. That is particularly so if both parties retain the same high expectations for their living standards. One of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made was that the husband should have a right of appeal on the basis that the money was not being spent on the child. But all husbands say that. In my experience of such cases, they always point to the wife and say, "She has got a video machine." He forgets that the children watch the videos and that he has a video machine in his current home. Both machines are probably on hire purchase. So such a system of appeals would not be a sensible route for us to take. It is important that we recognise that the principles behind the CSA and the amounts of money being delivered are right, and that both are equally important. It would be wrong if the result of any review were to reduce the amount of money going to mothers. They require that income. It is wrong to say that we are simply replacing benefit with income. To a mother who wants to go out to work, as so many mothers with small children do, a raft of maintenance at a high level is vital. If we reduce the amounts of maintenance too low, we shall stop women doing what they want to do in many cases, which is to go out and work part time and help to support themselves.

Nor is it right to make the point which was made by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) that it is wrong to take mothers out of benefit because they lose their passport to other benefits. It has always been the case that, if the level of maintenance rises above the child support level, certain benefits are lost. However, as I said a moment ago, a raft of substantial maintenance enables women to have options which are not otherwise available to them. It is too easy to forget that.

I hope that there will be a full and continuing review of the present provision. The principle of the CSA is right, and much of the practice of it has been successful. One has

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only to see the figures announced in the report today to realise that 28,000 fathers who were not paying a penny and were not easily traceable have been traced, which is an achievement.

Finally, on the way in which some of the groups opposing the CSA behave, I have no criticism of those in my constituency--they have been thoughtful and courteous. One of the organisations most against the CSA, however, has stated :

"Most separations and divorces are now caused by the women. Changes in family law . . . have ensured that these women may . . . continue their lives without responsibility towards anyone." The organisation intends to

"set up a register of women who have abandoned their husbands, sought to cut off fathers from their children or otherwise damaged a father and his children."

When the organisation's representative was asked to state the purpose of the register, he was unable to do so.

Hon. Members may accept individual criticisms of the administration

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : What was the name of the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman referred, as I would like to deal with it in my reply to the debate ?

Mr. Heald : It is called Families Need Fathers. My quote came from an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The Independent on 20 June 1994.

Hon. Members will be cautious before they ally themselves with people like that. Dangerous individuals can be drawn into a campaign of that sort and we must be extremely cautious about how much credibility we give them.

7.50 pm

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : The organisation to which the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) referred in the closing part of his speech is not unknown to many hon. Members. A few years ago, part of its advice to fathers, if they were not allowed access to their children, was to kidnap them. If that failed and nothing else could succeed, it advocated the murder of the mother. There is little doubt that no reasonable person, either within or without this House, would give much credence to that type of fathering.

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North spoke of the differing expectations of husbands and wives after the breakdown of their relationship. Judging by the experiences of my constituents, some of whom I shall refer to, their expectations of hardship--as the present caring mother as opposed to the absent father--have been more than confirmed.

First, I shall quote directly from one constituent's letter to me. She looked to the formation of the Child Support Agency with no small excitement. She believed that it would bring her particular relief and said :

"As a single parent with a handicapped child, I had hoped to obtain some financial help through the agency. My son is totally blind, and since my separation from my husband, when my son was six months old, he has paid nothing towards his maintenance, despite written undertakings to do so. That was fourteen years ago." My constituent, who has only limited financial resources, spent more than £70 to avail herself of the agency's services. There were many months of delay and many hold-ups, as it was unwilling to take any action to enforce its award. Eventually, my constituent received the first payment, with which she was delighted, even though the sum bore no resemblance to the CSA's schedule. I regret

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that that case is still not resolved, as my constituent is receiving neither the full maintenance awarded nor the back payments owed.

Another mother in my constituency is still awaiting the first payment from her ex-husband. The lack of financial assistance to help with the upbringing of her daughter is causing her great difficulties. Her case echoes what the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North said about single mothers who are desperate to return to work, but who, if the maintenance payments are too low or if there is no disregard and they are claiming benefits, simply cannot provide the necessary quality of child care to enable them so to do. She writes :

"I am finding it absolutely impossible to hold on to my part-time job for much longer. I am on disciplinary action report for my absence because of taking time off to look after my daughter when she is ill and during school holidays as I can't afford a child-minder. I am also getting deeper and deeper in debt."

This morning, I received another letter from that constituent in which she expressed her concern about the reply that I had obtained from the CSA on her behalf. The reply said that the agency was going to approach her ex- husband yet again for information that had already been requested, but not provided, on several occasions. Not only did the reply offer no hope of any enforcement action being taken in the near future against her ex-husband : it also got his surname wrong, calling him by the surname that she now uses. I am sure that the Minister will agree that such lapses on the part of the Child Support Agency are not acceptable when the subject being dealt with is of such particular sensitivity.

In essence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) asked most cogently, why was the Child Support Agency set up, and why was the Child Support Act 1991 brought into being ? If one accepts the principle, to which hon. Members on both sides of the House referred, that both parents have a responsibility for caring for their children for as long as they are children, none the less there is surely the other element, which is to alleviate or remove child poverty.

We are viewing major changes in what constitutes a family in these islands. Ours is not the only society in which two parents and 2.5 children no longer constitute a family. There are increasing numbers of single-parent families, they all experience unacceptable levels of poverty and the problem is becoming more and more serious. That poverty is impacting particularly on the children.

In the evidence submitted by hon. Members on both sides of the House this afternoon, the male voice seemed to be the most predominant in the argument. Very often the voice of the single parent--the caring mother--is being ignored. However, the voice that is not heard at all--not even in a whisper--is that of the children. They are consistently placed in the middle of especially brutal and horrifying disputes between their parents, as we have heard from the evidence that has been presented today.

We are considering not merely the financial costs to our society, but the psychological costs that are being heaped on our children. The House should re-examine not only the formulae and practicalities of the Child Support Agency, but our responsibilities, as a House representing the people of this country, towards our children and their future. That should be the most pressing concern, both in this debate and in any review of the Child Support Agency and its system that the Government undertake.

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When hon. Members present, as a validating argument, statements from male constituents who say that they are perfectly prepared to pay for the cost of their children but not for the cost of the mother, we are clearly in a parlous situation. Perhaps we should tell those fathers, "Very well, don't pay for the upkeep of your child's mother, but we'll ask you to pay for all those jobs that being a mother entails."

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have underlined the increasing cost of raising children and how expensive they are. I am perfectly prepared to accept that many absent fathers, who have paid a minimum amount of maintenance, would be extremely surprised, indeed shocked--and have been shocked--to discover the realities of raising children today.

The essential matter that we must concern ourselves with is that children are a blessing, not a punishment. We have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the difficulties that have been created, either because the CSA was not set up with sufficient personnel or because the formula is wrong. The arguments between separated parents after the breakdown of their relationship make it seem as though children are a punishment. The definition of their cost, and of what they need to be able to grow and flourish into caring and committed members of their society, has reduced them to the most pitiful level, in that they have been so spitefully and selfishly defined--possibly by both sides.

My perspective is based, in the main, on a single caring mother who is finding it extremely difficult to raise her children at the moment. In future, because of the problems that she encounters in obtaining the maintenance that is legally hers and the Government's absolute refusal to consider the possibility of disregards for those earning a low income, her difficulties will increase, as her income may fall even lower. That will put an additional strain on her and her children in circumstances that are already too stressful. I am pleased to see that the Minister is listening with no small attention to what I am saying. I have no doubt that he has heard similar concerns expressed by many other hon. Members. I strongly urge him to consider the well-being of the children involved ; that must be the primary concern. When absent parents are incapable of paying what the CSA has deemed should be their contribution, for whatever reason, surely it should be entirely possible for the Government to find some means to strike a balance between that and the requirements of raising children. They should offer disregards or continuing support from the Benefits Agency. Children are the most important consideration in this issue.

8 pm

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, unusually, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) on their thoughtful contributions to the debate.

I should like to start by giving some statistics about the CSA, which are necessary to put the issue in context. The agency has now assessed 205,000 cases and, of those, some 60 per cent., almost two thirds, represent absent parents who previously paid not a single brass farthing towards the maintenance of their children. I congratulate Opposition

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Members on joining my hon. Friends in denouncing those people. About 96 per cent. of all cases represent children who were left behind by a parent, for whatever reason, on state handouts, while the vast majority of those absent parents enjoyed a much higher standard of living in their new lives than their children.

I said earlier today that 28,000 feckless fathers have been tracked down by the CSA. In fact, my right hon. Friend corrected that figure and provided an updated one of 32,000. That is a commendable achievement. The CSA has had an 85 per cent. success rate, on which I congratulate it.

Those feckless fathers, who leave their wives and children behind, do not leave a contact address ; they disappear without trace. One of those feckless fathers even came to my surgery and had the temerity to complain about his loss of personal liberty and his loss of freedom to do as he wished. He saw that loss as a breach of personal liberty. Can you imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what I told that feckless father ? I think you can.

Mr. Dewar : Tell us--go on.

Dr. Spink : Suffice it to say that that gentleman will not be voting for me at the next general election. That does not cause me any concern, because he has never voted for me. I was not surprised, and nor will anyone else be, to learn that he is a lifelong socialist, although I was a little relieved to find that out.

That man told me that he would work less hard and might even give up work to avoid paying the assessment that he had been given by the CSA. I had to tell him that families who stay together have to decide to work longer and harder to support their increased family commitments. It is a pity that he did not choose to do the same. The payment of maintenance helps all parents with care, even those on income support, because they will get that maintenance even if they go back to work. Those parents get a £15 disregard if they work longer than 16 hours and are drawing family credit. That is a good thing.

Let me consider the Opposition's views on the CSA--I cannot call them policies because, as in most other areas, they have little well-defined or costed policy to review. The Opposition propose a right of appeal to a special independent officer with powers to test special circumstances. The hon. Member for Garscadden should understand that every absent parent in my constituency would appeal, because each one has special circumstances. I would, of course, support their appeals because it is my job to support my constituents against the bureaucracy. [Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"] I hope that I would not win, but I would help them all I could.

The Opposition also say that they would limit the grounds of entry to the appeal procedure, but, much as we tried to tease it out of the hon. Member for Garscadden, he has not told us yet how he would limit those entry grounds. Absent parents in my constituency, therefore, need not rejoice quite yet, because it would be a very limited and narrow gate. The Opposition are therefore holding out the hope to all absent parents, in a way dishonestly, that their special circumstances would be considered, although the Opposition know that, in most cases, those circumstances would be given no consideration. That is dishonest and it is typical of Labour policy, but that Labour ploy will cut no ice with my constituents, who are far too clever to fall for that one.

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The Opposition have also called for a benefit disregard to help lone parents on income support, but they refuse to confirm that that is a spending commitment or to say how much it would cost and which taxes they would raise to pay it. The Opposition have been hopelessly inconsistent on this issue because they have changed their mind on whether a father should contribute from his unemployment benefit and on whether well-off people should pay a higher rate of maintenance. In fact, Labour's so-called policies would encourage the break-up of families by giving financial inducements to those families that split up. It would pay those families more money than those that decided to stay together. Where is the justice and common sense in that ? The Opposition would increase the tax bill as a result of their policy and offer a disincentive to mothers who work, because, under that policy, their income might fall if they decided to work. Those are the embarrassing facts behind the Labour party's views on the CSA. Do not hold that too hard against the Opposition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because they are not evil or malicious people ; they are simply deeply confused.

I cannot start to give the Liberal Democrats' policy on the CSA. I see that none of them is gracing us with his or her presence tonight. Their Bench is empty. They claim to support the CSA in principle--and so they should--but, opportunistically, they are seeking short-term political advantage by saying all things to all men--no change there. At their spring conference this year, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion which berated the relative impoverishment of single women parents, who are usually financially worse off than men. Then, illogically, they passed an about-turn amendment, presumably--not clearly--to reduce the amount that men should pay to those women for their offspring.I am frankly embarrassed by the vacuum that we continually meet from the Opposition parties about the CSA. I should like to consider a topical and somewhat controversial issue. Last week, we heard about developments regarding lesbians and the CSA. The agency has stated that, if a man makes a woman pregnant, he will be responsible to support financially the subsequent child, even if that woman is a lesbian. That will apply even if the man draws up a legal agreement before conception stating that he wants no involvement in the child's upbringing.

Will the Minister confirm the CSA's clear policy that only men who give sperm to a properly licensed clinic will be accepted and can therefore avoid paying maintenance for their biological child? That is exactly as it should be. Nature never intended babies to be conceived by way of a legal contract between a man and woman, denying a man's ongoing responsibility for his issue in a wholly perverse way-- [Interruption.] Opposition Front-Bench Members find that amusing. Many of my constituents will not find it amusing, because those children are conceived for the amusement and pleasure of a lesbian or lesbian couple. I fear for children brought up by lesbians, without a father.

Only yesterday, an instance was cited in The Sunday Times of a lesbian couple from Manchester who were receiving £180 benefit a week. Many of my constituents would like to receive that much money each week. Those two unemployed women already have two children--one six-year-old and one eight- year-old--and they now have a 22-month-old baby. Under CSA rules, the father must pay maintenance for that baby, which is absolutely right. If the lesbians refuse to give the father's name, as it is suggested

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they might, their state handouts should be reduced not just by 20 or 10 per cent. for a few months but by a significant amount indefinitely until they reveal the father's name.

The CSA's ruling is right, but the Government must toughen up their rules to deal with wilful obstructers of the system. By institutionalising long- term state funding arrangements, we must not establish another source of impoverished children simply to deliver the instant and selfish gratification of homosexual couples who want a particular life style but do not accept the physical or financial consequences of their choice to live in that way.

You will be outraged to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that groups representing lesbians have been vociferous in their opposition to the Child Support Agency. They defend lesbians' right to have children by what they call "private arrangements with male friends", most of whom are homosexuals. Yesterday's issue of The Sunday Times reported that, at a recent London conference, women urged non-co-operation with the CSA and outlined strategies to frustrate its attempts to trace the fathers. Opposition Members appear to agree with the moral of that story, which is that, if taxpayers are daft enough to pay, let them pay. That may be a socialist philosophy, but it is certainly not a Conservative one.

I understand that two lesbian couples who both want babies are now receiving fertility treatment on the national health service at Leicester Royal infirmary. Who will pay maintenance for those children, and what will be the CSA's policy towards them ? That is an abuse of the national health service. The high cost of those two episodes of treatment will rob many old people of much-needed hip replacements, and sick children and babies in special care units of the equipment and nursing they need.

I acknowledge that the CSA has experienced difficulties in its first year. I have given an insight into how those difficulties have been promoted and aggravated by absent fathers or lesbian groups who either do not want to pay or would like to pay a small amount while the Treasury pays the rest-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) wishes to intervene, I should be delighted to allow him to do so, because I wonder how he will answer that argument.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the whole problem associated with the Child Support Agency has been created by the masses of lesbians in our society. That is not the case. There are many problems associated with how the agency functions. It does not even sign letters which it sends to constituents who have problems. Those constituents are not lesbians but hold responsible positions in society. Why does not the hon. Gentleman face up to the real problems and the fact that lesbianism is a minor issue in this debate ?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Before the hon. Gentleman faces up to anything, I remind the House that there are 65 minutes left for this debate before the Front-Bench spokesmen reply. Six hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. With a bit of co-operation from hon. Members, they may do so.

Dr. Spink : I am indebted to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East made a good intervention. He is right to say that lesbianism is a minor issue, but it is a matter of principle that needs to be

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addressed. No one else has mentioned it, so I thought that I was right to raise the issue so that we can have it cleared up, because it concerns my constituents.

One of the key charges against the CSA is that the money goes to the Treasury. That misguided concept is promoted ad nauseam by the media and Opposition Members. The Treasury has no money of its own ; it has only the people's money, which it simply distributes where it is most needed. If it gives it away unnecessarily to support absent parents' first set of children, the money will not be available for other needs.

It will therefore be taken from orphans and widows who depend on state benefit, from the sick who need hospital care and from truly vulnerable people-- [Laughter.] The hon. Member for

Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is laughing again. She should not laugh, because that money is taken from vulnerable people in my constituency--the old, the mentally ill and the disabled--who need money in the kitty so that they can be cared for.

My constituents realise, even if the Opposition and the media do not, that there is only so much money in the system. If it is siphoned off by one group, it is not available for another, or for investment in education and fighting crime. Those issues lose if we spend the Treasury's limited resources on benefits for first families so that absent parents--usually men--can choose to support a second family. The only time that the Treasury should pay for child maintenance is when both parents genuinely cannot pay. That is the honest Christian truth, with which all my constituents agree. It is a pity that some of the bishops do not.

Improvements could be made to the Child Support Agency, and I welcome the Government's continued review. The carers' allowance should be reviewed and the formula changed to recognise the atypical position of my constituents, who often pay more for a season ticket to travel to London to work than for their mortgages. The Government should look at the full cost of pension schemes and many other matters which have already been dealt with in detail and which are so important to my constituents.

However, the Government must not go too far and impoverish vulnerable people in my constituency by taking too much financial responsibility for children of lone parents when the absent parent has the means to pay.

8.18 pm

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) : We have just heard an appalling contribution, which completely misses the point. The size of my file of correspondence on this matter is shocking. It is a disgrace for any hon. Member to have such a file. Ros Hepplewhite said that she has 5,000 letters waiting for a reply. I seem to have the 5,000 here, and I am not too pleased about it--and neither are my constituents.

I am delighted to note that the Child Support Agency is to create 500 more jobs. However, it is appalling that one of today's newspapers has reported that the CSA is sorry after a flood of complaints. Ros Hepplewhite has announced that there will be an extra 700 staff to improve the body's performance. The agency certainly does not have a head. If it has a head, it is a lunatic who has come up with this type of plan.

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I am not knocking the policy. It is important that absent fathers should contribute to their children. As the Minister said, no hon. Members object to that principle and policy. However, the plan of action to recoup the money is the most crazy and disastrous plan that we have seen in the British way of life for a long time. It is time that the Minister listened. He should plan something which responds decently to the needs of our constituents.

Tonight, I have heard about lesbians, homosexuals, the whole lot. I do not want to go down that road. I want to talk about the genuine concerns of my constituents and the genuine problems they face because of the Government's planning--or lack of it.

We should get rid of the head of the Child Support Agency because she is not doing a good job. She is certainly not doing a good job when, suddenly, she decides that the CSA will become a job agency. Undoubtedly, the formula is in a mess.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the agency is serious about the work in which it is engaged, it must look at the problem where single mothers cannot be recompensed--the agency has typically failed in this area--if their former husband happens to be in business on his own ? The agency has done nothing about that. It continually makes excuses about it. Does my hon. Friend also agree--this is my second point--that there are many one-parent families where the wife in particular cannot get a penny from her former husband, and the agency has utterly failed to chase the former husbands whom it was designed to chase in the first place ? Does my hon. Friend agree with my two points?

Mr. Graham : My hon. Friend makes a very telling intervention. As I said, I have many cases and many points that I should like to raise. If I raised them all, it would take the time of the House for the remainder of the week and I do not intend to do that. I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

The Minister should look at the mess that we are in. We cannot give decent information to our constituents when they write to us with problems. One constituent wrote to me on 11 October ; then, lo and behold, I received a letter from Ros Hepplewhite on 31 March 1994. How in God's name can we act as Members of Parliament and give proper information from the House to our constituents if we have to wait months and people have the sword of Damocles over their heads ? It is an appalling state of affairs. In a democratic system, it is totally unfair that people must wait to get information from the House and the appropriate people that the Government put in place.

I could go on. I have heard comments about organisations which have probably abused the Minister and some Tory Members. I regret that action. I regret that undemocratic methods have been used to put across points of view. But what about the thousands of people who have used the avenue of the parliamentary democracy of these letters ? What about the thousands of people who have visited their Members of Parliament ? What about the thousands of people who have demonstrated within the context of the law ? Are the Government listening ? No, they are not listening, because they have not put into operation a plan which at the end of the day could look sensibly at people's problems. As I said, the formula is a mess.

Column 93

On many occasions, I have come to the House and read constituents' letters. Every one of them seems to be getting worse. The situation seems to get worse and worse. The Government seem to care less as time goes on. They simply want to fix the balance of payments. They seem to want to take money from every part, but are not too concerned about where it comes from. That is the danger. The Government are fraught with danger when they are supported by hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink). He is totally uncaring. He is not looking for a solution for his constituents, although he must have a postbag similar to mine.

I have written to the Minister on a number of occasions and the replies are all the same : we will put the plan in place, the plan of action stays, and we will think of it here and there. That does not matter ; in the end, my constituents will still live in abject poverty. These are the people whom the Government have always known were making contributions to their children because of court action and levy of the appropriate money.

I could give many more examples, but I want to get straight to the point. I shall quote from a letter that I received from a constituent of mine. When I read the letter, I asked how we in civilised Britain could treat our men and womenfolk and their children in this way. The agency is called the Child Support Agency. It is a crying shame agency. It is a crying shame to the people it is supposed to help. As far as I know, it is not helping any child in my constituency. With my hand on my heart, I wish I could say that the agency is helping children in my constituency.

I do not want to take up the time of the House, but I shall read this letter because it epitomises what is happening throughout the country. I am sure that it is similar to the letters that we have all received. I quote :

"I am writing to you in a last, desperate hope that you may be able to give me some help or advice regarding payments which have recently been assessed for me by the C.S.A.

I am an ordinary working man"

he is not a high flyer

"I earn a reasonable wage"

he thinks that it is a reasonable wage ; I shall explain later "but I cannot cope with the unreasonable increase the C.S.A. has made to my maintenance payments.

I was divorced in 1990, at which time a court order was raised for a payment of £80 per month to be made in respect of my two sons. I love my two sons dearly and have done all in my power since the divorce to provide as much for them as possible over and above my maintenance payments. Although my two sons live in"

another part of the country

"a 200 mile journey from my home--I drive through and bring them to my home approximately every third weekend and all school holidays. At no time have I ever failed to make regular maintenance payments. I have since remarried and now have a stepdaughter and daughter through this marriage. My wife does not work and I am the sole bread-winner for the family.

My take home pay is £230 per week, but the C.S.A. has assessed my earnings at £270 per week from which they expect me to make payments of £76.76. I have been in contact with a counsellor from the C.S.A. who has agreed that the assessment is too high. She has phoned Falkirk on numerous occasions on my behalf to ask for a reassessment, but the C.S.A. has refused to give one as they say that the difference is not sufficient to warrant a reassessment. If I were to pay the amount the C.S.A. are requesting it would leave me in the position of not being able to provide my present family with even the basic necessities."

I feel that I must do justice to my constituents who have written to me, but I have not seen any decent replies. The letter goes on :

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