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"My car is a necessity. If my car were to be repossessed I would neither be able to visit my sons nor would I be able to get to work. I work as a security guard at"

a well-known company--

"a job which entails shift work for which I could not rely on public transport"

public transport in Scotland has been decimated

"I suffer from osteo-arthritis and rely on pain killers to keep going.

Although I have requested an allowance to be made on my assessment for prescription charges the CSA have denied me this. My wife and I are at the end of our tether. We can see no way around this situation. We have thought of uprooting our family and moving away from Britain, but my sons and I have a close relationship and I do not want to lose contact with them. My company has a policy of dismissal for arrestment of wages, but the only course of action I can see open to me is to continue to pay my £80 and wait for the CSA to arrest my wages. I am 39 years old and am proud to say that I have never claimed any state benefits. Sadly however if I am dismissed from my job, myself, my wife and my two daughters will be forced to be reliant on state benefits. At which point my ex-wife and two sons wouldn't even be receiving my present payment of £80. Our situation has now become desperate and we would be grateful for any help and advice you could give us on this matter."

I supported the idea of the CSA, but I now regret allowing the Government to put a bad plan into operation just because I accepted the principle.

For the sake of the thousands of people all over the country who are suffering, I ask the Minister to take some caring action to end the terrible trauma that our constituents are facing--because the Government could not get it right.

8.30 pm

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : In the first two minutes of his 30-minute speech, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) referred to parental responsibility. He also said that the Child Support Agency had been set up under an Act that enjoyed all-party support. I had no difficulty agreeing with the first two minutes of his speech. Significantly, they showed that there is unanimity at least on the principle and about the fact that an independent and responsible body in the form of the CSA is needed.

Unfortunately I could not agree with anything else in the remaining 28 minutes

Mr. Dewar : What a relief!

Mr. Shaw : I thought the hon. Gentleman might be relieved. I shall now try to explain why I disagreed with him.

Most people outside agree with the idea of parental responsibility for children. Most fathers who come to our surgeries start by saying that they think it right that they should be responsible. The issue then boils down to cost. That is the problem. We can tackle it in many different ways ; we can talk about the formula, or about whether to include certain factors in it or not. Ultimately, however, the basic problem is that, although many absent fathers are prepared to agree to the principle, they are not prepared to agree to the calculations devised by the DSS.

The same appears to apply in Australia and New Zealand, and to judge by my observations on Internet, of the child support system in America. One of the hottest debates around the world concerns the costs of bringing up a child. Because we are asking people to pay extra, no wonder the system has proved unpopular with those who have had to pay it.

It is interesting to contrast the work that the Social Security Select Committee is doing on the CSA with the

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work we did last year on the disability living allowance and the disability working allowance. The systems administering the latter were in difficulties because of the large number of new applicants rushing to claim. Why were they so popular ? Because they were paying out more money to more claimants. The CSA is, of course, charging more people money--charging many absent fathers who refuse to contribute more money.

We should therefore not be surprised by the difficulties that the CSA has faced. We should, however, be disgusted by the campaigns that have been waged against the staff and the agency. I have with me large numbers of documents copied from various organisations opposed to the Child Support Agency. The Minister finds himself on a poster, "Wanted for Murder". The newspapers have attempted to attribute seven suicides to the CSA and the workings of the Act. No one has had a thought for the fact that there may have been human tragedies behind those suicides. Nor has anyone had a thought for the fact that there are 4,900 other suicides each year. Are they all to be blamed on Government or Opposition policies, or on some other policies ? The very idea is ludicrous.

Mr. Wray : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the agency is being used as a rogue body--and that the Government are not worried about children : they are worried about the Treasury, and getting as much as they can for it ? Of £210 million, it has been said that only £3 million went to the children. Of £530 million, only £50 million was going to go to the children. If the Government were sincere and compassionate, why did they not give all the money to the children ? Why did the agency attack the high-income families who were already paying up ? Why did it not target the absent fathers ?

Mr. Shaw : The hon. Gentleman, having observed me operate on the Select Committee, anticipates me with impeccable timing. I was about to talk about the Treasury. The idea that all this money is going to the Treasury is grossly misleading. I challenge anyone to tell me which room in the Treasury I can find all this money in. Where are all the huge sums collected from absent fathers ? I walk the Treasury corridors, and I have to tell hon. Members : the money is not there. We are either taking less money from taxpayers or we are paying out more in benefits than we otherwise would. Saying that the money is in the Treasury is the biggest lie about the child support system. Today the BBC, which prides itself on neutral broadcasting, allowed itself, I was distressed to hear, to fall into the trap by referring to the Treasury. The media should not refer to the Treasury unless they accept that they are biased. The true position is that either the taxpayer benefits or the benefits recipient benefits.

What is wrong with the taxpayer benefiting ? The Labour Government in Australia are not upset by that. The evidence to the Select Committee and to the social security committee in Australia showed that the Labour Government were proud that taxpayers were going to benefit. We should be proud of it, too.

I conclude by taking a look at three proposals from the Labour party. The problem with a disregard is that it gives rewards to certain people ; a system based on rewards is not to be found anywhere else in our social security

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arrangements. It has also been suggested that the formula should include more allowances. The experience of the Australian, American and New Zealand systems shows that the formula should be made simpler. There is no worldwide evidence to support more allowances in the formula.

The evidence from Australia is that the appeals system is tough and limited. There is no evidence to suggest that we should have a broad-based appeals system that would allow hon. Members to argue the case for a few extra pounds for their constituents as opposed to constituents elsewhere. There is no way that Members of Parliament arguing such cases could do so fairly. While some aspects of the system could be examined and, according to the Select Committee, could be made better, the lessons from Australia, New Zealand and the United States show that it is difficult to improve the system to please those who will have to pay more and become more responsible for their children.

8.40 pm

Mr. Hugh Bayley (York) : The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) complained about a lack of objectivity and one-sidedness in the BBC, but what he said about Australia in the last few minutes of his speech showed that he is guilty of that to a much greater degree. If he had been honest in presenting the whole story, he would have told the House that in Australia there is a $10 a week disregard. Every parent looking after children gets $10 on top of the income support payment every week, plus 50 cents in every dollar that is paid in child support beyond that.

The hon. Member for Dover says that Australia has a limited appeals system. He forgot to say that the United Kingdom has no appeals system. If he purports to describe the Australian system fully and fairly and without bias, he should describe the whole situation and not just put those parts that suit his case, ignoring the Australian disregard arrangements.

Sixty-six of my constituents have raised with me cases of injustice and maladministration. Not one of them has objected to the principle that absent parents should pay, and only one has objected to the fact that she has to pay. She is a woman and lives in a one-roomed flat on invalidity benefit of £68 a week. She is expected to take less than the minimum amount that the Department of Social Security has determined as the required amount for invalids so that she can make a contribution to her ex- husband. He lives in a detached house, has two cars and farms 38 acres. He has horses and rides to hounds and goes fox hunting, but that woman is expected to contribute to him for their child.

The Minister will nod and say that that was what the Act intended. I wrote to the Minister and the CSA about this matter in March but neither has replied. I wrote again in June asking for a reply and I still have not received one. Throughout the debate the Minister has nodded sadly every time an hon. Member complained about the CSA's inefficiency. But nodding sadly is not enough. Somebody is responsible for the fact that simple answers to straight questions from people on the receiving end of the agency are not being answered. Either the agency is at fault, in which case the Minister should make heads roll over the failure of people to do their job, or he is at fault and he should do the honourable thing.

Nearly half the 66 constituents who approached me are women who are concerned about the way that the Act has

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worked. They expected to be beneficiaries. In his speech the Secretary of State peddled the myth that the agency champions the needs of deserted women, and that complaints come only from fathers who are being asked to pay. I shall state the initials of one of my constituent's so that the Minister can trace her case by way of the letters that I have written. She is Mrs. W. L. and her husband left her in January 1993.

Mrs. W. L. applied to court for maintenance but was told that the court no longer dealt with maintenance and was referred to the CSA, which she approached in January last year. The agency refused to act because she was on family credit, and she was told to reapply when the credit ran out. She reapplied in July, and in November she telephoned the agency to ask how her application was being treated. She was told that nothing had happened. As a result of her telephone call early in November, on the 20th of that month the forms were sent to her husband. Thereafter there was silence.

She approached me in March and I telephoned the agency, to be told that nothing had happened because the file was missing. The agency agreed to set in train a search for the file, and after that things moved quickly. The Child Support Agency can move quickly when it wants to. It approached the former husband, and on 13 April the first payment of the backlog of £1,988 was made. It was paid to my constituent on 21 April.

Why did it take 15 months from the time that Mrs. W. L. applied to the agency for support for her children and telephone calls from her and from me to numerous people in the agency to get the maintenance for her children ? Who is responsible for that delay and what compensation is there for a woman who has been left without the resources to bring up her children because of the agency's incompetence and inefficiency ?

Another of my constituents, Mrs. Susan Arkle, regularly received maintenance for 15 years from her ex-husband. She and her ex-husband tell me that he never missed a payment. In October 1993 the CSA took over the case and the payments ceased. The money was still being paid by Mr. Arkle to the agency but when I telephoned, the agency told me that it had no record of payments. It had mistaken my constituent's husband for another man who was not paying. The upshot was that the agency was getting the money, but my constituent and her children were not.

The hon. Member for Dover said that money must be piling up somewhere in the Treasury. It is piling up in the agency and I hope that the Minister will tell us how much interest has been earned and whether the interest will be paid to parents for the benefit of children. That was the Act's intention, and when money is not paid to the parent with care, that parent has to go without or raise loans and pay interest.

The application of interest on money held by the CSA would have a dual benefit : it would help the children and compensate the parent with care who has had to take out loans. It would also give an incentive to the Child Support Agency to shift the money out of its coffers and into the hands of the parents who are caring for children.

In a letter to me, Mrs. Arkle stated :

"The CSA now owes me over £363.06 which it has received from my ex- husband and which I need to feed and clothe my children. I have had to go into overdraft, thus incurring bank charges and worsening my financial situation."

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What will the Minister do to recompense my constituent for the suffering that she, and above all her children, have endured because of the agency's inefficiency ?

The problems that have been brought to me by constituents do not just come from those who are having difficulty obtaining the money that is due to their children. They come also from absent parents who are due to pay. A constituent, Graham Lund, came to see me over the weekend and told me that his wife left him some time ago, and that he had given up his job to become a full-time carer for their three children. Later, the children decided to move in with their mother. At that point, he gave her the family home, because he felt that that was the best place for the children. He wanted the children to stay in the home.

Shortly afterwards, two of the children came back to live with him. He now has care of two of the three children. He has lost his home and is assessed to pay £66 per week on behalf of the third child, who is with the mother. He receives no child support from the absent mother for the two children for whom he cares. Having examined his budget, he is left with £29 per week for food, clothes and other expenses for his family. He now needs dental treatment. That will cost him £150 on the NHS. How is he going to pay for the dental treatment he needs when he does not have enough money under the Child Support Act to look after the two children for whom he is responsible ?

What about when parents have split up and are both on income support ? The absent parent loses 5 per cent. of his or her income, which gets paid to the CSA. The parent with care receives no increase, because, unlike Australia, there is no disregard. So the absent parent, who in the past, could perhaps save a little out of his or her income support to buy small treats for the children when they visit now finds that even harder to do. If the intention of the Act is to improve the lot of children, to draw children out of poverty, which is so important, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) and for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) have said, a system that reduces the combined income of both parents when both are on income support must undermine that principle. If a disregard is brought in nowhere else, surely it should be used in cases where a parent has that contribution taken out of his or her income support. The principle that parents have a lifetime responsibility for their children is clearly right, but a combination of the inflexibility of the CSA rules and the bungling incompetence of the agency itself--aided, I have to say, by the failure of Ministers to reply to hon. Members on behalf of issues to do with the CSA--threatens to bring the whole structure tumbling down like a pack of cards, destroying a principle that hon. Members on both sides of the House have said is important--that absent parents should pay for their children.

The agency needs to be either radically reformed or replaced by a new regime, which puts children, and children in poverty, first. A disregard needs to be introduced, as in Australia. Changes need to be brought in to take account of past property settlements, which were often made under clean-break settlements.

I recently had a case involving somebody whose children stayed with him for 97 days during the course of a year, yet he got no money to provide for them during that period, because they did not stay with him for the 100-day threshold. We need a new formula that realistically has

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regard to the needs of children of second families. Above all, we need a new agency that will operate efficiently and with compassion.

8.54 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : I welcome the opportunity to speak about the current operation of the Child Support Agency. In Northern Ireland, the agency has operated with appalling inefficiency, bringing distress and anguish in its wake. No one in the House is against the principle that was first mooted when the legislation was sponsored--the principle of protecting and providing for children deserted by a parent or parents, and left, in some circumstances, with a single parent who has to cope with inadequate financial support.

That principle is not questioned, and I deeply resent those who accuse other hon. Members who bring to the House those matters that need to be reformed. The finger seems to be pointed at all who have been advocating reform, and at all who have been bringing forward the matters that need to be dealt with, as though we had weakened on the principle.

I believe in parental responsibility. I believe that it is for the lifetime of the child. I believe that with all my heart. But that will not keep me silent when I see the gravity of the situation that has developed, and the child for whom this legislation was brought in completely put on the sidelines. Instead of being concerned about the child who was to benefit, we have set estranged wives and husbands against each another. We have broken in two not one but two homes. We have caused great grief, great hardship and great wounds in our society. The Minister must face up to that.

But, unlike all the other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I am at a serious disadvantage, because the CSA in Northern Ireland is a strange instrument. The report that is before us, "Child Support Agency : The First Two Years" was issued before the debate. It tells us two things about Northern Ireland--first :

"There is a separate Child Support Agency in Northern Ireland which provides a similar service under Northern Ireland law." Secondly, it says :

"The Child Support Agency Centre at Belfast is an integral part of the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency. It also provides a service to an area of the mainland on our behalf."

But at the back of the report, where the places that are served by the agency are listed, no reference whatever is made to Northern Ireland. I want to ask the Minister this question : is it the report of the Child Support Agency for Great Britain or is it the report for the whole of the United Kingdom ? If it is not, where is the report for the central agency in Northern Ireland ? We have graphs about the people who have been employed. Are they for the United Kingdom or are they for Great Britain ? The Minister must come clean with the people of Northern Ireland and tell them exactly what has happened in respect of their system.

If the situation is bad in Great Britain, it is 10 times worse in Northern Ireland. I refer the House to a hearing by the Social Security Committee in Belfast on 7 March, and to page 49 of the minutes of evidence, when Mr. Pat Devlin, the agency's chief executive, and Mr. John Johnston, director of Northern Ireland operations at the

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Child Support Agency in Belfast, were examined. I urge hon. Members to obtain a copy and to read for themselves what was said by those two individuals.

Such was the insulting behaviour and the answers given by the people in charge of the agency in Northern Ireland that the Chairman of that Committee said that he thought that they came from the old Russia.

A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), who is also a constituent of mine in another place, received a letter at his home from the agency, stating that he had fathered a child and that he would be levelled with the upkeep of that child. He was absolutely amazed. His wife read the letter, and the House can understand what it was like in that happy home, where there were little children and all was well--before an impudent, arrogant letter arrived that pointed the finger of accusation at the head of that happy household.

Action was immediately taken to contact the central agency. The two agency people who arrived acted as moral arbiters. The husband said, "I am not the man in question. I did not father that child. I was never with the woman concerned. I know nothing about it." The agency people said, "You needn't lie to us. You're the father of the child and we are taking action against you."

That happy family was broken up. The wife left the home and took the young children with her. That husband was a broken-hearted man, bereft of his wife and of his children, and his marriage was shattered.

Later, the agency sent a letter saying, "We are sorry. It was a man in the same town. We got the wrong address." What good was that, when that home had been shattered, the wife's faith in her husband had been destroyed, and he was distraught and broken ? How can anyone say that we should not expose such matters on the Floor of the House, so that the Minister knows what is happening ? It is happening not only once but all over the country.

The Minister needs to put on his running shoes. If one does not have the consent of the people, the law breaks down. When the law breaks down, there is anarchy. When there is anarchy, the law will be forced to change its ways. Why not make up our minds tonight to change the procedure, take the arrogance out of those people, and deal with the matter for the sake of the future of our communities and their families ?

I have for 48 years been the pastor of a large congregation in the centre of Belfast. I know what pastoral care and homes are about. There is nothing so devastating as when a well-ordered home that manages its budget suddenly has a colossal demand made on that budget. It is devastating. The agency's actions have devastated people. If the court determined a settlement and decided that so much money should be paid and everyone was working to that budget, why did the agency have the right to overrule the court and say, "No--our law is greater than your law" ? The Minister must take into account the amount of damage that has been done.

When the legislation was passing through the House, I understood that the real offenders would be found out. The real offenders are the parents who have skipped, disappeared and never paid a penny to the children they fathered. I shall ask the Minister a fair question tonight. How many people who were paying the benefit that the courts said they should pay have had their payments increased, and how many who never paid anything have

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been found out and brought to book ? Let us have those figures, because it is on those figures, and those alone, that we will judge the success of the legislation.

The Minister must take on board what has been said today. I do not know how one heals the wounds or makes up for what has gone astray, but I know that the time has come to change gear and to change course in this iniquitous system. Let us not do any more damage : there has been enough damage done and the Minister needs to face up to his responsibilities.

Please let the people of Northern Ireland have the report of their agency. Please tell us what the agency is doing. Please tell us how many of the people are not interested in Belfast, in our problem, but are doing something in the north of England. We have enough problems to attend to without doing the work for the north of England. With all due respect to the people of the north of England, I think that the agency has enough on its plate.

The report makes interesting bedside reading. Anyone reading it will become aware of the sort of officials who had weeks to prepare for examination and weeks of tutoring by those who tutor civil servants before they come before a parliamentary Committee. I used to chair the parliamentary Committee in Stormont that looked after the finances--the Finance Committee. I knew that the people who came to talk to the politicians had been tutored.

The two men who came before the Committee were tutored and their answers were laughable and disgraceful--so much so that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said that he thought they came from old Russia. The Minister had better consider those matters tonight and give us some answers. If he says that he cannot answer for Northern Ireland perhaps he will be good enough to write to me with the answers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) indicated assent .

Rev. Ian Paisley : I am glad to see that the Minister is nodding. I want the answers. If we cannot get them tonight, we must get them later.

9.7 pm

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East) : Having listened to most of today's debate, I do not think that one hon. Member--from either side of the House- -has had unqualified praise for the Child Support Agency. There is no disagreement among hon. Members about the fact that there is such a thing as parental responsibility. It lies at the heart of the Children Act 1989, which had all-party support. Everyone accepts that being a parent continues for life. My children are young adults ; I am still a parent and I still have a responsibility to them. The cross-party concern comes as no surprise to me. I am secretary of the all-party parliamentary Child Support Agency monitoring group, which has been meeting for some time and taking evidence from interested agencies, including the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Council for One Parent Families and women's organisations. We shall meet the Secretary of State tomorrow on a cross-party basis.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) said in a thoughtful and analytical speech, the agency is involved in a part of public law that

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is a crucial element of social policy. What does parental responsibility mean ? The CSA appears to reduce it solely to pounds and pence.

There has been much reference to the Australian model. I understand that, in its first year, the CSA in this country tried to deal with twice as many cases as the Australian child support agency, with half the staff. When we consider that fact, it is scarcely surprising that there has been such bureaucratic muddle and maladministration. As several hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, at least Australia's Child Support Agency is concerned with eradicating child poverty. That is what should concern our CSA, but many people still feel that its rationale is to make a Treasury raid on the social security budget.

Hon. Members have cited constituency cases. That is a valid way of drawing attention not just to the effects of the Child Support Act 1991 and the way in which the formula works, but to the maladministration that people have had to put up with.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned a constituent whose life had been turned upside down. A constituent of mine was telephoned at work one morning by his wife, who was hysterical : she had opened a letter addressed to him, asking him to pay maintenance for a child of whom he had never heard. He had also never heard of, or met, the mother of the child.

After a great deal of anguish, it was established that he did not know the woman and the child was not his ; the child's father had the same name, and lived in the same part of Bristol. I am pleased to say that that marriage survived, but my constituent still does not consider that he has received proper redress from the CSA. It beggars belief that an agency could virtually trawl through the telephone book, find someone with the same name living in the same area and decide, "That must be him."

Another constituent has received seven different assessment figures from the CSA. To this day, he does not know which amount he is supposed to be paying ; meanwhile, the clock is ticking, his arrears are building up and he has been denied access to his children because his wife is distraught at receiving no money at all.

Yet another constituent, whose income is low--we have a low-wage economy-- cannot afford the one trip a year that he used to take to see his daughter in Essex and bring her back to Bristol. His only luxury was his telephone : he could ring his daughter twice a week to ask about her school work and what she was doing. Now he has had to have his telephone disconnected so that he can pay the child support, and his contact with his daughter may--I put it no more strongly than this--be reduced to one visit a year. How will that encourage that man to be a responsible father ? How will it encourage a relationship between him and his little girl ?

I have encountered cases in which the agency's procedure of disclosing a second wife's financial means to the first wife--because she is bound to see the correspondence--has caused intolerable anger and disruption when parties to a relationship are trying hard to be responsible and amicable and to get along in new circumstances. Stepchildren, and other children involved in second marriages, are a comparatively new phenomenon, as are the family patterns of which they are part. On many occasions the CSA appears to have tossed a hand grenade into those people's lives, leaving nothing but conflict and misery.

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There has been most misrepresentation over what is termed the clean break. I have heard the Minister try to pretend that we should not take the clean break into consideration, because it has nothing to do with children. Let us consider the divorce jurisdiction. Here I declare an interest, as a former family lawyer.

When an ancillary relief hearing is in being, the court's paramount consideration must be the welfare of the children. Husbands were frequently leaned on to agree to clean-break settlements, with the result that all the equity in the family home was transferred to the woman. First, that secured a home for the children. Secondly, it took account of the fact that, in general, women were economically disadvantaged compared with men. If an agreement were made that the house would be sold when the youngest child reached 18, women would be too old to obtain a mortgage or would not have the means to do so, thereby causing homelessness in middle and old age.

The purpose of clean-break agreements was that the man would forgo a huge sum of money. A constituent of mine transferred equity of £51, 500 in the former matrimonial home. Rightly, the court said that he would therefore have to pay a smaller sum of maintenance so that he could start again at the age of 44. He now finds that the agreement has been ignored, and he is being asked to pay a considerable sum of maintenance. His second wife has been to see me and is distraught. They believe that they will face repossession because they cannot afford to pay their mortgage. How can that be said to further the interests of family policy, the needs of children or the needs of parents ?

Earlier today, I spoke to a former colleague at the Bristol Bar, a well- respected and experienced family lawyer. I asked him what had been the effect of the Child Support Agency on ancillary relief hearings. He said that it had created unhappy dads and bitter mums. It is now much more difficult to settle cases because men are more reluctant to agree to a clean break. They say, "What is the point of transferring the entire equity in the matrimonial home when it will be ignored by the CSA ? I shall never be able to afford to get back on my feet, rehouse myself and begin another relationship." That is leading to more problems for women. What used in family law to be called the Martin order, which was disapproved of, is now re-emerging. Under such an order, there is no clean break and the house is sold on death, remarriage of the woman or permanent co-habitation. At half- past 5 o'clock today, I was told by my former colleague in Bristol that the re-emergence of the order is once again leading to old questions like, "Is Mummy still seeing Uncle Bill ?" If permanent cohabitation can be proved, the woman can be tipped out of the house, which can then be sold. That is what is happening in family law as a direct result of the agency. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) said that, as a barrister, he recognised that women want to keep the family home. The House must recognise that that is now less likely. I do not see how that can serve the interests of children.

Yesterday in The Observer , the Secretary of State for Social Security was quoted as saying that it was difficult to persuade the public that parents should be responsible for their children. I do not believe that to be true. Most people agree that parents should be responsible for their children,

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which is why the initial idea of the agency received such widespread support. The bitterness is in the experience. A few months ago, HTV held a phone-in after an hour-long debate asking whether the Child Support Agency should be scrapped. Such phone-ins are a bit hit and miss and anecdotal, but the response was staggering : 71 per cent. of people in the Bristol area thought that the agency should be scrapped, never mind modified.

The difficulty lies in persuading people that the agency is delivering a system which encourages parental responsibility, which provides that such responsibility is about things other than money--although money is very important--and which supports children. As so many hon. Members have said in the debate, children are so often ignored. The Government's own figures show that 3 million children in this country are living in poverty. They are the people whom we should be concerned about tonight and in the future. 9.19 pm

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : To conclude a long and interesting debate, I should like to say that I regard this last year as an enormous achievement. I say that deliberately, because this evening we have heard a catalogue of personal disasters. Yes, the administration of the Child Support Agency has gone awry, but let us also consider the other side of the equation.

There has been an enormous cultural shift, in that parents now realise that maintaining their children is not an option but an obligation. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing the agency into being with a tremendous amount of determination and despite considerable opposition from the Labour party. It was curious that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) tried to steal our clothing. He can try, but the truth is that we have got the CSA on the road.

Thousands of feckless fathers are being brought to book and are now paying maintenance. We are teaching society, and now society is learning for itself, that a child is for life--one cannot opt out of a child's upbringing and support. The Government should be congratulated on changing the climate in Britain in that way. 9.20 pm

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : I begin by putting on record exactly what the Labour party said when the Child Support Agency was introduced because, while the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said that we opposed it on all counts, the Secretary of State said that we supported it. The reasoned amendment that we tabled at the time stated

"this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which, while providing that absent parents should contribute to the support of their children, leaves lone parents on Income Support not one penny better off, makes lone parents worse off where they receive maintenance just above Income Support levels and thus lose access to passported benefits, allows maintenance payments to be disrupted if the absent parent defaults, does not take account of property settlements which could lead to an increase in orders for the home to be sold, leaves unclear in which cases the lone parent will be exempt from the requirement to help the Agency trace the absent parent and therefore from the penalty of loss of benefit imposed on the caring parent, and does not tackle more serious problems facing lone parents and their children, notably the provision of better childcare facilities."--[ Official Report , 4 June 1991 ; Vol. 192, c. 194.]

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I read that into the record again because I have been here long enough to have heard history being rewritten many times and want to make it clear what our position was.

It is clear from almost every contribution that we have heard tonight that what we said in our reasoned amendment has come to pass. Some of us also expressed grave concern about the plight of second families and stepchildren, and I hope to have time to comment on them.

Before I go any further, it is my great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) on his maiden speech. Many of us felt that we knew Eastleigh pretty well by the time the by-election was over ; but having listened to his detailed information about housing, rising crime and the jobs situation in Eastleigh, we realise that we clearly did not know it as well as he now does. I am also pleased that the hon. Gentleman found time to highlight his constituents' concerns about the CSA. We all look forward to hearing from him again--perhaps next time, he speaks he will not have to compete with the world cup.

In the reasoned amendment, we expressed our concern, but where do we go from there ? One of the difficulties with the Child Support Act 1991 was the way in which it was sold to the House. Many hon. Members who voted for it have since said that, although they agree with the agency in principle, the application is a bit rough. We were told that people would benefit and that most of those who would be contacted would be the Jack-the-lads--

"the tower block stags who jump from one flat to the other with no responsibility for the children they father".

That quotation is part of the background to the Child Support Act 1991.

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