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To be fair to the House, the Act was sold to us. It was a crusade, and hon. Members thought that the people targeted would, in the main, be non-paying people--absconding parents, not absent parents who were already paying. The Minister has said that 60 per cent. of fathers who were contacted were not paying maintenance. If that is true, 40 per cent. were, but the Minister always puts it the other way round. Some 40 per cent. of the men contacted were already paying. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made the important point that one-off settlements have not been taken into consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) said that children have been put against children of new relationships formed before the Child Support Agency came in. Stepchildren have been put against other children in an effort to try to meet the agency's requirements. Women, and especially children--I am very much concerned with the children--have been taken off benefit, as we said in our reasoned amendment. Having lost their passported benefits, they are often worse off ; and they are also worse off because the maintenance of the men concerned has often militated against those men keeping contact with the children.
It has been said--some of this has been documented--that fathers who have previously paid mortgages on homes for their first families will have to choose between meeting the Child Support Agency's assessment and paying the mortgages. The house will then be sold, with dire consequences for the children.
Column 106To show that I am even-handed--I am not making a case for fathers alone-- let me tell the House that I am still appalled by the reply I have received which says that fathers who are abroad can get away with it because there is no means of contacting them. If we are concerned with both sides of the argument, we should look at that point a little more carefully.
People have also asked where the money is. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) said that he walked around the Treasury looking for the money, but could not find it. It has gone in administration : it has gone in paying the staff of the Child Support Agency ; and it has gone in paying for the buildings, in exactly the same way as the money from the poll tax, which we do not mention any more, went on equipment, buildings and staff. And we know what happened to the poll tax.
Some hon. Members said that they were concerned about the taxpayer. Australia, which started this business, was also concerned about the taxpayer, but in Australia, half the money went to the children and there was a disregard, which we have asked Ministers to consider. Several of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have made points that we could all repeat time and again. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is so knowledgeable in these matters and who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, has asked the questions that should be answered tonight. The Minister is not an unfeeling man in these matters. I sat with him during a spirited lobby, and I know that he is under pressure. So let me ask him whether the CSA is working. Is it working for more people than the number for whom it is causing misery ? Those questions should be answered.
Many of us are a little tired of the Government hiding behind the Select Committee. They hold off their hon. Friends who may want to vote with us, saying that they should wait and look at the Select Committee report. They say that they have made a few adjustments and that they will listen again. That should not be necessary, because we all know that many people are suffering under the Act and that few are benefiting. That is what we should consider.
We have asked how the formula works, but nobody has explained that in the House. I believe that it is computer programmed--that one presses a button and gets something out at the other end. That is why, when we try to deal with the agency, we find it so difficult to get any variation in its decisions.
It is important that we should consider the Child Support Agency alongside the Children Act 1989. The Children Act rightly seeks, in this year of the family and at all times, to ensure that people keep contact with their children. We all agree with that. The Children Act refers to the necessity at times of residence orders, joint residence orders, joint contact, contact with grandparents and a variety of other matters.
The CSA does not work as the Children Act works in that respect. The children must spend 102 nights with the father--if the father is the absent parent--before he can claim benefit. That does not take into account the 87 or 85 nights that are set against that. If the Children Act is to work properly and take into account the need for joint residence orders and so forth, the CSA must work with it
Column 107and ensure that the parent without care who wants contact with the children and wants to share responsibility for them does not find that he is financially unable to do so because the CSA does not take into account what it costs him.
Several hon. Members referred to the difficulties in which we find ourselves in dealing with CSA cases. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy) said that, in one of the cases that she took up with the agency, the harassment and demands continued, even though she had made representations about what she and her constituent considered to be an unfair assessment and application of the principle. I think that that is the experience of many of us here. We take up a constituent's case. It takes a very long time to have the case looked at and at the same time the wheels continue to grind relentlessly. Our constituents think that we are not bothering because it takes such a long time to obtain an answer. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) was right--I never thought that I would have to say that about him--when he said that the legislation was rushed through ; that no real consultative process took place ; and that we had got ourselves into an unsatisfactory position. He made the point, as did other hon. Members, that arrears were cropping up before the final assessment was reached. That cannot be, and is not, right or fair.
Other hon. Members have made important points about the passported benefits and where we go from here. We will not go back to the courts. That is clear, because that system was unsatisfactory, but that does not mean that we have got it right now. I should have thought that it would be obvious to anyone that we are calling for a review to see what can be done to mitigate the worst effects. I hope that the Minister will give us some encouragement in that respect. My hon. Friends the Members for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) and for York (Mr. Bayley) said that the Children Act was supposed to be a child support Act. It was supposed to alleviate poverty among children. Instead, for obvious reasons, it is increasing poverty among many children. I am sure that the House never intended that to take place, but that is what is happening.
I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) --we always seem to agree on these matters--that what was needed was a family social policy, and that the Child Support Act 1991 was operating in a vacuum. If one operates in a vacuum and tries to deal with one aspect of child poverty, one is bound to get it wrong. That is exactly what has happened.
It is also important to consider carefully the way in which men in particular--I am not defending only men ; it is usually men, but not always --have been put in a position which makes it difficult for them to continue to visit their children. That should worry the House very much. In these days of increasing divorce and breakdown in relationships, organisations such as Relate and others say that they want things worked out properly. The interests of the children are paramount. They tell the parents that they must work the matter out in the interests of the children, whatever their personal difficulties may be.
Mostly men, but occasionally women, have said to us, "I cannot afford to visit my children any more. It is a long journey. My travel-to-work expenses are not taken into
Column 108account. The amount that it costs me to visit my children, with all that is associated with a visit, is not taken into account." Rather than enhancing the life of the child, we are making it much worse. That surely cannot be what the House intended. Yet we all know from our surgeries that that is taking place. In some instances, we have created a monster that has got out of hand in that respect. I must refer to what the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) said about being harassed and treated unfortunately by people who are against the CSA, as it is important. We cannot be responsible for people who behave badly. I in no way excuse them, as the problem must be worked out through argument and discussion, not by trying to inhibit people who are making another point, and I do not support such action.
The hon. Members for Broxbourne and for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) quoted Families Need Fathers and some of the things that it has allegedly said. People on the fringes of all organisations can sometimes cause grave embarrassment and behave extremely badly. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and I have met members of Families Need Fathers on several occasions. The members whom we met were not as concerned about the Child Support Act 1991 as they were about access to their children. They have pointed out that, in many instances, the Act militates against access, rather than enhancing it. If some fringe elements are giving foolish advice, most members of the organisation would not go along with it. The House should be concerned about changing relationships in this country today and about the number of children who lose contact with one of their parents because of divorce or separation. That is happening to hundreds of children all the time, and if the House has done anything to encourage it, or to make it more difficult for contact to be maintained, the Government should give the matter their urgent attention. The situation is frightening.
Under the Children Act 1989, contact orders can be made for grandparents to keep in touch with their grandchildren, but for a variety of reasons the courts seldom uphold them. Such contacts are vital for children. If the CSA is assisting the process by unwittingly preventing access to parents--which was never the intention--the matter should be reconsidered as it is very serious. When the Government first introduced the Child Support Bill, they said that it would operate on a straightforward principle and that it aimed to improve on the existing court system, which had failed so many children and their mothers, leaving more than 80 per cent. of lone parents on income support. We were told that that was the principle. Many hon. Members who did not support our reasoned amendment at the time thought, "Great-- something is going to be done." We have learnt since the enactment of the Bill that family policies are never that straightforward.
Acts of Parliament--especially those such as the Child Support Act 1991-- that have a strong and direct impact on the lives of children and their separated parents, cannot be viewed in isolation from a proper family policy. In this international year of the family, I should have thought that the Government would take that into consideration when studying the way in which the CSA is working. I think that the Minister is aware that most sections of the House have expressed disquiet of one sort or another about the operation of the 1991 Act. Knowing the Minister,
Column 109I think that he will have taken to heart some of the criticisms, although we have not seen many changes--there have been some--in the Child Support Agency and the way in which it works. If we are concerned with children's welfare and with keeping them in touch with both parents rather than with driving wedges between new and first families, we need to reconsider. It is a pity that we do not have family courts of the type that some of us have described in the past, as that would be a good way in which to deal with such matters. We have tried to be the voice of the child, not that of the father or mother. The agency was sold to us as a Child Support Agency, but we were then told that the money was to go to the Treasury, because, after all, taxpayers should not have to support children when their parents are in a position to do so. That is fine, but many parents are not in a position to do so. The fact that the terms of the Act were made retrospective, when people made arrangements without knowing that that would happen, is indefensible. That is why we have described some of the difficulties that have been encountered. Conservative Members have expressed their disquiet about the Act, as they have done before, and said that, although they accept the principle--as we all do--the Act has gone sadly wrong for their constituents. They asked what the Government would do to make life better for their constituents and their children. I hope that those hon. Members will have the courage to join us in the Lobby tonight. I hope that they will not be put off by the Minister saying, as I know he will, that the Government are waiting for the Select Committee report, will consider what has been said today and will, if necessary, make adjustments as they have done in the past.
This is not a waiting game : it is important for all of us and for the children in our society. I hope, therefore, that some of the Conservative Members who spoke against the CSA will join us in the Lobby.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) is right. will ask my colleagues to resist the motion standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, to read carefully the amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to support it.
I begin by echoing what the hon. Member for Eccles said about the new hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey). On behalf of all my colleagues, may I say how much we appreciated his kind references to Stephen Milligan and the work that he did for all too brief a period in the House. I enjoyed the hon. Member's strong contribution to the debate. He had the luxury of being the only spokesman for his party, and he took that role very well. I am sure that we will hear more from him in the future.
The debate was led off in fine style by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who conducted the House through the affairs of the Child Support Agency with clarity and precision. He made it clear how difficult it has been to introduce changes in child support throughout the world, whether in the United States, New Zealand or Australia. He put the difficulties in context. I wish that
Column 110more Opposition Members had taken more to heart what he said about the difficulties that were bound to be faced when introducing such legislation.
My right hon. Friend was supported by strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), for Orpington (Mr. Horam), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). I am grateful to my colleagues for the support they gave, notwithstanding the fact that they all had concerns and issues that they wanted to raise at the same time, which is only fair.
As the hon. Member for Eccles wanted to put the record straight about Labour's position, let me do just that. She may have read out the Opposition's reasoned amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill, but she did not go on to tell us that the Labour party did not vote against its Third Reading. The Opposition did not vote against the regulations on all the occasions when we discussed the formula in Committee. It is not true that the House has not had an explanation of the formula, because it was considered in regulations dealt with in Committee. To my knowledge, that formula was not voted against. I should like to mention the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who was one of the Opposition spokesmen on social security in 1991. He said of the Child Support Bill :
"The Opposition will adhere to the principle that the responsibility for children rests with the parents, and their welfare will always be paramount in our consideration of these issues. The Bill accepts that principle, and in that sense we accept its main planks."--[ Official Report , 18 July 1991 ; Vol.195, c. 573.] I should have thought that we have been discussing those main planks tonight, but, all too often, Opposition Members try to wriggle free of them.
The debate has centred on administration and policy and I should like to tackle the question of administration first. The debate takes place on the day that the first report of the CSA has been published. It reviews last year's work and its prospects for next year. I believe that it was the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who referred to the report as an honest piece of work, and I am pleased that he did so.
Mr. Frank Field indicated dissent .
It has been a difficult and challenging year for the agency, for a number of reasons which my right hon. Friend mentioned. The project was taken on from scratch and the agency had to do a great deal of work under extremely difficult conditions. I admit that a number of targets have not been met, but the agency has made it clear that it wishes to do better. Ministers must also be responsible for that. I say straightforwardly that the agency has not achieved everything that I wished it to achieve, but it is important to understand the context in which it has worked and recognise not only where it has not done well but what we have done to secure improvements and change.
The Child Support Agency should not be judged on one year's operation. It was accepted when it was set up that it would take on its case load over four years and be
Column 111evaluated over 10 years. It must change a child support culture in circumstances which the hon. Member for Birkenhead described as the biggest change in social policy since 1945. It should therefore be judged over a longer period than a year, and Ministers have been determined to seek changes in the agency to improve its operation. I repeat what my right hon. Friend said : although things were difficult last year, this year we are completing maintenance assessments twice as fast, we have doubled the number of cases in which we are enforcing maintenance, and we are taking steps to deal with the correspondence problems. Errors and delays in correspondence are known to all hon. Members, and I am sorry about all those cases in which the delay has been unacceptable.
Anyone who wants to know what it is like to be at the receiving end has only to listen to the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham), who left me in no doubt about what "errors in correspondence", which is an easy phrase to utter from the Dispatch Box, means to constituents and hon. Members who are waiting for something to happen so that they can inform people. The hon. Gentleman put it just right and we are making every effort to improve that system. Of course, I apologise for those cases that have been delayed.
Mrs. Jane Kennedy : Given that many of the complaints to hon. Members on both sides of the House have been specifically about administration and the delays and mistakes that have caused such anguish to those concerned, should not the Government have adjusted more quickly the targets to which agency staff were working ? If staff were working flat out to achieve impossible targets, was it not far easier to make mistakes ?
Mr. Burt : The staff have always been aware of the agency's targets. It was clear from the rearrangement of work that had to be made within three months of setting up the agency and the reaction to changes made in February that certain benefit-saving targets, for example, would not be met. Staff knew that from an early stage. They have always worked as hard as possible and the administration has constantly adjusted to ensure that the work was more efficient. I assure the hon. Lady that adherence to unrealistic targets has not caused the problems.
The hon. Lady will be aware that the targets set for next year are based, quite properly, on the agency's experience. It is sensible to look at the work that has been done and, allowing for reasonable improvements, set targets on that basis rather than on assumptions that must be made when setting up an organisation with no experience in live running.
I am happy to reassure hon. Members that the Government take the problems of the agency's administration extremely seriously. A plan is in operation to secure recovery in all aspects of its work and there are already signs of improvement in that work. Standards must continue to improve, and they will.
The debate revealed a couple of other factors of which we have not seen enough in the past. More voices were raised on behalf of women than we have heard in past debates on this subject. One of the defining moments was when the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) said that trying to provide better maintenance,
Column 112which is aimed at helping mothers and children--nine out of 10 parents with care are women--had somehow turned into an argument about men's problems. He pointed out that much of the debate and newspaper coverage had focused on men's concerns.
All too often in these debates that point of view is not put clearly. However, tonight, it was put across by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), it was put across most clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, and it was put across in an intervention by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). The points that have been made to recognise the importance of women's position in this argument have all too often not been heard, and I was pleased that those points were made. It remains a cardinal principle for us that the maintenance system will produce more maintenance for more children over a period, and that maintenance will be a continual source of support to women, often as they go back to work and as their children grow older. Another argument that raged in the debate was on the law. Clearly there are two different opinions about how the previous system worked. There was stout defence by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), but that had to be posed in opposition to my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle, for Shoreham and for Hertfordshire, North. They gave their practical experience of how settlements were made in the past, which all too often recognised the position of the taxpayer. The taxpayer was used to underpin settlements and then everyone drifted on.
It is no wonder that the parties were often happy with the arrangements that were made : the unspoken voice was picking up the bill. On the balance of opinion, and the way in which this matter was looked at before the Act was brought in, it has been proved that there is no going back to the courts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point raised the sensitive issue of lesbian parents and other such matters. As society changes, my feeling is that such cases are slightly unhappy. But as for responsibility, my hon. Friend was absolutely right. Where there is a biological father and the child has not been produced through sperm donation, which is protected by confidentiality, there can be no private arrangement that will leave the taxpayer picking up the bill. It is right to pursue the biological father, and the Child Support Agency will do that.
Let me touch on some policy points. The first one--this was the second defining moment of the debate--is the continual discussion that we have with Opposition Members about the role of the taxpayer. I know that the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) has taken a great interest in these matters. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Warrington, South suggested that the taxpayer's interest had been brought in only latterly by the Government, as a side issue. I refer him to both the foreword and page 1 of the White Paper, which set out clearly that the taxpayer's interest was always in our minds
Column 113and must therefore have been in the minds of his colleagues when they voted on the Bill, or when they did not raise it as an issue. I quote from the foreword :
"While many absent parents make regular payments, 70 per cent. regrettably do not. The inevitable result is that more and more caring parents and their children have become dependent on Income Support. This makes it more difficult for them to achieve greater independence through working. And, at the same time, it places the responsibility for maintaining the children on other taxpayers, many of whom are raising families of their own."
That was written in October 1990. The hon. Gentleman should not try to tell the House that this is a later issue that the Government have introduced. It is a cardinal point. The hon. Gentleman cannot avoid the importance of returning money to the taxpayer. That is part of the Act--and a part of the Act which he should continue to support. It is interesting that the second defining moment of the debate was the silence that came upon the Opposition Benches when the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington referred to the fact that fathers found it all too easy to leave the mothers of their children on income support. The Opposition went very quiet then.
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) : Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend is saying, I know that he will recognise that there continues to be disquiet among Conservative Members about the operation and policy of the CSA. I shall support him in the Lobbies tonight, but on the basis that we await the report from the Select Committee, and that we shall be looking for a truly serious review in the context of that report.
Mr. Dewar : I am sure that the Minister would not like to leave the impression with the House or with those who read reports of our proceedings that the Government have no plans apart from waiting to see what the Select Committee produces. Can he give us any indication of any area in which he believes reform is necessary ?
A number of hon. Members mentioned certain policy items to do with the formula or with something else about which they were worried. The Government showed by the way in which they introduced reforms in February that they do listen. The words that they used about keeping the agency under review when it came into effect were not empty. When they saw the need to change, and once the need for practical change had been proved, the Government acted.
A third defining moment in the debate came with the contrast between the speeches by the hon. Members for Garscadden and for Birkenhead. The hon. Member for Garscadden, asking us to support his motion tonight, falls into a trap avoided by his hon. Friend. He does not merely describe the problems with the agency ; he defines the solutions, but only in the usual vague and unthought-through way. He talks about an appeal system, but he was unable to answer the crucial question, asked him by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, about who should be included in that system.
Some Opposition Members would take matters further ; they urged the repeal of the entire Act. The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) clearly took that line. The House, however, should take note of what the hon.
Column 114Member for Birkenhead said. He recognised how far the agency had come. That recognition means that we are in a position to keep it under review and to decide what must be done for the future. As he said, we still lack the information, even after the first year's running, to decide what to do about certain areas of policy. The hon. Gentleman spoke about keeping an open mind on reform. The Government are clearly committed to responding to the need for change, as indeed they have already responded. That means that hon. Members should vote for the amendment, not for the motion.
Mr. Frank Field : What I said was that it was difficult for anyone to come to a conclusion because no one knew whether the agency was working or not. The Government have provided no figures to tell us whether it is a success, or whether the chaos is increasing. When will the Government provide us with the data to enable the House to come to a conclusion on these matters ?
Mr. Burt : I do not accept that the issue is as stark as the hon. Gentleman suggests. He, more than most, should be aware of the number of cases being dealt with and of the work being done. Eight hundred and fifty thousand cases have been taken on. So far this year, 163, 000 maintenance assessments have been cleared. Crucially, that is almost half the total-- 336,500--cleared in the whole of the agency's first year. That means that it is picking up speed ; its case load is increasing and it is proving some sort of success.
As for the future, a great many concerns on a variety of issues, to which I have listened carefully, have been raised in the debate. A number of hon. Members know that I have personally spoken to them about those issues. It is still not clear precisely what changes may be needed and when they might be introduced. Our strong commitment was shown by the way that we introduced changes in February. When there is a need for change, the Government will make it. We are committed to keeping the agency under proper review, and we shall consider carefully how that should be done. We are not making vague suggestions and promises. The Opposition cannot suggest concrete ideas, and that is why our amendment should be accepted.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :
The House divided : Ayes 273, Noes 311.
Division No. 279] [9.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.