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The report makes no recommendations about disregarding any part of a CSA maintenance settlement against loss of income support. Instead, it suggests that income support should be made up to those whose maintenance is held up for any reason if it was reduced after the initial maintenance award.
Although that is welcome, it does not go far enough. It means that the poorest children will continue to be hit by the pound-for-pound rule. Their parents gain nothing from maintenance awards, and their non-custodial parents are
Column 1095those least likely to be able to afford to keep up visits, pay for holidays and so on, having paid maintenance awards which, as we know, go straight to the Treasury.
In many instances, as was verified by a recent report from the five main children's charities, those children could be worse off. Their fathers will no longer be able to afford the informal financial help--clothing, presents and outings--from which they previously benefited. Women on income support should be able to keep the first £15 of a maintenance award under the Act--as they are in the case of family credit or disability working allowance--so that they would be better off co-operating with the CSA.
As has already been said, that incentive to co-operate would reduce the application of the 20 per cent. benefit penalty for women who refuse to name the fathers of their children. The refusal to change that part of the Act will benefit only the Treasury, while increasing hardship for children.
Those who negotiated a clean-break settlement are hardest hit. Fathers who gave up their houses at the time of separation as part of the settlement and took out a mortgage on a new home are now being asked to start paying additional maintenance. Inevitably, that is hitting second marriages hard. Some second spouses are being forced to contribute part of their income to first spouses, even when the first spouse enjoys a significantly higher standard of living. The agency's action in overriding those court settlements is having a devastating effect on children. When otherwise stabilised relationships deteriorate because of financial pressures, the children find themselves at the centre of post-divorce acrimony. Recognition of clean-break settlements is an absolute necessity for any Government who are seriously committed to children's welfare. I agree with the hon. Member for Birkenhead that a major fault ignored in the report is the lack of an appeals process. When a parent does manage to contact the CSA to complain about what he or she considers to be an unreasonable assessment, and once an appeal comes to be heard--a process that takes an average of six months--the chances of a fair hearing are still minimal, because the agency continues to act as both judge and jury. It is absurd that an agency such as the CSA, which in the event is answerable only to the Secretary of State, can overturn court orders with which all parties agree and comply. That is why an independent appeals procedure is so urgently required for cases in which severe hardship is clearly being suffered.
In short, the Act needs to be fundamentally overhauled, not tinkered with by a Select Committee that is eager to avoid the U-turn chaos that was described earlier. Clean-break settlements need to be recognised, accountability in the CSA needs to be improved and an independent appeals procedure is required. The Government cannot assume that all-party support for the Act will continue indefinitely: I think that they know that unless some action is taken to deal with the criticisms that have been made of the agency and the Act that it was created to uphold, they may find that support beginning to slip away.
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Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare): In some 25 years as a Member of Parliament, I do not think that I have ever before ventured into a debate on social affairs. I hope that my hon. Friends and members of the Select Committee will forgive me if I am wrong about some of the technicalities. If perchance I make a recommendation that is already included in the long list of recommendations, I hope that my hon. Friends will accept that as support for their views.
Let me make a serious point. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) will know, we have limited time in which to debate Select Committee reports. In a way, I am happy to speak as someone who is not a member of his Committee: as it is often all too easy to have a debate on the Floor of the House that has already taken place upstairs in the Select Committee. We have not yet received the Government's reply to the Committee's report, and although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will seek to enlighten us as far as is possible, he will be somewhat constrained from making the Government's position clear until the more formal answer has been delivered. None the less, as we are having this debate and as I have dealt with more than the average number of cases, I feel obliged to speak.
I had the misfortune to be divorced some years ago, and I can only say that I know of no more traumatic personal experience. I would not wish on my worst enemy the misery of an unwanted divorce. Some people claim that there is such a thing as an amicable separation but that is rubbish or, at least, I do not believe that it happens very often.
Furthermore, no two divorces are quite the same. It is not a question only of the personalities involved and why two people are splitting up but of their wealth, jobs, circumstances and children. Despite that, and with the best intention--seeking to find irresponsible fathers who have disappeared- -we have created a monstrous bureaucracy which pours misery on misery and the many unfortunate people who have already gone through the mental, physical and financial trauma of divorce now have to deal with this ghastly organisation as well. As a supporter of the Government, I have never been so ashamed as when I have had to defend the CSA and what it has got up to in the past two years.
My immediate reaction is that the assessment formula is wrong and unfair. Until, with the wisdom of experience and other countries and the two inquiries by the Select Committee, a more reasonable and equitable and less complex formula can be devised, there will be no substantive improvement in the management or operations of the CSA or its handling of cases.
No benefit will accrue to the children of a first family and/or the children of a second family if, as a result of the CSA's assessment, both families are left with a sum of money only marginally above the income support limit, bearing in mind the fact that the income support limit is far less than the money on which many of the people who come to my surgery are living. Of course, such people are not unwilling to pay; they have been to court and agreed a settlement and are open to a revision of that settlement. They feel bitter and unjustly treated.
The Government claim that the assessment should leave the non-custodial parent and the new family, if any, with approximately 70 per cent. of net income after the
Column 1097payment of maintenance. That is not only wholly inaccurate in the case of nearly all my constituents but, because several essential non-elective expenses are disallowed, the reality is wholly different. Some people have even received assessments that leave them with negative income while many others are left with income only slightly above the income support limit.
Any new assessment formula must take into consideration the size and nature of clean-break settlements, something that the Select Committee recognised. It must be possible to overcome the difficulties; courts have been doing so for years. I know that there are legal problems, but they must be sorted out. A new assessment formula must also take into account the voluntary and informal agreements which have been willingly entered into to pour oil on troubled waters and to deal with matters amicably.
Allowable expenses must be extended to allow a number of non-elective expenses to be verified. Council tax payments, heat, electricity and water bills and travel-to-work expenses are easily verifiable. The costs involved in travelling to be with one's children is a crucial expense. One of my constituents is a service man who has been posted hundreds of miles away from his children. He is allowed to see them but cannot afford to do so. Such travel costs are not allowed in the calculation although they should be and would be, at least by anyone who has a heart.
Private pensions should be protected. Periodic overtime is a source of constant aggravation--why should it be included and used as a reason to raise the assessment? An incentive to improve one's financial situation must be allowed. In many cases, overtime constitutes the only way in which the non-custodial parent and his second family can survive economically. It seems fair that children should be maintained on the basis of a standard, regular income but it does not seem fair that maintenance should be an ever -floating item and that any extra money immediately increases maintenance payments. By comparison, many items of essential expenditure are allowed under legal aid so there is a perfectly good precedent. The financial position of the new partner of a custodial parent is not taken into account. When my office made inquiries about that, it was told that the new partner of a custodial parent has no legal or financial responsibility for the children of the parent whom he or she is marrying. That statement has been included in several ministerial responses to my constituents' complaints.
Conversely, the new partner of a non-custodial parent is automatically liable for 25 per cent. of the household expenses. Letters from Ministers and the CSA have informed my constituents that the new partner's mandatory 25 per cent. contribution to the running of the household may result in the non-custodial parent contributing more in maintenance. Although some recent ministerial letters state that the income of the new partner of the non- custodial parent must be considered--it may result in a lowering of maintenance payments--the inequity remains. Let us keep it simple: when determining the right to, or responsibility for, maintenance we should either take both or neither new partners' income into account.
Column 1098The CSA assessment must include identical allowances for natural children, stepchildren and the children of second families. Anything less will continue to cause significant psychological and emotional harm to all of the families involved. It strikes me as strange that, despite having such a high grade civil service, we have managed to include in the legislation--through the orders attached to the original Act--so many draconian and irrationally inhumane provisions.
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South): I have the advantage of not having been a member of the Select Committee and I do not want to get involved in detail, but it seems to me that there were three fundamental things wrong with the original legislation. The element of retrospection was and is wrong; the overriding of court settlements was and is wrong; and one needs a double first in mathematics to understand the formula. Does my hon. Friend think that we need a fundamental reappraisal not only of the work of the agency but of the legislation itself? I do not see any other way out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) sought to excuse to some extent the CSA's bureaucratic, mechanical performance, but there can be no excuse. In all my 25 years in Parliament, I have never known a Government agency perform so badly, incompetently and outrageously unfeelingly. Many of its staff are inexperienced at working in the highly emotionally charged atmosphere that the CSA has created. They complain of abusive treatment by non-custodial parents, but how would they be inclined to respond if, after hearing nothing from the agency for months and months, they received notice, with a threat of court action attached, that they were immediately responsible for paying arrears which, in some cases, could be as high as £3,000 or £4,000?
From the outset, the CSA adopted an adversarial style with all non- custodial parents and has treated them as though they were guilty of trying to avoid maintenance. The constituents who have written to me were paying maintenance all along, years before the CSA became involved. Other flaws in administration have included breach of confidentiality in matters relating to the non-custodial parent; the use of threatening language in correspondence; anonymous correspondence; and the staff's refusal to identify themselves on the telephone or the purpose of the call when initial contact was first made with non-custodial parents.
I do not intend to be wholly critical. I have sought to give the Minister a constructive brief and a solution to some of the problems. The adversarial style must be replaced by one of assistance and information. If necessary, let there be two forms--one for irresponsible non-custodial parents and one for those who have kept up payments. There must be proper and adequate training of staff, preferably in the operations and style of a service organisation, with training in communicating with people suffering stress. Cases should be assigned to two trained staff who will be accountable for those cases and conversant with the details. Only then will they be able to be effective in managing it, handling appeals in a timely manner and using responsibly whatever powers of
Column 1099discretion they have. At the moment, no one knows anything specific about cases and no one is accountable. I hope that such suggestions will improve people's relationship with the CSA.
The appeals procedure must be simplified. Non-custodial parents should be able to speak directly to the case officer, especially in connection with corrections and clarification. An information hotline/public assistance number should be available and published in local papers. The agency should be staffed with qualified personnel during extended hours, to help people who cannot telephone or do anything about such matters while they are at work.
The date of the commencement of arrears causes much misery. Arrears have become very expensive and greatly upset the budget of individual households. Assuming that interim assessments are discontinued, and provided that a non-custodial parent returns information in a timely fashion, arrears should begin no more than 30 days out from the date that a completed accurate final assessment is posted by the CSA. Parents should not be liable for CSA administrative faults and problems, which have in the past caused months of delay, certainly in many of my cases. A system of retrospective financial compensation must be created for those who, through no fault of their own, have accrued arrears during the time taken by CSA deliberations, and new cases must be protected from such overcharging. If the CSA fails to fulfil its obligations to assess and post charges during a certain period, it should absorb the costs, rather than passing them on to the person being charged arrears. The agency must conform to standard business practice.
We keep hearing that the matter is to be reviewed. Indeed, the Government have reviewed it once already, yet the same people come into my surgery saying, "Why did they bother? It didn't help my case." Now we understand that it is all to be reviewed again, but why the delay? Month after month those wretched people are suffering. I find it difficult to bear that any longer, and I press my hon. Friends in Government to produce an early solution to many of the problems that I have described.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South): I have served on the Select Committee since the House set it up, and we have dealt with many subjects that have caused much heartache to the people who have come before us to give evidence. One of those was the affair of the Maxwell pensioners. But I think that the Child Support Agency has caused the greatest heartache of all.
I have been privileged and proud to be a member of that Committee, but this time I was rather concerned because when we finalised the report we could not reach agreement on many aspects. That was unfortunate because all the members of the Committee work hard, listen to one another and find out what other people's views are, but we still could not produce a report agreed by us all. I am a little concerned about that, and I feel that perhaps we could have done better.
I was once talking to a policeman about people breaking the law and the trouble that he had had at various times, and he said to me, "I'll give you a little bit of advice, Clifford. Don't ever interfere between a man and wife." Apparently, if a couple are having an argument in
Column 1100the middle of the street or in a house and someone goes to interfere they both turn on him and blame him for all the things that have happened, no matter what the row was about.
I believe that when the House passed the Child Support Act 1991 we failed to realise that truth. We did not realise how sensitive an area we were entering, even leaving aside the question of children. When one interferes between those who have loved one another but who for various reasons no longer do so, one is in difficulty--and that is precisely what the Act does. It attempts to make a judgment between a husband and wife as to what allowances should be paid for the children.
We all know that, sadly, children can be used as blackmail in divorce cases by either partner or both. When we consider the legislation we should bear that fact in mind. Even when people have been divorced and everything has gone well, if they come into the constituency office we tend to find that they do not even refer to each other by name, but talk about "him" or "her". Then we realise that we must be very careful in everything we say and do. In view of that, one could think that there might be a dispute between the former partners over the children, but when the people who gave evidence before the Select Committee were asked, "Do you think parents should be responsible for looking after their children and supporting them?" the answer was always, "Yes, we believe that they should." So far as I can remember, no one was against the idea. So the task is to devise legislation that will allow that to happen. Retrospective legislation always causes trouble; any retrospective arrangement does. People are going back over old ground and opening old sores--doing all the things that we would wish not to do in such a situation. I know that some of my fellow members of the Select Committee have said that we should not legislate retrospectively. But why is it not within the realms of possibility for the courts that have already made decisions on cases--they can work retrospectively--to reconsider those cases in the light of the legislation and of the assessments made under it?
There is no reason why a court could not look at such cases if they were brought back, even if they were not retrospective from the CSA's point of view. Indeed, I understand that it is the right of someone receiving maintenance to take the case back to court. So there is no reason why the courts should not consider such cases and say, "In the light of the changed situation let us see if we can make alterations." The advantage would be that those representing the non-custodial parent could have made their own case. Some members of the Select Committee thought that in retrospect the arrangements were unfortunate.
I am not talking about the financial side of things or many of the other things that have been expressed in the debate. I am speaking from the point of view of the child. The object of the legislation was to look after the child; that is why it was called the Child Support Act. If we cannot devise an arrangement that looks after the child we must reconsider the legislation. If we are aggravating the two parents of the child something is wrong with that legislation and it must be re-examined.
Some hon. Members would say that it would be better to allow at least legitimate expenses to the non-custodial parent--expenses that would have an adverse effect on
Column 1101that parent's ability to pay maintenance for the child. It is a great mistake to ask someone to maintain a child if, at the same time, we remove the ability of that non-custodial parent to have enough money to do it. We should consider the legitimate expenses. I support the idea of a simpler assessment. It would be much simpler if one could say that it will cost £X if there is one child or two if a parent is divorced. That would be a simpler system and people would at least know what they are up against. Such a system would be helpful. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) about the assessment forms. We found it very difficult to use the forms, even after instruction.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): I have an example of the complexity involved in making an assessment. Four assessments were sent to a constituent of mine on 4 November, each in a separate envelope. Although the amount of income is the same, the assessment in the first letter is for £65.29, in the second it is for £68.86, the third is for £70.27 and the fourth is for £71.12. I have the same difficulty as members of the Select Committee did. I cannot work out which is the correct assessment.
If someone disagrees with an assessment, it may be looked at again, but at the end of the day that person will be told, "We are sorry, but that is what the assessment is. If you don't like it, you will unfortunately go into arrears." That will happen regardless of whether that person believes that the assessment is right or wrong. Someone may come into a constituency office and say that he has applied for disability living allowance, but has been turned down. He may say that he has had a review, but has been turned down again. When that person asks what he can do next, we say that he can appeal. With regard to many cases that hon. Members deal with, we can say, "Well, why don't you appeal? I will attempt to assist you with it." However, we cannot tell our constituents that the best thing to do is to appeal with regard to the CSA because there is no appeal mechanism. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead said, everyone would expect the right to an appeal. For example, even though many people break the speed limit and are not caught, if they are caught, they can appeal.
One of the Select Committee's greatest problems related to property settlements. A non-custodial parent may have wished the parent with care to have the matrimonial home so that the children could live there, attend school and keep their friends. As such a settlement was reached, people tend to believe that it is part of the arrangement. The Department of Social Security believes that such settlements are a matter between adults. However, I contend that if they are in the interests of the child, they should be taken into consideration. The disregard is a very good idea. It provides an incentive. Without an incentive, many other problems flow. I fully support the idea of a disregard and I am not being disloyal to my colleagues on the Select Committee because that was my view then and it is my view now. However, I do not wish to repeat that argument.
Column 1102I remind the House that the Child Support Act 1991 was passed by Members of this place. By doing that, they set up the Child Support Agency and they asked it to administer legislation which the House decreed it should administer. While I realise that mistakes can occur in all walks of life and in all jobs, and that they are very unfortunate in the delicate situation between a former husband and wife, I must place on record the fact that all the staff of the offices that we visited were dedicated, sincere, sympathetic and, above all, worked within legislation set up by the House. Hon. Members should remember that.
It is unfortunate that, at times, individual members of the agency are castigated as things are happening over which they perhaps have no control. While we would encourage the agency to make improvements, we must make it clear that we recognise that there are people in the agency who are doing their very best to work the legislation for which we are responsible.
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North): The House owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and his Select Committee for producing the second report. Some of the earlier comments about the report were slightly churlish. It will not satisfy everyone. No report produced by hon. Members ever does. However, the Select Committee has managed to focus attention again--and, as the Committee said, it is unusual for a Select Committee to do it twice--on a matter which, for a relatively small number of people, is of absolute and paramount importance.
We got this wrong. Hon. Members on both sides of the House got it horribly wrong. I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) that, while there have clearly been occasions when individual members of the Child Support Agency staff have not acted like paragons of virtue, it is we who have caused the problems that have created the anguish with which they are confronted. We must remember that.
Sir Jerry Wiggin: I was tempted to intervene on the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), but he sat down at a crucial moment. Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten me. He was right to say that we passed the legislation in this House. However, I understand that we passed a very simple Act. Many of the mechanics of the CSA were introduced by orders, none of which was debated in the House. It is a lesson for us all that delegated legislation is not always entirely correct.
Mr. Gale: I concur with what my hon. Friend has just said, as, apart from his comments about CSA staff, I would concur with virtually everything that he said in his extremely excellent speech. The fact remains that we-- nobody else--are responsible for legislation, and we got it wrong. We must now get it right.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride): I hesitate to intervene, but, so that the House and the country are fully aware of the history of the Act, on Second Reading the Opposition tabled a reasoned amendment and highlighted many criticisms that have now been made. That matter should also be on the record.
Column 1103The Act has shattered agreements that were freely entered into. It has caused untold hardship and misery. It has brought about friction where there was none. It has actually harmed some of the children whom it was designed to assist. The House sought rightly to ensure that parents took responsibility for their children.
It has been suggested that the Treasury is clawing back the money. The money belongs to the taxpayer. It is not the job of the taxpayer or of my elderly constituents in Thanet, North, having worked hard all their lives and now living on modest incomes, to support other people's children. That was the thesis behind the Act of Parliament. As has been said, bits have been bolted on to it and have made it unworkable.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security for the unfailingly courteous manner in which he has responded to some occasionally unfailingly less-than-courteous letters from me. In my correspondence with the Department, I have sought to reflect the genuine anger of honest working constituents who have sought to meet the obligations into which they believed that they had entered. They bitterly resent the fact that those agreements, which were freely entered into, are now being overturned by others and by us.
I am certain that, in seeking to ensure that parents take responsibility for their children, we have reopened maintenance settlements by the back door. Some of my constituents do not regard the Act as a child support Act, and they do not regard the agency as a child support agency. They regard them as an ex-spouse support Act and an ex-spouse support agency.
It would be naive beyond belief to accept that, when there is an improvement in payment that is not simply swallowed up by the taxpayer, money goes to the child. It does not. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston- super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) made the very correct point that we place a burden to contribute upon a new partner of an absent parent, but we take no account whatever of, often, an extremely comfortable life style enjoyed by the partner with custody, with a new partner. It is not fish or fowl. We cannot have it both ways, and we should not try to have it both ways. My hon. Friend the Minister will have to determine either that the full incomes of both households are taken into account or that neither of the new partners' incomes is taken into account.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks): Does my hon. Friend agree that that could have an extremely damaging effect on a second marriage, and, in some cases, could contribute to its break-up? We have two problems instead of one. Change is absolutely essential to stop that problem and many others that have been mentioned.
Mr. Gale: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We have made a mistake, and the sensible, honourable way forward is to make a change, and as soon as possible. I see no shame whatever, and never have done, in acknowledging that legislation--I can think of one or two other pieces of legislation that are as close to your heart, Madam Deputy Speaker, as to mine--needs to be changed. When something is wrong and is not working as intended in the light of experience, the sensible course is for the House to acknowledge that and change it. That is not a U-turn; it is simply to say, "We have looked at this as it is working, and we need to amend it." My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary are engaged in what seems to have been
Column 1104an interminable review. Nevertheless, that is why the review is taking place, and I hope that changes will be brought forward. I agree entirely that the worst aspect of the legislation has been its retrospective nature and the fact that, having entered into agreements in court, people now find them overturned. I concur with the view of the hon. Member for Antrim, South that, when the courts made the original disposition, there is absolutely no reason why they should not be asked to review cases. That is the proper way to address a grievance in law. It is extremely dangerous for the House ever to embark on retrospective legislation. I hope that we shall learn lessons from this mess.
I also believe strongly that payments should be needs-related, not means- related. I know that that issue is contentious. There is a strong view that, if an absent parent's circumstances improve, the child should benefit. I do not accept that. Separated families have different and differently developing life styles. If we are to help the child--and let us determine the needs of the child and base the payment on them--and if we are serious about allowing the child in some way to benefit from the improved circumstances, be they so, of the absent parent, anything above the needs-related payment to which I referred should be placed in trust for the child, so that the child will benefit from it when he or she reaches maturity, for example when that kid might be going to university. Otherwise, all that we are doing is rejigging an agreed settlement and giving a former spouse more money to spend on beer and skittles, or whatever. That is not the intention of the Act. The Act is intended to help the child. We must address that matter.
The formula that is used to assess payments does not take into account absent parents' previous debts. That is nonsense. We cannot say that, at the moment a couple separates, all legally binding contracts which have been entered into and which do not form part of a straightforward mortgage repayment must not be taken into account. I refer, for example, to the extension of a house, for which a loan has been taken out--payments still have to be made if a roof is to be kept over the children's heads--a hire purchase agreement for a car that is probably used for work, or any such commitment that was made before the legislation came into being. If previous debts are not taken into account, we cannot possibly claim that we are reflecting true costs out of the income of the absent parent.
Mr. Jenkin: Of course, that matter was in our in-trays when we considered it in Committee, but we did not regard it seriously, because we were confronted constantly with how people were likely to respond to changes such as the one that my hon. Friend suggested. In the case of debts accumulated before separation, the danger is that, by allowing the cost of those debts, we would encourage the accumulation of debts before separation. With the best will in the world, we did not want to create further loopholes, expense and complication in respect of a formula that many right hon. and hon. Members have described as too complicated.
Mr. Gale: I understand my hon. Friend's argument, but I do not accept it. In one or two cases malevolent people might run up debts knowing that they will leave their wife or husband in three months' time and that the debts will be taken into account in the calculation. But my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare said that he
Column 1105had been through the trauma of a divorce, and so have I. In the main, divorces are not pre-planned; they are desperately tragic domestic events of the most traumatic and harrowing kind. I doubt that the sort of thing to which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) referred would happen in the overwhelming majority of cases. Of course it is possible, but I do not think that it is likely that people will stack up debts. I believe that debts should be taken into account in calculating amounts to be paid.
Travel-to-work costs should also be recognised. My constituents in Margate and Herne Bay can, and do, pay up to £2,000 per year in rail fares to commute to work in London. It is crazy that that contribution to absent parents' earning power--without which they would have no earning power because they would not have a job--should not be taken into account. We cannot simply write off £2,000. People will still have to get to work in order to make money to pay their ex-spouse. It is daft.
I have always believed that travel-to-work costs should be tax deductible-- it is a straightforward business expense. But that is an argument for another place and time. Perhaps travel-to-work costs exceeding a minimum level could be taken into account. People do not buy rail season tickets to travel from Thanet to London for fun; they buy them so that they can get to work. It seems to me that that cost is fundamental to the formula. I am delighted that the Social Security Committee has made a recommendation to that effect and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State will take it on board.
All hon. Members have constituents who are faced with demands for sums which, unless they win the national lottery, they will not be able to pay. We cannot expect someone who is already in straitened circumstances, possibly as a result of a separation or marriage breakdown, to spirit £500, £900, £1,500, £2,000 or £3,000 out of thin air. It is all very well for someone in the CSA to say, "That is your calculated arrears and you must pay it." People have not made provision to pay those sums. In some cases, the calculation of assessments takes months from when the forms are first filled in. That is no fault of my constituents: they provide the required information. My constituents have come to me with five or six letters-- all posted within days of each other- - containing different assessments. That is not my constituents' fault; it is the fault of the CSA.
I have constituents who pay sums of money-- perhaps £50-- which they recognise are probably on the low side; but they have paid them regularly. They agreed to pay those sums and they have kept their part of the contract. They then fill in a form, 11 months go by and an assessment arrives. It is perhaps more than they would like to pay, but it is not always unfair. However, there is also a huge bill for payments in arrears that they are simply not able to meet. If there is a court order, the arrears payments do not exist. If people with court orders do not have to meet arrears payments, why do people who have been paying money methodically but who do not have court orders face huge bills? What is the difference? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary must address that aspect of the Act because it is causing misery.
Column 1106My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that some of the delay in reforming this dreadful Act results from a disagreement as to whether the correct route for change is through primary or secondary legislation. The changes to the Act must be implemented by whatever measures are necessary in order to get it right. If we work out what those measures are, it will become blindingly obvious whether they must be implemented through primary or secondary legislation-- or, as I suspect, through both primary and secondary legislation.
I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to implement the Committee's recommendations immediately through secondary legislation. He can then pursue the other necessary changes through primary legislation as quickly as possible. In short, I want my right hon. and hon. Friends to act with some urgency; we have delayed for far too long.
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West): We are debating a most important estimate, which will become increasingly important for reasons that I will outline, and it is vital that we make the right decisions.I was struck by the fact that two Conservative Members said that Parliament had got it wrong. I hope that we shall consider the implications of that statement for the parliamentary process. Why did the Parliament get it wrong? I have attended meetings of the Select Committee which is considering the incapacity for work legislation, and I am not convinced that we are getting it right. Committees allow objective scrutiny of the Executive and its decisions, but I have seen Committee members simply voting the way their Whips tell them to vote. I have seen them doing their correspondence, not listening to the evidence or the arguments, and voting the most complex pieces of legislation through on the nod. I can envisage hon. Members coming to the Chamber in a year or two saying, "We do not know what we did, but the legislation is not working--it is hurting people and we must think again". Although the incapacity for work legislation is not the subject of this debate, I hope that we shall think through the implications of what has been said today and use the Child Support Act 1991 as an important case study. We must consider the need for pre-legislative hearings and we must take our role as scrutineers of legislation seriously. However, I think that we knew more about the potential effect of the Act than some Conservative Members have admitted. I recall that there was a White Paper which grappled with the complexities of reform in this area. Anyone who read that White Paper, let alone much of the evidence submitted by research and voluntary organisations, would have appreciated that Parliament was grappling with extremely complex matters.
We are considering an important issue, but it is not only our Parliament and our society that are grappling with those problems. Communities around the world--in the Antipodes, Europe and North America--face the same kind of problems. We have heard a lot about divorce in the debate, but almost a third of children born in this country today are born outside marriage-- half of them to unmarried lone mothers and the other half to cohabiting parents.
Column 1107Accumulating evidence suggests that children in both categories are more at risk, both socially and materially, than those born to married couples. There is a stable group of cohabiting parents whose children will do as well or as badly as any other children in this country, but many children born to cohabiting parents live in circumstances which give us cause to worry about their future. We also know that unmarried lone mothers--the group whose number is increasing most rapidly of all one-parent families--are particularly vulnerable.
Regarding marriage itself, we know that the parents of about 25 per cent. of the children born this year and of children born subsequently will divorce before those children reach the age of 16. That involves a high proportion of children, and one which I fear will grow in the future. At the family policies study centre we once calculated that by the year 2000 only 50 per cent. of children in Britain would be born to married parents and remain living with them until the age of 16.
We are not talking about a small minority: a large proportion of adults and children will be affected by legislation of this kind. The issue of parental responsibility and what that means in increasingly diverse family circumstances therefore becomes a crucial moral question, but also a social and financial question. The demographics are complicated by the phenomena of remarriage, the co-habitation of divorced people and, sadly, re-divorce.
The House of Commons, which is still predominately made up of male hon. Members, speaks most lucidly on the issue with a male voice and in the male interest. However, the present principal
victims--certainly the principal financial victims--of the social revolution in family change have been women and children. There is no doubt about that. Research shows clearly something which ought to be a matter of common sense. Following a divorce, the man usually gets richer, as he does not have to provide for his children any more. The women and children get poorer. It is a case of women and children last.
Those are the facts. We do not always hear the facts, and the case studies presented to the House on this most controversial of matters are not those case studies. Nevertheless, I put it to the House that those are predominantly the facts. We should therefore be in no doubt at all that reform was needed and that some kind of child maintenance or support Act was also needed. I have no doubt at all about that. We must treat with much cynicism, and certainly much caution, any suggestion that before the Child Support Act the system was working smoothly; it was not. I am not saying that that suggestion has been made today, although it was nearly made. The system was a social and financial disaster.
Work was commissioned by the Government and carried out by York university on one-parent families. In a sample survey--a respectable piece of statistical work--it found that only 39 per cent. of one-parent families ever received maintenance at all, and that only 29 per cent. received maintenance regularly. I accept that of the 29 per cent. who were making regular maintenance payments some may have been paying at a decent level to safeguard the interests of their children. I put it to the House, however, that most were not paying adequate amounts, and the research shows that to be the case.
Column 1108Although hon. Members' advice surgery encounters are among the most difficult, we should have the honesty and courage to say sometimes to a father, "You are paying maintenance. How much? You have two or three children. How much are you paying per week? What do you think the costs of a child are a week?" Before the Act, the system was a disaster.
I am interested in the arguments that the legislation should have been retrospective, although I am not sure what my judgment is on that. If those who are putting the argument that it should not have been retrospective do not go on to say that we should have sorted out the court system so that maintenance was collected adequately, they are not addressing the real problem.
One of the important issues, and one of the reasons why the matter is so controversial, is that the Act and its administration raise the question of what the costs of children are in Britain today. The short answer is that children are very expensive, as any parent knows. I do not make this suggestion flippantly, but I sometimes think that if all parents who are paying vast amounts for shoes, clothing, a university education and all the other things involved, suddenly had a Government agency--I do not mind whether it is a privatised agency or not--presenting a child support bill every week with all that we are paying added up, some of us might run to our Member of Parliament to complain. Some of us might even desert our children temporarily, so shocked would we be at their cost. The Child Support Agency makes it all too explicit to fathers what the costs of children are in Britain today.
For most parents, paying for their children and recognising their financial obligations should be among the first calls on their resources, and not among the last. I am not attacking the idea that some legitimate expenses should be in the formula, and the report and the Government must address those wisely. We hear of the various expenses which are put forward, and the argument that only if one has a few pounds left should one have to pay that for one's children. That should not be the case. Looking after one's children financially is among the most important obligations of parenthood. It should not be a matter of small change.
We cannot get away from the fact that someone has to pay the bill, given the expense of bringing up children. We should be spending and investing more money in children, rather than less. Who is to pay? The parents together can pay, the taxpayer can pick up some of the bill--many taxpayers on low incomes are parents themselves--or the costs must be paid for negatively through the poverty of one-parent families and children. Those are the choices that we have. We cannot do away with the cost: someone has to pay in one way or another. I heard some hon. Members today talking about ex-wives, and how women spend money. The implication--I hope that I have got this wrong--was that wives spend money on luxuries and it never gets to the children. Unless it was intended as a rather dryly delivered lampoon of saloon bar rhetoric, that sort of remark represents a grave insult to the majority of one-parent families made up of mothers and children. Most one- parent families--I do not know whether it is the case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale)--are poor, with 70 per cent. on income support. Among single mothers, the figure is 85 per cent. That may not be the case in certain constituencies, but that is the picture across the country.
Column 1109I believe firmly that if mothers--sometimes it is fathers, of course--were to receive more money, they would spend it on their children because they need to and because they would take on that responsibility.
That is not to deny that the implementation of the Act has sometimes bordered on the catastrophic. I accept that the injustices which have affected some families and some fathers have been grave. If one is faced with such injustice, that is what counts rather than the more broad brush issues. I accept that unfairness has occurred and that the Act has become an administrative nightmare. We need Government and Parliament to make wise and intelligent decisions about how the system can be reformed.
The theme of my remarks is that a wise Parliament, a wise Government and-- dare I say it--a wise press would sometimes listen hard for the silent voices of mothers and children, and not just to the loud, shrill voices which command the most attention on the issue. If we want child support reform to become a strategy for fairness, we need to introduce a disregard. I regret that that has become a matter of party political controversy, because it should not have done. The issue is clear. A one-parent family on income support has its child maintenance deducted pound for pound, penny for penny from that income support. That means that the vast majority of children who should have been helped by a support measure get no extra money. That is a grave mistake and it is a pity that it has become the subject of political controversy.
I believe that I understand the political history behind the controversy. The former Prime Minister, the then Mrs. Thatcher, on the famous occasion of her lecture to the National Children's Home, said that no father would be able to escape his responsibilities in the future. I think that that promise took Ministers and civil servants at the Department of Social Security by surprise. It was the equivalent of a political hand grenade, with the pin half out, rolling towards the door of the then Secretary of State for Social Security, now the Leader of the House. I am sure that no one will want to confirm or deny my theory, but it is my guess that that is what happened.
In the next chapter, the Treasury, always a bad judge of social policy, saw the opportunity for a new taxation measure to recoup taxpayers' money, which would thus help public expenditure estimates. In the crucial discussions between the Department and the Treasury, the Treasury won. I suspect that the Department argued for a disregard, but we shall never know --or at least not for 30 years or until the memoirs of the Leader of the House are serialised in--
Mr. Wicks: No, the right hon. Gentleman is a man of judgment: he would choose The Observer . We shall then learn the truth. The Treasury saw the then Prime Minister's commitment as the chance to introduce an Exchequer support Act. That is when things went badly wrong, because the disregard option is now the subject of a political slanging match. The Labour party rightly believes that such a disregard should be introduced, but Tory Back Benchers immediately ask whether that is a Labour party commitment and how much it would cost.
Column 1110If we had introduced a disregard, we could have presented the Child Support Act 1991 as a policy of fairness--a true child support policy. We could have demonstrated that children were supported. Child support would then have become more accepted as a part of our welfare state and more accepted as a moral responsibility. Savings would have been generated for the Exchequer. That illustrates the fact that the Treasury is a poor judge not just of social policy but of financial policy in anything but the short term.
The Australian example has often been cited. I had the opportunity to speak to child support officials and officials of the Australian tax office, which collects the child support money, when I visited that country in 1989 and 1990. The message I got from Ministers, civil servants and tax officials was that the disregard--in Australia most of the disregard money goes to the mothers and the children--had oiled the wheels of difficult social legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has said, the Australians said that there was army out there on the side of a disregard. In Australia, mothers rang up the tax office to see how much money had been collected each week and what their share would be. The disregard became part of social policy. It has not been possible to achieve that in Britain.
The issue at stake is how we try to save a decent principle of parental responsibility from poor practice. Some people do not want to save it. It is easy now to win votes in constituencies and to appear the populist by saying that the 1991 Act should be abandoned. I merely want it to be reformed. It would be irresponsible to abandon it now. How do we save that decent principle from poor practice? If we do not get it right, we shall perpetuate new forms of poverty and new inequalities in the future, which will affect many of our children.
If we were wise, we would want to reform the 1991 Act within the context of a wider family policy agenda. One cannot reform the Act on its own. That policy should include reform of the divorce law to put children first. I know that the Lord Chancellor is grappling with that in his planned White Paper. That policy should also include projects on preparation for parenthood to ensure that people take parenthood more seriously, and also family and sex education because there is no reason why 100,000 teenage women should have unplanned conceptions every year. If we pursued a wider family policy agenda and reformed the 1991 Act, Parliament would truly put children first.