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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) made a helpful speech. He has just been appointed to our Select Committee, but judging from many of his remarks, one might think that he had taken part in many of our deliberations. I think that he will be a valuable addition to the Committee.
I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman about the disregard, which has been consistently raised in the debate so far. It may be superficially attractive for taxpayers to provide perhaps an extra £350 million or £500 million to oil the wheels and to encourage the system to work, but that would introduce a major element of unfairness. Why should children who happen to depend on maintenance from a non-custodial parent enjoy the benefits of a household that is significantly better off than that in which
Column 1111couples have happily remained married? That was one of the main considerations that led a number of us to oppose the disregard proposal.
The disregard also adds significantly to the poverty trap. One of the benefits of the current system is that the parent with care receives the maintenance. To begin with, one of the big problems was that so few of those parents were receiving the full maintenance that the Child Support Act 1991 intended that they should receive. Once they receive that maintenance, however, in addition to the benefit that tops up their income to the income support level, plus family credit, that money is a permanent building block of income for their household, which they do not lose if they move into work. That extra incentive to work would be discouraged if, by moving off income support level and out of family credit, those parents were then to lose the £15 disregard, as recommended by other members of the Select Committee. That problem convinced certain of us that the disregard was not practical and was not worth the additional resources that would have to be devoted to it.
If we can make the 1991 Act work, that would be the best prize that we can deliver to single parents. I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon, North- West about the importance of the unsung multitude--the people who do not get sufficient attention--those parents with care on income support levels. We are talking about more than 1 million households in which single parents, on or below benefit levels, look after children. We have received relatively few complaints in our constituency surgeries about the 1991 Act compared with the vast number of people whom the Act is intended to help.
The other points raised by--may I say my hon. Friend--the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) were matters that the Committee considered in great detail. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) in paying tribute to him. It is a privilege to serve on his Committee, where we have such an open and frank exchange of views. I look forward to working on further reports with him. The hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned two main features. One that has not been widely discussed in the debate so far is the appeal system. We spent a long time discussing how an appeal system could be made effective without returning to the failed courts system that we were seeking to replace. The argument concerns gateways: should we create an appeal system with narrow gateways through which people must pass--or narrow conditions for which they must qualify--before they are eligible to appeal; or should we have much wider gateways so that vast numbers of people can appeal? If we choose narrow gateways, the result will be an appeal system that will contribute to widespread disappointment because few people will benefit from the appeal system. If we choose wide gateways, the system will return to extensive discretion and the failed courts system that we sought to replace.
In its purest sense, the Act is not retrospective because the definition of a retrospective Act of Parliament is one that would create a punishment for something that was not a crime when it was committed. This Act does not do that because it does nothing that the courts could not have achieved, had they been so minded. The question is: why did not the courts enforce higher amounts of maintenance to be paid by non-custodial parents? The answer is that the courts made the most amicable settlements that they
Column 1112could arrange in the light of benefits available through the benefits system. Had we returned to a system in which there were no welfare benefits, the courts may have been much more active because the survival of single-parent families would have depended entirely on the courts system.
Mr. Bennett: The hon. Gentleman is not quite correct about retrospection. Many of my constituents are upset by the question of travel costs. The courts could always take travel costs into account, whereas I understand that the new agency cannot. It is hard on someone who lives in Stockport but who works in Merseyside, for example, not to have those considerable costs taken into account.
Mr. Jenkin: Indeed, and that point is reflected in the formula. I accept the distinction that the hon. Gentleman seeks to draw because an element of discretion was allowed to the courts but was not reflected in the formula, and we have sought to amend that.
Mr. Frank Field: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I, too, had great pleasure working with him on the Committee. I chided him there, and do so now in the Chamber, for not being Conservative enough. He has an extraordinary view of how society operates. What actually happened was that this place took little or no interest in whether people on benefit were receiving maintenance payments. All too many of our constituents felt that we would never take an interest in that subject and, by winks and nods, the word went round that it was perfectly proper to start another family because people were not chased for maintenance. Because of the escalating bill, we then decided that we would be interested in collecting maintenance. In that sense, the Act is retrospective, which is why many of our constituents feel that it is unjust. They started a second family assuming that the House of Commons would never discuss the issue and we suddenly not only took an interest but passed an Act that affected them.
Mr. Jenkin: Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, as I find myself doing so often. The point that I was seeking to make is that the Act is not technically retroactive but, like any change in the law, it affects people's past assumptions and the position that they now confront. I shared with the hon. Gentleman for much our discussions a desire to ameliorate those retrospective effects. Indeed, we concluded in our report- -it was one area where we created a consensus rather than having instant unanimity--that the Government should look at aspects of the effect of retrospection on the agreements.
It is important to emphasise and re-emphasise the fact that the courts have never recognised what one or two hon. Members call "clean-break settlements" with regard to the maintenance of children. Courts have always had the power to alter agreements, even when assets were transferred to try to remove the need for maintenance payments to be made. They have always had the power to review settlements and enforce higher maintenance payments.
The most interesting issue that the Committee studied was the introduction of an alternative type of formula. Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birkenhead. As we investigated the matter, we were disappointed to find that it did not solve the problems. We took evidence
Column 1113from Mr. Frank Bosch and Mr. David Butler on the respective New Zealand and Australian systems. Mr. David Butler said:
"Even after six years, Australian Members of Parliament are receiving more complaints about Child Support than any other issues. We are currently under Parliamentary scrutiny which attracted more submissions than any other review in Australia's history". We decided not to go for a major change in the formula because it would not have satisfied the expectations that it would have raised, given that we were determined to introduce some kind of system to enforce better maintenance.
This has been an extremely important debate and the contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) highlighted the extremely sensitive nature of the social reform that the Act seeks to achieve. In that respect, the Act was and is an enormously ambitious project. The benefits system created an environment in which parents, for whatever reason, found it too easy an option to abandon, at least partly, their responsibilities to their children. There is a growing realisation on both sides of the House, evidenced by the contributions of the hon. Members for Birkenhead and for Croydon, North-West, that the Government can no longer ignore the adverse consequences and side-effects of their policies, however benevolent and well intentioned they may be. The evidence is that the benefits system in this case was worsening a social problem.
The costs of those adverse side-effects should not rest solely on the taxpayer. I make no apology for the fact that the measure is designed to recoup money for the taxpayer. That is an important element of the reform. Some 70 per cent. of single parents--1 million households--are on income support and we should reduce that number. Against the background of increasing family breakdowns and the disintegration of traditional society, we all have anecdotal evidence that the Act may already be having a beneficial effect on people's attitudes towards the responsibilities of producing children. What greater responsibility can there be?
Sir Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam): When I took my vow of silence, on 25 July 1989, little did I think that my first speech thereafter from the Front Bench--albeit below the Gangway--would be late on a Thursday evening, having spent most of the afternoon in the Chamber, listening to many experts.
I speak as a constituency Member of Parliament, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson). I am exceedingly grateful to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and other Committee members for their work in producing the report. I speak as a constituency Member of Parliament because of some of the constituents who have visited my advice bureaux or sent me letters. The decisions in those letters simply do not appear fair--although I understand that life sometimes can be unfair. As a Member of Parliament, I have to sort the corn from the chaff very quickly, and some of the people who write are very persistent.
Column 1114I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, with whom I worked as a Back Bencher in years long past. He considers sympathetically most questions that he is asked. I watch him when he is buttonholed by other colleagues in the House, and he can almost anticipate the words that will be said.
I am aware that the Minister's workload is heavy, and I know the number of letters about the Child Support Act 1991 to which he must reply. None the less, delays occur in the mail and I still expect some replies from him that I would have anticipated receiving by now. [Interruption.] I am always tactful, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) knows. Even when I sat on the Treasury Bench, I was always tactful.
The Secretary of State was very helpful because, during the European election campaign, he met the chairman and the secretary of the south Yorkshire campaign against the Child Support Agency. They had an opportunity to speak to him "at length"--for a ministerial visit.
I have noticed the changes that have taken place in the Child Support Agency. Letters are being answered far more quickly than ever before. In the past, letters have been delayed because the CSA needed a reference number or wanted further information. If there was ever a reason for the introduction of a national identity card, it is to ensure that a person has one number that is used at all times, so that the agency does not look for other people with a similar, or the same, name.
Once, subject to what must have been a momentary change of opinion, I telephoned the Child Support Agency. One cannot judge everyone at the end of a telephone, but when I got through I did not find the person to whom I spoke conducive to clear exchange of thoughts and ideas. The worst thing that one can do is to put down the telephone, so I endured that telephone call, which, if I had been someone other than myself, would have caused me great annoyance. I remember saying, "If this is the way in which they behave towards a Member of Parliament, who, as everyone tells me, has some clout, it is sad for other people who telephone the CSA."
The CSA has improved, but one continues to receive lengthy letters from the agency, and I still have to read them several times to understand what they are talking about.
I referred to the south Yorkshire campaign against the Child Support Agency. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birkenhead for meeting its members. The hon. Gentleman and I had a private conversation in which we discussed how well they had presented their information. They gave evidence to the Select Committee on 28 June 1994. They have sent me all their reports, which I passed to the Chairman of the Select Committee and also to the Under-Secretary of State.
It always happens in life that, if one does not receive a reply or the reply is not prompt, annoyance results. It makes one frustrated and causes aggravation. The major result is friction, which can be taken out on many people,
Column 1115such as friends, relatives and other Members of Parliament. Steps must be taken to ensure that cases are processed promptly by the CSA and by the Minister to ensure that people are not, as they would put it, annoyed by the system. I know that, once one becomes annoyed by the system, the system wins.
We must look to the future. I welcome the report. The 1991 Act is on the statute book. I am aware that the Government have altered parts of it and will reconsider it. The agency requires more work--a proper appeal procedure is obviously needed. I await the Government's response to the Select Committee's report. Above all, I await the Under-Secretary of State's reply to the debate.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), in a notably lucid and heartfelt speech, advanced an important argument, which is increasing as the months pass--that the arrears of back maintenance are accumulating on a huge scale, and very substantial sums are involved.
For example, one of my constituents recently received a letter requesting £4,960.78 in back maintenance, and was required to pay £95.40 per week from 12 December 1994. He accepts that what he paid in the past was probably insufficient, and that he should be paying more. He would have paid more in the past year if he had been asked to do so. What is intolerable, however, is the no-man's land of uncertainty in which he cannot make any estimate of his liabilities. That is not the result of my constituent's position or his previous wife's position; it is simply the result of the length of time that the CSA has taken to reach its decision.
When my constituent received that letter, he asked the CSA what he should do, and he summarised to me the conversation that he had with CSA personnel. They told him that the letter was a computer-generated letter, sent out as a matter of course and that he should ignore it because no full assessment had been made. We have had the extraordinary phenomenon of computer-generated letters being sent out, untouched by human hand, which apparently we must ignore. Not only was my constituent to ignore that letter, but he was to ignore further letters that he might receive, which were also likely to be computer generated, because the staff could not prevent the computer from generating further letters. He should therefore ignore them until such time as another assessment was made. Not only that, but the staff could give him no idea of the time that the agency would take, in 1995, to reach a proper assessment.
The way in which the CSA operates--even now, with the extra resources that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has allocated to it--causes considerable concern.
I have always felt that retrospection was a fundamental flaw in the CSA approach. As we know, the Australian system is not retrospective, and the criticism of that, which my hon. Friends have made, is that in effect it creates a two-tier system. I would rather have a two-tier system than the injustices that result from people being placed in a situation that they could not have envisaged when they or the courts made their original decisions about their children. I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) that the system is strictly speaking not retrospective, but that is semantics. We are talking about
Column 1116what, in common-sense terms, is a totally new situation that was not envisaged by people when they originally made their decisions. I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) although, unfortunately, I did not hear all of his speech. One point that he made that was new to me is that people who have been caught retrospectively should have a discount on the amount that they would otherwise have to pay. That is one way out of the problem. It does not meet the whole situation, but it does represent an element of justice and may not require primary legislation which, I understand, is a problem.
The real villain here is not the CSA, whose problems I understand, or even my hon. Friend the Minister, who, with his cheerful, cherubic face and gentlemanly manner, could not possibly be the villain, but the Treasury. It saw this as a taxation measure and a means of restraining public expenditure. Once again, it is exerting a baleful force on what my hon. Friend is able to do.
That is shortsighted because, in the final analysis, under the pressure of events, we shall have to take a longer view and take into account the human justice of the matter and the individual nature of cases rather than have some fixed formula linked to targets determined by the Treasury. My appeal is not only to the Minister, but to the absent force--the Treasury.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). I shall address in a moment his last point about the Treasury effectively driving the CSA according to Treasury objectives.
First, I acknowledge the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who pretty well said it all, as one has come to expect of him. There is little with which I could disagree in what he said, expect perhaps for matters of detail about how we may or may not amend the formula. It is clear to all hon. Members that his chairmanship of the Select Committee has steered it to some constructive work. It is a Select Committee which does not indulge in political stunts, but gets down to business. It has a great cross-party spirit of co-operation, which I hope is evident in the two reports that the Committee has laid before the House. I do not accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington. It is perfectly acceptable for the Treasury to say that money should be retrieved from parents if they can afford to pay because the Treasury should never have been required to part with that money in the first place.
There are a number of administrative points that I would like to make, but as time is short I shall mention just two. First, the Act is changing behaviour. I do not fully subscribe to what the late Sir Keith Joseph said in his speech in 1973, but he did point to an issue that is of great concern for social patterns and behaviour in Britain. This Act is changing behaviour and it is doing so in a way that will assist rather than undermine Britain's social fabric. Finally, I ask the Minister to consider once again what is likely to happen to the workings of the Act once it moves to those parents or absent parents who are not on any form of state benefit. If we can justify the state's being involved in the movement of money within a family where a partner is
Column 1117on state benefit, it can also be argued that the state has no justification for being involved in the way in which people spend their money when no member of that family is on state benefit. My alarm bells are ringing about what will happen when the state takes on such people. Those are the three points to which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will respond this evening.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride): This has been an interesting debate. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Chairman of the Select Committee, my other hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) who served on the Committee, on their genuine attempt to produce a report which dealt seriously with the many criticisms levied at the Child Support Act and the agency charged with its implementation.
I agree with all the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, but particularly with his opening remarks in which he set out his analysis of where we are in terms of the legislation. It is right to say that there is no going back. We can only now go forward. That is the view of the vast majority of hon. Members. That view was echoed most eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) in a solid and worthwhile contribution to the debate which raised many serious and worthy issues, not just in relation to the Act and related matters but wider areas as well. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the debate and the report is that the main recommendations, which would have provided a proper framework for changing the legislation were, as anyone can see from reading the report, taken out by the Conservative majority on the Committee. I hesitate to say that those hon. Members were acting in line with the Minister's wishes. I would probably exonerate the Minister. If he disagrees and tells me that he was dictating the pace and direction of Conservative Members on the Committee, I would have to change my opinion.
However, to those who follow such matters closely, it was clear that something like this would happen. In an article in The Observer on the Sunday preceding the final decision of the Committee, it was clearly stated that a private meeting had taken place between a senior Treasury Minister and Conservative Members of the Committee in which they were specifically told not to deal with the matter of the disregard contained in the draft report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead.
That matter has been raised on a number of occasions in the House and has never been discounted or denied. I do not always believe what I read in newspapers, but it is clear--
Mr. Jenkin: I also deny having any meetings with Treasury Ministers to discuss that particular issue. The only meetings that I had with Ministers was to ensure that they would provide the additional resources to fund the
Column 1118necessary changes, which might have some support from the hon. Gentleman. I should add that one sentence on which we all agreed appears in paragraph 52:
"Finally, any changes we recommend must not only ensure that the system upholds the basic principles of parental responsibility and are fair, but also will be administratively practicable." That important sentence was included in the report and guided many of the decisions that we took.
Mr. Ingram: We shall have to read carefully the Official Report tomorrow to see exactly what the hon. Gentleman has said. Clearly, a meeting did take place. Therefore, the article in The Observer was not that misplaced. Perhaps we should have a report on exactly what happened. If such a meeting did take place, that would undermine the very principles and sanctity of Select Committees. That is an issue that will obviously be debated elsewhere.
The Select Committee's report has been strongly and rightly criticised by the many thousands of non-custodial parents and parents with care who had hoped to see a much more radical report. In defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and of my other hon. Friends who served on the Committee, I say to the critics, as I have said before, that their anger should be directed towards the Conservative Committee members, perhaps the Minister with responsibility for Treasury matters who advised them and the Treasury for its interference. That is borne out by reading the report and by finding out how members voted on the report. The report's main recommendations are a very much watered-down version of what should have been presented to the House.
I make no apology for making those opening remarks. Every time that he was pressed on what the Government would do about the legislation--in debate after debate and question after question--the Minister said, "Wait for the Select Committee report and then we will act." That is the line that has been taken. He built up an atmosphere of great expectation about what the report would entail. However, more hard times have been visited on people affected by the legislation.
It is important to remember that no mention of any change to the legislation appeared in the Queen's Speech. That was an ominous omission for many people who were hoping that the Government would make a commitment that change would take place. The report is before the House, but that does not mean that the Government have to act on it. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that, of the 12 recommendations in the previous report that was presented to the House, only four were accepted in part or in total by the Government. People should not, therefore, hold out too much hope that the report's recommendations will form the framework of any changes. I must deal with some of the report's recommendations because they are important and should be responded to positively. On Tuesday this week, I attended a mass lobby of Parliament that was organised by the national Anti-Child Support Act group, which was arranged through the offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). Anyone who thought that the anger and frustration of people involved in groups campaigning against the Act had abated would have been strongly disabused of that view by the meeting. February's amendments of the Act have not won many or any converts to the cause.
Column 1119Hon. Members' attendance at such events does not mean that they support the principles behind those organised meetings or the views of the groups. The meeting was especially hot tempered, as so many of them are. Although a majority of the people present simply wanted the Act to be abolished--not a view to which I and, I think, the majority of my hon. Friends subscribe--many interesting and valid points of criticism were raised and they must be dealt with if the Act is ever to be accepted by the wider community.
The issue of parents with care who fraudulently obtain benefits was one of the issues that was thrown up at the meeting. Usually, when an assessment charge is levelled against a non-custodial parent, he or she says, "What is happening to my ex-partner?" If the parent with care is making a fraudulent claim, the non-custodial parent reports that person to the Child Support Agency, which reports that person to the Benefits Agency. Of course, if fraud is proven, the parent with care is taken off benefit.
People who report parents with care feel aggrieved that they still have to pay maintenance for which a claim has been made. They have saved taxpayers' money, yet they are still expected to pay more and they feel a great sense of unfairness. I have sought answers from the agency and the Minister on this matter and none of their explanations is clear. If the Minister has time, it would be useful if he dealt with that point. I raise it because an individual at that hot-tempered meeting made a reasonable request for an explanation of the matter.
Obviously, I do not have time to deal with all the aspects and recommendations of the report. It would have been impossible to set out the Opposition's view on all 22 of the report's recommendations in the time available. I want to deal, however, with one or two issues and to highlight where we stand on them.
Recommendations xii and xiii seem to be eminently sensible. It cannot be right that parents with care are placed in severe financial difficulties because assessed maintenance is not paid or is paid irregularly. That point came home to me during my weekly surgery last Friday when I dealt with a case of a parent with care whose ex-husband was a compulsive gambler. During the setting up of the maintenance arrangements, she informed the agency that weekly payments were the only means by which she could guarantee to receive regular payments. She feared that, if he did not pay weekly, her ex-husband would fritter the money away because he was a compulsive gambler.
Weekly payments were set up. She received £87 per week. Her family credit was consequently reduced to £9 per week on the basis of the assumed income that would arise from the assessment. Shortly after that, however, her ex-husband changed the arrangements and asked the Child Support Agency to make a direct debit system available to him. It did so without consulting the recipient of the assessment. Lo and behold, he immediately cancelled the direct debit.
That case is not unique--many hundreds, if not thousands, of other people have suffered similar problems. My constituent receives only £9 family credit. She received the last payment from her ex-husband on 28 October and she will not receive another payment until the end of January when the deductions from earnings order takes effect. For three months, including the Christmas period, she will receive very much reduced income. Clearly, the system is inflexible. That is why
Column 1120recommendations xii and xiii, if they were implemented, would go a long way towards helping people in those circumstances.
Clearly, we must deal with the underlying principle of the Child Support Act: what is in the best interests of children affected by it. It is regrettable that the majority of Committee members rejected the principle of the maintenance disregard. I have heard the arguments. Time is tight so I cannot deal with all the arguments. In pages 28 and 29 of the report, a strong case is made to counter the arguments against the maintenance disregard. Pages 28 and 29 set out the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead in relation to that matter. Sadly, the recommendations on pages 28 and 29 were voted down by the Conservative majority.
I should like to deal with the clean-break arrangements and the extension of exempt income elements. We welcome the fact that the report gives some recognition to the need to consider past property and capital settlements, which were agreed before the Act came into force. That case is well made in paragraphs 45 to 50 of the report. There can be no doubt that this aspect involves retrospective application of the Act. Whether it does or not, that is how it is perceived, accepted and understood by people who have been conditioned by it. Those non-custodial parents feel that, as a consequence, they are in a difficult position.
A similar strong argument can be advanced in relation to necessary expenditure, including travel-to-work and access-to-children costs, which are not mentioned in the report. It seems that the report contains an inherent contradiction. It rejects the principle of an independent appeal system that could deal with extra, exceptional costs, yet it goes on to say that travel-to-work costs should be included.
Anyone dealing with individual cases knows that the matter involves not only travel-to-work costs, important though they are. There are many examples of access-to-children costs where non-custodial parents spend a lot of money ensuring that they continue to maintain contact with their children. That is denied to them because of the high assessment level. An independent review system would allow that sort of argument to be advanced and considered. If children's interests are at stake in those circumstances, a change could be made to the assessment to ensure that children do not suffer as a consequence of the assessment that has been levelled against parents.
I must finish my speech and let the Minister respond to the debate.
I have touched on only some of the main aspects of the legislation. My assessment of the report is that the real issues have been ducked or have been extracted from it by the voting pattern of the Conservative majority on the Committee. The Labour party has argued consistently for four fundamental safeguards to be written into the legislation and they are worth repeating. We have asked for a more flexible financial formula, recognition of clean-break settlements, an independent appeals procedure which would allow departure from the standard formula in exceptional circumstances and a disregard for families on income support.
The Chairman's draft report generally sought to achieve those objectives. It is a great pity that those objectives could not become recommendations with which the Government would then have to deal. Our view is that the
Column 1121report does not go far enough and the Government have not acted fast enough. We need fundamental reform of the Act. We do not need more uncertainty, indecision and inaction from the Government. Inertia and delay are no substitute for policy. The Government need to act now.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt): Sometimes, people wonder what satisfaction I get from doing my job. This afternoon, we have experienced two of the reasons why I get satisfaction from doing what I do. First, I am involved with extremely good people and some of them have participated in the debate. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has been praised from many quarters and I add my own tribute. The addition of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) to the Select Committee will certainly strengthen it. My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) are also members of the Select Committee. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton is soon to become the hon. Member for Rutland. I am pleased with that change in local government. I also work with good people who are not seen by hon. Members--those who work for the Child Support Agency. They are able and caring people who provide advice to the Department of Social Security. Another reason for my satisfaction is that this is such an important issue. Some of the speeches have touched on the philosophy behind the Child Support Act 1991. The hon. Member for Birkenhead set the tone when he discussed the important move of a crucial item of responsibility away from the state and towards the individual. He said that that social change was almost unique in the post-war era, and he was right. He also said that it was highly unlikely that it could be done without pain. Perhaps that was one thing that the House missed two or three years ago in the general support for the Child Support Agency. The hon. Gentleman rightly brought us back to that point.
The reasons why the Act was needed were best set out by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West. Sometimes, the House forgets those who have been most silent in this argument--the parents with care, the single parents, most of whom live in poverty. The hon. Gentleman set out the difficulties that they have experienced.
Most hon. Members who participated in the debate did not miss the crucial role of the Treasury. The CSA is not a Treasury support agency. We all knew, because it was in the Bill, that a burden had been placed on the state--for "state" substitute "taxpayer". As the hon. Member for Birkenhead said, one of the purposes of the Act was to move that burden back to the individual. We cannot avoid the fact that if that responsibility is moved, it will land on the shoulders of individuals, who are bound to make a noise.
The exception to those comments is the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey). He criticised the Select Committee and talked about a Treasury support agency. The Liberal Democrats were around when the Bill was considered and they knew what was going on. The hon.
Column 1122Gentleman and his colleagues were not around during the deliberations of the Select Committee because there was no representative from the Liberal Democrats on the Committee. There could have been and there should have been. It ill behoves them now to pop up out of the blue and make criticisms.
Although today may not be full of enormous joy for all quarters of the House, at least we will be spared a Liberal Democrat by-election victor appearing on our screens later this evening, with all the difficulties that that would cause. I look forward to welcoming a new hon. Friend here next week-- [Interruption.] The evening may unfold in another way.
Having set the background and recognised how we got here, I want to talk about the Select Committee report and the agency. Time is short, but I must make it clear that this is not the Government's definitive response to the Select Committee report. I hope that that will be made before the end of January. We have about two months from the publication of the report. We want to get it right.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) talked about inaction. I fully appreciate that this process has taken time, but I know that he is aware of the genuine thought that has gone into this and of the consultation that is taking place with interested parties to try to get this right. We all have a responsibility to see that that occurs.
Mr. Bennett: Many of my constituents are waiting for the Government's response. Can the Minister assure us that he will not just reply to the Select Committee's report but set out a timetable for making some changes so that people see some benefit at the end of January, rather than just proposals that will take another six or 12 months to implement?
Mr. Burt: I am sorry, but I cannot anticipate what I may say in January. The hon. Gentleman knows that making changes takes time because of the procedures of the House. Some things can be done administratively and the agency has already been engaged in some changes to improve its efficiency. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if the changes require any legislation, either secondary or primary, they will inevitably take time. If it is his wish to improve things quickly for his constituents, it is likely that he will support any measures that would do that.
I have listened with interest to the various points raised about the Committee's proposals for change. We have heard a number of times the arguments for a disregard on income support. I understand the point about the desire for cheerleaders. My hon. Friends the Members for Colchester, North and for Bolton, North-East explained to the House that difficulties are associated with the income disregard, particularly its potentially adverse impact on incentives to work. A disregard may be welcomed by some parents with care, but it is important to look at the effect of any changes that that would produce. Such a measure would be expensive.
As my colleagues have mentioned, to date we have felt it best to concentrate available resources on in-work benefits, where that helps by increasing work incentives. Although that approach was rejected by the Select Committee, it is an idea and I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Birkenhead that it is important to achieve balance and to consider the interests of parents with care. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that has struck a chord with me.
Column 1123Another consideration has been the pressure for an appeals system over and above the one that is already in place--we must not forget that one already exists. The current system is based on the way in which appeals work in our benefit system. The pressure is to allow discretion to vary what we have already provided for in the maintenance formula. Hon. Members clearly had in mind an objective system for considering appeals. However, if there is discretion, how is it controlled?
There was wide discretion in the systems we replaced. Hon. Members will be aware of the wide variations that were found during the research for the White Paper. The House will know that I am concerned with the low priority that child maintenance received under the old arrangements. Australia does have a discretionary appeals system, albeit tightly defined. It is necessary there because Australia does not have such a detailed formula as ours.
Although the Select Committee did not recommend an appeals system, I am aware of the strong feelings on the issue. In previous remarks to the House, I have made it clear that the principle of discretion is not the only issue; serious consideration of the gateways to such discretion is essential and, despite many months of debate, no potentially workable solution has been offered by Opposition Members. Therefore, we are carefully considering, as we always have, whether it is possible for any form of discretionary appeals system to be grafted on to an objective system without losing the point of the previous system. I am keeping an open mind and so is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I also know that hon. Members are especially concerned about maintenance assessments where the parties have existing arrangements through the courts based on the so-called clean-break principle. Before the Child Support Act was introduced, it remained open for the parent with care to seek an increase in child maintenance in such cases. It was also part of income support law that the Secretary of State could seek child maintenance in those benefit cases. The clean break was between the spouses and could not exclude provision for periodical child maintenance payments.
The Select Committee requested that illustrative examples be provided for the House demonstrating the effects of varying the basic maintenance calculation to take account of previous arrangements. Those have been provided. We have been carefully considering the issues involved, which, for all its deliberations, the Committee was not able to resolve. But we keep an open mind on that, too. We are well aware of the strength of feeling about taking into account various expenses in the maintenance formula. There is an argument about changing to a very simple formula, as advocated by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, and taking the advice of the Australians, with their experience. Frankly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North reminded us, the advice of the Australians now is that we should not go for that option. We are still strongly influenced by the experience of the Australians which shows that that may not be the right road for us to go down.
We welcome the Committee's endorsement of not only the basic principles of the agency but the idea that child maintenance should take priority over other expenditure. Our approach has been to make sufficient allowance within the basic formula and protected income provisions to enable absent parents to make choices. But again, we
Column 1124have heard many comments; we will consider more carefully over the next few weeks what has been said about expenses, and we will respond in due course.
I shall briefly comment on the agency's performance as I know that time is tight. I listened very carefully to the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), for
Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), for Orpington (Mr. Gale) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Sir I. Patnick). I know the strength of feeling among my hon. Friends about the agency's performance. I accept that the agency has not always got things right and apologise for when that has happened. We must improve. There are signs of improvement and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam for having mentioned them.
I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) for his comments. Anyone good enough to win an Irish cup winners medal has a ready ear as far as I am concerned. His kind comments about the staff were appreciated, as were a number of comments on the new chief executive of the agency and what she is trying to do in picking up from the task embarked on by Miss Ros Hepplewhite.
There are examples of improvement in the agency's procedures. A new telephone system enables calls to be dealt with by the business teams more quickly. There are improvements in output. More cases have been cleared already this year than in the whole of the previous year. More money is being collected through the child support arrangements that are being set up. All round, effort is being made through computer improvements and administrative enhancements to improve the flow of work through the agency. There is great determination from me, my right hon. Friend, the chief executive and all in the agency to produce a better all-round performance.
I am grateful for this brief time in the House this evening to respond a little to the debate. I hope that the House is in no doubt about our good intentions. It is not a great party issue; it is an issue for the House. We set about a social change and we are determined to make it work; we know that it has not worked as we had wished and we are sorry for the hurt that it has caused to some genuine people. The reasons for the agency and the principles behind it were right and we are determined to make it work.