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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn): On a point of order, Madam Speaker, of which I have given notice both to you and to the Minister of State, Home Office. Six weeks ago, I tabled a question for written answer in the following terms:

"To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will place in the Library the conclusions of any studies available to him as to the effectiveness of boot camp prisons in the United States of America."

That question was due for answer on 15 February, but it was not answered until last Friday, 17 March, following a telephone call from my office to the Minister. The answer that I received from the Minister of State read:

"Copies of the readily available published reports have been placed in the Library."--[ Official Report , 17 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 764. ]

The answer contains no reference whatever to any other reports--the identity of which I was seeking--that his officials may have made available to him.

On Friday I received a copy of a Home Office report entitled "Boot Camps: Report of a Visit to the United States, May 1994". I can well understand why the Minister and the Home Secretary may have evaded mentioning that report as, from the mouths of their own officials, it blows apart the case for boot camp prisons quite comprehensively. I wish to put three questions to you on this point of order, Madam Speaker. First, is it in order for Ministers to fail to answer a simple parliamentary question, which was put down for answer on 15 February and of which due notice was given, until 17 March--more than four weeks later? Secondly, is it in order for Ministers to fail even to acknowledge the existence of a report, albeit they may wish not to make the report public? Thirdly, in the light of the report--which is now a public document--has the Home Secretary indicated to you that he intends to make a statement to the House abandoning any idea of pursuing a policy of establishing boot camp prisons in the United Kingdom?

Madam Speaker: First, let me say to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that, although he apparently indicated his intention of raising a point of order today, he gave me no details about it. About five minutes ago he gave a little indication to my staff of what his point of order might be about.

Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Ministers are responsible for the answers that they give to parliamentary questions; that is not my responsibility. If the Minister's answer was dilatory--I think that the Department may have been in this case--I will seek to speed up that process. The hon. Gentleman asks me whether the Minister is about to make, or is considering making, a

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statement about the issue that he has raised. I have been given no indication at this stage that the Government will make a statement on those matters.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Forsyth): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I point out to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that, according to the conventions that apply in the House, advice to Ministers is not disclosed. The report that the hon. Gentleman has--I have no idea how it came into his possession--has not been published. It is a report by officials within the Prison Service, which comprises advice to Ministers in considering policy options in this area.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that we are still considering a regime for young offenders, which will be tough and rigorous. We plan to make a statement about it. Rather than misleading the press and others about the perfectly proper answer that he received, the hon. Gentleman would have done better to prevent his colleagues from objecting to the Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), which sought to impose penalties on those who abscond while on prison leave.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the presence--

Madam Speaker: Order. Is this a completely different point of order? I will not allow a debate on the matter that has been raised.

Mr. Marshall: I would not dream of it, Madam Speaker.

In view of the presence of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, I wondered whether he had asked your permission to make a statement on electoral registration, following allegations in the Daily Mail that the electoral register in Birmingham is merely a work of fiction.

Madam Speaker: I think I have said to the House before that, if any statements are to be made, they will be on the Annunciator screen so that we are all informed of them.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is the authority of the House affected by the fact that an ex-permanent secretary, soon after leaving office, has described the policy for which he was responsible, with his Secretary of State, as a mess? He said that on television. Surely it is for the people responsible-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I may have authority over the House--indeed, I do--but what ex-Ministers say on television is none of my concern.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): Civil servants.

Madam Speaker: Civil servants, Ministers--whoever they are, I cannot spend my day watching television.

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Orders of the Day

Child Support Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1994-95 on the Child Support Agency (House of Commons Paper No. 199) and the Memorandum submitted to the Social Security Committee by the Chief Executive of the Child Support Agency (HC 303).]

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.36 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The background to the Bill is well known to right hon. and hon. Members. In 1991, Parliament passed the Child Support Act to ensure that parents who lived apart supported their children themselves, to the extent that they could afford to do so. The whole House supported that principle, but rapidly became concerned about how it was working in practice; so I introduced some early changes in February last year. I promised to keep the system under close review, I promised a positive response to the Select Committee's investigation and I published the White Paper "Improving Child Support" this February. The White Paper promised major changes, to be introduced in two stages. Those which could be made by means of regulations would be introduced as soon as possible--and I duly published regulations on 16 March, which will come into force in April. They will improve the formula by setting a ceiling on assessments of 30 per cent. of net income, or the minimum of £2.30 per week; making a broad-brush allowance for property transfers made before April 1993, when the agency became responsible for setting child support; making an allowance for travel-to- work costs for those living more than 15 miles from their place of employment; and allowing an absent parent to deduct all reasonable costs of housing his new partner or stepchildren. They will also limit the maximum payable above basic maintenance.

The other half of the changes announced in the White Paper require primary legislation--hence the Bill.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton): First, what action does the Secretary of State intend to take in the case of a parent who is living in the same household as his or her family and maintaining that family, but is classed as an absent parent? That has happened since the establishment of the agency. Secondly, does the White Paper include any provision to take account of the stress, strain and hurt caused to families by the existing legislation?

Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman's first question struck me as complex; I should like to consider it in detail. I do not think that the Bill refers to it specifically, but we may wish to consider it further in the light of representations or any specific cases that the hon. Gentleman can cite. He may have already discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State.

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On the second point, the main purpose of the Bill is to improve the system of child support so that it has greater acceptability and works better, to streamline the operations and to encourage greater compliance. That means that the problems that we have seen, which we all acknowledge and regret, will be less frequent in future than they were in the past and will gradually disappear as the situation improves. There is not a specific proposal of the sort that the hon. Gentleman suggested, but we are introducing a limitation on the arrears that can accrue where the fault is that of the agency, and I think that that is one of the major complaints and sources of distress that people have. In general, when it is the fault of the agency, the maximum arrears will be six months, assuming that there is agreement with the absent parent.

The changes will enable the agency or an appeal tribunal to depart from the amount that has been assessed under the formula to take account of exceptional expenses or past property settlements. The Bill will also defer indefinitely take-on by the Child Support Agency of non-benefit cases where parents had a maintenance agreement before the agency began its work. It will introduce a child maintenance bonus. It provides for compensation for parents on family credit or disability working allowance whose maintenance income is cut by the other policy changes.

The proposals that I announced in the White Paper have already been widely welcomed. They encompass and in some respects go further than the Select Committee's report, and they meet nearly all the main concerns that have arisen since the CSA began its work.

There is no doubt that the two features of CSA assessments that have given rise to most concern over the past year or two have been: first, the treatment of past property settlements; and secondly, the inability to take account of special factors that are not reflected in the formula. I concluded that no reform could command widespread support unless it addressed both those issues. Yet, unfortunately, neither could be satisfactorily addressed simply by adjusting the formula--something that we can do by changing regulations. From April, the regulations will introduce an allowance into the formula for past property settlements. But the way in which the formula works means that the recognition of past property settlements can be only broad brush. It will be satisfactory for many couples, but some may feel that it does not reflect the true trade-off that was made between property transferred and child maintenance obligations.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): If the Secretary of State is successful today with the Bill, is it his intention to send it to a Special Standing Committee, as is allowed under the Standing Orders of the House? Does he agree that such a procedure would vastly benefit those assigned to sit on that Standing Committee, as they could take evidence from those who are familiar with our system and with comparable systems elsewhere?

Mr. Lilley: That matter is not for me alone, but for the usual channels in the House. The hon. Gentleman might care to raise it with the Leader of the House on a Thursday. I want to ensure that we get the Bill through in time to introduce the changes. I am grateful for the promise given by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) to ensure that there is no trench

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warfare on the Bill, that it does not get bogged down and so on. I would not want to undertake any procedure that prolonged the process of consideration.

Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): I commend the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). It is crucial that this time we get it right, and if that means taking evidence via the special procedure, let us look at that.

Mr. Lilley: I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's point about the importance of getting it right. I assure him that I have a vested interest in that. I think that we all do, and I want to make sure that, whatever the procedures, the Bill is given proper consideration and that we take into account all appropriate factors and likely outcomes. None the less, we have an obligation to everybody to ensure that we make as speedy progress as possible consistent with proper scrutiny, so that we can introduce the changes, for which there is considerable demand. We should also bear it in mind that there is little understanding in the country at large about the time taken by our normal procedures, even in the happiest of circumstances.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lilley: Perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to make a little more progress. I shall try to give way to her later.

As I said, some changes have been introduced by regulations that affect property settlements. Likewise, we are introducing a broad-brush allowance in the formula to help those who commute long distances.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden): I interrupt the Minister because he is moving to a subject that I should like to raise. Of course, I understand the argument that persuaded the Minister to deal merely with pre -April 1993 property settlements. However, in the interests of the children, there is quite a strong social argument for trying to encourage the transfer of the matrimonial home to the parent with care. The fact that there is no provision for future capital or property settlements, as there is under some other systems, is a matter of some concern. Did the Minister consider that?

Mr. Lilley: Yes, that matter was one of the few that were specifically considered, and it is mentioned in the Opposition's reasoned amendment. Paradoxically, that does not look back to past property settlements, but forward to future ones. The matter is for choice and negotiation between the parties concerned. As long as they meet the maintenance obligations of the formula, the issue of how they deal with asset transfers is broader, as it has been in the past.

I was moving to other changes that can be introduced in the formula to deal with exceptional cases. We cannot specify all expenses that might prove onerous because that would overload the formula and would mean seeking an immense amount of extra information from all absent parents, although the bulk of them would not qualify for any changes as a result. The only way to make satisfactory allowance for individuals with exceptional expenses or past property settlements that are not correctly reflected in the broad- brush formula changes is to allow them some flexibility. Therefore, the Bill introduces powers to depart from the formula assessment in certain circumstances.

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It may helpful for me to spell out how we envisage the new departure system working. After the assessment has been made, either parent may seek a departure from the formula. That will include parents who had an assessment before the departure system was set up but, of course, no departure would be backdated to earlier than the start of the departure system or when the claim was made. In the first instance, the agency can consider requests to depart from the formula. There is no need to go through a formal appeal to an independent tribunal system, although either parent could subsequently appeal if he or she was not satisfied with the way in which the agency used or refused to use its discretion to depart from the formula in response to a claim. It would be wrong to allow a departure request to become an excuse for delaying payment. Therefore, the absent parent may be required to pay either the full maintenance assessment that he had had until then or a safe rate, which reflected what might be assessed if the departure application were to succeed. If there were no grounds for departure or if the resulting reduction in maintenance would be very small, the agency could refuse to look at the case and, of course, there would be an automatic right of appeal to an independent appeals tribunal if the parent did not agree with the assessment.

A number of grounds for departure are specified in new schedule 4B. They include unavoidable costs of travel to work if the broad-brush allowance in the formula is very different from the actual costs that a parent incurs. High travel-to-work costs to maintain contact with the child are an important issue. A number of hon. Members have raised it and we do not think that it can be handled by a formula element.

Another ground for departure is extra costs arising from the long-term illness or disability of the applicant or a dependant. Another is, in exceptional cases, the costs of stepchildren, for example when their own parent has died. Others are some debts arising from the previous relationship and property transfers for which a more exact calculation is needed of the amount to be allowed against maintenance. The details of all those grounds for departure from the formula will be set out in regulations. The Bill gives powers to include additional grounds through secondary legislation, should that be found necessary.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon): My right hon. Friend has not mentioned specifically the problem that many families have with loans, taken out for house improvements, motor cars or whatever, which were entered into in good faith before they became aware of their responsibilities. Is that part of my right hon. Friend's consideration under the heading of departure direction?

Mr. Lilley: That is a potential ground for departure, which comes under the heading of debts arising from the previous relationship prior to the assessment being made. A departure can be made only if it will be just and equitable, taking account of the circumstances of both parties, the welfare of the child and the interests of the taxpayer.

Ms Lynne: Does not the Secretary of State realise that the Bill is just tinkering at the edges of the Child Support Act 1991? It does not go nearly far enough and it does not have the support of the parent with care or the so-called "absent parent". Is not it about time that the right hon. Gentleman decided to repeal the Act and to start from the very beginning?

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Mr. Lilley: What an opportunist change of tune. How typical it is of the Liberal Democrats to try simultaneously to offer a complete let-off for absent parents from any requirement to pay and to offer the moon and moonshine to the lone parent and the parent with care. I shall come to the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), which was not selected, in due course. It is, I am afraid, as insubstantial as the hon. Lady's intervention. When departures are allowed, special costs will be treated like other allowable expenses and will be deducted from the parent's income before maintenance is assessed. If, however, an allowance is made for a property transfer, it can be deducted directly from the maintenance assessment itself. Although it is generally more likely that it will be the absent parent rather than the parent with care who will apply for a departure from the formula assessment, either parent will be able to apply if it is appropriate in their circumstances. A parent with care who earns enough to contribute to maintenance, for example, may have high travel-to-work costs and could appeal on that ground.

I also intend to introduce some grounds for departures that will be especially relevant to parents with care. Examples are cases in which they believe that the other parent's standard of living is higher than the declared income would suggest, cases in which housing costs are unduly high or should be met by a new partner and cases in which the broad-brush formula allowance towards the other parent's travel-to work costs is unreasonable. Again, those grounds for departure will also be available to absent parents if the circumstances are appropriate.

When maintenance is reduced as a result of policy changes, parents with care on income support will not lose money because income support is adjusted immediately. However, awards of family credit and disability working allowance are set for six months ahead. For those whose maintenance assessment drops because of the changes, I intend to provide some compensation until the end of the award period. The Bill also makes provision for overpaid maintenance. If there is an overpayment, the absent parent's maintenance assessment is usually reduced until it has been cleared. That will continue to be the way in which most overpayments are dealt with, but in some cases, a reduction in maintenance may not be possible or it may not be possible to clear the overpayment in a reasonable time. The maintenance liability may, for example, be about to cease because the child is leaving school soon. The Bill will, therefore, introduce a provision allowing consideration to be given to reimbursing absent parents in such cases. Those changes and others to which I shall come in a moment will improve the perceived fairness of the level of assessments.

It is also vital to continue to improve the operations of the agency. There is no doubt that administrative problems have caused genuine grievance and aggravated the concerns of many people. The report of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration highlights those issues, many of which we have already taken steps to address. We have, for example, already announced a range of administrative and regulatory measures to improve the organisational efficiency of the CSA.

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Some of the changes necessary to improve operations require primary legislation. At present, if a parent seeks a review of his assessment because his circumstances have changed, the agency is obliged to review every item of the existing assessment. Such a review can be immensely time consuming. Clause 12 will mean that the agency can consider just the specific circumstances that have changed and amend the assessment accordingly.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is the Secretary of State aware that many of the difficulties with the Child Support Agency arose specifically from the direction given by Ministers that the people taken on should not be members of the civil service? Many of the women who are now doing the job--I can say this from personal experience--are not only very low-paid civil servants, but very young and have little experience in what they are required to do. Is he aware, for example, that many of those women are expected to counsel people who genuinely say such things as, "When I put the phone down, I am going to commit suicide"? No civil servant should be put in such a situation. Will the right hon. Gentleman take responsibility for ensuring that those women, many of whom are in an intolerable situation, are given support, understanding and proper training before they are exposed to such pressures?

Mr. Lilley: The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the sensitivity of much of the work. I do not think, however, that we can say that all civil servants have sensitivity and those taken on from the private sector lack it. Training is necessary. At a very early stage, before the agency was ever established, we set up courses with the help of Relate, formerly the Marriage Guidance Council, to help those dealing with women who had difficulties with whether to name the parent of their child when they originally received the maintenance application form. There was a widespread welcome for the sensitivity with which that was handled and for the training and preparation that went into it. The head of the agency is looking at some of the specific points that the hon. Lady mentions, to ensure that they are always dealt with sensitively. I entirely agree with her that that is necessary.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West): My right hon. Friend will know that right hon. and hon. Members receive, as I do, four, five, six, seven or eight CSA cases in every surgery. [Hon. Members: -- "No they do not."] Well, I certainly do. One of the matters that comes to my attention time and again, which I have raised with my right hon. Friend, is that often people know that the agency is acting on wrong information, because that information is often fraudulent. They complain that benefits are being given fraudulently, that they have no control over the investigation of fraud and that they are never told of the results of the investigation.

The agency simply has to go on what it receives, yet it knows that the information is wrong; that--possibly--the wife or the husband is living with someone, and it is not being given that information. The agency knows that it is wrong and people know that they are paying too much, yet the agency insists on continuing to take the same amount.

Mr. Lilley: My hon. Friend is right to say that many people believe that the other parent is giving false information to the agency and want to make it clear to the agency. I have emphasised to the CSA and the Benefits

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Agency, partly in response to my hon. Friend, but partly in response to the experience of other hon. Members, that any such allegations should be pursued. Allegations are, of course, pursued by the Benefits Agency, as it is usually its role to do so. The difficulty is that it is not possible for the Benefits Agency to report the outcome of its investigation to someone who has made an allegation about fraud. It would not be right to have a sort of snoopers charter, so that one could make an allegation about somebody and get a report on the precise circumstances of that person once the investigation had been carried out. I assure my hon. Friend that those allegations are pursued, and that point will be re-emphasised by the record of this exchange in Hansard . That will stress the importance that is attached to the matter by everyone in the Benefits Agency.

Mr. Ashby: My specific point relates to the appeals procedure. With regard to that procedure, will what both parties are alleging be transparent? The appeals procedure should be able to decide that a wrong amount has been paid because the facts are clear, for example, the documentation exists to show that a woman is living with another man, or there is photographic evidence. Will such evidence be produced in the appeals procedure to show that someone should not be paying quite so much?

Mr. Lilley: The frauds involved will sometimes not influence the amount that the absent parent is required to pay. If there is doubt about the factual amounts, that can be dealt with by the existing appeals procedure, which is an assessment of the amounts and the accuracy with which they are calculated.

With regard to the changes introduced by the Bill, under the current rules, when an absent parent is late in paying maintenance, interest is charged. That has proved difficult to implement and immensely complex. It will be removed and replaced by a set penalty. To limit the additional pressures on the agency, I propose to defer the take-on of cases of parents with care who have a court order or written agreement made before April 1993, but who are not on benefit. They will retain the right to use the courts if they wish to seek a variation in the amount of maintenance. I shall also offer them the opportunity to use the agency's collection and enforcement service for a fee.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): The Secretary of State keeps using the word "deferral". What is the time scale? When will those mothers, many of whom are working to keep their families, receive the help from the agency that they were promised in the original legislation?

Mr. Lilley: None of the people affected is dependent on benefit. Nothing is set down in the Bill as to when the deferred decision would be made. However, it would be made only by, and with the approval of, the House.

Mr. Field: The Secretary of State cannot give those answers and, from the Dispatch Box, also say that the Bill is not about saving the Treasury money. We are now talking about mothers, many of whom have been deserted, who are working and who, to their credit, are not on benefit, but who are being deserted by the Secretary of State's decision. The Secretary of State still will not give the House, and more importantly those mothers, a date when they can expect help from the CSA.

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Mr. Lilley: We are talking about couples who reached an agreement, before the agency was set up, which had no direct implications for the taxpayer. It seems to me that the agency's priority should be to deal with those who involve the taxpayer in their arrangements -- [Hon. Members:-- "Why?"] Because we have an obligation to the taxpayer. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referring to us saving money for the Treasury. The Treasury does not have money; it is taxpayers' money-- [Interruption.]

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lilley: Yes, but I want to make progress after I have given way.

Mr. Nicholson: I very much welcome the changes that my right hon. Friend is outlining and the Department's serious response to the serious report by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, of which I am a member, into maladministration. In response to the points made by the hon. Members for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) and for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), will my right hon. Friend stress the CSA's limited success in doing what all hon. Members expected it to do when it was set up, that is, pursuing those who had disappeared and abdicated their responsibilities?

Mr. Lilley: I assure the House and my hon. Friend that that is a prime priority of the agency and that it is increasingly successful. Very large numbers of absent parents who had absconded, in the sense that they had broken off all contact with their children and the mothers looking after their children, have been traced and identified and are being pursued by the agency for maintenance. Some 77 per cent. of those tackled so far had not been paying any maintenance whatever. In 96 per cent. of cases, even if the father was paying some maintenance, the mother and child were dependent on benefit. After a slow start, the agency is now improving its performance month by month. The amount of maintenance collected by the agency this year is likely to be five times that which it collected last year. The amount is set to double again next year. In addition to the amount of maintenance that it collects, the agency arranges even more maintenance, which is paid direct by the absent parent to the parent with care.

Next year the agency expects to collect or arrange a total of some £300 million of maintenance. The total savings, including those from people who are discouraged from claiming benefit or who leave benefit as a result, are expected to amount to £540 million next year. The Opposition parties have tabled reasoned amendments. Labour's amendment welcomes the new departure system and makes it clear that its only specific area of disagreement has narrowed to its proposal that we should ignore some maintenance when calculating income support. But the amendment is characteristically vague about how large the disregard of maintenance should be, how much it would cost and how the Labour party would pay for it.

The fact is that Labour's original proposal of a disregard of £8 per week of maintenance would cost £165 million a year. Moreover, such a disregard would make it

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harder for a parent with care to improve her standard of living by returning to work. It would be unfair to widows and lone parents whose former husbands were unable to pay maintenance and who therefore relied solely on income support. It would also be unfair to families who did not split up, but who had to pay through their taxes to support the children of people who did, some of whom were better off than they were.

I remind the Opposition that the total cost of supporting lone parents in Britain is £8.5 billion a year. That has to be paid by taxes levelled on, among others, two-parent families. It is equivalent to £1,400 per couple to support the children of lone parents. In effect, taxes on couples with children who stay together have to be on average £1,400 a year higher to support lone parents. We accept that there must be help for lone parents in the interests of their children, but, unlike the Labour party, we are not in the business of piling yet higher burdens on those who stick together to provide double compensation for those who, sadly, split up. We believe that maintenance should be a stepping stone for lone parents to self-help, not a trap in dependency. All the surveys show that most lone parents want to get back to work. So we have put a disregard into the in- work benefits, not the out-of-work benefits. We have put a £15 a week disregard into family credit, disability working allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit. On top of that disregard, we now propose a child maintenance bonus. That will give lone parents an interest in receiving maintenance. It is worth some £5 per week, which they can accumulate up to £1,000. It is cashable when they return to work. So it gives them both an incentive and help when they return to work, as many wish to do. Whereas the Labour party specifically welcomes the new discretionary departures, the Liberal party's sole objection to the Bill is that it is not sufficiently flexible. We heard that from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) just now. Of course, the Liberals would like every policy to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate the mutually contradictory promises that they are in the habit of making to the electorate. They want to be able to promise mothers that they will receive more and fathers that they will pay less. The Liberals do not spell out in their amendment how they would make the system more flexible. We look forward to concrete proposals from the Liberal Democrats. But experience shows that if those who determine maintenance are given open-ended flexibility, they will invariably transfer most of the cost of support back to the taxpayer. The old court system resulted in fewer and fewer parents every year receiving maintenance, awards that in general were inadequate and dramatically inconsistent and a situation where even the cost of pet food took priority over the cost of supporting one's own child. Is that the sort of thing to which the Liberal Democrat party wishes to return?

Ms Lynne: The Secretary of State does not seem to appreciate that we would put in place of the current proposals a far fairer system than the one that he is suggesting. I shall spell out that system when I make my speech, if the right hon. Gentleman will be patient.

Mr. Lilley: We look forward with interest to that speech from the lone Liberal.

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One thing that I hope neither Opposition party, nor any of us, will do today is indulge in rewriting history with the benefit of hindsight. All of us--the Government most of all, but also Parliament, Opposition parties, civil servants and the media--have a lot to learn from the experience of the Child Support Act. Not only was the Act passed with general acclaim, but the bulk of the criticism and concerns expressed at the time were almost the exact opposite of the complaints that emerged after it was implemented.

Almost all the complaints assumed that the Bill did not go far enough to help women and anticipated criticisms from them. I looked up the Labour party's reasoned amendment on Second Reading. Every single item in the amendment asserted that the Bill did not go far enough to help women, whereas not a single reference was made to anticipating complaints from absent fathers.

The Trades Union Congress, in its contribution to the consultation process that preceded the Bill, criticised our proposals as letting off middle- class fathers too lightly. It argued for a higher marginal rate of contribution from fathers who had met their basic maintenance requirement. The TUC's plea was endorsed by Labour during the Second Reading debate.

At no point in the Second or Third Reading debates did Opposition Front- Bench Members call for a discretionary departure system or a recognition of past property settlements, which we are introducing in this Bill.

The media also focused almost exclusively on the feminist critique of the original Bill, largely ignoring at that stage the potential criticisms from absent fathers. I am not trying to transfer responsibility on to the Opposition or anyone else. The Government have the main responsibility to foresee problems, since the Government have the lead role. Government propose, Opposition oppose, Parliament disposes and the media expose. But it has to be said that, with the distinguished exception of the Select Committee, few of those whose job it was to check and criticise the Executive can claim to have had better foresight than the Government. So I hope that we shall not have too much 20:20 hindsight vision from Opposition Members today.

Every country that has introduced a child support agency has been through a similar process to that which we have experienced. There have been immense operational problems in establishing an entirely new method of handling maintenance, with resistance coming from many absent parents. Reforms have been needed in the light of practical experience. After a time, those reforms have led to a greater acceptance, and I believe that our reforms will do the same. We should not imagine that an issue as sensitive as child maintenance will cease to arouse strong emotions. Australia's Child Support Agency--even after six years of operation--still generates a great deal of constituency correspondence and heated political interest. However good the system--we are determined that ours should improve in every respect--a child support agency is like a lightning conductor in a thunderstorm. It is bound to attract highly charged attention. None the less, the policy and operational changes that we are introducing will firmly establish the child support arrangements that we have in place for the future.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): My right hon. Friend mentioned Australia, and he will know that the Select Committee looked at the Australian experience. Is he

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aware that one of the interesting aspects of the criticism of child support operations in Australia is that many people there want to have a system that operates in a similar way to ours?

Mr. Lilley: That is certainly the case. When I met the directors general of the Australian and the New Zealand systems, they told me that they had found that there was a great similarity between our systems, but that in some respects ours was superior in meeting directly a number of costs that they had ignored in their rather broad-brush approach. None the less, the changes that we are introducing take advantage of some of their experience and introduce some features that are similar to theirs, so that we shall get the best of both worlds.

The Bill will give relief to hard cases, allay the resentment felt by many of those who transferred property in lieu of maintenance, streamline operations and give mothers a stake in receiving maintenance and help in returning to work. After the changes are enacted, no one will realistically be able to refuse to pay maintenance. As a result, more children should receive more maintenance more regularly, and I commend the Bill to the House. 4.15 pm

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden): I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

"That this House insists that the Child Support Bill in the form proposed is unacceptable because although the introduction of an element of discretion to depart from the financial formula and the overdue recognition that clean-break settlements must be taken into account are welcome, the current proposals do not adequately address the problems that have undermined public confidence in the Child Support Agency, nor do they end a system under which children living in the poorest households are the least likely to benefit from increased maintenance payments; indeed the majority of those dependent on Income Support are left not one penny better off." The Secretary of State properly asked us not to rewrite history, but proceeded to do so in a remarkably selective passage with his account of what happened when the Bill was first produced in 1991. We have stoutly maintained our support for the principle behind the Bill, but consistently argued from the beginning that there were some difficulties--sadly, in the event, some of those arguments have been justified. A squabble about history is not necessarily the best way of looking to the future, but, in view of what the Secretary of State said, I am bound to point that out.

I think that we can all agree that the Child Support Agency started out with admirable aims and sensible objectives. It was launched with social purpose and was designed to improve on a court system that was demonstrably unsatisfactory. The Secretary of State referred to the agency having a slow start. To use a word that was used earlier, that is not so much a lugubrious as an insanely bullish interpretation of what happened during the first year of the new system.

I hope that no one will accuse me of overstating the case, but it has been a bruising and bad experience and, at times, has looked little short of a disaster area. Although there have been some improvements in performance, until now the system has failed to deliver its financial targets, has bred a great deal of mistrust and

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bitterness and arguably and, most sadly of all, has put at risk the very principles that it was brought into being to defend.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) rose --

Mr. Dewar: I shall not give way, as I want to make a little progress.

Everyone in the House has been taken aback by the system's unpopularity and I agree that none of us anticipated that at the beginning. There are many causes. Perhaps I am being severe, but it is true to say that one has been Ministers' failure to recognise the scale of the problems and the depth of perceived injustice--the anger that led to non-co-operation, which in turn led to ever-increasing and destructive inefficiency--and, above all, to react to those problems in time.

The Bill represents limited progress, and I would be ungracious if I did not say so. I recognised that fact in the reasoned amendment. The Bill forms part of the implementation of the proposals in the White Paper "Improving Child Support". We contend that it is incomplete, however, and we tabled the reasoned amendment on that basis.

The main provisions of the Bill represent a retreat by Ministers. As the Secretary of State will remember, Opposition Members have long pushed and pressed the virtues of having some form of redress that would allow a departure from the financial formula in special and hard cases. We were repeatedly told that that form of discretion was impossible because it would open the floodgates, and I am grateful that the Secretary of State has accepted that he was wrong to take that attitude and that he has decided to move on that point.

Mr. Lilley: Can the hon. Gentleman find a quotation in which I repudiate the idea completely? I said that we must not have an open-ended system and we have been careful to ensure that these proposals are not open -ended.

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