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Mr. Dewar: The Secretary of State is optimistic about his attitudes. Once he finally reaches the right decision, he has a great ability to convince himself that he had always held to it. If he has always believed it, it is strange that he cannot explain why he did not move much sooner. The kindest thing that I can say to the Secretary of State is that, whenever the matter was raised by the Opposition, it was met by arguments of inertia with the straightest and deadest of bats, and there was no sign of movement until the crisis was so acute in terms of the system's credibility that something had to be done.
Dr. Spink: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the detail, may I press him on the principle that parents are responsible for their children? Does he recall composite motion No. 9 at last year's Labour party conference, which stated that the Child Support Act undermined the welfare state and removed from partners the right to extricate themselves from intolerable relationships? Does he agree with that? How does that fit with the principle that parents remain responsible for their children?
Mr. Dewar: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted to know that he spends his time reading composite motions put forward at Labour party conferences. I confess that that is more than I do, but that is my fault. I shall take his point seriously because I presume that he is passing on a message from
Column 33Conservative central office brief and means it to be taken seriously. I clearly remember that, at the last conference, a motion that was too radically destructive of the case which I support was defeated by conference. The hon. Gentleman must look at what we have been saying consistently throughout this debate, which is that we do support the principle that parents are responsible for their children. It is important that parents accept responsibility for contributing towards the upkeep of their children and no one in the Labour party has been prepared to compromise on that.
The Select Committee on the ombudsman charitably decided that it was implicitly acknowledged that, at least with the benefit of hindsight, the Secretary of State had got policy decisions wrong. We might qualify a little on the Committee's kindness in referring to "hindsight", but his decisions clearly were wrong and I am glad that there has been some movement.
I am concerned not only to get the general principle of a departure from the financial formula established but to establish that we have got it right. That will be the job of the Standing Committee. I reassure the Secretary of State that I shall not encourage my hon. Friends unduly to delay the Committee stage. We have always believed that proper consideration should be given and important points should be properly aired. People on both sides of the argument would want and expect that. However, we can learn much from the harsh experience of recent months and it is important that we do so.
I remember receiving a letter from the Secretary of State--it may satisfy his inquiry about his attitude--which no doubt went to many other hon. Members as the word processor chattered. The quotation that I particularly remember is:
"we must not put the improvements in performance that we are achieving at risk by introducing unnecessarily disruptive changes". As a generalisation, that may sound plausible, but it was a response to my arguments for a degree of flexibility. Anyone who bothers to write the history of these matters will see, in looking back at them, that one of the main difficulties was the fact that the late Mr. Lilley did not respond to the crisis. In any event, I welcome the fact that he has been drawn to accept the right of redress.
It is important that we turn to the practical details. Schedule 2 is the part of the Bill that we shall all scrutinise. It is currently drawn up to mean that the Secretary of State may, by regulation, include matters such as access costs; the cost of long-term disability of applicants or applicants' dependants; debts arising during the course of the partnership, which were for the joint benefit of both parents; and so on. I want to make it clear that I approve of that list. It is right and proper that those details should be part of the machinery. Some interesting arguments will arise, however, about, for example, debts incurred during a partnership. Furniture purchased for the benefit of both parents may become matters for debate and issue because of continuing hire purchase payments, and so on. It is inevitable that that will happen and we must live with that.
The circumstances covered by schedule 2 are presented as a menu of what the Secretary of State may do. I assume from what the Secretary of State said in his speech that he intends to include the list in the first part of schedule 2 in the regulations that he will lay. An important distinction--I presume it is important, although the Secretary of State may want to comment on it--is
Column 34contained in paragraph 4(2) of new schedule 4B relating to additional cases. The right hon. Gentleman referred to them again today and some of them are extremely important in practical terms. He made particular reference to cases in which a person's life style is inconsistent with the level of his income. That is an important example, which could lead to some problems, because such cases are often attended with great bitterness. Complexities may arise because one party or perhaps both have formed new relationships with new financial implications.
When the Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate, I hope that he can tell me whether the first set of conditions in schedule 2 will be implemented in the regulations. Will the additional cases also be subject to the regulations, or is that an open possibility? Mr. Lilley indicated assent .
Mr. Dewar: I note that the Secretary of State has acknowledged that the menu will be implemented in full and will be available to those who wish to use the machinery. That is helpful. I have always thought it curious that Ministers, who are always so reluctant to concede discretion to others, are so ready to exercise it themselves. On this occasion, in view of the assurances, that would be an unworthy thought.
The White Paper suggested that just a minority of cases would qualify under the system. That may be true, but I wonder whether Ministers have formed any opinion on the likely consequences. I know--I am clear about the recollection--that the Secretary of State has said to me in the past that the gate in the Australian system is too wide. I have not ticked off pedantically the conditions listed in schedule 2, but it seems that we have broadly replicated those familiar to us from the Australian system.
I am anxious to ensure that we have machinery that can handle appeals. I am conscious of what the report of the Select Committee on the ombudsman said about the disability living allowance precedent. I am also aware that, last year, there were just over 23,000 appeals concerning invalidity benefit. Ministers are now assuming that, in the first year of incapacity benefit, that number will increase to 140,000 appeals. Considerable problems will flow from that. It may be seen as an act of disloyalty on the part of someone who earned his corn in the law, if that is not too undignified a way of putting it, but even when we deal with what are meant to be informal tribunal systems, we have a habit of getting bogged down in formality. Precedents appear; case law emerges and legal representation for those who are rather more affluent begins to be offered, even if legal aid is not available. I am concerned to ensure that the proposed system remains an informal one.
The official Australian report states:
"A single review officer conducts the hearing. On the original application and response forms, each party can request alternatives: a hearing with the other party present;
a hearing without the other party present;
a hearing by telephone;
a review based on written forms only with no personal appearance.
A hearing usually lasts between 40 minutes and two hours. `It is the Agency's intention that these hearings be conducted with relative informality and privacy.'"
Column 35If that will work and give quick redress and justice on the basis of common sense in the individual case where hardship or injustice is alleged, perhaps we should struggle to keep it as informal as possible.
Dr. Spink: On the issue of departure from the tribunal, does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although he has said that he does not want too many precedents, most of those cases will have to be determined by reference to precedents that are fixed nationally, so that there is equality of judgment throughout the country on those matters?
Mr. Dewar: That is an interesting assumption. I understand what the hon. Gentleman means; but the system has always been, or at least I have always wanted to regard it as such, one in which there is informality, in which people can represent themselves, in which the documents can speak for themselves and in which commonsense arbitration--it is perhaps more analogous to that than to other systems--emerges.
I fear that, two or three years down the road, if I ever find myself back in law practice, which is very unlikely, I will-- [Interruption.] They could not resist it. Pavlov's dogs live again. That is not a reference to the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), but, when I come to think of it, it is quite appropriate. I can imagine myself reading specialist journals reporting cases--reporting precedents. That will lead to great difficulties and dangers. I leave it there, but I urge on the Ministers the need to be careful about that.
In Australia, at least originally, when I saw the figures about 11 or 12 per cent. of maintenance assessments ended up in the review officer procedure. The equivalent here would be about 40,000 to 50, 000 cases, which is an awful lot by any standards.
I notice that in paragraph 9 of new schedule 4A there is a power for the chair to sit alone. That may simply be an administrative safety valve for an emergency, but it may, however, be an interesting precedent, and something that the Secretary of State wishes to consider.
The latest estimate that I have, which reached me by fax as recently as today, is that in 1994-95 it is estimated--the year has not quite finished- -that there will be 20,800 successful appeals in Australia using the review officer procedure. That is measured against the number of assessment cases to June 1995 of 287,000. I am talking about successful appeals, not the number of appeals. If that were rolled on as a precedent for this country-- this might be misleading, but at least is an interesting rule of thumb--we would anticipate very large figures indeed.
As many hon. Members who have followed those arguments know, in Australia the child support system is run by the internal revenue--the tax system. I was delighted to see that printed proudly across the bottom of the page of the letter that I received from Australia was the slogan:
"Taxes: building a better Australia."
I recommend that to the Chancellor in his current time of travail. It would be good for morale.
Column 36Mr. Lilley: I think Australia has a Labour Government, which may be associated in the public mind with taxes, and we are glad to note that the hon. Gentleman thinks that taxes and Government go hand in hand. It is a good advertisement to the electorate before the next election.
Mr. Dewar: I am delighted to be reminded that the Australians have a Labour Government. I think that the Australian precedents are very important in the specific argument, and that is one precedent that I suspect that this country will follow very shortly. I accept that we shall have to wait and see.
I shall quickly discuss a couple of matters of some importance that are related to the departure machinery--the travel-to-work cost provisions and the capital and property transfers. They are, I understand--it was confirmed by the Secretary of State--applied in a broad-brush administrative approach initially and will then become factors in the application for a departure. I welcome both. It is proper that they should be taken into account. I have no quarrel with that in principle.
The provision relating to 10p per mile over 15 miles as the crow flies would, no doubt, lead to some controversy. It is a matter of making a judgment about what is right, and I accept that the Government have that duty. We shall obviously want to consider carefully in Committee the way in which it will work, but I would certainly accept that it is in the interests of no one, in those tangled affairs, that someone who is liable to pay maintenance should be forced to give up his job. That machinery may build in some form of safeguard.
I have some doubts and concerns about clean-break settlements. I entirely accept that the proposal is an attempt to deal with retrospectivity and, as such, I think that it is important. It is unfair that settlements that were made in good faith--probably with the good faith of both parties--before the CSA was thought of should now be ignored when assessments for maintenance are being made. I have a philosophical point to try on the Secretary of State which is of some practical importance. Let us consider a case in which a divorce settlement was made before 1993 and a capital sum was laid down by the courts that had, in part, been met by the transfer of property in a house. Is it right that, subsequently, on an entirely distinct and different point--the settlement of the maintenance payment for the child--that property transfer which was part of the court settlement between the spouses should be used to reduce the maintenance assessment? There is an important point of principle in that argument. It is one that can be considered in Committee--I say that as someone who will, perhaps, not be on the Committee.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East): On a philosophical point, does the hon. Gentleman believe that it would be right for the Labour party to stop its traditional objections to contracting out work to the private sector, in view of the evident failure of the civil service to manage the job?
Mr. Dewar: I have heard many irrelevant and slightly smug interventions, and I do not intend to bother with that one. A more general point that I raised in an intervention during the Secretary of State's speech is worthy of serious consideration and will, no doubt, be debated at later
Column 37stages. We say that it must be a clean-break settlement prior to April 1993. But as the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), recognises, at some stage there will be cases where the court has made a settlement or where a voluntary agreement has been reached between the parties--such cases will be unilaterally referred to the agency.
It is important to consider future provision. There are other systems where, in clean-break settlements, as they are sometimes called, the property or capital transfers are taken into account in future negotiations. Under the Australian system, where there has been agreement between the parties, where it has been intended by the parties that it should impact on the maintenance settlement and that has been quantified and formally reported, if the Child Support Agency subsequently becomes involved because one of the parties starts to receive benefit, within limits, that policy is implemented. Those matters are worth considering, and I shall briefly explain why.
My view of the subject is coloured because I was once a solicitor in an ordinary practice. In my matrimonial work, I constantly found myself persuading someone that it would be common sense to transfer the house as part of the arrangements--that it would be in the interests of the children to stay on in the house in the area and surroundings with which they were familiar. In such a case, the family, on both sides of the divide, would be traumatised, but the children would be particularly damaged.
I did a reasonable enough job in persuading people that it would be sensible to agree to the transfer of the property on the basis that adjustments and compensations for that could be made in terms of other financial arrangements. The trouble now is that, because the possibility of action by the CSA at some future date cannot be excluded, the wise advice for a solicitor to give is not to transfer the matrimonial home. That is an expensive price to pay in terms of social stability and I am genuinely concerned about it. For that reason, I hope that Ministers will think long and hard before maintaining the backward-looking provision, but doing nothing in terms of looking to the future. That is a major point which is well worth considering.
Another rather odd legislative change is the maintenance bonus. The machinery is familiar: it is child of back-to-work bonus. Under the provision, the parent with care who is not deriving benefit from the increased maintenance paid because of clawback against income support can be credited with £5 per week up to a maximum of £1,000. That sum is then payable when she--in most cases, it will probably be the mother-- gets a job of 16 hours per week or more.
I must confess that I understand the importance of job incentives and of encouraging people to look for work--indeed, the Labour party has plans in that regard. However, I am not sure about this provision. Maintenance is a right for the child and a duty for the parent who must pay it, and I do not think that the child's right should necessarily be dependent on whether a mother finds work. The provision poses another danger to which I referred in relation to the back-to-work bonus when I suggested that it was not so much a matter of jam today as one of jam tomorrow and perhaps no jam at all. In this case, it is a matter not of jam tomorrow but perhaps of jam in the next century. Parents with care must have great staying
Column 38power if they are to reach £1,000; it may become a millennium event for them. Some may experience a quicker return to work, but I think that it will prove be an odd and perhaps tantalising prospect for many.
If it is such a good measure, why must it be postponed until April 1997? I would have thought that it would be possible to implement it in April 1996. Even if we take a gloomy view of the Bill's passage, it will be on the statute book by April 1996. No doubt the Under-Secretary will enlighten us on that point.
I raise another point which leads to further important matters. Although the Secretary of State will deny it, I believe that the legislation represents a form of apology; it is a nod towards the great gap in the system. It fails to offer anything positive to those children of households which are dependent on income support. That concern lies at the heart of the Labour party's reasoned amendment to the Bill. We believe that the system is incomplete and fundamentally flawed and we have argued consistently for a disregard.
I have listened to the Secretary of State's points, and he will not be surprised to learn that I have not been convinced by them. I believe that our arguments have gathered strength in recent times because the unhappy truth is that those who are most at risk are least likely to benefit under the legislation. I find that very difficult to square with the call for more money for more parents for more children which formed the climax of the Secretary of State's speech. If he believes in that objective, I believe that there is a very strong case for a disregard, without which we will not achieve or exercise the social purpose of the Child Support Act 1991. I commend to the Secretary of State the report of the Select Committee on the ombudsman, which was released this morning. It states:
"Targets should place efficient service to the public before savings to the Treasury."
I suppose that that might be known as Pawsey's law because the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) is Chairman of the Committee. That is an important message from a Committee which, like most Select Committees, has a majority of Conservative Members. I move an addendum to the report which I believe goes hand in hand with that message: when we are dealing with social policy, social objectives should be given as great a weight as- -if not greater weight than--savings for the Treasury. That is not the current position, as is demonstrated by the Government's failure to give ground to the argument for a disregard which we have consistently urged on Ministers.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): We have been over the point in debate so often that the hon. Gentleman will probably know what I am about to say. Although the maintenance bonus is an incentive for the parent with care to return to work, perversely the maintenance disregard would have the reverse effect. Absent parents might even give up part-time work, because of the marginal benefit involved, in order to receive the disregard and become better off. Should not that perverse incentive be taken into account in Pawsey's equation, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned a few moments ago?
Column 39Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). I do not believe that a small disregard would be a disincentive for finding work. If a job were so poorly paid that the disregard became a factor, I wonder whether it would be worth having that job at all. In any event, it would be subsumed to an extent in family credit. I do not think that that is a factor.
The latest figures which were released by Miss Chant from the chief executive's offices show that in the current year 38 per cent. of maintenance is going to children and 62 per cent. to the Treasury. I freely concede that those figures are better than last year's. They are the latest figures available, and I take them at face value. However, I do not believe that that was the kind of balance that we envisaged when we first debated the matter in the early 1990s.
Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman refers to philosophical points. An important philosophical point to remember is that 100 per cent. of maintenance goes to the mother with care of the child, which, in some cases, removes the need for the taxpayer to support them. The idea that the natural situation is that everyone should be supported by the taxpayer and that maintenance is jam on the cake is absolute nonsense. All maintenance goes to and belongs to the parent and the child, not to the taxpayer.
Mr. Dewar: I understand that point. I live in the practical world as well--I suppose that we all live in various different worlds. The Child Support Agency is founded on an important principle, but it also has a powerful social objective which I do not believe that it is achieving. A principal reason for its failure is the difficulty that we have just debated.
As the Secretary of State knows, we were told originally that a £10 disregard would cost £400 million. That cost then fell to £340 million and by May 1994 it had become £290 million. At the last call, it was £205 million. The explanation for that reduction was that greater sampling had taken place which showed that fewer lone parents were claiming income support. That is a somewhat vague form of words. I welcome the fact that the cost has fallen, as it obviously strengthens our case for a disregard.
It has always been assumed that we would opt for a £10 disregard. If the Secretary of State wishes to assist us by saying that he would accept a £5 disregard--he could take the £5 that he is using in his maintenance bonus calculations--according to his Department's answers, the cost would be £110 million. Although that figure is not insignificant, if he were to offset the cost of the maintenance bonus at £25 million, the cost of the disregard would fall to £85 million. If the Secretary of State opted for the £5 disregard--he cannot say that it is unimportant, because he picked that figure himself--the Opposition would welcome that as establishing the principle of the matter.
Mr. Dewar: No; I said that I would not give way to the hon. Gentleman again and I must be a man of my word. We feel very strongly about that matter. We must help those children who are most at risk, and I rest my case on that point.
Column 40I welcome much in the non-statutory provision. The 70 per cent. of net income is no longer a guideline but a limit that cannot be broken. The Select Committee heard evidence that about 47,000 people were left with less than 70 per cent. of net income, so that measure is obviously important and it is very welcome. The suspension of fees until 1997 is a recognition of administrative failure. The question is whether they should be reintroduced in 1997. However, we welcome that moratorium.
Some of the fine-tuning in the legislation must be examined with a critical eye. In that respect, I flag the reduction in the maximum level of payment in the formula. I believe that the child should share, as fully as the maintenance formula allows, in the affluence of the parent. I am not sure about the rationale behind that reduction.
We must also remember the parliamentary question released mysteriously on 27 December which announced that 350,000 cases had been shelved as a product of the agency's desperation. According to answers to further parliamentary questions, I understand that they will be reinstated by the end of the year. We expect the Secretary of State to hold to that promise. Similarly, with regard to the deferral of cases that were to come into the ambit of the CSA in 1996, we believe that it is important to stress the word "deferral", as my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said. There is a beguiling argument--which I suspect has been put to Ministers--that, because those people do not receive benefit and because they already have agreements or court orders, allowing a unilateral reference to the CSA would encourage them to depart from contract. That may indeed be a beguiling argument, but it would be wrong for the CSA to become an organisation dealing with those on benefit and in financial difficulties while the more fortunately placed escaped the net altogether.
Administrative problems are at the heart of the matter, often adding insult to injury. It is worth reminding the Secretary of State of the Select Committee's comment that policy deficiencies had been "cruelly exacerbated by administrative incompetence".
The foundation for that charge was considerable evidence of bad advice, maladministration and delay.
We must do something about the compensation that is provided for people who have suffered in this way. It is remarkable that, by the end of January 1995, financial redress had been made in only 34 cases. That strikes me as very unsatisfactory, given the enormous stress that has attended the early history of the agency. I accept that the agency is very difficult to run, that running it has been a difficult job for all involved and that some improvements have been made, but we are still missing targets. I am concerned about, for example, the enormous difference between the number of maintenance application forms issued since April 1993--1.19 million--and the final number of maintenance assessments, which is 299,000. I realise that some 129,000 interim maintenance assessments could be included, but those cases have not yet been finalised. The number of applications cleared without assessment--403,000--strikes me as remarkably high. Many questions remain to be answered. In only 46 per cent. of cases has it been accepted that there is good cause for details not to be given. In 42 per cent. of cases that has not been accepted, and in 12 per
Column 41cent.--presumably as a result of pressure-- the absent parent has been named. Already more than 16,000 cases have been referred for benefit reduction, and it looks as though that 42 per cent.-- 30,618 cases--will vastly increase the number. The shadow of what was initially described as a small problem is now beginning to loom.
What we all want to know is, will the Bill work? Will it contribute to stability, and help to restore public confidence? There has been so much damage and bitterness. A difficult balance is involved: the interests of the various competing parties must be traded off--for they are competing parties, as we must recognise. We cannot duck that.
According to the Government's own figures, the February 1994 changes are worth £85 million in 1995-96, £95 million in 1996-97 and £95 million in 1997-98. The new package, which looks much more dramatic, is worth £40 million in 1995-96, £65 million in 1996-97 and £85 million in 1997-98. It is worth less than the changes that were introduced in February 1994, and therefore will have no revolutionary impact.
People tend to forget that changes in exempt income must be filtered through the formula. For instance, a reduction of £20 resulting from the banding of a capital settlement can easily end up as a reduction of only £10 in maintenance; £60 can be reduced to £20. I know that averages can be misleading, but a parliamentary answer to me suggested that the February 1994 figures were worth an average of about £8 a week to those paying maintenance, while the current crop will be worth between £5 and £10.
Whether we have the balance right should be a matter for anxiety, and I suspect that we have not heard the last word on the subject. I accept--Miss Chant gave me the figure before yesterday--that the present average maintenance assessment, excluding income support cases involving a payment of £2.30 for a single child--is between £38 and £40 a week. I think that, if that amount is reduced, people may consider the arrangements a little more reasonable than they have been in the past.
I am convinced that, indeed, we have not heard the last word. I think that, even as amended, the system is incomplete and will be unable to deliver its social targets fully; hence our reasoned amendment. For all that, any contribution to confidence building is important. That is our vital task: we must convince those who fear the system that they have nothing to fear, that the administration is not their enemy and that money paid will benefit the children in whose name it is collected. That does not seem too much to ask of the system.
Dr. Spink: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you advise me? Can it possibly be right, according to the rules of the House, for the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) to say that he will spend another £110 million or so--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. I can help the hon. Gentleman without his going any further. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is responsible for his own speech. 4.55 pm
Column 42aware that the Government have accepted most of the recommendations in the second report of the all-party Select Committee on Social Security and, in some cases, have gone even further; as a Chairman of a Select Committee myself, I fully approve of their response. I applaud the measures contained in the Bill, which provide new help for parents with care--especially the administrative changes, which will simplify the procedures, speed up the maintenance process and encourage compliance by absent parents. Nearly all my constituents' complaints about the Child Support Agency have been associated with the agency's poor handling of cases and with inflexibility, and I am sure that the proposed changes will greatly assist. Nevertheless, I still support the principle of the Child Support Act 1991 that parents should pay for the maintenance of their children to the extent that they can afford to do so, and that taxpayers should have to help only when parents do not have the means to support their children. While I commend the Government for listening to the concerns of parents with care, absent parents and the groups that represent them, I am anxious for the original intention of the Act not to be forgotten.
As the House knows, I have always considered it important for both sides of the story to be presented. I must tell Ministers that, for example, many lone parents with care feel that by limiting the maximum payable under the formula, the Government are signalling that rich absent parents do not have to share their wealth with their first children. It is vital for maintenance assessments to be both fair and consistent, but I regret to say that many lone carers have come to believe that those who oppose the agency's work have used unacceptable tactics to press their case, and have bullied the Government into succumbing to some of their demands.
I personally have received a great deal of spiteful and threatening mail from anti-CSA groups as a result of expressing the views of lone carers in the Chamber. The latest communication that I have received from the "Network Against the Child Support Act" informs me that supporting the Act could cost a Conservative Member of Parliament his or her seat. Together with the letter, a list of Conservative Members is being circulated to NACSA members with the heading "Up and At 'em", and the instruction that it is time to strike because
"There's plenty you can say to concentrate the mind of any insecure Tory politician."
It would appear from the list that, fortunately, I am not considered to be in one of the 150 most marginal Tory-held seats, but I deplore such intimidation and harassment by any organisation. I believe that it is totally improper. I am not talking about normal lobbying procedures. I imagine that similar tactics are being used on Opposition Members of Parliament, too.
I hope that the Government will take a strong line against those who seek to put unacceptable pressure on those of us who do not support the anti- Child Support Agency brigade. It is deplorable that such people should cause aggravation not only to Members of Parliament, who are perhaps used to rather vigorous lobbying and can deal with it a little better than most, but against the employees of the Child Support Agency, who I understand have been subjected to the most outrageous behaviour--for example, letters have been sent to them containing razor blades, and they have also received letters on coffin-shaped paper. I believe that I am correct
Column 43in saying that anti-CSA supporters were invited to target a particular named member of the CSA's staff in the campaign of harassment, merely for doing their job.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give me an assurance that now that the review of the CSA has been completed and this Bill is before Parliament, when the legislation is on the statute book, it will be given time to work effectively and that a period of stability will follow. More and more tinkering with the system will be extremely disruptive. We now need time for the CSA to get on with its work, without hindrance, so that a period of tranquillity can follow and the service for which it was designed --to put the welfare of children at the top of the agenda--can be delivered effectively and efficiently.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), particularly as she commented about the threats made to her and to other Members of Parliament. It is a sign of how unrepresentative this place is that an Act that is clearly affecting men and women equally has largely heard the male side of the case but not the female side--the mothers concerned. Although I share her criticism of much of the campaigning tactics of those who wish to see the Act replaced, some of those people--I object to their aggressive behaviour as much as she does --nevertheless have points of which we need to take account in the Chamber. It is surprising that for a Bill as important as this so few Members should be present today. There is clearly something wrong with our representative machinery that it delivers so few to such an important debate.
I want to comment on the atmosphere in which we are having the debate, not only on how few Members are present but on how the Act is received in the country. Clearly, a large number of people--fathers, largely--disagree radically with what is being done to them. I place responsibility for that on the Treasury Bench for allowing matters to reach the state that they did before the CSA was introduced. I cannot pretend that I pick up--no matter where I go in the country--the feeling that the Act has failed. There is an appreciation of real difficulties in delivering, but I have not had people rushing up to me in the street, saying, "It is the most foul deed you have done in supporting the Child Support Agency." Many people when drawn on the issue are amazed that it took Parliament so long to act, not that it acted when it did.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) made an important plea in the Secretary of State's speech: we should send the Bill to a Special Standing Committee. It important that the Secretary of State bears that in mind, even if on this topic he had a 100 per cent. record of getting it right. Given that his performance is a little less than that, I would have thought it reasonable for him to say that, if he delayed the passage of the Bill for a couple of weeks, it may give great dividends at the end of the day, as the measure would be more effective when it finally reached the statute book.
I disagreed with a number of things that the Secretary of State said and with the atmosphere that he was presenting--that we are debating almost the last major change to be made to the CSA. I would be amazed if that
Column 44was true. Perhaps he will be able to fence until the end of this Session of Parliament and not be forced to introduce another Bill, but I would be totally amazed if he did not have to introduce other regulations. Our plea at this stage surely should be that, given our incompetence as a legislative Chamber in getting the measure right, we should see reforms almost as a sign of success. We should think less of our pride as a legislature and more of not roughing up people and getting their lives on the wrong end of legislation. We should see it as the prize rather than a real sense of failure.
My feeling today is that the measure still has massive support in the country, but we will need regularly to review and change it. The hon. Lady commented on the nature of the campaign outside in the country, which has been very tough. One can hardly attend a meeting with those who oppose the Act without feeling the violence that is in the air and wondering whether the meeting will remain peaceful or whether one will be up against a wall and made to feel the aggression and the sense of frustration that those people feel. We need to register that.
It is important to understand why some people feel so strongly about the Act. Clearly, no Act that takes money from men and gives it to women will be popular, but the Government do not come to the House with clean hands. On a number of occasions, I asked about the collapse of maintenance for women on income support, to be met only by puzzlement by Ministers on the Treasury Bench. I wrote about it. The Government took action only when taxpayers were asked to pay 4p in the pound on income tax to meet the costs of raising children when one parent had deserted them. Not only is that a pretty horrendous sum for taxpayers to find--largely through the Government's inaction to work the liable relative section effectively--but it sent out a message to men in the country: the Government were not terribly interested whether they paid maintenance or not. The number of our constituents being chased was falling. The informal bushfire message was, "Don't worry. Start the second family. The Government won't chase you. You won't hear any more." On the basis that they did not expect to pay maintenance, a large number of men started second families and thought that they could manage.
The Government panicked because the reaction of those men cost taxpayers 4p in the pound and letters started to arrive from the Child Support Agency. The iniquity of people caught by a retrospective Act and those whose marriages break up and who know that the agency exists are major sources of grievance. I hope to return to that theme.
There are some good measures in the Bill and as the Select Committee proposed some of them, it would be ungracious of me not to mention that. The way in which the Government have got off the hook of giving a maintenance disregard is ingenious, although the timing is ingenious only to the Government and not to families. Instead of a disregard which would have been a disincentive for mothers who were returning to the labour market, there is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said, a child back-to-work bonus called the child maintenance bonus.
Why will the back-to-work bonus come into operation in 1996 while the child maintenance bonus will not begin to operate until a year later? Is that because the Secretary of State lost out at the Cabinet table while his colleague
Column 45at the Department of Employment got his legislation through? Women who benefit from the measure will have to have been on benefit and their ex-partners paying maintenance for eight years before they can reap the maximum return. That takes them to the year 2001. If the Secretary of State had thought that although that was not the solution it was at least an incentive to help mothers back into the labour market, he would have displayed a greater sense of urgency over this small but important reform. Perhaps the winding-up speech will explain that.
The second issue is the deferral of cases. Somehow the statement was timed to be made just before Parliament rose for Christmas and we could not question the Secretary of State. I thought that it covered not only non- benefit but benefit cases. I will happily give way if I am wrong about that. We are not talking only about those who have so far featured in the debate, people whom the Secretary of State somehow thought were of less concern because they were not costing the taxpayer and would not be helped by the measure. It also covers those women who have failed to return their maintenance application forms. That is the hidden part of the collusion which the Government are clearly aiding and abetting. I shall come to that in a moment. When we add the deferred cases, which were announced just before Christmas, to those that have been announced since we get a grand total of more than 500,000 families whose cases have been deferred under the regulations. The Secretary of State looks puzzled. The two figures are the 180,000 cases that we have recently been given and the 340,000 that were announced just before Christmas. It is a sizeable number. I shall deal in a moment with the collusion that is going on under the Act.
In effect, the Secretary of State has announced that he is deserting those mothers who have managed to get back to work. Because they have had a maintenance settlement in the courts, he is saying that they do not need the services of the Child Support Agency and can go back to the courts. But the reason for the Child Support Agency, at least according to the Secretary of State, was that the courts were failing in that they were arbitrary, that people, and especially mothers, had great difficulty in getting their cases heard fairly, and that settlements were absurdly low.
Of course some mothers are leading their former partners a song and dance, but that is not generally the case and it is not the general impression that we get in our constituency surgeries about how the courts operated. Some fathers were represented in court and some mothers were not, and courts too readily accepted the father's costs of getting to and from work and agreed on very small maintenance payments. The totally unsatisfactory way in which the courts behaved, especially towards women with children, was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Child Support Agency.
It does the Secretary of State no credit when he tells a large number of working women who do not depend on benefit and who are doing exactly what he wants them to do, that they should not worry about the CSA not helping them because they can use the courts. It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to support people while they do precisely what he wants them to do, and then desert them at this stage because it is inconvenient to take them on to the books. When the Minister kindly allowed me to intervene I asked, "What does referral mean? Does it mean that the files will be closed?" No, it means deferral. It means that