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Column 46there will be no action on any of those cases before the election at the earliest. Goodness knows how long after the election it will be if the Government are returned. Today we are formally deserting large numbers of working women who are trying to bring up their children. When one thinks sacramentally about what the agency does, it is clear that that will give powerful messages to women on benefit. They will ask how the Government find it so easy to desert those who have done precisely what the Government want them to do. If I were bringing up children and dependent on benefit I would think much harder about whether going back to work was sensible. When the Under-Secretary replies to the debate he must give us some hope that those women are not to be cast out into political limbo but that there will be a timetable for bringing them back within the arrangements of the agency so that they can use it to get redress and decent maintenance.
Thirdly, I shall deal with the important question of collusion about which the Select Committee and hon. Members have warned the Government. Many parts of the legislation were wrong but we got right the protection for those women who would be threatened with violence by their ex-husbands or ex-partners if they tried to enforce a maintenance order through the CSA. Nobody who lives in the real world knew when we were passing that important safeguard that it was open to abuse. A handful of deferred cases has now risen to 16,000 in which the agency believes that both partners are colluding to defraud the taxpayer. That is sickening news for taxpayers, but it is also alarming for those women who have correctly claimed that an ex-husband or partner is threatening them not to enforce CSA orders on that person. They must know that as the number of people taking the taxpayer to the cleaners escalates, the patience of this place will clearly break. The safeguards, therefore, that we rightly put in place for women under threat of violence from ex-partners may be changed.
I make a plea to the Secretary of State. I ask him to announce quickly changes in what is required from separated parents who claim that they cannot fill in the form for fear of being beaten up. Would it be unreasonable to expect such individuals at least to have told the police that they have been threatened? The agency should ask for that piece of information before accepting at face value that someone is being threatened with violence if they continue in their wish for the Child Support Agency to become involved.
I believe that there is already one mother with children by three different partners who is telling the agency that her third partner, just like the other two, has threatened her with violence if she goes ahead with her application. As the rules stand at the moment, there is no automatic procedure to protect officers when dealing with such people. I hope that before the number of cases reaches 30,000, 50,000 or 100,000, as it will unless the procedure changes, we shall hear some comments from Ministers-- before the Bill is given a Second Reading and before it goes into Committee. It is crucial that safeguards are put in place not merely for taxpayers, but for women who are genuinely in fear of their lives if they give information to the CSA.
I now turn to the unfairness to parents to whom the Act is being applied retrospectively. I again underline the point I made at the beginning of my speech about the comments made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne. She
Column 47said how offensive most hon. Members have found some of the tactics of those who have campaigned to get the Act off the statute book. The campaign has probably taught male Members more about some of the violence that women have to put up with in marriages than any other tutorial to which we could be subjected. That does not mean that some of the sheer frustration of people who think that their lives are being ruined is not justified in some respects.
The Government lost interest to a large extent in chasing fathers whose ex- partners were picking up supplementary benefit or income support. Under this Government, the percentage of single parents on benefit who had a maintenance order to help offset the cost to taxpayers more than halved. That was the message going out to the country. This Government, who talk tough, are anything but tough when it comes to it. The message was that it did not matter. One could start a second family and one would not hear any more. One could expect the whole of one's income to go to that second family. People made arrangements on that basis and they feel aggrieved, with some justification, that the Government panicked at the size of the bill--4p in the pound--that they were presenting to taxpayers for the cost of single parents on income support and that they acted as they did.
The pleas that some of us have made have been simple. We have asked that we should make a distinction between families to whom the Act applies retrospectively and families to whom it has applied since it reached the statute book. Those families know perfectly well that the Child Support Agency is in existence and that all of us hope that it will work even more effectively than it is working now.
The Government's response has been that such a distinction would be too complicated. They say that it is difficult enough now, that there is enough chaos behind the scenes and that they do not want to add to the complications. I swallowed that argument until the Secretary of State came forward with plans to put a cap on the contributions from richer parents. He made that move, of course, to help parents who, in previous elections, had strongly supported the Conservative party. They are the main beneficiaries of the cap under which no more than 30 per cent. of disposable income can be taken under the formula. If, however, a cap can be applied to this group, other caps could be applied. If it is simple to apply a cap to the maximum amount of income that will be taken, it should be quite possible to have a 20 per cent. cap for families for whom the Child Support Act 1991 is retrospective. In making one concession to individuals who, in previous elections, may have supported the Conservative party rather well, the Secretary of State clearly showed how we could also, with the minimum of fuss and difficulty, and without interrupting the formula, provide a 15 per cent., 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. cap for those for whom the Act is retrospective.
I do not believe that some of the anger will go away until we recognise that it is a gross injustice for any Parliament to tax retrospectively. That is what we have done with the Child Support Act. It is important to deal with that partly because of the sense of grievance felt by many fathers. It shows up at meetings, as the hon. Member for Broxbourne explained; I have participated in such meetings as well. There is also something much
Column 48more important at stake than ministerial pride or even the pride of the House of Commons. The importance of the Act is that it is not just about trying to cap the contribution that taxpayers make towards the support of single parents although, as I have tried to explain, the Government allowed that bill to get out of hand. It was long overdue for steps to be taken to limit the growth of expenditure in a manner that did not put at a disadvantage the women and children who had been deserted.
As I said in the previous debate, we are, for the first time, making a change in the whole direction of the welfare state. At one time, the House of Commons would take to itself more power and more responsibility. We are now putting responsibility back into the country, into families and individuals, and we are saying, "This is your decision and you must live by it." That is an important change. We are now thinking about the impact of legislation on character, an aspect that we have lost in the past 30 years. We should not throw away the reform of the Child Support Agency too quickly.
My plea is this. Although the Bill is important and although I hope that it speeds on to the statute book after proper and open discussion, I cannot believe that it can or should be the last change we make. When we are dealing with the most intimate side of people's lives, we should be more than willing to come back to the House with reform measures when we find that things are not working properly. It is a foolish politician who dabbles in this area who thinks that he has somehow got the right solution. Clearly, we have not had the right solution. I would be amazed if this modest measure got the balance right now. I look forward, however, to the debates on this measure and future measures as we try to get this most important reform right.
Mr. David Faber (Westbury): I am delighted to take part in this debate and especially delighted to follow the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I have had the pleasure and privilege of serving on his Select Committee on Social Security since it was set up at the beginning of this Parliament. Into no other investigation have we put so much thought and so much time. No other investigation has caused us so much concern or has brought before us so many heart-rending issues as has our investigation into the Child Support Agency. It is rare that legislation comes before the House which owes so much in its entirety to the work and findings of a Select Committee. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birkenhead for the manner in which he has chaired the Select Committee and for the constructive manner throughout in which he has taken forward the arguments about the Child Support Agency.
I have listened to comments about the Bill being committed to a Special Standing Committee. I confess that, after just three years in the House, I have no direct experience of such a Standing Committee nor do I know how it operates technically. The Social Security Committee, however, has taken an enormous amount of evidence and has already spent a great deal of time discussing the agency. Since many of the measures in the Bill have already been gone through in some detail by the Committee, I hope, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, that we shall be able to move forward to get many of those measures on to the statute book as quickly as possible to help those whom they are meant to help.
Column 49In concluding his speech, the hon. Member for Birkenhead returned to a theme with which he has dealt in the Chamber and which has run throughout the deliberations and reports of the Select Committee. The Child Support Act, as originally passed, was a major landmark in social security legislation because it redefined the responsibilities of the state and the individual. This redefining has, of course, gone on in one of the most sensitive areas of policy, involving as it does not only the breakdown of family life but the children in that family. There is no doubt that under the Act and the agency, certain responsibilities have been restored to the individual in place of the previous state support.
We hear a great deal today about rights and responsibilities and the balance that needs to struck between them. There can surely be no greater responsibility in our lives than that which we owe our children. I am therefore pleased that the Government have brought a Bill forward that reflects many of the concerns of the Social Security Select Committee and, indeed, of constituents of hon. Members throughout the House, which have been expressed in mailbags and at surgeries. It was inevitable that an Act of such a nature would arouse strong and polarised views. Similarly, its implementation was never going to be easy in the face of breaking down long -held beliefs and supposed rights felt by absent parents and parents with care. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the problems which exist in Australia and New Zealand several years after the supposedly successful implementation of their own child support Acts.
The underlying principle of the Act has been continuously supported by the overwhelming majority of hon. Members and by virtually every member of the Select Committee. Yet the practical applications of it and the operations of the agency since it was implemented have contrived to cause sufficient problems and ill-feeling throughout the country--possibly--to undermine the very existence of the agency. That is why the Government have kept its workings constantly under review. They have responded positively not only to the Select Committee reports, but to the concerns that have been expressed in hon. Members' mailbags, at their surgeries and at meetings in their constituencies throughout the country. For that reason, I believe that the agency is no longer facing the crisis that it was--possibly--a year or so ago.
It was conceivable at one time that we could have been standing here today debating the potential collapse of the agency, so great had its overload become. Over the past few months, however, the whole atmosphere and nature of the debate surrounding the Child Support Agency has changed for the vast majority of hon. Members and has changed throughout the country for all but a few die-hards who still implacably oppose the principles which lie behind it.
This Bill is, of course, part of a much wider range of packages which my right hon. Friend announced a few weeks ago in the White Paper. It is therefore only natural that today's debate should focus on some of the measures in regulations as well as those in the Bill. It is only right that the Government should act in the interests of not only the absent parents but of the parents with care and, most particularly, the very people whom this Act is supposed to help, the children.
Column 50There can be no doubt that in setting up the agency and in the Act's implementation over the past two or three years, the major problems that have faced the agency have revolved around two principal areas. They have revolved, first, around the retrospective nature of some of the legislation, which we have heard discussed today, and, secondly, around the application of the formula, which has led to high-- often, indeed, impossibly high--assessments of payments to be made by absent parents.
The Act as drafted took no account of previous property or capital settlements. The so-called clean-break settlements often involved the wholesale transfer of property, very often the family home, in exchange for deliberately low maintenance payments. The arguments about clean-break settlements have been rehearsed many times in Committee and on the Floor of the House. Transfers were often made between the separating couple and very rarely reflected the true interests of the children. Of course as we all know, a clean break from our children is impossible or should be technically impossible. Even under the old court-based system, parents with care could always return to the court to have their maintenance reassessed if they so wished. Nevertheless, a combination of the misconception that clean breaks were possible and a strong sense of natural justice have combined to make this the most contentious of all issues. The Government are right to point out that, often, such settlements are deliberately engineered to maximise the burden on the taxpayer. In many cases, however, they are not engineered and we continually heard evidence in Committee that they are a real bone of contention. Little sums it up better than the evidence that we received from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which told us: "it is wrong, and against the rules of natural justice . . . to overturn agreements which everyone--the Courts and the
Government--accepted at the time were final and people have organised their lives accordingly. People have got on with their lives, made new ones and it has been one of the biggest causes of antagonism against the whole of the Child Support scheme".
That last sentence is most telling. For anyone struggling to get over the trauma of a separation or a divorce, the ultimate ambition is to get on with one's own life. For many, unfortunately, this legislation has made it impossible for them to do just that and has all too often opened up old wounds to which they need never have returned.
The system of departures is in clauses 1 to 9. As the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) pointed out, schedule 2 contains the real meat of the issue: the rules of departures. This system of departing from the rigorous formula which did not often allow such departures is most welcome. It introduces an air of discretion which was sorely lacking in the original legislation. The Bill proposes that the absent parent will have to prove either to the agency or, if the agency says that it is too complicated for it, to the tribunal which will be set up, that any property or capital settlement made prior to April 1993 does not fully reflect the true circumstances of that settlement.
I have no doubt that such a move will go a very long way to helping many of those absent parents who have been hardest hit by the agency, often because of the large sum of money which they have been asked to pay. I am only sorry that that requires primary legislation. I am especially pleased, therefore, that the Government have introduced alongside the Bill, by regulation, an immediate
Column 51broad-brush formula change, which will be extremely helpful in the short term to some of the absent parents who are suffering the worst hardships.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained in some detail how the departure system will work in relation to the current formula. In addition to the issues which arise from previous property settlements, absent parents or, indeed, parents with care, as my right hon. Friend was keen to stress, may apply for a departure because of additional expenses which they may undertake and which may not be reflected in the formula. The allowance for high travel-to-work costs will be most welcome, especially in rural areas such as my constituency. Many of my constituents who live in west Wiltshire work in Bristol or Bath and often have long journeys to work each day. It has become increasingly difficult for them to survive while meeting their travel costs and increased maintenance payments. That has made many people angry. The need for primary legislation has meant, inevitably, that there will be a delay. I welcome the broad-brush allowance, which my right hon. and hon. Friends will be introducing in regulations, based on the distance as the crow flies between the absent parent's home and his workplace. That will go a long way towards alleviating, in the short term, many of the problems with regard to long journeys to work.
Other qualifying conditions for a departure from the formula should also be praised. In particular, expenses resulting from long-term illness or disability will now be allowed. That will greatly ease the worry of many absent parents who suffer such illnesses or difficult disabilities. The costs of caring for stepchildren will also, although admittedly in exceptional cases, be considered. That will help alleviate another major bone of contention that has run through the agency's workings throughout its operation.
I welcome most warmly the decision to take into account the high costs of travel to maintain contact with the children of the marriage. One of the most heart-rending problems which the agency has caused has been that which we have all witnessed in our surgeries and in our mailbags--the breakdown in communication between some absent parents and their children.
In some instances, the problem has arisen because of a breakdown in relations between the divorced parents. There is no doubt some parents with care do, however regrettably, use their children to blackmail the absent parent or to cause stress after the marriage has ended. All too often, the difficulty in respect of the contact between the absent parent and his or her child has arisen simply because the costs have become prohibitively high.
In today's society, there can be no excuse for preventing absent parents from seeing their children whenever and wherever they can within the remit laid down by a court. Children desperately need a healthy, full and loving relationship with both parents. That is sometimes all too sadly forgotten by family law practitioners and, I hesitate to say this, by the judges.
I want to refer briefly to some of the arrangements in the Bill for helping the parent with care. All too often the parent with care has been forgotten in the deliberations with regard to the agency. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State correctly highlighted--and the hon.
Column 52Member for Garscadden confirmed it--that the only major complaint in the Opposition amendment is that the Bill lacks a maintenance disregard.
Members of the Select Committee are aware that the maintenance disregard divided us. I have no doubt that it would have been superficially attractive for any amounts between £150 million and £350 million to have been spent on a maintenance disregard to soften the blow. Contrary to the hon. Member for Birkenhead, I believe that the new child maintenance bonus--which the hon. Member for Birkenhead described as ingenious--is an imaginative and sensible way of giving an incentive to the parent with care to move from a benefit dependency back into work.
The bonus will accrue at a weekly rate of up to £5 and it will enable parents with care to receive a lump sum of £1,000 when they move back into work. I understand that the provision will benefit 60, 000 parents with care and it would be churlish of the Opposition not to welcome it.
The Bill contains much else that is especially welcome, most notably in relation to the work burden which the agency must undertake and the efforts over the past few months to ease that burden. As other hon. Members have done so in passing, I want to pay tribute to the staff of the Child Support Agency, many of whom we found in our visits to the various offices to be among the most highly motivated staff in the Department of Social Security. The previous chief executive confirmed that point.
The staff work long hours and extremely hard. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) said, some of the staff have been the target of quite unnecessary vilification at work, and, I am sad to say, at home. All hon. Members would deplore that.
Mr. Frank Field: I forgot to make a similar point in my speech and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to make it now. However, does he realise that one reason why the staff are so highly motivated is that this is one of the few reforms which the House has passed with which large numbers of people in the country agree?
Mr. Faber: I agree entirely: not only do large numbers of people agree with it, but we found that there is an underlying desire among those who work in the agency to make the provision work and to see that it works. They are motivated because they understand that the provision will benefit the people they are trying to help.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): I have no criticism of the motivation of the people who work in the Child Support Agency. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to believe that the administration of the agency is yet anything other than a shambles. The administration is an utter shambles. Several cases were brought to my attention at the weekend. In one, a lady has been waiting six years, but she has received no maintenance despite long conversations with seven different people in the CSA. In another case, a gentleman received letters indicating diametrically opposed positions on the same day, one through me and one direct from the appeals system. Whatever the motivation, the administration is still greatly lacking with regard to the aims set by Parliament.
Column 53he heard the beginning of my speech, but I made the point that, a year or so ago, I might have agreed with much of what he said. The agency faced a severe crisis then. However, I do not get the impression that the agency is still in a shambles. My impression is that much has been done over the past few months.
Reference has been made to the report of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. In his evidence to the Select Committee on 1 February, the ombudsman noted, having spoken to the new chief executive of the agency,
"I formed a very positive view of Miss Chant's resolution to put matters on a firm and better footing."
The agency is doing much to ensure that matters are placed on a better footing and that more people are being devoted to the job in hand to get it done.
Motivation in the agency is high. The staff need the support and help which I believe they are now receiving. We have seen a major turn around in the past few months and over the past year.
Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak): Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever difficulties exist in relation to the administration of the Child Support Agency, the members of staff who deal with the correspondence and inquiries of hon. Members on behalf of our constituents have always been courteous and helpful and always try to expedite matters as quickly as possible?
Mr. Faber: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen no signs to the contrary. However, in some ways, it is a sad reflection that we need a specific targeted telephone line for Members of Parliament. My only criticism of the agency is that it would be nice occasionally if some of our constituents, who clearly have great problems getting through to the agency, had the silver service that is available to us.
We have a wonderful service and the people who are targeted to look after us do their job extremely well, as do all the staff. However, it would be nice if, occasionally, some of the administrative burden was taken from us and if our constituents could obtain answers directly from the agency. That is what the new chief executive is trying to achieve. Work is being undertaken to improve the system. I am sure that the House would want to send its strongest support to those who work in the agency.
I have referred to the agency's work burden and to what the Bill does to alleviate that burden. The deferment of non-benefit cases where a court order or a written maintenance agreement was in place prior to April 1993, is most welcome. Such a decision should have been taken on policy grounds and not purely on administrative grounds. In that respect, I differ with the hon. Member for Birkenhead.
Where agreement is not reached, one parent or the other should have the right to call in the agency or to use its collection service. However, I cannot for the life of me see any reason why, where maintenance has been agreed amicably and a court order has been handed down in a proper manner, the agency should have any role to play. If the taxpayer is happy, the parents are amicably happy about the arrangement and, most important, if the children are adequately cared for within the arrangement, I see no reason why the state in the form of the agency should be involved. I hope that the deferment of those cases will be indefinite. We have not heard a date until which they will be deferred.
Column 54We have also heard talk of the 30 per cent. cap that has been put on assessments. That is an important move. Many of the public relations problems that the agency has faced have arisen out of nothing more than the total amount which the absent parent has been asked to pay. It seems right that some cap should be put on the total sum that a parent can be asked to pay and 30 per cent. seems the right amount.
The Bill and the regulations accompanying it contain other measures which reflect the views of the Select Committee and are therefore, as the hon. Member for Birkenhead pointed out, warmly welcomed. It would be churlish not to welcome them. Interest payments on arrears and the fees which were charged by the agency have caused huge resentment among absent parents. They were seen as an extra burden on top of everything else. Non- enforcement of arrears and the interest on those arrears in certain circumstances, coupled with the deferment of fees for at least two years, will help remove the administrative irritation which has created so much opposition to the agency. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne and the hon. Member for Birkenhead referred to the activities of the anti-CSA organisations. My hon. Friend complained that, as parliamentarians, we were unduly targeted and lobbied by those who opposed the Child Support Agency. I submit that, as parliamentarians, we are used to being lobbied and we are able to look after ourselves. Threats such as, "You will lose your seat at the next election," do not always wash with us in any case.
What is more sinister and what we as Members of Parliament, our families and those who work within the agency should not have to put up with is threatening behaviour and campaigning. I have received several personal threats. Such behaviour is simply intolerable. If people want to change the way in which the agency operates, they should concentrate on political campaigning and put any personal threats to one side.
In that context, I should like to comment on some of the press and media reporting of the issue and in particular on the few, but tragic cases of suicide which the press and media have sought to attribute to the activities of the CSA. Divorce is always traumatic; it is always extremely difficult for the people involved. In many cases, all too tragically, it may lead to suicide or suicidal feelings. It is irresponsible and wrong for the media and people associated with the campaign against the CSA to suggest that the agency was directly responsible in any way for the suicide of certain people. However tragic and desperate those cases may have been it would be wrong not to see them in the wider context of a separation and divorce, which the people in question will clearly have gone through. It was irresponsible of the media to have pretended otherwise.
I wish to sound one small note of disappointment and one word of related caution about the Bill. In its report, the Select Committee unanimously recommended that the Government consider replacing the term "absent parent" with "non-custodial parent". Throughout our report the term "non-custodial" is used. I have no doubt that for hundreds of thousands of fathers throughout the country and a few mothers, the term "absent parent" is pejorative and even insulting. I hope that the Government will reconsider the matter.
Column 55The Government's official response to the Select Committee report was disappointing. They gave the following reason:
"`Non-custodial' is not appropriate for two main reasons: firstly, in the 1989 Children Act `custody' was replaced by residence as the legal arrangement for the care of children; and, secondly, the term implies that the person with care of the child also has `custody' of that child, which may not actually reflect the position." We could debate all day the implementation of the Children Act 1989. It would make an interesting debate for a Wednesday morning. It is one of the most abused pieces of legislation that the House has passed in recent years. It is often deliberately misrepresented by the very practitioners who are paid to implement it, from the courts down.
Although "residence" may now be the technical legal term, the term "custody" is widely understood, especially when used in the term "shared custody". I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reconsider the matter. The term "absent parent" causes great grief to many people. It is a pejorative term and it can be considered an insulting term.
My word of warning is not directly associated with the Bill but it arises out of the Bill. The Bill highlights the appalling difficulties in dealing with social issues. At the weekend there was a great deal of media comment in which the imminent publication of a White Paper on divorce law reform was predicted. If such a White Paper is published, I have no doubt that it will broadly reflect the Green Paper that the Government published last year. If that is so, it will undoubtedly contain much that is admirable for those involved and much that is good for the children. However, I have to warn the Government that it will also contain much that is anathema to many people, especially many absent or non-custodial parents and many who have gone through the trauma of divorce. I hope that the Government will take note of the strength of feeling that has greeted the Child Support Agency and think very carefully before introducing divorce law reform on the Floor of the House.
Legislating for children and divorced couples in today's society is, I am sad to say, something that we have to do but which is nigh on impossible to achieve satisfactorily. Divorce is probably the most traumatic event that any person can go through in his or her life. It is even more traumatic than bereavement in the family. As we have seen only too accurately from the Bill and the publicity surrounding it, the problems and trauma can stay with people for many years, possibly for ever.
I congratulate the Government and particularly my hon. Friend the Minister, who has done so much to listen and act on the problems highlighted by the Select Committee and all Members of Parliament, as they have seen them reflected in their constituencies. The Bill will improve provision for assessment, collection and enforcement of child maintenance payments. It will make payments fairer and improve the service offered by the agency. Above all, I hope that it will ensure that maintenance is paid to the children.
Column 561991 is beyond repair. We are all in favour of the principle. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are in favour of all parents paying for the upkeep of their children. That is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the operation of the Child Support Agency and the Act.
The Bill before us tinkers at the edges. It does not go nearly far enough. The Government have had their chance and they have failed. The Child Support Act has had its chance and has also failed. That is why I tabled a reasoned amendment. I felt that this Bill did not go far enough. That is why I would like to see the original Child Support Act repealed. I honestly wish that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen had come out and said today that they were in favour of repealing the Act. I am disappointed that they were unable to do that.
Mr. Field: I am aware that the Liberal Democrats, of whom I usually speak with great favour, as the hon. Lady knows, are against the second Bill. She speaks about the first Bill, which has become an Act. Why did she not table an amendment which said that she wanted to scrap the Act?
Ms Lynne: I tabled such a reasoned amendment, but because it did not relate to the Bill before the House today, it was ruled out of order. I said in the reasoned amendment that I would like to see the Child Support Act repealed. It was ruled out of order. The official Opposition also tabled a reasoned amendment. It declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill before us today. I am in favour of the principle that all parents should support their children. We have here an Act that is crumbling before our eyes, and the Government are putting a coat of whitewash on it. I do not believe that that is enough.
The Bill contains the sound of silence on many issues. My noble and learned Friend Earl Russell, in a letter to the Chairman of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, said that
"almost every important substantive decision is left to be made by regulation and the Bill itself creates little more than a series of regulation making powers".
There are 30 clauses in the Bill and three schedules, and I have counted 42 mentions of regulations, orders or "may be prescribed". That is government by decree, and it is neither democratic nor efficient. It is not democratic because we cannot adequately debate what is before us today.
Schedule 2 of the Bill deals with the creation of powers to make regulations for departures from the formula, but it does not say specifically what those powers will be. The schedule does not say exactly what will happen. It is all regulation, orders and "may be prescribed". We want flexibility in the formula, but the Government talk about departures from the formula without spelling out what they mean.
The problem with the Act was that it was totally inflexible but the Bill does not make any changes to that whatsoever, and that is why I cannot support it. How can
Column 57we possibly debate a sequence of regulation- making powers? That is what we have been asked to do today. The Government may say that we need flexibility, and I agree, but we need flexibility not only in the Act, but in the Government.
Hon. Members will have received a deluge of letters and studies about how the Act is working. The majority of members of the all-party child support monitoring group, of which I happen to be the vice-chair, have been told that the Government's proposals will not make a blind bit of difference to parents with or without care. Hon. Members will still get letters about the matter and people in their surgeries who are concerned about it because this Bill will not change much at all.
The Act is discredited, and it should be repealed. It does not have the confidence of anyone it affects--either the parent with care or the parent without care. If the Act does not have the confidence of those people, how can it possibly work? The parents will not co-operate.
We have talked about a maintenance disregard, but there is nothing in the Bill for such a disregard for a parent with care. The so-called absent parent would have an incentive to pay if he thought that the parent with care was going to get more money for the child, as the child must be at the centre of the scheme.
People who lose income support can also lose passported benefits such as free school meals. The Government have come up with a maintenance bonus of £5 a week if a parent gets work for more than 16 hours. The ceiling on that bonus is £1,000, but that would quickly be eaten up by child care costs. The Government should be talking about a child care disregard and tapering benefits if they want to get people back to work.
What about the much-trumpeted opportunity for departure from the formula in the Bill? The Government say that we need more flexibility, but they still seem to be wedded to the idea of the formula. Or are they? They are not wedded to the formula for pre-1993, non-benefit cases, and they say that those can still be decided by the courts. The Government say that they might get around to those cases in the future, but they are dealing only with benefit cases at the moment because they want to get money back for the Treasury.
Departures may be allowed--in the Secretary of State's words--in certain "tightly defined circumstances". It would be up to the Secretary of State to judge--according to unspecified
regulations--whether an appeal for a departure is granted. I do not believe that parents with or without care will be mollified by that. In April, property settlements of over £5,000 will be taken into account, and that will make a marginal difference. For example, someone who has settled for £25,000 will be £9 a week better off. After 1997, more departures from the formula may be addressed. The Act should not have been made retrospective in the first place, and that is why it is so discredited. The principle was good, but I cannot believe that it can be made to work now. People should have been fully consulted before the Act was brought in. They were not, and that is why it is in such a shambles.
Mr. Hendry: Is the hon. Lady saying that there should be no element of retrospection at all? If so, does she think that it would have been fair that an absent or non-custodial parent who got divorced the day after the Act came into
Column 58force would have to pay £20 or £30 a week for child care, whereas someone divorced the day before the Act came into force would pay nothing?
Ms Lynne: I do not know whether it would have been fair, but it would have been a way to make the Act work. The reason it is not working is because of its retrospective elements. Some people have made clean-break settlements, taken out hire purchase agreements, married again and had two children by their second family. The Act did not work because it was retrospective. That proposal may or may not have been fair, but it would have made sure that the Child Support Act worked a lot better.
Mr. Frank Field: While we understand why the hon. Lady wants the Child Support Act removed from the statute book, we all know that it will not be removed. We must look for reforms, and I regard the retrospective nature of the measure as its fatal weakness. In the circumstances, will she support the idea that--as there is a 30 per cent. cap on disposable income on richer parents regarding their contribution of maintenance--there could be a cap of 20 per cent. or 15 per cent. on those families for whom the Act is clearly retrospective?
Ms Lynne: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. If the Bill is passed today, the hon. Gentleman's suggestion could be a way forward. I would like to see the Bill defeated and also the repeal of the Child Support Act, but, sadly, I think that that will not happen.
Let us look at some other matters, such as the 15-mile travel-to-work disregard. As the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) said, it is 15 miles as the crow flies and does not take into account the route taken to work. Nobody can get to work as the crow flies. A 15-mile trip to work makes 30 miles a day and 150 miles a week, but the money will be paid only after those 150 miles have been travelled, and at a rate of 10p a mile. No company gives 10p a mile for travel costs, and hon. Members would be extremely worried if they were offered 10p a mile for their travel costs.
I am pleased that the costs of travelling to see a child may be taken into account if there is a departure from the formula and if the regulations state that a parent can appeal against it. That does not go far enough, and it will not deal with my constituents who have been affected by the measure. A man was in my surgery the other week in floods of tears--all hon. Members will have had such cases--because he used to visit his son, who lives miles away. I doubt whether the man lived far enough away to be covered by the new measures in the Bill, but he lived far enough away from his son for it to cost him too much money to visit. His maintenance payments had increased and he told his ex-wife that he could not get there. Their divorce had been very acrimonious and when the son asked his mother why daddy wasn't coming to see him any more she said, "Because daddy doesn't love you any more". That was why the man was in floods of tears--he had telephoned his son, who refused to speak to him. It is not an isolated case, as it is happening in constituency after constituency. Now, we have this Bill and it is not good enough.
What about appeals? They will not be independent. I am glad that housing costs may be taken into account for the second family and the children of that family, but the Child Support Act 1991 was a Government initiative and it is not doing what it set out to do. I supported it in the
Column 59first place because of what it set out to do. I sincerely thought that the Secretary of State and the Minister were listening to what we and the all-party child support monitoring group were saying. If they had been listening, they would have come up with a little more than we have in this Bill.
The White Paper said, "Children come first." That has a very hollow ring today. The Act is in a shambles and neither parent--the one with or the one without care--has seen any benefits from it. If the non-co-operation continues, case loads will get longer, settlements will take longer and the morale of support agency staff will get lower. People are already refusing to work for the CSA because they do not want the hassle and I cannot blame them.
The 1991 Act should not have been retrospective. Just before Christmas, 340,000 cases were deferred. The Government are indulging in crisis management. This is the second time that they have had to come to the Dispatch Box to make changes. How many more times will they have to come here to change the Act? Why do they not wake up to the fact that it is fundamentally flawed, and that parents with care and so-called absent parents alike see it as a Treasury support Act? In response to the report of the Social Security Select Committee, the Secretary of State said that they should base performance targets on benefit reduction. Even he was admitting that it is a Treasury support Act.
Children's welfare must come first, which is why I want the Act repealed. We must go back to the drawing board, reconsider, have proper consultation with all interested parties--not piecemeal consultation, or consulting and not listening--and come back with a unified family court system, which is something that the majority of people on all sides of the debate want. It has not been tried before. The Government could then set up a collection agency. They could use CSA staff if they must, but they will have to rename the agency and use it as a collection agency. Even the Children Act talked of the necessity for a unified family court system that could deal with maintenance and all family law issues. The court would have to have full investigative powers. The collection agency would have to be allowed to do its job. The Act and the courts have failed--they were not proper family courts--and no one has collected or enforced the settlements. People got away with not paying and no one bothered to chase them. We need co- operation and flexibility, and a unified family court system would provide that.
The Child Support Act has not worked because the Government did not consult properly beforehand. As I have said, and will continue to say, the principle that all parents should support their children is right but, if we are not careful, the agency will sink further if more people do not co- operate. People were hoping that, after their representations, the Government would produce something concrete so that they could say, "Yes, the Government have listened to us." But we have got this meagre Bill. I hope that in the long term we will repeal the 1991 Act and start again from the beginning with full consultation. In the meantime, I will vote for the reasoned amendment.
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Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): I am pleased to be able to follow the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne). I had not expected to get the opportunity to speak, as I thought that the House would be packed and we would be overwhelmed by hon. Members wishing to speak. I am pleased to find that I have a chance to join the discussion about what I would describe as the VSA, or various support agencies, because my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State for Social Security and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have taken immense pains to consult and to listen to the results of those consultations. It has not been an easy row to hoe and I am obliged to my hon. Friend for accepting a number of the points that were important to me, even though I hardly flatter myself into believing that mine were the only representations that weighed with him. The new Bill will go a long way to meeting many of the problems. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that, if we could only repeal the Child Support Act 1991, and start again, we would have some sort of magic formula. The fact that the unified family court system has some considerable merits does not exclude the likelihood that people would come in equal numbers to our surgeries to complain about its behaviour as readily as they now complain about the Child Support Agency.
The truth of the matter is that this is a delicate part of human affairs. It is full of pain, anger, dismay and, in many cases, financial difficulty. In those circumstances, no new name or formula will eradicate people's desire to complain to Members of Parliament or anyone else who will listen. It was a bit rich of the hon. Member for Rochdale to complain that discretion was not tightly defined--the very nature of discretion is that it should not be so tightly defined, so I have difficulty with that idea.
The way in which Ministers have handled controversy over the agency is a vindication of our political system. When one sees Ministers traipsing through the Lobby late at night, or being summoned back from important international meetings to play their part in the voting arrangements of this place, one sometimes thinks that it is a barmy way to run the country. There is tremendous merit, however, in having members of the Executive drawn from ordinary constituencies and having to face their own electors and correspondents. This issue has been a good example of that.
I listened with care to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber), who made an admirable speech. Like him, I regret the fact that the 1991 Act was retrospective, but the changes will help. It is important for us to consider the context in which the Act was brought into being. It is terribly important to remind young people of the continuing responsibility to children that they must undertake when they have children of their own.
The CSA is a tangible and recognisable statement by society that children should not be "lightly entered into"--in the words of the old Church of England marriage service--but are a continuing responsibility and are now recognised as such. Few people enter marriage with the intention of allowing the relationship to break down but, these days, thousands of people every year go into marriage with their hopes and their confidence in their capacity to sustain the relationship over a long period at such a low level that we are all paying the heavy cost of that. It is not just the financial costs, although my right