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Column 61hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminded us that it costs £8.5 billion to support single parents. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said in a remarkable speech, that is a massive sum for taxpayers to bear. It is also a huge cost in human misery and pain, not merely for the parents, although it can be extremely costly in emotional terms, but for the children, some of whom never recover from the experience and many of whom take many years to overcome the difficulties.
We must be careful not to consider the Child Support Agency's financial remit as an isolated element in the whole business of sustaining marriage in a better way. One or two hon. Members have already said that, where good relations exist between former spouses, it is important that the CSA should respond in ways that do not damage those good relations. For example, there are endless stories about people whose good arrangements for seeing their children are in danger of being undermined. I hope that the new discretions and concessions will make that easier to deal with.
One of the reasons why the CSA appears to be an isolated element of our provisions for coping with family breakdown is cross-departmental boundaries. Given that it is now clearly predictable that, if a marriage breaks down, the parent without care will be required to pay for the maintenance of the children of that marriage, cannot that be taken into account and codified before divorce is granted? In new cases, it is unnecessary to have a long, drawn-out procedure continuing after the divorce. Manifestly, in cases where the parents were divorced before the setting up of the CSA, we can do nothing about that, but we must look carefully at making the CSA's demands part of the divorce settlement.
I am delighted that travel-to-work costs and pre-existing debts are being taken into account. Many couples enter into those financial commitments with no idea that their marriage will break up. Some couples enter into financial commitments, such as a job that involves heavy travel costs, or costly home improvements, with the desire to save their marriage, and others enter into those commitments with no idea that their marriage will break down. It has always seemed grossly unfair to expect those commitments to be totally ignored and it is a tremendous step forward that they will be taken into account.
On penalties for late payment, how willing is the CSA to accept responsibility in cases where its actions are involved in the delays? I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister about the clear case of a constituent of mine who knew that his assessment was grossly more than it should be. He offered to pay the sum that he thought appropriate, but the CSA refused to accept payment of less than its original demand. Many months later, after an enormous amount of to-ing and fro-ing--I have seen the correspondence--the CSA finally admitted that my constituent's original contention was wholly correct. Had he paid what was originally demanded, the agency would have had to repay him more than £3,000, but because it would accept nothing less, he is now being taxed with not only arrears but interest on those arrears. That is simply not on and I hope that, under the new arrangements, the agency can be flexible in that respect.
Discretion is a great historical difficulty for Social Security Ministers. Whenever new social security legislation is introduced, the desire is to have no discretion but to have clear,
straightforward and simple legislation. Within 10 minutes, however, the first pressure
Column 62group, whether for the disabled or some other group, presents a cast-iron case for saying that the formula cannot work and the Minister, usually to the applause of the assembled House, gives way and an element of discretion creeps in. Before long, the system is so full of discretions that everyone complains that it is grossly unfair and the anomalies are hopeless, and the Government of the day are pilloried for running a system that does not work.
That is exactly what will happen in this case. The CSA was created with a clear remit to have as crisp and clear a formula as possible, with no discretions. We have now discovered that there must be some discretion in the system. I record for posterity that I welcome the arrival of discretion, but I am fully aware that, some years down the track, we shall all complain that the system is not predictable. I share the concern of the corn-fed shadow Minister--although he claimed to be corn fed, he would agree that he is not a chicken--that appeals may become too formal. For different reasons, he and I both have considerable experience of the children's hearings system in Scotland, which is the equivalent of the juvenile court. Given how long that system has existed--it was introduced in 1967--it has maintained a degree of informality that many courts would welcome. I hope that we can arrive at an appeals system that is as informal as possible.
I am amazed at the relatively small number of hon. Members in the Chamber for the debate. The subject has dominated my surgery week after week, and I am sure that it must have dominated the surgeries of many other hon. Members. I hope that their absence is a tribute to the recent manifest improvements in the workings of the CSA and the public's perception of it. I trust that it has nothing to do with any fear of intimidation by opponents of the Act, about which we have heard from other hon. Members. It is important to draw attention to the disgraceful behaviour of some people opposed to the CSA. It is a symptom of one of the weaknesses in our current political system that single-issue groups are becoming increasingly important within it. I accept that they frequently provide Back Benchers with helpful information and useful ammunition for use in debates and in Committee, because we cannot draw upon the resources of Whitehall Departments for our research. Some of those groups, however, have got so carried away by their own effectiveness and organisation that they are becoming violent, threatening and damaging to the political process. Whether it be animal rights, the CSA or anything else, I am now predisposed to vote against violent pressure groups, almost regardless of the validity of their argument, simply because, in a democracy, I regard their actions as disgraceful. After all, those pressure groups have great access to considerable powers of persuasion without going down that violent route.
The Bill is welcome because it enshrines a great many of the improvements for which hon. Members on both sides of the House have lobbied Ministers. I commend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for having taken on board so many of the anxieties that have been expressed. I am sure that the hon. Member for Birkenhead is right: we shall need to revisit the system when the changes to it have settled down. Should we need to modify it yet again, no one should regard that as a defeat.
Column 63I would be sorry if the CSA was regarded as separate from the rest of society's efforts to keep families together. Changes in the way in which we support families and children and those threatened by divorce should be taken into account when we consider the work of the CSA. Its work should not be corralled into a separate box, because it impinges greatly on the way in which families, and second families in particular, function. The CSA's very existence says something loud and clear about the way in which British people view the breakdown of a marriage.
Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen): The hon. Member for Mid- Kent (Mr. Rowe) commended the Under-Secretary. Perhaps I should just add that, faced with the summer Government reshuffle, he was one of the few Ministers who viewed that event almost with happiness. It is credit to his stoicism that he has ridden the storm and continues to take responsibility for the Child Support Agency.
I did not agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne), except about the number of regulations, diktats and orders that the Government issue after a Bill has been passed. The Government's growing tendency to rely on such regulations is unacceptable. I do not agree with the hon. Lady that the CSA's current operations are a shambles. That is far too strong a word, given the problems that the agency has faced.
I am more in agreement with the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber). A year ago, I, too, came close to thinking that the CSA was almost beyond hope. I thought that if it were not to be scrapped, it needed to be reformed radically. A year later, I am convinced that we can make the system work, although I do not believe that the Bill goes far enough to achieve that.
One of the problems with the CSA is almost a repeat of those encountered with the disability living allowance. A completely new computer system had to get up and run for the United Kingdom without any pilot project. The staff had to amend that system as they worked, so the backlog which built up is partly due to that untried computer system. Now the system is beginning to work.
I know about the gradual success of the system because I visited the local CSA centre in Birkenhead under a fortnight ago. That centre deals with all the cases from Wales and the north-west of England. It employs 800 staff-- 700 whole-time staff--and deals with about 1,500 case applications a week. At any one time, 40,000 cases are awaiting assessment, so the centre's work load is enormous. In addition to those staff, there are 1,700 field staff nationally, about four of whom are attached to each Department of Social Security office. Those field staff, who are often overlooked, are among the most important staff of the agency. They represent the CSA's interface with the public. They meet people to discuss their applications and they already exercise some discretion as they negotiate the terms on which arrears are paid. I know from the staff that, in some cases, it will take 15 years for the current arrears to be paid. That is a symptom of the strain that the system has been under as staff have tried to get it off the ground.
Column 64Those field staff will be charged with a further discretion, as they will chase down the relevant data and trace those absent fathers who have proved difficult to track down. I know from my discussions with the staff that they now enjoy higher morale than previously, because they feel that they have gone through the trough and have come out the other side. They now believe that they are far more successful than the courts ever were in tracking down parents who have failed to take responsibility for their children.
I disagreed with the hon. Member for Rochdale, who argued that we should abandon the current system in favour of a new court-based one. Given the two years' experience gained by the CSA, to abandon it for something new presents me with another nightmare. I would rather the current system was made to work. A court system would not necessarily deal with parents who deny parentage. How would it deal with a mother who did not marry the father of her children? The CSA is seeking to deal with such difficult cases and a court system might be unable to tackle them.
The agency staff to whom I spoke welcome the proposed changes to regulations, but they believe that the current formula is still too complex. Although the staff understand the hugely complex calculations that they must make, they are thankful that a computer system does those calculations for them. The calculations are made to the penny. As a result of minor changes to the data fed into the system, two separate calculations can be made, resulting in two quite different maintenance assessments. I suggest that that arrangement is one of the reasons for the large number of wrong assessments, for which the CSA was criticised in the recent report by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Has it ever been considered that calculations should be made to round pounds rather than pennies? That might not solve all the problems, but it might lead to fewer wrong assessments being made.
The staff told me that they felt that the proposals in the White Paper demonstrated that they, as the staff who must implement our proposed changes, had been listened to for the first time. I hope that the Government will not consider the Bill as the final reform of the CSA. I hope that they will continue to review its work and, if necessary, return to the House where it is obvious that further change needs to be made. I do not think that that is a reason to criticise the Government. It is something to welcome, and it demonstrates an openness that we might wish to be shown in other aspects of the implementation of Government policy.
I ask the Minister to take special care, as the new changes are introduced, to ensure that the targets that are set for the agency are achievable. Staff must play an important part in consultation before the targets are set.
The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has said that efficient service should be given higher priority as a target than benefit savings. I was told that benefit savings were notional anyway; therefore, they were difficult targets to achieve and perhaps, for the same reason, could be easy targets for the agency to say that it had achieved. The value of benefit savings as targets is questionable.
I wish to echo and emphasise the opinions expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) in the intervention that she made on the speech of the Secretary of State, when she
Column 65called for greater support for civil servants, especially those who take telephone calls from members of the public.
I was able to visit the call handling section at Birkenhead, where there are 50 people, the newest staff. That is the highest pressure point of the agency, and I watched the staff taking calls and heard them describe the problems that they have to tackle. They receive initial training and are then given hands-on work to do and learn as they go along.
Thought must be given to ways in which we can support the staff, who tell me--I was astonished when they said it--that all the telephone calls that they receive from absent parents are abusive. I said, "Surely not all?" but all the absent parents who telephone have wound themselves up to such an extent that they ring the agency, and they are abusive or angry and aggressive in their interactions with staff.
The staff told me that many of the telephone calls from parents with care are also abusive. If the calls are not abusive, they are from people who are upset. Frequently, the staff become upset when they find themselves talking to people at the other end of the telephone who are in desperate circumstances.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt): I am grateful to the hon. Lady, to whom I could listen for a long time, for giving way. Did she sense, as I did when I was there, listening to exactly the same things, that one of the reasons people were previously so angry when they came on the telephone was that they had tried to get through and failed so often? The system that we have introduced, which is in use in Birkenhead and employs many more people on the telephones, cuts through that. People are not now so wound up and, after they have spoken to the team, they feel much better about matters, often because they have been able to get through and to have a simple question answered.
Mrs. Kennedy: I think that that would be borne out by what I was told, but I was given the impression that people were full of anger or were upset when they first came on the telephone. The staff on the receiving end had to deal with that. As the Under-Secretary says, better systems are in place now. Staff are able to talk people down from their high emotional state, but that takes a toll on staff. Thought needs to be given to what training and support can be given to the staff who do that work.
Disappointingly, the threats continue. I had gained the impression that the hoo-ha had, to an extent, died down. At one time, we received a great deal of mail about the Child Support Agency, but it appeared to slacken off. However, staff at Birkenhead told me that they continue to have to cope with unacceptable behaviour from some of the people with whom they deal. Indeed, an X-ray machine has been installed at Birkenhead to help to intercept, as they come through the door, the fake bombs that have been sent to the agency, and the razor blades--which have been mentioned--which continue to be received frequently, so much so that a team of people check the mail and open it. That is all that those people do, all day long. Unfortunately, the X-ray machine does not intercept the excrement that is occasionally posted to the Child Support Agency offices.
Column 66It is important that Members of the House understand the pressures that we have imposed on civil servants as we expect them to carry out perhaps the most controversial piece of legislation and the most dramatic change in the way that we deal with families in our society.
As recently as Christmas, threats were made to some of the staff and the families of staff, especially those who have been unjustly identified in the media. I wish to add my name to those of hon. Members who have commended the work of the staff and condemned the actions of those who have threatened or endangered in any way the health and well-being of the staff, who have simply tried to do the best job that they can.
It is not all doom and gloom. When I met the agency staff, I became aware of how much more positively they were feeling. They are starting to receive thank-you letters. The agency's work is not universally disregarded, and a range of people benefit from it; in particular, parents with care are starting to benefit.
I am told that about 95 per cent. of the parents with care with whom the Birkenhead office deals are women. Those women are starting to write to agency staff to thank them when their maintenance is sorted out. Those parents with care are also able to say that, because maintenance is now part of the benefits on which they depend, they have options that they did not have previously, when they depended entirely on means-tested benefits. Some women have written to say that they are going to college. Some are even taking jobs, because there is less fear of the poverty trap. Some parents with care say that they feel better about their position.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for all parents with care. Not all absent parents are happy, and people on benefits whose ex-partners--or the absent parents of their children--are on benefits receive little or no help. I am told that Birkenhead has abandoned only those cases where the parent with care has failed to return the form--much has been said about why parents with care do not return the forms--or where no maintenance can be paid. Those are cases where the absent parent is on benefit and there is little financial return for the child or the parent with care or, indeed, the Treasury--the taxpayer. However, staff at Birkenhead told me that they would not abandon a case where the parent with care insisted that some attempt be made to gain maintenance.
Perhaps we need to accept the fact that the agency will not be able to sort out the feckless fathers--if one wants to call them that--whom many hon. Members on both sides of the House wanted to be brought to book and made accountable for their own children. As there is no financial benefit to the taxpayer, the temptation has been to abandon those cases altogether.
On page 10, the White Paper talks about producing a scheme designed to ensure that
"the system produces fair and consistent results".
I want to take issue with the use of the word "fair". It has been used by speaker after speaker in the debate, and I wonder why we seek to invest with fairness a system that will continue to implement a rigid formula, although with some discretion.
The word "fairness" has certain connotations. When one is dealing with family breakdown or the type of very sensitive circumstances with which the agency deals, there will always be someone who is able to say, with
Column 67some justification, "This is not fair," so I object to the use of the word. We need to take more account of whether the system works efficiently and effectively than of whether it is fair. By that, I am not saying that it should be unfair; it is simply that connotations accompany that word.
In the most recent major debate that we held on the issue, one hon. Gentleman--I hope that he will forgive me for not remembering who it was-- spoke about not requiring the Child Support Agency to exercise the judgment of Solomon. It does not seek to apportion blame; it simply seeks to calculate maintenance on the basis of a formula. For me, the hardest and least fair cases are those where the absent parent is a man who has, in his terms, lived an honourable life. He is married with children and his wife leaves him, takes the children and, in some cases, the house as well. He sees himself as having lost everything. He does not deny that he is required to pay maintenance; he wants to pay maintenance because he sees it as a continuation of his responsibility. In some cases, his former wife worked, so between them they maintained their home. After the break-up of the family, she may find a new partner who is wealthy enough for her not to work, so she gives up work. The absent parent finds that his own maintenance requirement is increased because his former wife has given up work. In no circumstances could one persuade that person that the case was fair. We must disentangle the concept of fairness, and say that it is the right and proper maintenance for him to pay as his children will benefit from his wealth and income as a result. The question we need to ask ourselves about the Bill is whether the changes proposed--either in regulations or the Bill--increase the agency's efficiency and performance. The Bill contains half the changes to child support announced in the White Paper and allows for departures from the usual rules for determining maintenance assessments. Those departures will be allowed only in cases where the absent parent incurs necessary expenses that are not allowed for in the formula and where failure to take them into account would result in hardship.
How do we define hardship? The White Paper states that it will not be defined in arithmetical terms. Who will define it? Will the agency staff define it? The system will result in a number of appeals. The Child Support Agency will first decide whether a departure from the formula should be allowed. If either parent is unhappy with the decision, he or she can ask for the matter to be considered by the child support appeal tribunal.
If the independent tribunal service deals with appeals, will it deal with those appeals as well as those arising from the new incapacity benefit and from the jobseeker's allowance? I foresee a strong likelihood of logjams of appeals. Sufficient resources, adequate training and supervision must be provided if past mistakes in dealing with such backlogs and logjams are not to rear their ugly heads again.
Mr. Rowe: I am listening with great attention to the hon. Lady's interesting and constructive speech. Her point about logjams of appeals is important. Is there not scope at least for considering whether, if it becomes apparent that many people are appealing for no reason other than to try to defer making any payments, there should be a mechanism for trying to control that?
Column 68Mrs. Kennedy: I hope that in Standing Committee there will be an opportunity to examine the appeals procedure, which will be put under great pressure as a result of the changes. I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. In my experience of dealing with appeal tribunals, it is the length of time that it takes for tribunals to be set up, and evidence to be collected and presented, that creates great problems. If there were a sifting system before that part of the process, would it be necessary to have an appeals procedure against a wrong decision at that stage? We must look at that possibility, but we must not make the grounds for appeal so restrictive that we build up more hostility to the agency and its work. We need the appeals system and its decisions to be supported and abided by, by both parents.
There will be a number of grounds for departure from the formula. There are the travel-to-work costs, the cost of caring for stepchildren, which is welcome, certain debts from the former relationship and the existence of pre-April 1993 capital and property settlements, which is not currently reflected in the assessment. Those factors are not listed in the Bill but are some of the items that will be determined by regulation.
I have three criticisms of that system. First, although regulations would allow for flexibility, I am concerned that there will be a consequent lack of parliamentary scrutiny of them. Secondly, as the Child Poverty Action Group states:
"we are concerned that the system of departure is rather convoluted, that CSA clients who are already confused by the different review and appeal routes will be even more perplexed as to what is happening"
as a result of the changes. I would go along with that. My third criticism is that, despite the promise of more staff, the agency may not be able to cope with the number of applications for departure that are bound to follow. Account must be taken of that.
Other changes to child support that are not contained in the Bill but are to be made by regulations are due to take effect in April. I understand that they have not appeared in draft form yet. It is questionable whether they can be effectively implemented by an already over-burdened agency. The changes appear in the White Paper and we have a summary, but they have not yet been published--
Mrs. Kennedy: I beg the Under-Secretary's pardon. I must obtain a copy. The point that I am making still holds good--the fact that the agency will have to have the changes ready for implementation by the end of April will place it under a lot of pressure. Thought must be given to a system that is to be introduced across the United Kingdom. Any absent parent who has had a complaint will look to the new regulations to see if his or her case can be reviewed. The backlog of cases will be enormous if the system is not handled properly. As the departure system requires primary legislation and will not be introduced until at least 1996, the changed regulations allow for a broad-brush adjustment to the formula to allow for past property settlements. Where the absent parent has transferred more than £5,000 of his or her share of equity, the allowance will fall into three bands. That allowance recognises only that the transfer took place;
Column 69it will not precisely reflect the settlement. Only when the new departure system is introduced will we be able to give more detailed consideration to such cases.
One of the reasons I shall support my hon. Friends' amendment, not the Bill's Second Reading--
The measure helps absent parents more than it does parents with care and contains nothing to combat the poverty of lone parents and their children. The lump sum bonus will not be introduced for two years, unlike the provisions for absent parents, which are to be introduced in four weeks. I concur with the criticisms of that issue made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). There is no mention of a maintenance disregard and absent parents on income support can, at present, have £2.30 deducted from their benefit in lieu of child maintenance, bringing them below subsistence level. The Social Security Advisory Committee has expressed concern at the increasing number of deductions that can be made from benefits--a retrograde step.
In previous debates on the subject I have asked for special consideration of, and investigation into, the effects on children of family break-up. Much of what we have been doing has focused on the costs and the financial benefits and returns for children. I asked for the Rowntree trust to be commissioned to carry out further research into the effect on children of family break-up. The welfare benefit system puts increasing pressure on families in poverty and makes it financially beneficial for partners to break up and live separately. We should be looking to reform that system so that lone parents are given support and helped out of the poverty trap. But parents who stick together should not be financially disadvantaged, the one compared to the other. We have an opportunity to do that. We cannot achieve that goal with the Bill, but the issue is becoming increasingly important.
Last week in Kensington in my constituency I went on a police patrol with my local constabulary. As well as the pleasure of driving around in a fast response car with flashing lights and going through red lights, I witnessed the patrol dealing with some serious incidents. One such incident the police described as a disturbance--I would have called it a riot. Sixty young people with an average age of 12 were fighting in a terraced street in my constituency. Although their average age was 12, most of them were drunk. They had got the alcoholic drink from somewhere--the police are investigating that. Problems are being created in our society as the result of the breakdown of families and one of the contributing factors is our benefit system. It behoves us to look at that system carefully to see whether there are ways in which we can reform it and make such incidents less likely to happen.
Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the Child Support Bill. I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy), whose speech typified the sensible and constructive approach that most hon. Members have adopted to the debate. The only sad part of her speech was when she informed us that she would not vote with the Government
Column 70tonight. Until that point, many of us had been seduced by her charm into thinking that she might; but we must live with that disappointment.
The Child Support Agency has been the subject of letters which have filled our postbags, and it has prompted many visits to our surgeries over a considerable time. Although we are now seeing a diminution in the number of such cases, hon. Members must not underestimate the importance that should be attached to reforming the workings of that agency.
At the outset of my speech, I pay a warm tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. They have listened to all reasonable arguments in an effort to ensure that the agency will work better, while the principles that lie behind it are retained. Their work has built on that of the Social Security Select Committee under the leadership of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). Their joint approach characterises the desire to find a way forward that enshrines the principles of the Child Support Act 1991 and of the agency while making the agency more acceptable to the people who are affected by its decisions.
It is with sadness that I exclude from my tribute the speech by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne). She did nothing to add to the value of the debate. She gave a typical Liberal commitment. She said that we could afford to pay more benefits to more people but that no one has to pick up the tab. In the best Liberal tradition, she promised everything to everyone in the knowledge that her party will never be in a position to deliver anything.
I also pay tribute to the work of community groups which, in most cases, have lobbied sensibly. I include in that group the child support action group in my constituency. Its approach to the issue could not be more different from the aggressive and objectional attitudes of some extreme groups elsewhere. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), I deplore completely the attitudes of the most extreme groups and the way in which they have intimidated many people. For example, they reminded my constituents that I hold a marginal seat--as if I were not aware of that already. I think about it every day and I shall live with that fact until the next election, when I shall increase my majority by leaps and bounds. That is only a small example of their intimidatory tactics.
We should be aware of another worrying factor. Even the more responsible groups which oppose the Child Support Agency have sought to create unnecessary fear. People who are worried about being investigated and who have turned to those groups for advice and support have received an unrealistically high estimate of the demands that the agency would place upon them. Every constituent who has been given a figure by a local group has discovered later that the real amount that he is expected to pay is much less than he feared initially. Even those groups which have sought to be more responsible than others have created fear in the community, and I believe that the House should deplore that consequence.
Today, we are examining the way in which the Government have listened to people's concerns and have decided to take action to ensure that the principles of the Act are retained while the agency is made more workable. Many hon. Members are concerned about the way in
Column 71which the agency has affected those people who have acted responsibly towards the children who no longer live with them. For example, a father in my constituency bought a house for his ex- wife following the marriage break-up. She then sold the house, spent the proceeds of the sale and moved from Derbyshire to the Western Isles of Scotland where she lives on income support. He made what he felt at the time was an extremely responsible commitment to his children, but found subsequently that he was being chased for more money and that he could no longer afford to visit his children in Scotland. That is patently wrong and I welcome the fact that capital transactions and gifts from one partner to another will be taken into account in determining the level of maintenance payments. I am also satisfied by the inclusion in the legislation of changes to travel-to-work rules. In my constituency--which is a commuter belt--people travel significant distances to work. However, we may wish to examine in Committee the limit of 15 miles as the crow flies. The Peak district is a mass of small, narrow, winding roads and one cannot travel to work as the crow flies because the old footpaths which were built on those routes are not widely used by commuters. Therefore, people travel significantly greater distances than 15 miles even though the actual distance between two points may be no more than that.
I welcome the recognition in the legislation of the fact that debts from former relationships should be taken into account on occasion. Two of my constituents whose marriage broke-up had bought a house with a small mortgage, but they borrowed a significant amount of money to renovate it and make it livable. In those circumstances, I think that it is reasonable that debts and loans should be taken into account.
The Government have recognised many of the practical problems which resulted from the original workings of the Act. I welcome, too, the fact that the full mortgage will now be taken into account when there is a second family. That will help those who have second families by taking into account the actual costs involved in maintaining them. The legislation contains a number of practical measures which will enable absent parents to provide more realistic support for their children. Arrears in payments will be limited to six months where the Child Support Agency has been at fault. That measure is extremely welcome, as is the fact that no fees will be charged for those assessments that are made between April 1995 and April 1997. The cap on amounts payable to 70 per cent. of income should prove extremely helpful. In the past, hon. Members have told their constituents that, in principle, they should not expect to pay more than two thirds of their salary in maintenance, only to find that they have had to pay much more than that. The 70 per cent. cap will be a great comfort to many people who are worried about the extent of their monetary commitment.
I believe that the measures represent responsible and reasonable steps, particularly where the legislation will be retrospective. Like some of my colleagues, I have general reservations about retrospective legislation. However, I have been persuaded--I made the point by way of
Column 72intervention during the speech by the hon. Member for Rochdale--that it would not be fair to treat those who were separated or divorced after the Act came into force differently from those who were divorced before the operation of the Act. That would not be good legislation and it would create rifts within communities, workplaces, villages and towns. We were correct to avoid that consequence, and we welcome the Government's response in recognising people's legitimate concerns. There is always a danger with retrospective legislation that people will have moved on and built new lives based on their current and foreseeable circumstances.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows of a constituency case with which I have been dealing. My constituent had what he believed was a cast-iron legal case: he had passed over property to his wife, and made a commitment to pay 5p a year towards the maintenance of his children in addition to a significant capital transfer. He assures me that he would never have made the commitment if he had been advised that at any point in the future it could be opened. He now finds that, because of the workings of the Act, the position has changed. My constituent may have been badly advised by his lawyers--I suspect that he was--but I think we are right to recognise that, having made a significant capital transfer in the past, he is less able to pay than others who have made no such transfer.
I have many reasons for supporting the Bill, because of the reasoned way in which the Government have put their case. One reason, however, is the flawed argument advanced by the Opposition. Many Opposition Members suggest that all who are unhappy about the claims being made on them will be entitled to appeal, but we know that--seductive though that is--it is not true. It is a liberal little suggestion, intended to be attractive; but ultimately, if there are to be exclusions and special appeals, by definition they will be available in only a small minority of cases. To suggest the possibility of a general appeal is to undermine the principle on the basis of which the Child Support Act was passed.
The Government are right to suggest a maintenance bonus when people return to work, rather than a general maintenance credit. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has come up with a much more realistic incentive for people to resume employment. Conservative Members know that the main barrier preventing single parents escaping from poverty is inability to work.
In an excellent and wide-ranging speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) spoke of his objection to the term "absent parent" when applied to the parent who is not looking after a child. I agree: I think that we should consider the term "non-custodial parent", to avoid being gratuitously offensive to many parents who are deeply involved in caring for their children and making the decisions that are necessary for their proper upbringing. Much anger is felt by parents who believe that they are contributing not just to their children but to their ex-partners, helping to maintain their standard of living and enabling them not to have to work after what may have been an acrimonious divorce or separation. I hope that we can deal with that problem as well. The workings of the agency have improved beyond recognition in the past couple of years. The number of complaints has fallen dramatically--although it has not fallen enough--and I welcome the pressure exerted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon.
Column 73Friend the Minister to secure a faster and more efficient response. Not only have there been delays in replying to letters, but in far too many instances letters have been lost and people have been asked for the same information not once but twice or three times. The agency sends a letter saying that a substantive reply will be sent within a certain number of days, and no reply is received after two or three times the period specified. That needs to be corrected quickly: such a correction would constitute the most rapid way of regaining people's support for the principle that underpins the Child Support Agency.
The principles of the 1991 Act remain paramount. They enjoy the support of people of all political persuasions, throughout the country. The Bill will make the Act work better--and that is in the interests of all of us, of our constituents and, above all, of the children in our constituencies.
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West): Today we are examining, and trying to understand, a changing map of income distribution and life chances, especially as those factors affect children. In the case of earlier generations our analysis would have included low pay, unemployment and the risk of disability; today we should also include family changes and insecurities as one of the major causes of poverty and dependency.
It is no surprise that--as the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) mentioned earlier--another Government Department, the Lord Chancellor's Office, is currently grappling with the fine detail of divorce law reform. Recent reports suggest that we may soon have a White Paper, and possibly legislation. That reform raises issues similar to those that we are now discussing.
It is also no surprise that another piece of social security legislation-- the Pensions Bill, which is now making its journey through another place-- has recently been amended significantly to allow for the impact of divorce on women and to entitle them to a share of the pension. That gives us a third example of the way in which, at long last, the force of trends in our society has caused family change to have an impact on the policy agendas that count. Indeed, there are many more examples.
We need to become more familiar with such complex territory if Parliaments and Governments are to make wise decisions in the future. The issues are more difficult than some with which the House has had to deal in the past: they are not only complex but emotional, raising fundamental questions about relationships between individuals, their families and the state. We are dealing with the raw edge of policy, and it is not surprising that that rawness should show itself not only in our debates but in our constituency surgeries.
Two couples visited me recently, on separate occasions. In both cases, one parent--the husband in one instance, the wife in the other--had discovered that his or her partner had had a child in a previous relationship; the existence of the child had come to light only as a result of the CSA's intervention. Each had had to contend with that dramatic information in the context of a new relationship. That husband in Croydon kept repeating, "I never knew: it is all new to me," as, understandably, he tried to get to grips with the matter. It is not surprising that the agency's blood-and- thunder policy has been so controversial.
Column 74The policy undermines a basic assumption that has been made by society and the welfare state--that a certain family model prevails. We have often assumed, at least implicitly, the existence of that model, based on the durability of marriage and the proposition that children are born within marriage. It has been assumed that their parents will remain married, happily or otherwise, at least until the children are in their teens or early 20s. As we know, that model is being increasingly challenged. I am always struck by the summary fact or projection that, by 2000, which is very soon, probably only half the children in Britain will have what we used to think of as a typical childhood--namely, being born in families in which the parents are married, and spending all their childhood and young adulthood with parents who are married, happily, I hope.
Already, 30 per cent. or more of children are born outside marriage. Those who are born inside marriage will sometimes see the divorce of their parents. It emphasises the point which many have emphasised in recent years: if we make policy on an assumption about typical families, increasingly we get it wrong. I repeat the point that it is not surprising that our policy agendas are becoming cluttered with significant items that deal with the impact of family change. Although I do not believe that all family change is associated with insecurity, much of it is, and therefore policy is grappling with family insecurity.
We are again assembled here to consider the financial costs of family change and how we as a Parliament and, indeed, the Government, grapple with those family costs. The issues are clear. The key questions are: what are the costs of family change? Who pays those costs? Who does not? What will be the implications of our answers on our law and our policy making? One fact that is abundantly clear from the Child Support Act--I mentioned it in a previous debate--is that children are very expensive. I sometimes think that, if a Department of Social Security or a Child Support Agency sent a bill to all parents itemising the cost of our children--the clothing, the shoes, the housing, the heating, the telephone calls, many of us would run away and desert.
The serious point that I am making is that, for parents who have had the misfortune to divorce or who live in other circumstances and are not living with their child, it is a shock when an agency says, "This is the cost of having a child in modern Britain." Most of us never see that bill, thank goodness, but for those who do, it is a shock, and I am not surprised that when confronted with it people say, "If I pay this bill for my child, I cannot live; I cannot spend the money that I want to spend on other things."
I sometimes get weary when people talk about all the expenses that should be taken into account before calculating the costs of one's child. I sometimes think that all parents should get to grips with the fact that paying for one's own children should be one of the early responsibilities that we take on and should not be at the bottom of the list after all sorts of other expenses are calculated. Having children is expensive. It brings joys, no doubt, but it also brings obligations--some financial. That is the issue with which we are trying to get to grips in difficult circumstances.
Some of the facts are clear, but possibly need restating. I am talking in general terms and in averages, and that, no doubt, is unfair to individuals. After divorce, women and children tend to be poorer, and fathers who have not
Column 75paid their maintenance in the past tend to be better off. Not only are their living standards unaffected, but if they are not paying maintenance they are often better off. It has been calculated that one in four children born this year in Britain will have parents who divorce before the child reaches the age of 16. Increasingly--although we are talking about minorities--we are talking not about tiny groups, but about many children in our society.
We are not just talking about divorce. The fastest-growing proportion of one-parent families are those that are headed up by a single, unmarried mother, who tend to be the most vulnerable, the most insecure, and certainly the poorest. While a staggering seven out of 10 one-parent families--I hope that this evidence is reasonably current--are on income support, the proportion of single, unmarried mothers is higher at about 85 per cent., according to the evidence that I have seen. The fastest-growing group--the single, unmarried mother--is also the poorest.
Since becoming a Member of Parliament just two and a half years or so ago in 1992, one of the things that has made the deepest impression on me as a constituency Member of Parliament is seeing a single, unmarried mother who presents at my advice surgery, often with child in arms, perhaps to get some help with heating, or perhaps her child has asthma or perhaps the mother has a health problem. When one finds out more about the circumstances, there is usually an absent father. I use that term advisedly. When one asks about the father--somewhat nervously--often he is not a factor. He is not around. He is certainly not paying any maintenance. He is not now involved with his own family. That equates with the evidence from the Department of Social Security survey a while ago on one-parent families, which showed that more than four out of 10
children--possibly 43 per cent.--had no contact with the absent parent, normally the father, following the breakdown of the family. That is a worrying fact. I see such a family every week in my surgery. The real issue is about what happens to the absent parent and why he often becomes absent. What that tells us about young men and the formation of those families requires a great deal of study and concern, not quick judgments. It worries me deeply. As I recall, from the studies that have been made of one-parent families throughout Europe and the European Union, there is something particularly British in the phenomenon of the large number of single, unmarried mothers. While many of the trends that we are discussing are on the march in the same direction throughout Europe, whether east, west, north or south, the large number of single, unmarried mothers seems to be a particularly British issue.
We should be concerned about that because there is an equation between being in a one-parent family, particularly one headed by a single, unmarried mother, and dependence on the state. While right and left may draw different conclusions, none of us can be happy about a situation in which so many of those young and vulnerable families, which include so many children, are now dependent on the state for housing--it is often poor, local authority housing that is badly heated, in bad repair and often has mould on the walls. They are dependent almost entirely on the state for income and often have far
Column 76too much contact, because of ill health or poor welfare, with the social services department, the hospital and other parts of the national health service.