Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Jenkin: May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his comment about the ratio of single-parent families in this country compared with those in our European competitor countries? He spoke about dependency. Are those two states in any way connected? In particular, does he think that perhaps the most highly developed social welfare system in Europe for a great many years, certainly in the early post-war years, that of Britain, has led to or has any connection with the high rate of divorce and single parenthood? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to proffer an alternative suggestion.

Mr. Wicks: I have an alternative analysis. I do not think that I would follow Charles Murray's new right analysis in the United States in terms of a correlation between welfare provision and the development of certain family forms. If I am told that there is evidence for that happening I will accept it because I have respect for evidence, which is an unusual characteristic in the House. I take evidence rather seriously.

The hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) has made an interesting point. Most young women in Europe are significantly postponing the birth of their first child into their mid or late 20s or early 30s and sometimes later. That explains why the average European Union--I mean European woman. I stumbled over European Union when I looked at the Secretary of State because I did not want to upset him. The average European woman is now having just 1.5 children, a child fewer than in the early 1970s.

Why are women in Europe having fewer children and successful career women having their children later? Why is it that a significant number of young women in Britain--I am talking not about those aged 12 or 13 but about women in their late teens and early 20s--are having children in disadvantageous economic and housing conditions? We should ask questions about the options and opportunities, or the lack of them, that we offer those young women. In a planned way or somewhere between planning and non- planning, such women have children and get locked into the cycle of dependency. That is a rather different perspective.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Is not one of the problems that has been identified over the past 10 to 20 years that many such young women feel that they can strike a blow for independence largely because they will receive benefits which at that early age seem to be worth a lot of money? It is only later that they realise that they are trapped in a state close to poverty because they are not provided with the amount of money that they had hoped they would get. The state is partly to blame for leading them into that predicament.

Mr. Wicks: Young women who think that on income support they can live the life of Reilly are making a grave mistake. When I see such families and sometimes visit the housing that has been allocated to them by public authorities, I feel sad that our young people and their children will live in that way not just for a few years but perhaps throughout the lifetime of those children. That is a poor option and I am desperately worried that too many of our young people and their children have to live that way.

Mrs. Jane Kennedy: Does my hon. Friend think that one of the reasons giving rise to that trend is that in a

Column 77

constituency such as mine over 50 per cent. of women who are registered as available for work have not worked for 10 years or have never worked in their lives and are very young? That is certainly worth investigation and should form part of a detailed study of trends and families in our society. The opportunities for work and for building their lives and gaining independence which may be available to young women in our European partner countries are not available to young women in my constituency. Therefore their roles are different.

Mr. Wicks: I accept that, and it reminds me of a related issue in a recent parliamentary answer from the Department of Employment. It drew on labour force survey data which showed that about six months ago 1 million of Britain's children lived in households in which the head was unemployed. The figure may be lower now because of falling unemployment. I hope that it is. The majority of people in that group were victims of long-term unemployment--that is to say, the head of the household had been unemployed for more than a year.

That relates to my hon. Friend's point because in some communities children are growing up without the model of a mother or father who has to get up early, have a shower, dress, go into a place called work, earn a wage that enables him to be independent and come home in the evening. Analysing and picturing such children becoming unemployed enables us to explain some of the issues that concern the House. It need not be like that. While seven out of 10 of our one-parent families draw income support, in other societies, such as that in Sweden, which I do not say is perfect, the head of seven out of 10 one-parent families is in the labour market. Although on average their incomes are lower than those of two-parent families, there is not the same poverty and the same dependence on the state. Although on the political right there is talk of a dependency culture, I prefer to speak about a dependency state because the word culture seeks to blame the victim. We should be blaming ourselves for what has happened to the framework of rights and full employment policies which has undermined opportunities for young people. I certainly see the challenge in social policy, and it relates to the Child Support Act 1991, and how to move resources from dependency and breakdown to investment.

During Question Time it was revealed that social security spending is now at a record level. I do not take comfort from that because, if anything, there is a correlation between record levels of state benefit and social insecurity. That is an exaggeration because we need to understand the benefit totals and take account of other factors such as demography. The fact that we are now spending a large proportion of public money to keep people on low state benefits when many desperately need opportunities to become independent worries us all. I ask again: how do we move from spending resources on breakdown and shift them towards what I call investment in people? That is one of the key challenges.

Not many people need to be reminded, because the mood has changed in the House, that whatever our critique of the Child Support Act--and I have joined in the critique of its practice--we cannot turn the clock back to a court-based system that depends on maintenance collection. That did not work in the past and it is not the future. I turn again to the survey from the Department of Social Security on lone parents which was undertaken by York university. It showed that only 39 per cent. of

Column 78

one-parent families had ever received maintenance and that only 29 per cent. received it regularly. When I say "regularly", that does not imply that the amounts were high enough; they were often very low. I would be loth to accept a critique of the Child Support Act 1991 which assumed that the past was better. It was not. It failed people and it especially failed women and children. For too long in social policy and in society, we have pursued a principle of women and children last. It is time that we changed that.

I have never said that I support the principle of the Act and gone on to undermine it. I have criticisms of it, but I truly support the principle of parental responsibility. Through the Select Committee report, the White Paper and the Bill, we are properly addressing the issues. Whatever our disagreements about details, we are properly addressing areas where the Act may have been overbearing or unfair, to men largely. I accept that and I shall be interested in the details when the Bill goes into Committee. I accept that there is a proper agenda about men's issues. I am, however, sometimes disgusted by the way in which the debate has been heavily dominated by men's concerns and by the way in which the needs of women and children have often been largely neglected.

Many of our children are involved. There are 2 million children in one- parent families. I repeat that seven out of 10 of them are dependent on income support. A wiser Parliament would listen harder than this one does to the silent voices in the debate and would not listen only to those who shout loudest. Many of the silent voices are those of women and, if they could speak, of their children who have been the major victims of family change. Family change in Britain has been a social revolution, but it has not been a bloodless one. Most of the victims have been women and children and we should ask hard questions about women and children.

This is the point where I profoundly disagree with the development of our child support legislation compared with that in, for example, Australia. When Baroness Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, rolled a hand grenade with the pin half out in the direction of the Department of Social Security-- when she made her speech--the Department did not know what was coming. It had to grapple with the problem and it was a difficult one with which to grapple. Too soon, the Treasury, whose short-termism makes it a poor promoter of social policy, got its claws into the concept and realised that this was a way in which to raise revenue. It went in for a process of strangulation of an infant social policy. We have not recovered since.

I was last in Australia in 1990; I cannot, therefore, present the House with an up-to-date account. Others know the position there as well as I do or possibly better. In Canberra, I visited the Australian taxation office which collects child maintenance. Everyone I met, whether politicians, civil servants or people in the voluntary sector, told me that there was a clear disregard for lone parents so that they got some of the maintenance. I know that they get the maintenance in our system, but in Australia, there is no deduction of dollar for dollar. In Australia, lone parents were better off as a result of child support legislation. Everyone told me that that was the oil that made the new machinery work.

I was told on several occasions that mothers often rang up the Australian taxation office and asked how everything was going and what their share of the child

Column 79

maintenance would be that week. There was, therefore, a constituency of support in favour of the legislation among custodial parents and among a wider public. People said, "This legislation seems to be controversial, but it seems to be a sound piece of social policy. It is truly a Child Support Act."

I regret the way in which we have a party political conflict about the issue. Any suggestion by the Opposition that we should have a disregard is met with the cry, "Is that another expenditure commitment?" I believe that if there had been a disregard from the start, we would have oiled the wheels. In future years, the share of money coming to the Treasury would probably have been higher than is likely under the present system which has suffered from the Treasury's mean-mindedness.

We have to get this one right; I echo the comments of colleagues on both sides of the House. Sadly, this issue is one of growing importance. There is a rising proportion of children suffering financial, social and emotional insecurities in their childhood. We need to bring about a cultural revolution whereby we make it clear to both parents that whatever may happen to a relationship or a marriage and even though, sadly, many of our children will spend much of their childhood not living with both parents, both parents must take on the financial and other responsibilities for their children.

The issue of how we balance the rights of parents against their responsibilities is one of the key concepts in social policy. I have never felt that it is a useful political debate either to emphasise rights or to emphasise responsibilities. It is the balance between the two that is crucial. Just as I champion the development of the child benefit scheme as a universal provision or just as I champion the growth of child care and provision for the under-fives, so I shall champion, with equal sincerity, the view that parents must take the major responsibility for their children. If that belief is lost in the future, we face the prospect of a lost generation of children. The issues today could not be more important.

7.46 pm

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West): The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) could have ended his excellent speech by explaining to us why he intended to vote against the Bill. I fail to understand why he intends to vote against it, as much of what he said was in favour of the Bill. I also fail to understand why the Opposition intend to vote against the Bill.

The Child Support Agency touches virtually everyone in some way or another. It has had a fantastic effect. I am very surprised that although the Child Support Act 1991 has had so much effect on parliamentarians and on individuals outside, we have here in the Chamber only about seven hon. Members on one side and only about eight on the other. There are no Liberal Democrats here at all at this stage.

The setting up of the Child Support Agency was the most fundamental and revolutionary step. It has been described as part of an infant social policy; it is more than that. It is the most enormous social policy, which goes into the homes of many people and affects so many more. It has replaced a system that was based on people--the way in which people react, the work that people do and

Column 80

people's individual problems--by, in many ways, a mathematical formula. In its original conception, it was a most socialist bit of legislation. I was part of the pack that chased the original Act through the House of Commons. I followed it and chased it through, yelled loudly and said how good it was. Yet I find myself saying that it is not the sort of legislation that one would expect a Conservative Government to enact.

Mr. Duncan: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ashby: Let me develop my argument. Many Conservative Members concentrated on the fact that people received benefits, so the fathers must be chased to pay the people and the benefits, but I do not think that they appreciated that the Child Support Act would give an agency control over every person involved in a marital dispute, a separation and an eventual divorce and that there was to be total state involvement. I so welcome the Bill because we have stepped back from the brink and are now into deferment.

However, I do not want deferment. I want permanence. There are areas in which most people can look after their own affairs better than the state and this is one of them. The state need only interfere in and become involved with payments. Individuals can make up their own mind about what they will pay each other and decide how they will work it out between them, what the property transfer will be and how they will go about their own business. That is what should happen and we should encourage it as much as possible. We may see great encouragement of such policy in future legislation. The only trigger to involve the state should be the provision of benefits. I do not know whether that answers the point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) wanted to intervene, but I shall happily give way.

Mr. Duncan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because I remain puzzled at his initial accusation that the Bill is a socialist piece of legislation, or, at least, that the initial Act was. Ever since the war, the state has taken on more and more responsibility for individuals and, indeed, the taxpayer has been forced to pick up the tab for split marriages. Of course, the state is involved in paying benefits, but surely, in trying to reverse the dramatic trends since the war, the Bill is the exact opposite of a piece of socialist legislation.

Mr. Ashby: My hon. Friend does not understand exactly what socialism is in that case. Socialism is the state telling people what is better for them than they know themselves. Socialism is the state telling people what they should be doing and not what people feel that they ought to be doing. Socialism is the state taking over one's will and one's powers to be able to negotiate and discuss with one's partner what one thinks is best. That is what socialism is and that is what the Bill does. One's entire financial future is set to be taken over by a body based in Belfast, which will dictate exactly what one should or should not do and what one should or should not pay one's wife in respect of the children, regardless of whether the children will benefit or not.

I totally endorse and most sincerely welcome deferment, as it is a fundamental step back from the original Act. However, if we were to start again, I hope that with hindsight and knowledge of what has happened,

Column 81

we would not go down this path. But we have gone down it and we must try to make the best of it. I welcome the Bill for that reason if for no other.

Various hon. Members have spoken about the morale of the agency staff. The absence of flexibility in the legislation must have affected their morale. It must have been extremely frustrating for them to have common sense dictated to them time and again over the telephone by various people who were asking them why they did not do this or that, or why they did not take into account this or that. The staff must have known that not taking into account such aspects was crazy, and not having flexibility in the rules must have affected them. Lack of flexibility has certainly been a source of tremendous confrontation between clients and staff of the Child Support Agency. Like my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry), I have been lobbied by very concerned people who have been affected by the Child Support Agency. I deplore threats and I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who raised the issue of terror tactics, was absolutely right to say that we should never give in to them. I have received many blackmail-type letters telling me that I would not be re- elected. Fortunately, all of them come from places far from my constituency, such as Manchester. Some of the letters may have come from Bury, North, but they have certainly not come from my constituency.

In my constituency, the most helpful organisation has continually told me that it supports the Child Support Agency and its fundamental aim. It is headed by Nick Jeffreys, who has acted like a social worker in the area. He has taken disgruntled and upset clients to see the right people for sound advice. Mr. Jeffreys also gives sound advice and, by and large, the organisation has done much to defuse the situation. People who have lobbied me in my constituency have been helpful and constructive. They have convinced me of the problems with the Child Support Act and, when one looks at the Act and the changes in the Bill, one sees that they have convinced the Government, too. So, far from being outrageous, such people have been absolutely correct. We must welcome the fact that the Bill addresses many of the issues that they raised. We are obviously listening and altering things as we need to.

Although I said that I would not have started from such a point in looking for maintenance for children, legislation is now in place and we must make the best of it. Nothing is written in tablets of stone. I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary saying that time and again. He has listened time and again, too. He has given counter-arguments at times, but at other times he has certainly accepted what has been said and been most constructive about it. We cannot write such legislation in tablets of stone, because we are talking about human nature, and the effects of anything that we do on human nature are never clear. We hope that the changes in the Bill will resolve most of the problems--we expect that--but they might not. We must have flexibility and always listen.

Above all, we must remember that we are trying to balance the needs of the child and the needs of the mother and recognise that civil rights and human liberties are involved. Hitherto, it could have been said that we did not achieve that balance. Certainly, we were not taking account of the civil rights of the people who were involved.

Column 82

So many of us represent rural areas. However, the travel-to-work area is not taken into account in these matters. If someone does not earn very much, travel to work can involve a great deal of money. Most people in my area work in Leicester, almost 30 miles away. According to the new provisions, a travel-to-work distance of 15 miles will be considered. That means that about £25 will have to be disregarded before those people receive something back, because we are talking about a provision in the Bill for 15 miles a day before 10p a mile is paid.

We all know how much Members of Parliament receive per mile for travelling expenses. Why do we expect other people to have lower costs per mile than we have? Why do we expect people to have lower costs per mile than what the RAC and the AA estimate are the true costs of running a car? I suppose that one of my constituents driving to Leicester might drive a 10-year-old car as he probably cannot afford anything better.

Mr. Duncan: He can take the bus.

Mr. Ashby: The problem is that there are no buses and they do not arrive at the right time anyway. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton is aware of the problem with buses in his area: catch a bus, indeed. He is as aware as I am of how difficult it is to take a bus to Leicester.

A father has visited me on several occasions and he wants to know where the justice is in his case. There are four children in his family: he has kept two and his wife has kept two. The two he has kept are being disregarded. He told me, "I have my children for five days and my wife has her children for five days. On normal Saturdays and Sundays, my wife's two come to me, so I have four children for two days." The agency disregards the fact that he feeds and keeps his wife's two children on those extra two days.

In that father's case, the agency also appears to disregard the fact that he has the other two children when it assesses what must be paid to the wife. Although it claims otherwise, it further seems to disregard the fact that the wife now has a boyfriend who seems to be keeping her quite well. That father feels that he is very much worse off than the wife. He feels that there is an injustice and I tend to agree with him with regard to the present formula.

What people require most of all is justice. People might wince when they have to pay a large amount, but they do not rebel until they come across injustice. People are really seeking justice and that is why I welcome the appeals procedure. I sincerely hope that if the appeals procedure is used properly, it will do much to resolve injustice.

One of the fundamental problems experienced by the people who come to my surgeries is the belief that the CSA has not listened to them properly when they say that the facts are not the facts that the agency says has been presented to it. People present me with the facts and they can often produce letters and photographs to verify those facts.

The CSA should be triggered off by the fact that a wife is on benefit. Should not that be the first port of call? The first question that the agency should ask is whether the person is entitled to benefits. The agency should listen to husbands who say that a person should not receive benefits. If the agency did that, and inquired properly into whether benefits were being triggered, it might be able to get rid of many of its cases.

Column 83

There was a very interesting answer to a question today about people on benefit. We were told that 720,000 people are earning nothing, but their spending is above the average. People do not get money from nowhere. It seems that 720,000 people may well be making claims that they should not be making.

Mr. Jenkin: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ashby: I would be happy to know whether the figure that I have quoted is incorrect.

Mr. Jenkin: I would not dream of disputing my hon. Friend's figure. However, on being approached by the CSA, many single parents have asked themselves whether they should be entitled to benefit. A very large number of single parents--perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will enlighten us about this when he replies to the debate--have left the benefits system as a result of an approach by the CSA. That seems to be grist to the mill of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) and I wanted to help him with that point.

Mr. Ashby: I am delighted to hear that. I wish we had some figures to prove that point. Perhaps they will be provided when my hon. Friend the Minister replies later.

I am a tremendous believer in the welfare state helping those who really need help. However, there is an awful lot of fraud. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister does not accept that there is as much fraud as I suggest there is. I believe that there is an enormous amount of fraud. The depth of fraud is much greater than any Government have acknowledged or were prepared to acknowledge. I see fraud from the other side, time and again. As a member of the Bar, I am involved in areas where most of my clients are unemployed and have never been employed. Is it right to say that crime gives rise to unemployment? As far as I can make out, half the people with whom I am involved have never wanted to be employed. I do not find that unemployed people turn to crime; it is the other way round. It is the criminals who are unemployed. I see those people in confidence. I cannot disclose what is said. One feels so inadequate. Virtually every one of those people who comes before the courts seems to be involved in some sort of benefit fraud.

When people come to my surgery and they describe the CSA's involvement in their cases, I see the same pattern time and again. On occasion, I ask whether the person in my surgery wants me to do something about the problem. When the answer is "Yes," I telephone the fraud inquiry section in Leicester. The telephone rings and rings. When I try later at 4.30 pm, it rings and rings again. Finally, someone answers and says, "They've all gone home." I cannot do anything about the problem.

I am not sure whether the fraud inquiry section is as good as we try to make out. It seems to be quite happy to pursue people across the fenlands to discover whether they should be working or whether they are on benefits. I have seen that on television. It was all high profile, with the television cameras trained on those people. No doubt the people on the programme had been alerted to come along and see the kind of work that the section does.

Column 84

However, I have reported fraud on many occasions and I cannot describe how dissatisfied I am with the way in which fraud is investigated by the Benefits Agency.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there are other elements of fraud, which might be described as legitimate fraud? For example, in a case of which I am aware, it is claimed that an ex -wife who was in employment, and who was earning a substantial income including overtime, stopped earning overtime as soon as she became aware of the CSA arrangement. As she did that, her pay slips showed that she was earning below the stated level for the period required. As soon as she had submitted her pay slips, she went back to working overtime.

Mr. Ashby: That is absolutely right. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, because that complaint has been raised with me on several occasions. That system is fairly well known. The hon. Gentleman has obviously been told about that in his surgeries, so he knows that it goes on. I know that it goes on and I know how dissatisfied I am. We have to tackle the problem, because people who play the game by the rules and behave properly are profoundly dissatisfied when they find out what happens. They are legitimately dissatisfied and unhappy and that reflects on all of us.

I have made the point about fraud. I could go on talking about it. My hon. Friends know how often I have raised it. I feel that we must do more about fraud. We must fundamentally change our fraud organisations so that we can investigate it properly. We should possibly take it away from the Department of Social Security and return it to the police. We must do something to bring fraud investigation to the forefront. It is costing the country millions of pounds. That money could legitimately and properly be used to help people. That comment is not Treasury based. The Treasury has properly put money into budgets to be used to help people. When it is misused, it does not help the people whom it is supposed to help. We should be tough and tight on fraud.

I welcome most aspects of the Bill. I have some concerns about some of the changes. They will put enormous pressure on the Child Support Agency. At times, I feel that the Bill will be another nightmare. I am thinking, for example, of the new payment provisions. Implementation will be a bureaucratic nightmare for the Child Support Agency. It will increase the work load greatly. At present, we receive complaint after complaint about what is happening in the CSA. Here we are trying to change things. We are putting another burden on it, which will cause more problems. I hope that hon. Members realise that we are trying to improve things, but that the changes will place an added work load on the agency. We shall see more delays as a result of that.

In general, I welcome the Bill. It is an improvement on the original Act. It provides greater flexibility in case assessments. It allows affected parties to appeal. It provides for special payments in certain circumstances. It is a valuable piece of legislation to that extent. We must appreciate that if we are to have an appeal procedure, there must be a full opportunity to examine the facts on both sides.

I intervened in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ask a question about appeals. He seemed to say that the CSA would not be able to look at facts on appeal. If we are not to look at facts on appeal,

Column 85

we ain't going to get justice. It is justice that people want. In cases in which there has been continued misrepresentation and an aggrieved party knows that the facts stated are wrong, he should be able to produce such evidence as is necessary to show that he is right.

8.13 pm

Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar): The Bill is a skeleton Bill. Many of the details, such as amounts of money, qualifying criteria and procedures to be followed, will be given in the regulations, which are not yet available. Yet there is sufficient in the Bill and there are sufficient omissions of important changes that the public wanted for me to feel confident that, when I opposed the Child Support Bill that became the 1991 Act, I was correct.

I said in 1991 that if the Government really wanted to improve the system of child maintenance, they would set up family courts and an agency or service to collect or enforce maintenance. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) was criticised for proposing that we should have family courts. It was said that family courts had failed, that there was no going back and that that was that--we had this system and we had to stick with it and do the best that we could. I remember everyone saying some years ago that the rating system had failed. People on both sides of the House agreed with that. The poll tax was introduced. It was a head tax which everyone, even those on income support, was to pay. They would be watchdogs to see that councils did not overspend. People said that there was no going back and the poll tax was there to stay.

Yet the public outcry about the poll tax was such that it did not stay. The Government were forced to change it and we now have the council tax. I predict that the public outcry about the CSA will not only continue but increase and that the agency will have to be changed. If the Government have any sense, they will start to think about introducing a family courts system, as outlined in the Children Act 1989.

Any Bill that deals with the maintenance of children should have children's welfare at the heart of it. I attacked the first Child Support Bill because it appeared to me then that the Government's main interest was in clawing back benefit. No one wants to pay unnecessary taxes. No one likes paying taxes, although most people see the necessity of paying taxes and do so, even if unwillingly. Everyone believes that parents should be responsible for their children, not merely financially but in every other way, and that if they can afford to take financial responsibility, they certainly should do so.

We do not seem to agree that the state in a civilised society also has responsibility for children. The Bill does not recognise that responsibility. There is still a benefit penalty. The Bill does not remove it. By the end of January, 15,500 parents with care were penalised by reduced benefit directions. There are 40,000 more in the pipeline and thousands more are intimidated by the benefit penalty, which forces them to sign the maintenance forms when they feel that it might harm them and their family to make contact with the divorced or separated partner.

Mr. Duncan: Why does the hon. Lady think that the state should continue to pay benefits to a family which happens to be split when, if the family had remained

Column 86

together, the state would not have been obliged to pay any such benefits? Does that not provide through the state an incentive to families to split?

Ms Gordon: I thought I said clearly that where absent parents can afford to support their children, they have the responsibility to do so; they should have that responsibility. I also said that the state had a responsibility to children and that no one in a civilised society should want to see children go hungry. I set up the all-party parliamentary Child Support Act monitoring group. We have received report after report from respectable voluntary agencies recognised by the Government, saying that mothers go hungry. They say that mothers whom they meet give their children money for chips and have no lunch themselves. They say that when they visit such mothers, they find empty refrigerators.

A citizens advice bureau in Sussex reported a single parent with five children under seven whose benefit was reduced by £20 per week to repay rent, water rates and community charge arrears and a social fund loan to buy furniture. She was finding it difficult to manage on £75 a week. If that woman had been in a relationship in which there was violence and she had been afraid of making contact with the father of her children because she thought that it would be traumatic for the children, that £75 would have been reduced to £65 a week. Those children would go hungry, and we surely cannot accept that. The welfare of children must come first.

Mr. Burt: The hon. Lady must concede that if the lady to whom she referred signed the forms and went to see a child support officer to set out her circumstances, she would be allowed good cause not to comply with the Child Support Agency and her family would not need to go hungry.

Ms Gordon: There must be some differences of opinion, or there would not be 40,000 women whose reasons have been rejected and 15,000 women who have suffered the benefit penalty. Those women must have had good reasons to appeal, or they would not have put themselves in a position where they could possibly suffer a penalty of a reduction in their already low income by nearly £10.

It is poor families who have their water, gas and electricity disconnected, and who get into serious trouble. I see such families all the time, because I represent one of the poorest areas in the country. I know very well the sort of difficulties which those people can get into, through no fault of their own. Those people have often managed miraculously on what they have, but the money is just not enough. It should be left to the parent--nearly always a woman--to make the decision whether or not to apply to the agency. The parent knows why her relationship broke up and the effect that that has had on the children.

Mr. Burt: I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making, but she must see the other side. She is asking for a mother to have unilateral control over whether she asks the father for maintenance or relies on the state. That cannot be the case, because she would then be giving carte blanche to a bloke to wander off and abandon her and to let the state pick up the tab. There has to be someone who decides whether there is a proper good cause, and that is what the agency's officers do. The fact that they accept 50 per cent. of the reasons which come before them

Column 87

suggests that they exercise a good deal of sensitivity on the matter. To have no rule at all--which is what the hon. Lady is asking for--would surely do no one any good.

Ms Gordon: I am not saying that there should not be a rule, and I never have asked for that. My question is--who are the people who make the decision, and how do they do it? Will it be half-trained civil servants, making a decision on the basis of a rigid formula? Or should it be a family court, which can listen to the problems of that family and take a rounded view of each case? That is a completely different situation. I am not asking for anarchy, and I never would. There is nothing in the Bill to give immediate help to the poorest of parents with care who are on income support. All of the voluntary organisations have called for a disregard, which would not only raise the standard of living of those parents with care and their children, many of whom are going hungry--that is not a sob story, but a fact--but would give an incentive to the absent fathers to pay the maintenance regularly. The fathers might pay if they knew that some of the money was going for the benefit of their children, and not to the state. The changes which will benefit absent fathers will be put into effect in four weeks, but the only benefit for mothers with care is the bonus that has been deferred for two years. It will take four years before mothers can reach the maximum amount specified, but they need help now. What happens to mothers who want to stay at home to look after small children? It is perfectly legitimate to want to be at home with small children, and not leave them to go out to work. What happens to a mother who takes a job, is made redundant from that job, goes on income support and then goes back to work later? Will she get the bonus, or will it be lost because she lost her job? That is not clear at all. The Bill says that the agency will save up the money in those circumstances where women take a job, but it does not say whether interest will be counted on that money while it is held back. The money will be given to the mother

"only on the occurrence of a prescribed event"

which seems to be when the mother gets a job.

We do not know whether the mother will have to work a certain amount of time before she gets the bonus. That is very unclear, but it seems to me that she will not receive much benefit. That is especially relevant when most of the jobs which women can get are part-time, low-paid and insecure jobs. If a mother is going to look after her children properly she wants to make sure that she gets her maintenance, income support or whatever her lifeline is. She can take employment only if she has a secure job. I would not advise a mother to take an insecure, part-time low-paid job because that would do her and her children more harm than good.

Mr. Duncan: If the hon. Lady reads the Bill carefully, she will find that it makes provision for a much more simplified and effective review procedure in the event of a change in circumstances. The problem of a mother with care taking a part-time job and then perhaps having to go back on benefit is very sensibly addressed by the Bill.

Ms Gordon: That is better than the former situation, in which a mother had to wait for six months. We do

Column 88

not know how the system will work, and having a part-time insecure job is still a problem. A mother wants security and to be able plan ahead for herself and her children.

The changes in the Bill do not help low-paid absent fathers either. A man on income support still has to pay £2.50 a week, which may leave him with a very low amount on which to live. That is punitive, and the changes are overwhelmingly in favour of wealthy absent fathers.

Clause 18 states that parents with care who had pre-1993 settlements will not be helped. The big benefit of the system was to be that mothers who had maintenance arranged by the courts which was not being paid would be able to go to the agency. Some mothers thought that they would not have to go back to the court, and that the agency would sort it all out. All of them have been disappointed, as the agency has done nothing of the sort. The Bill is saying that the agency is not even going to look into those cases. It is not interested in them, and it is really interested only in parents who are on income support. That is quite obvious.

Voluntary agencies have outlined about 40 different changes which they thought would be needed in the Act to make it work, and some of those have been taken into account. The grounds for departure from the formula now take account of the cost of travel, the cost of maintaining contact with children, the cost of supporting stepchildren, disability, illness, clean- break settlements, debt from previous relationships and certain other expenses. That is all to the good, but the Bill gives no information on the costs that will be allowed and does not give the criteria for deciding whether those are essential costs. It does not specify how much discretion the child support officer will be allowed.

The Bill states that the intention is to limit the number of potential beneficiaries. It stresses that the system of departures will be available only to a "small minority of cases", and that the amount by which an assessment can be reduced or increased will be strictly limited. So there is not as big an improvement as has been trumpeted.

Many other changes are necessary, as the voluntary agencies have outlined. For example, the care and maintenance of older children in tertiary education is very expensive and should be acknowledged. There is also the matter of child care costs. If a second wife goes to work, her child care costs could be £90 to £100 a week for each child.

Again, I can only stress that each case is individual and that only family- based courts can be seen to be just. If we want fathers to pay maintenance and not to try to wriggle out of it--not that the majority of fathers want to, as they want their children to be well looked after--and to pay it regularly, they have to see it as a just decision. If they are able to put their point of view to a family court and if all the factors are taken into account, even if they disagree with the decision, they have to see it to be fair and just. The Government would get a better system and fathers would pay more regularly.

If one tries to impose a rigid formula, as has been done, even though some changes might take the edge off some of the worst grievances, many more will be left and it creates bitterness, which is eroding relationships. Couples often manage to find a modus vivendi that helps the children after very traumatic divorces. Now much bitterness has been stirred up and children have been

Column 89

upset. It has been happening throughout the country and I am not making it up. The Minister's mailbags undoubtedly show it to be true--those are facts.

A Catch 22 is built into the complaints system, in that the absent parent cannot take up the matter unless his payments are up to date, but he is probably complaining because he cannot afford to pay and therefore cannot bring them up to date. If he cannot afford to pay and to cancel out the debt, he cannot take his case to the tribunal. It seems that fathers will have to go first to the Secretary of State, which means the Child Support Agency officers, who will be flooded with cases.

The system has proved to be inefficient. I have had some most intemperate letters from Miss Chant, the head of the agency, which I intend to send to the Minister. They make me doubt whether she should be there at all. I cannot see that the new system is going to work--there will be a huge backlog and it will be another fiasco. The Secretary of State is making a second attempt to patch up this ill-thought-out Act because he is under pressure from his Back Benchers, who are in turn under pressure from their constituents. Each time that he makes a change, it brings new problems, injustices and unfair situations. In the end, the Government will have to give up this Act and all the alterations to it. They will have to face facts and move to a system of family courts, and the sooner that they do so, the better for the parents and children of this country. 8.32 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) understandably concentrated on those people who live in her constituency who have very little money. From what she said, it was clear that their main experience of life is having to manage the myriad benefits that exist. They have to learn the system if they are to survive, and they do so very quickly to ensure that they can use to their best advantage all the very different benefits that are available.

That is understandable, but the fact that people have to do that perhaps also illustrates one of the grave problems of the advance of the welfare state since the war. They have to do it because there are not enough jobs around. One might argue strongly that the existence of those benefits in that form is the reason why they are not around. The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar also concentrated on the detail of the workings of the Child Support Agency. She looked at every detail and clause essentially to find out how the Bill can best be worked by its beneficiaries.

We should not lose sight of the larger picture and social policy into which the Bill fits. We run the risk of not being able to see the wood for the trees by concentrating so much on the detail, without realising the significance of the Child Support Agency as a change in the social policy of post-war Britain.

During the past week, Mr. Amitai Etzioni has been in town and has attracted much publicity. He is the champion of the new communitarian thinking that is beginning to occupy many a brilliant mind in Britain and the United States. If my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) had not been compelled to take a Trappist vow by sitting on the Front Bench as a Whip, we would have heard quite a lot from him in the past few days on those themes. Essentially, communitarianism is a

Column 90

search for the sort of social stability and patterns of social life that we have lost, not merely in this country but in many western democracies since the war, which the Bill and the Child Support Act 1991 that preceded it are attempting to address.

Community is the new buzzword--to try to find some green and promised land that can allow us to return to those stable family relationships and patterns of behaviour that have disappeared in such large numbers and compelled the state to pick up the pieces. In the search for that promised land, many ambiguous themes go with the notion of community.

If we were to use the word community simply and to apply it to family life and the sort of problems that the Child Support Agency is trying to solve, the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar and I might both say that we believed in it. I suspect that the hon. Lady and the Leader of the Opposition see it as a means of extending state power, however, whereas I see it as a means to reduce it. We applaud the idea of community, but I would argue that all the virtues of family life for which the CSA and other measures are searching have been suffocated by Government and cannot be restored unless the Government retreat from many areas of life. The hon. Lady's whole speech clearly illustrated the poor effects of the dead hand and the over- extension of Government intervention into every nook and cranny.

In assessing how we want community and the restoration of proper family life to arise once again in Britain, I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), who has left the Chamber. He said that this legislation is socialist, but it is the opposite. Since the war, the Government have had to pick up the pieces of changing patterns of social life. The number of one-parent families has risen dramatically and, instead of families--split though they may be-- being compelled to sort out the problems for themselves, the state has been picking up the pieces. The point of the Bill is that it is the first social legislation in post-war Britain, if not ever, to reverse the trend of the state taking on responsibility for family life and to compel parents once again to do just that.

This is the first Bill to have turned the corner from the state producing many more benefits and more dependent people and to say instead that, if parents who have split up can afford to bring up their children in the way that they would have done had they remained together, they should do just that. As such, it is the most crucial, important and significant legislation in social policy since the war and it is the duty of every hon. Member to ensure that it survives.

Mr. Jenkin: I am enjoying my hon. Friend's speech and I am also enjoying the spectacle of one or two of the faces of Opposition Members who are listening but showing puzzlement. The reason is that, for the state to withdraw from aspects of people's private lives, we are having to increase its power. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can explore that theme because, however popular the ideas of Mr. Etzioni and communitarianism might be becoming on the Opposition Benches, supporters of communitarianism and family life, which is what the Bill is all about, fail to understand that to reinforce the moral

Next Section

  Home Page