Column 91atmosphere around which families coalesce requires the state to take on or make judgments about aspects of people's lives in a way that--
Mr. Duncan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) for presenting such a cogent and reasoned exposition of his view. He has hit on an important point which is that, if one attempts to roll back the frontiers of the state, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People once said in a memorable speech, severe problems of transition arise. It is those very problems that the Act and now the Bill address. One could simply say that single mothers with an absent husband who could afford to bring up a child should be excluded from the benefit system. However, that would be unduly cruel and unjustifiable in a modern, civilised society. The proper legislation to bring about the transition from the state paying for that child to the absent father with means doing so must involve the state in setting up a system whereby the mother, if she is to come off benefit, can receive money from someone who can pay--the absent father. The Bill tries to deal with the problems of that transition.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will take note of the point that I am about to make, which deals with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North has just raised. Whereas the state has the right to intervene in the family finances of a split couple where the mother is on benefit and therefore making demands on the state, it does not have the right to intervene in the family finances of a couple where the state does not support the mother and children. The Bill should draw a line to distinguish between cases where, perforce and often for good reasons, the mother is on benefit and those where the couple has means and the mother is not on benefit because she is kept by the absent father under some lasting court settlement.
Mr. Dewar: I am curious about the consequences of the hon. Gentleman's point. As he knows, a proposal has been made that certain cases that were to come within the ambit of the CSA in 1996 should be deferred, "deferment" being the operative word. As those are cases where no benefit is involved, does he argue that they should be permanently excluded?
Mr. Duncan: Yes, I do. Indeed, I would think for an eternity before bringing them within the aegis of the CSA. This may be a slight and peculiar disagreement with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, but it happens to be my view. In cases where the mother is not on benefit, except through the court system, the CSA has no right to intervene in the finances of her family. That is where I would wish to see the line drawn. Where the mother or, in some cases, the father, is on benefit, CSA rules should apply. I draw the line so that those who do not rely on the state for benefit should not come within the ambit of the CSA.
The Social Security Select Committee has drawn up two reports on the CSA. Unlike the Select Committee on Employment, where there has been more theatrical discussion of current issues, the cross-party assessment by
Column 92the Social Security Select Committee has been sensible and purposeful, and has looked into the details of the CSA during the past year-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Duncan: Indeed, it has a Labour Chairman, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who handles it in a way that ensures that there is cross-party co-operation and a proper study of everything that comes before us. That, rather than television theatricals, is exactly what the Select Committee system should be about. The value of our work is evident in our reports. When we attract television attention and comments by journalists when, for instance, a Minister with something to say appears before us, it is for absolutely the right reason--so that those who attend our Select Committee proceedings learn something rather than just watch a purposeless spectacle, as they have so often done with the Employment Select Committee which, I regret to say, is bringing the entire Select Committee system into disrepute.
The Social Security Select Committee's first report made some suggestions, most of which were taken up by the Government. However, there were clearly still some problems. Injustices were arising from the workings of the CSA; its administration was over-burdened and those working in it, many of whom faced a vulgar and disgusting campaign against them by the sort of people who would send razor blades in envelopes through the post, did a good job but could not wholly cope. It is therefore right that, by and large, the various recommendations that we have made in our second report have been taken up by the Government. We made 22 proposals, most of which have been incorporated in the Bill. In some cases, the Secretary of State has gone even further. I am grateful to him for that. I commend the Under-Secretary on the way in which he has handled the matter with a cool head and open ears to ensure that solutions to problems that have genuinely arisen have been incorporated in the Bill. The Bill assists the process of reversing trends that have devastated some families since the war. It is crucial that the legislation that we have put in place is allowed to work, and assisted so that it can work properly. We shall see that, by handing back responsibility to parents for the care of their children and by reversing the scope of the state to go into many nooks and crannies of family life, we have taken a first step towards introducing the sort of communitarianism that many people are debating so actively. By reducing the size of the state, we shall reverse the way in which the state has displaced so much private virtue, private responsibility, liberty and freedom. Most Opposition Members' definition of community and communitarianism is a cloak for wishing to extend state power and, in nicer language, simply to have more of the same and do more of the same damage.
This is a truly revolutionary Bill. Britain has been gasping for such a Bill for many a decade and I urge everyone in the House to support it.
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck): I have really enjoyed tonight's debate. It has been one of those rare occasions in the House in recent years when I have felt that Back Benchers have had some influence on the decisions that are being made.
Column 93The comments of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) related more to the 1991 Act than to this Bill. My view of that Act is that there was general support for the principle of the Child Support Agency arrangement that absent parents should contribute towards the upkeep of their children. But the argument at that time, last year and now is about the conditions that apply to the legislation. The political differences between the two sides of the House seem to be about those conditions.
I am not entirely in favour of the Bill because it does not go far enough, and for that reason I shall vote for the amendment, but it is a step forward from the 1991 Act and the changes that were made last year. It offers a more humanitarian approach. The terms of the 1991 Act were Conservative based, whereas we are now moving towards a more socialist attitude to our business.
I always try to look at any legislation objectively to see what is or is not of benefit to my constituents and the area that I represent. As a result of the 1991 Act, I accept that absent parents became more responsible for their former families. Today, Conservative Members in particular have drawn attention to the militant attitude of some critics of the 1991 Act. I have had many dealings with absent parents in my constituency, however, and they have never criticised the basic principle behind that Act. They have always said that they believe that absent parents should make a contribution, but they questioned the way in which the Act operated. From my experience of the 1991 Act, the sad thing to note has been the heartache that it has caused to both partners in a marriage, but particularly to the children involved. I am sure that every other hon. Member has had a similar experience, because we have all had to deal with problems to do with that Act. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) has said, at one time we had to deal with problems caused by the horrendous poll tax, which also caused heartache to many of my constituents, but I believe that the 1991 Act has caused as much, if not more heartache.
I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that the 1991 Act has aggravated the problems faced by people when their marriage breaks up. I have seen constituents who told me that their separation and eventual divorce was reached on fairly reasonable terms. Genuine attempts were made to resolve the problem to look after the interests of the children in particular. In many ways, that reflects how matters stood before the CSA existed, when the courts decided that an absent parent should make a financial contribution towards the children of a marriage. Those parents made that contribution based on the court instruction and, more often than not, they also helped to pay for clothing, holidays and various other things needed by the children. Such arrangements worked fairly reasonably, but once the CSA became involved, matters became acrimonious. Formerly acceptable arrangements between ex-partners suddenly became contentious and that affected the children one way or another.
In two cases in my constituency teachers told me about watching a certain pattern develop because of the involvement of the CSA. They told me that when the parents of children in their classes got divorced, the work of the children affected initially declined and they became less attentive. With the help of the school, those children gradually overcame their problems and began to work properly again, but once the CSA became involved, the
Column 94standard of those children's work fell right back to where it was before. The CSA's involvement has meant that the relationships between people have gradually declined until matters have become extremely difficult and the children involved have suffered. The significant mistakes in the original 1991 Act were slightly eased by the modifications announced last year, but even those changes caused problems, as other hon. Members have already said. The confusion created by the operation of the original Act was compounded by further confusion as attempts were made to resolve cases. On a number of occasions, I had to refer to the so-called local office for my area of mid-Northumberland, which was in Falkirk. Many of my constituents who had to telephone that office to try to resolve their problems were not enamoured by the gentle, nice Scots voice at the other end of the line. In my part of Britain, our relations with the Scots were not too good for many years, although we are overcoming that problem now. There was genuine resentment, however, at the fact that the local office was in mid-Scotland. I am pleased to note that the Minister responded to that, because we now have a local office in my town, to which the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) now have to go to get their cases dealt with. The Minister's response was important, because my constituents were glad to be able to go to their local office instead of having to ring Falkirk and trying to understand a difficult foreign dialect.
In one difficult constituency case the parent made his contributions through the courts, generally through direct debit. The CSA then got involved and he received a demand for the payment to be made through it. The ex-husband continued to pay through the courts and at the same time tried to pay through the CSA. He paid twice because no one told him that he did not have to pay through the courts any more. I had to write to the CSA to get its staff to write a letter to that man, because he was an honest citizen, who felt that he had to continue to carry out the instructions from the courts until someone said differently. Eventually he was advised to stop paying through the courts and make his payment through the CSA. I recall the previous debates that we had on the CSA and I appreciate the Secretary of State's response to previous attempts to modify the 1991 Act. Those attempts have been acknowledged by all hon. Members, including the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). Although the Secretary of State's actions were somewhat out of character, bearing in mind his right-wing views on many other issues, progress was made. Perhaps it is too little, and perhaps it is too late.
I, like many other right hon. and hon. Members, will attempt to explain the issue. Obviously, all my constituents who are involved with the CSA believe that there will be changes, but I understand that some of the changes will not come into force until 1997. People continue to suffer the problems.
There will be a long delay regarding certain elements of the Bill when it becomes an Act. There are elements that are there under the regulations, as I understand it.
I hope that the Secretary of State will bear in mind one matter. I mentioned it earlier when I intervened on the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) when he was talking about fraud. I quoted the instance of a constituent who explained to me that his wife was in
Column 95full-time employment and was being paid overtime, and that when she became involved with the CSA she stopped working overtime, which meant that her pay slips were down. She was then able to claim income support, which meant that her ex-husband paid more, because that block of pay slips was used as evidence. When that exercise was completed, she returned to working overtime. That is unfair. I know of the reverse happening in another case. A constituent who works seasonal overtime was assessed on his seasonal overtime, which was unfair.
One way in which the Secretary of State might overcome that problem is to consider annual income. It is better to consider a person's annual income than to consider a five-week period.
Mr. Burt indicated assent .
Mr. Thompson: The Minister is nodding his head. I think that the problem should be properly recognised and overcome, because it is an important problem for my constituents and those of other Members of the House.
Although I welcome what has been proposed, it has not gone far enough. That is why I will vote for the Labour amendment. The Secretary of State promised that there would be a further review of the issue, and I hope that we shall have another opportunity to consider it.
The Secretary of State has been repeatedly accused of using the Child Support Act 1991 to reduce benefit costs. I would not disagree with that comment. He has constantly denied it, saying that it is not a saving and that it will not be used to allow tax reductions in future, but that it is there to improve the service and make the system fairer. I am not convinced of that.
However, the Secretary of State could convince me, and I think many others, if he would allow a small maintenance disregard. That would show clearly that he is interested in children--I believe that that is the essence of the argument--and it would provide greater benefits for poorer families. It would also satisfy those absent parents who are making their contribution, expecting that their children will be better off financially.
I seek clarification from the Secretary of State or the Minister when he replies of the changes that will take place. I understand from the speeches that have been made that regulations will be introduced, which will be the short-term proposition; then, if the Act is passed as it stands or even if it is amended, it will be introduced and brought into force in about 1996 or 1997. I read the memorandum submitted to the Social Security Committee by the chief executive of the Child Support Agency. There is a small element near the end, under the conclusions:
"6.8 Whilst we consider these achievements significant"-- one might argue about that--
"much work clearly remains to be done."
The important part is:
"We are currently preparing our Business Plan for 1995-96, which is bound to be a testing year."
I would not argue with that. The interesting thing about that is that, if one is preparing a business plan for 1995-96, one must include what has been suggested in the changes in the regulations and look forward to the projected
Column 96changes under the Act in 1997. Will that not cause confusion in preparing a business plan? From my experience of involvement in preparing business plans, one needs to look a long way ahead. If those things are going to take place, some very quick decisions must be made about the regulations and very positive proposals must be made when the Bill becomes the Act.
Mr. Burt: To save time, yes, the agency has been working on assumptions. It obviously knows what is in the House's mind. Naturally, it cannot anticipate the House passing everything, but it is fair that it should work on assumptions. So those matters have been taken into consideration. I take the hon. Gentleman's point.
As I said earlier, when the Bill becomes an Act it will partially humanise the Child Support Act 1991. If only it went a little further. I should like the next stage to take place, and my colleagues and I will campaign genuinely to humanise the Child Support Agency.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have talked about the problems that give rise to the need for a Child Support Agency, and the reason why we need legislation to control the difficult position of separated parents, of divorced people and of children, with single-parent families in many cases. It is a question of the laws in this country as regards aspects of divorce.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) mentioned family courts. I know that it would be difficult to introduce appropriate legislation, but it would help if we were able to begin at the beginning and modify the divorce laws--I understand that some proposals have been put forward on that. We do not necessarily want to make it more difficult to obtain a divorce, but we should produce a different pattern, with more counselling--of which I am strongly in favour.
There should be more counselling for people, from the time when they decide not to live together any longer until they embark on divorce. They should receive proper, professional advice, which costs money, to resolve the problems before they arise. I have experience, as have many hon. Members, of people--generally young people--who come to my surgery, and when I start to talk to them about their problems I find that they are divorced. When I start to probe into why they are divorced I often find that it is for the most petty reasons, which could have been resolved with the proper guidance and help at the right time. There might be fewer cases for the Child Support Agency or the divorce courts if there were a different procedure for dealing with people in the run-up to that difficult time.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): I think that we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) who brings many years of practical experience to resolving the problems that beset the early years of the Child Support Agency. I listened with great interest to his comments and was particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister was able to respond on the subject of average incomes--an issue raised in the hon. Gentleman's speech. I also support the hon. Gentleman in his efforts to persuade the Government to humanise the Child Support Agency. As he suggested towards the end of his speech, the avoidance
Column 97of marriage breakdowns in the first place must be the highest social objective that we should attach to everything that we do here.
I wish briefly to respond to one or two of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) who said, with great relish, that he disapproved of the CSA becoming involved in any non-benefit cases. The argument that he promulgates--that those not on benefit provide no locus for the state to interfere in the arrangements--would stand up if the courts had proved perfect at solving all the problems between such couples. But the courts have always been a cumbersome mechanism, and have always been a state mechanism. All we have done with the CSA is to substitute for one state mechanism a more effective state mechanism--we should keep that in proportion.
There is nothing magical and apolitical about the operation of the courts. The law that the courts interpret is made here, just as the regulations for the Child Support Agency are made here. I hope that--and with all due respect to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)--the CSA will prove a little cheaper than the average family lawyer.
I had hoped to follow the speech by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) as I feel that she represents--I must phrase this carefully--many of the problems that the CSA faces. However, I do not think that she represents the solution. While we must satisfy the concerns that she expresses--I am sorry that she is not in the Chamber as I say my few words about her--I do not think that we shall ever satisfy her and the particular demands that she makes.
We in this country are not subject to government by consensus of voluntary agencies. The 40 or so voluntary agencies to which the hon. Lady referred make all sorts of suggestions for their own reasons--not least to ensure that they remain popular with the various interest groups that they purport to represent. That does not necessarily mean that all their suggestions are the most practical and balanced. The hon. Lady expressed disappointment that the system of departures offered in the Bill will be limited to a small number of cases. That was always bound to be the problem when introducing a system of discretion or appeal into the process of allocating maintenance. There would either be wide gateways, in which case the whole system would become discretionary like the courts, or narrow gateways, in which case very few people would qualify under the appeals system.
We must take comfort from the fact that we have introduced a system of appeals in order to deal with the least satisfactory cases under the formula rather than introducing a general system which makes people feel that they have received a fair hearing. No formula-based system could achieve that objective.
I was interested to hear the comments by the hon. Member for Garscadden about the system in Australia and the rubric which appears at the bottom of its Child Support Agency stationery:
"Taxes: building a better Australia."
I do not recommend that to the hon. Gentleman as a substitute for a proper policy with regard to the Child Support Agency. However, if he were to substitute the word "Britain" for "Australia" it would portray accurately the likely Labour party policy at the next general election. I am sure that that slogan would prove very effective.
Column 98I do not apologise for the fact that the Child Support Agency saves taxpayers' money indirectly. Opposition Members who have sought to deny that fact have made a mistake. The majority of people in this country resent the idea of the state picking up the tab for the maintenance of children whose parents, between them, should be able to afford to pay for them.
I notice that the Liberal spokesperson, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne), is nodding in agreement. I think that it is inconsistent for her to advocate scrapping the Child Support Act 1991 and starting again if she agrees with that principle. This is the best chance that we have of getting a proper child support system off the ground. If we destroy this Act it is unlikely that we will get a second chance.
Ms Lynne rose --
Ms Lynne: I am grateful. I nodded my head because I agree that parents should pay for their children's upkeep. However, the Child Support Act is not working and a family court system would be much better.
Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention because she has demonstrated once again that the Liberal Democrats will say one thing and then another and seek to satisfy all discontented parties without ever producing a consistent policy. I was pleased to be involved in preparing the report by the Social Security Select Committee and I welcome the Bill. I think that the discretionary element that it introduces in dealing with departures from the formula is justified.
A case in my constituency has troubled me and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could explain how it would be dealt with under the new legislation. When an absent parent suffers from severe diabetes and faces significant medical and dietary costs, would that qualify for consideration under the new appeals system? I am pleased with the maintenance bonus. I think that it is preferable to the disregard which is the Opposition's alternative incentive bonus. The formula includes several new aspects, such as the travel-to-work bonus and the maintenance cap and it takes full account of second families.
I make no apology for the maintenance cap. It will not apply simply to better-off families, as the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) suggested. The cap applies to an income percentage; it is not an absolute cap in cash terms. Therefore, the income cap will apply equally to a single person who lives at home, perhaps with a parent, and who has low housing costs and a low income, and to a parent who has a second family, all the allowances and a large income. I am also pleased that the amount of additional maintenance payable will be halved.
When considering amending the Child Support Act, it is important to focus on its original objectives. I detect a growing measure of consensus across the House.
The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) spoke eloquently of the purpose and intent of the Bill, sounding almost as if he would be supporting the Government tonight--until he was brought up short by some of my hon. Friends. I urge him to join us, none the less.
Column 99The House may be reflecting public opinion. Conservative Members, perhaps, are more enamoured of the ideas of Charles Murray; as has already been pointed out, Opposition Members may be more attracted by those of Mr. Etzione. All of us, however, see a growing need to re-establish society, whatever "society" means; my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher said that it meant families, communities, villages, towns and businesses. The Bill and the Act that it amends aim to restore some of the bloom and to remove perverse incentives that we have put into the system, which have encouraged families and communities to fragment. That is the effect of too much state support: it removes people's incentive to depend on each other within their own communities.
There are other issues that we could pursue on a future occasion--the possibility, for instance, of restoring the married couple's tax allowance and the child tax allowance. Those proposals, however, belong to a future Bill, or perhaps a future Budget. 9.15 pm
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, of which I am a member, has conducted its own investigation of the CSA and, in particular, the complaints that have been received: some 30,000 have been received since the agency's inception. Little foresight or planning was involved in its establishment, and those moving into it from other Departments were given only six weeks' training, despite the complexity of the legislation involved. That caused many problems. I do not know whether the increase to 10 weeks will improve matters. The stopping of all new cases will of course ease the position. The Department of Social Security used to work hand in hand with the CSA, telling the agency who was on benefit and who was not. I can give two constituency examples that sum up the CSA: it is possible that not all the problems were the agency's fault, but most of them were. A constituent of mine, a young lady with three children receiving family income support, was reported to the CSA as receiving benefit. The CSA duly sent her a form; it wanted to know her husband's whereabouts, because she was entitled to child support. She wrote back to the agency, explaining that her husband had been dead for five years. The agency did not believe her, because it had been told that she was receiving family income support and therefore assumed that she must have a husband. It sent her another form, insisting that she sign it and explain where her husband was. I am afraid that I cannot give the second example, because there is not enough time. Such things would not happen if we had the family courts that were mentioned the other day. I believe that the position will become worse because of the new appeals system; cases are backing up, and a crisis is set to explode again. I am sure that the Parliamentary Commissioner, Mr. Reid, will have another flood of complaints to deal with.
Given those 30,000 complaints, people may wonder what compensation has been paid. In fact, hardly any was paid: 16 people received compensation. That was a
Column 100shambles in itself. As the Select Committee has said, the whole idea of the CSA and the complaints system was a shambles. The Committee said:
"We criticise the Department for not ensuring that such measures to deal with complaints and backlogs were introduced sooner." In other words, everyone in the Department allowed the backlog to build up until it became a big mushroom, which exploded at the end, and we see the consequences of that.
In the Select Committee, we had the Minister in front of us, and I recall that when we questioned him he said that it was not his responsibility to oversee what was going on; that he was responsible only for putting the Act in place and that it was up to the officials. We disagreed with him. We thought that it was his responsibility to have briefings with officials and, if things were going wrong, to see that they were put right. He did not. His attitude was, "It was not my department. It was not my area. It was somebody else's. I was the Minister. I was there only to put the Act in place." We criticised that. It is in the report--
Mr. Campbell: The Minister did say that. He said that it was not his responsibility. He said that he was a Minister, that he was not there to oversee the day-to-day running of the CSA. We told him that he should have been aware of what was happening, that he should have been aware of the backlog and the mess that it was in.
I say this quite honestly. I think that a bigger mess is coming and that the Minister will be in trouble again. I believe that the review procedure will just pile up again. People are crying out for reviews, because they do not know what is happening or what they will have to pay. One gentleman came into my office only two weeks ago. He had filled in the form last June. He wanted to pay his money. He was not one of these "getter outs". The first letter that he received from the CSA was in November. It said that he would have to pay £70 a week and that he owed £2,000--to the mother of the child in this case. What sort of agency is that? What sort of set-up is that? No wonder people's backs are up. Here was a young lad who was working, who wanted to pay his money yet he got a letter after six months to tell him that he was in debt for £2,000 and that he must pay £70 a week--after being in the courts and paying £20.
That has been the problem with the CSA. The Minister never looked at it. That is one of the criticisms of the ombudsman. The Minister never planned it. He should have looked at what happened to the disability allowance. He never did and that has been the problem. I hope that the new measure will be better, but I very much doubt it. 9.22 pm
Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington): This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. Although there has been some comment about the lack of numbers in the Chamber, there have been 14 Back-Bench contributions, all giving various thoughtful comments about the way in which the legislation has worked to date and about the hopes and aspirations for the changes that will come about through the Bill. It is worth while briefly pulling together one or two of those themes and pressing the Minister on one or two of the points.
Column 101A number of hon. Members raised the point about whether, before it goes into Standing Committee, the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee or other scrutiny Committee to ensure that the detail is properly considered. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that proposal.
On behalf of the Opposition, I add our tributes to the staff who have laboured under great difficulties during the years since the agency was set up. I reinforce the point that adequate resources are required in future for the training of all the current staff and the new staff who will be taken on to deal with the consequences of change to the formula and of the departure appeal system, to ensure that there is no erosion in confidence as a result of the pressures that they have to undertake. Although we welcome the Bill because of the way in which it addresses some of the problems that have been identified, I would not go as far as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who suggested that the Bill is revolutionary. The debate would have been different if the Bill had fallen into that category.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy) and others that if this debate had taken place 12 months ago, there might have been a different response from hon. Members. That is because there is some recognition that the major shortcomings of the original legislation are at last being addressed. The Secretary of State was less than generous in his comments about our reasoned amendment to the original legislation, in which we highlighted property settlements.
Mr. Lilley: I specifically mentioned that, but it was only in the context that future property settlements might bring about the problem that the hon. Gentleman mentions. There was no reference to the so-called retrospective aspect, which is what has caused concern.
Mr. Bradley: I shall return to the issue of property settlements. I had the distinct feeling that the Minister was being less than generous, or even perhaps lugubrious, as he has been throughout the debate, on that point.
I shall look briefly at both elements of the package--the regulations and the Bill--because although that is a package, the Bill has sometimes been confused with some of the regulations that will be presented in less than four weeks. I share the concerns of my hon. Friends about the lack of time for proper parliamentary scrutiny of those regulations and the speed at which they will come into effect. They were laid only last week. I thought that the Government would have learnt a lesson from trying to rush through changes without proper parliamentary scrutiny. The lack of such scrutiny may again lead to further administrative chaos, the agency will fall into disrepute and there will be a subsequent public outcry if the Government do not get it right.
Now is not the time to rub the Minister's nose further into the report that was issued today and I do not intend to do that. We want to look forward. I hope that he will allow proper scrutiny of the regulations. We all have to try to rebuild confidence, and the Government must ensure that the changes are adequate and relevant and that the agency can implement them efficiently rather than add to the chaos. To ensure public confidence, the Minister should provide details of precisely when the regulations will be debated before they are implemented on 18 April. I urge him to do that.
Column 102It is clear that, while many changes to the formula and the introduction of the appeals system are welcome, we have missed an opportunity to tackle other fundamental issues. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has highlighted, the failure to introduce a child care disregard is particularly disappointing and is the principal reason for our clear, reasoned amendment, which concisely presents our position on the Bill. Many organisations such as the citizens advice bureaux and the Child Poverty Action Group have supplied powerful evidence showing the struggle by lone parents to bring up children on benefit. A disregard would help at the point at which they need money, and would provide an incentive for absent parents to pay. The proposal in the Bill to allow parents with care to accrue a lump sum which is paid on taking work may help some people in the longer term, but by no means all children will benefit. I shall return to that matter. Moreover, the implementation date of the proposal is more than two years away, whereas many of the regulations, which we shall debate, will come into force in merely four weeks' time, as I have said.
The second point, which may be more contentious, is the benefit penalty to which many hon. Members have referred. I ask the Minister to look carefully at that point and to initiate further research into reduced benefit directions. As he knows, from next month, the reduction will be £9.30 a week for the first six months and then £4.65 a week for a further year. Clearly, that is harsh. A large amount of money will be taken from families, particularly lone parents, on benefit. Although I accept some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) about collusion in these matters, I suggest that we need further information and research to ensure that families who are struggling to bring up children on benefit are not being unfairly penalised.
Thirdly, in changing the standard formula, the Government have not taken the opportunity to tackle two other contentious aspects--the parents as carer element and the fact that new partners' income, in a small number of cases, increases the maintenance assessment. We stress that the introduction of the departure appeal does not negate the need to ensure that the formula is as fair as possible at the starting point. If it is, fewer people, we hope, will need to resort to the departure appeal system.
Many other matters are dealt with through the regulations--the first part of the package. Again, I press the Minister to tell us when the House will have the opportunity to debate them.
It is interesting to note that the first nine clauses of the Bill introduce the departure system. Again, I take issue with the Secretary of State. We believe strongly that we have called for an appeals system throughout the process. He was rather disingenuous to deny that point. Although the Government expect that departure will not be used often, the grounds cover a wide variety of circumstances, as outlined in schedule 2. Many of the departure criteria are the result of the broad-brush approach, which has been introduced through regulations and changes to those regulations, especially in terms of travel-to-work costs, the interpretation of extravagant life style or substantial assets and the existence of pre-April 1993 capital and property settlements.
Column 103As I said that I would, I return to the point about pre-April 1993 capital and property settlements. The answer given by the Secretary of State on that point was unsatisfactory. My hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden outlined clearly how past and future settlements of property could be considered. I reinforce his request to the Minister to look again at that point. I also ask that, when the Bill goes into Committee, we shall be able to pursue that point more fully. There is obvious concern that the new system will not be able to cope with the number of departure requests, that not enough staff will be employed in the process and that the child support appeal tribunals will not be able to cope. The Floor seems to be shaking underneath me at this point. The strength of the argument is obviously getting through to the whole House. Will the Minister comment on the fact that it is possible under the provisions of the Bill for the chair of the appeals tribunal to sit alone? Perhaps it is a recognition of the number of cases that may be brought forward by the departure appeals. Has the Secretary of State decided that he does not wish to add further chaos to the administration of the system by introducing that procedure?
Further, given that the details of departure circumstances will be given in regulations and that the Secretary of State has the power to prescribe other circumstances, it is difficult to know how they will be interpreted in practice. The Secretary of State can also, of course, prescribe limits on variations from the standard formula. We shall pursue that point further in Committee, but suffice it to say at this stage that a number of other costs should be taken into consideration. I am thinking of work-related costs, particularly the expensive child care costs that a mother may face on returning to work.
Clause 10 provides for a maintenance bonus for parents with care on income support or jobseeker's allowance along similar lines to the proposed back- to-work bonus available to those on part-time earnings in the Jobseekers Bill. Much of the detail of the bonus will obviously follow in regulation. The White Paper states that, if maintenance is paid, income support claimants will receive a credit of up to £5 each a week. That credit will be paid as a lump sum of up to £1,000 when the claimant leaves income support to take up work of 16 hours a week or more. As many hon. Members have already pointed out, the claimant will take several years to accrue that maximum. Given the average length of an income support claim, the majority of payments will be well below that amount. The limit of £5 a week compares with the back-to-work bonus weekly credit of 50 per cent. of earnings over the small earnings disregard.
The back-to-work bonus is to be introduced in October 1996. Given the similar training and systems that will be required for both bonuses, it is miserly not to introduce the maintenance bonus at the very latest at the same time as the back-to-work bonus comes in under the jobseeker's allowance. Even that is a highly unsatisfactory delay, given that the CSA is having to implement significant changes which favour absent parents. A way should be found for the Benefits Agency to introduce the maintenance bonus in October 1995.
Time is extremely short and the state of the building is extremely worrying, so I shall quickly mention clauses 18 and 19, about which we have heard so much. They refer
Column 104to delays in bringing forward maintenance agreements pre-dating April 1993. I shall not rehearse the arguments further, but the deferral prevents the very groups of parents with care who had most to gain from applying to the CSA from doing so. It also penalises second families, where the father has received increased demands from the CSA, but his partner cannot apply to the CSA to take into account her children from a previous marriage.
The reluctance to deal with that group fuels accusations that the Government are concerned only with those on benefit and benefit savings and reinforces the view that the Bill is Treasury led, rather than being drafted to address the real needs of maintenance payments and the cost of children.
It is important that we properly and adequately scrutinise the Bill in Committee. We intend to be constructive in that task, and we shall not unduly delay the progress of the Bill. The Bill does not come into effect until 1997, so there is adequate time for proper scrutiny. As I said, we shall be constructive. Although we recognise that the Bill attempts to address the appalling shortcomings of the original legislation, we believe that we may have an opportunity to address other matters further in Committee.
As the Bill addresses key issues for which the Opposition have been pressing for many months, and as the Government have finally recognised those points, we shall not vote against Second Reading tonight. However, the failure to recognise the injustice of not allowing the parent with care, normally the mother who is on benefits, to gain from child maintenance payments is unacceptable. That is why we have tabled our amendment.
The Government's continued failure to address that issue leads us to believe that, yet again, they are more concerned with the diktats of the Treasury than with finally getting the matter right and ensuring that the real costs of caring are recognised in the legislation and that mothers benefit properly from a proper maintenance system.