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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt): I shall certainly smile back at the various vibrations that have come my way over the past 24 hours. I am delighted to respond to the vibrations that have arisen from the debate.
I thank all my colleagues for their usual constructive contributions to a subject that we have debated on many occasions, most often in the right spirit. That spirit was demonstrated once again today. I shall respond briefly to two or three of the points raised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), although I have a great deal of ground to cover in relation to concerns raised by other Members.
With regard to the regulations that were laid last week, we have no problem with a date. That is in the hands of the usual channels. I have no problem with the debate, but I do not think that a date has been set yet. However, that is not a particular problem.
Column 105I do not think that the Bill should go to a Special Standing Committee. The issue has been trawled extensively and we want to get on with it, as the hon. Member for Withington indicated. I cannot see any point in bringing the Bill before a Special Standing Committee to take yet further evidence. One of the reasons why we have reached this stage is that we all listened to the evidence about the workings of the CSA over the past two years. I do not believe that we need take such matters any further.
The background to the debate can be characterised in two ways. First, as several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy) said, the fact that this is a reform Bill as opposed to a Bill to abolish the CSA is a success in itself. We have come some way in relation to the concerns of the hon. Member for Broadgreen about whether the CSA could succeed. I have told the agency staff that the fact that we have reached this stage is a measure of the fact that we have proved the point about the principle behind the CSA. We have tried to listen. The Select Committees have played their role, as have all Back Benchers and the constituents who have lobbied us. We have tried to respond to the concerns that have been raised about policy and administration.
In response to the point raised by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) about the particular strictures identified by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), I felt that the hon. Gentleman was slightly unfair in trying to suggest that I was avoiding responsibility. That was not the case.
I pointed out to the Committee that there are different functions within the Department in terms of the day-to-day responsibility for the running of the agency and the Minister's policy-making job. However, I have to take responsibility from the Dispatch Box for everything that the agency might do. But in no sense was I suggesting that it was a hands-off approach, that it was up to the agency and that it was not my problem.
"We consider that Ministers were at fault in being so easily satisfied with the assurances of officials."
"`This is not good enough, we must change this. Bring me your proposals for how we can deal with this basic problem of communication.' Over a period of time, of course, those changes are made."
I said that it was our role to prompt those changes. That was my particular job. However, I hear the hon. Gentleman's criticism. The Government will respond in due course.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the pile-up of reviews. In the year to date, the Department has received 22,100 applications for second-tier reviews. It has cleared 22,500. There is a backlog of some 8,000, which ought to be cleared towards the end of this month. That is a measure of the steps that we have taken to deal with some of the problems that have rightly been raised. In no sense have we ever considered that we should have a hands-off role.
Column 106Various tributes have been paid to the work of the staff of the Child Support Agency. I am grateful for that. The hon. Member for Broadgreen referred to the important issue of field staff. I was grateful that she did that. The staff have been in day-to-day contact with many people affected by the agency. They have put up with a great deal. They work extremely hard.
I am pleased when any hon. Member takes the opportunity to go and see the work of the regional centres of the CSA. For all the criticism of the CSA and its work, few hon. Members have gone to see it at first hand to understand the process and how it can be undertaken. I should be grateful to any hon. Member who visited a centre. Those who have done so have seen the improvements and the work that has been done. I appreciate what they have said about it. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) raised the issue of the telephone service. He appreciated the telephone and handling service that Members of Parliament received. He expressed concern that such a service was not available to constituents. We have taken great steps to improve the telephone service available to all members of the public. We have a charter target time of responding to 80 per cent. of calls to the national inquiry line and the Child Support Agency centre lines within 20 seconds. The figures for the year to date for the national inquiry line show that we hit that target in 92 per cent. of cases. For the CSACs, we hit the target in 61 per cent. of cases. That is not as good as we would like, but it is far better than it used to be. It is right that we deal with concerns raised by constituents as well as those raised by Members of Parliament.
The fact that we are still here endeavouring to put right the administration of the CSA is one part of the background to the Bill. The second part of the background, which was referred to by several hon. Members, is the wider problem of family background and family breakdown. We could spend a great deal of time on that subject. I appreciated the speeches made by the hon. Members for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) and for Broadgreen and by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). A great deal in the subject ought to worry the House of Commons.
Family breakdown is responsible for more misery and despair that I see in my surgeries than virtually anything else. Damage is done over a period of time, not only at the time of the breakdown. The breakdown is the culmination of a variety of pressures on families. The change that is occurring in the country as a result of that growing pattern is immense. It leads to huge consequences for not only child support but housing, education and wider social issues, which may involve destructive children and such problems. I suspect that we shall return to the issue many times. It is a matter of great seriousness, on which the House needs to put its collective heads together.
The two issues to which I have referred form the background to the Bill. Several of my colleagues rightly concentrated on the proposals in the Bill and the wider proposals in the White Paper. A broad welcome was given by the vast majority of hon. Members who spoke to the measures introduced in the Bill. A particular welcome was given to a more flexible system, which we call the departure system. It provides the opportunity for some of the hard cases that cannot be dealt with by the formula to be dealt with in a different way.
Column 107I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) saw the need to respond to what he considered to be the good, sensible pressure from his local group. Several hon. Members commented that, although some of the national groups had given a great deal of trouble, some of the local groups were sensible and straightforward. We have done our best to respond to those who have been sensible and responsible. We have not had any time for those who have caused harm or distress to members of the agency or others in the way in which they have gone about their protest. The travel-to-work concession that we are seeking to bring in was welcomed by hon. Members. The concession is calculated on a straight-line basis, and there is a sensible reason for that. We could work out by computer from post code to post code the distance between where people live and where they work, but a straight line means that one does not get arguments about how people get from their homes to their place of work. There will always be arguments--often raised by spouses--about what route people have taken and whether they are going slightly too far to avoid a maintenance assessment. We decided that the best way to deal with the matter was on a straight-line basis.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak said that there would be anomalies in some districts where straight lines might look simple on the map but, because of geography, would not be so simple on the ground. In that area, the departure systems will assist in the broad-brush elements that are to be brought in by regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) welcomed the change that we had made in relation to property and so- called clean-break settlements. Again, we are trying to bring in a more immediate opportunity for relief through a broad-brush system in the regulations, and that will come into effect soon. But we recognise that there can be a broad-brush approach only if the departure system is behind that, and if we are giving proper and adequate consideration to the problems that people may raise concerning the regulations.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) tried to claim some spurious credit for the appeal system, which he has always been on about. The point that we are trying to make is that we know that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that system over a period of time, and we have not dismissed it. But if we do not want to go back to a second-guess system of total discretion, where do we draw the lines and boundaries? We offered opportunity after opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to enlighten us, but he did not.
When we produced the Bill, we showed that we had tackled that knotty problem by bringing forward gateways. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to chastise the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he tried to go about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) said that the gateways had been the essence of the system, and it was the Government who thought of them rather than the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Birkenhead rightly said that the way in which my right hon. Friend has given support to the parent with care through credit rather than a disregard
Column 108was not only ingenious, but an incentive to go into work. We thought carefully about a disregard, but we felt that it would not do the job as well as a credit system.
Mr. Burt: That is possible, but we would find ourselves with a problem to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred. We would be giving an unfair advantage to some parents who would be able to get a supplement on their income support that was not available to others. We would again be looking to the state and the taxpayer to provide a bonus, when the Government are trying to wean people off benefit and off the dependency state to which the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West referred. A credit system fulfils the Government's objectives. We reject the benefit dependency culture, and we spend a lot of time encouraging people away from that and into work.
The prize for the most cynical speech of the evening goes, without doubt, to the lady in green, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne). It is some time since the House was treated to such a neat about-turn for the spurious purpose of picking up some stray Labour votes. That was the gist of what the hon. Lady had to say. I would have had rather more time for her principled position in favour of family courts if we had heard that argument advanced week after week in a principled manner by the Liberal Democrats. We heard nothing about that subject at all until tonight, when it was pulled out of a hat like a rabbit. The hon. Lady knows full well that it is very easy to promise something that has no chance of coming about, because it offers her the opportunity to be all things to all men.
Ms Lynne: I proposed family courts because the Child Support Act is not working and the Bill does not go nearly far enough. It is a disgrace for the Minister to stand there and pretend that it does. He will have to come back time and again because the Act will continue not to work.
Mr. Burt: It is the collective view of the rest of us that the Child Support Act has an opportunity to work, is working better and is the preferred option of the House. The hon. Lady never quite escaped the charge levelled by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that she was offering the absent parent the chance to pay less and the parent with care the opportunity to receive more, which struck me as typically Liberal.
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East) rose --
A number of other issues were raised and I shall go through them briefly. We had a useful, but brief talk about Mr. Amitai Etzioni, whose extremely interesting lecture I attended the other week with other hon. Members. Much in his principles started on these Conservative Benches--not on the Opposition Benches--such as self-reliance and the opportunity for people to work together without state interference.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) dealt with the difficult issue of whether we should constantly be looking for further reforms and progress, or whether we should have some stability. We must balance that by not shutting ourselves off from the possibility of further reform, but it is now important that we give the
Column 109system some sense of stability. That is why I appreciated the way in which the hon. Member for Withington dealt with the matter. We want to improve the operation of child support, but it is crucial that we make the general public understand that we have made the major reforms and that there is a structure on which people can rely. If we do not do so, we shall have failed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury asked whether the term "absent parent" is a good one; hon. Members on both sides of the House might welcome a slightly off-the-hoof response. I have had reservations about that term and so has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are accordingly renewing a suggestion made some time ago--we are not fixed in our view of that term. Originally, we tried to come up with a better term, but no one found one that was acceptable. If hon. Members want to try again, I am open to the suggestion, as I have been moved by the way in which a variety of good parents, who do not feel that they are absent, have felt that they have been unfairly characterised by the term. It was never meant to be pejorative, but that is what people felt, so let us see what we can do about it. I am very open to that.
With regard to whether we should spend more time discussing the matter, I want colleagues on both sides of the House to know that I am conscious that the agency must implement what it is changing extremely well. We have all suffered from the poor implementation of the 1991 Act and it is crucial that we implement these changes well. I am prepared to allow proper time not only for consideration, but for the practical putting into effect of the matters that we have been discussing.
Tonight's Bill is the culmination of a great deal of thought and consideration that have been given to child support during the past 18 months. Through two Social Security Select Committees and innumerable debates and questions, the basic principle behind child support--that parents should be financially responsible for their children before the taxpayers, in so far as they can afford it--has come through unchallenged.
The Child Support Agency's role in dealing with child support has been challenged, but it has also been given approval to continue. The Government have heard, listened and responded to proper concerns about the agency's operations and have authorised and initiated reforms, some of which are in the Bill. The main part of the Bill's reforms demonstrates that we are a listening Government--not merely to one section that is affected by the revolution in child support, but to all sides.
With regard to parents with care of the child, their concerns are still paramount. The average payment of maintenance, which was too low, is now higher, reflecting the change in the needs of children. The changes that we are making tonight will encourage compliance and, therefore, the payment of maintenance, which must be helpful. The maintenance credit bonus will be of significant assistance in helping people back into work and will be of benefit to all parents with care, especially those who depend solely on income support. The formula changes will assist parents without day-to-day care of the child, and Parliament must show the taxpayer that it remains constant to its view that the burden must be held by the parent, not by society at large when parents can afford to pay. That is rightly parents' responsibility.
Column 110It is right that the burden on the taxpayer is lifted; it is right to ensure decent maintenance for children; it is right that the system of administration should be improved; and it is right that this reform package, which both improves the formula and introduces appropriate flexibility to the system, should have the full support of the House.
Question put , That the amendment be made:--
The House divided : Ayes 258, Noes 290.
Division No. 104] [10.00 pm
Column 110Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D N
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John