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Child Maintenance

14. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): What proposals she has to include capital from the sale of the matrimonial home in the assessment of child maintenance; and if she will make a statement. [38493]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley): Money from the sale of the matrimonial home that has been earmarked for a new home or to acquire furnishings is ignored for a year. Any interest and dividends received from other capital are taken into account in the calculation of assessable income. We are looking at all aspects of the child support scheme to see where improvements can be made, in line with our manifesto commitments. We intend to consult widely on the issues raised by our reform of child support.

Mr. O'Brien: I thank my colleague for that reply.I appreciate what he and the Secretary of State are doing to try to erase the bristling anomalies arising from the Child Support Agency which we inherited.

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On the issue of capital derived from the sale of the home, the parent with care has to use that capital to provide a new home for the children, whereas, in many cases, the absent parent is allowed to retain their part of the capital without any expenditure or commitment. That anomaly, which acts against the care of the children, should be addressed and erased. I appreciate the Under-Secretary's saying that he will address that issue in the review, which I hope will be completed quickly.

Mr. Bradley: May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members for their significant contribution to our review of the child support system? Their knowledge and experience from individual case work in their constituencies are extremely important in guiding us as we try to unravel the problems of the Child Support Agency. I assure my hon. Friend that his point is extremely important and it will be considered as part of the general review.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The Under-Secretary referred to the CSA, but does he accept that it was set up with support on both sides of the House--not only the previous Conservative Government, but the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and every other party in the House? Will he ensure that, in dealing with the matter, the House has more time and can consider what is to be done in a more measured way, so that we do not make the same prize error as we did when the House--not just the Government of the day--established the Child Support Agency?

Mr. Bradley: It is clear that the House agreed universally with the principle behind the Child Support Agency, but not with the way in which it has been set up and administered. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall take views from all sections of the House on the reform of the CSA. We shall take particular account of the views of the Select Committee on Social Security, which will have a valuable role in examining the proposals which we bring forward. We want to ensure that there is full consultation on the proposals so that we can try to unravel the mess that we inherited.

Fuel (VAT)

16. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If she will calculate the impact of the measures contained in the Budget relating to VAT on fuel, and the consequent adjustments in benefits including the state pension, on the weekly income of a typical old-age pensioner not in receipt of income support. [38495]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham): One of the first actions of the Government was to implement our manifesto promise to cut the rate of VAT on fuel, an issue which has been of particular concern to pensioners. As a result, on average, a typical single pensioner receiving the basic state pension will be 20p a week and a couple 25p a week better off.

Mr. Heath: Is not the import of what the Under-Secretary has just told us that the actual benefit for the average old-age pensioner of this much-fanfared

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measure is paltry? Is it any wonder that many people are saying that, whatever other merits this year's Budget may have had, it was not a Budget for the old-age pensioner?

Mr. Denham: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Conservatives in government attempted to establish VAT on fuel at 17.5 per cent. We carried out that manifesto commitment, but, in addition to carrying it out, we introduced winter fuel payments, at a cost of about £200 million this winter, and the same again next winter. Those were significant commitments to today's pensioners.

We have a wide-ranging pensions review, looking ahead at ways in which problems facing today's pensioners can be tackled in future, but I do not believe that anyone can fairly say that, in the months in which we have been in power, the Government have not done significantly more for pensioners than the previous Administration did.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What estimate has the hon. Gentleman made of the effect on the lives of old-age pensioners who do not receive income support, and who live in rural areas, of the Chancellor's decision to increase excise duty on petrol in the Budget?

Mr. Denham: The issues of transport will be addressed in the forthcoming transport White Paper. As I have said, we have taken action--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has already asked a question. He should let the Minister answer.

Mr. Denham: The Conservative party has already forgotten its determination to make pensioners pay VAT on domestic fuel at 17.5 per cent., and no amount of trying to side with those in rural areas will divert pensioners' attention from that fact. The issue of rural transport will be addressed in the forthcoming transport White Paper.

Housing Benefit

17. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): What are the terms of reference of her Department's review of housingbenefit.[38496]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley): Housing benefit is under consideration in the housing comprehensive spending review. The full terms of reference for the housing review were included in the press release issued by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on24 July, which covered all the reviews being undertaken by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Copies of the press release have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Mr. Blunt: Earlier this afternoon, in reply to a supplementary question on Question 3 by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the Under-Secretary gave the illuminating reply that the housing benefit review would be published as soon as it was completed. I wonder whether, without being intrusive, I may press the Under-Secretary a little more.

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Will the review be completed by July this year, or some time next year? Will Under-Secretary be a little more specific than "as soon as it is completed"?

Mr. Bradley: It would be extremely difficult to publish it before it was completed, but we shall complete it later this year.

Child Support Agency

18. Mr. David Hanson (Delyn): When she expects to publish the review of the Child Support Agency. [38497]

19. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): What representations she has received about the reform of the Child Support Agency. [38498]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley): We believe that all children have the right to support from both their parents, wherever they live. That is why we are looking in detail at all aspects of the child support scheme to ensure that it provides an efficient and effective service to all our clients, as we promised in our manifesto.

In our consideration of child support, we have received representations from hon. Members, members of the public and a number of stakeholder groups. We aim to publish a consultation document setting out our proposals later this year.

Mr. Hanson: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he accept that the current child support system is

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failing children, parents and the staff who must administer it? Will he ensure that, whatever else comes out of the review, the system is simplified and made efficient, and that promptness in delivery of service to consumers is paramount?

Mr. Bradley: I should like to answer five loud yeses to those questions. I can assure my hon. Friend that, as I have said previously, all aspects of the Child Support Agency are under consideration, and we value the contributions made by hon. Members from both sides of the House.

Mrs. Campbell: Will my hon. Friend join me in deploring the appalling mess left behind by the previous Government which has caused untold damage to many of the most vulnerable people in society? When an absent parent abandons more than one family, the CSA as it is currently set up is unable to cope with the children of the second or the third abandoned family. Does my hon. Friend agree that that matter must be addressed urgently?

Mr. Bradley: My hon. Friend rightly highlights yet again the detailed complexity in the system. It needs simplifying and presenting in such a way that both partners understand not only the CSA formula, but its administration. We shall consider those matters carefully as the review continues.

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