Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 141 - 159)

WEDNESDAY 15 SEPTEMBER 1999

MR MARTIN BARNES AND MS DJUNA THURLEY

Chairman

  141. Can I welcome Martin Barnes, who is the Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, an experienced hand at giving evidence to the Committee and we are grateful for that. He is accompanied by Djuna Thurley, the Parliamentary Officer, who has also been before the Committee before. We are grateful to you for coming and we are grateful also for your evidence, of which we have had sight. I wonder, Martin, if you would like to set the scene and say a wee bit about your own priorities and perspective in this and whether, since you have submitted the evidence, there are any changes in emphasis that you would like to draw to the Committee's attention?

  (Mr Barnes) First of all, Chairman, just a few general comments. Obviously the Child Poverty Action Group represents a broad coalition of the families living in poverty, so we need to have an eye to the interests of parents with care as well as non-resident parents. I would also like to make a comment on the Government's approach to this. I think the Minister, so far, has handled this whole issue with sensitivity. We have met with the Minister and there does appear to be quite a genuine attempt to consult and learn from what groups like us and One Parent Families can contribute. In terms of the proposals themselves we do broadly support the measures that the Government is putting forward. We do support the approach of having a system based on administration, we do not support an idea of returning to the courts. We believe there is potential to make the administrative system work and obviously the problems with the current system are well rehearsed and we know where it has been going wrong. For us I think the most important step forward is that it is the first time that the poorest families will actually gain through the payment of child maintenance with the introduction of the £10 disregard for families on income support and also the total disregard of maintenance where the parents receive Working Families Tax Credit. That is a very positive step forward. I think that also indicates that the Treasury is prepared to at least view this on a nil-cost basis and shows the potential for more help in the longer term. Our support is not unqualified, I think I have to emphasise that. Firstly, for those parents with care we are concerned about the effect of lower assessments and one of our proposals is a lower phasing in of those reduced assessments. We do remain concerned about the position of non-resident parents in those cases where the exemption has been removed. We have considerable difficulties with the idea of paying a minimum payment out of income support which is regarded as the minimum income level that somebody is supposed to survive on. We do have concerns as well about the aspect of service delivery. We believe that there is potential to improve compliance, speed, efficiency with the simpler formula but we raise the question about the adequacy of resources, particularly the resources for that face-to-face contact. We are not entirely persuaded that the 600 staff suggested is going to be enough. Finally, on the sanctions, let us see how the new scheme works before we actually toughen up the sanctions. The Child Support Agency already has considerable powers, the issue is that they simply have not really been applying or using them because of the complications of making initial assessments. I think it is too early to talk about tightening sanctions and extending them.

  142. Thank you, that is very helpful. You say that the Government has been very co-operative in the consultation process that has taken place but none of us, of course, have had the advantage of seeing any of the regulations, never mind the draft Bill. Do you have any views about the importance of the regulations in terms of getting the detail properly drawn up in a way that does not turn out to be more perverse perhaps than we would like to think? Do you have a view about that in terms of the continuing consultations when the regulations are drawn up and drafted?
  (Mr Barnes) For some time the Child Poverty Action Group has expressed concern about the extent to which law is embodied in regulations. We are not satisfied that Parliament always has sufficient time and opportunity to look at the detail. I think there is a role for this Committee and we would like to see the Social Security Advisory Committee, for example, on the general aspects of social security law sometimes take a more proactive role in terms of looking at the detail. Yes, I think it is crucial that if this is going to work that at every stage there is sufficient time and opportunity to comment on the detail. It does not appear that the Government is in a mad rush with this and, indeed, there are certain aspects that we would like to see brought forward. It is important that consultation does take place because of that old cliche, the devil is in the detail. If any example has proved that then it has been in the operation of child support[50].

  143. You have confidence in the way that the Social Security Advisory Committee actually handles these things, in your experience they do the job properly. They look at the thing and get a chance to make recommendations but do the Government always accept the recommendations that are made at the Social Security Advisory Committee's hands?
  (Mr Barnes) I think the Social Security Advisory Committee plays a crucial role and has been extremely effective. I think our concern is sometimes this provision, that if regulations are passed within six months of primary legislation they will not normally look at those regulations. That is the aspect that we want to see reviewed. When the Committee does look at regulations its reports have normally been very powerful and very effective. I think it is a crucial part of the whole legislative process.

  144. That is a very important point, the six month period they are not included in as a matter of course.
  (Mr Barnes) I think it is more by convention rather than law. I think if they wanted to they could request it but at the moment they do not. We have raised this several times with the Committee and I do not think as yet they are willing to take that on board, partly because of the question of resources. There are times when there is a wave of regulations coming in and they struggle to keep up, so there is that issue, the Committee's ability to handle more regulations.

  145. That is something that we will want to think about. A second question before I turn to Andrew Dismore. It is more a general question about the evidence we were hearing yesterday which was suggesting that there are non-resident parents out there who are perversely trying to avoid their duties and responsibilities but there are also, and it is difficult to know where the balance is, a group of non-resident parents who are simply, if I can use the colloquialism, strapped for cash and they have not got the money to pay. Now, you have got a unique role perhaps in looking at poverty in the round more than some of our other witnesses and do you have a view about that? You have already said that the minimum payment is something that you are concerned about, but do you believe that there is actually a real problem out there, even if we get the administrative apparatus working efficiently, sensibly and fairly because still at the end of the day there will not be enough money to meet the demands that are placed by the CSA on non-resident parents?
  (Mr Barnes) I will just make a short comment and then bring Djuna in. One of the comments we make in our submission is that for a lot of families who are affected by this scheme it is moving money from the poor to the very poor and clearly that needs to be taken account of in terms of how the scheme operates. One of the things we have suggested is that whilst trying to maintain the simplification of the formula, and we support that and we see advantages in it, there is more scope for flexibility in terms of taking account of certain expenditure, housing costs, debt, without at the same time adding to the complications, or for those non-resident families who do not want to co-operate, not giving them the ammunition to delay matters and delay the assessment. We believe you can combine simplification with a little bit more flexibility to make it fairer.
  (Ms Thurley) The point about which we are particularly concerned is the ability of second families to meet their housing costs and one of the things that we pushed in our response to the Green Paper was that there should be a protected income level which included housing costs to make sure that second families paying maintenance were able to meet them. That was rejected on the grounds that it would reintroduce too much complexity and we accept that that is a legitimate concern, so one of the things that we would like to suggest for consideration now is that we find an answer to that through the benefits system and one of the things we are suggesting is that where a second family is paying maintenance, their housing benefit should be assessed on the basis of their earned income after maintenance is paid, which would just help to make sure that they could pay their rent. It does not help people with mortgages though, so you might have to look for a solution for them as well.

Mr Dismore

  146. Can I ask you about the customer contact side. You have dealt with this quite fully in your paper. In particular, you suggest that the 600 staff being trained for face-to-face interviews is inadequate. What do you think an adequate number would be if 600 is not enough?
  (Mr Barnes) So you do want the scientific approach, do you not!

  147. If you are saying that the figure is not enough, it is incumbent on you to say what it should be.
  (Mr Barnes) Well, almost from the common sense point of view of having 600 staff covering the whole country when a lot of people who would be involved with the scheme do not have access to telephones, people with disabilities—we have outlined the concerns in the paper—and the general point we want to raise is the issue of resources which is current at the moment not just of the Child Support Agency, but also for the Benefits Agency as well. We could turn around and say to the Government, "Where have you got this 600 figure from? Convince us with the concerns about the service delivery as they currently are and in the future that that is an adequate number". We are really raising that question and I think the onus is on the Government to show rather than for us to counter it.
  (Ms Thurley) The other thing that I would like to add is that the new dispute resolution procedure which has been quite recently introduced has potential to reduce some of the frustration that Anne Parker was talking about yesterday. Often with child support staff, and I have dealt with child support queries over the phone, it is very difficult to get to the bottom of the problem without sitting down with all the paperwork, so I think ensuring that there is enough face-to-face contact to sit down and go through the problem with people could reduce quite a lot of that steam if you have got enough well-trained, experienced staff to do that and I think that could go some way to help us through this transitional two-year period until the new scheme comes in.

  148. Is your view on this based on your experience of the benefits system as it is now or the system as it is going to be?
  (Ms Thurley) Well, I think we have got two years until we have the system as it is going to be and I think particularly to help the CSA cope with it in the next two years, it is particularly important that people have the ability to get contact, and we get calls on the phone from people who are desperate because they get different people on the phone at the CSA and they cannot get advice locally because a lot of the advice centres find the CSA very difficult to deal with because the formula is so complex, so people find it very difficult to sit down with somebody who knows what they are talking about and go through it all and we cannot do that for them either, so I think it has the potential to make a real difference, particularly in the transitional period.

  149. Presumably you have got no objection in principle to the phones being used more?
  (Ms Thurley) No, and in some cases it helps.
  (Mr Barnes) It does very much depend on the quality of the training and the empathy of the people on the other end of the phone and also that they are not operating against the clock ticking which is sometimes the call centre culture, that you have got to turn calls around in a certain time. I am not saying that is being proposed, but that is precisely the aspect you need to look at in terms of the quality and accessibility of the service as to the culture and the resources within that unit.

  150. You also focus on people with disabilities. How many people do you think we are talking about in that bracket, people who have a sight impairment or a hearing impairment which are the two groups you particularly focus on in terms of communication difficulties generally?
  (Ms Thurley) I do not know in terms of the Child Support Agency client group, but I think the paper said that 20 per cent of the adult population have disabilities and the majority of that is hearing and sight, so I think you are looking at a proportion.

  151. All you could do was extrapolate from that figure and you did nothing more specific?
  (Ms Thurley) Nothing more specific, no.

Chairman

  152. May I ask you about your view about sanctions. Do you believe that the sanctions that are available currently to the Agency are being thoroughly and properly used to the full?
  (Ms Thurley) I think the CSA say that they have not been. You are talking about the sanctions for non-payment, are you?

  153. Yes.
  (Ms Thurley) No, I think that is the view particularly around the self-employed. Where you have got an employed non-resident parent, deductions from earnings orders are used, but it is particularly still an issue with the self-employed and it is one of the problems that is commonly cited on the CSA, that too much time is spent getting information, getting the assessment done in the first place and not enough time to follow up and we would accept that analysis.

  154. Do you have a view on the proposals that were kind of half floated in the White Paper about confiscating driving licences and passports and matters of that kidney? Do you have a view about that?
  (Mr Barnes) Well, they made for a very good headline on the day and the weekend before, and I think it is the point we made earlier, that it is too early to really make the case for tougher sanctions, the idea of taking away passports and driving licences. I think the test is what is in the interests of the children and if those sort of sanctions are going to militate against close contact with the child and supporting the family, then clearly they do not really deserve support, but the idea of this scheme is increased compliance, simplification, improved administration and let's see how it works first before we start adding to the sanctions that currently exist. They are pretty tough already, but, as Djuna says, it is probably the case, and actually the CSA says this, that they simply do not have the time at the moment to implement them and use them fully, so let's see how that works first.

  155. I understand that the enforcement guidance that the CSA uses at the moment means that they do not enforce anything against people who are under 18 years of age. There were some pretty interesting statements coming from high sources within the Government in the last fortnight or so saying that perhaps teenage fathers, and 14-year-olds in Sheffield I think were mentioned at the time, would be pursued for their pocket money. Do you think that that is a realistic prospect?
  (Mr Barnes) I would like to see the facts first in terms of how many 14-year-old parents are involved and I doubt that there are actually that many and again I think one of the failings of child support in the past is that the priority of getting the payment to the children sometimes gets lost in other agendas and what I would not want to see happen is the Child Support Agency and the debate around it becoming a catalyst for discussions about morality or whatever might be on the contemporary agenda. I really do not think that sort of discussion necessarily helps. If there is a problem, let's see the facts first and look at the best solution, but the concept of chasing people for their pocket money sounds a bit daft, to be honest.

  156. They could become a bogey man if in fact they are trying to enforce that kind of thing and that is the kind of problem that you could have if that were to happen.
  (Mr Barnes) How much is the pocket money, who is paying it? It really needs serious consideration before it is taken seriously.

Mr Pond

  157. I can see the need for a Child Employment Bill to come in here, better wages for newspaper rounds to pay child maintenance. Can I just dwell for a few more moments on the sanctions issue both in relation to the non-resident parents who wilfully refuse to pay over a long period of time and also on the whole issue of benefit sanctions for non co-operation by parents with care. In your submission you are sceptical about the idea of driving licence removal and imprisonment, etc., which you feel could further damage the interests of the children and you are also worried about the benefit sanctions for parents with care who will not co-operate. Is it not the case that those judgments are being made in the context of the system as it currently operates? I think many of us would have a heavy heart imposing really harsh sanctions on non-resident parents because the system looks so harsh anyway at the moment, it is so inefficient and you can never quite be sure whether or not the CSA has acted properly. Similarly for parents with care, is it not the case that if we had an agency which was operating sensitively and was accessible and seen to be fair, under those circumstances would it not be appropriate at the end of the day to say "look, you are going to have to co-operate with this system but the CSA is going to take account of your circumstances and will not be destroying your family?"
  (Ms Thurley) I think what you have said is helpful. There is a problem with acceptability of the current system and people knowing that they are paying what they are supposed to be paying. I think that is a serious issue at the moment and it will not be under the new scheme. There will be an incentive to co-operate, a formula which people will be able to understand, an incentive on both sides, and also because people will see the children benefitting. That is another real weakness of the current system for both the parents, if the money is being paid and the parent is on income support the children simply are not seeing any of that money. There will be incentives and a greater compliance anyway. Let us see how that works. There are sufficient sanctions under the current proposals to deal with non-payment without adding further to them.

  158. The difficulty with the suck it and see approach is of course, as the Chairman said yesterday, this may be our last opportunity ever to get this right and we are going to have to do it in one shot. It seems to me to make a decision about what the appropriate sanctions are in a new context is quite important. In your submission you make a powerful case against the automatic £5 payment for non-resident parents on income support. You make the point that income support is already arguably below subsistence anyway, and there are arguments for that which you quote. A counter-argument I guess, and I would like your response to this, is are you not therefore without any automatic payment building in an incentive for non-resident parents to remain on benefit because in that way they ensure that the state will meet their maintenance costs and it is part of the Welfare to Work strategy to give some small further incentive for them to come off income support?
  (Mr Barnes) I think the first issue is really one of the adequacy of benefit support, as we have put in the submission. There is evidence of inadequacy, so any proposal to reduce still further that already inadequate amount potentially indefinitely is one that we obviously have extreme concerns about. Turning to your point about that perverse incentive effect, I think in practice it is unlikely that a non-resident parent is going to choose to remain on an income of £51-£52 a week to simply avoid paying any form of child maintenance. It is really a case then of their own agenda and motivation and if they are performing in that extreme a way then I suspect the numbers are very, very small indeed and yet many more will be affected by that deduction who are already on a low rate of benefit and quite possibly there are other debts coming off as well. So you start at a threshold of just above £50 and quite soon you are forcing that person into extreme hardship and probably affecting their ability to look for work, to find a new relationship. The evidence is there that when somebody is trying to cope with a low income their motivation does decrease simply because of the struggle of trying to cope.
  (Ms Thurley) Also you have got to consider the effect of a non-resident parent losing £5 off their income and their ability to maintain contact with the children if there are travel costs involved or having the children for the day. £5 off £51 income support does not leave you with a lot to do that.

  159. I cannot resist asking this but I will be brief. In the foreword to the White Paper the Prime Minister did say that this was part of the strategy to abolish child poverty, not the Child Poverty Action Group I have to emphasise so do not get too edgy, within two years—sorry, 20 years.
  (Mr Barnes) We only called for ten rather than two.


50   See Ev p 55. Back


 
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