Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 167)



  160. I was going to ask whether you have written to the landlords at White Lion Street saying that you will not be needed any more. Do you believe that these changes will make a significant contribution to that strategy?
  (Mr Barnes) I think it does because firstly it is a step forward, it shows a slightly different attitude on the part of the Treasury perhaps in terms of its approach to child support. If it means that a parent on income support is going to get an extra £10 a week, we have called for £15, we have also called for it to be brought forward because we do not believe that would complicate this issue of simplification, if it is a positive let us bring it forward. I think it would have benefits to the workings of the scheme if that were done. Also with this whole pressure of this target of reducing child poverty, if it is going to make a difference why not do it now? The total disregard for Working Families Tax Credit is positive, that is a positive step forward. Obviously the point we have made is that you cannot end child poverty through child maintenance alone, it has to be as part of a package of the adequacy of benefit support, Welfare to Work, etc., etc. In the context of child support it is a positive step forward.

Mr Leigh

  161. You asked for the maintenance disregard to be increased to £15 a week, how much will that cost?
  (Mr Barnes) I do not know actually.[51]

  162. Why do you say these things if you do not know how much they are going to cost?

  (Ms Thurley) I think the reason that we said it was because of the current shortfall on income support for a couple with two children. We were comparing the income support levels with the low cost but acceptable budget set up by the Family Budget Unit. Income support for a couple with two children under 11 is currently £20 short of that budget, so £15 goes that much further towards reaching that level.
  (Mr Barnes) David Willetts has recently said that he feels the Government should be doing more for poorer families. These are families on income support, so I think an extra £5 a week would make a difference. It would be quite compatible with what David Willetts is currently saying in terms of the Government strategy.

  163. It is all very well to argue that we should solve this problem by more money coming from the general taxpayer, most of whom are on relatively modest incomes and cannot afford to pay any more, but would it not be better to put more emphasis on making the absent parents who pay nothing pay more?
  (Mr Barnes) We have generally supported the approach to ensure that there is more compliance through the simple formula. Obviously we have raised the concerns about extending the sanctions given the fact that sanctions are fairly strong already but probably not being used enough. Yes, it is important that there is maximum compliance, we have supported that.

  164. The National Council for One Parent Families remind us that if a child spends at least 52 nights a year with the non-resident parent it is proposed that liability be reduced by one-seventh of the weekly rate for each night spent. I think this is a very good idea because we should try and have a direct relationship between what the absent parent pays and how much time he spends with his children. I think it is a very good idea. Do you have any comment on that?
  (Ms Thurley) The reduction by one-seventh is actually in the White Paper, is it not?

  165. Yes.
  (Ms Thurley) We do not have as strong views on this issue as the National Council for One Parents. We do not have a particular problem with the proposals as laid out in the White Paper.

  166. Of course it is going to be argued, is it not, that we are often dealing with very poor people and what is going to happen is that if the rate is being reduced in this way there is going to be an impact on poverty, is there not? That is inevitable.
  (Mr Barnes) As Djuna says it is in the White Paper and we do not have any problems with the recommendation. Precisely where we are coming from is the impact on poorer families, whether it is those with care or those who are non-resident. That is why the balance is so important. The issue of the disregards, as I say, is quite a key part this in proposal.
  (Ms Thurley) Where I think I do agree with what the National Council for One Parent Families is saying is on the difficulties that the benefits system creates for non-resident parents. You get no personal allowance for the child in your income support, you get no child benefit, you get no housing benefit allowance. If you are also having £5 deducted from your income support then it does make shared care very difficult and I do think it needs looking at in the round.

Dr Naysmith

  167. The Minister told us yesterday that when whatever system it is is introduced, it will run side by side with the existing system for a while and new claimants will go on to the new system and old claimants will be fed in over a period as yet unspecified. Now, clearly that could give rise to all sorts of problems with people being treated in two different systems as well as not knowing whether we can actually cope with running two different systems at the same time. I know it is not mentioned in your recent submission, but do you have any views on this given all the experience you have of people contacting you?
  (Mr Barnes) Clearly I think it is right to be concerned about that transitional period because history shows us that when there is a change in the system or a move from one to another, the difficulties are nearly always underestimated. Firstly, I would always raise the question about the ability of IT to deliver and that seems to be where it often goes wrong, but I think it is really this question of getting a balance. I heard the comments made earlier about the possible delay in introduction, although the timescale is already very lengthy—we are talking about a couple of years hence—and if that is the case, then we would like to see, say, the disregard brought forward because I really do not think there is any need to wait other than the costings issue and what the Treasury is prepared to fund before that comes forward. This is why I think probably the issue of trials and testing is so crucial and there is no way, I think, that the Government is prepared to see the Agency get it wrong this time. I think the Agency probably not quite has a blank cheque, but the Government will not let this fail and it simply cannot afford to do so and the lessons learned in the introduction of the jobseekers' allowance, if it shows there is a need for more time, they are prepared to do it and the jobseekers' allowance was delayed by six months because of the concerns about computers coming in, so we need to learn from history.

  Chairman: Thank you both very much. That has been very useful and extremely helpful. Thanks for the submission and hopefully we will be able to maintain the dialogue as the debate continues.

51   See Ev p 55. Back

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