Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 168 - 184)




  168. May we reconvene the public session and can I welcome Dr Dorit Braun, the Chief Executive of the National Stepfamily Association, and Cheryl Walters, who is Head of Research. Dr Braun, I think you want to make a short opening statement just to set the proceedings off.

  (Dr Braun) Thank you very much, yes, and partly to apologise that we were not able to supply written evidence. We had three AGMs to prepare for plus the summer holidays and our evidence is not substantially different from the evidence we supplied for the Green Paper consultation. Principally, we are supporting the comments and evidence provided by the National Council for One Parent Families and the Child Poverty Action Group and would like to focus our response primarily on what we regard as a very major culture shift that is going to be required if this approach to child support reform is going to work. We strongly endorse the principle that you should deduct child support first and then look at the income that remains and we support the principle of separating contact arrangements from child support payments, but our experience of running both our own telephone helpline service and now jointly running the Parentline service is that in the emotional turmoil of separation and divorce, parents themselves do not make those distinctions and do not really understand the basic premise of child support first. They are in too much of a turmoil about everything else and we think that there is an enormous need for public education and information if this is really going to work. We also think there is a need for the Agency service delivery mechanisms to work much more effectively than they have done in the past, and we are not alone in saying that. We think there is an urgent training need for CSA staff if the volume of delivery is going to be substantially over the telephone, which will actually enable clients to talk about much more difficult and sensitive issues which are much more challenging for members of staff to cope with. Finally, I suppose our feelings are dictated by wanting to say that what happens to a family at one point in a separation will change quite rapidly and the benefit of the current reforms is that assessments will be made quickly, but the ongoing changes in family circumstances should not be underestimated, people moving in and out of the benefits system, but also people moving in and out of relationships, and I think that that turmoil in which people find themselves, in that context it is all too easy for the needs of children and the rights of children to get overlooked, so back to public education and the need for anyone who is involved in supporting families during transitions and changes to actually understand the principles behind the reforms. I suppose the final bit of that is to say that it does seem to us to be an important point in pursuing the Government's anti-poverty strategy. We do, along with other colleagues, see this as playing a major part in eliminating poverty, but in the transition period, whilst family poverty still exists, there could be some serious difficulties, as other colleagues have underlined, particularly for people in second families.

  169. You have referred to the need to improve the quality of service provided by the CSA and you have mentioned one or two things. I wonder if you could just expand a little and if you had a fairy godmother, what are the two or three things that you would really prioritise now to try and get that service to stepfamilies changed and improved?
  (Dr Braun) It seems to us that if the telephone service can be improved, there are a number of preconditions. First of all, as the CPAG have pointed out, low income families do not have ready access to a telephone, so actually people need to be able to access telephones that are reasonably private in community venues. That exists in some places, but not in others. It is no use just having a public telephone where everybody can hear what is quite a complex conversation, so there is an issue about how people access a private conversation and how they pay for it, but there is also an issue about how staff are able to handle the muddle of the enquiry and from our experience at Parentline and at Stepfamily, people come with what is apparently a financial enquiry, but may well turn into a dispute about access and contact. Now, benefit staff and CSA staff are not actually equipped to handle that emotional turmoil and I do not think it is realistic to expect them to be. What they will have to be able to do is unravel some of the muddle, signpost people on to other sources of support where they could be helped and deal with the bits that they could do. The problem about signposting is that it is quite a delicate thing and quite a skilled thing to do. If you signpost someone too quickly you will not actually be dealing with the problem that they have raised for you. If you take too long about it you will allow them to believe that you can deal with all of the difficulties which they have put forward. That is a skilled thing, it requires a lot of telephone training for staff.

  170. Can I ask a more general question. You must have the best sources of contact within stepfamilies. The question that arose in some of the evidence yesterday was about the ability of some stepfamilies actually to pay. There are obviously some who can pay but will not pay and who are deliberately avoiding their duties and responsibilities. What evidence do you have that there are actually some stepfamilies out there who just do not have the wherewithal to meet these demands and what do you suggest is done about that?
  (Dr Braun) Our evidence is qualitative rather than quantitative, so I cannot quote numbers to you, but we certainly do have evidence of the hardship caused. I think one of the difficulties about stepfamilies living on low incomes is that housing costs are genuinely higher. If they are to provide a home that is big enough for children to come and visit and feel that they have a place in that home, that is a bigger cost than if they are living in a smaller home. If you imagine for a minute what it would be like for the non-resident parent to be living with a new partner who has children of her own and not be able to provide space for visiting children, if you think what that does to the family relationships and the feelings of the visiting children, there are genuine reasons for spending more on housing. For low income families that is a serious difficulty. The other one, of course, is the cost of transport of the visits. That depends on the geography of where people are living but it also does impact quite severely on people with low incomes if they want to organise regular visits. I think the final bit is on shared care where there is a confusion in the White Paper about reintroducing the notion that contact and payment are linked. I think that will cause a muddle in the public's mind. But, of course, the cost of contact is not just about overnight accommodation. If there is not room in the home then there are meals out to pay for. There are lots of jokes about families meeting at Macdonalds but that is a not uncommon experience. There are lots of journeys to be paid for. There are lots of additions that one or the other household will need to pay for: presents, school trips, etc., etc. It is very difficult for a formula to take those into account. Families on low incomes are likely to really struggle with all of that. Of course, poverty is often a major distraction for parents in caring for their children.

Mr Leigh

  171. Some people are arguing that we should deal with the problem of compliance by placing these matters in the hands of the Inland Revenue. The problem with that is that the Inland Revenue is successful because there is a degree of consent on the part of its victims that they should all pay taxes. The most common complaint that one has in one's surgery is that people come along and say "I am asked to pay X to the CSA, I have now got a new family, I cannot afford to pay it, and what is more my ex-partner is now shacked up with somebody who is earning a fantastic income and going around in a smart car and all the rest of it". All of those people are arguing the way you can solve these problems is by getting the general taxpayer to help but that is not going to happen, that is not the real world, there is not the money. Do you not think that one way of approaching these matters would be to have a more sophisticated system that makes some allowance for the caring parent's total income, including that of his or her partner?
  (Dr Braun) I think there are two difficulties with the sophisticated system and I think the Government argued fairly coherently when we were suggesting slightly more complex systems that the minute you make it slightly more complicated it becomes a nightmare to administer and you are back into the problems that we currently have. We have accepted that argument, that by and large it needs to be a very straightforward formula. I think the issue of whether or not you take into account the income of the parent with care is complex. Again, it could complicate the formula but also I think the principle which the White Paper argues that children are entitled to benefit from increased wealth of their parent or parents is not a bad principle. The problem that you are coming up with, which I am sure many MPs face in their surgeries, is actually not just about ability to pay but also about a sense of loss, grief, bereavement and anger about people moving on to find new families, new lifestyles and everything else. Separating all of that out is back to this need for a culture shift about people actually accepting that children are entitled to support and some of that is financial.

  172. Are you not worried about a very simplistic system which says that you will pay 15, 20, 25 per cent of your income irrespective of your new responsibilities, your new family, irrespective of the income of your ex-partner? Are you not worried about that?
  (Dr Braun) It is not quite irrespective of your new family. One of the things that the White Paper contains is the proposal to allow for the responsibilities of non-resident parents for children living in the household and we strongly welcome that. So it is not irrespective. I think anything that gets more complicated is in danger of being miscalculated and will certainly take longer to calculate. One of the important aspects of any reform has to be to get maintenance flowing quickly and also to enable both parents to have a very accurate sense of how much they can expect to get and how much they would expect to pay.

Mr Pond

  173. You have talked about the complexity of family structures nowadays and the way that they have changed, often very frequently. That brings in issues about shared care, of course, which you have mentioned. The stereotypical model is of the lone parent, normally a woman, who is left with the children and of the father who goes off elsewhere and takes up a new arrangement. We heard from the National Council for One Parent Families their concerns about the suggestion for reducing the amount of maintenance where there are periods where the child spends overnight with the other family. Given that you may well have a situation where there are two families, it is not a lone parent and a father living on his own but two families, does that not have implications for your judgment about what is the fair treatment of shared care?
  (Dr Braun) We argued in the response to the Green Paper that actually the arrangements for contact and care should be kept separate from the amount paid. Partly because I think it confuses people's understanding of the issues, they are either separate or they are not, and people regard them as not separate. To have an aspect of the reform that says "yes, that is true, they are not separate" adds to that confusion. I think the other difficulty, as you rightly point out, is that if there are two families there is that confusion about who gets more of the income and why, and also that confusion about how that is distributed amongst children in the first and second family, and for low incomes what that loss means to the lone parent and how that could get played out. What we emphasise is some of the emotional difficulties that places on children because, like it or not, children are often used as part of the tool of battle, if you like, between the parents. So a child who wants to visit and stay overnight regularly being told "it is costing me X and that is your school football boots", or "that is that particular school trip", and it will be in low income families, is very problematic for both sets of families.

  174. In circumstances where you have got exact symmetry, which admittedly will be very few cases but there will be cases where the child is spending half the time with one parent/family and half the time with the other parent/family, is there a case for the transfer of resources at all between parents?
  (Dr Braun) That would depend very much on the resources in the family. It seems to us that those are very few and far between and there are arguments for looking at those separately through tribunals or whatever because they should not clog up the system. It will be complex, it will be unusual, and circumstances will vary dramatically and you really would need to look quite carefully at how children's needs are protected. It is very unusual.

Mr Dismore

  175. I just want to pick up on the mirror image of what Edward earlier was talking about in that I think the figures we have show that 20.2 per cent of non-resident partners have a new partner in the set-up, but equally half as many are the receiving partner, if you want to put it another way, and we have been particularly focusing on the position of the non-resident's stepfamily rather than the stepfamily with care and I know it gets rather confused, but I wonder if you would say something about the mirror image of the equation.
  (Dr Braun) Again I think that is very complex. The impression that we had in the past was that the stepfamilies with care, if you like, that mirror image, were confused and often very anxious about the ways that the income of everybody involved was taken into account and it is one of the arguments for not taking into account the parents' own income because it left people feeling that for the purposes of the CSA they count it, for other purposes they did not count it, and they felt like they lost all ways and I think it is important to remember that there are some very confusing legal positions that stepfamilies with care find themselves in. The stepparent usually does not have parental responsibility, so they cannot sign a medical consent form, they cannot sign permission for a child to go on a school trip, but they are expected to pay for the welfare of that child and it is again a complex web of emotions and the legal side of it is very confusing.

  176. Do you think that the discretion elements built into the White Paper deal with some of the practical problems that people have been outlining or do you think that they are too generous or, on the other hand, too restrictive?
  (Dr Braun) On the whole, they do seem to deal with them, but I think the devil is in the detail and the devil is in how it actually plays out. One of the issues around a culture shift is that if the public generally can understand how this will operate—and because it is going to be simple, it ought to be easy for people to understand—people can begin to plan accordingly and can begin to adjust their expectations accordingly and it seems to us that that is one of the reasons it is so important to share this information very widely in the transition phase. However, there is also a worry about the transition phase, that it will actually add to the confusion for many stepfamilies.

Mrs Humble

  177. You made reference to housing costs, as indeed did our previous witnesses, and you were explaining that for second families housing costs can often actually be very substantial and an important part of their outgoings. There is, however, anecdotal evidence that non-resident parents have exploited housing costs and indeed other allowable expenses under the existing system to reduce their liability to pay maintenance to the children from a previous relationship. I am just wondering have you any comments about that because clearly the Government is proposing in the new simplified system that housing costs are not taken into account. What do you think about the fact that yes, for some families housing costs are important, but for others, especially the parents with care, they feel that their former partner is exploiting those housing costs to avoid making payments for their children?
  (Dr Braun) I think the honest answer is that we actually do not know the extent to which it is exploited or not exploited and sometimes those allegations are more about the pain of separation and setting up new homes than they are about whether it is really exploitative, but sometimes they will be about exploitation. I think the issue remains for low income second families that housing costs genuinely are high and our focus, if you like, has been on the low income end of it and on the stepfamily end of it and there is a genuine reason to suggest that housing costs are high and that if you are on a low income, actually exploiting that is pretty impossible.

  178. Do you have any evidence that it is a regional issue? Clearly we are sitting here in London where housing costs are astronomical. Back in my constituency they are a fraction of the housing costs here. Is it a regional issue? From your evidence, do you find that those are problems concentrated in the south-east?
  (Dr Braun) It has not been the evidence we have had. Admittedly, our evidence is hard to quantify because it is about people who choose to contact us, but we are not contacted in larger numbers by people in London and the south-east and it is really pretty dispersed. I think it is a relative issue because even in constituencies where housing costs are relatively lower, a bigger house is still relatively more than a smaller house, so it still impacts on people's sense of what their income is and what their disposable income is.

  179. Can I ask you if you think that the new simpler system will actually mean that some of the non-resident parents will actually pay more than now where we have huge numbers who do not pay anything towards their children?
  (Dr Braun) Well, all the predictions are that it will increase compliance by parents with care and, therefore, one would expect that it would mean that more non-resident parents are likely to pay. The amounts and how they are distributed across non-resident parents we do not feel that certain about and we have not done the work to calculate it, but in terms of the principle that you do not divorce your children and that your children do need financial support, that seems to us perfectly acceptable, more than acceptable.

Dr Naysmith

  180. I am interested in what you were saying earlier because it is certainly my experience too that arguing about the finances really is sometimes a background for having other kinds of disputes and some of the worst cases in my surgery quite clearly are people who are fighting old battles as an excuse over children and payments for children. Now, MPs do their best and I am sure the Child Support Agency workers do their best as well on the telephone. The aim of the new system is to simplify and, as a previous witness said, going for a percentage system will be rough justice and there is actually no way around it, and I suspect that that will help to reduce those kinds of disputes. Now, it is not really related to this, but I wonder if your organisation has any suggestions about these kinds of disputes and whether counselling can be used where at least most people can find somewhere where they can talk these things through without using the children and financial support as the battleground.
  (Dr Braun) Well, one of the reasons that we were unable to provide written evidence was because we were in the process of a merger with Parentline to provide a much expanded helpline service on a freephone basis to anyone parenting a child and to promote that service as relevant to anyone who has concerns about a child, be that a grandparent or be that a non-resident parent or indeed a friend of the family, and we will be doing that very actively. However, our experience at Parentline is that many people do ring us precisely with those sorts of concerns and they are more likely to ring us because the focus is around the children and the use of the children in the dispute, they are more likely to ring us than they are to go to a counselling service or indeed a mediation service. The difficulty that we have as a service-deliverer is that actually when you look at where they might go locally and what might feel acceptable to them, there is not a great deal on offer and what is on offer is often charged for, so many people would not wish to go to marriage guidance counselling or to Relate services because they would see that as being too late because the separation has already happened, even though Relate actually is available to people in those circumstances, but they do not see it as relevant to them and in any case even if they do see it as relevant, there is often a six-month waiting list which at this point of crisis for people is way too long, and often they do not see mediation as appropriate and again often mediation is quite difficult to access even if you can persuade them that it might be appropriate, and there is not a great deal else. I think one of the gaps in terms of local service provision is where do people get this kind of support that is not making judgements about them, that is not saying, "You have made a right old mess", but is actually willing to engage with them about how the needs of their children can come first and we certainly see that as a very urgent need.


  181. What is your view about seizing passports and driving licences and pocket money? Do you think that would help from your perspective?
  (Dr Braun) Well, I think it probably would not. Once the simplified formula comes into play, all the predictions are that compliance will go up and sanctions are, therefore, less of an issue. If you make the sanctions more extreme, on the one hand I accept that it is an argument to parents who do not want to pay, that this is not an option, and on the other hand it is polarising the argument and inflaming situations which are already pretty inflamed.

  182. Finally, where has the anger gone? Three or four years ago there were people carrying placards outside the Mother of Parliaments and there was a lot of tension and ministries' railings were being daubed. Where has all that gone in your view? Is it because the CSA has improved mainly or is it because people are getting used to it or people are hiding or what? What is happening out there?
  (Dr Braun) I do not think the anger has gone. In terms of where it is showing itself there are less public demonstrations because the CSA is being reformed and we all know it is.

  183. In two or three years' time.
  (Dr Braun) It seems to me that the anger is displaced at the moment and may resurface but the anger actually is in people's homes and probably with their children.

  184. That is what worries me. You say it might resurface. Parliament really missed the boat last time in doing this properly and one of the purposes of the Committee is to try to anticipate problems. I am just nervous that we may be missing something out and there may be a huge explosion out there waiting to happen all over again. That is why we are interested in the views of people like yourselves, because you are much closer to them than we are, other than in our case work, to try to anticipate how we obviate that secondary explosion.
  (Dr Braun) I think the way to do it, and this goes back to the culture shift, is to engage with the fact that all parents desire to do the best by their children and we should not deny that. It might look from the outside that some pretty strange things are happening in terms of the parents' desire to do their best by their children and first of all they want to do their best but they are not sure in the state of pain and confusion that surrounds divorce and settlement quite what that means. I think a public debate that is quite separate from CSA that is about how do you help young children through this, what can you do and who could help you do it because actually you are struggling, you do feel awful and you cannot do it all on your own, that kind of real input about how people can work their way through it without judgment or stigma, accepting that this does happen and how can we do it better for kids, would deal with a lot of the anger and confusion and split it off from the CSA. It seems to us that would be very helpful and it would be very helpful for children.

  Chairman: That is very interesting, very useful. Thank you very much for your evidence.

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