Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 280 - 302)



  280. How do you square that advice to your members with meeting legal and moral responsibilities?
  (Mr Farquarson) Very simply. I do not believe that when the CSA make an enormous assessment against someone that is beyond their means to pay or that may be made in error or where large arrears has been built up through delay that there is a moral, although arguably there is a legal, responsibility to pay that money. I would also say with no shame at all that I admit (decreasingly) that NACSA has been involved in a campaign of civil disobedience. My answer to the charge that we should not have done so is that most of the great reforms in this country have been as a result of civil disobedience. Let me make one thing clear, however. At the beginning of the present child support regime there were stories, maybe true maybe apocryphal, in the press particularly in the popular press about threats of violence towards child support officers and even more apocryphal stories of excrement and razor blades being sent in the post. My own personal viewpoint and that I can assure you of the present Committee of NACSA is to condemn unreservedly actions like that. There is a difference, is there not, between criminal actions on the one hand and civil disobedience which evades a law, if sincerely felt, on the other.

  281. That is a distinction you draw, that is not one which necessarily I share.
  (Mr Farquarson) It is certainly one that I draw.

  282. Let me return to the theme of legal and moral responsibility. You have indicated that a quote I read from the Independent on Sunday was probably from one of your publications. In those circumstances do you think that what Mr Mostyn told us this morning was right that draconian penalties are required to ensure that there is proper compliance with the CSA, whatever form it may turn out, that for example the penalties in the White Paper may be appropriate?
  (Mr Farquarson) I have said quite clearly that I believe that enforcement is necessary. I take issue with you, with respect, when you say "draconian"—

  283. That was his word, not mine.
  (Mr Farquarson) I beg your pardon then. No, I do not agree with the posit that the new CSA will need much more draconian powers of enforcement. It has powers of enforcement at present. Ultimately the sanction (albeit through the courts) is to imprison people. That seems to be a fairly draconian punishment to me.

  284. The summary of your response to us says that you believe that in any new system the best interests of children must always come first. How do you think paying child maintenance, assessed by the CSA or in other ways, prevents the best interests of children coming first?
  (Mr Farquarson) I think it needs to be clarified why that is in there. I hope members of the Committee saw the documentary the other evening. To a large extent the present scheme is modelled on one in Wisconsin. The architect of that scheme was a chap called Garfinkel who told Tony Newton, the then Secretary of State, that the golden rule with any child support scheme was you do not put the interests of the taxpayer first, in other words, the money goes to the children. Well, we welcome the money that will go to children under these proposals were they to become law. However, with the scheme we live under at the moment none of the money does. So we think that the children should get the money. We think corporally that the taxpayer has an interest of course and that the Treasury may wish to recoup some benefit but personally myself I do not agree with that, no. I do not think the money should go to the Treasury. I pay maintenance through a court order. I would rather my personal income tax and indirect taxation went to support children less well off than my own children whether or not their parents are able to or are feckless. That is what I want my taxes spent on. That is speaking for me.

  285. You talk about feckless people. Do you not think that they have the responsibility to support their children to the extent they are able?
  (Mr Farquarson) Yes I think they do. I have no problem with that at all.

Mr Pond

  286. I want to dwell a bit on these newsletters that the organisation produces. I gather some of the information is also available on the Internet which suggests it is not focused on those parents who I think you are suggesting had assessments imposed on them that they really could not afford but is available to any non-resident parents who might wish to reduce the payments. According to the Independent on Sunday: "One newsletter advises absent fathers that a good way of avoiding detection is to be portrayed as a violent man who must not be contacted by the CSA because the mother is too frightened. `Showing CSA officials the damage done to the house by an ex-partner (broken windows, etc) will usually have an instant effect and if communication is being conducted by letter a photograph will certainly help.'" According to this it is members of the organisation who openly describe themselves as "pocket revolutionaries". If that is the case is your revolution against the CSA or against parents with care or against the children?
  (Mr Farquarson) Personally I do not have a revolution. You have the drop on me in that I have not read the IoS article. It is quite possible that they are quoting newsletters from the early days. Perhaps a bit of history might clarify the matter. We are NACSA but we were originally Networks Against the Child Support Act. It was a very loose, wide church, umbrella organisation for many groups some more vituperative than others and some more virulently opposed to the Child Support Act than others. As with any group there are extremists. I cannot say whether or not that passage you quoted was from one of the earlier or later newsletters.

  287. You are here as a representative of that organisation.
  (Mr Farquarson) I am a representative.

  288. There must be within that organisation somewhere in the files of that body if they have been quoted in a national newspaper. If they were incorrect I would have expected an organisation to try and set the record straight.
  (Mr Farquarson) Firstly, I have not seen the IoS article and I do not have a hard file of the newsletters. It was, as I say, a loose, umbrella organisation with no end of people, fellow travellers hooked on to NACSA. I cannot remember them all but there was a York Against the Child Support Act and that would be have been YACSA. I do not have and I do not believe NACSA has the early newsletters and that does not sound to me like anything I have read in the last two years. Let me finish the point on our evolution. We encompassed originally a large body of fellow travellers. Two years ago when I took over the chair I tried—and I think I have succeeded—to change the focus of the organisation from one which was primarily representing the interests of the non-resident parent to one that represented if not the taxpayers' stake in it (because that was not my personal agenda) then at least the parents with care and much more the children's interests. It became a membership organisation with a national committee and it became much more Stalinist about maverick and renegade expositions such as you have just read out. But I say again that if its original advice to people who turned to it for advice was to circumvent or thwart the work of the CSA then again I consider that not to be criminal but civil disobedience. It is very flattering when commentators and journalists say "Your actions brought down the CSA". If only! The CSA was its own worst enemy and the legislation under which it operated was in turn its worst enemy. To answer your question I do not know where that came from. If you ask me whether I deplore it, I disapprove of it, but I would not say I deplore it at all.

  289. You did say in your introduction that you had a lonely quest not only sitting at the table on your own but you felt you were the only witness able to say on behalf of your organisation that you did not support the changes at all. All the other witnesses we have seen so far have their reservations but feel the change is sensible in one respect or another. But you are asking this Committee to take account of your evidence in the context in which, as we hear, the organisation is somewhat opposed to whatever formula would be found for the payment of maintenance.
  (Mr Farquarson) No, I disagree with you. I agree that we are opposed to merely reworking the system we had before. We are opposed to that. We do want to see something radically different take its place. I do not think it is true of either the present committee or of the majority of members that they are opposed to any system. I simply do not think that is true. That is not my experience talking to other members. I think the majority of people who come to NACSA are not the Mr Angrys. They are either people who use our helpline services or people who contact us because they want to support or participate in our campaign for changing the law. I think the majority view would be, as in our response to the Green Paper and later the White Paper that a totally different system should be in place, a system that does have enforcement, a system that is perceived to be fair. I think that is what the majority of responsible parents, both absent parents so-called and parents with care would want to see.

  290. You advocate in your submission an amnesty on outstanding debt and arrears. You make the case that many of these if not the majority are due to maladministration by the CSA, failure to chase up payments early enough, etcetera. I think members of the Committee will recognise that is a very real problem. When this point was put to the Minister yesterday she said that the difficulty with an amnesty was that it would send a signal to people currently to not pay their arrears, allow them to build up because it will get wiped off the slate anyway. How would you answer that concern the Government has about the idea of an amnesty?
  (Mr Farquarson) Without looking at the actual quotation—or needing—to where that money is owing legitimately to the child there must be no arrears abatement. Where there is a dispute between either the parents and/or the Agency and a parent then some sort of arbitration is necessary to settle the arrears dispute. Where, however, the arrears, these are often very, very substantial, are demonstrably due to delays or by maladministration by the Agency then we believe that there should be an amnesty and they should be abated. I heard the Minister's response to that. What I would say is that of the £650 million of notional outstanding debt the National Audit Office's opinion is that that is unrecoverable and therefore the Government are not going to lose money. They may lose face which I should imagine is not acceptable to them but I do not accept the Minister's posit that you send the wrong signal. If you are going to admit, as the Minister has publicly many times, that the CSA has been a failure on so many levels, so incompetent, surely it is but a small step to say where it has by its own incompetence caused people to incur massive debts it seems wholly reasonable that those awaiting a new system should not have to carry forward into it a massive amount of debt.

  291. One final question on shared care. In your submission you welcome the abatement of assessments where there is some overnight care by the non-resident parent but you make the point that this could encourage parents with care to oppose those nights away. What would you say is the balance of your members' feelings on that issue? Are they anxious about this proposal in causing greater friction between the parents or do they welcome it without reservation?
  (Mr Farquarson) I do not believe they welcome it without reservation. The problem you have is, as with any aspect of family breakdown, that there is almost always conflict between the parents especially over access and shared care which is something as an organisation we would seek to foster. We hear conflicting messages from members. For instance, a lot of parents with care are concerned that access to the child, contact with the child often involves unwanted contact with the former partner and a very, very clear example which I heard the other day was that the parent with care who was receiving maintenance payments through a court settlement (not through the CSA) went away for the weekend and that time was access time with the father. For reasons that were not made clear to me he was not able to accommodate the children that night and came back to the former matrimonial home, put the children to bed in their beds and then slept in his car in the drive. That was unacceptable to the parent with care. They did not want contact with him. That is the sort of thing we hear from parents with care. From non-resident parents we often hear (and personally I am ambivalent) the complaint that access and maintenance are linked. We say in our document—and this is my belief—that you, the government, society intends to rigidly enforce the payment of child support in financial terms then surely it has a duty to enforce with equal vigour legally binding access and shared care arrangements which often in our experience is not the case. But I would say to the Committee that Families Need Fathers are giving evidence after me and I believe that they have done a lot more detailed work on this. That is why we appended their document to our submission to Lady Hollis because it sums up a position that we can agree with.

Ms Buck

  292. Just returning to the amnesty issue for a moment. You made the point that an amnesty should apply perhaps to those parents who had been subject to delays and so forth. I am sorry to return again to your newsletters but I do think it is an important context for the discussion we are having. It has already been drawn to your attention that one offers tips on delaying the introduction of CSA payments, including failing to return documents or "forgetting" to include relevant information. How can an amnesty be applied when it is known that an organisation such as your own was giving advice to people on how to create the very delay that you are now claiming should be the reason for an amnesty?
  (Mr Farquarson) I take your point. The answer to your question is with great difficulty. Sometimes it is demonstrably the fault of one party or another. They have delayed things in order to evade or circumvent CSA involvement in their case. In other cases it is quite palpably the responsibility of the Child Support Agency It is fraught with difficulties. The whole issue is contentious and fraught with difficulties. I cannot sit here before this Committee and give you clear answers where there are so many shades of grey but I do take your point.

  293. The article says: "Other publications advise parents to reduce their declared income and increase their declared outgoings as much as possible. Under the heading `controlling your salary', one newsletter describes a man who asked his company for a loan to cover `unforeseen expenses' in his private life. The company agreed and took monthly payments out of his salary, leaving a reduced amount on the payslips assessed by the CSA. The document also suggests taking out a variable mortgage so contributions can be bumped up dramatically just before the CSA assesses the father's housing costs." You propose a different approach not involving an agency such the CSA and again I put it to you that your organisation was proposing evading any means of calculating child support. This was not just undermining the CSA, which has deep, structural faults which everybody in this Committee agrees, it was the manipulation of information designed to reduce a parental contribution that could be put into any such organisation. Does that not suggest to you that there is at least a body of non-resident parents who are simply unwilling and unprepared to pay and prepared to use any means to avoid making contributions towards their children?
  (Mr Farquarson) I make my response in three parts. Firstly, I believe that those methods of lowering the assessable income are a response not to child maintenance in general but to what most non-resident parents perceived as the unfairness and over-calculation of maintenance. That is the first response. Secondly, you asked me is there a body of non-resident parents who wish to evade their legal responsibility to which the answer is, yes, of course there is and of course some of them are members of our organisation. Of course they will make submissions to be published in newsletters, although not to my knowledge on the Internet, but I have not looked at the Internet site for some time. The third point is would those methods of evasion be as easily transferred to a one-to-one face-to-face discretionary system? I do not believe they would. I do not think people would be so driven to evasion and deceit and non-compliance if they perceived the system to be fair. I also think on an individual case-by-case basis it is far easier to determine whether or not someone is trying it on. For instance, we hear a lot about assessing the income of the self-employed. It seems to me very simple. For instance, I am self-employed and I fill in a tax return and the Inland Revenue assess me on the total for the year minus expenses, net profit for the year. That figure, for instance, could be used. I know I am getting away from your point slightly. I think also the experience perhaps of case officers in a new system and perhaps of judges in those cases that do not go to the CSA, most county court judges in the family division sit there day after day and they hear all the lines, they hear all the spiels, they know when somebody is trying it on. It is that face-to-face case-by-case basis that will answer that point.

  294. I suppose the answer to that is are you suggesting that the taxpayer funds a system of such complexity and scale as to enable that to happen because a hard core of parents are prepared to use the kinds of tactics outlined in your newsletters to try and avoid it? That is the difficulty, is it not? It is trying to strike a balance between the investment in the machinery to enforce payment and enforcement action?
  (Mr Farquarson) But surely if you want a workable system of child support in this country the taxpayer has to be willing to invest? You say that they must make a massive investment just to placate or circumvent the machinations of a few. If you look at the figures the CSA gives £80 million to the Treasury, £110 to children and it costs about £200 million a year to run, then that is a cost to the taxpayer. The present system, the system we will hopefully move away from, of course has incurred cost. Any replacement will incur cost. I do not deny that the sort of system that we propose in the appendix to our document will be more costly to set up and may well be more costly to run. If the idea is not to recoup money for the Treasury for the taxpayer but is to ensure money goes equitably to children then we are all—and we are all taxpayers in this room—going to have to pay for it. If we had invested the amount—we say this in the document—of money in a new family court system or on revamping the old system that we have spent on the Child Support Agency and all that goes with it we would have a Rolls-Royce of a court system. We did not, we went down a different road and we have paid a lot of money. If we want to go a different road now we are going to have to pay out. Nothing comes free.

  295. In your statement of principles which you think should underpin a new system you say "both parents are responsible for financially supporting their children to the best of their abilities—the burden should not fall entirely on one or the other." I would just be grateful to know under what circumstances would the non-resident parent carry the entire financial burden of supporting their children?
  (Mr Farquarson) There is absolutely nothing in the Green or White Papers to suggest that the financial circumstances, as under the present scheme, of the resident parent will be taken into account when assessing maintenance. You heard the Minister's response to that point. Yes, the financial burden will fall entirely, not entirely because the state will pick up the tab, the tab will fall on 15 per cent, 20 per cent, 25 per cent on the non-resident parent. If we take the model of a parent with care on income support/jobseeker's allowance therefore with virtually no income and the father earns between £20,000 and £30,000 per annum then obviously that model works. Her income should not be taken into account. She is on the poverty line, he is not, he can afford to pay. If, however, you extend that to private cases they may both be on the same sort of income. It may well be that the parent with care is on a higher income and her income will not be taken into account. Does that answer your point?

  296. It does not. What I think you are not putting into the equation is the fact that the parent with care is already paying for the child who is living with them. That is what is missing in the equation. That is the contribution being made.
  (Mr Farquarson) But the contribution that she makes under the present scheme, the scheme we have now under the 1991 Act is taken into account in the maintenance requirements, that which is asked for, now it will not be. It is an invitation for better off parents to use the Agency rather than negotiate or send it through the courts. Of course costs are incurred by the parent with care. Lady Hollis said yesterday plucking a figure from I do not know where, and I am sure the Committee will ask her tomorrow, that on average a family spends 30 per cent of its income on the children and therefore 15 per cent represents half of that. I do not know where she gets those figures. I am sure that other witnesses with specialists and research in this field will be able to give you a better idea but as promoted in the White Paper the scheme appears—and I take your point entirely that she will have expenses but it is that perception of fairness again—to not take into account at all the financial circumstances of the parent with care and put the burden of financial provision on the father, the non-resident parent. As I say, fine, where the non-resident parent is earning a good salary and the parent with care is on a very low salary. Not so good where those financial positions are reversed.

Mr Leigh

  297. You say in the opening of your submission to us that you want to see "a fair a system based upon discretion, mediation, genuinely independent tribunals or a new family court" and you amplify that in your appendix[3] by talking about a new, unified system which could be called the Family Support Service with staff experienced in all aspects of divorce. I agree with all that in an ideal world but I think that, as the last question was trying to achieve from you, nobody has really worked out what all this is going to cost. I agree that the Child Support Agency has cost £800 million and if we had moved to the system that you were advocating originally we could have had a Rolls Royce court system as you describe it but we are where we are. Although you are not a research organisation if you put these ideas forward—and that is why I am giving you the opportunity to comment now—I think one has to have some idea of what it is going to cost because I suspect it would be enormously expensive.

  (Mr Farquarson) I take the point. We are not in a position to do detailed costings of that sort of scheme. I do not believe that it is for pressure groups necessarily to do that. Some have the facilities and the resources to do it and some do not. What I will say is that I agree it would cost a lot of money to go from somewhere else. You say we are where we are. I would argue that just because we are here does not mean we need to start from here. Maybe we should be looking for somewhere else to start, somewhere like the scheme which we propose. As to costings I can see it will cost more to start afresh with a system like that than to follow the proposals in the White Paper which are a low-cost option in as much as they keep existing staff and existing infrastructure and will not have the costs incurred in changing departments from the DSS to the Treasury or Lord Chancellor's Department.

Dr Naysmith

  298. Mr Farquarson, I know you have been listening to the Committee quite a lot over the past couple of days and I am sure you have heard a number of witnesses say that in a new scheme if there is a new scheme introduced under the White Paper different to the existing one, there will be an element of rough justice. It will not be absolutely fair to everyone but in order to speed things up this might be acceptable. In your submission to the Green Paper you make some comment on this: "If child support arrangements are sorted out quickly . . . it is more likely the money will flow."[4] That is a quotation. You go on to say "What is the basis for that view?"

  (Mr Farquarson) What is the basis. I suggest that this is an unsubstantiated assumption, one of many in the Green Paper.

  299. I just want to say that my experience of dealing with quite a large number of cases of people who come along to see me at my advice sessions is that they come along very upset because they have been unfairly assessed but often there are good reasons for that and once we have sorted it out they accept it. They may have been assessed at a time when they had a lot of overtime and the overtime has stopped and the amount they have got to pay carries on and lots of other reasons, bad administration and lack of flexibility in the Child Support Agency, but once these are sorted out it is my impression that people accept that and if the payment they are asked for is reasonable they then begin to pay and so my view would be that there is evidence for that. It is anecdotal in a sense but I am sure you could ask a lot of MPs and see it substantiated in figures. What I am putting to you is have you no evidence of that sort of thing happening at all or is it that the members you represent are anxious not to pay more than the average?
  (Mr Farquarson) On your last point obviously no one wants to pay more than they feel is fair. On the point of speed equals greater compliance, greater satisfaction—

  300. Not automatically.
  (Mr Farquarson) It does not necessarily follow that because delay creates frustration, anger, resentment and non-compliance that conversely speed of itself will solve the problem. As to other unsubstantiated hopes, I have had several meetings with the Minister, I have attended a number of lobbies, I heard the Minister yesterday. The Minister spoke with enormous optimism that this was going to work, that the streamlining and simplicity was going to be the panacea. She was, I believe, hoping in the absence of draft legislation that to an extent the country and Members of this place would take that on trust. It was taken on trust in 1991. No one foresaw the problems that that would lead to. I close very simply by saying Peter Cook the humorist was once asked, "Have you learned from your mistakes?" and he said, "Yes, and given my time again I could make them exactly the same." I very much hope Parliament will not make the same mistakes it made in 1991.


  301. In all fairness, since you have been cross-examined quite heavily on a newspaper article that you have never actually studied one thing that might be in both our interests, this might be difficult for you, is if there are recent copies of the newsletters that were referred to quite heavily in the article and they may have been updated some years ago, if there is a set of recent newsletters from your organisation that you feel you could make available to the Committee I think that might be in our mutual interests.
  (Mr Farquarson) Certainly I will make sure they are. I would only add, Chairman, that not every MP because are over 650 of them but those MPs with whom we are in regular contact are on our mailing list and I think a lot of MPs do get copies of them and I believe they are passed around the tearoom.

  302. You would be surprised at what is passed around the tearoom, Mr Farquarson! Thank you very much for your evidence.
  (Mr Farquarson) Thank you.

3   CS 14 not printed. Reponses to the Green Paper are available from the DSS. Back

4   CS 4 not printed. Back

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