Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 368 - 380)




  368. Can I welcome Roger Smith, who is the Social Policy Manager, and Natalie Cronin, a Social Policy Officer of the Children's Society. It might be helpful if you took a moment to say a wee bit about the Society, how it works and what your overall view of the White Paper proposals is by way of introduction.

  (Mr Smith) The Children's Society is a national voluntary child care organisation. We work in 90 communities throughout England and Wales delivering a range of services to support and help children and families, usually in situations where they are disadvantaged in some way. We have got a very strong practice base. Our concerns about child support partly arise through that practice base where we see the impact of family break down and discord on children and obviously our primary concern is about the consequences for children. Hopefully we will bring a strong child focus to today's presentation rather than be partisan. That is one of the things we are going to try to avoid doing, being partisan. Our view of child support and the mechanisms by which it operates originates with the sudden announcement of the idea some eight or nine years ago and everybody since then has been running hard to keep up with first the initial legislation and then its impact and then the ensuing attempts to reform and revise it. I think it is fair to say that as an organisation we have always had strong reservations about the impact because, as I say, we are working with communities where we can anticipate some of the likely consequences. Our concerns are that it has been inherently divisive and undermines parents' ability to provide for children in a context where they are already likely to be in significant discord and at each other's throats—possibly literally although hopefully not, but possibly. We have a long history of interest in child support legislation and also some experience through research of the way it impacts particularly on children. In the context of the present reforms what we would like to say is that given we are still uncomfortable with the overarching framework, we recognise that Government is putting forward what it believes are positive proposals to try to get us all out of an extraordinary mess. For that reason we are reasonably positive about a number of elements of the new proposals, particularly things like the intention to introduce the disregard for parents on income support. We believe that it is important that all children benefit from maintenance wherever it is paid. The intention to simplify the new system has made it more intelligible and understandable on both sides. I say both sides, I am trying to avoid being partisan, for both parents. Some of the provision it seems will bring a greater degree of equity into payment and at least make that clearer and make the underpinning reasons clearer. So we have got some positive views on what the Government intends to do. We still have reservations about other aspects such as the question of guaranteed payments and also the way in which compulsion will operate and in our view it will operate in a way which is potentially discriminatory against certain groups; and the way in which reduced benefit direction may operate and may again adversely affect the children who are obviously living in low income families to start with and will be adversely affected by a reduced level of income in either household. Hopefully that gives a bit of an overview of what we think about the new proposals, where we are positive about them and where we still have some reservations.

  369. That is very helpful, thank you very much. You do not undertake any research of your own, you do not have your own statistics or carry out any qualitative assessment of the work that is done by the constituent parts of your organisation?
  (Mr Smith) We did do some research at the time when the legislation was first introduced with parents with care and with children which I have to say is now inevitably dated and it would be unfair to rely too much on that. Suffice it to say there were a number of interesting findings. For example, all the parents we saw believed in principle that it was right to seek maintenance for children and that it was right that both parents have a responsibility to maintain their children but also most of the parents we spoke to could see reasons why in their case there might need to be an exception. This is one of the problems, that a principle which everybody agrees to in difficult individual circumstances is often difficult to apply. Other things that we found were that there was still some evidence of intimidation or pressure being brought to bear—this was some years ago and I think people are entitled to treat it with a bit of caution—both by absent parents and by the Agency itself. We also found that at that time there was limited evidence that it was doing anybody any good, very little money was flowing through. There still remain significant questions about the amount of money actually flowing through to benefit children. Our starting point is the welfare of children and that was what we found some years ago but I think there are still significant questions about how many children really are benefitting from the way the mechanism is operating.

  370. Do you have a view about the fixed formula of 15/20/25 per cent?
  (Ms Cronin) I think we agree that a simple formula which enables parents to be clear at the outset about what their financial responsibility will be towards their children is helpful and if it can be perceived as fair and generate co-operation and get the whole thing going it is a good balance between rough justice and fairness and clarity. I could go on to some of the more specific things that would focus more particularly on children. One of them is around a child maintenance premium. Obviously that is something that we would welcome; it provides a tangible benefit to children and it creates a real incentive to co-operate with the Agency. What we are concerned about is the uncertainty around the irregular payments, so that if payment is irregular, the parent with care may get the £10 one week and not another week and that will make it difficult to budget and will create administrative complications for the CSA and for the Benefits Agency. Therefore, we would like to see that £10 guaranteed so that the parent could rely on it every week, to get that £10, and where the money is paid, it is obviously recouped and where it is not recovered from the non-resident parent, you are gaining the advantage of greater co-operation because you are sure you are getting your £10 for the parents with care. You are cutting down on the whole administrative nightmare of having to give out £10 one week and not another week and all of that, so we think that the £10 guarantee might be something to consider.

  371. Is there any evidence available to you that there are some non-resident parents who are actually struggling and would struggle, even if the administrative system was made more efficient, to pay the liabilities that are levied on them currently or indeed in the White Paper proposals in the future by way of child maintenance? We have had other witnesses saying that there is not a pot of gold, if you like. Do you have anything to contribute to that point of view?
  (Mr Smith) What we are not able to do, I think, and I should not claim that we are able to do it is to do the kind of big number crunching that I think possibly other agencies and possibly government agencies are able to do, but there are questions, and clearly they come through in our work with families and parents, some case work, where clearly in the past, for instance, perhaps a father has felt that not every reasonable expense has been taken into account and that, therefore, he is put into poverty or into debt. An example I have recently dealt with is where someone, in his view anyway, was forced to give up his house in order to meet his responsibilities. What I do not want to do is to be too backward-looking. We are looking at a new set of proposals and I think you might want to ask some questions about whether or not the list of additional costs which are to be allowed is sufficiently wide. I am thinking of, and again it may be that the Government would say that these are already provided for, but the costs of travelling long distances routinely to see your children and the costs of maintaining an additional bedroom, having a bigger house in order that they can feel at home when they come to see you, that kind of thing. In our opinion, they are reasonable costs because, underlining that, you are trying to strengthen and support family relationships and normal family relationships.
  (Ms Cronin) Just to add to what Roger was saying, there is a small point about non-resident parents on benefits who are having deductions made from their benefits to repay Social Fund loans or other deductions which are made at source from benefits. We would like to see that child support is top of the priority list because, as you know, there is a guaranteed level below which deductions cannot be made and we would not want child support not to be paid because it is protecting that income, although obviously that income needs to be protected, so we would like to see child support deductions come top of the list.

Mr Pond

  372. Thinking of the costs carried by non-resident parents, you suggest in your evidence that daytime care should be recognised. One of the reasons you give for that is to suggest that particularly parents on relatively low incomes will find that more feasible than providing overnight accommodation for children perhaps because they do not have accommodation which is large enough. Can we put the two sides of that together because if one of the advantages of daytime care is that the costs are much lower, is there a case, therefore, for recognising it with the reduction in assessment of maintenance going to the parent with care? I cannot quite get my head round how those two statements fit together.
  (Ms Cronin) Some of the non-resident parents we have spoken to talk about the higher costs of taking children out at weekends and on holidays since the children, when the non-resident parents get to take them out for the day, will not be in school, but they will be doing activities and those will incur some costs and it is to offset those costs that we would like to see daytime care included.

  373. It is not necessarily a cheaper option for low-income parents?
  (Ms Cronin) That is right, no.

  374. Then, as you know, the Minister has said that certainly as the Government is thinking at the moment, it seems too complex to include daytime care in the formula. Basically the complexity seems to rule it out. Do you think it is a very important factor or is it something that you would like to see in an ideal world?
  (Mr Smith) I am not sure because I think either way it seems that you will have to rely on the agreement of the parents and this raises a whole other issue which I think is about trying to promote a sense of agreement and mediate between parents rather than forcing them to haggle over the last penny, but you are going to have to rely on an agreed definition between parents for nighttime arrangements, whether ten to six is all right and how long is a night, so it does not seem from that point of view that there is any real difference between nighttime care and daytime care because at some point you are going to have to rely on some kind of agreement between the parents as to what is an acceptable length of time on which basis maintenance payments can be reduced. It seems quite an important example because it is actually beginning to reintroduce the principles of mediation and seeking agreement and flexibility between the parents which we would like to see permeate much more of the provision because one of the things it seems to do by being rigid and arbitrary is force divisions where there may not be divisions.

  375. Could there be a danger though that the parent with care would not have the kids on a Sunday because if they do, they are losing part of their maintenance, especially if they are not staying overnight and they say, "I have to pay for seven nights' accommodation and you are just having them on the Sunday and perhaps on the Saturday as well, so why should I have my maintenance reduced?"
  (Ms Cronin) You could argue that you are still having to pay for the room for seven nights and whether one day is not with them, that is not affected and your outgoings are the same, so if the idea is to encourage as much contact as possible. From the non-resident parents' point of view, it is just going to be another thing that will facilitate that contact.

  376. I was fascinated by a bracket in your submission and I was not sure whether it had significance. It is in paragraph 6.1[19] where you are talking about the collection of payment.

  377. Let me just ask you the question straight and you can tell me if the brackets were relevant or not because you are talking about the heavy burden carried by the new system of the current arrears and you are suggesting that there should be some way of alleviating that. The sentence in this says, "It may be reasonable to consider the possibility of applying an amnesty or limiting the period during which it can be applied". Are you still arguing for an amnesty?
  (Mr Smith) It is a tentative suggestion because it is one of those things which, in an ideal world and in some cases and in the context where again you are looking at a fresh start and trying to wipe away years of court cases and wrangle, might be an ideal option and I am thinking about individual cases and a number that I am aware of. What we have not got the capacity to do is make any estimates about costs or feasibility or even fairness because if you are taking away somebody's liability and somebody knows that if they hold on long enough they can forget it then you are introducing unfairness. What you have got is the tension between an ideal solution in individual cases and the fact that if you introduce that systematically it may well become a further loophole which could be exploited. That was why it was very tentative. Certainly something which would enable real pressures and real unfairness to be dealt with in one way would be the ability to review long-term cases. It may need some kind of tribunal mechanism to resolve it. It would be very difficult to introduce the system systematically and routinely and just say "forget it, we will start again on 1 April 1999" because people would just wait for that date and that is unfair in a different way.

  378. Finally, on the debate we have had throughout about the transition from the old system to the new system, I think you are suggesting that we perhaps introduce some element in the new system which immediately conjures up that stage, the desire to switch from driving on the left to driving on the right and deciding to do it on a transitional basis over a period of time, but there are some dangers in that. Are you suggesting that is a solution to the problem of transition or simply that some elements of the new scheme are so good that you want them now and do not want to wait for a couple of years?
  (Mr Smith) Just as an example, the disregard, which is something that we are very keen on, could be introduced and does not need to wait. It may possibly need some primary legislation but it is a very small change that needs to be put in place. That could be done and would not necessarily have a destabilising effect on the way the system operates.

Dr Naysmith

  379. In your evidence you talk about second families and you argue that maintenance should be divided equally between children in first and second families and you are critical of the option in the White Paper which favours the second family over the first. The interesting point about that that I just want to bring out is that we have had evidence already today from Families Need Fathers that in fact it is the other way around, they believe it is the other way around, they believe it favours first children. How can you reconcile these two views?
  (Ms Cronin) What we were not clear about was in the White Paper it says that the new scheme would show a slight preference to children in the first family and then it goes on to say that there will be no first class or second class children when inevitably the step family will be made up of children from the first family and children who are in the second family.

  380. Not inevitably.
  (Ms Cronin) No, in the scenario which is used in the White Paper example. We did not see how that could work because you are going to have children from the first family who will be treated slightly more preferably and children who will not be, so there will be inequity within the family and the tension that can cause should be avoided. We are aware of the fact that the other system may give out more maintenance to first families and obviously the more money that goes to the children the better but I think that the prevailing principle should be equality between the children.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for your appearance, it has been very helpful. Thank you.

19   See CS 38 not printed. Responses to the Green Paper are available from the DSS. (Ms Cronin) It may not be relevant if it relates to the Green Paper. Back

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