Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 460 - 467)

THURSDAY 16 SEPTEMBER 1999

MR JOHN WHEATLEY

Mr Pond

  460. That is very useful evidence. One of the issues you raise is about the disregard, you welcome the £10 but would like it to be £15. That is a proposal you first made in 1994. I can see that when the Minister is sitting where you are sitting if we were to put that to her she might well say that it is a bit of an arbitrary figure. Where does the £15 come from? Is it related to the housing benefit disregard or is it a figure that you think is about right?
  (Mr Wheatley) It is an arbitrary figure. To repeat the figure now is very modest I put it to the Committee. We have not uprated the amount since 1994 at all. I think it bears a relationship to the amounts that people on income support are receiving. £15 is not a great deal but it would be, however, a significant contribution to the incomes of mothers with children. It is a genuine commitment to some of that child support going to the families with children. It has been the single thing that has been left, so it is symbolic. £10 is not a lot and £15 is not a lot more, but we think it is the right figure.

  461. "£40 million more!" is the response I think one would get to that.
  (Mr Wheatley) Well, we hear that there is an economic boom on the way and this is part of the Government's commitment to removing child poverty within 20 years, so I think if that commitment is serious, then other measures should at least be costed, looked at and considered very seriously before being rejected. The Government has gone a long way by breaching a principle and saying that the £10 should now be introduced and we want them to go just a little bit further.

  462. And we have heard this morning that that disregard is probably the most important element of the proposed changes in the impact on child poverty. From your contacts with non-resident parents, would it have a significant effect, do you think, on compliance? You have said that most of the problems faced by non-resident parents who cannot afford the assessments of the CSA are largely due either to arrears leading to higher weekly payments or the wrong assessment. Does that imply that these people cannot afford to pay more anyway and that even if you did have a higher disregard, it would not really have much effect on the amount that they were able to pay even if their willingness increased as a result?
  (Mr Wheatley) Certainly we heard yesterday from Professor Jane Millar about the idea of a child support guarantee and that would be something that we would, I think, want to look at closely and would consider supporting. It is also a matter of concern where the father of a child on income support is also on income support where you are talking about transferring £5 between families. It is always difficult to see what is going to increase compliance, but I think a large part of the hostility from men has been that the money does not go to their family anyway, but it is just something that is going to the Agency and I think there could well be an improved acceptance of the scheme.

  463. Finally, if I may, in your evidence you also give us some very powerful examples of cases where benefit sanctions have been applied to parents with care who refused to co-operate, but where those sanctions have been wrongly applied. There is also, I think, your concern, or it is certainly a concern expressed by other witnesses yesterday that there are many parents with care who would be prepared to put up with sanctions because they do not want the CSA meddling in their children's lives and causing greater damage. In the context of the changes to the CSA which are being proposed, improved administration, a more accessible service, perhaps a more understandable service and a fairer formula, do you think that it is still the case that benefit sanctions are inappropriate for those who still refuse to co-operate with the system?
  (Mr Wheatley) I think, on balance, we would still have reservations simply because of the impact of the benefit penalty on families on severely restricted incomes already, but it would, there is no doubt, be a great improvement if benefit penalties were withdrawn where maintenance was not paid, where the penalties were applied correctly. A large number of the cases we see are where women have given all the information they have got and in one case in our evidence, the evidence was supplied on a piece of paper and the benefit penalty was applied simply because that information had not been given on the correct form. Those kinds of bureaucratic nonsenses, as we see them, if they went away, I think everybody would be a lot happier.

Dr Naysmith

  464. We have partly touched on this before about the 600 extra people who may be employed by the Agency for face-to-face contact which I am sure you have already said, and I agree, is much better and it is much better than written communications, but we also heard yesterday that 600 are not going to be employed in the way that we had perhaps imagined. I imagined it, and I think lots of MPs did, that there would be more officers who knew the person's case at a local level, but in fact they will be deployed centrally, so they will have to familiarise themselves with cases before they actually see anyone. Do you have any views on the way that should be conducted?
  (Mr Wheatley) I think it is a pity if staff are not going to be deployed in the locality. It would be much better to see, and I think it is mentioned somewhere in the White Paper that the idea is to have a system of child support inspectors along the lines of the old Benefits Agency inspectors where they would work on a caseload, get to know it and that model would be better than having a central staff dealing with things. I think the more personal contact, the better, although we did have one case from a bureau where the absent parent was contacted in the pub and asked to complete a maintenance assessment form on the `phone. That level of contact might be going a bit too far, but I think generally people respond better when things are explained to them in person.

Ms Buck

  465. I want to press you a little bit further on the point about compliance because it is so central to the success of the whole project. You have just said in response to questions that you felt that compliance was related in terms of experience that the CAB will have had to money going to the state and not going to the families. We heard some very powerful evidence, particularly from Professor Bradshaw yesterday, that the crux of the issue is the sense of individualised tailoring of assessment to the family's needs and that without that, the men are not going to comply basically and I just wanted to put to you are they both true, are they balanced, and what is at the heart of it as far as your own experience is concerned?
  (Mr Wheatley) I think there is an element of truth on both sides, but it would be very difficult, I think, to envisage a return to a system which was based on the courts, which involved lawyers, which involved alongside some kind of Child Support Agency. It is difficult to envisage how that is going to happen with the amount of resources that are available at the moment to deliver a child support system. I think we do have to accept that there is going to be an element of rough justice. I do not think we have taken a view on whether there needs to be an element of discretion or departure from the scheme because that has just been something that has never been possible with the rigid formula-based system that there has been up until now, so it is difficult to take a firm view on it.

  466. But others did and I just want to know, as you have had so many contacts in your organisation, whether you would go along with a couple of witnesses, particularly Jonathan Bradshaw, who were firmly of the view that reform was unworkable and that we would need to return to the highly individualised, probably legally-based system?
  (Mr Wheatley) I am not sure that is right. I think we would want to see a system that was probably administered on time, getting decisions right and talking to people about those decisions. We would want to see that system operating before we moved away from it.

  467. I have one last question which is on the issue of housing benefit disregard. We had some evidence, particularly from the CPAG, that there would still be a significant number of people, and I suspect particularly in London and the south-east where rents are high and housing benefit is high, who would still be caught in the 85 per cent withdrawal trap even after the housing benefit disregard. Is there a case for disregarding housing benefit entirely?
  (Mr Wheatley) It is not something we have looked at.

  Chairman: Well, thank you very much. That has been a very useful session. Thank you for your evidence and thank you for the submission.


 
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