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Miss McIntosh: I come from the same legal system as the Secretary of State, although I may not have the same breadth of experience. Does he agree that, before 1979, the courts often found solutions to the problems involved in further settlements following divorce faster than the CSA, and that, moreover, the CSA has failed in its first duty to find lost parents who are not known to it?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Lady has raised a number of points. I do not agree that the courts always found a solution faster; it is true that an interim solution could be found, but it was not always satisfactory.

The hon. Lady is right--and this lies at the heart of what is currently wrong with the CSA--in saying that, in too many instances, it takes months to calculate the money that is due. That causes arrears to build up--often through no fault of their own--for parents living away from home, and meanwhile the children do not receive any money. The problem of absent parents can be a problem in the courts as well as the CSA, although I hope that the additional powers that we are giving the CSA will help.

The hon. Lady brings me to the central point of the Bill. It will abolish the existing complex formula, and introduce a much simpler rate and far more predictable decisions. There is already a reckoner on the back of the White Paper enabling people to calculate easily how much will be due to them. Decisions will be made within days rather than months of an application. The idea is that, once the amount has been fixed, the absent parent can be told how much is due. The money will start flowing faster, and everyone will know where they stand.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I favour the prescribing of a fixed amount, but is not the Secretary of State misdirecting himself? The current problem with the CSA is not the arithmetic, but establishing an individual's income, along with that individual's willingness to be constantly reassessed and his unwillingness to pay what strikes him as an unreasonable amount.

Mr. Darling: The arithmetic is certainly part of the problem. At present, it is necessary to take into account not just income but a number of allowances and disregards, and several other factors, before deciding on a figure. Because about 100 items of information are needed, two things can happen. Even in the case of the most willing parent, circumstances can change before the calculation is made. Moreover, a parent who is simply stringing the agency--and, more important, the child--along can delay, or refuse to hand over certain bits of information.

I do not know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is proposing with regard to fixed charges. If I misunderstood him, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will deal with his point when he winds up the debate; but I think that a fixed amount would be grossly unfair. Children are entitled to share in their parents' income, and it would be

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wrong to allow those who are earning a good deal of money to pay a flat rate when they could well afford to pay more.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) rose--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) rose--

Mr. Darling: I seem to have got one or two hon. Members excited. I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

Mr. Llwyd: I have no brief to defend the lawyers, although I am a lawyer myself, but may I ask a simple question? What measures does the Bill contain to tie down the unscrupulous absent parent who is self-employed and does not want to play ball?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are taking powers to get access to the Inland Revenue records of a self-employed person who refuses to tell us how much he is earning. Clearly, we will not want to do that routinely, but we all have constituents who tell us that they are getting absolutely nothing while the self-employed absent parent can be seen driving around the town and living an opulent life. That will stop under the new system.

As the House is more than just a gathering of lawyers, I give way to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton).

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I am not a lawyer, but I want to ask a straightforward question. The Secretary of State has talked about most parents being interested in their children. How many parents who divorce or separate are not prepared to work out together what is in the best interests of their child by way of maintenance? We are setting up a new panoply of bureaucracy when quite a large percentage of people would be prepared to enter into an arrangement to support their children.

Mr. Darling: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's straight question is that just under one third of absent parents refuse to co-operate with the agency; usually, they are fathers. In an ideal world, all separating couples would come to an agreement because that is in the best interests of their children. With regard to the rest of the case load, Members will be familiar with the phenomenon where people, because of other things that are going on, will not co-operate at the start, but gradually co-operate later.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield on one point: far from creating a great bureaucracy, we are simplifying the present bureaucracy, so that the agency will need to know only who is the absent parent and how much that person earns. It will do the calculation--the amount will be 15, 20 or 25 per cent. of income, depending on the number of children and whether those children are in a second family. Then it can say that that is the amount that the absent parent is due to pay. Absent parents should enter into the agreement immediately. If they do not stick to it, one strike and they are out. We will deduct the money from their wages.

The system will be much simpler. If we can get rid of all the hassle and opportunities for ducking and dodging, many people who are fighting a completely different fight

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with their former husband or wife will have their minds concentrated on the fact that the CSA can now fix the amount due quickly and get that money paid.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): That is good news to many people who are concerned, but one thing still concerns me. Will the agency have powers physically to trace someone who is consciously trying to evade being found? I know that the Department says frequently that that is not the agency's function, but there is nothing worse than one parent spending a lot of time finding out where the ex-partner is, only to be told that the agency does not have the power to follow that up. It happens far too often.

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the problems. I have a constituency case where that has happened. I am not sure that the agency needs additional powers to find someone. In that case and others that have been raised in right hon. and hon. Members' correspondence with me, the mother has said where the absent father lives and where the bank account is. Several months elapse before anything happens, by which time he has cleaned out the bank account or pushed off.

The key is to get things moving quickly. If a bank is after someone because that person owes it money, it does not hang about. One of the things that we have done with the CSA is to bring in the private sector to give it far more experience in debt management and collection of money. The CSA was bad at collecting debts.

If in Committee--I make the point generally; it is important that we as a whole House get it right--right hon. and hon. Members have suggestions, or amendments that would make things better, and if there is a gap in the CSA's powers, we will be prepared to look at the matter. The problem with the CSA has been that, from the start, it was swamped with a work load that it could not deal with and a system that was pretty unworkable. It is a great tribute to the CSA chief executive and the staff that, over the past few years, they have made improvements despite the odds, but the key is to work quickly with a simple formula.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Currently, the CSA often says to the parent with care, "If you think that there is fraud, prove it", and asks that parent to produce evidence. Will the system be changed so that, when there is an allegation of fraud and some evidence is produced, the CSA will follow up the matter, find the necessary evidence and ensure that the correct money goes to the child, who is the one who deserves it?

Mr. Darling: All I shall say about fraud--this applies right across the system--is that the CSA and other agencies have to have some prima facie evidence of it. In the Department of Social Security generally, we are also aware that accusations of fraud are often made as part of wider disputes. We therefore have to be careful that the agency has some credible information before it proceeds. My hon. Friend's point is that we must end the days when the agency is given information, but, months later, although it is common ground that it had that information, it has done nothing about it. We are taking action to ensure that such delays are being cut out. In the new system, it will also be very much easier to pursue such cases than it was in the past.

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The second important change that we are making is to ensure that people on income support realise the benefit of the maintenance that they receive. Consequently, we have introduced the £10 disregard. It is important not only that people should have an incentive to co-operate with the agency, but that they should realise some benefit for it.

If the mother goes into work, she will not only receive working families tax credit, but keep every penny of it as well as the maintenance disregard. A typical person on working families tax credit should therefore receive about £24 a week extra, plus their £10 disregard, so that they will be considerably better off. It is all part of the Government's twin strategy of not only tackling child poverty, but ensuring that work pays, to encourage people to get into work.

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