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5.56 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I begin with the Child Support Agency because it is central to the concerns of my constituents and to my constituency work load, as is the case for every Member of the House. That casework has evolved over time, from simple dysfunction--when no one could get an answer from the CSA at all, whether they were the parent with care or the absent parent, and came to their MP just to have some response--to a more developed state.

At present, there are problems with arrears for parents with care. Those problems reflect past dysfunction and are largely behind us. Arrears have built up; people claim that they did not know and that they cannot cope with the repayments quickly. There is some uncertainty. Once something has got out of hand, it is difficult to bring it back to a manageable state, even with good will from all parties.

Other Members who have spoken in this interesting debate have made the point that the absent parent dodges responsibility--although not always. The parent or new family with care of the child often come to me with problems because that is happening. Therefore, I support the principle that the enforcement of orders should be made more effective. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has pointed out, there are considerable doubts about whether that will be delivered in practice.

I have several reservations. The first is a gloss on the Opposition's excellent reasoned amendment, in which we talk about the parallel operation of two systems. In fact, there will be three systems that will run together--if not precisely in parallel--because there will also be private arrangements or maintenance orders that have not previously been touched by the CSA system. In principle, such arrangements might continue. One of my concerns, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Havant referred, is that as there is no top limit on the new formula by percentage, the stakes are raised for moving to the new style of assessment at the earliest possible moment. A

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parent with care who has anything other than an excellent relationship with the other parent is likely to want to move to the new formula if the absent parent is comparatively affluent. That would destroy court orders or private arrangements altogether.

I have a second reservation. Whereas the old formula was at least, in principle, based on an assessment of need and was tempered or refined even if made more complex by the departures procedure, the new system will function as a tax. It will be a tax with a rather high marginal rate, even allowing for the fact that it will be imposed on net rather than gross income. Page 10 of the explanatory notes provides the helpful example of a mythical person named Neil. He has earnings that range from £150 a week to £170 a week--I take it that those are net earnings on a formula not yet determined--and his liability ranges from £18 to £23 a week, which is a difference of £5. That is an uplift of 27 per cent. or more in his contribution and it amounts directly to a tax rate of 25 per cent. That represents a substantial increase.

My third point--I have written to the Secretary of State about this and not changed my view--is that the provisions in clause 15 on disqualification from driving are highly objectionable in principle. I am not a lawyer, but there is a clear distinction between the perfectly justifiable withdrawal of a driving licence for a car-related offence--whether that is dangerous or bad driving or the use of a car to commit another crime--and the withdrawal of a licence for the purely contingent matter of failure to comply with one's maintenance obligations. It will be interesting to see whether that punishment is to be applied to other offences.

The Secretary of State has certified that the Bill will comply with the European convention on human rights. Frankly, I would not give the Government a chance of winning a case in which a plaintiff said, "I was a driver, I was entitled to drive and I was a safe driver, but, because of some entirely different matter, they took away my rights."

Mr. Rowe: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the person in question lives in a rural area and cannot get to work by any means other than having a car, the principle of taking away a driving licence will be very similar to taking away the right to travel by bus or train from someone who works somewhere else?

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend is on to a good point. I was going to list several anomalies and he makes a worthy addition to them. If we are going to take away a car licence, why do we not, for example, take away a pilot's licence if somebody has one? What will happen to non-drivers who cannot be penalised in that way? Why take a licence away from people who do not need a car to get to work, but allow people who need to drive to work to make representations to retain their licence and then, ipso facto, be able to use it for their leisure motoring, too?

Maria Eagle: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the suggestion that people might lose their licence might induce a few of them who rely on their cars to pay their child support?

Mr. Boswell: I understand that argument, but I think that it is wrong to use inappropriate remedies, however bad the situation. Remedies must be appropriate to the circumstances.

Mr. Dismore: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Boswell: I will not give way again, because all our speeches are subject to a time limit.

My final concern about the CSA is how the Bill will impact in practice. I have already mentioned my constituency experience that non-maintaining parents are now being seen to wriggle. It is very likely that they will adopt what I call the "Cheshire cat solution" to the problem of their income. The obvious first tactic is to quit work or, to a lesser extent, to change employment and to hope that one is not caught up with, thus relying on some transitional friction to escape.

If one is self-employed, probably one of the deftest ploys is either not to declare the self-employment--I know that the Bill intends to address that point--or to evacuate the value of the self-employment by shifting the profits elsewhere. I know of a case in which somebody is said not to make any partnership profits but who is, in effect, maintained by another member of the family. Therefore, no maintenance goes to the spouse with care. The extreme expedient, which will not be fully captured by the Bill unless a British employer is involved, would be to move outside our jurisdiction altogether. Even if they are part of a Cheshire cat solution, none of those ploys by people who should be maintaining their children would leave any smile on the faces of those who actually care for and maintain the children.

I shall comment briefly on other parts of the Bill. On pensions I shall say very little, because I am as confused by the Government's proposals as, I suspect, are many people who are likely to benefit from the state second pension. The system is very complex and it will produce some potentially invidious class distinctions between low, medium and high earners. I have particular concerns for the self-employed. I have read outwith the Bill that there are proposals to limit the rules on tax relief for annual contributions to private pensions, particularly as they would apply to the self-employed, so that one could not buy back into previous years when one did not have sufficient earnings. That would make such pensions less flexible--as a self-employed person, I have benefited from that flexibility in the past. My point mirrors the concerns that I referred to in an intervention about people on lower incomes whose earnings fluctuate week by week. These are points of detail, but they need to be considered.

On part III on enforcement, Conservative Members will generally back well-founded proposals to avoid fraud or the blatant avoidance of payments. We welcome the exchange of relevant information between Government agencies, but the small print requires scrutiny. I am not absolutely sure that the proposals in clause 49 on the withdrawal of benefit do not follow the pattern of the proposals for driving licences that I have already criticised. There may be the random and contingent withdrawal of benefit for offences that are not directly connected to benefit. The Secretary of State must recognise that even control freaks need to play by the rules of the game in hand and not introduce the rules of another game when they are not getting their way.

I wish to say a brief word about some issues that are not covered in the Bill. I welcome proposals that build naturally on the concept of home responsibility payments for mothers in receipt of child benefit that have been established for many years. Proposals to acknowledge the position of carers and of disabled people with intermittent

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spells of employment have been considered. How much they will amount to in practice is a separate issue, but it would be welcome if the point were conceded in principle.

However, the Bill comes after the recent scars of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999, and perhaps it is just as well that it does not specifically address disability issues. One of my criticisms of the 1999 legislation, which has now, notoriously, been passed, was that proposals for incapacity benefit signalled that incentives to save for retirement and to build up one's own pension would be clawed back by a loss of benefit or, conversely, in the payment of taxes.

Since then, I have come across two separate cases involving disabled people. One involves someone who has been employed in the media and who is probably well known to several Members present. I was appalled by the fact that, in effect, he had to hand in his job because he can no longer receive carer support from the independent living fund because of the level of his earnings.

The second case is, in a sense, related. It deals with a couple in an established relationship. One was fully able and the other was disabled, and they wanted to have a disabled facilities grant to balance their responsibilities in running their home. However, because one of them was able, they could not obtain it.

I accept that such cases, which are not new to the Government, are no longer acceptable. If we are trying to build a platform whereby people are given an incentive and opportunities to improve and provide for themselves, rather than staying in an implied dependency culture, we have to start tackling such problems. I see very little sign of that in the Bill, and I regret that. There are many missed opportunities and genuine queries about the detail, and it is for that reason that I shall be pleased to join my colleagues in the Lobby tonight.


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