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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I am privileged to follow the comments of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), but like the Secretary of State, I want to spend my few minutes commenting on the three themes of the Bill.

The first is the linking of benefits to certain conditions. I speak carefully on this matter. I have the privilege to represent a seat in which the vast, vast majority of constituents would be a source of real pride to any country. Similarly, the vast, vast majority of parents in Birkenhead are parents of whom we all can be very proud. However, there is a growing group of people, certainly in the poorest areas, who are beginning to behave in a way that is totally unacceptable, and most of their unacceptable behaviour is aimed at other poor people.

I view the Bill's proposals on this issue merely as a beginning, for we are faced, in some of our poorest areas, with a new form of barbarism that is totally unacceptable. Other, decent poor people--the majority--do not see why they should pay their taxes, and try to bring up their children to be good citizens when, sadly, a small but growing proportion of the local community can run amok and destroy those standards.

If I were prophesying, as the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) did in his maiden speech, I would say that at the beginning of this millennium, our

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constituents are only beginning to make proper demands on us to use the benefits system to try to improve behaviour, particularly in the poorest areas where, as I said, there is a form of new barbarism that is totally unacceptable.

Before long in this place we shall have to debate whether it is acceptable that child benefit should be paid to those parents who are so lacking in parental instincts--the decent feeling that they should put their children before themselves--that they do not care one way or the other whether their children turn up to school. Indeed, they often plot with the children so that they will not go to school. If Labour Members believe that it is only through education that people now have a chance to get out of the rut, we will have to take seriously the view about child benefit, and follow it through.

Similarly, is it acceptable that those who cause mayhem and chaos by their behaviour in the streets should continue to draw housing benefit, whatever they do, knowing that under the present rules, because they have children they will be rehoused elsewhere? My constituents--I am more than happy to make their case here--are already demanding that those parents should lose housing benefit, their children should be taken into care and they should find out what it is like not to have a home. That is the feeling about how bad the behaviour is in a minority of areas in my constituency.

The hon. Member for Northavon may call that illiberal. I have been illiberal for 20 years in the House, and there is much illiberalism to come. If that illiberalism is along the line that I am talking about, I very much welcome it.

The second theme is the Child Support Agency. The Secretary of State said that this is our last chance to reform it and get it in working order. That is a dramatic phrase, which I have used before. He really means that if we do not get it right this time, we will not touch it again, and we will pretend that it is not an issue, although of course it will be an issue for those of our constituents who get a rough deal, or no deal from it. The Secretary of State said that he has an open mind about even the main proposals for the CSA, so I shall state at least three of the structural changes that are necessary if the reform is to get off the ground and begin to crawl, let alone to walk or run.

First, the rates that are currently talked of are too high. It is all very well for us to say what we think rates should be, but there is a political ecology outside the House that we have to understand and win over. The reason for that is not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said, that the other side had all the good stories, walloped the reform and won all the press. There was, and is, a feeling in the country that the Child Support Agency, as it is constituted, is not fair.

Until we have a set-up that people feel is fair, and people who brag in the pub that they do not pay, get more than the cold shoulder from their mates, we will not make a success of this reform. Part of the trade-off has to be to get the system to work. We can always increase the rates for new people if it works, but we must bear what the Secretary of State said in mind--if we do not win this time, the system will not succeed.

Secondly, the Department of Social Security and its agencies are not the right bodies to collect money. The body that has the culture for doing so is the Inland Revenue, and it should be given the charge of the new agency.

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Thirdly, the formula must be simple. The Government have already conceded too much by saying that they will take into account travel expenses for parents who want to visit their children. Of course we all agree with that, but before it becomes a political shroud that Labour Members shake freely, no one daring to disagree with it, let me say that if that condition remains in the Bill, that will be the new scam.

We fought, quite properly, the good cause of people who were threatened with violence and said that they should be able to plead that. However, the figures for violence have risen from under 3 per cent. of cases to 40 per cent. because everybody knows that claiming violence is a good way of trying to rig the system to their advantage when they have made a private agreement.

There are secondary matters that we also need to take into account. It is not fair to have a minimum £5 levy for everyone and for there to be two rates for those on incomes between £100 and £200. The £5 rate will apply to those on benefits even if their income is between £100 and £200 a week, but a higher formula will apply to those in work on the same or lower earnings. If we add in the value of rents received by people who are already on benefit, I do not see why the same formula should not be applied to them as will be applied to people who are on a similar low income but who earn that income.

I caution against using driving licences. I fear that I may have been among the people who suggested that, but I no longer think that it is a sensible idea. If the Whips in the House want to control us, they must understand what we fear, what we worry about and what will hurt us. We must apply that rule in this case, and my guess is that what will hurt the people who we want to pay is the loss of their passport. They are the people who pay nothing but who go on fine holidays.

The inability to leave, or perhaps to re-enter, the country would be a far greater deterrent than removing people's driving licences. As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) said, people will simply break the law because it is believed that it is important for people to be able to work, and we would be pushing them to break the law. I am all in favour of toughness, but when we devise the measures, we should ensure that they are ones that people fear, so that they will not be laughing at us.

To develop the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), there are lessons that we can learn quickly from the private sector. Why is it that it is so much better at tracing parents, generally fathers, who will not pay? I find that most of these fathers have holidays and mobile phones, for example, but the CSA cannot find them. However, within a short time the private agency will find them. We should all be interested in success. We must find where these people are, and I hope that the Government will implement the necessary changes now and not wait for the Bill to go on to the statute book.

We all need the proposed reform to be a success. If the Government are confident that it will be, as I hope it will be, why is it that in the welfare reform Green Paper one of the success measurements relates to improving the CSA, but we look in vain to find a similar inclusion in the new poverty audit? If we are confident about reform, why are we not up front in saying what we expect reform to achieve within a certain period?

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The debate on pensions is so different from that on the CSA. With the CSA, we are at the end of the line; with pensions, we are at the beginning. One piece of information shows how difficult pension reform will be. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly walloped the Opposition by saying that they left office after decades in power with one pensioner in three being poor. However, when all the reforms that the Government say that they will introduce are implemented and working to the very best effect that any of us can hope, after 50 years of the reform programme, we shall reduce the number of pensioners in poverty from one in three to only one in four. Before we think that all the answers are in the Bill, it is crucial that we keep our minds open to other reforms.

If the modest reduction to one in four of our fellow citizens being poor is achieved, as my right hon. Friend defines "poor", it must be assumed that there will be a rush of providers for stakeholder pensions. I do not think that there will be, but let us assume that that will be the position. It must be assumed also that, as we read in the newspapers, the exemption that my right hon. Friend is granting to small employers will not have a significant impact on people working in small firms, who are largely on lower pay, who go for stakeholder pensions. Further, it must be assumed that with the best will in the world, our reforms, that we want so much to be a success, have no bad effects on occupational pensions, which my right hon. Friend so often rightly says is the one welfare reform of this century of which everybody can be proud.

The debate is about trying to use our huge welfare budget--the largest budget that the Government have--to ensure that we get the very best behaviour from people, and particularly from that group which is making life impossible for decent people at the bottom. Against that background, I welcome the reforms that are proposed in the Bill but see them as only the beginning.

I do not usually disagree with the hon. Member for Northavon, but he has dubbed the Bill as illiberal. Some of my constituents have been reduced to tears and to breakdowns because of anguish. They do not have our freedom or bank balances to enable them to move away from the wretched people who are causing them distress. There will be a cheer in my constituency for what the Government are doing, and there will be even louder cheers when we return to the issue of linking benefits to good behaviour.

I hope that the Government will live up to the promise that genuinely they have an open mind in accepting radical structural reforms to the CSA that will lead to a simplified formula. As the Bill stands, I do not believe that it will get up and crawl, let alone walk.

We can welcome all that the Government are doing on pensions and I emphasise that the state second pension will provide a level of redistribution that most of us thought that the Government might shy away from. Let us cheer the Government when they are doing things of which we can be so proud and can take into the country. However, we must not let ourselves be fooled by our own rhetoric. If everything goes well and if every reform works, we shall be laying down office and stewardship when we have reduced the number of people in retirement who are poor from a third to a quarter.

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6.25 pm

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