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Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I was not quite sure to whom the Secretary of State was referring in his opening remarks. I now realise that he was referring to a significant number of his Back-Bench colleagues when he said that some people were clearly born at the wrong time and in the wrong place under a Tory Government.

I have learned today how little I know about pensions. I have worked in this place for about 20 years so far and it is becoming a matter of some urgency to learn a little more about how the pension system works. The fact is that nobody trusts Governments with his or her money. What is more, the record shows that they are absolutely right not to do so.

The reality is that the world at work changes far faster than the world in which pension schemes can operate. When I started contributing to a pension, the idea was to have a final salary pension scheme. There are many people locked into such schemes, which are entirely unsuitable to them. For example, many women are being crucified by the conflict between staying on at work to get a reasonable pension and the need, as they see it, to look after an ailing member of the family. Final pension schemes were designed usually on the basis of a lifetime's work with one employer, but that concept has been overtaken.

I shall give an example of the complexities that arise. When my wife moved down from working five days a week to four for her principal employer, no one had explained to her--I do not suppose that many people understand this--that a full-time pension is based on seven sevenths of the week. If someone moves down to working four days a week, he or she will have four sevenths of a pension. It would normally be thought that on moving down from five days a week to four there would be a pro rata effect on one's pension.

Such complexities, the length of time that pension schemes operate and, as has been well demonstrated, the fact that they become wrapped up by Governments after 10 or 20 years of trying, suggest a possible fault. People want from their pension scheme a reasonable return on the money that they have put in. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that people should have the opportunity every five years to take their pension pot and reinvest it? After every five years they would at least have some control over the scheme in which they are and where they are.

A serious issue about pensions is that they are designed to create a positive disincentive to marry. Many respectable widows and widowers in my constituency are finding it infinitely more satisfactory to live in sin. Some of these people find this distressing. [Interruption.] Some Members laugh, but they should understand that some people who were brought up with a particular set of morals find this situation very mistaken.

The Bill demonstrates yet again what an extraordinarily punitive Government we have. All my experience, whether as a schoolmaster or in any other walk of life that I have assumed, suggests to me that people respond infinitely better to incentives than to punishment. Perhaps it would be a great deal better to take, for example, what the National Association of Probation Officers has said about the disincentive effect of punishing people who break their probation conditions by destroying their benefits. The association has pointed out that if someone

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pays attention to his probation conditions he will win thereby a diminution of the time that he is bound by the order. Such a system would be a great deal better than one that, by punishing, either drives people back to crime, or makes life difficult for conscientious probation officers who believe that more harm than good might be done by their reporting a breach of probation conditions. That matter should be examined in Committee.

My primary focus is on the CSA and its reform. It is extremely distressing to hear the Secretary of State say that there will be more than 2 million children on the CSA's books. A major contributor to the problem of poverty in our enormously wealthy society is divorce: it is the fastest route to family poverty that one can devise. I speak as one who has been through it, so I know how damaging divorce can be to income projections and capital accrual. Divorce impoverishes everyone, regardless of income. Quite apart from that, we should be extremely disturbed by the fact that 2 million children will have experienced the distress of family break-up.

It is too readily assumed that the mother is always the victim. I have heard in my surgeries about a significant number of cases in which the husband has clearly been set up and paid a heavy price. Most distressing to me is to hear of cases in which a father tries to use his access arrangements but is prevented from doing so. If the mother no longer wants to have anything to do with the father of her children, it is easy for her to deny him access, for example, by telling social services that his visits so distress the children that he should be prevented from seeing them altogether.

We must ensure that men who conscientiously pay child maintenance have a clearly defined and properly enforced right to see their children. If that contact has to take place in neutral locations, such as the foyers run by some charities, fair enough. The anxiety that the problem has created must be addressed.

The CSA must be one of the most awful places in which to work. I can imagine no job more dreadful than one that involves being verbally attacked in every way on the telephone when trying to arrive at an objective view of someone's circumstances. I should be interested to learn what the CSA's staff turnover is. Those who come to my surgery would say it must be 100 per cent., because their case never seems to be dealt with by the same person two weeks running.

I suggest a practical way in which the Government might be able to alleviate that problem. There is no technical reason why local authorities and other centres should not provide a facility whereby those who want to discuss outstanding issues with the CSA have on-screen access to the same information as the CSA clerk. That would circumvent the need for a huge amount of correspondence and help to remove a major source of disagreement. Conditions change between someone writing to the CSA and the CSA writing back. It would be enormously valuable to exploit technology to ensure that those on both ends of the telephone conversation have sight of the same information on screen.

The Bill presents considerable difficulties in respect of the true cost of maintaining children. We greatly underestimate the cost of rearing children, but the state has a powerful incentive to try to ensure that children grow up surrounded by a reasonable income. We live in the fifth richest country in the world, and we could

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usefully divert far more money to enhancing child benefit. Such a measure would also help families to withstand late maintenance payments.

I have been around long enough to have seen the pendulum swing to and fro between detailed conditions being attached to various benefits, discretionary payments and simple formulae. Every time a simple formula is set up for the sake of easier administration, the number of people who feel that they are unfairly treated because their personal circumstances are not taken into account increases. After a time, an incoming Government decide that changes are needed and either give officials more discretion, or introduce a formula containing all sorts of caveats. All is fine for a while, but officials are human and they all too often give people the benefit of the doubt, with the result that the cost of such discretion outruns what was intended.

Mr. Ian Bruce: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will recall that, when introducing the Child Support Bill, the previous Government were attacked by everyone, including their own Back Benchers, the then Opposition and the Liberals, for laying down too simple a formula. The reforms carried out made the system more complicated, but it still does not work. Should we not return to first principles, instead of creating another formula?

Mr. Rowe: The issue is a difficult one--the fact that the pendulum swings from one end of the spectrum to the other in all of our benefits debates demonstrates just how difficult. I entirely agree with the Government that what is needed is speed of decision making and resolution. That the assessment of individuals can be months behind schedule is intolerable. Why, when the CSA makes a mistake, does the client pay the price? It seems that the CSA's mistakes are never visited on the CSA. We should establish a reciprocal arrangement, whereby if a client falls behind in making payments because the CSA is behind in making its assessment, the client should not have to pay the additional costs.

6.38 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I have focused carefully on all the speeches made in this debate, especially those that have addressed the subject of pensions. I am in awe of, and admire, those hon. Members in all four quarters of the House who speak with great eloquence and knowledge about pensions. The creation of a proper system of pensions for the people of this country is like holiness: we are all in favour of it and we all have different ideas about how to achieve it, but it is extremely difficult to achieve in practice.

I am persuaded that the Bill at least attempts to ensure that those who have endured deprivation and hardship during their working years or who have experienced periods of unemployment do not have that experience reinforced in the evening of their life.

In that regard, I am pleased to support the measure, although I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), still regret that my party abandoned the policy that it reiterated in general election after general election--that it would restore the

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link with earnings in respect of pension upgrading. I regret that it has been abandoned. When she mentioned the matter, one or two of my colleagues, whom I hold in high personal regard, uttered from a sedentary position, "How will we pay for it?" Of course, if it were done as a big bang now, it would be enormously difficult. We must recognise that much water has gone under the bridge, but we should not have abandoned the principle or the objective.

To the extent that there is a marginal difference between me and the Government, I believe that we should have been more ambitious in our redistributive policies, and that we probably should not have accepted for two years the Conservatives' budget in terms of overall expenditure.

We should have been bold and brave, as some were a score of years ago with the Rooker-Wise amendment. It was an ambitious move, which Government Front Benchers then resisted because of costs. Sometimes parliamentarians prevail, to their eternal credit. They will be remembered for that, and perhaps not for what they do later. I still say to the Government that we should be more ambitious in our desire to redistribute wealth.

With reference to the Child Support Agency, I listened carefully to what hon. Members said. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has a point on the narrow issue of driving licences. All too readily, legislation is certified as complying with the European convention, and there is a danger of our draftspersons devaluing that certificate. They would have said that it complied, even before we signed up. We should be more cautious.

Not only will the provision be challenged if it is enacted--I hope that we will rethink the matter in Committee--but it is also illogical. Leaving aside the European convention point, one could ask why driving licences; why not bicycles, or equipment for train-spotting, bird-watching and so on? There could be a schedule of ways in which people could be penalised. This is not the best concept in this important and valuable piece of legislation.

I listened to the intervention of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), who tried to rewrite history by observing that the Conservative Government were criticised for the legislation introducing the CSA because it was simple. The criticism that should be levelled against the Conservative Government is that the concept was marketed in such a simplistic and populist way. The word was put around by the spin doctors of the day and taken up by the press that there was a vast army of men out there who were not paying maintenance but could pay, and that it could simply be collected off them.

The CSA was almost universally thought to be a good idea, and some of those who were most enthusiastic about it are now attending our surgeries. They made arrangements with their former spouses or partners or diligently endeavoured to meet their responsibilities. They have, in a sense, been contributing to the work of the CSA, and now realise that it was a big fib that there was a large group of people out there who could pay child support and from whom it could be collected. The truth has now been rumbled. Of course, we know now that it ain't that simple.

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One of the lessons of the CSA legislation is that there was insufficient proper scrutiny of its effects by the House.

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