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

Mr. Baldry: I am sorry, but I am about to finish.

The Bill is a wasted opportunity. If it is the Government's social welfare reform showpiece, I am proud to be a Conservative. I hope that, in the next Parliament, we shall have the opportunity of introducing decent pensions legislation that helps those who are less well off.

6.58 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): Like many Labour Members, I support the Bill. I want to speak about part I, which deals with child support. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, it will enjoy positive support in our constituencies. We shall see the success of the measure in future. I agree with my right hon. Friend and many other hon. Members that it constitutes a big step in the right direction.

Like all hon. Members, Child Support Agency cases form a large part of my postbag. They include absent parents who complain about muddle, delay and, all too often, grossly incorrect assessment. They also include parents with care--mothers who are almost always alone and who complain that the fathers pay next to nothing towards the care of their offspring. Complaints are made because, in tight-knit communities such as those I represent, it is common knowledge that a father's life style is such that he could adequately support his children.

I also deal with exotic cases. Some mothers have immense difficulty in getting any cash from dads whom they suspect deliberately work in a country with which we have no reciprocal agreements for social security deductions. Also, absent fathers are assigned the bill for the wrong set of children because they have been misplaced on an information technology filing system. One man was deemed to be the absent father of a child by a woman he had never heard of, from a part of the country he had never visited in his life. It turned out that he had been placed on that file because he had the same unusual forenames and surname given by the mother.

Those cases would be laughable if such gross errors did not cause great worry and heartache at the minor end of the scale. At the serious end of the scale, they can lead almost to tragedy. The man I referred to came within a cat's whisker of having his marriage dissolved because of the strain he was under. Many others suffer greatly, such as the men who tell me that they will have to quit work, and the women who cannot get a job because the lack of parental contributions from the absent father means that they cannot afford nursery or child minding facilities.

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Like many of our great social disasters, the CSA had its genesis in the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In a speech to the Pankhurst Society in 1990, she said:

That hyperbole hid the real reason behind the CSA--the drive to cut social security spending. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) let the cat out of the bag at the launch of the CSA in 1993, saying:

    "The total costs to the taxpayer of supporting lone families reached almost £5 billion last year. Many taxpayers resent paying out to support children of parents who may have incomes higher than themselves."

No one will argue with that last sentence, but the net result was that, through its modus operandi, the CSA probably helped to impoverish families and create a growing lone parent underclass. Conservative Members who were Members of the House at that time cannot say that we did not warn them of what was coming.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will not be too embarrassed if I refer to the speech that he made on behalf of the Opposition when the Child Support Act 1991 was being debated. Moving our amendment, he said that the Bill

He was spot on and we all now know it, which is why we are debating how to make progress.

Yet again, we have to clear up a mess that was left by the previous Government, who ran this country for 18 years. Armed with first-hand knowledge of how the CSA has wrecked lives and the system's inherent faults, we have a Bill that will tackle those evils and those faults. We have a Bill that contains measures that will contribute to our fight against child poverty, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, and help to support the lone parent family.

Above all, we need a simple formula--and today we have one. Hon. Members and their caseworkers have become experts on the CSA formula.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Kumar: I shall give way briefly because I have only 15 minutes in which to speak.

Mr. Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I agree that there is a case for reform, but does he not agree that, to some extent, those reforms will replace one set of injustices with others? Some of the people he is trying to help will be harmed by the changes.

Dr. Kumar: I do not see it like that; all I see is a simple formula that will provide a clear direction for us to take. I hope that that will solve a lot of the problems and I am sure that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will respond to them in detail. [Interruption.] It is all very

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well for the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) to laugh, but I was generous enough to allow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) to intervene. He has not been present for all of the debate, so, rather than laughing, perhaps hon. Members should listen and learn.

All hon. Members would happily relinquish their role in such cases. [Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Northavon finds this amusing, but he should listen to what we have to say; he might learn something. Above all, we need a simpler formula, and that is at the heart of the Bill. A simpler formula has to be the starting point. It would be transparent, easily understandable, easily enacted and simple to work with. In that context, I must make it clear that my complaints about the CSA system are not made against the dedicated staff who work in the agency. In my experience, the staff at the office in Falkirk, which serves my area, do their best for their customers and service users, but are defeated by having to work with bad and underfunded IT systems, and having to cope with a constant avalanche of changes to the formula and the consequent avalanche of complaints from people who feel they have been wrongly assessed.

I believe that the basic proposals in the Bill are simpler for fathers--they are more understandable, more realistic and can be more easily assessed against income--and fairer to lone mothers because they are simpler. It will be easier to collect money, and easier collection should mean that cash circulates faster in the system. Mothers will therefore have the right to expect money to be correct and paid on time. Above all, the proposals are fairer to the children.

I am also pleased that the new formula is accompanied by a tougher regime for ensuring collection and the co-operation of absent parents with the system. We all know of mothers who received almost total non-co-operation from self-employed absent fathers who knew that the chances of them having finally to put their hand in their pockets were effectively nil. The artificial blockage between the CSA and the Inland Revenue--a bureaucratic blockage that has blighted too many lives--will be bulldozed out of the way. I am pleased that such draconian measures have been included in the Bill. We should not shed too many tears over the confiscation of a passport, which was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, or the imposition of a prison sentence because of the neglect of a man's children. I have seen too many lone mothers in tears already.

The measures should be considered with other measures to support families, such as the working families tax credit, new child care and nursery initiatives, improvements to housing benefit and other state benefits and, of course, the minimum wage--which Labour Members support, unlike the Conservatives. All that means that we now have a comprehensive and holistic structure for child and family support, but we must not assume that the Bill may not have shortcomings. Some were mentioned by my right hon. Friend.

Our experience of past child support legislation shows that we are dealing with an inherently complicated issue. It has been further complicated by the fact that CSA staff and benefit advisers were dealing with men and women who, in many cases, had already undergone agonising separation. The image of the "deadbeat dad" reflects the reality for a small minority, but in my experience--and, I suspect, that of many hon. Members--they are a very

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small minority. The fathers whom I meet are different. Most wanted, and want, to support their children, but have found themselves beaten by the system. They see their children as the ultimate victims of that. The real problem with the existing system is that an inherently bad mechanism has been consistently and regularly overlaid by amendments and alterations, born in this place. There have been myriad draft regulations and statutory instruments.

I want to convey a simple message to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: "Please do not allow your advisers or your civil servants to influence you, persuading you to make 'a little adjustment here, Minister' or 'a little tweak there, Minister'". That would be the first step towards a retreat into complexity, allowing the growth of a new byzantine structure that would be hard to understand and harder to penetrate.

The mothers and fathers whom I see at my surgeries want to get on with rebuilding their lives, confident that their children will be adequately supported whether they are living with them or with their former partners. That is a simple aim, which I hope and expect the Bill to fulfil. The aim is not to damage our future--that is, our children. The men and women who constitute the human face of the 200-odd cases with which I am currently dealing want the same. The Bill is for them, and I welcome it on their behalf.

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