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8.55 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): It has been noticeable that virtually every Back-Bench contribution has concentrated on one particular aspect of the Bill. I intend to follow that example. It is almost inevitable, because we are really dealing with three Bills. It is difficult to discern any general principle that holds the entire Bill together as a unity.

If the objective is to reduce complexity in the provisions for child support, it is utterly confounded by the complexity heaped on the arrangements for pension reform. If the objective is to reduce pensioner poverty, it is confounded by the arrangements for the minimum pension guarantee, which are almost calculated to deliver pensioner poverty in the future by their diminution of incentives.

I shall concentrate on the provisions for child support. From experience at constituency advice sessions, no hon. Member can be unaware of the magnitude of the social problem that we face. Nevertheless, we continue to have unrealistic expectations of the Child Support Agency.

When I am confronted by a child support case, I am often profoundly affected by the complete absence of any notion of contributory negligence on the part of the

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victims themselves when they come to complain to me about the Jezebel or fiend whom they married and about whose behaviour they now complain. The CSA finds itself in the middle, between the warring parties. It cannot satisfy one customer without of necessity dissatisfying the other, yet we continue to maintain the language of "clients" and "customer satisfaction", which is entirely inappropriate.

If the proposed reform delivers its objective by radical simplification of the formula--the objective of administrative efficiency--there will be a huge reduction in the number of complaints about delay, incompetence and maladministration, but that will be accompanied by a vast increase in complaints of another sort--complaints about the nature of the rough justice that will be meted out by the new simplified formula.

Ministers have said that rough justice is better than no justice at all, and I agree, but let us be clear about the nature of the rough justice that will be delivered by the formula. As I pointed out to the Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration when he gave evidence, complaints about rough justice are not complaints on which he will be able to adjudicate, because they are the deliberate and calculated product of the new simplified system.

I went on to say to the Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner that we should abandon any notion of customer satisfaction, and accept that the agency is never going to be loved and that we might make a virtue of the rough justice by saying

That is pretty uncompromising language. The Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner's reply was revealing. He said:

    "Whether you should do that I think I have to leave to your own judgment. Have you accurately summarised what I believe to be the dilemma everyone is going to have to face? Yes, I believe you have."

What are we considering? We are saying that dealing with the Child Support Agency on the basis of the simplified formula--the rough justice--is the penalty for being in the condition in which one finds oneself. Other people, who are not in that condition, can afford the luxury of private arrangements and do not have to deal with the agency. In a perverse sense, family break-up and divorce has often been a luxury consumer item reserved for those who could afford it. It is now generally available and the punishment is the rough justice meted out by the Child Support Agency. That is an example of the principle of less eligibility, which was fundamental to the poor law reform in 1834, and is now central to the Bill's reform of the Child Support Agency. I have never shrunk from the principle of less eligibility, but it is extraordinary that so many Labour Members now embrace it.

9.1 pm

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): I want to preface my remarks by thanking the Child Support Agency staff who work in Belfast. Since the new unit was formed, its staff have greatly helped my office and me. They work under tremendous pressure and in difficult circumstances. They told me this week that my number is on their white board as that of a regular correspondent to whom they respond quickly. Other hon. Members have made the point that

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everybody, not only thorns in the side, should receive a quick response. Nevertheless, agency staff need our thanks because they bear no responsibility for the way in which the agency was set up.

The House should recall that it was unanimously agreed that absent parents should be responsible for their children. That principle should not be taken away. It is an important principle that fathers or mothers who no longer live with their children should continue to maintain them. It would be better if children were maintained out of love, but it is a sad fact of life that, before the Child Support Agency was created, the previous court system did not work. People who used that system encountered many other problems. Liberal Democrat Members should take note of that. They may recall that the previous system was a blunt instrument--blunter than the simplified formula that they criticise. The most crucial problem with the court system was that it provided for no automatic right of appeal, review or update. Every time a change in circumstances occurred, the individual--usually the mother--had to return to the courts. That procedure was not only lengthy, but expensive and extremely onerous for the parents.

I welcome a new, simplified formula. During the debate, we have considered human behaviour and the way in which people respond to one another. That is crucial. The way in which the current formula has been used as an instrument by warring partners against each other has not been raised often. The complexity of the current formula enables people to bat the matter backwards and forwards. The child, who is in the centre, is completely forgotten, such is the enmity of some break-ups. Such children have dreadful experiences--not only a lack of maintenance and support, but being used by their parents. Warring partners will doubtless find new instruments with which to attack each other, but the child should not be an element in that assault.

The child is crucial. The key issue is not whether that instrument is blunt, fair or finely tuned, but recognition of the fact that the child needs, and is entitled to, support. There must be a mechanism for providing swift delivery, which is absolutely essential and can be achieved only by a simplified formula. We could debate for ever whether it is fair to include this or that provision in the formula, or we could make it more complicated again, but we should guard against that because it would return us to the current system. The Government should take note of that.

I also ask the Government to give me an assurance on clause 3, about which I have grave concerns. I understand completely why they want to tighten rules. Warring partners who have parted find themselves in a position where they can abuse the system to suit themselves--not necessarily the children--by claiming that a certain situation exists so that both parties get something out of that system--and income support pays when the father ought to be paying. The problem with making such a change--and I understand why it needs to be done--is that I fear that mothers fleeing violence may not make the necessary provisions to safeguard themselves because they are not in the best mental state to do so.

It is possible to use procedures to make sure that income support application forms allow the mother to consider whether she wants to claim against the absent father, although they do not have to be included in the Bill. Many of us have experience of women fleeing violence, and anyone who has spent any time with such

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women will know that the violent partner will use any excuse to pursue the departing mother and inflict more damage on her. It is possible within such procedures to make sure that we protect mothers. I would like an assurance from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State--if not tonight, at another stage of our consideration of the Bill--that those women will be protected. I do not believe that the Government intend to put them in danger and I expect to receive that an assurance at some point.

We have argued about complexity and non-complexity and whether the complexity of the CSA ought to be carried through to the new system for pensions. It has been alleged that there is a dichotomy in respect of whether we are being consistent, but there is a distinct difference between the complexity that can be used by warring partners and the complexity that might be necessary in a pension system. The current pension system is already very complex, so adding another tier of legislation would create another step and naturally make it more complicated--but does that necessarily mean that the additional layer would in itself be wrong? I would argue that it would not, because there are groups of people who, without the Bill, would have nothing whatever available to them. They would be dependent on income support-related pension schemes, which we now call the minimum pension guarantee, but we must not completely disregard carers who have made a huge contribution--not only to their families, but to society as a whole--by caring for their loved ones. To put that contribution in financial terms, I saw it described as worth £31 million a year, which is a huge sum.

Carers are usually women. They are doing the country a service by caring for people, so it is right to recognise that through a properly funded pension scheme. The second state pension scheme goes some way to achieving that, but I have had a thought of my own, which I have shared with the Minister and the Secretary of State: we should look beyond the Bill and what we want to achieve through it for the future and think about whether we should be considering pensioner provision as a whole. I think we call that joined-up government these days.

An aspect of Government policy that could be readily and usefully translated into pensions law is the provision of personal advisers. Some speakers have commended the idea of a named individual, but the personal adviser could play a special role, which I think the Government should take into account in future legislation. Such advisers could deal with some of the complexities to which hon. Members have referred.

People may not need pensions advisers throughout their lives; there are times when advice should be sought elsewhere. They will receive statements about their pensions, and during their working lives there will be triggers reminding them of the state of pension provision and prompting them to consider whether they should take out further pensions on their own behalf. Shortly before retirement, however, life becomes more difficult--people realise how little time is left and reflect that they may not have made adequate provision.

At present, people are not even claiming all that they are entitled to claim. In that context, benefits advisers have a special role that they are not currently asked to undertake. When people receive their national insurance contributions read-out, about six months before retirement, someone should be saying, "Let's talk about your pension provision.

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Should you not be claiming minimum pension guarantee?". We are always talking about the take-up of benefits; if we provided advice on benefits at the appropriate time, we could prevent people from falling out of the system and into deeper poverty. That would also be a suitable time for the discussion of other arrangements that such people might be making for their old age.

I urge the Government to consider, for the purposes of future legislation, the tensions that exist between budgets applying to pensioners. I am thinking of the budgets of the national health service and local government social services departments, as well as those of the Benefits Agency. The tension between care and provision is often artificial: in many instances, the restrictions imposed on a call on the public purse relate to a specific aspect of provision, regardless of whether it is within the remit of the Department involved. Pensioners are whole people, and our response to how they are to live out their retirement should accordingly be holistic.

At the turn of a millennium, we must consider changes in social life. Society has changed rapidly over time, and social provision has had to respond to that change. We must now look forward to the rapid social change that we are bound to experience over the next 100 years. For instance, people will live, on average, 30 years longer. Although the Bill may well be adequate in terms of what we are debating today, it will inevitably run out of steam. We should consider how we are to provide a viable old age for people far into the future. If our pensions provisions are to be sustainable, we must have a proper debate about how a diminishing number of people in work are to pay for the increasing number who will be in retirement. At some time the strain will become immense, and the pay-as-you-go scheme may well crack.

We may have to consider other measures, such as an increased working time. I would probably welcome that as I grew older and did not want to retire. Flexibility is another option. The TUC has been considering flexible arrangements for a long time, and, indeed, the Labour party has considered the idea of a flexible decade of retirement. When the Government have completed their work on this welcome Bill, they should continue to look forward to the many social changes that we are bound to experience and reflect on how we are to respond to them.

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