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9.14 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am delighted to contribute to what is an interesting debate. I shall focus most of my remarks on the CSA, but, on pensions, let me say that the real reason why the Government wish to introduce a state second pension is that they have failed miserably to deliver all the pledges on the original state pension that they made during the last general election campaign. Judging by my mailbag, pensioners in my constituency of Vale of York are hugely disappointed at the derisory increase that the Government announced this year. The Minister might consider that matter before he himself becomes a pensioner.

The challenge that faces the Government is a missed opportunity. They had the opportunity to impose proper reforms to simplify the social security system and they have blown it. Instead, they are introducing reforms that are even more complex than those that continue today. The Secretary of State said that the crux of the problem is twofold. First, calculations are too complicated and take too long to assess. Secondly, corrections are too slow for implementation to take place.

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The Minister must put the House's mind at rest as to how the dual system will run in the transitional period. The Government have to satisfy us and our constituents about how the transitional period will operate.

I am hugely disappointed following my correspondence with Baroness Hollis of Heigham in the other place. She said that the Bill would put my mind at rest on the subject of overtime. Neither the comments this evening nor the Bill itself have satisfied me that the Government will take overtime out of the initial assessment. Judging by what constituents have said to me, it is wrong to count overtime--which is, by definition, not a permanent feature, particularly for employees in industries such as construction and engineering and for sales staff, who do overtime before Christmas--as part of overall permanent income. I should like the Minister to rule out the possibility of overtime being part of the overall assessment.

I am slightly concerned that the Government will resort to more telephone contact between CSA staff and constituents, particularly those in Vale of York. Judging by correspondence that I have had and meetings at my surgeries, constituents are not always left with the best impression by CSA staff. That is understandable. We all understand that CSA staff work under huge pressure and are probably understaffed, but there is no excuse for a member of the agency to be rude to constituents. Perhaps some charm school offensive could be undertaken as part of the Bill before the CSA provisions come into effect.

The Green Paper promised that the consultation results would be made public. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), will recall her reply to me at the November Social Security questions. She told me that the reason why the correspondence and results of the consultation would not be made public would become obvious when the Bill was published. Can we conclude that those show that the overwhelming majority of people, including me, other Members, outside bodies and many private individuals, such as constituents who wrote in at our suggestion, were against the proposed Government reforms? Is that why the Government are loth to publish the results of the consultation?

I mention the case of Mr. Michael Donaghy in Vale of York, who has been left in extraordinary circumstances. He is not the parent, but is in charge of a boy whom he is bringing up as his own. The absent father, has been making payments, but the CSA informs me that those will stop. Mr. Donaghy will be left with no provision other than his income, which is very modest. I plead with the Minister to reopen Mr. Donaghy's case, as the reforms that the House is considering today will offer him no consolation.

I commend the official Opposition's reasoned amendment, and hope that the House will support it.

9.20 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who speaks with great knowledge on the subject. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister of State will say why the responses to the consultation have not been published. My hon. Friend has not only legitimately asked that question, but doggedly pursued an answer to it.

I also have little doubt that, when my hon. Friend talks about the need for a charm school offensive, she had me in mind as someone who might lead it.

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This debate has been interesting, not least because the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith)--who has left the Chamber--decided to use it as an occasion on which to name one of his constituents as an adulterer. Tomorrow morning, the gentleman named will undoubtedly have something interesting to read about over his cornflakes.

Like the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), I am humbled by the breadth of knowledge about pensions on both sides of the House. Nevertheless, what unites all hon. Members is that we are all experts on the Child Support Agency; as a result of our various constituency surgeries, advice centres, advice bureaux--whatever one calls them--we have become very familiar with the agency's internal workings. However, unlike some hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, when I have dealt with CSA staff as a constituency Member of Parliament, I have always found them to be unfailingly courteous and increasingly efficient in their deliberations.

Before I go much further in my speech, I should like to express the regrets of the official Opposition that the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), is planning not to stand at the next general election. Not only will he be greatly missed in the House, but he looks far too young to retire--although he may possibly go on to greater heights. We wish him well.

The Secretary of State said that this legislation is the CSA's last chance. Therefore, it is even more important that we get the legislation right. If this is the CSA's last chance, we shall have to ensure that the proposed reforms work. However, as the Minister's neighbour, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), said, there is much to put right in the Government's proposals.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) reminded us that the original proposals establishing the Child Support Agency enjoyed all-party support. He also told us--it was particularly interesting--that the problems that the House envisaged when establishing the agency did not occur, but that we have encountered an entirely new set of problems. I tell Labour Members--in some friendship--that that is the risk with this legislation.

We accept the need for change, but have to ensure that we do not simply exchange one set of problems for another. Our objective surely must be to ensure that children are supported and that parents accept their duty of financial responsibility for their children.

The Committee--on which I hope to serve--will have the considerable advantage of having the Social Security Committee's report, which I have found to be extremely useful. I should like particularly to draw the House's attention to a very useful letter from Australia--from the family court of Australia and the chambers of Mr. Justice Kay, who offers us just over two and a half pages of advice. I shall quote one sentence which would serve the House well. It states:

I am pleased to see Ministers nodding in agreement.

I believe that children should be treated equally. Sadly, I have to tell my neighbour, the hon. Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon), that she is wrong and that, under the Government's proposals, children of a second marriage are treated materially differently. The hon. Lady may be

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forgiven for that mistake because the White Paper offered two options and the Government chose the one under which children were not on an equal footing. I hope that the hon. Lady is selected to serve on the Standing Committee, as we hope to put that right.

Mrs. Gordon: I am concerned that children should be treated equally and I hope that the Committee will consider that point.

Mr. Pickles: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's support. Let me reiterate to the Whip on duty that I hope that she is selected to serve on the Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) warned about the consequences of rough justice. The Government made a virtue of the simplicity of the new system. We are not unsympathetic to that view. Surely everyone is in favour of a simpler system, but removing complexity has a cost. The simpler we make the system, the more we risk individual loss. The Government talk about rough justice, but for some there will be no justice.

Under the basic scheme, one would expect a number of clear exemptions. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) warned that the number of variations will undoubtedly increase and that, in two or three years' time, it will not be dissimilar from the number of variations under the current system.

The Government refer to a new concept of rough justice. We know that 350,000 parents with care will be worse off by an average of £17 a week. I put that point to the Secretary of State on 29 November at column 4 of Hansard. The right hon. Gentleman seemed unaware of that figure. He thought that I was talking about the contributions made by parents without care. So let us assume that the figure of 350,000 is right, as it was supplied by the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). Let us also assume that the Secretary of State's statement that 1 million children will be better off under the scheme is right. So, if 350,00 parents with care will be worse off, assuming that they have an average of 2.4 children, 840,000 children will be worse off by the provisions. Allowing for a margin of error, that is virtually one for one so that, for every child that will be a winner under the new system according to the Government's figures, there will also be a loser. That does not seem to be an improvement in the system. Half will lose and half will gain. The Government need to get their strategy right.

When the Under-Secretary introduced the doctrine, she said that it will be good for everyone if people receive a small sum rather than a theoretical sum. Have the Government not heard of an enforcement strategy and actually making people pay? We are prepared to take away people's driving licences and at some time we will probably take away their passports; why do we not simply make them pay? That seems much more sensible.

Who are the people who will lose? As we are fortunate enough to have Mr. Nicholas Mostyn QC's figures on page 86 of the Select Committee report, we know that those with former partners and who earn just above the national average male manual earnings or the national average male non-manual earnings will be worse off. Those are the

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people who are going to be receiving a lot less. The people who are going to be paying out, according to Mr. Mostyn, are those who are on well below average earnings. They will see an increase of around 170 per cent. That surely makes no sense. The Government cannot expect support for such a warped and unjust scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) was right when he pointed out how dissatisfied poor people are with Labour.

It is also inequitable to have no upper limit. A measure supposedly designed to help children is nothing more than social engineering. The number of children involved will damage the public's confidence in the reform. It is clearly illogical not to have an upper limit. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] It is illogical because the measure is designed to ensure that children receive maintenance, not to ensure that they receive a share of the parent's wealth. That is a wholly new concept in English law. [Interruption.] Labour Members disagree, but it is a topsy-turvy world to create a new concept in English law only for children of a marriage that has broken down but not for children of a marriage that has not broken down. If a child's parents live happily together, he or she does not have a right to a share of the wealth but, if the parents break up, he or she will have that right. Furthermore, there is no way to enforce transfer of that wealth to the child. If the money is spent on luxuries that have no benefit to the child, he or she will have no recourse. It is little wonder that Mr. Alistair Henry, a practising lawyer, has said--in a letter sent to all right hon. and hon. Members, that the Bill will create a world of little Lord Fauntleroys.

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