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Caroline Flint: For Mrs. X--a hard-working constituent of mine trying to raise a family and move on--there is a £7,000 millstone around her neck that cannot be collected while the Army protects the salaries of those with such liabilities to their offspring.
The Ministry of Defence says that only 1 per cent. of child support payments are not made in full, and I welcome that. It is not too great a hope that the Department will not provide the camouflage for the 1 per cent. who wish to avoid being fully accountable for their children's welfare. For Mrs. X--someone with no place to hide and nowhere else to turn--the burden of underpayment grows by more than £77 for every month that the Army underpays her ex-husband's deduction of earnings order.
I have raised the case of Mrs. X in detail with my hon. Friend's ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State. In his last letter to me, the Under-Secretary suggested that owing to changes in the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, the problem will go away. But that is the case for new cases coming
I am concerned that the marital status categories have been used to disadvantage the children of my constituent, and that Ministers are being advised on the basis of inaccurate and sometimes inappropriate comments about my constituent and the lead-up to the family breakdown.
More pertinently, I do not believe that it is the role of the Ministry, the Army or Members of Parliament to be moral arbiters or judge and jury in distressing cases of family breakdown. This is not just about Mrs. X's children; in fact, she has been determined to pursue the matter because it is her desire to protect other former Army wives and their children.
It is our moral obligation to see that the CSA's and the courts' wishes are upheld on behalf of the welfare of children. Our obligations to service personnel and their dependants do not exist in some separate moral universe: they are part of the same equation. If, to accord with the judgments of the CSA and the courts on behalf of children, out-of-date minimum pay regulations have to be revised in the name of modern sensible family policy, so be it. This is a matter that I intend to raise with the Select Committee on Defence as part of its review of personnel procedures in the services.
Laura Moffatt (Crawley): The Select Committee has been examining the issue of a review of personnel matters. We have had senior officers before us who take family matters seriously. Can there possibly be a difference between the children of serving officers in our armed forces and children of officers who are now not together with their partners? Surely there should be no distinction.
Caroline Flint: I agree and I would not like to suggest that the Ministry and the various branches of the services do not take family matters seriously. However, this is one of the areas where they are found wanting and an area they must address. In the present day, people can have families in which they live with their children, but they also have responsibilities to the families and children with whom they are not living. As a responsible employer, the Ministry of Defence should attend to that and make sure that its systems do not discriminate against those children.
Before I arrived in the Chamber tonight, I was able to have a conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) who raised his concern about the Territorial Army and its approach to CSA payments and the families of existing personnel. I will be encouraging many of my colleagues who have had similar problems to report to the Select Committee so that we can collate a larger and more diverse example of the practices which, unfortunately, are going on. I urge my hon. Friend not to close the door on reform in the vital area of pay and family responsibility and not to wait for changes in the child support legislation. I urge him to do something about the families who are affected by the present legislation and the regulations that are currently used in the services.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): I should like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing a debate on this important issue. I know that she takes a great interest in the service families in her constituency and, as she said in her excellent speech, the Government came to office committed both to putting people at the centre of defence policy and planning and to family policies.
We have delivered on that commitment. The strategic defence review set in hand a wide variety of initiatives aimed at improving the lot of the men and women in our armed forces across the full spectrum of their needs and those of their families. Among those was the service families taskforce, which was set up two years ago. As I reported to the Chamber on 2 November, the taskforce has been doing excellent work in resolving issues of concern to families. It has taken a real lead in bringing the expertise of different Departments to bear on cracking problems that had been written off as insoluble.
That does not mean that we are complacent. The taskforce is continuing to work hard to resolve outstanding issues and to ensure that all the families of service personnel are treated fairly. I am sure that the House will agree that we ask a great deal of our service personnel--ultimately we may require them to sacrifice their lives--and they do not let us down. It is only right, therefore, that we take good care of them and their families.
In that context, my hon. Friend raised an important and sensitive issue. As the case that she outlined showed, the break-up of a marriage is always difficult and can be exacerbated when children are involved. It is essential that correct financial provision be made for the children, which is why the Child Support Agency can issue deduction of earnings orders to employers regarding ongoing maintenance and arrears payments. Those orders stipulate the rate of deduction that may be taken from the earnings of a non-resident parent. They also set a protected earning rate, which is the amount that the non-resident parent must be left with after the deduction has been made, to provide the non-resident parent with key living expenses. In cases in which the employer is unable to make the maintenance deduction in full because it would take the earnings below the protected earnings rate, the outstanding balance is rolled forward to the next week or month.
Child support legislation, however, does not provide for deduction of earnings orders to be imposed on personnel in the armed forces. Instead, there is a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Defence and the Child Support Agency to ask the Ministry of Defence to make deductions for maintenance. I am pleased that, overall, there is a very good working relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Child Support Agency, which ensures that deductions from the pay of service personnel are made quickly and accurately--indeed, I understand, far more so than with almost all other employers. The Ministry of Defence has an exemplary record in meeting its obligations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley mentioned that the full amount is not deducted in only 1 per cent. of cases. That is my understanding as well: in over 99 per cent. of cases, the full amount awarded is deducted. That compares favourably with those outside the armed forces, where 22 per cent. are paying only a part of their assessment and 29 per cent. pay nothing at all. The Government are doing something about that, which I shall come on to later.
The very few members of the armed forces who are not meeting the full amount payable--as I said, we believe that they are fewer than 1 per cent. of all cases--are doing so as a result of the minimum rates of pay set by Ministry of Defence legislation, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out. Minimum rates of pay were introduced around 50 years ago to ensure that service families were properly looked after. In fact, the Royal Navy regulations date from 1947, while the those for the Army and the Royal Air Force were brought into force in 1955. Those minimum rates of pay were introduced as a result of the experience of the second world war.
During the war, service personnel were encouraged to make an allotment of a fixed weekly sum to their families. Not all did, with obvious consequences. For those who did receive an allotment, the sum was not guaranteed because deductions from the pay of service personnel could mean that there was insufficient to cover the allotment--and this caused substantial hardship. To prevent those problems from recurring, new regulations were introduced. For example, two separate provisions were added to the Army Act 1955. One established a minimum rate of pay and the second gave the service authorities powers to make immediate deductions from the remaining pay for the maintenance of the spouse and children.
The provisions were designed to protect the whole family and continue to do so today. The amount of separation experienced by service personnel means that day-to-day financial planning within service families remains very difficult compared with that within the civil community. Civilians have recourse to the courts if they are being overburdened with deductions from pay, so that the amounts that they pay can be varied to take account of their circumstances. Service personnel, particularly if they are deployed on operations, cannot easily access the courts. In addition, the application of the Discipline Acts means that service personnel may face fines for a range of military offences that do not apply to civilians.
The powers that I have outlined have been made available to the service authorities so that the families of service personnel are properly supported. For example, deductions can be made to ensure that service personnel meet their responsibility to their families. These are often used when relationships break down to ensure that service families are properly cared for prior to the CSA making an assessment. They are the key tools which enable us to respond to CSA assessments, but they are also of utility in other circumstances. For example, they were used recently to make an immediate payment to the wife of a soldier who suffered a massive stroke before he had had time to set up any method whereby she could access his bank account.