Standing Committee F
Tuesday 18 January 2000
[Mr. William O'Brien in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I shall make a couple of announcements. First, any hon. Members wishing to remove their jackets may do so. Secondly, hon. Members may wish to note that, in the explanatory notes to the Bill, the number 19 is consistently substituted by the word "CAPut". That is because there was a virus in the software, and it would be too expensive to issue a correction sheet. I therefore ask hon. Members to substitute the number 19 wherever the word "CAPut" appears in the explanatory notes.
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): I beg to move,
That, during proceedings on the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, the Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at Ten o'clock and half-past Two o'clock.
I do not propose to make an opening statement, Mr. O'Brien, but I would like to say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair this morning.
The Government have tabled several amendments to the Bill, but we intend to keep Government amendments to a minimum. It was our intention to get a Second Reading of the Bill before Christmas, and the printers were working to a tight deadline. Therefore, many of the amendments, especially those relating to the child support provisions, are of a technical or redrafting nature, although I am not suggesting that they should not be debated. There will be other amendments, and we shall give plenty of notice to the Committee when we table them. Having said that, the Government stand ready for the scrutiny of the Bill by the Committee.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. I served on a Select Committee for many years and I know you to be a fair and thorough person. I have little doubt that you will be able to guide us through any problems that the Bill may present, including the problems of being CAPut.
I am sorry that the Minister did not make a longer opening statement, because there are matters to be raised that can be raised only during the debate on the sittings motion, which will determine how long the Committee is to deliberate. Our view on how long the Committee might sit was fundamentally changed by a statement made by the Secretary of State on Second Reading. He said, in a manner that I regarded as both helpful and ominous, that this was the last chance for the Child Support Agency. If we take the the Secretary of State at his word, as I am prepared to do, we may have to go back to a court-based system unless we get this reform of the Child Support Agency right. I am aware of the remarks made by the Secretary of State about the Liberal Democrats and the lawyers.
We need to ascertain whether there is a plan B. After we have examined the clauses relating to the Child Support Agency, will we be presented with a new measure and told, "We've looked at the CSA, and we now recognise that it is not going to work"? Would it not be better to have plan B on the table now? I readily accept that the Government want to keep amendments to a minimum. However, if we are to plan our diaries on the basis of how long we will be in Committee, we have a right to know what the Government propose as a replacement, if--to use an expression from another context--this is the last drink at the last chance saloon for the Child Support Agency.
The fact that the official Opposition and the Government are as one on most issues relating to the Child Support Agency might make the passage of the Bill a little more expeditious. Because of that, and because we are acutely aware that there was a high degree of consensus across the political spectrum when reforms were last debated, we shall want to table more probing amendments than usual. The Government have said that they will actively look for alternative ways forward, and that will have a direct bearing on how long the Committee sits. It means that the Government will be prepared to have a dialogue with the Opposition. It is therefore important that the Government should indicate how soon they expect to table major amendments to the Bill. This is the third social security Bill that I have debated, and the two previous ones were both subject to significant Government amendments in Committee and on Report. If we are to take the Government at their word, the Minister should tell us exactly how long it will be before we have a clear idea of what the Government are planning.
I shall not embarrass hon. Members by reading out quotations to show that there is all-party support for the Bill. Running through all the quotations is the sentiment that hon. Members were on the side of the angels; they wanted to do the right thing. On Second Reading, we had the advantage of hearing from the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Ian Bruce), who was intimately involved with the Child Support Agency. His point also has a strong bearing on the issue of time. He said that everything that hon. Members feared would go wrong with the Child Support Agency had not done so: the problems that had ensued were entirely unpredictable. At what time we meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and for how long, is likely to be determined by our concern--which, I am sure is shared by Members from all parties--that we may be replacing one set of inequities with another. If this is the last chance, all Committee members will have to exercise a much higher degree of scrutiny than usual. Traps lie ahead, and we must be clear about the amount of time required to consider the Bill. We are changing from a system that at least attempts to get some support from a non-resident parent to meet the child's needs to a more rough and ready approach.
When we come to amendment No. 1 to clause 1, I shall explain what we mean by rough and ready justice. We are prepared to try to achieve consensus and to embrace the Government's aims so that we can establish some equality in the process. I do not want to delay the Committee by rehearsing my arguments on amendment 5 6 No. 1, but we shall be removing freedoms and rights that our citizens currently enjoy, so additional sittings may be required to find a way around the inequity of the system.
On Second Reading, a number of hon. Members talked about running two systems together. Some Ministers treated those comments as treason. They pointed out that one of our greatest problems will be to persuade our fellow citizens that the reforms are acceptable. We shall soon have people coming to our surgeries telling us that, after we had spent the best part of three or four months in Committee examining the Bill, they are paying sums of money that Parliament said they should not pay.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is moving on to the first amendment. It would be better to discuss the mechanics when we come to that amendment. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would speak to the narrow sittings motion.
Mr. Pickles: You are quite right, Mr. O'Brien. I allowed my oratory to take me off the subject, and I apologise to the Committee.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): If we are discussing the timetable for our sittings, we should know early on what the timetable will be for phasing out the CSA's old system and introducing the new one. As my hon. Friend says, it would be absurd if two systems ran side by side not just for months, but for many years.
Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is right, which is why the Government have been keen to tell us that they will phase out the old system as soon as possible. They have our support in that. I do not want to rub you up the wrong way, Mr. O'Brien, especially on the first day of our deliberations, because I know on which side my bread is buttered.
If we are to reach a reasonable conclusion, we must consider whether we should sit through Easter to get the Bill right. That would be a great sacrifice to hon. Members, but we are charged with a great duty. Not only do we have the problem of the Child Support Agency to deal with, but we are introducing a state second pension. It will be towards the end of the century before it can be ascertained whether we are right in our deliberations.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I caution my hon. Friend that there is no great enthusiasm, certainly not on my part, for sitting through Easter. Would it not be better for the Committee to avoid that scenario by sitting more often, rather than for a longer period?
Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is a hard man. We must recognise that the Government need to govern, and that the good people on the Government Front Bench--pleased as we are to see them here--have other responsibilities. We must ensure that the Government's machine runs smoothly.
Mr. Leigh: It is not doing so.
Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is unkind. The last thing that I want is for Ministers to be compelled to be here virtually 24 hours a day--there are letters to sign and important decisions to be made. We should stick to the Tuesday and Thursday sittings. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is keen to be united with his family and his Easter eggs, and with a degree of friendship we may be able to conclude our deliberations within a month or two. I certainly do not intend to waste the Committee's time.
However, that cuts both ways. We expect a good dialogue between the parties, so as to enable us to come to decisions quickly. Although the Government enjoy an enormous majority, they have said that they will listen to, and engage in, the arguments surrounding the Bill. We have a duty to put party differences to one side and make the Bill work.
The Child Support Agency and the state second pension are matters of enormous importance. In respect of the latter, we shall need time to pursue two main areas of debate. I shall not go into details now--those matters will be discussed when we come to the amendments--but it is important to be clear where we stand on these issues so that hon. Members can organise their diaries.
We shall want to establish how state second pensions, stakeholder pensions, personal pensions and occupational pensions can interface with one another--I regret having to jump into the jargon--so that people are not trapped into taking an unsuitable pension. I shall not go any further on that issue, Mr O'Brien, because I do not want to try your patience. We shall also want to consider moving towards a funded scheme for the state second pension and improving the way in which private pension companies augment and complement it.
We shall also want to devote considerable time to other important matters, not least the plight of war widows. We should like to table several amendments on that subject, and to spend a fair amount of time debating it. We shall carefully scrutinise the residual schedules on national insurance.
We intend to approach the subject of the Child Support Agency on a cross-party basis. However, we shall be vigilant in respect of stealth taxes, especially in the latter part of the Bill. We do not want the amount of taxation, which has increased so dramatically--