Standing Committee F
Thursday 20 January 2000
[Mr. William O'Brien in the Chair]
The Chairman: Good morning, everyone. I have an announcement to make.
I am happy for the Committee to have wide-ranging debates on amendments. However, if those debates move too wide, I shall apply Standing Order 68 and Standing Order 89 part b, which allow for a restriction on stand part debate. Therefore, if debate on amendments is going to be wide-ranging, there will be no stand part debate. I am making that point to make things clear from the word go. However, I wish to give Committee members an opportunity to make their arguments, as I--like everyone else in this Room--want to hear all available evidence. However, it is only right that business is not repeated in Committee, and I request Members' co-operation on that.
Maintenance calculations and terminology
Amendment proposed [18 January], No 1, in page 1, line 8, at the beginning to insert the words--
'(A1) Subsection (1) shall not come into force until such time as the Secretary of State shall have published in the London Gazette, an estimate prepared by him of:
(a) The number of maintenance calculations he expects to perform (whether as a result of the operation of section 4 of the 1991 Act or as a result of the operation of section 6 of the 1991 Act) in the period of 12 months following the coming into force of subsection (1);
(b) The number of maintenance calculations referred to in (a) above in which the amount of child support maintenance would be more if that maintenance calculation were to be undertaken in accordance with Part I of Schedule 1 as amended by this Act rather than in accordance with Part I of Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act prior to any amendment by this Act;
(c) The number of maintenance calculations referred to in (a) above in which the amount of child support maintenance would be less if that maintenance calculation were to be undertaken in accordance with Part I of Schedule 1 as amended by this Act rather than in accordance with Part I of Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act prior to any amendment by this Act; and
(d) The number of maintenance calculations referred to in (a) above in which the amount of child support maintenance would be the same if that maintenance calculation were to be undertaken in accordance with Part I of Schedule 1 as amended by this Act rather than in accordance with Part I of Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act prior to any amendment by this Act.'--[
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I shall bear in mind your admonition about the conduct of debate, Mr. Brien. I said much of what I wanted to say about the Bill's winners and losers before we adjourned on Tuesday.
Will the Minister make it clear who the winners and losers will be, and how much the sums are likely to amount to? After all, the financial transaction involved in Child Support Agency cases is the single most contentious issue for parents with care and absent parents, the latter being more vocal than the former. Under the new system, many absent parents will become winners, as they will pay less.
However, that is not true for everyone, as some people will pay more under the new system, as there will be no cap on the amount to be taken from people's income under the new percentages arrangement. Therefore, before the Bill is enacted, we should know who is going to come to our surgeries to complain and why. Will the Government provide a better idea of the changes and their impact on people's financial circumstances? You can bet your bottom dollar that, whenever a change is made, those who gain will say "Thank you very much", but that those who lose will be banging on our surgery doors, saying, "What's going on? It was bad enough already, but now it's even worse." As a Committee member with some responsibility for such measures, I should like to reassure those people that such issues were explored and subjected to parliamentary agreement.
However, absent parents are not the only ones to gain or lose as a result of the new formula. Parents with care--whom the Bill is designed to help--are also affected. If the majority of absent parents pay less, the majority of parents with care will receive less, and I am sure they will complain as well.
On Tuesday morning, I accepted that there will be quite a large number of such people. However, although absent parents may contribute less to the maintenance of their children, those with care may not receive less because of new arrangements on the disregard. How many people fall into that category? How many will receive less overall as a result of absent parents' income being assessed on a new basis?
The changes will not be welcomed by women in tight financial circumstances, and they too will beat a path to our door. I reiterate that it would be helpful if Ministers provided much more precise information about the changes to people's personal financial circumstances that the Bill will bring about. We look forward to the Minister's response.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): When first I read the amendment, it seemed quite innocuous. However, I was anxious to hear from Opposition Members about the thinking behind it. Leaving aside the hon. Lady's contribution this morning, from my reading of the Hansard report of four first sitting on Tuesday, I now have a better perception of what was behind it, and it appears to be a charter for wealthy absent fathers. I was disappointed by some of the contributions on Tuesday. There was no mention of the needs of children. There seemed to be a presumption that the parent with care, whom it was assumed was a woman, was some of gold-digger who would take a man's money and do with it what she would--invest it in the stock market and enjoy herself on cruises or holidays--rather than spend it on the children.
I make a plea for the vast majority of mothers, and fathers, who are parents with care and who spend more than half their income on caring for their children. Let us consider how the average family works. What parents would not provide a roof over their child's head knowing that they were subject to the law for abuse or neglect? What parents would not ensure that their children were properly clothed and fed? What parents would not ensure that their children had adequate leisure time, assuming that they could afford it? Of course many parents cannot afford to spend large sums on the leisure pursuits that most children enjoy these days. It was a bit sad that there was so much concern about wealthy fathers and whether it was right for them to contribute to the same extent as less wealthy fathers. There was an imbalance in the debate.
However, I was pleased with the speech of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), which I felt was the first time attention had been paid to parents with care. I was glad that the hon. Lady at least mentioned them. However, I feel strongly that the whole thrust of the debate so far has been to neglect the main winners in all this, who must surely be the children who hitherto have had no support whatever. The old formula was treated by parents as a tool, in divorce proceedings or afterwards, to carry out a vendetta against each other.
Miss Kirkbride: The hon. Lady is right. Clearly these legislative proposals are designed to deliver money to children. I just wonder whether she is worried that, in the majority of cases, the new formula will reduce the amount of money paid by absent parents to parents with care? Given the way in which her argument developed, it appeared to go against the interests of the children, because she suggested that their maintenance will be less.
Kali Mountford: The hon. Lady takes us down a route that we went along Second Reading, which was to ask whether we should stay with a complicated formula that no one can understand, that does not work and delivers nothing, or whether we should simplify the procedure so that those who currently have nothing are given something, thereby taking the heat out of the situation and moving forward. I thought that there was consensus across the House that the latter was the right approach.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): some 850,000 children will lose out under the Bill. Would it be fair to say that the hon. Lady is telling them that the system is too complicated so we must simplify the formula?
Kali Mountford: The hon. Gentleman is developing the same argument that caused the Child Support Agency to be such a shambles. It is extraordinary that he wants to step back in time and forget that that shambles delivered nothing.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): My hon. Friend is right. Does she agree that a wealth of difference exists between an assessment under the CSA and what is paid? The Select Committee on Social Security report stated that, by May 1999, almost a third of non-resident parents assessed to pay child support paid nothing, and a quarter made only partial payments. Is not that the real difference?
Kali Mountford: My hon. Friend is right. I congratulate the Select Committee on its excellent report, which members of the Committee should have read. The main thrust of the argument is that if people do not receive the money that they are due, the assessment is worthless.
It would take a genius to understand the algebraic formula used in the schedule to the Child Support Act 1991. I know from people who work in the CSA that the only way in which they can do the calculations themselves is to use the computer. It takes someone who has several degrees to work out the CSA. formula. Clearly the agency is one of the main winners, because at least its staff have a worthwhile job to do, but we should not worry too much about that. My worry is that children must be the main winners. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) frowns because that does not suit his argument. Children gain nothing if they get nothing, and I regret that that point has been missed so far in the debate. We do not want a charter for absent wealthy fathers; we want a charter for children, which is what the Bill represents.