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Standing Committee Debates
Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Standing Committee F

Thursday 20 January 2000

(Afternoon)

[Sir. David Madel in the Chair]

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Clause 1

Maintenance calculations and terminology

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 56, in page 2, line 11, leave out `one month' and insert

    `two months'.—[Mr. Pickles.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): First, I welcome you to the Committee, Sir David. I look forward to your chairmanship of our deliberations.

I was explaining why the amendment is unnecessary. I was about to give way to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), but I did not realise that we were due to rise at 11.25 am, not 11.30 am. I gladly give way to her now.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I am most grateful; I know how difficult it can be when someone wants to intervene almost before one has started speaking.

It is probably my nit-picking brain, but the Minister referred to the current date when talking about someone who had dropped an assessment and then re-applied. I wonder whether the current date applies to the re-application. It has been such a long time since we last spoke about the subject, so I hope that my question makes sense.

Mr. Rooker: If it does not, I shall seek advice. As far as I understand it, the amendment will apply only if the parent with care has stopped receiving the relevant benefits before the maintenance calculations have been made. If a court order has not been made or if a pre-„1993 written maintenance agreement prevents it, the Secretary of State can continue the process of determining the child support liability. The parent carer has one month to respond to that letter. We know of no difficulties with a one-month timetable, and we do not want to change the period just for the sake of it. The present arrangement seems to be satisfactory, and we see no justification for changing from one month to two months.

I was asked about a re-application, but I am not able to answer now. However, I shall certainly come back to the matter.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Sir David. I understand that this is your first Bill. I am sure that we shall make our proceedings as unstressful and pleasant as we can. I am sure that you will do a marvellous job.

I am grateful to the Minister. As I said this morning, it is a probing amendment. It is an important matter and I wanted to give the Minister the chance to give an explanation. I am completely satisfied with that explanation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Pickles: I beg to move amendment No. 57, in page 2, line 28, at end insert—

    `(7A) The Secretary of State shall report annually to Parliament on the change to the number and qualification of maintenance variations that have been made in the preceding year.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 58, in page 2, line 28, at end insert—

    `(7A) Any change in the nature and qualification of maintenance variations shall be agreed and ratified by Parliament before a change can be implemented.'.

Mr. Pickles: This is a matter of substance. The amendment takes account of matters that we raised this morning when discussing the possibility of variations. As I said, we intend to be as supportive as we cam in our deliberations. However, that means that we shall sometimes have to face unpleasant truths, both in our perception of the history of the Child Support Agency and in an endeavour to try to avoid many of the problems of the past.

Moving towards a simplified formula is a good thing. The evidence given to the Select Committee shows general consensus on that. I am not aware of anyone who wants to make the formula more complex. However, I am worried that making it simpler would repeat the mistakes made by a previous Committee when it considered the matter. We believe that net income should be the key to the variations. We want assessments to fit the particular circumstances of individuals more closely. That surely is desirable.

We foresee a problem. The amendments seek to ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to consider the different variations. At the moment, there will be no variation for those who have excessive travel costs or excessive housing costs. Labour Members may say that the Tories are yet again trying to protect their friends in middle England, and that people who live in expensive houses or who have to commute into the City should learn that such expenses should not be taken into account. My view is that such variations should be allowed. However, they should not come through the back door; they should be made up front, and Parliament should have the opportunity to consider them.

The provision is an attack not only on middle England—an area much favoured by the Prime Minister—but will also affect people on low incomes. In a thoughtful speech on Tuesday, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) pointed out that the evidence to the Select Committee showed the sort of people who would be adversely affected by such decisions. I noted that my hon. Friend spoke of nursing auxiliaries. We know the sort of pressure that such people face because of the present crisis in the national health service, and we also know of the tremendous shortage of suitable hospital places.

I represent an Essex constituency, and many people commute regularly from there. I know of people in the nursing profession who commute daily to St. Thomas' hospital, just across the river. It will probably surprise hon. Members to learn that it is quite an expensive journey. I know of others on low incomes who make similarly long journeys. It is precisely those people who will miss out under the Bill. I am certain that the Minister will, in time, extend the Bill's powers with a statutory instrument or two. We want to know—we want Parliament to know—whether that will happen. We believe that the powers should be extended, and that that should be a matter for discussion.

Another example drawn from my understanding of my constituents is high housing costs. I come from a part of the world where housing is expensive. People who live in some of the villages in my constituency have to pay an exorbitant sum to do so, and they are not necessarily rich or well heeled. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) asks why they do not move. Why should they move from villages in which they can trace their ancestry through many generations that have lived there and been a part of the community? Such a callous remark about making them move is deeply offensive.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: If the hon. Gentleman wants to withdraw his remarks, I will be happy.

Mr. Browne: I trust that the Official Report will not record that I said anything of the sort that he ascribes to me. I said nothing at all about people moving from villages in his constituency. I said, ``What has this got to do with the amendment?'' No doubt we shall come at some stage to the issue of variations, but what have variations to do with the amendment?

Mr. Pickles: I am sorry that I gave way. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would withdraw his remarks. Instead, he has repeated one set of callous remarks and made them worse with another set.

Mr. Browne: That is disgraceful.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman is right—his remarks are disgraceful.

I shall demonstrate what my comments have to do with the amendment. New variations in the problems will occur, so there should be line-by-line scrutiny of the sort that we are enjoying. That is why the amendments are important. The hon. Gentleman is right, in that I would not have skipped over the subject with two brief examples now, were it not for the fact that we shall table amendments to a later part of the Bill that will rectify the problem.

We have a substantial problem. If we are to do justice to the public, we must be seen to be fair. I shall quote again Mr. Justice Kay, for whom I am beginning to form enormous admiration, tempered only by my understanding that that he is a great supporter of the Australian Labour party. Nevertheless, I am ecumenical in all matters. On acceptance by the public, he says on page 74 of the Select Committee on Social Security's report:

    ``Consider two separated fathers who occupy adjoining duplexes. They are both in the same employment, earning exactly the same income. One owns his apartment outright. The other is a tenant. One can clearly afford to pay more child support than the other. Is it fair that they be assessed merely upon their identical income without regard to . . . their financial positions?''

We shall have to consider that point deeply in the context of the number of variations.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): The hon. Gentleman has quoted from Mr. Justice Kay's letter quite extensively during the debate and on Second Reading. Has he read the letter in its entirety? The judge applauds the move to a simpler formula. His criticism of the Australian system is that it does not work, people do not pay, and enforcement takes a long time. The hon. Gentleman mentions the three stages of appeal that the variations have introduced, but does not seem to correlate the complexity of the Australian system and the difficulty of enforcement. He highlights the problems involved, but does not correlate those issues. Although he is correct in citing the letter, he should read it in its entirety and quote from it in full.

2.45 pm

Mr. Pickles: As the hon. Gentleman will discover, I have read the letter in its entirety. The problem is that it is full of gobbledegook quotes. I might be tempted to quote it in its entirety, but that would be a dreadful thing to do.

The entire letter refers to the central dilemma that hon. Members do not want to face. It is right to move towards a simplified formula. The Government have our 100 per cent., unequivocal support on that. Should fortune grace me, and I become a senior member of my party, that statement will probably appear in a Labour party booklet, to be quoted back at me, but we are completely on the Government's side on that matter. However, we want that decision to be tempered with justice and a close examination to be made of the variations. We shall have an opportunity to examine the variations in detail, and I want to protect the position of my and the Under-Secretary's successors in title to do that.

 
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