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Standing Committee Debates
Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 25 January 2000

(Morning)

[Mr. William O'Brien in the Chair]

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

10.30 am

The Chairman: Hon. Members may remove their jackets if they so wish.

Schedule 1

SUBSTITUTED PART I OF SCHEDULE 1 TO THE CHILD SUPPORT ACT 1991

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I beg to move amendment No. 119, in page 69, line 22 leave out from beginning to end of line 25 and insert

    `Where the non-resident parent also has one or more relevant other children—

    (a) the total number of children cared for shall be calculated in accordance with paragraph (b)

    (b) the number referred to in paragraph (a) shall be calculated by adding together the number of qualifying children and the number of relevant other children

    (c) there shall be calculated in accordance with paragraph (d) a sum for deemed child care liabilities

    (d) the amount referred to in paragraph (c) shall be calculated by application of the rates in paragraph 2(1) to the total number of children cared for

    (e) the basic rate shall be deemed child care liability divided by the number of qualifying children.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: amendment No. 103, in page 69, line 29, after `income', insert

    `adjusted, where the non-resident parent also has one or more relevant other children, in accordance with paragraph 2(2) above'.

Amendment No. 68, in page 69, line 35, leave out `£5' and insert `£3'.

Mr. Pickles: I apologise for removing my jacket without your permission, Mr. O'Brien. I note that the Minister of State is wearing a particularly snazzy waistcoat, which may distract you.

I suspect that, like me, hon. Members have spent part of the weekend reading the report of our deliberations in Hansard, and re-examining the White Paper and the Green Paper. On reading Hansard, I was struck by a point that is apposite to this amendment. Although any changes to the Child Support Agency should put the needs of children first, we seem to spend a lot of time considering the wealth, or non-wealth, of the parent with care and the non-resident parent. I want to draw the Committee's attention to a suggestion in the Green Paper, and there is no better way in which to do so than to quote the Prime Minister. In its foreword, the Prime Minister states that

    ``the system must support families and children'',

and be

    ``Fair to children who will get the maintenance they have a right to expect, providing not just financial benefit for them but tangible proof that they are cared for.''

Those last few words are key to the amendment, which would give full flight to the Prime Minister's pledge to establish a system that must support families and children.

The amendment would treat all children fairly, without discriminating against one category according to the families to which they happen to belong. That is not what the Government currently propose. In the Green Paper and the White Paper, two alternatives are offered. Page 10 of the White Paper states that those alternatives are

    ``to deduct a proportion of the non-resident parent's net income for each of their children in a second family, and apply the standard rates to the balance'',

or

    ``to calculate child support for all the non-resident parent's children (in both their families) and then share out the resulting amount according to the . . . children in each family.''

It is the second alternative that the amendment would implement.

The consultation process was straightforward and a number of responses were received. To their credit, the Government made it clear that opinion was divided. In paragraph 13 on page 11 of the White Paper, they state that

    ``On balance, we think that the new scheme should show a slight preference to the children in the first family''.

It is significant that they use the words ``on balance''. We shall expect the Minister to explain that in his response.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): The hon. Gentleman skated over paragraph 12 on page 11, which states that it was clear from the consultation that

    ``Non-resident parents generally wanted a rule that would result in the minimum maintenance liability.''

Amendment No. 119 is basically a men's groups amendment. I would be interested to hear what the hon. Members for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) have to say about that.

Mr. Pickles: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is taking such an aggressive line. The amendment reflects the Social Security Committee's preferred way of going about the calculation, and it is entirely wrong to characterise our view in such sexist terms. It is a children's amendment—it is about putting children first. We are not saying that there are two classes of children. If the right hon. Gentleman is so fond of paragraph 12, let us look at paragraph 15, in which the Government state:

    ``There will be no `first class' and `second class' children in the second family—those who count for child maintenance and those who do not.''

That is laudable. However, why refer to first-class and second-class children in the second class—in the second family? That was a Freudian slip. The effect of the calculations is neatly illustrated by the Select Committee report, which, on page xiii, gives two examples. It begins:

    ``Example A:

    Weekly take-home pay £200 (one child in first family, one child in second family) Rate for two children 20 per cent So £40 per week to be divided equally between children Liability for child in `first' family would be £20 a week.''

That is straightforward.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): To which page is my hon. Friend referring?

Mr. Pickles: Page xvi. The report goes on to cite a second example, ``Example B''. The initial circumstances are identical:

    ``Weekly take-home pay £200 ƒ‚(one child in first family, one child in second family)''.

It continues:

    ``Rate for child in `second' family 15 per cent of £200, so £30 a ƒ‚week ƒ‚Remaining pay £170 ƒ‚Rate for child in `first' family 15 per cent of £170 ƒ‚Liability for child in first' family would be £22.50 a week.''

It is not surprising that the Committee goes on to state:

    ``We welcome the White Paper proposal to treat step-children in a `second' family on the same basis as the non-resident parent's own children in the `second' family. We prefer the alternative approach set out in the Green Paper that maintenance liability should be split equally between all children''.

That is exactly what the amendment seeks to do.

The Committee received evidence from a variety of organisations, which it highlights. It is noticeable that that does not involve favouring fathers, as the Minister of State suggested. For example, Karen Randall stated that

    ``all children of all families should be treated equally as a moral principle.''

Parliament should not take the view that there are two kinds of children, with one kind having a greater need than the other.

Karen Randall gives another reason. Most of the Government's arguments last week seemed to be based on administrative convenience, and I do not believe that administrative convenience is a good reason for making changes, if that puts into the balance justice between the various families. She says on page 131:

    ``We also think that the original proposal the Government made was more transparent. If you have two children in one family, the first family, you will pay 20 per cent. of your net income and if you have one in the first and one in the second then it seems logical to us that you split that 20 per cent. and have ten in each. What the Government has gone for in that situation is you would pay 12.75. It is not quite as transparent for people to work out for themselves.''

There is some logic in that.

I do not want to overstate the case. We are talking about a marginal advantage. This provision will not create enormous unfairness, but it will create unfairness. We must recognise that children are often the casualties of a marriage or relationship break-up and should not be treated differently from their siblings. We live in different times and relationships break up. A child of a first family in one relationship could be the child of a second relationship in another. I could not put the case better than Natalie Cronin of The Children's Society, who is quoted with approval by the Select Committee in paragraph 29 on page xvii. She said:

    ``the prevailing policy should be equality between the children.''

The amendment should not be controversial or a matter of great debate in the Committee. We might be open to persuasion if the Minister of State could tell us why the Government feel that children of the first marriage should be on a more equal footing than children of the second. We accept that it is a marginal point in terms of resources, but it creates inequality.

We recognise that various parties have made submissions, but the run of the evidence, which seemed to persuade the Select Committee, suggests a move to the second system. I cannot believe that the Government thought that this proposal was wholly unreasonable. If they did, they would not have put it in the Green Paper. No Government in the process of producing a Green Paper would say, ``Let's find something ridiculous and wholly unrealistic. Let's find something to show that fathers will be better off. Let's put in a system so bad that everyone will plump for the other one.'' That is a highly cynical view, and I do not believe that the Minister would admit to such plans. What they have is a perfectly fair and workable system.

10.45 am

The Government should give us an explanation. The Minister's earlier intervention was so astounding because he said that it was not a question of one option being absolutely right and a second absolutely wrong—it was a question of balance. He seemed to suggest that the Government had to make a decision some time, and that this was their decision. They need to tell us more to obtain our support. They need to explain why they have chosen this path.

When we embark on a reform in which we hope the public will have confidence, it must be clearly understood why we are proposing the changes. The Government must make that clear now. If they cannot persuade us, we shall force the amendment to a vote, and the consensus that has pertained thus far in Committee will be shattered. We want a reasoned argument from the Government.

 
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