Standing Committee F
Tuesday 25 January 2000
[Mr. William O'Brien in the Chair]
Substituted Part I of Schedule 1 to the Child Support Act 1991
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 105, in page 70, leave out line 10 and insert—
`(a) is a student in full-time education at an educational establishment in the United Kingdom or is serving a term of imprisonment at a prison in the United Kingdom'.
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 106, in page 70, leave out line 10 and insert—
`(a) is serving a term of imprisonment at a prison in the United Kingdom'.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): These simple, probing amendments have been tabled to discover why the Government wish to have powers to exempt various categories. We have chosen the two categories in the explanatory notes. We want to know why students should be exempt. When you left the Committee, Mr. O'Brien, you probably tuned in to the television and you will have seen that the Cabinet is meeting soon to discuss student fees. Therefore, it is apposite that the Committee should consider the burdens on students. However, we have gone through them at some length, and I do not want to delay the Committee unnecessarily.
In view of the debate that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) ably initiated this morning with regard to people on low incomes and the Under-Secretary's response, we want to know why prisoners are to be exempt. It is only a few weeks since we heard that a prisoner was running a major business undertaking in Her Majesty's cells and making many millions of pounds. Even if Her Majesty's prison officers were more punctilious in observing what was going on in the cells, it would be possible to earn considerable sums in prison.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The Government will put in prison those who do not co-operate with the Child Support Agency, so we could get them twice: we could first put them in prison and then we could say, ``Just because you are in prison doesn't mean that there is a hiding place from the CSA''.
Mr. Pickles: I confess that that point had not occurred to me, but my hon. Friend is right: perhaps the easiest way to evade one's responsibilities is to get oneself into further education or into prison.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): They are the same.
Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is perhaps drawing too much on his military experience.
Given what the Under-Secretary said on the previous amendment about the need for people to make a contribution, which we support, it does not seem logical to exempt prisoners. If prisoners and students are exempted, will the Government make the exemptions more extensive? We accept that the amendments would mean that students and prisoners would be exempted, but we felt that it was the best way to get it on the amendment paper so that we could have a full discussion on the principles of who should pay.
Mr. Swayne: Two contradictory motives are at work in the schedule. The first is the quite proper motive that was expressed to the Select Committee by Baroness Hollis that the agency should not expend its resources pursuing parents who had no money to pay for the child welfare. In other words, the objective was administrative efficiency. Secondly, the strong theme that runs throughout the Bill is the moral imperative that parents should be required to make a contribution to the upkeep of their children. In dealing with the amendment, we see the contradiction. We should accept that the moral imperative is the more important part of the Bill. Even where there is little money to be had by expending the agency's resources in pursuit of parents, they should still be required to make at least some payment. I do not doubt that it would be possible for both prisoners and students to make the minimum payment of £5. It would take a great deal to persuade me that that was not the case. If they could not pay £5, they should at least pay something. The moral imperative is the more important part of the principle here.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I support my hon. Friends, who find it inconsistent that the Government have excluded students from the orbit of the Bill—and, for that matter, prisoners, although there might be a better case for them.
In her last contribution the Under-Secretary rightly made it clear that the moral imperative behind the Bill was that the father or mother of a child should make a contribution and that the taxpayer should not be the first port of call. In bringing that child into the world, the parents must recognise the necessity to make a contribution and to maintain a link with the child until he reaches the age of 18.
I do not understand the logic behind the exclusion of students from the Bill. In the debate on the previous amendment we heard that the Government were keen to pursue people on very low incomes for a contribution to child maintenance—a very low contribution in keeping with the absent parent's relatively low standard of living—although the cost of administration may be more than the contribution to the family. The Under-Secretary said that that should be done so that taxpayers did not feel so aggrieved about being the first port of call in parental maintenance. Furthermore, a link should be established with the child, no matter whether the parent moves from benefit to work and perhaps back again. Although that is clearly not a desirable state of affairs, sadly it happens to some people. The continuity of making a payment for the child that one has brought into the world should be established and society's attitude should be changed. Again, I am paraphrasing the Under-Secretary's words. For all those reasons, extra administrative complexity was being introduced into the Bill with regard to welfare recipients, so that the link with the child could be established.
Given all those reasons, it seems extraordinary that students should not have to make a contribution. Those who go to university or become students later in life may see it as a way of getting out of making contributions to their child later, but most students are at the younger end of the age range. A student who has a child and continues to live with the other parent in a family unit would be expected to contribute to that child, perhaps by working, and to be financially responsible for him. Therefore, why should not a student make a contribution to the child if they are not living with the child? It seems illogical to say that being an absent parent and a student means that the burden of providing financial support is removed, and I believe it to be wrong. Students should be required to recognise the financial consequences of their actions, which bear most heavily on the taxpayer. In all cases where the absent parent or the parent with care does not have the financial resources to maintain the child, that child represents a huge burden on the taxpayer. The last figures that I saw showed that single parents represented a cost of some £10 billion to the Exchequer. That is a great deal of money that other taxpayers have to find.
I remind Labour Members that they introduced fees for students and abolished the maintenance grant. Part of the reasoning behind that change to student financial support was that although, under the old regime, many students were paid for almost completely courtesy of the taxpayer unless a parental contribution was required, and although some of them might have gone on to pay 40 per cent. tax later on, as a group of people they earned considerably more than their counterparts who did not go to university; their education gave them the benefit of being able to earn more money and thereby achieve a better standard of living.
If that was a relevant train of thought at the time of the introduction of student grants and the abolition of the maintenance grant, why should not the same sense of financial responsibility be required of students who father or ``mother'', for want of a better description, a child? Of course students are on a limited income and may have to take out a loan to pay their fees and maintenance, but many students work. If a student has become responsible for a child, I do not see why that responsibility should not weigh equally with their studies. Why should they not work part time to make a contribution to their child? Why should the state not expect them to make a contribution? Then it is up to them to decide whether to borrow the money and to pay it back later when they have a better job, or to work while they are a student in order to make a contribution to the child, so that the parent with care has a contribution from the absent parent. That is a matter of individual choice, but the idea that the state should not require that contribution seems bizarre.
The argument applies most strongly to students, but it also applies to prisoners. One of the Government's stated aims is to encourage more prisoners to work and to have a link with their families outside, so that when they go back into the community they do not return to the criminal ways that put them in prison in the first place. If prisoners were working or had other means of earning a living inside prison, I do not see why they could not make a contribution. Again I go back to the reasons that the Under-Secretary gave on the last amendment, when she said that there should be a link with the children and the expectation of continued financial support. Therefore, equally, I do not see why prisoners should automatically be exempt from the requirement to contribute to their child's support, even though their absence is perhaps less voluntary than other absences.
I am interested to hear how the Under-Secretary will justify the provision. It is always entertaining to listen to the Ministers and to hear their helpful remarks on the amendments that we are seeking to press or to probe. Perhaps we have persuaded them.