Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

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Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): On a point of clarification, can I assume that working families tax credit is also treated in the same way?

Angela Eagle: There is a 100 per cent. disregard.

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend says that there is 100 per cent. disregard in respect of child support. It is not listed in the Bill and I have just said that we have no plans at the moment to include any other benefits. We are merely providing for that power, so that nothing in the future breaks the seamless service of child support for parents with care.

Mr. Pickles: The Minister said something earlier about using this opportunity of primary legislation. He also said that there is no intention to bring in a new income-based benefit. What advantages are there? How can the service be seamless? Surely he is not suggesting that an income benefit could be introduced by secondary legislation.

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Mr. Rooker: I do not need to take advice on that. The advantage is one of administrative convenience for the Government of the day. That is the bottom line. In the past, other benefits have been included, such as disability working allowance. We have no plans to include any other benefit, but we cannot forecast the future. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar is right in that it would currently be inconceivable for a new benefit to be brought in under secondary legislation, but I cannot say that that will always be so.

It is convenient to provide for that power in case certain circumstances arise, so that the benefits to the parent with care can be maintained in a seamless service. That is important in the event of other benefits replacing income support. There may not be a new benefit, but an existing benefit may be refined. We do not plan that, but if it happened, it may be achieved in secondary legislation. If we agreed to amendment No. 120, it would not be possible to give the new benefit any designation other than income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance. It would require future Governments to stick to the exact title of an existing benefit. Even if the title were different, the benefit would remain the same, as primary legislation would be required for any changes.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Does the Minister envisage that any new benefit would be income based? The words of the clause do not suggest that.

Mr. Rooker: No. I have given an example. If the terminology of existing benefits were changed, that would cause a problem if the words specified in amendment No. 120 were removed from the Bill. Primary legislation would be required. I do not know, but I suspect that to change the titles of some benefits may not require primary legislation. I have specific instructions to say that we have no plans to designate another benefit, and I have seen no papers to say otherwise. The provision is there for convenience so as to avoid possible difficulties with primary legislation in future.

Mrs. Lait: I hope that the Minister does not feel that we are persecuting him, but we are trying to get to the root of the problem. I suspect that I know the answer to the question that I shall ask. The Bill also introduces the state second pension. I would not expect a pension to be regarded as a benefit. As I am not a lawyer, will he confirm that the second state pension—many pensioners may have to pay child support—would not be regarded as a benefit in those terms?

Mr. Rooker: No. No pension is regarded as a benefit. The basic retirement pension is not. The state second pension will be national insurance-based and contribution-based.

We do not plan a new benefit. One could be introduced under primary legislation, but its impact could come through secondary legislation. Please do not ask me to explain fully the hypothetical possibilities, as I could not do so.

Mr. Pickles: That deserves a response. I am impressed that heads are on the block over the new computer system, but it has not yet been delivered. We have all experienced the excitement of unwrapping a box, only to wonder which bits go where, so it is somehow encouraging that people involved in information technology also experience that problem, although on a grander scale.

The Chairman: Order. Can we deal with the amendment? We have dealt with the computer issue.

Mr. Pickles: I am sorry, Mr. O'Brien. I did not want to go out of order; I just wanted to say that the Government have satisfied me on that point. However, we shall come back to it in due course.

The Minister thought that I had a point, which was quite flattering. For one moment, I thought that he was about to accept my amendment.

Angela Eagle: Steady on.

Mr. Pickles: I know—I was going to sit down so that my leader and the Opposition Chief Whip could witness the event. It would have been an exciting moment.

However, the Minister's response was not entirely satisfactory. He said several things that disturbed me. First, he said that operators might be straitjacketed by a change of name. That would of course be terrible; we would not want that at all. We have experience of the Government calling a benefit by a new name. The Minister probably knows the new Labour spin doctors well, and can envisage the jobseeker's allowance, for example, emerging supposedly as something different, but actually as the same. It would be quite possible to amend primary legislation. The Minister also said that the Government may introduce a new benefit under secondary legislation, which I regard as extremely worrying. We live in a world in which secondary legislation is in many ways more important than primary legislation. If we are to ensure that provisions affecting our citizens are considered by Parliament and not introduced for administrative convenience, as the Minister suggested, the measure should be resisted.

At the start of our proceedings—this morning I got distracted by the issue of the computers and the news—I thought that the Minister would be able to satisfy me. In fact, he has made what I thought was a fairly harmless legislation seem rather sinister.

Mr. Rooker: It is my fault for thinking aloud and departing from the brief. I have nothing written down about changes in names. I am trying to think of examples, but the best explanation I can give the hon. Gentleman of why the power to prescribe other benefits is in the Bill is that it was included in the existing legislation by the previous Government. I plead guilty and admit that our reasons for wanting that flexibility are the same as those of our predecessors.

Mr. Pickles: I am beginning to feel that I am part of an honourable tradition. I get the impression that if the Minister were standing in my place, he would be saying what I am saying.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): It may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman if I give a precise example, from a slightly different context to do with social security legislation. When the previous Government introduced statutory sick pay many years ago, which replaced various elements of sickness benefit, there were many loose ends that were not covered in the primary legislation. In fact, in my previous profession I took a case to the High Court on the interpretation of one aspect of statutory sick pay as it related to the calculation of compensation in accident cases. When primary legislation is introduced it is easy occasionally to miss the odd loose end. The provision would cover such a problem.

Mr. Pickles: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman felt that his contribution was helpful, but I am not certain that it was. I do not think that the provision is a loose end—it is a catch-all. It is more than a belt and braces exercise. It is saying, ``Let us give unto ourselves a power that we may or may not need. We do not know whether we will want or need it, but gee, heck, it would just be nice to have that extra power.''

It seems incredible that we have been talking about the amendment for nearly half an hour, and I should like to move with a bit more pace. However, because the amendment is important, I should like to press it to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 13.

Division No. 5]

Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Pickles, Mr. Eric
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Swayne, Mr. Desmond

Burden, Mr. Richard
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobbin, Mr. Jim
Eagle, Angela
George, Mr. Andrew
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Mallaber, Judy
Mountford, Kali
Rooker, Mr. Jeff
Ruane, Mr. Chris
Stewart, Mr. David
Taylor, Ms Dari

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Pickles: I beg to move amendment No. 121, in page 3, line 19, leave out `may' and insert


The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 125, in page 3, line 31, leave out from `State' to `(a' in line 32 and insert

    `may only fail to take the action required of him by subsection (3) if so asked by the parent'.

No. 137, page 3, line 32, after `if', insert

    `, within 14 days of the parent receiving from the Secretary of State the notification required by subsection (4),'.

No. 138, in page 3, line 37, leave out from `(7)' to end of line.

Mr. Pickles: The amendments start from the basic premise that we support the Government's proposals, which the Committee might not have realised given the previous debate. The clause sensibly changes existing child support legislation. The amendments are designed to probe a rather murky aspect of the child support system.

Amendments Nos. 121 and 125 would extend the Government's proposals. They would reduce the parent's ability to deny information to the Secretary of State, and they would reduce the Secretary of State's discretion to take action. At first sight, that might seem strange or perverse. However, the relationship between the parent with care and the parent without care, especially in the case of a vulnerable woman and an overbearing and aggressive man, may involve threats against the mother and, possibly, the child. The family may have a history of violence. Of all the child support cases that hon. Members have experienced—I doubt whether many hon. Members have no experience—those are the most worrying and difficult. That is especially true when the relationship is not as it seems.

I recall one case in which the two parties made an attempt, without true regard for the interests of the child, to defraud the taxpayer through the CSA. They used the relationship as an excuse for the agency not to contact, assess or bother the non-resident parent, and benefits were not affected. The father and mother had an unsavoury and rather cosy relationship. He paid her considerably less than she would have received through the CSA. He able to do that because he was self-employed. He was unpleasant and physically intimidating, and she was convinced that he would be able to show the CSA that he had a very low income. She felt that she was materially better off with that arrangement, but I did not take that view, and nor, eventually, did the CSA.

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I was also struck by the report, which hon. Members will have seen, entitled ``Securing Child Support'', which was published in July 1999 by the benefit fraud inspectorate. On page 16, it states that people say that it is okay to lie to the CSA. That report was considered by the Select Committee. The amendment would ensure that it is more difficult to lie to the CSA.

Why reduce discretion? Why reduce people's ability to deny information? It is more difficult for a person—even a rational person who is bullying another—to anticipate whether information will be denied if the discretion for denial is so narrow and it is clear that the CSA will demand that the information should be made available.

We support the Government's notion that having no good cause would reduce benefit by 40 per cent., but we would prefer the Secretary of State's ability to cease acting to be curtailed. That would have the added benefit of ensuring that the aggrieved parent fully recognised that the non-resident parent could do little through physical intimidation or by being unpleasant to prevent the agency from gathering the necessary information.

We are keen that there should be no hiding place for bullies. We also want there to be no hiding places for cheats. We want to ensure that the culture that says that it is okay to lie to the CSA is well and truly smashed.

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