Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

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Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a point? I hope that I did not misunderstand him. Does he accept that some absent fathers are bullies and that they will use intimidation to get their way?

Mr. Pickles: I was not implying that: I was saying it loud and clear—and unambiguously. That is why we think that the Government's general approach in clause 3 is entirely satisfactory. That is why the amendments are merely probing; their only purpose is to put on record what is expected of the new regime with regard to disclosure. This provision is an important and wholly acceptable toughening of the law. We would be in neglect of our duty if we did not ensure that we had the benefit of the Government's thinking in Committee. I hope that we will not want to put the amendment to a vote, but that depends on what the Government have to say. We start from the basis of being supportive.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I put my name to the amendments because they were probing amendments, and I hope that the Minister's response will be robust. I see the clause as a lost opportunity. It is an admission of the failure of compliance and enforcement. In that respect, it mirrors the failure of the original reforms. Now we have an opportunity to correct that.

When Baroness Hollis spoke to the Select Committee on Social Security, she said that she wanted the proportions of the agency's resources used for calculation and enforcement to be reversed. At the moment, the vast majority of the resources go into calculation, whereas a small proportion goes on enforcement. We have previously turned a blind eye to that. The legislation sends the message that even if the parent with care has been threatened and her life made a misery, the Secretary of State may leave her alone because it would be too much trouble to do otherwise. That is a retrograde message to send, and we must deal with it.

I know of cases in which the parent with care has had a profound fear of what may happen because of disclosure. However, that is no reason for the state to stand back and let the taxpayer pay. Surely concerns must be addressed in an effective and proper system. An individual who issues threats should be pursued with a rigour and vigilance that is absent from our legislation.

Kali Mountford: I am astonished. I detect a clear message that the Opposition want to pursue even those women who suffer domestic violence—not only those who claim to suffer, but those who suffer. If I am correct, I find that quite disturbing.

Mr. Swayne: The hon. Lady has turned the world on its head. The pursuit is not of the parent with care who is under threat, but of the individual who has fathered children and now seeks to avoid his responsibility by issuing threats. She would have us accept that it is a way out of one's commitments if the threats are accepted as genuine, and nothing in the legislation states that we even have to establish that.

Kali Mountford: Has the hon. Gentleman met women, as I have many times over 25 years, who have suffered domestic violence not only for the period of a claim, but throughout a relationship? They desperately need to get away. What is his problem with such women?

Mr. Swayne: Such women have come to see me. I am not saying that those women should be pursued or their lives made miserable. I want to deal with the nature of the problem. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) knows that an incentive already exists to treat women in such a way—that is to avoid the commitment of paying maintenance. If one issues such threats and carries them out, one is less likely under the present arrangements to be pursued for maintenance by the Secretary of State. That sends a message to other such individuals to adopt that sort of behaviour.

The armoury of the agency is an additional resource. As it will no longer spend all its time making calculations, the machinery for pursuing those who issue the threats will be more effective.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): Does the hon. Gentleman expect the CSA to investigate allegations of criminal actions? What role will the police have? Who will co-ordinate investigations into such serious allegations?

Mr. Swayne: The issue before us is clause 3, and whatever the outcome, the taxpayer will continue to pay for those children who would otherwise be paid for by those absent parents who have avoided their responsibility by issuing threats. The clause should be more robust in trying to obtain the information that is required. That would have a knock-on effect on the work of other agencies such as the police.

Kali Mountford: On a point of detail, if the hon. Gentleman has known of women who have had to flee from violence, he must be aware of how horrific that experience is and why women often remain silent for some time afterwards. Would not the amendment make it more difficult for women to discuss their experiences, which would therefore put them in more danger?

Mr. Swayne: It is a probing amendment, to elicit the Government's response to the general problem. I do not dispute that Labour Members have a proper concern for individuals who withhold information because of their perception of the threat—

Kali Mountford: It is not a perception.

Mr. Swayne: Because of the reality of the threat of what would happen if they gave that information. However, the hon. Ladies are saying that we—as Members of Parliament, we represent the taxpayer, who will otherwise foot the bill—should turn a blind eye and not require that information to be divulged, and that we should simply accept the situation and not pursue parents with care who have issued such threats.

Kali Mountford: Do not we, as legislators, also have a duty of care to the parents and the children who flee the violence? If the police cannot adequately pursue those men, how can the CSA do so?

Mr. Swayne: The point, to which I have already drawn attention, is that the CSA will have an additional or spare resource to verify such claims, and perhaps provide information to the police. Otherwise, we shall be running away from the problem. The hon. Ladies have shown the reality of that problem; it is not an imagined problem. People really are under threat for giving information. It is therefore the duty of the state, and our duty as legislators, to ensure rigour in the law so that the problem can be dealt with. There is not such rigour in clause 3.

Mrs. Lait: Since the beginning of our debates about the agency, the question of domestic violence has bedevilled the enforcement of child maintenance. I, like the hon. Members for Colne Valley and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), have been involved in this matter since the days of Erin Pizzey, the Chiswick Women's Aid and the Women's Aid Federation. I have spent many hours at the women's aid refuge in my constituency, so I am only too aware of the difficulties that such women face, but I am equally aware of the difficulties that the CSA faces in ensuring that children of violent fathers are maintained.

11.15 am

The amendments are designed to tease out what enforcement procedures the Government want the CSA to put in place to ensure that proper maintenance is collected. It is extraordinarily difficult for women in violent circumstances to reveal information that they believe will prejudice their situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said, we are dealing with two different agencies—the CSA, which is trying to collect maintenance on behalf of the taxpayer and the children; and the police and social services, which are trying to deal with the dysfunctional family. Can the Minister reassure us that the CSA will take a more robust approach in establishing links with the police and social services so that sums legitimately intended for the maintenance of children can be collected without women fearing that they will be exposed to further violence? What procedures will be involved?

Mr. Pickles: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the clause represents a considerably more robust approach than the current law?

Mrs. Lait: Indeed. As my hon. Friend said in moving the amendment, we support the Government. We are trying to tease out—which, I suppose, we could have done in a clause stand part debate—the Government's approach to what instructions the CSA will be given about gaining maintenance from violent fathers and how the CSA, now that it will be able to interact with the Inland Revenue and the Benefits Agency, will also interact with the police and social services to ensure that the problems identified in cases that involve victims of domestic violence can be dealt with effectively.

Mr. Swayne: I agree that the clause is an improvement, and I congratulate the Government on it, but the problem ultimately remains that, if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the anxiety about the circumstances of the children or the parent with care is genuine, our response will be to let off a person who has made a threat. That is the nub of the problem.

Mrs. Lait: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I suspect that the comments of the hon. Members for Colne Valley and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood are more along those lines, and that the Minister will take a slightly different approach.

Mr. Rooker: I have no problem with the Opposition's probing the purpose of the clause, and I shall do my best to respond. I do not want to risk unnecessarily winding anyone up, but we are not in a private meeting. Everything that we say is written down and taken in evidence, and independent, dispassionate observers might read our proceedings and suggest to women in certain constituencies, ``I wouldn't go and see your MP after what he said in Committee, because he might not take a robust line towards your good cause arguments.'' I therefore choose my words with care. They are not directed at anyone in particular.

The CSA will not pursue the matter unless a claim is made. The point is to ensure that the mother—the parent with care is usually, although not always, the mother—makes the claim. I do not want to cite too many statistics, but in 1997, 70 per cent.—a huge proportion—of lone parents coming onto the books of the CSA were pleading good cause or, more probably, had made no contact with the agency. Changes in regard to newly claiming parents with care, such as home visits where the claim could be taken, mean that 82 per cent. of such parents now complete a child support application and provide details of the non-resident parent straight away. That is a big improvement, in a short time, even before the benefits that the provisions in the clause will create.

I think that there is a common view across the Committee that there is, or was, a big problem, as we all know from our constituents, of people pleading good cause and losing benefit. One felt bewilderment and helplessness, knowing that the mother would not receive money as she had not made a claim because she was, for all kinds of reasons, frightened to do so. I am not saying that that has been eradicated to any great extent—it has not—but the change, in less than three years, from 70 per cent. pleading good cause, not bothering with claiming or seeking to avoid the agency, to 82 per cent. now completing a claim straight away is dramatic.

It is important to address the details of the amendment. I take the point that it shifts the balance. The clause streamlines the procedure and the way in which the parent with care, claiming or receiving the two benefits previously referred to, is treated in terms of child support. The clause seeks to achieve a seamless service—to get the cash, as it were. However, we also understand that there will be circumstances—it is what one might call the footprint of human life—in which although the parent with care had not opted out when making her claim for income support, it is clear to the CSA that if maintenance were pursued, she could be at risk, especially if she lives in a women's refuge or hostel.

In those circumstances, the Secretary of State has the power under the clause not to treat the benefit claim as an application for child support, even when the parent with care has not claimed good cause. Some discretion has to be built into the system: a discretion that relies on the experience and quality of the CSA staff who, under a new regime, will have greater capacity to address such cases.

The amendment would toughen up the good cause provision by removing the Secretary of State's power not to treat the benefit claim as an application in those circumstances. Anyone who thought about that for a moment would realise that it was a mistake. Opposition Members might argue that the woman could opt out. I do not think that we can try and second-guess that; the fact is that when a woman is in a hostel or a refuge with her children, claiming income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance but not claiming the opt-out, having been through the interviews with CSA staff who realised the difficulties in the case, there must be a discretion for the Secretary of State not to pursue the matter. It cannot be right to force the Secretary of State in such circumstances, when our professional staff on the ground, having taken a claim and met the parent, are of the opinion that the mother and perhaps the children would be at risk, which is one of the reasons why we oppose amendment No. 121—in any case, a probing amendment. The wording ``may'' rather than ``shall'' will allow a degree of discretion.

Amendment No. 125 would require the Secretary of State to recover child maintenance unless the parent with care asks him not to. It would turn the current wording around and place more onus on the parent with care to opt out. In the new scheme, the Secretary of State will take action to recover child maintenance unless asked not to, but as I explained in relation to amendment No. 121, in some circumstances it will be clear to the Secretary of State that it would be harmful to pursue child maintenance on behalf of the parent with care.

Amendment No. 125 would force the Secretary of State to recover child maintenance in cases in which good cause had not been claimed and would put pressure on the parent with care to opt out in difficult circumstances. I cannot provide a complete list of circumstances, but we all live in the real world and know of relevant cases in which the parent with care needs protection against being forced into risky situation.

Amendment No. 137 would require the parent with care to notify the Secretary of State that she wants to opt out within 14 days of being told of her right to do so. That would add an extra 14 days on to the procedure. It is implicit in the clause that the parent with care made the claim when she applied for income support. We are not convinced that an extra 14 days—and according to a later amendment, notification would have to be in writing—would be reasonable. It would run against one of the overriding objectives: to get maintenance flowing as quickly as possible in appropriate circumstances.

There is merit in making it easy for the parent with care not to have to write a letter or to cogitate for 14 days. There is no subterfuge: she will be clearly informed that when the claim for income support is made, it is known that it is also a claim for child support. That would normally take place at an interview, and the parent with care and the officer dealing with her claim can discuss all the implications. It is not possible to achieve all that in writing. We all know from our surgeries that sometimes five minutes face to face is worth a 10-page letter without any margins explaining the whole case in one continuous paragraph. It can be difficult to pull out the salient fact that is needed to provide help for a constituent.

If the parent with care wants to opt out, she may give her reasons immediately, and if they are accepted the case will be closed and reviewed at a later date—not closed for ever. There will be times when the parent with care does not know whether to opt out. We can envisage bewilderment at being in this situation for the first time, following a distressing break-up, and not understanding the full consequences of the benefit system. The former partner may have left with a parting shot, perhaps a verbal threat said in the heat of the moment, and the parent with care may not know whether it is going to be a festering sore. A little time is required in such circumstances and the parent with care will be given 14 days to consider her options. However, that should not necessarily be made a requirement, as in the amendment.

In the new scheme, information will be set out in guidance. We intend to give parents with care extra time to enable them to consider all their options and seek independent advice—perhaps from a citizens advice bureau, a member of the family, a local councillor or a Member of Parliament—in order to take the best possible decision. Two weeks should be sufficient, but a statutory waiting period should not be built into every case.

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I do not know what the percentage will be, but many lone parents will have made their decision. They may have organised the break, thought it all through, discussed it secretly for months with relatives or friends and know exactly what to do. They build up their courage and know what to do. I recall a constituent telling me, ``I've learnt to speak up for myself'', having gone through years of turmoil. She became a toughie stand-alone, looking after her kids well. So we do not want to prescribe a specific period in the Bill. It all depends on the circumstances.

Amendment No. 138 relates to subsection (7), which sets out that the parent with care has to provide information for a child support assessment to be made and maintenance collected unless she has opted out. The amendment would require all parents making a claim for benefit to provide details on the non-resident parent, regardless of whether they had opted out of child support. The CSA would have to obtain information about the non-resident parent from all parents with care who made a claim for benefit. We propose, rather, that information on non-„resident parents should be requested only from parents with care for whom child support action is being taken.

Amendment No. 138 offers no advantage to children for a number of reasons. It would require all parents with care on benefit to give information to the CSA, which could not pursue child maintenance if the parent with care had asked them not to. There appears to be no point, and it would be insensitive and cause unnecessary worry, to ask parents with care who had good reasons for not claiming child support, to provide child support-related information, such as about the non-resident parent. Parents with care who do not have good cause, so on whom a reduced benefit decision has been imposed, are highly unlikely to provide any information on the non-resident parent. The amendment would mean a lot of extra work for the CSA, but to no effect.

If the CSA were successful in obtaining information from the parent with care, the fact that she had opted out of making a claim for child support would mean that the information could not be acted on by the Secretary of State as stipulated under subsection (5). One of the fundamental reasons why we are reforming the child support system is to get money flowing to more children. Amendment No. 138 would waste vital resources by forcing the CSA to chase information when it was not going to collect maintenance because a claim had not been made.

These amendments would add unnecessary delay and bureaucracy and would not help to protect vulnerable women who may genuinely fear violence from their ex-partners if the CSA pursued them for maintenance. I urge the Committee to reject them though I accept their spirit as probing amendments.

I cannot give answers—and I doubt whether any Minister can—about what will happen in individual circumstances: when, for example, good cause is given and the case is closed but will be reviewed in future; or when good cause is not given and there is a benefit slice-off. I cannot say either what actions may be taken against the person who made the threats. We all know that there have been vast improvements in the past decade in the way in which the police approach what were called domestic violence disputes. In my first decade as a Member of Parliament, the old-fashioned attitude still prevailed: ``It's domestic violence; we don't get involved.'' That is what I was told in the 1970s and early 1980s. There has been a dramatic change in the attitude of the police, but we cannot prejudge what will happen. As the hon. Member for New Forest, West said, it is right that these people ought to be pursued. They have made threats against another person that have caused that person to change their behaviour—not to make the claim—so the taxpayer has to pay out.

That problem must be set against the situation when the CSA first started. I do not make this as a partisan point of criticism of the previous Government, but the figures that I gave earlier showed that 70 per cent. of people were not providing the information, whereas today 82 per cent. of new claimants give the information straight away. The way in which the information can be given is now easier: it can be done face to face or in one's home. Also, we have had more experience. I will not go into the details, but I can recall a claim being made and information being given about the father purely because the claimant's friend had done it and there had not been a problem. As the CSA goes along, it is biting into this issue. It is becoming more unacceptable not to comply, as it has become more unacceptable to drink and drive. There has been a change in attitude—it is not done to boast about not paying for one's kids; the feeling is that one ought to pay. I do not think that that boast would now be made in male company as it would in the past.

It is right that these people should be pursued, but I do not think that we should add to the mechanism in clause 3 by prescribing actions by the police, the CSA or the parent with care, who is the vulnerable person in these circumstances. There is no question of these issues being ignored, but it would not be right to include such provisions in the Bill.

I hope that I have given the Committee a feel for how the new system will operate and add to the successes of recent years. The system creaked to start with, but it has got better as the years have gone by.

 
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