Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

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Mr. Pickles: The Minister made a very thoughtful and worthwhile contribution to this difficult subject. We could have waited and raised it on clause stand part, but as I said a couple of weeks back in the debate on the sittings motion, given that we are broadly supportive of the Government's aims, we will be tabling more than the usual number of probing amendments. These amendments have been tabled with precisely that aim.

I want our primary concern to be absolutely clear: there should be no bonus for violence. Anyone who threatens their partner or their family is despicable. The Minister was right, though: things have changed and it is not socially acceptable to use violence. I doubt that it was ever socially acceptable in decent society to use violence, but that notion is increasingly being pushed out. It is pleasing that we should take firm action. It is time that we started to treat people who prey on their former partners with threats of violence in the same way as we treat stalkers. We will be tabling amendments later on to toughen up the Bill's approach in those situations.

The Minister quoted one of his constituents as saying, ``I've learnt to speak up for myself.'' I can recall a constituent who faced this kind of problem. She said to me, ``I'm very frightened, but I'm determined not to show my fear to my children because I don't want them to live in an atmosphere of fear.'' That is why we tabled the amendments. I am pleased that the Minister thought that at least one of them was vaguely satisfactory, although he did not accept it. These probing amendments were designed to put on record the sort of comments that the Minister made in his speech. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Pickles: I beg to move amendment No. 62, in page 3, line 32, leave out `need not be' and insert

    `may only be'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 63, in page 3, line 33, at end insert

    `and the Secretary of State is satisfied on reasonable grounds that the welfare of the qualifying child or any other children of the parent with care and/or the parent with care will be prejudiced by the Secretary of State so acting.'

No. 64, in page 3, line 33, at end insert—

    `(5A) The Secretary of State may make regulations with a view to the Secretary of State being provided with the information which is required to enable him to determine whether he should accede to a request made under subsection (5) above.'.

No. 90, in clause 5, page 5, line 27, leave out `need not' and insert

    `shall'.

No. 91, in clause 5, page 5, line 27, leave out from `writing' to `; and'.

No. 140, in clause 5, page 5, line 27, leave out from `(a)' to end of line 28 and insert

    `shall make the application in writing;'.

Mr. Pickles: Amendments Nos. 90, 91 and 140 relate to clause 5, but they deal with the same problem as the others. Hon. Members will recall that I have occasionally castigated Labour for being the party of administrative convenience. Too often, we have heard the argument that we should consider the best interests of running the CSA, rather than those of the individuals concerned. It must seem strange that I have moved an amendment that essentially says ``Put it in writing.'' The Bill states that any method, including writing, may be used.

I am reminded of the problems that the Minister's predecessor faced when dealing with misinformation that the Benefits Agency provided on the state earnings-related pension scheme. That misinformation continued to be given until last July. Of course, the then Minister was forced to concede that much of the misinformation resulted from telephone conversations and verbal assurances.

Given the fact that we are dealing with public money and that people sometimes forget what they say on the phone or in other conversations, something should be put in writing. That does not mean that the person has to write a long, laborious letter; they might simply have to sign a form or a request, which would provide some certainty.

Under amendment No. 63, the Secretary of State would be required to act only with good reason. However, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) dealt with that point in the previous debate. Under amendment No. 64, the Secretary of State would be required to act only with good reason in collecting relevant information to assess whether good cause exists. There should be a permanent record when dealing with such important matters. The most convenient way of having a record would be to ensure that something is signed.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I agree with my hon. Friend that we usually want to cut bureaucracy and anything that might waste time. Most members of the Committee have probably been annoyed because they have had to put something in writing. If we want to withdraw our own money from the bank, we must provide documentary evidence. We often wish that the telephone could be used much more.

If a certain case had not been brought to my attention at my surgery, I probably would not have made this brief speech. What should have been a relatively straightforward case became very complicated. The partner without care was pursued and the case became almost unfathomable because a telephone call was made to the Child Support Agency, on which it acted, and it was later discovered that it was not the parent with care who had made the call, but somebody else. There were all sorts of problems as a result.

11.45 am

Will the Government take into account how easily that can happen? I cannot imagine why anyone should want to make a telephone call pretending to be the parent with care, but where family breakdown is involved matters are inevitably complicated and such things do happen. I was spurred to make this contribution because of that particularly painful case.

Members of Parliament quite often deal with the Benefits Agency or the Inland Revenue on behalf of their constituents, and those bodies will provide little, if any, information unless there is something in writing. That seems to be a reasonable precedent. When the Secretary of State does not act, as is covered by our proposal in amendment No. 63, it should only be because the welfare of the child is concerned, not for convenience.

Angela Eagle: The amendments cover much the same ground as the previous group, so I do not intend to go over them in as much detail as I might have done. We need to bear in mind the changes to the current system that are implicit in the clause and the implications that they may have for women who want to claim good cause.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said in response to the previous group of amendments, we are changing and toughening up the approach to claiming child maintenance by asking parents with care deliberately to opt out of making a claim for child support, rather than to opt in. As he pointed out, through administrative action we have reduced the 70 per cent. of parents with care who were claiming good cause in 1997 to 18 per cent. During a series of home visits we look at how we can combine the income support and child maintenance claims to get everything sorted out at once, in keeping with our view of how we want the benefit and welfare systems to go.

We are currently trialling that in the ONE pilots, which are an attempt to get everything sorted out in one place at the same time so that the administration can then be undertaken. The changes in the clause bring child support into line with those pilots. To date, our pilots have had a dramatic effect on the number of women who either opt out completely or claim good cause.

Both parents have a responsibility to support their children. The new rules are meant to send a clear signal to them that maintenance is not an optional extra but something for which we expect them to apply unless there are significant reasons of good cause to exempt them from that responsibility, such as those that we talked about on the previous group of amendments.

The new procedure will allow for a more streamlined and client-focused service to enable maintenance to be put into effect and get it flowing more quickly.

Mrs. Lait: I suspect that this is an administrative question rather than one of policy. Is the Minister saying that the combined application for income support plus child support would in effect be the written application that is proposed in the amendment? Would signing the document to claim income support record the application or the opt-out from child support?

Angela Eagle: If the hon. Lady thinks about it the answer must be yes. Once we have the two things properly in kilter, an income support application will go alongside a simultaneous application for child maintenance, unless the parent with care has significant reasons of good cause for opting out of applying for child maintenance. Under the present system, she has to opt in.

Mrs. Lait: Following on from that, if the parent with care opts out of child support, is there somewhere on the form to sign to say that she is opting out? Or would that be left blank?

Angela Eagle: I am not certain that the forms have been designed. We have been trialling prototypes in various places. That has helped us to obtain the results that my hon. Friend put before the Committee. We have reduced good cause by administrative action and by explaining things more carefully to parents with care at the point of claim. However, I have no exact view in my mind about how the form will look. Clearly there has to be an administrative way for a parent with care to claim good cause and opt out and I would have thought that that would be done by signing the form.

The initial approach will have to be signed for and we do not want to change that. However, some parents with care who may still want to use the CSA may not be on benefit, and we have to go through all of the permutations of who may arrive. We are talking in the opt-in context only of those who have an appropriate benefit to claim. There will be different systems which may well involve the telephone for people pursuing private cases who are using the collection services of the CSA.

 
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