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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): Assessing liability will be simpler under the new scheme, so a higher proportion of the agency's time will be spent on enforcement. Changes to legislation since January 2001 have enhanced the CSA's powers to recover sums due. For example, non-resident parents now face a penalty of up to £1,000 for refusing to co-operate.
Mr. Edwards: I thank my right hon. Friend and congratulate the Government on certain changes that are being made. Does he agree, however, that it is disgraceful that certain self-employed fathers can escape their responsibilities to the Child Support Agency and to their children? I draw to his attention the case of Mr. Julian Barnes, who has made not one child maintenance payment to his former partner, Elaine Lanchbury, in seven years, and to that of Mr. Alan Shinton, who was recently assessed and ordered to pay the CSA £19,295.19. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people who are responsible for bringing children into this world must be responsible for their upbringing? Will every effort be made to make these parents maintain their responsibilities?
Mr. Darling: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Responsibility for maintaining children rests with the parents of those children. When we talk about the Child Support Agency, we should never forget that we are talking about making sure that money goes to support children. That is sometimes overlooked by some of the parties involved.
In relation to the self-employed, my hon. Friend is right to say that, in the past, too many such individuals have managed to escape an award being made and enforced, simply by refusing to hand over information. As a result
Under the new system, which I want to introduce as quickly as possible, the agency will be able to put the calculation of maintenance in place more quickly, and to get payments made without the delay that is unfortunately characteristic of the present system. The situation will improve and, once the new system is in place, it should do so quite dramatically.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I echo the words of the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), but will the Secretary of State's new assessment regulations cover the unacceptable situation, which I suspect all hon. Members have in their case files, of a self-employed man who deserts his wife or partner, leaving the children, and then claims that his income is a quarter of the actual amount? Although I agree that it is difficult for the CSA to find out the exact position, should not there be some system under which the burden of proof falls on the deserting father, rather than his wife having to prove that he is earning much more than he claims?
Mr. Darling: One reason why we took additional powers was to enable the CSA to access the records lodged with the Inland Revenue. It was very difficult to do so in the past. I am sorry that some Conservative Members opposed that measure when it went through the Commons. It is right that we should be able to access information held by the Inland Revenue. Very often, we found that people would not tell the CSA about their income, but that the Inland Revenue knew of it. We are keeping all those matters under review. The key must be to ensure that the money due to the child of that self-employed personit is not for the benefit of the former spouse or partneris paid, and as quickly as possible.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), but may I draw to the Secretary of State's attention a case that has led to arrears for one of my constituents of £30,000? A woman with three children has not received a penny from her ex-partner. She has been to an appeals tribunal twice and won twice. Her ex-partner has been found guilty of diverting his income, yet nothing has happened. Such situations are atrocious, and even something as simple as removing an individual's driving licence would clearly help. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should put more pressure on some of these absent parents?
Mr. Darling: The common theme of all three questions is that the agency should spend more time on enforcement. I wholeheartedly agree. The problem under the present system is that too much time goes into calculating what is due. The key is to make the calculation quickly and then to spend more time on enforcement. My hon. Friend will know that we took powers two years ago
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): Can the Secretary of State give any comfort to the many mothers who are owed excessive amounts by announcing a time scale for change in the current system? In my constituency, one parent is owed in excess of £15,000 by a husband who is apparently living the high life.
Mr. Darling: As the agency improves its performance in calculation and compliance, more effort is going into recovering sums due. As I told the House in March, until I am satisfied that the new computer network that is necessary to operate the new system of child support is operating effectively and acceptably, I am not prepared to authorise my officials to commission it. I hope to be able to tell the House something in the not too distant future. I am pleased to say that testing has continued and that good progress is being made. As soon as I am satisfied that the system will operate in the way intended, I will let the House know and, as I undertook to hon. Members,I will give sufficient notice in advance of its introduction so that all concerned can prepare for it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Stakeholder pensions have made an encouraging start, and figures from the Association of British Insurers show that about 815,000 had been bought up to the end of March 2002. They have also had a wider beneficial effect on pension provision, helping to drive down other personal pension charges and stimulating the provision of personal pensions. Everyone now has access to a good-value pension arrangement. That is all good news for consumers.
Ms Prentice: While I appreciate my hon. Friend's reply, two things concern me. The first is the suggestion from the Financial Services Authority that there should be compulsion on private pensions and the second is the report published today that says that a number of private pension companies are apparently unaware that we are all living longer thanks to wonderful advances in medical science and our health service. Does she have any comment on compulsion in pensions and what has she to say to encourage people to take up stakeholder pensions, given their success so far?
Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right that there has been discussion around and about in the pensions industry on whether there should be compulsion. Opposition Members have raised the issue in debates, as have my hon. Friends occasionally. The Government have no plans to make it compulsory for employers to contribute to their work force's stakeholder pensions. In respect of living longer,
The fact that we now have a low-cost simple vehicle that people can save into helps to ensure that they can make proper provision for their old age. People now live longer in retirement, so it becomes all the more important that they make proper provision during their working lives to enable them to enjoy their retirement with an adequate pension. In that respect, the stakeholder pension is important. The value of new regular pension premiums rose by 52 per cent. in 2001. That is due in part to stakeholder pensionsI am not going to say that it is all due to themand it shows that when people are provided with simple low-cost vehicles that they can save into for their retirement, they start to do so. Members on both sides of the House should welcome and encourage that, and I hope they all do.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I am in favour of increased life expectancy, having reached an age when mortality becomes all the more apparent. My hon. Friend will have seen the weekend reports that private pensions are not worth while for those on average or lower incomes. She will also be aware, as we all are, of the deterioration in employee occupational pensions. Is it not time for the Government seriously to consider a substantial increase in the basic state pension, funded by compulsory savings from employees and compulsory larger contributions from employers?
Maria Eagle: First and foremost, my hon. Friend is looking particularly well this afternoon, even if he is feeling mortality closing in on him. On his points about the basic state pension, Government policy in respect of the balance between state pensions and private provision is clear and he will have heard it discussed during debates on the State Pension Credit Bill. We believe that the balance is about right. We all recognise the fact that the key to ensuring that people have enough money to lead a pleasant and well-provided old age is a mix between private and public pensions. We must encourage people to save, where they are able to do so, into a good private pension, and that is what we intend to do.