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21 Oct 2002 : Column 17—continued

Child Support Agency

13. Bob Russell (Colchester): What procedures are undertaken by the Child Support Agency to check the

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accuracy of declarations of income by absentee fathers who employ accountants or other financialadvisers. [73072]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): All declarations of income are checked to verify their accuracy before child maintenance is calculated, where possible. The procedure does not differ if a non-resident parent employs an accountant or financial adviser. An accountant or financial adviser may be one of the third parties with whom information is verified.

Bob Russell : It does not take Sherlock Holmes to work out that if a rich father employs accountants or financial advisers to produce figures that indicate that he does not have the financial wherewithal to pay maintenance to his children, there is a possibility that some fiddles will be going on. Where financial advisers and accountants are employed to suggest that a father cannot afford to pay maintenance for his children, surely there should be another system to check whether something may be wrong?

Malcolm Wicks: All of us in our constituencies have come across cases of that kind, which have raised our suspicions. I recognise the importance of the question, but since 1999 the Child Support Agency has had powers that align with those of the Inland Revenue. That means that an inspector may call at any premises where he or she believes relevant information is held. The CSA and Inland Revenue can share information such as self-assessment returns. We may interview other people, such as accountants. We are determined that where someone parents a child, either as a mother or father, they support that child financially. We have new powers to do that and we are determined to implement those powers.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Is my hon. Friend aware that only two thirds of the families who apply for maintenance through the Child Support Agency receive such benefit? Clearly, the point raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) can be a factor in that. What is his Department doing to ensure that the Child Support Agency meets its commitments? The aim is to keep children out of poverty, but clearly, with a third of families not receiving maintenance, more children are forced into poverty.

Malcolm Wicks: Family insecurity is now as important as economic insecurity as a force for poverty and disadvantage. We have new policies on child support, which we aim to implement as soon as possible. We are driving up the rate of payment—in terms of the cash that is now due, some 70 per cent. or more of maintenance is now paid. There remain some non-resident parents or absent fathers, however—perhaps 30 per cent.—who are not paying maintenance. The purpose of our new reforms is to spend less time on complicated assessment, in a move towards simplicity, and more time on enforcement. It is crucial that we undertake that as soon as possible.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): Is not the reality that, although the CSA is relatively good at

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recovering maintenance from PAYE people, as soon as a father submits any other kind of accounts or any other information that is in any way out of the ordinary, the CSA takes one look at it, gives up and goes home? If it cannot enforce payment in unusual circumstances, will the Minister consider subcontracting such work to professionals who might take a more determined, robust and forensic approach? At the moment, many women are being failed by the bureaucratic, inexperienced and toothless way in which the CSA operates.

Malcolm Wicks: I do not think that that is an appropriate comment on our hard-working officials who do a very difficult job in sometimes very difficult circumstances in the Child Support Agency. If I may say so, it was not a nice comment. Under the new reforms, which we hope to implement as soon as possible, we will put much more emphasis on enforcement, as I indicated. It is right and proper that everyone who fathers a child should maintain that child financially, regardless of their social position and of what sophisticated employees, including accountants, are working for them.

Benefit Take-up

14. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): What assessment she has made of the role of the new pension centres in increasing benefit take-up. [73073]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We are leading a fundamental overhaul of the welfare system, transforming it from a mainly passive organisation paying out benefits to an active system that fights poverty. The pension service will encourage people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled, create opportunity and help people to be self-sufficient and independent. To assist in that process, we have established three pension centres in Scotland, located in Motherwell, Dundee and Glasgow. As a result, approximately 800 new jobs are being created in Scotland.

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Mr. David Stewart : I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. I recently visited Burnley pension centre, and was very impressed by the quality of the staff and the effectiveness of the service. Surely, however, the acid test is how effective the centres will be in maximising take-up by pensioners, particularly of the minimum income guarantee.

Maria Eagle: Unlike the previous Government, we are committed to ensuring that those who are entitled to benefit and pensions receive them in full rather than putting them off. Three quarters of retirement pension claims are already made on the telephone, and the fact that our services will be much more accessible will help enormously. In addition, our people are better trained, our systems will enable us to have trigger questions to identify possible entitlement, and we will be out there searching to ensure that people who contact us receive their full entitlement. It will be easier to contact us, and we will therefore make sure that more people receive their proper entitlement.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Since phone calls from the south-east will often be answered in Scotland, as the Under-Secretary said, what assurance can she give my ethnic minority constituents—those born in Pakistan or Kashmir or their descendants—that their calls will be understood?

Maria Eagle: Generally, it is perfectly possible for members of the public to understand our Scottish staff. The hon. Gentleman has a particular concern about ethnic minority constituents, but a translation service is offered and his constituents will be able to access our services in the language in which they are happiest. He should not have any concerns that his constituents will be unable to contact the service or to get advice in the language in which they are happiest. Our Scottish staff are perfectly capable of communicating with anybody in this country.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker: Perhaps I can now communicate; I call the Foreign Secretary.

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3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the terrorist attack in Bali on Saturday 12 October.

In his statement to the House on Tuesday last, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the circumstances as we knew them about the attack and its consequences. The most up-to-date information is this. In total, more than 180 people of many nationalities are thought to have died in the attack. Of these, at least half were Australian. Many Indonesians died. Of the British citizens caught up in the blast, 11 are now confirmed as dead, and a further 22 are missing; sadly, presumed to be dead. At least 27 British citizens were injured, a number of whom have been medevaced to Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. There may be other British injured among the unidentified in intensive care in Australia.

The House joined the Prime Minister last week in sending its deepest sympathies to the relatives of the victims. It is every parent's worst nightmare to hear that their sons and daughters have been swept up in a tragedy. But when bereavement is compounded by having to travel halfway across the world to identify loved ones, the experience must be truly unimaginable.

Yesterday we joined with the people of Australia, who held a day of national mourning for this, the worst terrorist outrage in that country's history. Flags were flown at half-mast at Buckingham palace and at our embassies and high commissions around the world. The Australian high commission is arranging a memorial service in St Paul's cathedral here in the city of London on 25 October. Tomorrow, the Indonesian embassy will be holding a multi-faith commemorative ceremony in London, which I shall be attending. The British Government will organise a British memorial service. We shall be consulting the families about what they think would be most appropriate.

Let me now update the House on the action that we have taken to assist those injured and the relatives and close friends of all who were victims in this atrocity. The British honorary consulate in Bali provided the initial assistance to survivors of the attacks and to victims' relatives. This was reinforced early on Sunday 13 October by the British consul and then by the ambassador, Richard Gozney, other staff and volunteers from the British community in Bali. These staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly and I pay my tribute to them.

However, on Thursday last, I learned of complaints by some families that they had not received the service that we should have provided. I asked the Foreign Office Minister, my noble Friend Baroness Amos, who was already travelling to Bali, to talk to all the families concerned and to make her own assessment about the complaints. In the light of this, my noble Friend apologised directly to the families concerned. I reinforced that apology on Friday last and, Mr. Speaker, I would like to repeat it in the House. I am very sorry that shortcomings in getting sufficient extra staff on the ground in Bali early enough last week exacerbated the terrible burden that the families were under in any event.

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As of today, there are 15 British officials in Bali, and 30 British police officers, including experienced family liaison officers and anti-terrorist experts working with the Indonesian and Australian police on the investigation into the attack itself. In London, the emergency consular unit was established overnight on Saturday 12 October and, working with New Scotland Yard, has continued in operation.

Last Wednesday, I announced a package of measures designed to help relatives to travel to where their loved ones were being treated, or to where victims had died. The scheme—similar to that put in place after 11 September last year—covers the repatriation of the remains of those who died, and the medical evacuation of the injured. The FCO will pay the costs concerned wherever an insurance policy does not already cover them. I decided on these exceptional measures because of the exceptional nature of terrorism, in which individuals are random victims of attacks directed at society as a whole. As for the future, we shall work urgently with the insurance industry and others to see how between us we can ensure that the pain of victims of terrorism is not made worse by financial hardship.

Immediately after the Bali attack, we advised against all travel to Bali and all non-essential travel elsewhere in Indonesia. On 17 October I announced a further strengthening of our travel advice, warning against any travel to Indonesia as a whole. I also advised UK citizens in Indonesia to consider leaving if their presence was not essential, and authorised the withdrawal of some dependants and non-essential staff from our embassy in Jakarta. On 18 October, we amended our travel advice to other countries in south-east Asia, urging UK nationals to exercise extreme caution. Unfortunately, further attacks cannot be ruled out. In the light of additional intelligence assessed this morning, I am strengthening the travel advice still further by giving additional warnings about threats to UK nationals at specific locations in Indonesia. That travel advice is being issued now and is available on the Foreign Office's website.

I am placing in the Library of the House the travel advice issued by the FCO and the British embassy in Jakarta in respect of Indonesia before 12 October, and the equivalent advice issued by the United States and Australian Governments. Many of the relevant judgments in travel advice of this kind are based on intelligence. In the light of the atrocity on 12 October, the families and others have asked whether there was any intelligence that could have led us to issue specific warnings against travel to, or staying in, Bali. If I had lost a member of my family, I would be asking such questions. Indeed as Foreign Secretary, it is my responsibility to ask such questions.

Like everyone else, I dearly wish that there had been intelligence, which could have prevented this atrocity and its appalling consequences. But the answer, sadly, is that there was none. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House last Tuesday,

As is now well known, it is the case that there was received in late September a generic threat to a number of cities and provinces in Indonesia, including Bali but covering 55 per cent. of the land mass of Indonesia and

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100 million of its population. As my Australian counterpart Alexander Downer told the Australian Parliament on 17 October, these threats

There has also been a question raised about the travel advisory issued by the United States Department of State on 10 October. Let me explain to the House what this was. That advisory was a Xworld-wide caution" of a kind first issued by the US after 11 September last year. It alerted US citizens to the need to remain vigilant in the face of terrorist threats. It was revised on 10 October following an audio tape broadcast attributed to Osama Bin Laden. Issued only two days before the attack in Bali, it contained no reference to Bali, Indonesia or even south-east Asia. We also received a classified warning from the United States on the same day. It too had no reference to Bali, Indonesia or south-east Asia. As our travel advice to Indonesia, last updated on 27 August 2002, already contained a clear warning to travellers to Indonesia about terrorist threats, we judged that there was no case for amending it further in the light of the United States' travel advisory.

The United States, Australia and the United Kingdom all received similar intelligence in respect of Indonesia, but making their own independent judgments, all came to similar conclusions about travel to Indonesia. None of us had concluded that it was unsafe to travel to or remain in Bali. Both as Home Secretary and now as Foreign Secretary I have worked closely over the last five and a half years with all three of our intelligence services. Their standard of professionalism and competence is second to none. Each year they pick up literally thousands of pieces of intelligence. These vary between material provided by human sources, material provided by secret technical means, material openly available to the public, and sometimes just gossip.

Terrorist groups operate in secret. They are often skilled in counter-intelligence techniques, and may be feeding false intelligence to compromise an intelligence source or to direct law enforcement resources to the wrong place, so the raw intelligence has to be skilfully and carefully assessed before judgments can be made upon it. I believe, on the basis of what I have seen, that correct judgments were made about the available streams of intelligence before 12 October. There were generic threats, but there was no information that could have enabled us to warn in advance of this atrocity.

I do not want the relatives of those who died in this atrocity, nor those injured, to have nagging anxieties about whether different judgments should have been made. The Intelligence and Security Committee was established by Act of this Parliament to scrutinise the work of our intelligence agencies. Through the Prime Minister, it reports regularly to Parliament. It is made up of senior and respected Members of both Houses. It happens that the Intelligence and Security Committee is at present in Australia on a long-planned trip, and this morning I spoke to the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor),who had just arrived in Canberra. I told her that I had asked the intelligence co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office to ensure that all intelligence was made available to her Committee. The ISC will of course consider that and then reach its own conclusions on it.

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The atrocity in Bali was a brutal reminder that the campaign against terrorism did not end with the removal of the Taliban. The reality is that our campaign will take years, perhaps even decades. In Indonesia, our immediate aim is to help the Indonesian Government act quickly to deal with the terrorist threat. We are already discussing how we can help through an intensified programme of counter-terrorist assistance. My noble Friend Baroness Amos and the British ambassador met President Megawati this morning in Jakarta. My noble Friend was assured by the President that the Indonesian Government were determined to take swift and decisive action against those responsible for the attacks. President Megawati has already signed an emergency decree strengthening police powers to detain suspects and to enable the courts to make use of intelligence. The Indonesian authorities have also taken action against known extremist groups. On 19 October they arrested the founder of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abubakar Bashir.

The terrorists' aim is to defeat the universal values of the United Nations, of tolerance, freedom and respect for human life, and replace them with brutality, fear and ethnic and religious hatred. I believe that the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, captured the international mood when he called on the world to pursue the campaign against terrorism with Xunrelenting vigour". Today our grief at what happened is enormous, but our determination is unwavering.

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