Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No.2) Regulations 2003

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Mr. Pond: I was sorry to hear the counsel of despair from the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), although I was not surprised. He gave the game away by suggesting that we should have a system that was tailored to the individual circumstances of each parent with care and each non-resident parent: in other words—as is the policy of his party—to move back to the old system. The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but some of his colleagues have been arguing very much that case. A system related to individual circumstances would do nothing more than replace the complexity, and therefore the hardship and heartache, that was created by the original scheme. That was cobbled together in 1993 and all of us, as members of the Committee and constituency Members of Parliament, know that it did not work properly for parents with care, for non-resident parents and, most important, for children.

There has been a good measure of agreement across the House on the direction of change. We are trying to move towards a system that is much simpler and that is, in many respects, rough justice, but which means that we can give people some certainty about the amount they will be expected to pay, if they are non-resident parents, and how much they can expect to receive, if they are parents with care. That said, we have to get from where we are to where we want to be. That is why we have developed the transitional arrangements, which were the focus of most of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I shall run through each in turn.

First, the hon. Gentleman referred to a 13-week loophole. That relates to the circumstances in which a parent with care says, ''I want nothing more to do with the Child Support Agency; I'm stepping out of the system'', but returns three months later to go straight into the new system. The length of time for which people who step out of the system and come back in will be treated as if they are still in the old system is inevitably a matter of judgment. The Government

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chose 13 weeks after substantial consideration of whether that was appropriate.

It is almost impossible for any Government to devise a system that will prevent people from stepping out of the system for some months simply to jump straight into the new system if they are prepared to do so. I suspect that the number of people who would benefit from that and therefore not be in receipt of any child maintenance for a time would be very few, but inevitably where the limit is set is a matter of judgment. We do not think that it is a loophole; we think that it is a sensible period, but as with everything else we will, of course, keep it under review.

With regard to complexity, the hon. Gentleman referred to regulation 7(5) and 7(7) and asked how many of the roughly 1 million cases would be subject to the transitional arrangements. That information is not available, but my firm guess is that we are talking about very few people overall. He suggested that it might be one in 10, but let us wait and see how many people are affected. As we move through the system, we will have a better idea of how many people are affected and how well the regulations work.

I have examples of how regulation 7(5) and 7(7) will operate. On regulation 7(7), let us consider an individual we will call David—that is a coincidence, Mr. Taylor. He pays maintenance for two children at £75 a week under the old child support scheme. His net weekly income of £300 means that his maintenance is reduced to £60 when he transfers to the new arrangements—20 per cent. of his income, because there are two children. The phasing amount is £5 a week because of his income. In the first year following transfer, David will pay a transitional amount of maintenance of £70 a week. That is the original £75 minus the £5.

However, during the first year, David's net weekly income falls to £240, and the maintenance due under the new rules is recalculated. That is the subsequent decision—to which I think the hon. Gentleman referred—to take account of the change in David's circumstances. The amount due following the change of circumstance is £48 a week. That is a reduction of £12 from the amount that David was originally calculated to pay.

The changes are being made to enable us to take full account of changes in people's circumstances as they move through the transition period. The regulations and the partial example that I just gave may sound complex to members of the Committee, but the arrangement will not be complex for the individuals concerned, who have a clear knowledge of their own financial circumstances, or for the officers in the CSA who will have to make these calculations. It will,

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however, ensure that we can take account of people's circumstances as they move through the transition period.

The hon. Gentleman made the point, as he did a year ago in a similar debate on similar regulations, that it is unrealistic to expect the CSA to spend 90 per cent. of its time enforcing the regulations rather than making assessments, which it used to do. However, the current arrangements are also complex. Our assessment is that staff can spend much more time ensuring that enforcement and compliance are a priority and much less time—inevitably, because we are talking about a straightforward formula that everyone can understand—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is indicating from a sedentary position that he wants to know the actual percentages. I am advised that it is too early to give him those percentages, but we will keep the matter under review and will share the information with him as soon as we have something reliable.

I believe that I have responded to most of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. As the Committee heard, the Conservative Opposition made no points—a sad indication of their priorities when it comes to ensuring that children receive the support they need, and, given the importance of the changes that we are discussing this afternoon, ensuring that the child support system works effectively and contributes to our objective of reducing and eliminating the number of children living in poverty.

The proposals are a sensible way forward. I commend them to the Committee, and ask it to support them.

Mr. Webb: On a point of order, Mr. Taylor. I should know the answer to this question by now, but I do not, for which I apologise. The Minister's response prompts a couple of other, brief, observations. I am not clear whether I can catch your eye for a second time, although I seek to do so if it is within the rules of the Committee.

The Chairman: I understand that the hon. Gentleman should have made the points that occurred to him in the form of supplementary questions before the Minister sat down.

Mr. Webb: Further to that point of order, Mr. Taylor. The points that I want to make arise from what the Minister said. They could not have been made in advance because I did not know what he was going to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations 2003.

Committee rose at three minutes past Three o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Taylor, David (Chairman)
Cairns, David
Etherington, Mr.
McCafferty, Chris
Moran, Margaret

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Pond, Mr.
Strang, Dr.
Stuart, Ms
Syms, Mr.
Webb, Mr.

 
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Prepared 29 October 2003