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Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Is the indication in Sir David’s report of possibly
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reaching a maintenance figure of 1.75 million children, most of whom live in poverty, as distinct from the 1.1 million currently reached, to be a Government target? If so, when can we expect it to be reached? In addition, will there be recruitment to the new agency or new organisation that replaces the CSA? If so, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government do their best to ensure that recruitment to those employee levels in Northern Ireland reflects the community, unlike the situation in the recent past?

Mr. Hutton: We are not planning any immediate changes to the targets that we set for the CSA. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and which Sir David mentions, are the likely consequences of moving to the new arrangement once we have passed primary legislation and established the changes. It is too early for me to say whether we will then want to set a target along the lines set out in Sir David Henshaw’s report. There is an ongoing process across government whereby public agencies sign up to agreements and targets.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s final point about recruitment, with the greatest respect, it is too early to be clear about all the details. Clearly, if the CSA is in the business of recruiting to the new organisation, that recruitment must be ethical, legal, fair and balanced across the United Kingdom, and it will be.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I congratulate the Minister on being bold, because it is often difficult for a Government to admit that they have perhaps been throwing good money after bad and to conclude that the time has come to draw a line and start afresh. That was certainly the conclusion to which the Select Committee came: it was a failing agency and something radical and different had to be done—so well done on that. However, does my right hon. Friend have any advice for non-resident parents who on hearing the statement today and as a result of some of the headlines may think that there is no Child Support Agency and that therefore they have no responsibility for their children in the interim, and might be tempted to stop paying?

Mr. Hutton: I have one very clear message: the law will be enforced. That is why we are taking new and additional powers. We are investing more in the organisational improvement programme to speed further the recovery of unpaid maintenance. I want non-resident parents to hear today the very important message that, until we make the changes, the current law will be enforced rigorously and effectively. As I said, we will throw the book at people who are holding up two fingers to society and their families in not discharging their financial responsibilities.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): The CSA has been particularly hopeless in dealing with the cases of self-employed fathers who seem to manage to live extremely well on negligible incomes and who change some minor aspect of their affairs when they are in danger of being caught up with in order to be put back to the bottom of the heap. I am sure we all have experience of that. Is the Secretary of State confident that his new system will be able to deal with that problem?

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Mr. Hutton: I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman and his knowledge of these matters. Sir David Henshaw did not make any specific proposals on the treatment of self-employed people, but I have a strong feeling that we shall have to return to that matter when the primary legislation is introduced in the House at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that when the Tory Prime Minister of the day, John Major, introduced the scheme he was at the same time toying with the idea, which he carried through, of the traffic cone hotline? Will he also confirm that we used to have large lobbies of people outside the House of Commons? One day it was against the CSA; I went out the following day and asked the policeman on guard, “Who’s this lobby, then?” He said, “This is the police against the CSA.” It was at that point that I realised that it was time the agency was scrapped, and my friend Bob Cryer and I voted to scrap it. It is interesting to note that the Liberal leadership were not with us.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mike Weir.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): As a former solicitor, I cannot help feeling that we are going back to the system prior to the CSA. None the less, subject to the details of this step in the right direction, we welcome the statement. We are concerned that there is no automatic transfer to the new agency and fear that there may be pressure to start some cases again from scratch. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that there will be no delay in dealing with new cases? Who will decide what is a perfectly satisfactory private arrangement, and will it be as enforceable as an old court decree used to be?

Mr. Hutton: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are not returning to the previous CSA arrangement, where exclusive responsibility resided with the courts to recover maintenance. That is definitely not what Sir David is recommending and not what we are proposing today. On maintenance agreements, it will be for the parents to reach their own agreement on what they feel is appropriate in the case of their separation and family situation, but if they cannot reach an agreement or the agreement breaks down, it will be the responsibility under the new arrangements of the CSA to step in and to enforce the agreement according to the proper formula in statute. We are mindful of the need to ensure that there is no abuse of women in particular and of parents with care in those arrangements, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for indicating in principle his support for the direction of travel.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): One or two hon. Members have talked about the new system being deluged, but I do not think that will happen. Those who were failed by the first system and then failed to migrate to the replacement system will think twice before jumping on board any new system until it has had time to prove itself and if by then they are within two or three years of finishing with the CSA, perhaps they will not even apply at all. They want proper, objective assessment and robust enforcement, and
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once that has been proved over a period of time there will be voluntary transfer from the old system to the new.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. On his latter point, I can confirm that we want the system to be robust, and we want people to know that the CSA will be a serious enforcer of parental responsibilities. That is not how people view the current arrangements, and it is that fundamental perception, and indeed the reality of the present situation, that we have to change. The proposals will help us to do so.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that three systems will be used to manage child support payments? As single parents make the depressing choice to go back to square one and reapply under the new system, at what stage will the Government close down the old systems on which so few people are left? Have the Government assessed how many people will choose to go on to the new system and to go back to square one and reapply?

Mr. Hutton: I know that the hon. Lady is a member of the Select Committee but, in fact, there are three systems now in operation: the old scheme, the new scheme, and the hybrid scheme for cases with which the IT cannot cope, so we have to deal with them manually. In future, there will be one scheme, not three, once we make the changes. That will significantly increase people’s understanding of the system and its clarity. She asked me for a specific figure, but I cannot give one today; we have to undertake work before the publication of the White Paper, but when we produce it in the autumn, I hope that it will deal specifically with those issues. In the meantime, Sir David Henshaw will continue to work with us to make sure that we get the operational design of the new system right, and I am very grateful to him for that. I hope that she will find the answers that she is looking for in the White Paper.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): May I particularly commend the steps to encourage voluntary agreements between parents? Will my right hon. Friend set out in more detail the measures that he has in mind, including advice and other services for parents? Will he bear in mind, too, the durability of such agreements, in the face of the evidence of fractured relationships, and changed and new relationships that establish completely different household incomes, and that require a complete reassessment?

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sir David has recommended that the CSA of the future develop more of an advisory and help and support role for couples who are splitting up and for families in those circumstances. It is important for those people to be given proper financial advice. On my hon. Friend’s latter point, the way forward that Sir David identified will be partly through the more generous maintenance disregard, which he believes—and I think that he is right—will encourage and incentivise more sustainable and durable financial agreements between separating couples. That is the
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direction of travel that Sir David believes it is right to follow, and he is absolutely right.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I think that members of the Select Committee on both sides of the House are pleased that the Government are finally addressing the crisis in the Child Support Agency. I am concerned about two issues: first, the extent to which the Government failed to address the amount of debt that they must write off for the CSA; and, secondly, the apparent inconsistency between increasing voluntary arrangements—I think that everybody would support that—and the proposal to start charging parents who have to use the new CSA replacement. Aside from the fact that the modest incentive of avoiding a charge might encourage voluntary arrangements—that I can understand—will the Secretary of State explain how parents who are not prepared to accept a voluntary arrangement, and their children, will benefit if the parents are charged to use the service?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s overall support. On debt, which I covered in my statement, we would need primary legislation for any debt write-off, and we are still looking into that. In the meantime, we are investing significantly more in the current operation, so that we can use more specialist debt recovery and debt enforcement agencies, mainly in the private sector, to recover more of the debt. That is beginning to produce results. On charging, I am not thinking of charging the mother but the non-resident parent who is failing to comply with the obligation to pay maintenance. It is important that we do not penalise the parent with care in those circumstances. The details of the charging regime will be set out in due course.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): In the context of his welcome new proposals, can my right hon. Friend say how he foresees new family relationships being dealt with? I have often found that the objections to the CSA proposals and the pursuit of absent fathers come from mothers in a new relationship and the impact that the payments have on the family income.

Mr. Hutton: That is getting us into complicated sets of issues to do with relationships between separating couples and their new families. It is work that will need to be examined in the context of the White Paper. We need to look in particular at Sir David Henshaw’s proposals to develop the new advice, guidance and support service for the CSA.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The Secretary of State rightly said that the proposals would take time, and in the meantime the law will be enforced. Has he any interim proposals to improve the operational ability of the CSA to ensure that the 300,000 claimants are dealt with much more quickly?

Mr. Hutton: Yes. We published the details of those plans in February and I will happily send a copy to the hon. Gentleman.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Any of us who have struggled with the CSA will welcome my right hon.
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Friend’s statement. Does he agree that unless we can deal with people who can make a modicum of change in their financial arrangements—that is, if they are self-employed or if they have a sympathetic employer—the enforcement powers included in his statement will not be worth the paper they are written on? May I urge him to test his enforcement powers against some of those cases? If he would like a few case histories, I am prepared to provide some from my constituency. The CSA fell down most in that respect and we must get it right now.

Mr. Hutton: We could probably all add to my hon. Friend’s list of cases where we have seen the system fail. We must develop the proposals for primary legislation at the earliest opportunity—in the next Session of Parliament, I hope. My hon. Friend and others will then be able to judge whether the strengthened enforcement powers, which I would very much like to be available to the current CSA ahead of any change, are worth the paper they are written on. I will not waste the time of the House with powers and new enforcement roles that I do not believe will make a ha’p’orth of difference. I believe the new powers will make a difference, and as I said to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) earlier, we must look again at how self-employed people are treated under the current rules.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Notwithstanding the understandable nervousness of the Secretary of State about linking contact and financial support, have the Government recognised the practical advantages of deciding issues of financial support within the same framework as issues of contact and residence when, after all, members of the family are deciding all matters in relation to the future of the family?

Mr. Hutton: That sounds to me like a request that we go back to the courts having primary responsibility for dealing with these matters. I see that the hon. Gentleman is agreeing with me. That is not what Sir David Henshaw is recommending and it is not what the Government believe to be the right way forward. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are proposals before the House to re-examine the matter of contact orders. That legislation is still progressing, and I am sure he will have the opportunity to make such comments in that regard.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on grasping the
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nettle and appreciating at last that tinkering with Tory failure will seldom produce an outcome. My constituents who run the CSA in Hastings—the many hundreds there—will be worried, as my colleagues have said. When will my right hon. Friend be able to say what the alternative will be, where it will be carried out and when their jobs can be made secure?

Mr. Hutton: I hope and intend to set out the details of that in the White Paper in the autumn. I have been to Hastings and met many of my hon. Friend’s constituents. They are doing a very good job in difficult circumstances. I do not want to add to the difficulties that the agency is experiencing, but we need to spend the next few weeks getting it clear with the staff, the management and others how the new arrangements will work. That will be time well spent, but there will be full and proper consultation with all the relevant trade unions.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): When parents separate, it is often difficult to come to voluntary agreements because the professional organisations that they go to, such as solicitors, are confrontational, rather than helping them to come to an agreement. Will the Secretary of State consider giving some funding to organisations such as Relate and Citizens Advice to help set up volunteer but trained mediation services to help parents who might want to reach a voluntary agreement at that time to find the mechanism, skills and process by which they could come to such an agreement that would stick?

Mr. Hutton: I am interested in exploring all those options. They are primarily matters for the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, but we will need to look at that in more detail as we prepare the White Paper.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making such a bold step forward after so much of a problem, which we have all faced as constituency Members. Given the rigidity of the current system, whereby individuals who work so hard for the CSA basically operate within boxes and anything outwith the parameter of the box is a nightmare for them to cope with, can he assure the House today that the new system will have flexibility, and that common sense will prevail in running the system?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, that is very much what we would like.

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Point of Order

4.30 pm

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 25 July 2005, I wrote to a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about an issue that is of great concern to a number of my constituents. Last week, on 19 July, I received a reply. The earth has done a complete orbit of the sun in the time that it has taken for my reply to arrive. I know that as the summer recess is about to begin this is a difficult time to raise this point of order, but would you, Mr. Speaker, use your good offices to explain to Departments how embarrassing it is for Members to have to write repeatedly to constituents to apologise for not having received a reply over such a long period?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady is very lucky that she got a reply. Many hon. Members have told me in points of order that they have not received a reply. I do not know the quality of the hon. Lady’s reply, but I hope that it was good. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that it was not. I can tell her that the Leader of the House and I are working closely to try to improve the time that replies to questions take so that Members receive them within a reasonable period. I hope that after the recess things will improve, and that that will help the hon. Lady’s constituents.

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Orders of the Day

Welfare Reform Bill

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 616, on Incapacity Benefits and Pathways to Work, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6861.]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The reforms in the Bill set a new direction of travel for our welfare system. They are underpinned by a belief in an active enabling welfare state that sees tackling poverty and social exclusion as its central mission, with no one left behind and no one written off. The Bill therefore marks a major shift away from the established orthodoxy of welfare provision in our country, which has always treated functional limitations as automatically disqualifying people from the world of work. That is based on a flawed analysis of the nature of disability and the rights of disabled people, and it is time we changed it.

The Bill before us today therefore signals a new approach. It offers new support in return for new obligations for people to help themselves, and it delivers on our manifesto commitment to reform incapacity benefits while ensuring security for those who cannot work. Together with the wider welfare measures set out in our Green Paper, the Bill continues a process of reform that has sought to lock in the right set of values: of universality and opportunity; of security and equity; of fairness and due process— values that stretch back to Beveridge—under which the right to work is fundamental in tackling poverty and building aspiration for everyone in our society.

When we came to office nearly 6 million people in Britain were dependent on benefits. Between 1979 and 1997 unemployment went up by 50 per cent., and in a world where discrimination already scarred the lives of many disabled people and older workers, the numbers claiming incapacity benefits trebled, while 3 million children were left to live in poverty. I make no apology for reminding the House of those grim and shameful statistics. They set the context for the challenge that we now face, and they teach us valuable lessons about the role of the welfare state in today's society.

Through the minimum wage and tax credits, we have tried to make work pay, and through record investment in the new deal and Jobcentre Plus we have begun to create an enabling welfare state that tries to respond to the needs of individuals and matches rights with responsibilities.

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