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Mr. Hain: For a Secretary of State doing this particular job, there is always a certain wariness about accepting a question from my right hon. Friend, who knows more about it than I do and who certainly knows a lot more about it than the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling)—and, indeed, more than most of the officials who are sitting over there. I will certainly look further into my right hon. Friend’s
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point, but the question of the level of disregard has not been decided yet. A number of issues are involved, not least a discussion with the Treasury.

Chris Grayling: May I ask the Secretary of State to approach the issue in another way? Will he set out for the House—either in the form of a note placed in the Library or more directly on the Floor of the House or in Committee—the different assumptions that his officials are making about the impact of the different levels of the disregard? That would help us to understand the impact on levels of child poverty of the different levels of disregard—whether it be £10, £20, £30, £40 or £50. We need to know about officials’ assumptions in order to understand the differential impact of different levels of disregard.

Mr. Hain: Speaking as a former Leader of the House, I am always anxious to assist the House, and the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that he wants proper accountability of the Executive. When I am ready to do so, I will make available whatever information I can. I am not in a position to do so now and I will not promise to do something that I believe to be inappropriate at this stage. When I can make further progress and am clearer about the level of disregard that we think is feasible and appropriate to meet all the different balancing points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and others have suggested, I will try to assist the House.

Mr. Weir: I would like to clarify the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on the issue of minutes of agreement. I was slightly alarmed when he said that in starting CMEC we need to go back to the beginning. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, in Scotland, a registered minute of agreement can be used in the same way as a summary decree of court, and I urge him not to overlook that point. That often provides a quicker way of implementing a minute of agreement—usually directly by the person involved, but we could perhaps allow CMEC to do it. When a voluntary agreement breaks down, it is important that it be enforced quickly so that we do not go back to square one by making an application to CMEC and having to start all over again.

Mr. Hain: That sounds to me like a job application to get on to the Public Bill Committee that considers the Bill, where the hon. Gentleman can put those same arguments— [Interruption.] I hear an hon. Member shouting “No” from a sedentary position, which is a little uncharitable! Clearly, there is an issue there and we will want to look further into it. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me or discuss his point further with me in the Department, I would be happy to facilitate that.

Parts 1 and 2 provide for the establishment of the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and the transfer of functions, staff and property from the Department. The commission will have two key areas of responsibility: first, to deliver statutory child maintenance arrangements for those who cannot make their own arrangements or who decide that it would
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not be appropriate to do so; and, secondly, to provide the information and support necessary to help parents make their own arrangements for child maintenance.

The Bill will give the commission the freedom and independence to run its own affairs and to deliver a professional and efficient service, but it will also provide a clear framework within which to carry out its functions. One clear objective is to maximise the number of cases where maintenance arrangements are in place and to provide essential safeguards to ensure the welfare of children and parents with care.

As such, the commission will have the flexibility to innovate and to adapt its policies in the light of developing experience. In order to maximise efficiency, it will be authorised to contract out some of its functions and charge for the use of its services. We will make regulations, for example, to ensure that if a non-resident parent wilfully takes steps to evade payments in a way that is almost deliberately costly to the commission, the charging option would be available to it.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I have dealt with cases involving the self-employed and non-resident parents. On avoiding payments, the Secretary of State’s predecessor agreed with me on 27 November last year—reported in Hansard column 815—that the variations regulations were not working well and needed to be reformed. One problem is that at the moment most variations cases go to a tribunal and some non-resident parents use that as a delaying tactic—a form of bureaucratic sabotage. One of my constituents has gone through six tribunals. Can measures be included in the Bill to enable specialist teams of advisers and arbitrators at the new CMEC to scrutinise variations or exceptions cases at that early stage, in order to avoid sending everything to a tribunal, which causes delays in getting vital maintenance money to children and also costs the taxpayer?

Mr. Hain: I believe that the assessments are for 12 months and we are studying the hon. Lady’s points. I know that her frustrations are shared by others, particularly in respect of individuals who in some cases are self-employed and able somehow to camouflage their true income and deny the rightful amounts to parents with care and the children who depend on them.

Similarly, if we are to give parents with care the choice over whether to use the commission or to make voluntary arrangements, we must ensure that they have the information necessary to enable them to take the decision. That is why the new commission will have the responsibility for providing an information and support service designed to help parents in establishing stable and effective maintenance arrangements.

I am aware that some stakeholders are concerned that there may be a hidden agenda to push as many people away from the statutory service as possible into private arrangements that are unstable or unfair. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of the information and support service is to ensure that we protect vulnerable and low-income families by providing impartial, high-quality information and support, drawing on the best contributions from all sectors—private and voluntary—to help parents make their own decisions about what arrangements best suit them, while the
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commission itself provides an escape route back to the statutory scheme if voluntary arrangements do not work out.

Part 3 sets the framework within which the new commission will operate. It provides for the redesign of the system, the establishment of new enforcement powers and the transfer of existing cases to the new scheme. The Bill lays the foundations in legislation for an entirely new approach to child maintenance that will empower parents to take responsibility for making their own arrangements while providing strong, effective state support for when that does not happen.

Research published last month shows that almost two fifths of current CSA new scheme clients on benefit would prefer to make their own arrangements, but at the moment all parents with care claiming benefit are forced to use the child maintenance system, regardless of whether they would prefer to make voluntary arrangements. That is unfair. It takes away responsibility from parents and, too often, produces the wrong outcome for the children involved. The Bill will remove that requirement and restore parental responsibility, putting children first. Additionally, for those who enter into statutory rather than voluntary maintenance arrangements, the Bill will radically reduce the bureaucracy of the assessment process and speed up the gathering of information.

Receipt of child maintenance currently helps to lift 100,000 children out of poverty. International evidence shows that child maintenance contributes up to 25 per cent. of the reduction in child poverty in some countries. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, it contributes less than 3 per cent. We must turn that around, and providing active support to parents on low incomes to make maintenance arrangements will be particularly crucial to doing so. Jobcentre Plus and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are developing strategies to ensure that low-income families utilise the new information and support service.

To provide an incentive for low-income parents to follow through their agreements, our intention is to increase substantially the amount of child maintenance to be disregarded when benefits are calculated. From 2008-09, we will extend to all parents with care the £10 benefit disregard that is currently available only to those on the child support scheme introduced in 2003. This means that an extra 55,000 children will benefit from up to £10 a week additional family income. I am committed to increasing that disregard significantly in 2010.

In the old days under the Tories, the CSA was created as a revenue-collecting agency. The aim was that taxpayers should not be left to pick up the pieces when an irresponsible non-resident parent failed to pay. Our reforms will change the whole basis on which the child maintenance system operates. They will put the focus, rightly, on the children, so that the money that the non-resident parent pays goes straight to the children and not to the state. Changing the benefit arrangements is central to the contribution that child maintenance makes to our fight against child poverty and to the reforms that the Bill introduces.

Opinion polls constantly report strong levels of support for the idea that non-resident parents should be financially responsible for their children—I think that we all feel that—yet, under the CSA arrangements, three out of 10
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do not pay when we ask them to do so. The Bill will strengthen and streamline our compliance and enforcement powers to ensure that parents quickly comply with their responsibilities. It will also ensure that, if voluntary negotiations break down, the statutory system will be able to step in quickly and provide a mandatory arrangement that will be complied with.

Mr. Frank Field: Paying maintenance should never be a criterion for having access to a child, but many people who do pay feel that it is unfair that their good behaviour is never taken into account, in the disputes that go before the courts, as a sign that they are a good parent. Will the Secretary of State consider how, in the Bill, we might discriminate in favour of those who pay maintenance and who wish to be good parents, but who find that they are denied access as a result of the other partner’s pressure in the broken relationship, in spite of all the maintenance payments that have been made?

Mr. Hain: Obviously, I shall look at everything that my right hon. Friend suggests, because he brings unique experience and authority to the debate. However, I do not want to make the children pawns in these situations. We need to get these things right, but I will take account of what he has said.

The Bill provides for the commission to take funds from the bank accounts of non-resident parents, which will be particularly important in improving compliance for the self-employed. It also provides for the withdrawal of a non-resident parent’s passport and, as an alternative to jail, the imposition of a curfew.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hain: May I just finish this point? Then I will give way.

Members will be aware that the White Paper also consulted on giving the commission the power to remove a non-resident parent’s driving licence. We have to find the right balance between introducing powers that encourage non-resident parents to pay and depriving people of their means to live and earn the income that will support their children. After serious consideration, I have decided that this particular power is best left with the courts.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Secretary of State rightly talks about the importance of robust enforcement, but is he aware of the National Audit Office report of 2005 which pointed out that 65 per cent. of assessments that come to enforcement contain an error? Does he agree that robust enforcement needs to go hand in hand with better assessment?

Mr. Hain: I am not sure that I agree that that 65 per cent. is a representative figure, but we obviously need to get these things right. That is why we are bringing in an entirely new organisation to replace the CSA.

We must realise that unrealistic expectations about moving from one system to another have blighted previous attempts to reform child support. We must ensure that the new commission is not held back by the failings of the old system. Equally, we must ensure that maintenance payments that are already being made can continue uninterrupted for the benefit of the children.

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Parents will have three options. By the end of 2008, parents claiming benefits will no longer be compelled to use the statutory system, and will therefore be able to make their own voluntary arrangements, if they so choose, supported by the new information and support service of the commission. Secondly, from 2010, parents with a maintenance arrangement already in place, and who both agree that they are happy with it, will be able to ask the commission simply to ensure that the money keeps flowing. This will enable them to avoid the disruption of a whole new assessment that could open up old wounds. Instead, their existing payments will stay at the same rate, and the commission will ensure that the money is efficiently transferred to the parent with care.

Thirdly, for those unable to come to a voluntary arrangement, or for those without an existing arrangement in place, the commission will support an application to the new statutory system. The commission will begin talking to its clients about the new options in 2008. The actual movement of clients to the new statutory system will start in 2010 and is expected to be finalised in 2013.

There is a fourth part to the Bill which provides new support for people suffering from the asbestos-related cancer known as mesothelioma. This is now the most common cause of work-related death in Britain. Nearly 2,000 people die every year from this cancer as a result of asbestos exposure, and the number is expected to increase to a peak of 2,500 during the period from 2011 to 2015. It is estimated that one in every 100 men born between 1940 and 1950 will die of the disease.

Of course, no amount of money can ever compensate individuals and families fully for the suffering and loss caused by this terrible illness, but those who are suffering rightly deserve to receive some form of monetary compensation, and to receive payment before it is too late. No one should have to wait years before they see a penny of compensation, especially when, as in many of these cases, people do not have years left to wait. In fact, people with mesothelioma die, on average, within eight to nine months of diagnosis. It is very quick.

Although we already make some lump sum payments to employees for mesothelioma under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, many sufferers miss out. These include the self-employed, those who lived with asbestos workers and inhaled dust from their clothing, those who lived near asbestos factories, and those who do not know how they got the disease. The Bill means that, once diagnosed, sufferers should receive some compensation within six weeks of making a claim. We are doing that by correcting an anomaly in how we make recoveries of state funds from civil compensation. At present, lump sum payments for mesothelioma and other dust diseases are not subject to such recoveries, which leads to a windfall for insurers and other liability holders, as they can reduce their payouts by the amount of any lump sum paid by the state. That is wrong. The Bill will allow us to recover the lump sum payments from later civil compensation so that the negligent party meets its liability in full.

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By making those recoveries, we aim to fund the new payments without increasing the cost to the public purse. We intend to set the lump sum payment levels so that the overall expenditure matches the expected recoveries. That means that they will initially be lower than the existing lump sum payments, but we will increase the level each year as recoveries increase until they match the levels of our existing 1979 Act scheme payment. We must now get the money to those who need it—people with mesothelioma must receive some compensation while they are still alive to benefit from it. The Bill will allow us to get some compensation to all sufferers as early as next year. The proposals have been broadly welcomed by our stakeholders and in all parts of the House.

All Members have constituents who depend on child maintenance payments, and all of us want a system that delivers better outcomes for the children and parents with care who depend on it and which further contributes to reducing child poverty—to which our Government are committed, and which we have delivered. After almost two decades of reform, it is high time we got this right. The Bill provides the foundation for a lasting reform and a new start for child maintenance that will deliver fresh opportunity for the children who are affected by their parents splitting up. We need a new system that learns the lessons of the past; promotes parental responsibility; works with parents, rather than against them, to deliver the best outcomes for children; provides the taxpayer with true value for money; and, most importantly, ensures that no children are ever again condemned to poverty simply because their parents are not together. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.22 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): There cannot be a Member of this House who has not witnessed the harsh financial consequences of relationship break-ups for all involved, particularly children. During the six years I have been in the House—and I am sure that other Members share my experience—many women have visited my surgery who were frustrated, and often desperate, about being unable to secure a proper financial settlement for themselves and their children. More often than not, their frustration has been directed at the Child Support Agency’s inability to get things right—sometimes to answer the most basic inquiries and deal with the most basic issues.

It is not only women who have visited my surgery: men have also come to seek my advice on the clumsy way in which the agency has dealt with them. The agency has too often been utterly incompetent. I am sure that I am not alone in having read multiple letters that the agency sent to constituents on the same day saying entirely different things. I have had endless conversations with constituents about their experiences of the agency, such as long, fruitless telephone calls and being passed from person to person, none of whom seemed to know anything about the case in question. However, we should also remember that although not all the agency’s staff have passed muster, the vast majority have done their best despite being facing with a deeply flawed system.

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