Previous Section Index Home Page

4 July 2007 : Column 999

It is also important that the Committee examine in detail the issue of self-employment. We think that the previous-year assessment basis and the disregard of income changes of up to 25 per cent. are logical for people in normal PAYE employment. But we need to understand how the Government intend to handle self-employment. I have lost count of the number of times that women have come to see me with the complaint that their former husband or partner is declaring a very low income to the CSA, but is self-employed and clearly hiding a much higher income; he may have a big house and a big car. The frustration of those women is clear; they say, “I know he’s better off than he says. He’s telling the CSA that he’s only earning £17,000, and the CSA says it will take his word for it.” That is obviously wrong and unfair.

The Secretary of State will know that while it is difficult to dodge factual information within the conventional PAYE system, there is greater flexibility for self-employed individuals to avoid the full force of the system. Will the Government explain in Committee in more detail how they intend to address the issue and tackle the potential problems that self-employment can create?

The one part of the Bill that is long on detail is the section about enforcement. I am all in favour of strong enforcement. Too many men have been able to get away without meeting payments, knowing that there is little prospect of real enforcement. The message that this sends beyond the families is potentially damaging as well. Fatherhood is, and should always be, a big personal obligation. One of the reasons for the original establishment of the Child Support Agency was to ensure that fathers lived up to their obligations, and that they understood that there was an organisation that would ensure that they could not walk away from those obligations, leaving mothers and children dependent on benefits.

That was not just for fathers at the end of a relationship, but for those who never really got into the relationship in the first place and regarded fatherhood as something transitory. Sadly, that does happen in our society. We still get high-profile cases that undermine confidence. Last year the Metro newspaper reported the case of a 21-year-old, Keith Macdonald, who had already fathered seven children with seven different women, running up a benefit cost of an estimated million pounds a year. Cases like that make the need for a range of sanctions to deal with the issues contained in the Bill desirable and necessary, and we support that principle.

There are issues about enforcement and the curfews. How does one enforce a curfew? The idea of withdrawing passports is a good one, but it worries me that the one bit of the Bill about which we have detail—by contrast with the other areas that we have addressed today, where there is precious little detail—is enforcement. This comes from a Government who have dined out on spin for the last decade. It is noticeable that the detail is all about things that might make a headline in the newspapers, while the important detail remains unresolved. Too many questions remain unanswered—which would of course be in no way typical of what we have experienced for the past decade under the Government. I hope that the new Secretary of State will be able to do things a little better.

4 July 2007 : Column 1000

I have no doubt that change is necessary. Too many women in my own constituency, and millions around the country, have been left stranded by the incompetence of the CSA in the past few years and by the Government's failure to get to grips with the problem. It is not just the women. Men, too, have found themselves caught up in the failings of the agency; not knowing quite where they stand or what they have to pay. When Ministers spend £500 million of taxpayers’ money and the NAO says that things have got no better, they really have cause to be ashamed.

Mr. Frank Field: Before the hon. Gentleman finishes, will he give the House one piece of information? He has criticised the Government for making errors for 10 years, but he then says that they are bringing forward proposals for change. To what extent does he support these changes? He has made some valid points, particularly about the disregard, which is at the heart of the Bill, and about which do not have information. But will he divide the House on Second Reading? Or does he think that, on balance, the House should support the Bill, although he may come back on Report and divide the House then, if we still do not have the information?

Chris Grayling: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State that we have no intention of dividing the House this afternoon. The principles behind the Bill are worth while and it deserves to go into Committee. The right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and I will have many questions to put to Ministers as the Bill goes through the House. But we all hope that this time, they have got it right, and that the change can make a difference so that in future, mothers and fathers will be able to resolve their affairs through a system that is fair, transparent and effective, and that those who step outside the rules will face proper sanctions.

The truth is that the Bill is short on detail. The changes to be made may be the ones that are needed, but too many questions remain unanswered. A lot of work needs to be done in Committee; the Government still have a lot to do. This time, they cannot afford to get it wrong. Too much rides on the Bill: the financial well-being of women around the country, and a fair deal for the men—but above all, the interests of the children, the innocent victims of relationships gone wrong. For their interests, more than any others, the Bill and the Government need to get it right.

2.49 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I welcome the new DWP team to their positions and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), will make sure that the DWP continues to play the part that it has done previously. The Bill is extremely important. The CSA became operative in 1993 following the Child Support Act 1991. By 1995, we had had the first reform, under the Conservative Government, because the system was not working as expected.

Then we had the second reform in 2000, which introduced a new calculation, but that was not implemented until 2003. Nevertheless, we did see improvements. The hon.
4 July 2007 : Column 1001
Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) mentioned the costs, but in 1995, £1.05 was spent for every £1 recouped for families. After the second reform, that changed dramatically, so there was a clear improvement in efficiency after that reform. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) looks a little bemused at that, but the document produced by the Library includes that figure.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that collecting £1.85 for every £1 spent in doing so is not good enough?

Mr. Clapham: I accept that it is not good enough, but we have seen gradual improvements. When the process was examined further, it was recognised that fundamental change was needed. The former Secretary of State, now Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, made the point in February 2006 that the failures in the scheme clearly showed that it was not fit for purpose. He then called on Sir David Henshaw to provide a report after analysing how the scheme was operating. That was done and became the basis of the White Paper. It was recognised that a clear break with the CSA and the previous management system was necessary, and Sir David Henshaw’s report made that plain.

The recommendations of the Henshaw report, together with the recommendations in the White Paper, form the basis for the Bill, which should be welcomed.

Mrs. Maria Miller: Is the hon. Gentleman happy that the clear break that he mentions will be achieved if, as is detailed in the Bill, there is a complete transfer of CSA staff, IT system and even buildings? Is that the clear break that Sir David Henshaw talked of and will the new organisation be rid of any taint of failure in the past?

Mr. Clapham: In talking about a clear break, Sir David Henshaw realised that the staff, who have worked hard—as has been recognised on both sides of the House—would continue to be used. Some of the IT systems will continue in use, but what is important is that CMEC has a role to play in advising people about consensual arrangements. Such arrangements, which will flow from the advice that CMEC gives, will considerably reduce the burden on the new organisation, which will allow it to foster a culture of efficiency, care and understanding that will result in a much improved system.

Central to CMEC will be the way in which it is able to advise people to enter into consensual arrangements. It will deal with people who previously could not enter into arrangements because of the benefits that they were drawing down. The new Bill proposes that people on benefits should be able to enter into arrangements. Some two fifths of people who receive benefit would like to enter into a consensual arrangement on maintenance with their absent partner, so we will see many more such arrangements, which will relieve the burden on the organisation. So although it will use the same IT systems and the same—experienced and hard working—staff, the new culture will ensure that the organisation can focus and deliver, in a way that the CSA did not.

4 July 2007 : Column 1002

Mr. Frank Field: I wish to emphasise the importance of the point that my hon. Friend makes. In the past 10 years, we have had two big experiments, one of which was tax credits, which were sparkly and new, and taken into a different Department. However, a fair amount of chaos resulted and continues to result. Another benefit called pension credit was run by the DWP and on the old IT system and with the existing staff, but I have never had a complaint about it. While it sounds good to say that we should have a spanking new system, there can be dangers in starting from scratch, so I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a huge amount of goodwill with the staff already in the system and it would be foolish to destroy that for the sake of a press release on the creation of the new agency.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment, which will have been heard by the Opposition. They will be able to take from that the point that taking older systems and driving them with a new culture can actually deliver.

Mr. Hain: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the interest that he is taking, and I agree with him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). Just setting up a shiny new organisation with a new building and a new set of people will not achieve what we want to achieve. I wish to reassure my hon. Friend—who rightly takes a great interest in such matters, as do I—that the new staff will have full trade union rights and retain their pension rights and conditions of service. That will enhance confidence among the staff that they can deliver the challenging task that the Bill sets them.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that information. The very fact that trade union rights will be underpinned will, alongside continuity of salaries and no redundancies, contribute to a staff who are committed to ensuring that they deliver a service of the standard that their clients wish to see.

The main aim of the Bill is to tackle child poverty, and the disregard makes that a possibility. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested that the change to the disregard could mean that 100,000 children would be lifted out of poverty, and that would be a major step forward. People will enter into consensual arrangements, but we should bear in mind that that could cause difficulties. Women who have parted from their husbands or partners because of domestic violence could find that pressure is put on them to come to an arrangement that is not as suitable for them as it might be. We need to keep an eye on that. I hope that the Secretary of State and his staff will do that, as it is an important matter.

Parents will get advice, but how will it be made available? We must make sure that there are people who can explain the advice being given to couples thinking about entering into an arrangement. The service must be cost-effective and professional, and seen to be so.

Mrs. Maria Miller: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is right to say that private agreements will play an important part in driving the culture change, but does he share my disappointment that the Bill does not contain more detail about how CMEC will fulfil its role?

4 July 2007 : Column 1003

Mr. Clapham: I hope that we will be able to get the details of how CMEC will do its work when we discuss the Bill in Committee. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will play her part in ensuring that we do.

This is a Bill for families. It is focused on children, and I think that it will bring many improvements. It is due to be in full operation by 2013, and I expect it to give families a chance to ensure that they have an income that will support their lifestyles.

The Government deserve congratulation on part 4 of the Bill, which deals with the payments made to sufferers of mesothelioma cancer. At present, they can claim industrial injuries disablement benefit, and the Government should be praised for ending the dual system that used to be in force. Under it, a person diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer by a hospital consultant then had to see the DWP doctor for an endorsement of that diagnosis before being able to draw the benefit. Now, the consultant’s report on a person diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer is used as the basis for the payment of industrial injuries disablement benefit, which is paid at 100 per cent. That has been a great step forward.

Alternatively, the benefit could be claimed as a result of an action for civil damages under the common law. Where such an action has not been possible, a sufferer has been able to make a claim for payment under the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. That legislation was brought in originally to deal with problems suffered by slate quarrymen, but up to now payments have been limited by the fact that they had to be decided in the industrial sphere. That meant, for example, that a woman who developed mesothelioma cancer from the fibre on her husband’s clothing was not able to claim payment under the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme.

The Bill is a great step forward because it allows a woman in that position to make a claim under the 1979 Act. The Government have in effect provided a no-fault liability scheme for mesothelioma sufferers. Moreover, the Bill also means that another category of people—those who live near a factory where asbestos is used—will now be able to make a claim.

As I have said, the Government deserve to be congratulated, but it is important that we understand the size of the problem. The document provided by the Library makes some astounding assumptions about death rates. For example, Robin Howie, an industrial hygienist, has suggested that in the 91 years between 1929 and 2020, there are likely to be between 663,000 and 803,000 deaths in the UK caused by problems with asbestos. Mesothelioma sufferers will be part of that total, and we know that the number of diagnoses of the disease is rising. At present, there are some 1,800 or 1,900 a year, but the total is likely to continue to increase until 2015, after which it will plateau and fall away by 2050. It is clear, therefore, that an enormous number of people will die as a result of exposure to the fatal fibre that is asbestos.

We must not forget that the TUC has argued that other cancers as well as mesothelioma are caused by asbestos. We can be sure that asbestos fibre causes mesothelioma but, although the evidence is not quite as strong for other cancers, we know that 4,500 people die each year as a result of exposure to asbestos. The TUC
4 July 2007 : Column 1004
is worried that the number of such deaths between 2000 and 2050 will be extremely high.

Peter Martin wrote an article that appeared in The Sunday Times magazine of 17 May 2004, in which he predicted that, in the UK alone, there would be 186,000 deaths between 2000 and 2020 as a result of exposure to asbestos. It is therefore extremely important to have a no-fault compensation scheme for people who develop mesothelioma cancer.

I look forward to the time when the compensation recovery unit is able to secure payments as a result of successful civil actions brought by people who previously claimed under the 1979 Act, as that will help us to ensure that payments under the Act will equal the payments made as a result of civil claims. They may be lower in the beginning, but I am sure that we will catch up. The average payment made under the scheme is between £6,000 and £14,000—not a lot of money, but people in the last months of their lives can use that resource to make their lives a little easier.

I very much welcome the Bill. I appreciate the changes that it makes to the system of maintenance payments, but I am most pleased by the introduction of the no-fault liability scheme for sufferers of mesothelioma cancer.

3.9 pm

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and I want to associate myself with his remarks about mesothelioma. He has worked very hard on behalf of the disease’s many sufferers and he pioneered the all-party group, so he deserves great credit for the fact that the Government have brought forward the measures in part 4 of the Bill, which my party also intends to support.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position. He has made a good start over the past two days with two debates on two complicated issues. His predecessor is a hard act to follow. I welcome the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to his position, too. We are all new in these roles. Our predecessors formed consensus when appropriate, but their exchanges were robust when that was appropriate, so I hope that both elements will continue during our periods in these positions.

I am particularly pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), retains his place in the ministerial team. He has been an assiduous Minister and, as he knows, I have had cause to be grateful to him in relation to a Child Support Agency case. His work in showing what can be achieved adds to the disappointment in the many cases where such progress is not made, but I am grateful to him for what he has done. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) into whose enormous shoes I step with some trepidation. His hard work and assiduousness in this portfolio mean that he is a hard act for me to follow.

Next Section Index Home Page