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There is little incentive to engage in the voluntary maintenance agreement process for someone who thinks that all the hard work will come to nothing if the agreement breaks down. We should have a system that allows CMEC to take on part of the process
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whereby the agreement was reached, and provides for enforcement at least partly on that basis. Although the agreement would not remain voluntary, such a system would not only reduce CMEC’s work load, and therefore its expense—an eminently desirable aim—but make families more likely to engage in the voluntary agreement process.

Voluntary agreements are not only good for the families, although that is the most important consideration, but if more separating couples reach a such an agreement, it will leave CMEC much freer to spend more time on the difficult, complex and irreconcilable cases, which require a great deal of time and effort to resolve the situation or, if necessary, to pursue errant partners who are not prepared to fulfil their financial responsibilities.

When we consider the rest of the Bill and all the powers that CMEC can exercise, it is important to acknowledge that, as I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), providing the powers is only half the story. The other half is ensuring that the commission can exercise them. It needs the time, personnel and resources to exercise them, or having them in the Bill will do no family any good.

I should be grateful for clarification of a specific point, which the Secretary of State may have covered but about which I was not clear. The Bill grants four specific powers to CMEC when a partner does not provide financial assistance and the commission cannot persuade that person to do so. At the top of the scale is imprisonment, followed by a curfew, deprivation of a driving licence and deprivation of a passport. The Bill appears to say that CMEC can make the order directly for deprivation of a passport. In the case of the other three, CMEC must go to court to obtain an order. It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary explained the logic behind that discrepancy.

As I said, I may have heard the Secretary of State confirm that the court should be the deciding agency for all four powers. However, if that is not the case, I should be grateful for an explanation. It gives me some cause for concern, because all four appear to be fairly significant punitive powers for the court and, in one case, the commission. I believe that they should all be exercised through a court-related process rather than directly on the commission’s application and decision.

It is entirely sensible that the new commission should have the power, when appropriate, to examine the financial circumstances of cases that have been outstanding for some time and decide that it would make sense to accept a lesser figure than the total outstanding arrears. However, I would like reassurance that, if the commission is prepared to make that sort of decision, it will not do so without involving the parent with care. It would be wrong of the commission to appear to make decisions for administrative convenience without the agreement of the parent with care, who will suffer the financial burden of the full amount not being collected. Although I acknowledge the good sense of having such a power available, I would be grateful for reassurance that, when it is used, the parent with care will be fully involved and invited to give consent to the action before it is taken.

For all of us who have experienced many constituency cases in which the CSA has not done the job that we would wish it to do—and that its staff wish that they could have done—the reason is often that,
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despite detailed, accurate and extensive information from the parent with care about the non-resident parent who is absent and has either disappeared off the face of the earth or been found, the latter’s income is not accurately reassessed to ensure that the appropriate amounts are being paid.

If we are all to assure our constituents that CMEC will do a better job than the CSA, we need not only to demonstrate to them that the Bill provides the new commission with more powers to do the things that they want it to, but to ensure that when they call CMEC—hopefully, they will be able to get through on the phone—to communicate information, which is often verified independently rather than simply on their say-so, action will be taken in response to it. The powers in the Bill must be used when constituents have provided the requisite information.

In common with other hon. Members, I give the Bill a qualified welcome. Some matters within it need clarification. It is regrettable when, as so often, a great deal of the important nuts and bolts of legislation are dealt with through regulation after the fact. It would be helpful if we heard further detail from the Minister in Committee about how the regulations can be expected to operate. Be that as it may, and even if we can resolve all the issues relating to the wording and associated regulations, we will still want some reassurance that the mechanisms and set-up at CMEC will allow it to be rather more effective than its predecessor.

4.7 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May I begin by welcoming the Front-Bench speakers to their respective posts? I have to say that because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) reminded me, we are old lags in this matter, having laboured in pensions and benefits since we were elected in 2001. We have the scars on our backs to prove it.

I welcome the Government’s intention to put the Child Support Agency out of its misery—or possibly reform it yet again. That has been long expected and long hoped for. As many others have observed, the agency that was set up long ago in the 1990s had the fundamental flaw of appearing to be a benefit-recovery agency rather than a means of ensuring that parents with care had adequate incomes or, of equal importance, that non-resident parents made a proper contribution. It is right that the responsibility is shouldered by the people who should shoulder it. Unfortunately, there is still a pressing need to improve the incomes of parents with care, particularly single parents.

Child poverty has come down, which is greatly to be welcomed. The latest figures for Wales, relating to 2004-05, show that progress has been stalled—momentarily, one hopes. According to Save the Children, about 28 per cent. of children in Wales—180,000 children—are still living in poverty. Many of those children live in single parent households or those where there has been a divorce. If we want to achieve or even better the Government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 or of eradicating it by 2020, we need to take great strides. I hope that the Bill will go some way in that direction. In that respect, I certainly wish it well.

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Every hon. Member will have their own tales of woe arising from the current arrangements. Many of mine are due to the nature of the local economy. As has already been pointed out, problems often arise when people are self-employed. The private economy of my constituency is overwhelmingly made up of self-employed sole traders or partnerships where the financial arrangements are not always very clear. To be frank, they are easily hidden.

Some cases are very straightforward—I shall not go into the detail of all my constituency cases—and some inexplicable in small communities. In one recent case, a mother asked me how it was that the father—he is a builder—was able to build a new house with his new partner and drive around in a new 4x4, while paying nothing off his arrears. Without the proper information, the CSA was apparently powerless to help. In another case, a father wants to migrate to the new mark 2 system, but the CSA says that he cannot. He fears that he might have to default, although in the past he has always fully co-operated with the CSA.

One danger that must be guarded against is the new agency simply reaching for the low-hanging fruit. In the past, there has been a danger that the obvious cases—the people who co-operate and who are prepared to provide financial information—are addressed, while the classic example of the man who has run away to work on the rigs is never pursued, because it is a good deal easier to tick the box and meet the target by reaching for the low-hanging fruit instead.

Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Angus and I were quietly discussing whether all the old cases would eventually migrate to the new system, or whether we would have three systems running at the same time. The latter could be a recipe not only for great difficulty but for strong feelings among those who felt disadvantaged by not being able to move to the new system.

We have all seen extremely complicated cases, and I am slightly reluctant to go into this one, but I want to give the House an idea of the measure of complexity that can be involved. A disabled father, a constituent of mine, is unable to take his disabled son overnight because of the son’s disruptive behaviour. The parents have therefore agreed that that should not happen, but the mother is on benefit, so the CSA has said that the father has to make payments. They have no choice; that is the administrative law. The father claims that he cannot afford to pay, because of a loss of income arising from his disability, and he says that he will have to give up his work. There is an element of tragedy in this case, because the parents are co-operating to the best of their ability, but this man, who has a disability but is managing to struggle on, will have to give up work.

I do not want to go into too many cases, but another pertinent one involves the growing trend towards 50:50 shared care. How will the agency deal with such situations? Some parents will be able to organise such arrangements in an amicable way, and that is all well and good. However, there have also been a great many disputes, and they are often expressed in terms of money. We must be careful when addressing the point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), when he appeared to suggest that access might be linked to
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payments. That would be a dangerous route to travel, and we must think carefully before we head in that direction.

I have referred to some of the problems relating to the CSA, but I do not blame the staff in any way. They have always been courteous and done their best, as far as I am concerned. I want to pay tribute to them and, in particular, to the Welsh language unit, which is based in Birkenhead. On a lighter note, I suggest that hon. Members take on Welsh-speaking case workers, because it is very easy to get through to the Welsh language unit, which provides a Rolls-Royce service. I commend that course of action to the House. On a serious note, the position of the staff in the new agency must be protected and safeguarded, because I know that the CSA has had some concerns in that regard.

Members of the Scottish National party and I welcome the principles of the Bill, including the new responsibilities for both parents—I emphasise both. I have always been uneasy with the present arrangement in which the father’s responsibility is almost always expressed in monetary terms, as though all that the father needed to do was pay the money. That has not led to good parenting in many cases, and we need to move towards encouraging good parenting by the system and by the state.

If the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) were here now, I am sure that he would be on his feet extolling the virtues of working with parents to improve the quality of their parenting. Unfortunately, I fear that because of the way in which the system has worked we have produced a generation of children who have seen parental relationships and responsibilities reduced to vicious squabbles over money, and who might now believe that that is all it was about. I fear that some of that process of degeneration has been fuelled by the present system, and I certainly hope that the new arrangements will be part of the solution.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Australian CSA practice of helping long-distance parenting, whereby the non-resident parent can maintain their tremendously important bond with their child while paying maintenance? Does he think that it might be useful for CMEC to go down that route?

Hywel Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, and I certainly hope that CMEC will provide an active and creative advice service, rather than one that is simply concerned with the nuts and bolts of money. Many parents live at opposite ends of the country, but there are many ways in which that can be addressed. For example, long-distance computer communication via e-mail should be considered as a means of ensuring that the relationship between the parent who does not have care and the child is maintained.

Like other Members who have spoken, I am very much in favour of parents reaching voluntary agreements without going through CMEC. Citizens advice bureaux, Cymorth I Fenywod—Women’s Aid in Wales—and End Child Poverty Network Cymru point out that we must take seriously the danger of non-resident fathers in particular taking the opportunity to pressure their former partners not to resort to advice and guidance from the
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new agency and to steer clear of CMEC. Some women may have been in abusive relationships and still be under physical and emotional pressure from their former partners. We must guard against that possible unintended consequence.

I want advice and guidance to be available as locally as possible. Parents going through a divorce might not be in a position to travel tens or even hundreds of miles to seek advice from the agency. I represent a rural area and I am unconvinced that the matter is being taken seriously enough. Government offices have been closed in my area, and services have been moved 70 or 80 miles to towns such as Wrexham. A long-distance computer camera system is being installed in the west of my constituency to deal with the new passport system. I do not want to pursue that point, but I hope that the advice service will be provided as locally as possible.

I am also concerned that the intention to use gross earnings for one year might not enable CMEC to take into account variations in earnings throughout the year, which can have disastrous effects on parents’ incomes. Many of my constituents work in the holiday industry and make little money in the winter and quite a lot in the summer. In the past, that affected the dates when people applied for disability living allowance or attendance allowance. Ice-cream salesmen would apply for attendance allowance in February, when their incomes were low. There are also huge variations in the incomes of others who are self-employed.

Let me briefly return to my concern about split care—the 50:50 situation that I alluded to earlier—which can complicate otherwise straightforward arrangements. I came across one case in which people literally counted the days: they worked out how many nights the child had stayed for, and when the total came to half of 365—my arithmetic does not extend that far—the parent with care changed. I do not want us to go down that route, where parents look not at the quality of care but whether distortions might cost them hundreds or thousands of pounds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Angus is anxious that I raise a point about fee charging. The Law Society in Scotland has suggested that the ability to charge fees might be postponed until the standard of service reaches a certain level. It is saying that, if we take the view that the CSA’s service has not been acceptable, let us wait and see how the new body performs before we start charging for a service that might not be fully up to standard.

The Bill is not a perfect solution by any means—there will never be a perfect solution in cases where parents are splitting up; there will always be problems—and I hope that it will be improved in Committee. Perhaps the arrangements already available in Scotland, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, can be built on. Of course, our overriding aim must be to make sure that this time the money goes to the children.

I want to refer briefly to the mesothelioma proposals. I have some experience in this regard. Some Members might recall that the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 was introduced because of the difficulties experienced by some of my constituents and others in the north Wales slate industry, and in the jute industry in Dundee. The previous employers had gone bankrupt or out of business, and there was literally
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nobody to sue. People could not sue for the compensation that they were due, and the then Government eventually stepped in and introduced the 1979 Act. I am therefore very pleased that this Government are addressing the mesothelioma issue through this Bill.

Many of the slate workers in my constituency who were exposed to the danger of slate dust went to work in the very large Ferodo factory that opened outside Caernarvon. It was part of the Turner and Newall group, and it made brake linings out of asbestos. So some of the workers who had been exposed to slate dust went to work in a factory where asbestos was being used. I am very pleased that particular arrangements have been made in respect of Turner and Newall workers—or Federal-Mogul workers, as they now are. If the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) were here, he would doubtless want to contribute, and I pay generous tribute to his efforts on behalf of workers in his constituency and in mine. The Bill’s proposals on mesothelioma are therefore very welcome.

To end on a chilling note, mesothelioma is a dreadful disease. It is very quick—people live for months only. Before I was elected, I went to a coroner’s court with a widow for the results of a post mortem on her husband, which eventually proved that he did have slate dust. She eventually got compensation—but that, of course, was after he had died. I welcome the possibility that, under the new mesothelioma proposals, such people will very quickly get the compensation that they deserve.

4.23 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): This is a very serious debate. Many people have waited far too long to discover what is to replace the Child Support Agency. We have heard today about individual and more general cases involving the CSA from every Member who has spoken today—from Members in all parts of the House. We all agree that the reduction of child poverty is a key issue, but even in relatively affluent constituencies such as mine, where child poverty certainly exists in pockets, we need to provide a fair deal for those whose ex-partners have decided not to deliver on their responsibility to look after their children. Often, it is the wife who is the carer, and we must ensure that such people get a fair deal in bringing up their children.

Tackling evasive non-resident parents, particularly self-employed non-resident parents, in respect of whom there are specific problems, is also a key aspect of the Bill. The resident parent—often, it is the mother—may have worked in their ex-partner’s business, particularly if it is a small business, and knows exactly what the income of her ex-partner is. When that ex-partner says that he now lives on £100 a week, receiving a very low assessment from the CSA, the resident parent will frequently say that he has bought a new car, built a new house or has a new partner, and is living fairly high on the hog. In many cases, the problem is not that the regulations are not in place, but that no action has been taking using the existing powers.

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