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The agency’s staff welcome these changes, which allow them to work more effectively to get more money to children. We have had extensive discussions with staff about the establishment of the commission and the introduction of a new system, and they are very supportive. However, it has become clear during those discussions that staff have had genuine concerns about the proposed loss of their civil service status. Many of them have been dedicated civil servants for many years and are very proud of their position, and rightly so. However, under the proposals associated with the commission, staff would have become public servants rather than civil servants. We have therefore decided to make a change. As before, we will establish the
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commission as a non-departmental public body, but we will give it Crown status, which means that staff will remain civil servants. An amendment will be tabled in another place to give effect to that change, which brings significant advantages. Over and above some financial advantages, it will ensure that staff in the current agency can look forward to, rather than worry about, the launch of the new commission. In short, we believe that providing Crown status for the commission will considerably increase the chances of a successful start for the new organisation. After a three-year period we will review the position to check that the same advantages continue to exist.

We have made much progress during the past few months in transforming the child maintenance landscape, and we need to keep the momentum going. We have appointed the commission’s chair-designate, Janet Pareskeva, who is already actively shaping the new body. We have announced the increased maintenance disregard. By the end of 2008 the disregard will be increased to £20 a week, with a full disregard in housing benefit and council tax benefit, and from April 2010 the disregard will rise to £40 a week.

We are in detailed discussions with both voluntary and private sector providers to ensure that we can put in place all the key aspects of the new information and support service. We expect to be able to announce a preferred supplier for the national contact centre around the turn of the year. The increased disregard and the new information and support services underpin the wider reforms we are making. Members from all parties have supported the measures in the Bill that will stop parents with care on benefit from being automatically treated as CSA applicants. That means that all parents will have the same choices, whether or not they are on benefit, which should improve outcomes for children as it will enable more parents to agree how best to secure financial support.

However, we recognise that parents may want help and support to make the decision that suits them best. The commission will provide substantial information and support services to parents to help them decide the most effective type of arrangement for them personally. We expect three main services to be provided: a large-scale national contact centre, supplemented by web access and a face-to-face service where that is considered most appropriate. The services that the commission provides will reach out to low-income families in particular.

For parents who choose, or need, to use the commission, the Bill sets out a faster and more accurate process for assessing maintenance payments. Rather than asking parents for information, the commission will be able to use Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tax data to calculate maintenance, and will update maintenance liabilities annually to ensure that they accurately reflect the non-resident parent’s ability to pay. We are also developing a provision to permit parents to pass financial information disclosed during certain court proceedings to the commission to help it make fair and accurate assessments.

We are working across Government and with the financial institutions to ensure that provisions in the Bill that relate to orders to deduct money directly from accounts have sufficient scope to ensure that non-resident parents cannot easily evade them. The Bill
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does something else of great importance. It delivers for the victims of the highly debilitating and fatal disease mesothelioma. Those provisions, too, have been received in a spirit of consensus and co-operation.

The Bill introduces far-reaching and much-needed reform to important areas of welfare policy. It moves our country’s system of child maintenance on to a wholly new plane. Over time, it will ensure a better start to life and therefore better life prospects for tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of children. Not one of them was responsible for the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. None of them should, in any way, be impeded by that breakdown. The Bill will greatly assist in making sure that they are not.

8.13 pm

Andrew Selous: This is an important Bill, which is urgently needed to ensure that we secure a better deal for the 3 million or so of our country’s children who have had to endure the separation of their mother and father. We need a more integrated agenda for supporting separated families. The Bill is an important part of that agenda, but only a part, and we could learn useful lessons from Australia, where practical support for distance parenting and the establishment of civilised ongoing contact arrangements are provided in a more integrated way than we manage to achieve in this country.

The Bill will be judged on its success in getting more financial support flowing between separated parents for the benefit of the children concerned. At present, only one in three lone-parent families receive any support from the non-resident parent. Even where the Child Support Agency is involved, only 62 per cent. of non-resident parents with a positive maintenance liability are currently making payments. That means that 38 per cent. of parents who are expecting the CSA to enforce their maintenance payments are being let down, and the success of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission must be judged on securing a swift and significant improvement in those figures. CMEC is, therefore, at the forefront of the battle to reduce child poverty, about which we learned of stalling progress this morning.

The Bill gives CMEC much tougher enforcement powers to enforce maintenance liabilities. They will only be of any use if they are used, as the CSA has had powers in the past that it has failed to use. However, the measures in the Bill to use HMRC income tax data as the basis of assessment are very welcome and should ensure less aggravation for non-resident parents.

In Committee, both Ministers were courteous and painstaking in replying to speeches and interventions from all Committee members and I thank them for that. I would also like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries). Our two Committee Chairmen, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), ensured fair play throughout. Chris Shaw in the Public Bill Office was an unfailing source of guidance on procedure to me, and my own staff, Christina Keen and Christopher Tufnell, have worked hard during the passage of the Bill. No Committee can complete its
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business without the invaluable work of the doorkeepers, police officers and Hansard writers and we are indebted to them as well.

I agree with what the Minister said about paying tribute to CSA staff. The problems that the agency has had in the past are not their fault. Frankly, they are our fault, in this House, for not setting up the arrangements properly to ensure that child support worked as it was supposed to. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to Crown status, also. If that provides reassurance to those working for CMEC, it will be important to the success of the agency.

Many outside interest groups also helped to ensure greater scrutiny of the Bill and in particular I would like to thank Janet Allbeson of One Parent Families/Gingerbread; Resolution, the family law group; Families Need Fathers; and the Association of British Insurers, in particular.

In order for the Bill to achieve its objectives, we are going to need a significant change of culture in relation to child support in addition to its provisions. The payment of child maintenance must be seen as an important positive responsibility—the first call on a separated parent’s income. The Bill must ensure a fair and efficient system to achieve that, but it will also be necessary to promote the message of positive responsibility more widely, so that those who determinedly refuse to pay feel the shame of public disapproval and do not even consider boasting about their behaviour.

The CSA has never dealt well with the human side of separation, but its successor, CMEC, has an important opportunity to do so with the provision of the information and guidance which is established in clause 5, and in particular the wider scope for information and guidance allowed for in clause 5(2). It is my wish that the importance of establishing ongoing civilised contact arrangements and support for distance parenting be recognised in the Bill. That is not in any way to make contact a condition of maintenance, merely a recognition of the fact that parenthood is about money and time—financial support and emotional support.

Indeed, the ongoing involvement of non-resident parents in their children’s lives is likely to increase their willingness to pay maintenance. In support of my argument I would like to quote Janet Allbeson of One Parent Families/Gingerbread, who said:

I agree with every word of that.

Part of what the information and guidance service will have to do is help separated parents cope with the reality that while marriage and cohabitation are dissoluble, parenthood is not. Divorce and separation used to be regarded a bit like dividing up an estate after someone dies. The marriage or relationship was dead, the fruits of the marriage or relationship were divided and that was the end—subject to ongoing visiting rights and child support obligations, both of which were poorly
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enforced. Today, around the world, there is a recognition that children need, and usually want, their mother and their father to be actively involved in their lives, as long as each parent is a positive influence and there are no concerns about child abuse or violence. Internationally, there appears to be an irreversible trend towards the encouragement of shared parenting—not necessarily with equal time, but with what is termed “substantial and significant time” in Australia. That would include, if possible, time during the school week, not just at the weekends and during school holidays.

The information and guidance service established in clause 5 will be able to learn much from the network of family relationship centres in Australia that provide a similar service. I have mentioned Australia rather a lot, and perhaps I should declare a personal interest in that my mother was Australian. The family relationship centres have been swamped by the demand for separation services, a fact that I hope will be taken on board by Ministers as they plan the capacity of the information and guidance service. I was grateful to hear a few further details about that service from the Minister.

A fundamental change is the proposal to end compulsory participation in CMEC by all parents with care on benefits and the encouragement of appropriate voluntary maintenance arrangements. That will undoubtedly reduce the work load of CMEC, enabling it to cope more effectively with those cases where parents want the active involvement of the state scheme.

It is obvious that a reduction in the number of parents who separate would similarly reduce the work load of CMEC and Ministers are rightly focused on that. It would be irresponsible not to encourage the Government to do more to support healthy adult relationships as they already do in a small way with their marriage and relationship support funding. Again, the opportunities to do more are enormous and do not require significant funding, merely political will. I hope that Ministers will take encouragement that it was a Democratic President who brought in a welfare reform Act in America in 1996, one of the objectives of which was to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. Some of the results on the ground are startling, with local initiatives in some countries and some cities in America experiencing drops in divorce rates of 30 to 50 per cent. On the basis that prevention is better than cure, and in order to give the Bill the best possible chance of producing a well-working system, there should be a greater focus on early interventions to reduce family breakdown.

I turn now to part 4, which deals with compensation for sufferers of diffuse mesothelioma. We on the Conservative Benches wholeheartedly welcome the provisions, which represent an innovative partnership between the Department for Work and Pensions and the insurance industry. Seldom can public-private cooperation have been so necessary or so important for the sufferers of diffuse mesothelioma and their dependants. The legacy of work with asbestos means that there were 1,969 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2004 and that figure will rise to around 2,400 deaths a year by 2013. Even in 2050, around 500 deaths a year are expected. One in 100 men born between 1940 and 1950 will die of the disease. Life expectancy from the onset of the condition is eight to nine months, which is why the provisions are so important in getting statutory compensation to sufferers within six weeks.

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There has been much common ground among political parties, although we have not agreed about everything on a number of important areas. Nevertheless, the Bill is a move in the right direction as far as child maintenance is concerned and most definitely provides important assistance for mesothelioma sufferers and their dependants. Conservative Members will, therefore, support the Bill on Third Reading.

8.22 pm

Paul Rowen: There has been a great deal of all-party agreement on the need for reform of the child support system. We are in general agreement with the broad principles set out by Sir David Henshaw and consolidated in the Bill. Those are to encourage more private arrangements outside the CSA/CMEC, to increase the focus on tackling child poverty rather than reducing public expenditure claims, and to produce greater effectiveness in collecting maintenance and enforcement.

It is true that during the Bill’s early stages, we were concerned that its proposals might be a rebranding exercise that would not provide the root-and-branch reform needed to introduce enforcement measures that would bring about the collection of the money. As the Minister has said, the CSA has been in crisis ever since it was established by the Conservative Government back in 1993. In 1998, Tony Blair admitted that the CSA had lost a lot of public confidence, and described it as a mess in need of urgent reform. Nine years on, the CSA is still in a mess, and we are only now beginning the second attempt to reform it.

The ultimate objective, however, must be that there should be a reduction in child poverty, which is at such shocking levels in this country. Today, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report that confirms that the Government’s approach to tackling child poverty has lost momentum and is in urgent need of a major rethink. The foundation states that there has been no sustained progress in the past three years, and so one in three children in the UK live in poverty.

The Bill could have gone further on the income disregard with the introduction of the maximum disregard. I regret that that did not take place. A report by the Treasury Committee, also published today, expressed the fear that the pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 is in doubt—a point that I made in Committee.

This has been a fruitful and enjoyable Bill to work through. There has been a great deal of commitment on all sides to bring about the improvement that we all want to see. I want to thank the Minister, who has always responded to the points that we have raised and has brought forward some changes today. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), both Chairmen of the Committee, the Clerks, who have been superb at giving us advice, and Carys Davis, my hon. Friend’s researcher, who helped us to prepare our amendments. Indeed, I thank all the people who were involved. I also thank the lobby groups, particularly One Parent Families and Resolution, who have provided invaluable support on certain sections of the Bill, the British Lung Foundation and the Greater Manchester victims of asbestos support group, which gave me several briefings on part 4.

The Committee was friendly, and we had an open honest debate. We certainly covered a lot of ground. However, we would like some subjects to be returned to
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in the other place. The charging of fees is of fundamental importance and will affect the reputation of the commission and how the public see it. We would like to see no fees charged for services provided by the commission, unless they are charged to the non-resident parent who has defaulted on payments. That should be the case at least until the commission provides a satisfactory service. It is not fair, we believe, to expect people to pay for a service that is not up to scratch.

The income change of the non-resident parent that is needed to trigger a review is another issue about which we have had some concerns. A 25 per cent. decrease in income is too large an amount for the level below which a review is not triggered. That could result in some difficult situations for non-resident parents who suffer an income drop of up to 25 per cent., which will, of course, threaten the flow of maintenance to the children.

We would also have liked the appointment of the chair-designate of CMEC to have been approved by Parliament. I know that that has already taken place, and that she is doing a lot of work, but nevertheless the commission’s relationship with Parliament is important. We would like to see future commissioners approved by the House. We have continued to have concern about staffing levels. It is a folly to plan a reduction in staff based on an assumption about a reduction in case load, or even an assumption that the commission will be able to operate adequately at the same level as before the operational improvement plan involved the hiring of new staff.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement that the commission will now have Crown status. I echo his comments about the staff of the CSA. They have had a difficult job trying to make work two systems that have proved unworkable. I believe that establishing the commission on a Crown basis will give staff confidence. If we are to be successful, it is vital that we have the full confidence of the staff as they deliver in what will be a challenging few years.

We would have liked interest and dividend income to be included in the information that the commission uses to assess how much the non-resident person is obliged to pay. We understand that that does not involve huge numbers of people, but we nevertheless believe that it is important. We have outstanding concerns about non-resident parents who evade their responsibilities and muddle their affairs to avoid paying maintenance. That is not in the child’s best interests. We hope for success in the other place in some of the matters that I have mentioned.

As I said earlier, I congratulate the Government on acting so speedily to deal with mesothelioma in part 4, and on including for the first time payments to people who have not directly worked in asbestos-related industries. It is encouraging for those of us who represent constituencies where asbestos is and will continue to be a major problem that we have been able to get such provisions in place so quickly. It means that payments will be made quickly once mesothelioma is diagnosed. Many people in Rochdale will welcome those provisions.

With those few caveats, the Liberal Democrats are happy to give the Bill a Third Reading.

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