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Child Maintenance

14. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to improve maintenance arrangements for children of non-resident parents; and if he will make a statement. [208032]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): There are two key steps. First, we are improving the performance of the Child Support Agency. The agency now collects £200 million more, for 200,000 more children, than it did in the last year of operation before the improvement plan. Secondly, we will ultimately replace the agency with the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission to ensure even better support for children. The advances that we are making in that area continue to lift more children out of poverty.

Ms Keeble: Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns raised by a community in my constituency about UK-born men who go abroad, get married, have families, and then return to the UK without making any arrangements at all for the family’s maintenance? Does he agree that there is an obligation on non-resident parents to provide support for their children, even if the children are living abroad and are therefore outside the immediate reach of the Child Support Agency?

Mr. Plaskitt: Those are rather unusual circumstances. I am aware that my hon. Friend has encountered them in her constituency, and I encourage her to write to me with the details of the cases, if she does not mind. I am happy to look into them a bit further. However, it has always been part of the regulations applying to the child support system that for a maintenance calculation to be made and enforced, all the parties have to be habitually resident in the UK. I think that that is not so in the case that she has encountered, and there would therefore be difficulties in pursuing the matter, but still, if she gives me more details about it, I will look further into it for her.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Will the Minister be kind enough to look into the case of my constituent, Mrs. Faringdon, who has full-time care of her 14-year-old niece? The niece’s child benefit is still being paid to her father, despite the fact that there is a non-molestation order against him. Mrs. Faringdon would like to apply for a permanent residency order for her niece, but has been told that no funding will be available to enable her to do that, and she is unable to fund the process herself. I should be most grateful if he looked into the matter for me.

Mr. Plaskitt: I would be more than happy for the hon. Lady to write to me with further details of the case, and I undertake to look into it. The normal rule in relation to child benefit is that it goes to the parent who has the majority of care of the child, and that is a fairly firm rule. However, the case sounds complex, so if she writes to me with further information about it, I will look into it and try to help her constituent out.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Can the Minister explain and justify the practice whereby people in emergency financial need seeking loans from the social fund are no longer being interviewed, but are required to access a telephone helpline, which is invariably engaged or unobtainable and, at best, provides a highly impersonal and unsatisfactory service?

Mr. Plaskitt: The fact of the matter is that the telephone helpline has been introduced. I accept that there were difficulties with it initially; we have been
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clear about that. A great deal of extra investment has gone into it and more staff have been transferred to the helpline. I think the hon. Gentleman knows that the latest statistics show that it is performing well, calls are being answered swiftly, calls are not being lost, and support is being given in the same way as it was on a face-to-face basis. I can also confirm to him that if any of his constituents still require a face-to-face interview and do not want to proceed with a telephone application, they are entitled to ask for a face-to-face interview and it will be provided.

Topical Questions

T1. [207997] Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): We want to give children the best possible start in life. Responsible parenting is important to provide children with the security and confidence that they need to thrive. The moment that a child’s birth is registered is of enormous significance, both practical and symbolic. It is an opportunity for public acknowledgment of the responsibilities of parenthood, where both mother and father can commit to their role in nurturing and supporting their child, yet as many as 45,000 to 50,000 birth registrations in the UK each year do not include the name of the father.

I can therefore announce today that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Children, Schools and Families are publishing the White Paper “Joint Birth Registration: Recording Responsibility” in order to ensure that wherever possible both parents are named on a child’s birth certificate. We propose that joint birth registration should become a legal requirement for all unmarried parents, unless that is decided by the registrar to be impossible, impracticable or unreasonable. The measures will continue to protect vulnerable women and children, but allow a mother to ensure that a father acknowledges his responsibility for his offspring. Equally, they will ensure that unmarried fathers will get the right to have a say in their child’s life.

Harry Cohen: I welcome the Government’s proposal for joint registration of a birth, and I note those exceptions. It is important that both parents, fathers included, are on the registration of a birth, but if there is a contestation about who the father is, could there be a system of revised registration, perhaps at a later date, to take into account the results of any DNA tests that might have taken place?

James Purnell: That is something that we should look at. The system of paternity testing is there for parents to be able to establish paternity accurately. I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the moves that we are introducing. It is important to change the default system so that both parents are registered, for unmarried couples as well as for married ones.

T2. [207998] Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I appreciate the answer that the Minister gave to my previous question and the way in which he put it, but I do not think he quite got the point. All the financial support that goes to people after family and
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relationship breakdown is not worth nearly as much as support and investment given before the break-up. There is mounting evidence that such support, in all its many forms, is needed to prevent relationships from breaking up, but there is little evidence to suggest that the Government have yet understood that. Can the Minister help the House a little more?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that no support is going through. All the measures that we have introduced since 1997 in support of families, especially families on low incomes, who have been the principal gainers from Budget and benefit changes, mean that more support is going into households. That support helps to sustain the family, helps the family to deal with the challenges of the day, and is therefore in support of the family. Tax policies and benefit policies, as well as child maintenance policies, have been very much pro-family and continue to be so.

T3. [207999] Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Many of the services offered by the Minister’s Department have to be accessed through phone lines. However, as my hon. Friend will know, an increasing number of people do not have land lines; they just have mobile phones. Accessing the Department’s services can cost such people much more than is paid by those who can use local services or freephone lines. What will the Department do to take account of the development that I have mentioned as it tries to make its services as accessible as possible to the public?

Mr. Plaskitt: First, there is an array of freephone lines, as my hon. Friend knows. If claimants contact us via a mobile phone, we will always agree to call them back at a predetermined time. Those claimants only have to make the one, brief initial request for a telephone exchange with us; we will then make the call back. In such circumstances, we can help people who have access only through mobile phones.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the new Lib Dem spokesman to her position; it seems a long time since we debated against each other on Merton council.

We welcome today’s White Paper. Its direction is right and the Secretary of State will have our support, although there will no doubt be debate over the detail. Will he tell us exactly what the relationship is between him, the Department for Work and Pensions and Mr. Phil Collins?

James Purnell: I certainly can; I have enjoyed watching this story. First, the press said, wrongly, that Mr. Collins was my special adviser; then they said, wrongly, that he had been sacked. They then launched a great inquisition about why he was not sacked in the first place. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, I should say that Mr. Collins has not charged for or been paid for any work at the Department for Work and Pensions and that he is not employed by the DWP. We do play football together, however—and we are becoming an increasingly slow central defensive partnership.

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Chris Grayling: I am none the less slightly puzzled by the Secretary of State’s answer. We are talking about the gentleman who wrote an article last week saying:

What we do know is that Mr. Collins has been writing speeches for the Secretary of State that have been edited by officials in the Department; there has clearly been some kind of working relationship. Can the Secretary of State explain that? Can he also say what conversations he has had with the Prime Minister in the past few days about the work that Mr. Collins has been doing?

James Purnell: As I said, it could not be simpler: Mr. Collins has not been paid by the DWP for any work. It is interesting that after another six weeks of thinking, the hon. Gentleman has yet again resorted to trivia and refused to engage in any debate about welfare policy. The very clear reason for that is that he knows that the minute there is any scrutiny of his proposals, people will see that they are expensive, that they will increase the cost of welfare and that, at best, all they will do is copy things that we are doing already.

T7. [208003] Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May we get back to real issues, which affect my constituents? Sadly, my constituents still suffer the highest rate of child poverty in the country. Do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench accept that getting lone parents into work and supporting them is probably the most important thing that we can do to tackle the impact of poverty in our society? In that context, would not the abolition of Sure Start—one of the cost-cutting proposals from the Conservative Front Bench—be a tragedy in areas such as the centre of Manchester? [Interruption.]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I ask Members on the Benches to be quiet? They can be noisy at half-past 3.

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) is absolutely right: the abolition of Sure Start would be a disaster in respect of addressing child poverty. The discussions and ideas coming from Conservative Front-Bench Members show how little importance they attach to that whole question.

The progress that we have made on reducing child poverty is very welcome. However, we need to do a great deal more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: helping lone parents into work is perhaps the most important of the initiatives that we have in hand. Changes to lone parent benefit later this year will help. What has been borne out by my visits to Sure Start centres is that the personal help provided to lone parents at those centres is also making a big difference.

T4. [208000] Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): With £4.6 billion of benefits going unclaimed every year, Age Concern’s excellent report, “Just what the doctor ordered”, has suggested that health care settings are an excellent way to publicise benefits. As the
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architect of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, I am concerned that the Government will not meet their target of eliminating fuel poverty by 2010, so will they accept Age Concern’s report?

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): We will certainly give it full and due consideration. One of the key things that we are doing is taking real steps to ensure that we deal with some of the issues surrounding fuel poverty, particularly for pensioners. Age Concern has worked with us in doing that, and I am grateful to it for that. One of our key proposals is the new data-sharing initiative. For years, the fuel companies have said, “We are prepared to provide social tariffs and lower bills for those who are on low incomes, but we don’t know who they are.” In the past, DWP has not been prepared to share that data. In the next six weeks, I will table a new amendment to the Pensions Bill that will enable us to data share with the power companies through a trusted intermediary. Pensioners will be able to opt out if they do not want to have their data shared. We hope that that will be a first step towards dealing with some of the problems that Age Concern has identified.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I welcome what my hon. and learned Friend says about helping pensioners with fuel bills. Will he look at extending the franchise that we gave to pensioners aged over 75 to get free TV licences to ensure that all old-age pensioners will benefit from that measure?

Mr. O'Brien: Over-75s’ TV licences, and indeed under-75s’ TV licences, are a matter for another Department. However, we are anxious to ensure that we continue to take steps to deal with the issues of pensioner poverty that this Government are committed to tackling. That is why we introduced pension credit in 2003 and have since taken initiatives to increase it substantially. We want to ensure, too, that some of our steps on fuel poverty deal with the problems that pensioners are facing with their fuel bills.

T5. [208001] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Organisations such as Kettering welfare rights advisory service and Kettering citizens advice bureau help to secure hundreds of thousands of pounds of benefits for residents in and around Kettering. Why can such organisations do such good work when Government officials apparently cannot?

Mr. Timms: There has long been a very valuable role for citizens advice bureaux; that is why Citizens Advice is supported and funded by the Government. It does a great job up and down the country, and that is why we will continue to support it.

T6. [208002] Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): In using the benefits system to compensate the remaining 1 million losers from the loss of the 10p tax rate, why are the Government using working tax credits, which are based on gross income and therefore cannot help, rather than housing benefit and council tax benefit, which are based on net income and can help? Is it that they do not understand their own benefits system?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman gets a whole Question Time to himself to ask these questions of the Chancellor, so I am sure that he will want to do so.
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However, I would have thought that he would welcome the cut in tax and increase in allowances that we have brought in for people not only on low incomes but on middle incomes.

T8. [208004] Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Department’s report for 2008 shows that the Government have not met three public service agreement targets and have encountered slippage on no fewer than nine. Targets 1a, 1b and 1c all relate to child poverty. Is not that an example of a failing Government, and who does the Minister think is responsible?

James Purnell: One thing is absolutely clear: we will not take any lectures from the Conservatives until they commit to the target on child poverty and come up with a single policy to reduce it.

T9. [208005] Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Now that rising food and fuel prices are putting pressure
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week by week on the incomes particularly of low-income people, do the Government have any plans in advance of the next scheduled revaluation of benefits to introduce interim measures to ameliorate that?

James Purnell: Not that I am aware of.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 591,000 people arrived in the UK in 2006. How many of those were gainfully employed?

Mr. Timms: Immigration into the UK over the past few years has left us in a position where more people are in work in Britain than ever before—above 29.5 million for the first time ever—and where we have the lowest number of people claiming unemployment benefit since the mid-1970s. That is an extraordinarily strong economic performance, and part of the explanation for it is the contribution made by people coming to work from overseas.

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New Member

Mr. Speaker: Will the Members wishing to take their seats please come to the Table?

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath :

Edward Timpson, Crewe and Nantwich.

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