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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 October 2014

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Relationships and Children’s Well-being

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)

9.30 am

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I commend the Government for their groundbreaking work in beginning to put relationships at the heart of family policy.

The Minister can be justly proud of the Government’s progress in a number of ways, including: raising the care leaving age for young people who are fostered, acknowledging that ongoing relationships with foster parents can be incredibly redemptive for children whose birth families have been unable to raise them; transforming the adoption landscape, so that heroic adoptive parents get the support that they need, making it far more likely that they can provide a stable, loving family and that the adoption is as successful as possible; building on the existing evidence-based programme and approaches that help couples to strengthen their relationships and prevent family breakdown; and investing in parent-child relationships by launching the CANparent scheme, providing vouchers for free parenting classes in three trial areas.

The coalition must also be congratulated on recognising marriage in the tax system, acknowledging the greater stability of marriage. Unmarried couples with children are at least twice as likely to split up as those who are married, regardless of income. Furthermore, the Government established a cross-cutting Cabinet Committee on social justice—which rightly treats family breakdown as a driver and not simply as an effect of poverty—and appointed the Department for Work and Pensions as lead Ministry on the issue, to bring all relationship support policy under one Department. I also thank the Prime Minister for his speech in August this year in support of strong families.

I could go on, but I want to leave plenty of time to explain why relationships matter so much to children’s well-being and to make it clear that while that is a great start, it is only a start. The agenda has to be seen as a journey with a long distance left to run. It is like a ship that has finally set sail and edged out of the mouth of the harbour, but is still a long way from achieving its purpose in setting forth. What is that purpose? The over-riding priority for family policy has to be to tackle our epidemic levels of family breakdown in this country.

With the exception of our Prime Minister and a few others, some of whom are present—I acknowledge the support of Members attending the debate—politicians often hold back from talking up the benefits of marriage and committed relationships. They worry that by emphasising the need to support and encourage such relationships they will be seen as judgmental or moralising, or as adopting a “nanny state” approach. The costs of family breakdown, however, are enormous; at £48 billion, they exceed the defence budget. Surely it

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“is not a nanny state so much as a canny state”

that tackles the issue—not my words, but a quotation from the conclusion reached by the Centre for Social Justice in its July 2014 Breakthrough Britain report, “Fully Committed? How a Government could reverse family breakdown”.

The CSJ has probably done more than any other organisation to put the issue on to the policy agenda. I pay tribute to the CSJ, to the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for founding the organisation and inspiring so much of its work, and to the excellent work of Dr Samantha Callan.

The CSJ report states:

“Strong and stable relationships and families are indispensable to a strong and stable society. Secure, nurturing, loving and reliable family environments are crucial for the health and wellbeing of children, adults, and wider communities, and where these factors are absent this can have a profoundly damaging effect on the fabric of society. Yet for almost half a century there has been an escalation in family breakdown across Britain—divorce and separation, dysfunction and dadlessness.”

The report and the statistics speak volumes about why we have no grounds for complacency in this country. For example, by the time that children are sitting their GCSEs, nearly half of them live in broken homes. That proportion rises to two thirds for those in low-income communities, and we must highlight the fact that it is the poorest who are hit hardest by family breakdown. Almost half of all children under five in our poorest households are not living with both their parents, which is seven times the number of those in the richest households. One statistic in particular brought home to me the distorted priorities in our society: more teenagers have a smartphone than have a father at home.

We are known as the single parent capital of Europe, with one quarter of families with children headed by lone parents. That figure rises significantly in our poorest neighbourhoods and can be as high as 75%. Other countries are doing much better. In Finland, more than 95% of children under 15 live with both parents, and the OECD average is 84%. Many parents raising children on their own are doing an amazing job against the odds, but few set out to do that—it is rarely a lifestyle choice. They find it incredibly difficult and they do not want their children to be in the same position when they are older.

Why does stability matter so much for children? Surely the most important thing is that they are safe? Surely if a relationship is no longer loving and nurturing for the adults and children involved, it is time to call it a day. Campaigners against domestic abuse often argue against an emphasis on stability, on the grounds that violent and controlling relationships should not be stable and need to end. I will explain why, however, it is overly simplistic to pit safety against stability.

Not for one minute am I saying that a partner who is being subjugated or suffering significant and severe abuse should be under any societal or economic pressure to remain in an exploitative relationship. Nor am I saying that the poor status quo of low-quality relationships, even where there is no abuse, should simply be endured because of an ideological emphasis on stability. Relationship education, support, counselling and therapy represent a spectrum of help for those who do not want their

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relationship to end, but deeply want it to improve. That is why this and future Governments need to keep investing in effective programmes and research on what works.

Parents’ desire to stay together is often rooted in their awareness that relationship breakdown profoundly affects children. Children whose family splits are more likely to experience behavioural problems, to underachieve in school, to need more medical treatment, to leave school and home earlier, to become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age, and to have poorer mental health and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence.

That is explored in another report, which was produced last month by a number of parliamentarians. I was privileged to be involved, under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who I am pleased to see present today. That important report, “Holding the Centre: Social stability and Social capital”, which I hope the Minister will read, if he has not already received a copy, states that social capital is the wealth of our nation:

“While economic recovery is an essential foundation, it is not enough. Debt burdens, housing costs, worries about social care, and lack of confidence that all will share the fruits of domestic hard graft and global competitiveness weigh heavily. Fractured relationships are both a cause and consequence of these issues.

Strong communities and extended families can build both financial and social capital, increasing wellbeing and reducing long-term pressures on public spending. Every department of the government should therefore be crystal clear about the extent to which it relies on family and community relationships and the costs of that contribution being compromised.”

The report welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcement of a “triple test” for family policy, so that

“every government department will be held to account for the impact of their policies on the family”,

and it states:

“He is right to say that ‘whatever the social issue we want to grasp—the answer should always begin with family’.”

The report highlights the Prime Minister’s comment that

“to really drive this through, we need to change the way government does business”.

It makes a number of recommendations that, as I have said, I hope the Minister will look at and will respond to in his speech.

My simple and unapologetic message is that, for children, what matters is a trinity: relationships that are safe, stable and nurturing. The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent of Public Health England, treats safe, stable and nurturing relationships—or SSNRs, in our acronym-prone world—as one of the essentials for childhood. It states:

“Safe, stable, nurturing relationships…between children and their caregivers…are fundamental to healthy brain development”

and

“shape the development of children’s physical, emotional, social, behavioral, and intellectual capacities”,

all of which ultimately affect the whole of their lives as adults. Children’s mental health rests largely on their benefiting from safe, stable and nurturing relationships.

The three dimensions of safety, stability and nurture are all important aspects of the social and physical environments that protect children and are indispensible to their fulfilling their potential. Safety is the extent to

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which a child is free from fear and secure from physical or psychological harm. Stability is about the degree of predictability and consistency in a child’s environment—including consistency in the people to whom children relate—as well as how they interact with caregivers and others.

Stability gives a child a sense of coherence and enables them to see the world as predictable and manageable. Without it, they may not form the secure and nurturing attachments they need for optimal development. Moreover, if the adults around them are not in stable relationships, it can make it more likely that a child will be exposed to relationships and environments that are stressful and unsafe. Many stepfathers are incredibly caring and conscientious, but sometimes living with unrelated males is a significant risk factor for child maltreatment, as in the baby Peter tragedy and many other serious child abuse cases.

Nurture concerns the extent to which a parent or carer is attuned and responding to the physical, developmental and emotional needs of their child. Nurturing relationships make a child feel safer and able to embrace new situations and explore their world with confidence. I should say that it is not one-way: one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life has been nurturing and bringing up two boys, who are now aged 18 and 21. Safety, stability and nurture overlap, and all matter. Children are more likely to grow up with all of them if their parents’ relationship is intact and high in quality.

In a worrying situation, over the past few days and weeks, world leaders and national Governments have been calling other countries to account over their lack of action on the Ebola outbreak. The scale of such a challenge requires all the wealthy nations of the world to plough in significant resources and make a sacrificial effort. Small gestures will not stem the tide. I would argue that exactly the same can be said about stemming the tide of family breakdown.

Evidence from the Healthy Marriage Initiative in the United States shows that those states that put a significant amount of resource into the poorest communities saw correspondingly significant increases in children growing up with both their parents and declines in child poverty. The states that did not had far less to show for their efforts. Our Government’s own research has already shown that Relate’s couple counselling and Marriage Care’s marriage preparation courses show a more than elevenfold return on investment through savings due to reduced relationship breakdown—that is, for every £1 invested, over £11 is returned to society. Courses such as those show that relationship skills can be learned. We need more of them in our society, in which so many people—particularly young people—embark on relationships with no role model for how to sustain a healthy relationship over time.

I am reminded of a discussion I had with a colleague in my law firm. It had become clear to me that our family department was advising on divorces for couples in shorter and shorter relationships. I asked the head of the department, “What is the shortest marriage that you have advised on now?” He turned to me and said, “The couple did not even end their reception. They had a row

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during the reception and came to us for a divorce.” Does that not highlight a lack of understanding of what commitment means, certainly in a marriage?

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment not to allow funding for relationship support to drop below the current level as long as he is in post. But that level is meagre in comparison to the scale of need: it is just 0.02% of the cost of family breakdown. I understand that public finances are tight and that there is concern that the evidence base for effective programmes and approaches is still slender. However, surely the answer is to build on that base. Sir Graham Hart urged the previous Government to do that in the review of relationship support they commissioned him to undertake in the late 1990s. It is important to note that this is a cross-party issue. It concerns colleagues right across the political spectrum and should be above and beyond party politics. Any Government, of whatever colour, should treat it as a priority.

Relationship science is a growing and respected field of research in the US. One of its foremost proponents, Professor Scott Stanley, argues that we know enough to take action and we need to take action to know more. We have already learned a lot about what works in helping and supporting couples, but we need to keep on learning and improving all the time. Evidence matters enormously, so I am delighted that this Government have recently conducted their own family stability review. It is essential that the findings of the review are published soon, for the benefit of local authorities and commissioners of services.

We also need a What Works centre for families and relationships—not a vastly expensive proposition considering its potential return: the Early Intervention Foundation was set up at a cost of £3.5 million and is already making a huge contribution to local authority decision making. A What Works centre would help enormously in refining a curriculum for relationships education in school. It is critical that relationships are the priority in relationships and sex education in schools. There is hardly a person I know who does not agree with that. The subject should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum, drawing in local relationship support organisations as well as specialist teachers. Last week’s heated media discussions over the footballer Ched Evans’s rape conviction show how vital it is for all young people to understand issues such as consent, equality and respect in relationships, as well as commitment and the importance of enduring relationships.

We also need children’s centres in every community to evolve into family hubs where parents can get help with their own relationships, not just with parenting. Although all this help and support has to be delivered at a local level, it is essential that the policy agenda is championed nationally, otherwise it will have no hope of competing for time, money and attention in an already impossibly crowded set of priorities. Although I am aware that individual Opposition Members are extremely concerned about this issue, I am disappointed that apart from the shadow Minister there is only one Member on the Opposition Benches today, from the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea).

As chair of the all-party group for strengthening couple relationships, I had the privilege of hosting the launch yesterday, here in the House of Commons, of

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the Relationships Alliance’s excellent manifesto. That manifesto makes some excellent practical suggestions, including calling for a Cabinet-level Minister for Families with a properly resourced Whitehall Department. That would greatly help to ensure that the recently introduced family test for public policy is meaningful.

The manifesto has 12 points intended to challenge Government and promote cultural change. They include the suggestion that all front-line practitioners delivering public services should receive training on relationship support; that family and relationship centres should be piloted and established in the UK, as in Australia, where the Government have made a 20-year commitment to addressing the issue; that central Government should engage local authorities to develop and extend relationship support at local level; and that both local and central Government should ensure that services are designed to help at life transition points, so as to include a focus on couple, family and social relationships. Lastly, although there are other recommendations I have not mentioned, the manifesto says:

“The expanded Troubled Families programme should include a focus on supporting and measuring the quality and stability of couple, family and social relationships.”

I acknowledge, and pay tribute to, the four organisations involved in producing the manifesto: the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, Marriage Care, Relate and OnePlusOne.

To conclude, the Minister will agree that there is no shortage of ideas. In my brief speech, I have referred to three substantial reports on this subject, issued in almost as many months this summer and autumn. The challenges are huge, but they must be addressed—whatever the colour of the next Government, and by us all. The relationships manifesto states:

“Clearly, government…can only go so far, and it requires collective action from citizens, business, civil society and government to create the condition for people’s relationships to flourish.”

I urge this Government to grasp the nettle of family breakdown more firmly than has been the case before. That will immeasurably help this and future generations of parents to massively boost their children’s life chances, enabling them to face the future full of hope, to reach their potential, and to be fully confident that they are loved and that they matter. As the CSJ’s report says,

“Without concerted action across government and beyond to address our epidemic levels of family breakdown there is a danger that the agenda will be lost”,

and it is the children in our society who will pay the highest price.

9.51 am

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this vital debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing it and on championing, not only in this debate, but over the years, the importance of supporting the family.

It is extraordinary that the debate is not better attended, but despite the lack of attendance among Opposition Back-Bench Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), we do face an epidemic, as my hon. Friend said, and it has been going on for many years. This epidemic needs the same attention we would give any other epidemic in our country, and it is interesting to reflect on that as we consider how well we are dealing with the scale of the problem.

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My hon. Friend paid tribute to the report from the Centre for Social Justice. She mentioned a number of statistics, and one that struck me was that if we carry on in the same way, it is likely that, by the end of the next Parliament, more than half of children taking their GCSEs will come from broken homes. As she said, that is of particular concern as a social justice issue; in low-income households, half of those from the ages of nought to five do not live with both parents. The issue has been highlighted by not only the CSJ, but the recent Good Childhood inquiry, which said that family breakdown and conflict have the biggest adverse impact on children’s well-being.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister, who is with the Department for Work and Pensions, is taking a lead on this issue—quite properly, given the Secretary of State’s long track record on addressing family breakdown. However, it must be said that if our country was facing any other epidemic, Cobra would get together, and the Prime Minister would probably lead the meeting. There would also be a whole set of plans, and a significant amount of money would be thrown in to try to address the problem. I welcome the fact that the lead on addressing this epidemic is being taken by the DWP, but should it not be taken across Government at Cabinet level, as my hon. Friend said?

The Prime Minister has taken a lead—in fact, more than any other Prime Minister—not simply at the beginning of this Parliament, but very much as we get towards the end of it. I attended the speech he gave in August, in which he set out the steps we have taken, which are significant, and what we are doing now. My hon. Friend highlighted those points, but I should also emphasise the significant amount that continues to go into relationship support. That is welcome and important, but in many ways, it is the minimum we need to be doing.

Adoption reform is fantastic; what is happening is significant, and it must be welcomed. The belated introduction of the marriage tax allowance recognises the significance of marriage and helps to support it. The work done in the troubled families programme is also welcome. However, in many ways, that is only the minimum we should be doing to address the tide of family breakdown and instability, which is taking a huge toll on all our communities, but particularly the most deprived.

We should not simply accept that family breakdown is inevitable. We have to look at other countries. Sadly, we top the league of instability and family breakdown. There needs to be a shift, but it is not one that the Government can engineer; there needs to be a cultural shift, which will allow us properly to promote the benefits of marriage and committed relationships.

I do not want to give a commentary; in many ways, we all agree about the problems, the challenges we face, and the good steps the Government have taken. Instead, I want to address three issues. One is fathers. As we all recognise, fathers matter, but 1 million children in Britain today have no significant contact with their father. That is a huge problem and a huge shame. We all accept that fathers matter in family relationships, and we must do more to support fatherhood.

It is interesting that the Minister is here, because we need to do more in two areas. One is the joint registration of births. Schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2009

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provides for the joint registration of births. Mothers are automatically registered, but unmarried fathers are not, and they have to go through a process to get on the birth certificate. I understand that the provisions have not been implemented yet, and they have no doubt been delayed by legitimate concerns about wanting to avoid problematic issues—for example, preventing a violent father from automatically registering and assuming responsibility for the child. However, the legislation does provide for exceptions, and I do not understand why we have not motored on with a decent piece of legislation introduced under the previous Government to ensure that, at the very least, we make it easier for fathers automatically to register. Being registered on the certificate is hugely significant; it says loud and clear that the father, as well as the mother, matters at the very start of the child’s life. Flowing from that, other shifts can take place, in terms of the father’s responsibility and the way in which he can be involved practically. Will the Minister therefore tell us how far we have got with implementing the legislation?

It is also important to look at how registration can happen practically. It does not need to happen at the registry office. Like others, I know the difficulty of getting everyone to the registry office to register. When couples are not married, or there are problems in a relationship, that can be even harder. We therefore need to look actively at registering births at children’s centres. That was recommended by the CSJ, and I ask the Minister to examine whether the Department for Education can look at the benefits. In particular, it has been recommended that we look at our children’s centres as real family hubs, where mothers and fathers can be together to access information and help to support their children. Even if there are problems in relationships, the mother and the father can still be involved in the child’s journey. Children’s centres can operate better as a wider family hub.

The second issue is one that does not always get a mention: grandparents and the extended family. Families come in all shapes and sizes: they go up, down and along in terms of their length, breadth and depth. We should recognise the unsung heroes of families—the 14 million grandparents in Britain today. They range widely in age, and we should not stereotype them. Half are under 65 and one in 10 is aged 50. One in four working families rely on them increasingly for child care. I understand from Grandparents Plus that they contribute some £7.3 billion of child care to society. We need to understand their role. They provide important practical and emotional support for parents, which is particularly needed in crises.

Kinship care is in some ways the poor relation in family policy. The Government have rightly done a lot about adoption, providing rights, support and access to information for adoptive parents. However, grandparents and other kinship carers are not on the same level. I invite the Government to think about how we can go forward on the reform of kinship care. It has such a significant role—particularly, as the Minister will know, when a child, or indeed a parent, has a disability. Grandparents can have an informal or formal role, and their involvement builds social capital within the family, but they also gain a lot of value themselves from being involved in the care of their grandchildren. It helps with their independence, and can avoid huge bills for social

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care subsequently. Much more active support for their role would be a win-win situation for the grandparents and the children.

In reality, grandparents struggle, particularly in crises. It is thought that up to 300,000 children are being brought up by 200,000 grandparents who carry out the role of family carers. In many instances domestic violence, drug or alcohol addiction, abuse and neglect are involved in the situation, and the only person who can be turned to is a kinship carer. That might be a grandparent, but it could be a sibling or other family member. Such approaches can also be important in crises, such as when there is a bereavement, an imprisonment or a combination of such factors. The reality is that 95% of children living with members of their wider family do not have formal looked-after status within the care process. Without that, kinship carers inevitably do not receive the same rights and benefit entitlements as those who provide formalised care. The evidence is that children do much better where there is a kinship relationship. Stress, anxiety, depression and isolation affect kinship carers immensely, and without the levels of support available to others, that is growing. Kinship carers may be affected by issues to do with housing and the availability of discretionary payments to enable them to cope during crises.

What can be done about the situation? When he gave the speech that I have mentioned, the Prime Minister was asked a question about kinship care and he said:

“You do see sometimes grandparents stepping in and effectively bring up children, and of course under the rules they don’t get quite the same set of rights as others. What you are saying is that if you can extend to adoptive parents things that birth parents have in terms of rights, couldn’t you do that for grandparents?

That is something I am very happy to look at in terms of manifesto, and we have got some Conservative MPs”—

in fact, there are two hon. Members present for the debate who were there at the time—

“who have got some responsibility for giving me ideas on that front, so I am sure they will take note of it.”

I encourage the Minister to take note, and consider the possibility of a local authority duty to consider the wider family before children are taken into care.

The Department for Education came up with good guidance in April, which states that

“the local authority should identify and prioritise suitable family and friends placements, if appropriate…before care proceedings are issued, as it may avoid the need for proceedings.”

That is very welcome; we need to think about how far that is embedded in local authority practice. The Department also said in guidance in April that foster carers should have 20 days’ paid leave for training and meetings, and that included grandparents who look after children. We should, furthermore, consider entitlement to adjustment leave to give kinship carers time to deal with family crises without losing their jobs. If the arrangement becomes permanent, they should be entitled to that leave. We should consider support based on need, not just legal status.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Quite often, when social services step in when families are experiencing breakdown or trouble, instead of looking first to the grandparents, who may have affection for

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and a relationship with the grandchildren, they look at them suspiciously. Social services should be looking in their direction.

Mr Burrowes: Yes, there can be almost a presumption that a child should go into stranger care, rather than family care. That would run counter to many cultures, but sadly such an unwelcome culture shift exists in our society. An attempt is being made to shift things through the guidance, but that shift needs to be embedded in practice.

I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about kinship care. Campaigners such as Grandparents Plus and the Centre for Social Justice talk about bringing in some equivalent to adoption reform. For example, it was welcome that the Government introduced the passport for adoptive parents, to give them access to continuing support for housing and schooling. If adoptive parents can have it, why cannot kinship carers, who play such an important equivalent role, also have the right to request assessments of need, information on legal status, and support? I should welcome the Minister’s views on that, and on benefit system support to enable kinship carers to care for traumatised children. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions is progressing that, with the distressed children review, and it will be interesting to see the conclusions.

I want finally to mention mental health. A child’s well-being is wrapped up with their relationship with their parents and family, and the need for a stable, supportive, nurturing relationship is also wrapped up with their mental health needs. Whether the parents—ideally two parents—are around is an issue, but so is the quality of parenting, which affects children’s well-being and emotional and mental development. It may perhaps go without saying that when the parents are in conflict, the anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviour emanating from family relationships can have a direct impact on children. It may not go without saying, perhaps, that family breakdown is strongly associated with poor mental health in adults and children. We need to tackle mental health issues. The Government recently advanced a welcome mental health strategy, but it did not mention how conflicts between parents and in fractured families affect children’s mental health. Perhaps that is a given, but it needs to be explicit, because we need to consider how work can be done with whole families to tackle the causes of problems. The Good Childhood inquiry report has recognised poor parenting as a significant contributory factor in increasing mental health problems.

What can we do? The Government deserve to be applauded for the improving access to psychological therapies programmes, which have been extended, and into which a significant amount of taxpayers’ money has gone. They are focused particularly on cognitive behavioural therapy, which is perhaps the normative response, and which has been expanded. I understand that couples therapy for depression has also been expanded within IAPT programmes. Some have expressed concern to me that when someone goes to their GP with depression, the response does not go beneath things, into the causes of the depression within the family, which could well be family problems.

I understand that only a quarter of IAPT programmes offer couples therapy, and that only 0.62% of IAPT sessions have delivered couples therapy. That seems to

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be out of kilter with what is happening on the ground. It is only rarely considered as an option. Millions of pounds are going into IAPT, particularly for cognitive behavioural therapies, but it seems to be inappropriate that little is going into couples therapy.

I do not want to take up more time, because colleagues have a lot to contribute, but to return to where we started, we have a huge problem. There has been significant progress, but we must pull all levers of Government, together, to promote a cultural shift and show that we are on the side of families and better relationships, in the interests of children’s well-being.

10.10 am

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate. The subject needs discussion and careful and considerate handling, but it is right to examine how we nurture children’s well-being and what support exists to ensure that children in this country can benefit from the best possible situation when growing up. It is not enough to observe family breakdown and its wide implications for society and then say it is nothing to do with the state because we are frightened to death of seeming to moralise about people’s private choices.

I am here this morning because I believe we should look at the evidence in our society. As my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said, the evidence is overwhelming. The Government must look at the evidence, suspend their reticence about getting involved in family circumstances, and act. It is right to acknowledge the Government’s progress. I, too, heard the Prime Minister’s excellent speech in London in August when he set out what the Government have done and his aspiration to go further.

This morning, I want to use my contribution to focus on the importance of children’s relationships with their fathers to amplify some of the points that my colleagues have made.

Dr McCrea: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that good relationships and respect in society start in the home and in the family? Parental responsibility is essential and cannot be handed over to anyone else, not even the state. However, Government policy must encourage and strengthen the family unit instead of undermining the traditional family unit in society.

John Glen: I agree absolutely that we must look at how relationships are formed in the home and recognise that families exist in a wide range of sometimes sad circumstances. We must not be squeamish about being honest about messy situations, but recognise that solid family relationships give children the best platform to develop good and meaningful lives in society.

I want to focus on the importance of children’s relationships with their fathers, especially when fathers cannot live with their children. I believe that fathers’ involvement boosts children’s self-esteem and confidence

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and that children with good relationships with their fathers are less likely to experience depression or exhibit disruptive behaviour at school. When fathers are actively involved in their children’s care, children are more likely to feel good about themselves, do well at school, avoid trouble and reach their potential.

Several months ago, a lady came to my surgery saying that her relationship with her partner had broken down after they had lived together for 10 years. During that relationship they had brought up their own child and another child who had been born a year before the relationship began. The acrimony of the breakdown of the relationship had led the departing father to arbitrate on which child—they were only a year apart in age—he would want to have contact with. The one who was not his blood relative—the stepchild—wanted to maintain the relationship because the man was the only father figure he had known, but his birth child was more reticent about seeing his father. The impact of the disruption on those children and the arbitrary removal of that father influence would have tragic consequences. That experience typifies many that we hear about in our surgeries and throughout society, and we must respond to it.

It is highly worrying that the Centre for Social Justice has estimated that more than 1 million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers by the end of their childhood. The shocking but quotable statistic that a young person is considerably more likely to have a smartphone than a resident father is a sad indictment of society.

The coalition’s programme for Government promised to encourage shared parenting from the outset and to look at how best to provide greater access rights to non-resident parents, but I would like to highlight three areas where we could do more. First, we should bring into force schedule 6 of the Welfare Reform Act 2009 on joint birth registration, which requires fathers to register themselves on birth certificates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said, there seems to be some ambiguity about why that has not happened. At present, the law on birth registration signals that fathers are less important to children than their mothers and that less is expected of them. If they are not married, the mother, not the father, is named automatically. Crucially, the mother’s approval is required if the father wants to be named. Obviously, there must be appropriate exemptions, such as when the mother does not know the father’s identity or whereabouts, the father lacks capacity within the meaning of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 or the mother has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father is contacted in relation to the registration of the birth.

If that change was made and the mother wanted the father to be recorded, but that was against the father’s wishes, the mother could identify the father independently. Similarly, a father who wanted to be named but was obstructed by the mother could declare his paternity and have his name recorded against her wishes. Being named on a birth certificate confers parental responsibility and the right to be involved in decisions affecting where the child lives, their education, religion and medical treatment. If fathers are not registered on the birth certificate, that predicts both less involvement in their children’s lives and low or non-payment of child

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maintenance. Australia achieved a reduction of 20% in mother-only registrations during the 10-year period between 1994 and 2004 by adopting a similar measure.

Secondly, if parents separate, it is often highly beneficial to children if they continue to have a relationship with both parents. Yet it can be incredibly difficult to ensure there are well functioning contact arrangements with children. That can be incredibly painful for children, but it is understandable because parents’ inability to work together rarely repairs itself naturally after they have split up.

At this point, I want to refer to a meeting I had on Saturday in Salisbury, where I gave out some awards to volunteers at Salisbury’s contact centre, and in particular to Liz Sirman, who has spent the last five years managing that contact centre. I said then, as I do now, that it seems we can either say that the glass is half-full or half-empty. We can either say that it is lamentable to have children’s contact centres, where parents’ relationships are so broken that they have to rely on volunteers to arbitrate—one partner delivers the child and goes, and another comes to collect the child, and then there is the same process in reverse—or we can pay tribute to the work of such centres, as they try to rebuild relationships and help those families form better relationships in the interests of the children.

We need to be willing to support families once parents have separated. The Department for Work and Pensions innovation fund has invested significantly in better ways of doing that. Additionally, we need family relationship centres, such as those that have been functioning in Australia for several years. Pioneering centres such as Island Separated Families on the Isle of Wight and the Jersey Centre for Separated Families will shortly be joined by other centres in the midlands and the north-west of England. Their help for separated families could be delivered within the system for family hubs mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.

Finally, although the contributory principle in child maintenance is indispensable, it should not have the unintended consequence of preventing non-resident parents from playing a meaningful role in their children’s lives. Some low-income parents are being left with too little money to look after their children adequately while they are in their care after paying child maintenance. That is because the current thresholds at which maintenance is paid are fixed at 1998 prices, and there is no self-support reserve in our system, unlike in many other countries.

This is a critical and controversial area, but we have to examine the reality of how these dynamics are working for the poorest in our society. We need to look at making interventions that change those rules to facilitate better dynamics between, and more involvement of, both parents in bringing up a child. I know that the Minister, who is universally seen as one of the most capable and thoughtful individuals in Parliament, will reflect very carefully on these points. I look forward to hearing what he has to say in response today and subsequently by letter, if some of these issues cannot be responded to today, but I urge him to reflect on the spirit and the substance of what has been said this morning. We are here because we can see an epidemic of family breakdown in our society. We are concerned about the life trajectory of those children, and I urge

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him to do anything that he can to improve that situation, such that those children can look forward to better lives, with both parents involved in their upbringing.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): The debate is due to end at 11 o’clock and we have two Front-Bench speakers. If they split the time, it is 18 minutes each, but the debate does not have to run all the way to 11 o’clock —it is entirely up to them. I call Steve McCabe.

10.23 am

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Good morning, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate. It is right that we should consider the impact of relationships on the well-being of our children, and we should take into account how Government policy can assist in this area.

I do not start with a wholly pessimistic view of relationships. It is true that marriage rates are declining, that less than 50% of British households are now headed by a married couple and that half of those marriages may end in divorce, but the divorce rate is also declining.

Fiona Bruce: I realise I am intervening early, but is not one reason for the declining divorce rate that young people are not getting married at all?

Steve McCabe: That may be one explanation, but we are seeing a downward trend in divorce—I simply make that point.

I was going on to say that I was struck by a bit of research done by the counselling organisation Relate, in 2012. It highlighted the fact that 93% of people said that they still regarded their relationship and family network as the most important thing in getting them through hard and difficult times. If we listen to the media or other people, it is at times tempting to think that we are living in a society where family relationships have completely broken down, but that is not quite our experience. Families—albeit sometimes new or reconstituted families—still form the backbone of our support system. In the era of same-sex marriage—which it is difficult for some people to acknowledge—we are not talking about a single model of marriage. We could be talking about cohabiting, heterosexual, homosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It varies in the world we now live in.

Relate also suggests that one of the things that puts the greatest pressure on families is the state of our economy. Relate says that couple relationships are eight times more likely to break down as a result of economic pressures. In the era of austerity Britain, we need to take that into account.

Fiona Bruce: Does the hon. Gentleman agree—particularly in the light of all that we have heard, even in this debate—that the lack of secure, stable and nurturing relationships in a child’s life is a fundamental driver and a cause of inequality and poverty, that tackling it is progressive and that it needs to be a priority, whatever party is in power, over very many years to come?

Steve McCabe: I certainly agree that, as the hon. Lady’s colleagues have also said, we should be putting a high priority on what is happening to our children, the

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quality of the relationships they are growing up with, and what we can do to assist and facilitate the best possible outcomes for children in those circumstances. However, we have to be conscious that what happens to couples is not divorced from economic policy either. We need to take that into account when considering some of our spending cuts. I was struck by the assertion by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that an increase in working credits could be related to a 160% rise in the divorce rate. I would like to know a lot more about how he arrived at those figures.

Mr Burrowes: I urge the hon. Gentleman to take a longer view of family breakdown and not just see it as confined to the last four years. He should recognise that before the great recession, family breakdown was a significant issue and was not just a result of Government. We are also talking about a cultural problem that has been around for many years and we have still not dealt with it properly.

Steve McCabe: I certainly accept that we would not want to try and explain family breakdown over a period of just four years. I will make the point later that there are a variety of issues; I am simply focusing on the fact that if we are considering the impact on how Government policy assists, we should not ignore the economic factors.

The hon. Member for Congleton referred to Dr Coleman and the OnePlusOne group, which makes the point that evidence shows that where couples enjoy a good employment situation, that in itself leads to a stronger relationship. That may be because they have fewer financial worries or a stronger sense of personal identity. I do not want to dwell on the issue unduly, but I do want to make the point that we have heard about family centres and the need to give Government support, and there are a couple of things from the past four years on which we should reflect. We should ask whether the decision to scale down Sure Start has necessarily been in the best interests of children.

John Glen rose

Steve McCabe: I thought that might tempt the hon. Gentleman to intervene.

John Glen: I would just like to point out that across the country there are 420 of the children’s contact centres to which I referred, and they have never, throughout their existence, received any support from the state, but are supported by volunteers up and down the country.

Steve McCabe: The hon. Gentleman is right: contact centres do not receive state funding. Sure Start centres did, but there are 628 fewer of them since the Government came to power, and I suggest that they have in the past been used as a source of support for a number of parents and families.

Likewise, there is an issue about the availability of child care. That is why, to be fair, both parties are putting quite a stress on child care availability at present. We disagree about the best way to provide it. Obviously, I am much more attached to Labour’s model of providing between 15 and 25 hours for three and four-year-olds. We have to recognise the cost of child care.

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I noticed that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), in what was a very thoughtful speech in a number of areas—I certainly agree with him on the question of kinship and grandparents—mentioned the married couple’s tax allowance. It is worth pointing out, if that is an instrument of policy to help families and children, that it is available only to one third of married couples. It applies to only 4 million of the 12.3 million married couples, and only about one third of them have children, so when it comes to targeting a policy to help children, it would be possible to do a bit better.

Fiona Bruce: I entirely agree. It would be possible to do better, and many Government Members hope that there will be an increase in the allowance over the years to come, but the importance of the allowance is that for the first time for many years, and because of this Government, it has sent a clear message that this country recognises and values the commitment that people make to each other through marriage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that commitment is worth applauding?

Steve McCabe: I simply make the point that if one third goes to pensioners who do not have children, it is a question of targeting. I can see what attracts the hon. Lady. I am not saying whether a married couple’s tax allowance is a good or bad idea; I am saying that if we are talking about targeting the policy, it is reasonable to say that it would be possible to do that a bit better. We could have a disagreement about that.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate has mentioned that there are many factors besides economics. That is borne out in the briefing that the Relationships Alliance provided for this debate. It talks about a host of other factors that can affect people, including gender, age and marital status. I am not suggesting that there is one single thing. I think it would be interesting to spend some time looking at the factors involved. I noticed that the general focus of the remarks from the hon. Member for Congleton was on child well-being. I am also grateful to the Relationships Alliance for the things it had to say in that respect. It points out that children growing up with parents who have good-quality relationships or ones in which there is a lower level of conflict, even if the parents have separated, tend to enjoy better mental health and do better in a variety of other ways.

I thought that the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) was that we should be careful not to think that this area is something that Government or agents of the Government can always address. Parents have their own responsibilities; they have to decide what the impact will be if they separate. I am not suggesting that people who reach that conclusion should not be allowed to do so, but it does seem—if I can take the example cited at the outset—that very little thought can have gone into the operation if people are capable of separating before the end of the wedding reception. It strikes me that people perhaps need to adopt a bit more responsibility. When people decide that they must go their separate ways, they have a responsibility to consider the impact on their children and to shield them from the anger and bitterness that may be part of their separation but should not be part of their children’s lives. That is a very strong argument for encouraging mediation for couples contemplating divorce or separation.

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The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate talked about some of the mental health implications. It comes as no surprise to discover that children who are regularly exposed to intense and poorly resolved conflicts involving their separating parents often suffer more as a result of that than from the separation itself. The hon. Member for Congleton talked about the value of the return on relationship counselling. She talked about the return on every pound spent. There could be an argument for saying that there should also be counselling for children who are exposed to this situation. I do not know whether that is where the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) was going with his comments about family centre models, but it seems to me that this is not just about the two individuals who are separating. I am happy to see money spent on providing relationship support for couples and help for couples who are going to separate, but just as much needs to be spent on the children.

Then, of course, we have to think about some of the broader things. We need better sex and relationships teaching for children in our schools and youth clubs. I know that the hon. Member for Congleton is a great fan of teaching children how to budget and manage their own affairs and how to start a business, but we also need to help them on issues of health, including sexual health, and sexual relationships. The recent Children’s Commissioner report on child sexual exploitation in teenage gangs is frightening, particularly the degree to which children who do not have sufficient support are in danger of thinking that what they see in porn movies is a reasonable model for how they should behave in relationships.

Of course, the issue of fathers is crucial. Like other hon. Members, I am kind of tired of the number of cases that I see at my advice centre of fathers who have really done nothing wrong. Their relationship has simply come to an end. Where there is no question of abuse or violence and no question that the father has done anything other than be part of a relationship that has come to an end, it seems to me that no court and no parent has a right to deprive that father—or that child—of that relationship. In that context, I am particularly impressed by the work of the charity Families Need Fathers, which does quite a lot to try to bring people together in these circumstances.

A key policy ask of the Relationships Alliance is that the Cabinet Office expand its What Works network to include a What Works centre for families and relationships. Will the Minister say whether he has any plans to take up that suggestion?

It is tempting to say a lot more, but I am conscious of what you said about the time, Mr Hollobone. I want to conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton on securing the debate. She is absolutely right to say that this is an area to which we must give the utmost consideration.

Mr Burrowes: Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, does he recognise that there has been a huge step change in one of the issues that affect well-being, namely the number of children growing up in households with at least one parent in work? The reality is that there has been a reduction in the number of workless households, and there are now some 200,000 more children growing up in households where at least one parent is in work. That must be a huge factor in their well-being. Does the

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hon. Gentleman recognise that step change and the way in which the Government have shifted from children the burden of growing up in workless households?

Steve McCabe: It is absolutely right that children should not have to grow up in workless households. Of course, the issue about working is the other stresses that it may place on parents, particularly single parents, so we also have to consider factors such as the value of work, the level of pay and child care.

10.40 am

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr Mark Harper): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing the debate. I am not the most tribal of politicians, but I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has said: it is disappointing that only Conservative Members—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea)—were present, although the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) made a thoughtful speech. I would have thought that all Members of Parliament would take seriously the question of relationships and children’s well-being. Listening to the remarks made by the shadow Minister and by my hon. Friends, it struck me that we all encounter such difficult family situations in our constituency surgeries. We understand how complex such problems are, and we know that there are no simple answers. The ideas proposed by all hon. Members today are worthy of consideration.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her supportive words yesterday at the launch of the Relationships Alliance manifesto, where she introduced my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has been a supporter and champion of this area of policy for some time. She kindly paid tribute to my right hon. Friend for having founded the Centre for Social Justice, and to the work that the centre has done. We are talking about a central area of Government policy, and I know that my right hon. Friend leads it with pride.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of focusing efforts at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent the damage that poor relationships can cause, and I will say a little more about that later. I will set out some of the work that we are doing through the social justice strategy and the social justice Cabinet Committee, and some of the progress that has been made on putting into practice the ideas that she talked about.

My hon. Friend mentioned some figures on family breakdown. The social justice family stability indicator—that is a bit of a mouthful, but I will not turn it into an acronym—shows that 250,000 more children now live with both of their birth parents, 75,000 of them in low-income households. Evidence shows that cohabiting parents are four times more likely to have separated by the time their child is three years of age and, by their child’s fifth birthday, more than one in four of those who cohabit have split up. For married parents, however, the break-up rate is fewer than one in 10. That is something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State focuses on, and I think it is the foundation. It is

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not any form of prejudice; it is the evidence behind the Government’s wish to recognise marriage in the tax system.

The Prime Minister made it clear in his speech at the Relationships Alliance, at which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton were also present, that we support those who bring up children in all circumstances. It is a difficult job. There is, however, something about the commitment that marriage entails that enables those couples to stay together. That may be to do with the characteristics of those who choose to cohabit compared with those who marry, and the fact that those with good-quality relationships may be more likely to marry in the first place, so one has to be careful about causal links. That is, however, why we want to support marriage.

My hon. Friend gave a good example of people who probably had not given much thought to getting married or, indeed, to staying married. People who are married know that marriage is not a bed of roses and it has to be worked at, as my hon. Friend’s story illustrated. That is the reason for the introduction of the transferable tax allowance for married couples, which my hon. Friends have welcomed, from next spring. The policy sends out an important signal about the value of marriage. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked about the proposal he made the point, as did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, that marriages can be between men and women, men and men, and women and women. The policy is not a discriminatory one; it is available to all who have committed relationships of that sort.

I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton set out why we need safe, stable and nurturing families. I will not join her in using her four-letter acronym—one of my missions in politics is to avoid acronyms and talk in plain English—but she made a sensible point. The approach that underpinned the cross-government family stability review was to make sure that children benefit from those characteristics, whatever the structure of the family, and whether the parents are still together or have separated. The point came through clearly from all contributions that the important thing is the relationship between children and parents, whether or not the parents are still together. That review was supported by evidence from a range of organisations, and the Relationship Alliance and its constituent bodies were involved in that process. Most of the points in the manifesto that the Relationship Alliance launched yesterday were picked up in the stability review. As my hon. Friend knows, the key policy findings of our review were announced by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Relationship Alliance summit in August.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate asked what action we would expect the Government to take if this were any other sort of social problem. As he acknowledged, the Prime Minister is leading on this. Family relationship support has been brought together under the Department for Work and Pensions, so there is better co-ordination and oversight, and the Prime Minister has committed to investing at least £7.5 million in relationship support every year for as long as he is Prime Minister, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. It is worth remembering that that is not the only funding;

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there is also £448 million a year, with an increase of £200 million next year, for the troubled families programme, which my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned. That is a significant sum of money, which will be used to help some of the families who need it most in a joined-up, co-ordinated way so that they have one point of contact with the state and they do not have to deal with a range of organisations. The expanded programme will work across government with an additional 400,000 families from next year.

Fiona Bruce: I thank the Minister for the emphasis that has been given to the troubled families programme. Will he elaborate on how the leadership shown at national level by the Prime Minister and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions could be replicated at a local level? At present, I do not believe that we see such leadership. We do not see champions. One problem that has been highlighted in several of the reports that I referred to is the fact that local data on relationship strength to inform local authorities’ health and well-being strategies are inadequate. Will the Minister touch on what is being done to encourage local authorities to improve that?

Mr Harper: I will say one thing now, and I will write to my hon. Friend about the more detailed work that we are doing. The troubled families programme has helped by bringing together not only bits of central Government but local agencies in partnership with the local authority. In my local authority in Gloucestershire, local leadership and local agencies have been brought together as a result. Let me take away that thought, and I will speak to colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to find out what work is going on at local government level and whether we can do more to create a joined-up process.

The Prime Minister also set out the family test, under which we will test all new domestic policy to see what its impact will be on families and family relationships. I think that is an important step. I will not touch on the other areas in great depth, because I want to talk about some of the issues that were raised in the debate.

Mr Burrowes: I welcome the family test and the Minister’s speech supporting that policy objective. Will he outline the timetable for that test? When will we see it reach fruition? I have referred to kinship care and other areas, so will there be a wider family test?

Mr Harper: My understanding is that the family test will effectively apply from November. From that time, as Departments develop domestic policies they should consider the impact on families. My hon. Friend made some sensible points about grandparents and wider family relationships. I am particularly familiar with the extra responsibilities of parents with disabled children and the help that they receive from grandparents and the wider family. He raises sensible points, and the Government are considering such issues. We have ensured that grandparents can claim child maintenance if they are the main carers. I know he also welcomes the Department for Education’s guidance on care, which recommends that local authorities now consider family options first before taking children into local authority care. There are obviously further ideas, and I think he ascribed both to himself and to my hon. Friend the

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Member for Salisbury (John Glen) the Prime Minister’s invitation to contribute ideas both directly to him and to other Ministers on how we can make further progress in this area—not that either of my hon. Friends need inviting to contribute on policy areas in which they both have a long-standing interest.

We are also looking at piloting relationship education in both antenatal and post-natal provision, and we are looking at national guidance for health visitors, who are well placed to spot early signs of relationship distress. Through Early Intervention Foundation pioneering places, we are also considering joined-up approaches that we can take with local authorities. Those ongoing trials may shed light on the suggestions for What Works centres made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, including using those children’s centres as family hubs. The shadow Minister also specifically mentioned the What Works centres.

I think there is general consensus among colleagues that we should recognise and support the involvement of both parents, and I hope colleagues welcome that following the Children and Families Act 2014 there is now presumed shared involvement of fathers and mothers alike. The welfare of the child still rightly comes first, but there is now explicit recognition that, except where there are specific reasons why not, the presumption is that the child should have contact with both parents. That recognition in the legal system is welcome.

The Government are also spending £10 million on the help and support for separated families innovation fund—it is admittedly not a catchy title—which covers 17 projects aimed at testing interventions to help parents going through a separation to work together and resolve conflict. Up to September 2014 those projects engaged some 53,500 parents. The projects consider innovations in delivering those services and the outcomes that we receive from them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton also mentioned the appointment of a Cabinet-level Minister with responsibility for families. The Prime Minister said in his speech that, as well as bringing together all relationship support policy within the Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be that Cabinet-level Minister. The Secretary of State has a long history in this area, and he is very pleased to have been given that responsibility by the Prime Minister. The Secretary of State considers himself responsible and accountable for families, and he is already effectively doing that within the social justice Cabinet Committee, which he leads on some of those issues.

Those are some of the things that the Government have been doing, and in the remaining minutes I will address some of the issues that colleagues have raised in this debate. Both my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned joint birth registration, which was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2009. I was shadowing this brief at the time, and I distinctly remember those debates. Joint birth registration is a more complicated issue than it seems at first glance because, as both my hon. Friends mentioned, there are exemptions in the legislation for difficult cases. Other ministerial colleagues are considering that issue, so it would be sensible if I arranged for the relevant Minister to write to both my hon. Friends, to all Members attending this debate and, indeed, to you,

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Mr Hollobone, so that we can have a detailed response. In my constituency I have experienced cases such as those raised by the shadow Minister in which fathers have been involved in the upbringing of their children and want that important relationship to continue, regardless of the fact that their relationship with the children’s mother has broken down. I will consider that carefully.

The shadow Minister spoke about children’s centres. As of February 2014 there are 3,019 main children’s centres, with a further 531 sites open to families and children. Since 2010, despite the significant financial challenges that we inherited from the Labour party, only 76 centres have closed. Indeed, six new centres have opened, and 90% of eligible families in need are registered with their local centre. That sounds like a pretty good record on providing such support at local level, even where there have had to be very difficult financial savings to rebalance the public finances.

I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said about mental health. My Department is working on the improving access to psychological therapies pilots with the Department of Health. Those pilots are important for ensuring that we do a much better job not just of addressing children’s mental health—he will know that that is one of the passions of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has responsibility for care and support, and it is a passion shared by both coalition parties—but of helping adults with mental health problems either to stay in or return to work. Less than half of adults with mental health problems currently work, so the Government must improve what we are doing. I hope my hon. Friend welcomes what we have done so far, and I hope over the months to come he will welcome our work to improve that still further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury referred to an award he gave to Liz Sirman, who works at a children’s contact centre in his constituency. I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, so I welcome the Government’s support for the work of volunteers in helping to support families and children who have experienced difficult relationship breakdowns. Such work is welcomed, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend was able to recognise it so publicly at the weekend.

The shadow Minister referred to the importance of mediation when a relationship breaks down, and in the Children and Families Act there is now a statutory requirement for people to consider mediation before they rush off to court, which is helpful. There will clearly be cases in which mediation simply cannot work, but the fact that it has to be considered and in people’s thought processes before lawyers get involved is helpful—I am an accountant, so I can be slightly rude about lawyers. Having more mediation to support relationships means that, even if the parents’ relationship cannot be preserved, the relationship with their children can be preserved, which is welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned child maintenance thresholds, and the Minister for Pensions has committed to reviewing the formula and the threshold once the current reforms have been safely implemented.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate did a good job of responding to the shadow Minister on the economic issues, but I have a couple of further

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points. First, children are three times more likely to be in poverty if they live in a workless family. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are now 290,000 fewer children living in workless households, which is good news. That means that there are 300,000 fewer children living in relative income poverty than when the Government came to office.

Finally, the shadow Minister referred to the importance of work and people being in jobs, which is why I am sure he will join Government Members in celebrating that there are now 1.8 million more people in work who are able to bring home a pay packet and contribute to their family. That is a positive note on which to finish this excellent debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I thank all Members who have taken part in this extremely interesting, informative and important debate.

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Infrastructure Investment (Stroud)

11 am

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to see the Economic Secretary to the Treasury in her place. I will raise a number of infrastructure-related issues involving my constituency.

In 13 years, the Labour Government were effectively unable to find funding for the necessary redoubling of the Stroud to Swindon railway line. Just last week, finally and quite properly, we formally opened that redoubled line with the Princess Royal, as a result of the coalition Government’s delivery of £45 million. The project will make it possible for my constituents to get to London faster, for tourists to get to Stroud more easily and for further works on other lines to take place while the redoubled line is used as a relief route. That is exceptionally good news for the valleys and vale, and it clearly demonstrates that the coalition Government are delivering more investment in our rail network. To put it in context, we will have electrified 880 miles of railway line by the next general election, whereas Labour, in their entire 13 years in government, electrified just nine. The contrast between our commitment to infrastructure investment in railways and that of the previous Labour Government is stark.

The second big project for which I have been campaigning successfully is £5 million of investment in the GREEN—Gloucestershire Renewable Energy, Engineering and Nuclear—Skills Centre at Berkeley, a training centre for renewable and nuclear energy and engineering. The great triumph is that the project will be housed in the former Magnox engineering works for the Berkeley power station, which is being decommissioned. The process is effectively complete. It is a useful project for my constituency, in terms of providing opportunities for young people in the key areas of energy and engineering. It has been spearheaded by Stroud college, now merged with Filton college, and it is yet another example of our focus on delivering opportunities for young people by ensuring that further education can develop, and by providing facilities, such as through the infrastructure investment of £5 million at Berkeley.

That is the background to my submission for other investments in the valleys and vale in the forthcoming years. Following the success of getting £45 million for the redoubling of the Stroud-Kemble railway line, £5 million for the GREEN project at Berkeley and a load of other additional moneys, I want to set out the case for more investment in the valleys and vale.

I start with my campaign for a university technical college in Berkeley. When we have the buildings for the GREEN Skills Centre, it will make sense to have a UTC, so that we can focus on engineering and provide appropriate skills for our growing manufacturing sector, particularly in advanced manufacturing, an area in which Stroud already has an excellent reputation. Firms such as Renishaw, Delphi, Dairy Crest, Omega Resource Group and others contribute to an exceptional level of growth and huge opportunities for young people.

That is why we currently enjoy just 1.2% unemployment, a huge change from what I inherited back in 2010, when more than 1,400 people were unemployed. That number is now 630, largely because the real economy has taken

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off. We are not only translating that into jobs for hard-working families, improving their chances of avoiding poverty, as the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said in the previous debate; we are also seeing some growth in wages and salaries. That is really impressive, and it is exactly what I want to bring about.

The second project that I will discuss is investment in Stonehouse. It is absurd that people from Stroud and Stonehouse must go via Gloucester or Swindon to get to Bristol. It is not good for growth or for individuals seeking opportunities in Bristol or elsewhere. I want a railway station in Stonehouse, so people can get from there to Bristol easily and swiftly. It is appropriate because the business case stacks up. There is substantial growth in the business parks in Stonehouse, and there is also a case for ensuring that commuters can get to Bristol and Birmingham more easily. The project would be easily facilitated if we could get agreement from various stakeholders, and if it were consistent with the electrification of the line, which is targeted for 2020.

I believe that infrastructure can produce growth in areas that have been a bit isolated. Sharpness is a good example. At one point, it was connected to the Forest of Dean by a bridge over the Severn. There is a case for doing so again. Not only do the communities like to be together—they would like to be reunited—but Sharpness has a huge amount of growth potential, with a thriving port and many industries around it. Connecting it to the Forest of Dean would bring more growth and ease congestion around the A40 and A38.

One project that deserves special mention is tackling the A417 bottleneck. It is bang in the middle of Gloucestershire, and it has a terrible record of road accidents; deaths are all too frequent. We must end the congestion that it causes. Gloucestershire county council has made a strong case for something to be done. I am keen for the Minister to recognise the strength of that case, so that we can deliver for Gloucestershire a solution to a long-term issue that has caused problems for not just the people of Gloucestershire but people going through the area, the industries, supply chains and everything that depends on decent connections.

It is also critical to consider the M5. That is more of a long-term project, but junction 14 is a source of difficulty for commuters and hauliers due to the peculiar traffic arrangement there. It is also important to recognise the need to improve access from Dursley through Cam to the M5. I have not yet made up my mind whether that will involve reconstructing junction 14 or building a new junction, because that is properly a matter for civil engineers to explore, but we need to get that debate on the table.

Essentially, I have set out infrastructure projects for the future of the valleys and vale that make a huge amount of sense in terms of economic growth. There is a good case for each of the projects, and taken together, they will provide opportunities for our young people and businesses to thrive and prosper, which is exactly what we want. I set up a commission to look into those matters, which is why I can use so much evidence and so many facts to support each case. I thank the various members of my commission, including Councillor Penny

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Wride, John Stanton and Robert Evans. They and many others have contributed powerfully to the discussion on these issues.

I ought to mention that infrastructure is about not just roads and rail, although they are important, but protecting the valleys and vale, so reference needs to be made to the tremendous work that the Government have done to ensure that we are properly protected against flooding. The Environment Agency has done a huge amount, having received funding for various projects, and I am off to Lapper Ditch on Friday to see the results of the £700,000 being spent on a significant flood defence project there. That work is all about recognising that the area I represent has huge value, needs to be protected and has people who make massive contributions to our economy and who need to be supported. I am pleased, therefore, that we have made so much progress in improving flood defences. Of course, there is more to do and I will constantly ensure that flood defences are maintained and, where necessary, improved. We need to be vigilant, but I want to put on the record my thanks to the Government for contributing so much additional money in recognition of the need to defend our beautiful part of England, which is the valleys and vale.

To reinforce my case, I have surveyed a large number of people in my constituency about which infrastructure projects they think are important. They have saluted the projects that have already been delivered, to which I have referred. Indeed, almost all the projects I have announced have attracted considerable support in the survey. It is a real piece of evidence that needs to be taken into account. People understand what we are trying to do and why, and therefore they support our efforts.

I have received a huge amount of advice, and it is critical that I demonstrate that it has underpinned so much of the efforts that I have talked about. For example, the Institution of Civil Engineers has been a really interesting source of advice, in terms of the value that it attaches to infrastructure investment. Closer to home, the local enterprise partnership has been powerful in articulating the case for these projects. In fact, in its former guise, as Gloucestershire First, it was pivotal in helping to secure the £45 million of funding from the Government, and it has also helped to promote the case for the GREEN project at Berkeley through its strategic economic plan.

Gloucestershire county council—and indeed Stroud district council, although it is Labour-led—has been quite good at advancing the case for investment. Stroud district council has, in its plan, the idea for a bridge from Sharpness to the Forest of Dean, and it recognises that Stonehouse railway station needs to be upgraded or moved. I can therefore say that a large number of stakeholders have contributed to this discussion, and I am really pleased to make that point to the Minister as further evidence of the strength of the case I am making.

With the economy growing in the Stroud valleys and vale, there are some pressures. One of them, slightly paradoxically given my emphasis on road transport, is a shortage of lorry drivers, newly trained lorry drivers in particular. I want to put on the record the need for us to encourage young people to consider that career as a possibility, because if we do not deal with logistical challenges, we might find that growth does not happen

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as quickly as we would like, or in the way that we would like. I make a plea to anyone listening to this debate: consider encouraging young people to move into haulage.

My last point is that for three years I have been running a festival of manufacturing and engineering. I have attracted support from a wide range of businesses, and I have made sure that schools and colleges understand and support the idea that young people can have a future in manufacturing and engineering. If we consider that in the context of how our real economy can grow, it is our responsibility to put in place the infrastructure for that growth to happen unhindered. That is why it is important for us to have better links with London, through rail; why we need improvements to roads through Gloucestershire, such as the A417; why we need facilities to train young people in engineering and the energy industries; and why we need to take the whole package together and consider what we can do next for the Stroud valleys and vale, to ensure that any growth is not only sustained but increases.

11.15 am

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I am delighted to be here in Westminster Hall today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate.

The quality of a nation’s infrastructure is one of the foundations of its growth and, of course, the living standards of its people, so ensuring that Britain has first-class infrastructure is a crucial part of our long-term economic plan, supporting businesses, creating jobs and providing a better future for all our citizens.

We need to equip the UK to compete on the global stage by giving businesses the infrastructure they need to thrive. That is why the Government have put long-term investment in transport, energy, telecommunications, flood defences and intellectual capital at the heart of our growth plan. Because of the tough decisions we have taken in day-to-day spending, we can prioritise public investment where it is most needed and create the right conditions for private investment in infrastructure, where such investment can bring value for the taxpayer.

The national infrastructure plan sets out the Government’s strategy for delivering the infrastructure that the UK will need during the next decade and beyond. Our intention is to improve further our approach to planning, financing and delivering this critical economic infrastructure as we go through a significant period of renewal. We have outlined a pipeline of projects and programmes worth more than £380 billion, and in the Budget we published further analysis of how we expect that pipeline to be financed. That work builds on the long-term funding settlements we have already announced for sectors such as roads, rail and flood defences, and the steps that we have taken to support private sector investment.

The national infrastructure plan not only sets out the Government’s decisions as to what infrastructure our country will need during the next decade and beyond but sets out our strategy for how we will bring that infrastructure about. It lays out how the pipeline of projects will be financed, building on both the long-term public funding settlements that we have already announced

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—£100 billion of capital investment in projects during the next Parliament—and the steps that we have already taken to support private sector investment, for example through the creation of the UK guarantees scheme and by ensuring the independence of our regulators for key utility sectors. It also lays out the action that we have taken to strengthen planning, whereby a number of improvements have helped to take the number of planning approvals to a 13-year high.

We are continuing to streamline the system, including through the new specialist planning court for infrastructure, which opened in April, and the measures published in the Infrastructure Bill. The national infrastructure plan also lays out the action that we are taking on delivery, to make sure that we have the capability in the public sector to deliver projects on time, on budget and to specification. That also means having delivery bodies with the right structure to provide the autonomy and operational flexibility that are necessary to ensure success. Corporatisation of the Highways Agency will provide that in the roads sector, where we are about to see the biggest programme of investment since the 1970s.

We are already making big progress. Major infrastructure projects are now being completed, including major improvements at Reading station, smart motorways to relieve congestion up and down the country, and a new terminal 2 at Heathrow to enhance our international connectivity. In fact, more than 2,000 infrastructure projects and improvements have been completed over the last four years.

In this financial year alone, more than 200 projects are due to start and another 200 are due to complete, and that will directly support over 150,000 jobs in the construction industry. These projects are part of £36 billion of investment planned for 2014-15.

The Government are taking steps to ensure that the benefits of investment in infrastructure are distributed across the country to generate growth, create jobs and help rebalance the economy. The south-west region is no exception, with more than £18 billion of planned investment in the published infrastructure pipeline across 31 different projects and programmes. This investment includes a number of key projects within the Government’s top 40 priority infrastructure investments, including Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power station in a generation, and the Great Western rail electrification—my hon. Friend knows that work is currently under way to improve one of Britain’s oldest and busiest railways. Other projects include the A380 Kingskerswell bypass, which is currently in construction; the expansion of the National Composites Centre in Bristol as part of the Government’s science and innovation catapult programme; supporting the roll-out of superfast broadband with more than 6,500 premises now passed by the south Gloucestershire and Wiltshire broadband scheme; and the designation of Bristol as a super-connected city.

I, too, welcome the completion of the redoubling of the track from Swindon to Kemble. This key piece of infrastructure will support our wider ambitions to electrify the Great Western main line, significantly improving connectivity for the south-west. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence in making the case for this work. I am sure that it will make a positive contribution to those living and working in his area. I confirm that it was indeed extra cash found by this Government in its very first Budget that enabled the Swindon to Kemble line improvements to go ahead.

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Along with my hon. Friend, I welcome the local growth funding provided to the Gloucestershire local enterprise partnership to convert the redevelopment of Berkeley power station to provide a training centre for science, technology, engineering, and maths skills. This is just part of £62.5 million provided to the local enterprise partnership by central Government, and it will bring forward at least £80 million of additional investment from local partners and the private sector.

I thank my hon. Friend for his active engagement with the local community and am interested to hear his further ideas for infrastructure improvements in the Stroud valleys and vale area. He can rest assured that I will write straight away to my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport, asking that they provide an update on his proposals for a new station at Stonehouse, an additional Severn crossing at Sharpness, a solution to congestion on the A417 and improvements to the M5 at junction 14.

In the meantime, I hope that both he and I can agree that the Government should continue to focus on their existing commitment to deliver key infrastructure schemes throughout the country, including in the south-west.

11.23 am

Sitting suspended.

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Separated Families Initiative

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I understand that the Minister for Pensions, who normally leads for the Government on this area, is unable to be here today, but I am sure we can have a helpful and productive debate. I welcome the Minister for Employment in his place.

Within the past year, the Government have made significant changes to child maintenance policy, implementing the legislation that went through as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. First, the Child Support Agency has been wound down. Pre-existing child maintenance arrangements, which are used by nearly 2 million parents, are being terminated over the next three years. Secondly, all would-be applicants to its statutory replacement, the child maintenance service, must first talk to the child maintenance options service, where they are encouraged to make their own arrangements instead. Finally, for those parents who choose to use the CMS, a £20 application charge has been introduced, along with collection charges if parents fail to pay maintenance.

The clear policy intent is to encourage parents to sort out their own arrangements following relationship breakdown. The Government’s argument has been—and, I presume, remains—that family-based arrangements, as they are being called, will be better, because payers will be happier to pay if they have made the arrangements themselves. Further to that, the Government have asserted that the statutory system that has been in place for some years makes relationships between separated parties worse, because it creates bad feeling and anger. They think that the system might reduce willingness to pay, and encourage payers to look for a way to avoid payment.

Throughout, I have been a sceptic about that line of argument. In my experience, the circumstances of separation generate considerable anger and distress, and it is those feelings that often have to be worked with and worked through. As the period of separation continues, a failure to pay maintenance causes ongoing bad feeling. We know that parents with care suffer considerable financial detriment after separation. Indeed, generally both parties to a divorce suffer financial detriment, but the parent with care, whatever their gender, is the one who, in all the research, suffers the most. If proper payment arrangements are not in place, considerable resentment and anger can build up.

Given the Government’s approach, and that the reform is partly about trying to get people to change their behaviour, it is hugely important to ensure that parents get the sort of practical help and support they need to enable them to come to workable arrangements, especially given the changes to legal aid, which mean that people might not be getting the level of legal assistance they once had. That is where the £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families programme is supposed to come in. I will henceforth refer to it as HSSF, rather than saying the entire mouthful. I know it is not always terribly friendly to use abbreviations, but not using this one would become cumbersome and clumsy. I am afraid

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that the research I have undertaken shows that the programme of support for separating and separated families is piecemeal and inadequate.

There are four main initiatives that come under the HSSF programme, and I will set out my concerns on each in turn. The first is the Sorting out Separation service, which is a key online information and support resource for separated parents, signposting them to relevant help. Between November 2012 and January 2014, only 9,132 users clicked on a signpost to an external organisation, compared with the original target of 260,000. More people visited the front page, but the important thing is whether people are following through to get the more detailed help they need, because the initial information on the website is not sufficient to allow people to enter into arrangements. Given that the website cost more than £400,000 to set up—that was the figure by January, at least—it has cost more than £45 for every user signposted. I emphasise that the figures for this year come after an attempted redesign, which has clearly had a limited effect.

An evaluation commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and carried out between February and June last year reported that users were often unclear about the purpose of the site and the range of information it offered. They were frustrated by the low level of detail supplied prior to signposting. Videos on the site were felt to be “unreal”, with unrealistically positive endings, and a potentially useful action planning tool was criticised for offering only general signposting and not tailored information. Of particular concern, given that existing formal statutory arrangements are coming to an end, was the finding that the site was “less relevant and useful” for longer-term separated parents. Some 70% of the parents who will have their CSA cases closed have been separated for five years or longer, 40% have no contact with the other parent and 14% describe relations as “not at all friendly”. The inadequacy of the Sorting out Separation service might mean that they will find it unhelpful, and if they find it unhelpful, they will not be able to enter into new informal arrangements and will find themselves back in the formal system through the new CMS.

In April, the Minister for Pensions said that the Department was

“in the process of considering the future direction of the Sorting out Separation web app and will shortly be taking steps to improve the profile of the app through search engine optimisation.”—[Official Report, 8 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 214W.]

Can the Minister for Employment tell us what the future of the service is, whether usage beyond the home page has risen and what steps have been taken to improve the content so that long-term separated parents are catered for?

The second arm of the HSSF programme funding is the co-ordinated telephone network. It is a telephone service provided by four organisations: Relate, Family Lives, the National Youth Advocacy Service, and Wikivorce. The service began full operation in March 2014 at a cost of £344,000. While I respect all the organisations concerned and the work they do, it is questionable whether they can provide the scale of support necessary for separating and separated parents

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across the country. Can the Minister tell us more about how the network is working in practice and how many parents have used it?

The third initiative of the HSSF programme is what the Government’s original White Paper referred to as a “quality mark”. It was to

“become a mark that parents can recognise and trust, so they know the service they are accessing is of a consistently high quality and will be able to help them to work together with the other parent.”

It was developed at a cost of £136,500, and 35 organisations have so far been awarded what is now called the HSSF mark. My concern is that the mark is not well understood or even recognised by parents. My impression is that the organisations that put a lot of work into applying for and being awarded the mark have seen little in return. I am unaware of any promotion of the mark to parents by the Department, so I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what steps are being taken in that regard.

The fourth and most significant element of the HSSF initiative is the innovation fund, which accounted for £14 million of the total £20 million to be spent in the current spending review period up to March 2015. According to the White Paper that preceded the legislation, the fund was set up

“to learn what works best in helping separating and separated parents to collaborate and resolve conflict in order to support their children”.

In the first round of funding in April 2013, £6.5 million was awarded to seven projects across the country over a two-year period. Between them, they anticipated reaching just over 280,000 parents. A second round of funding worth £3.4 million came on stream in April 2014 and was awarded to 10 further projects aiming to reach some 12,800 parents. For the first time, projects aimed at longer-term separated parents were also included. I accept that this is relatively small-scale innovation funding; bearing in mind that nearly 2 million parents who have arrangements through the CSA are being taken off that following the new legislation, innovation projects coming in that will reach only perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 parents will not make much of an impression on the large number of parents affected by this major change.

Since starting in Scotland on 14 March, the family decision making service—one of this year’s funded projects that provides internet and telephone advice from Children 1st, One Parent Families Scotland and the Scottish Child Law Centre—has seen more families making informal arrangements. A particularly innovative aspect of its work has been designing publicity material to appeal more to fathers, which has led to more men using the service than would typically be expected. However, only 13 months’ funding was made available, which is a very short time in which to judge the success of any project.

Moving beyond anecdotal evidence of performance is difficult. In the 18 months since the first tranche of money was awarded, we have received little in the way of objective information. In March, we learned in a parliamentary answer that, as at 31 January 2014, 3,724 parents had participated in the seven first-round projects. Although it was early days—I know that the Relate project started late—that does seem low nearly halfway through the two-year funding period compared with the expected figure of over 280,000 parents by the end of the round-one projects. Unless there has been substantial

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take-up since then, we will fall far short of what is still a modest number of parents coming into contact with such help and advice. Will the Minister give us an update on the numbers of parents who have participated in the seven round-one projects so far and how that compares with expected levels at this stage?

Evaluation has also been significantly delayed, partly due to Department concerns around data protection. That is particularly problematic given that many projects are coming to an end and closing, and staff are likely to move into new employment, meaning that any evaluation that does take place will happen while the projects are winding down, which seems unsatisfactory. Earlier this year, the Minister for Pensions confirmed that the Government were in the process of appointing an external specialist to lead on the evaluation work. Is the Minister who is present today in a position to tell us whether an external evaluator has been appointed, who they will be and what the time scale of the evaluation will be?

This is about not just getting the evaluation started, but what the criteria will be. It was disappointing to hear the Minister for Pensions state in January that the evaluation criteria for the 17 projects would be published with the final results. We therefore do not know the criteria, and will not know them until the evaluation has been carried out, so people have not had the opportunity to comment on whether the evaluation is appropriate. The difficulty that that presents is that, as far as I can establish, the evaluation will not include receipt of child maintenance as one of the criteria by which the success of the projects aimed at improving parental collaboration will be judged. That is despite the fact that the innovation fund projects flow directly from the child maintenance reforms, and despite the White Paper stating that the initiatives would

“seek to support parents to reach their own arrangements, therefore avoiding both the statutory child maintenance system”.

It seems odd that that particular aspect is not to be evaluated in the process. We will not necessarily know, even at the end, whether there has been any significant success in getting people to not only meet and talk, but enter into family-based arrangements, and in getting maintenance flowing.

The HSSF funding ends in March 2015. My final questions concern what future funding will be made available to support the initiative.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important subject, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. She mentioned the schemes that have gone ahead, but is she as concerned as I am about the parts that did not go ahead—the local and face-to-face support that people were to be get in places where they felt comfortable? I know from personal experience how difficult separation is when one has a young child. There are many new agencies to contact, but is it not important that people can access advice from places where they feel comfortable?

Sheila Gilmore: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That is a hugely important part of the process. It is all very well to have information available through modern methods of dissemination—being able to get basic information online cannot be a bad thing—but signposting to other places appears to be lacking.

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The process is personal and can lead to difficult periods in most people’s lives, and people do not necessarily get the best information from word of mouth. Family and friends can offer emotional support, but they do not always give people the best advice in such situations. As a family lawyer, I met people who had been told weird and wonderful things about what they could or could not get. Such sources can also be out of date, because people will talk about things that happened to them in the past. However useful such advice can be as a starting point, it is crucial that those who want to get more personal advice—many will—can do so, whether one-to-one, or in a group setting where people feel comfortable and can ask the silly questions that it takes confidence to ask. We do not appear to have reached the stage of even looking at that, but it is important that we do.

On the March 2015 date, and the innovation projects set up to test what worked and what did not, it would be helpful to know how much information we will have, because there has been little evaluation so far. What guarantees do we have that what has been found to work will be scaled up to the numbers necessary? Even beyond 2015, more than 1 million parents will have arrangements with the CSA that have yet to be closed down. In addition, all the people with new separations, whose relationships are only beginning to break down, will want to come forward for help. What system will be in place to help those families sort out their child maintenance collaboratively? If the Government are serious about wanting people to make such arrangements so that maintenance is paid for the benefit of the children, we have to ensure that proper support and advice is in place.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I disclose an interest as chairman of the Mindful Policy Group, which has done some work in this area. I have listened to the hon. Lady’s comments with great interest. May I take her to a related issue, which is the point at which parents split up in the first place? Does she agree that everything she is talking about in the relationship after the separation of the parents would be so much better if children were placed rather more at the centre of proceedings in the courtroom, so that the parents remembered that although they may divorce, children cannot? The continued welfare of their child should be their prime consideration.

Sheila Gilmore: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Most people, at least in theory, believe that they are putting their children first; they might not be doing so in practice, but the reason for that is often the huge emotional upset in their lives. In the midst of that, especially if they are not getting the help that they need, they are not best placed to put their children first, even when sometimes they think that they are doing so. I know how difficult it is for many people to behave in a collaborative manner at such a time and to act out the issues around putting the children first.

We need people to be able to work together, not only on maintenance, but in the wider context. The particular change made, however, was about maintenance, and it is crucial to people’s ongoing relationships to get that right. That is crucial to children, not only to ensure that the money is flowing, but because if it is not, the relationship between the parents must be even worse.

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Ultimately, given the scale of the task—a huge task has been taken on—and the reality of people’s lives, the £20 million so far allocated to the programme is a drop in the ocean. Given the low use of the Sorting out Separation service, the limited nature of the HSSF telephone network, the lack of promotion of the HSSF mark, the small number of families supported by the innovation fund and the lack of local and face-to-face support, the money being spent is simply not helping enough families.

Family-based arrangements have to be made and also sustained. Relationships change, and what happens when people first separate is not all that matters, because as time passes relationships sometimes worsen; they do not necessarily get better. Sometimes that is because of other constraints that come into people’s lives. The financial reality of separation sometimes bites after months or even years of separation, and new relationships can come into the picture, changing the dynamics of the original relationship and what is financially viable for the people involved. Ongoing support, not only initial support, is therefore likely to be required. Family-based arrangements, even if entered into successfully at the outset, might break down under those pressures.

As I have done in similar debates, I put in a plug for the Government seriously to consider copying and promoting the Scottish minute-of-agreement system, which, without going anywhere near a court, can transform a family-based agreement into something that is legally binding and enforceable. The system has been in operation in Scotland for many years. It has enabled many couples to get something down at a time when they are in agreement. It is as enforceable as a court order, and gives the agreement a status and sustainability that is valuable, although the agreement can be changed if that is required.

I am not familiar enough with English family law to know whether such a system needs legislation. If so, however, I strongly recommend it to English colleagues as one that combines the best of both worlds: people may not only reach their own agreement, rather than having one forced on them, but have something that is enforceable and sustainable through the vicissitudes of separation, which is a process rather than an event.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to my questions and set out what the Government will do to address my concerns. I would be grateful in particular for greater clarity on the monitoring and evaluation of all four strands of the HSSF programme to ensure that the Government’s stated objective, which is to reduce families’ need to rely on the statutory maintenance service while ensuring that maintenance still flows to the children who need it, is met.

2.57 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on bringing this subject before us for debate and consideration, and on the balanced way she laid out the legislative change and her opinion of what we have before us. I also commend the intervention of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who

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referred to families and to children in particular. I will focus on that, because for me the effect on children is one of the most significant issues.

More than 100,000 children are affected by divorce and it is estimated that one in three children in the UK will experience parental separation before the age of 16. Approximately one half of couples divorcing in 2010 had at least one child aged under 16, and more than one fifth were under the age of five. Those figures are truly distressing, as I think everyone acknowledges, because the family is something that we all cherish. The debate in Westminster Hall at 9.30 this morning, which unfortunately I was unable to attend, was also about the family. In a way, we are following on from that this afternoon, giving the CSA flavour to the wider debate.

I believe passionately in families and in the need to have them stay together as much as possible for all those reasons and for the sake of those birthdays, Christmases, new years, fathers’ and mothers’ days, and all the things that bring parents and children together. Good-quality couples, families and social relationships are the cornerstone of our society and they are vital for the well-being of our children as they become adults and enter relationships themselves. Often, what children see at home is the relationship that they will build themselves over the following years. Poor relationship quality and instability are associated with a wide range of negative outcomes for children and adults, and the impact on adults can include ill health, depression, stress, financial difficulties and unemployment. I welcome the initiative because it sets out to reduce conflict and improve parental collaboration to focus on the needs of children—something which is sometimes overlooked in messy divorces.

However, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East also set out some examples of how we can best bring those things about—perhaps the Minister could confirm those for us. As a Member of Parliament, I have to deal with two or three cases involving CSA problems each week. They are very real to the people affected who come to my office—more often it is the ladies, although occasionally it is a stay-at-home husband who finds himself in a position where, because of the difficulties, he is seeking money from the wage earner. But more often than not it is the ladies, and when they come in, their children are with them, and it is the children I want to focus on.

Looking through my notes before this debate, I came across an important quotation about one gentleman’s experience:

“Long before you get to the welfare state, it is family that is there to care for you when you are sick or when you fall on tough times. It’s family that brings up children, teaches values, passes on knowledge, instils in us all the responsibility to be good citizens and to live in harmony with others.”

Clearly, the family is the core.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman follows these issues carefully. The point I was making earlier was about the effect on children. The cost of family breakdown is estimated at something like £48 billion, yet many non-resident parents pay their full dues through CSA, but do not get access to their children because of constant breaches of contact orders. Does he agree that parental alienation, which is an offence in other countries, is another form of child abuse? That is why it is so important that, before we get to all the wrangles in the

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court system that result in CSA settlements, parents remember that the children are the most important thing and their welfare must be paramount.

Jim Shannon: I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly. There are unfortunately occasions on which one parent is restricted from visiting, as he will know, because of circumstances in their past—so it does happen, although there are exceptions—but by and large, for 99.9% of cases, I wholeheartedly agree.

It is important to consider not just divorce, but separation and conflict within families. The evidence proves that stable homes, where the family enjoy good relations, have a far better impact on children and adolescents than homes where that is not the case. For example, children growing up with parents who have good-quality relationships and where parental conflict is low—whether the parents are a couple or are separated partners—enjoy better physical and mental health and better emotional well-being, and sometimes higher academic attainment and a lower likelihood of engaging in what I would refer to as risky behaviours. At the same time, evidence shows associations between parental relationship breakdown and child poverty, behavioural problems and emotional health problems, as well as an increased risk of the children’s own relationships breaking down. Very often, when the partnership between a man and woman breaks down, the children and the effect on them go unseen, but the children are the ones I see when people come to my office.

Arguments over money rank as the No. 1 source of conflict in relationships. When parents break up, arguments over money continue, only this time as legal arguments through the courts. Research by Relate shows that the couples who were worst affected by the recession were eight times as likely to suffer relationship breakdown. I note that the Prime Minister himself has indicated that the budget for relationship counselling is to be doubled to £19.5 million. Perhaps that is an indication of the Government’s commitment to trying to address this issue. Will the Minister say how the money will be distributed and whether there are areas in the country with greater problems than others?

Wages remain stagnant and the price of living continues to rise, particularly for the thousands of families in the UK facing mortgage repayment issues, negative equity and the need to provide for children. Financial hardship is difficult to escape, so I cannot say I find the statistic I have quoted particularly surprising. Again, it underlines the issue of how the system can work best for the children and the separated partners.

Money continues to be an issue even if separation occurs. For example, statistics show that children in single-parent families are twice as likely as children in couple families to live in relative poverty. Over four in 10 children in single-parent families—some 43%—are poor, compared with just over two in 10, or 22%, of children in couple families. Again, that is an indication of the problems we have.

Sheila Gilmore: I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the poverty of many separated families, particularly those with the main care of the children, as I mentioned. Is it not particularly important that financial arrangements are put in place and are secure? The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about

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parental alienation, but money can be used as a bargaining tool as well. If arrangements are too informal, is there not a risk that that will happen?

Jim Shannon: That is very much the case. In my constituency, many partners came to an agreement before the legislative change. In many cases that has worked, but in others, money becomes another weapon in the armoury to create division or a reason to hit back at the other person and restrict access. I know of such examples, and there were some from other parts of the country in the Library information pack—I have not cornered the market in those examples. For example, the male partner in the relationship might have a job but then decide to go self-employed, and then when he makes his books up at the end of the year, they show a much lower income than he actually has. I cannot prove emphatically that he is making x amount, but we can always judge what someone is making by the car they drive, the house that they live in or their lifestyle—for example, do they eat out? Sometimes people are quite clearly living a lifestyle that does not accord with their tax returns—that could be worth looking into. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: money becomes a bargaining tool. Some people try to make it work and others do not; it is those others who we are trying to get at.

Just over a quarter of households with dependent children are single-parent families, and there are 2 million single parents in Britain today, a figure that has remained consistent since the mid-1990s. That is one reason why I feel the HSSF initiative merits some support. There is too much divorce, separation and division. It is sad that many of our children are unable to grow up with mum and dad together. For that reason, we should encourage counselling for couples to help them work through issues and, we hope, stay together.

The initial information we have indicates that there is a £20 charge for some single-parent families. Nearly two fifths of the UK’s 2 million single-parent families receive child maintenance payments from the child’s other parent. Perhaps putting a £20 charge on those families has meant that the take-up has not been as good as it could have been, which would indicate that the system needs to be reviewed. Again, will the Minister give us some information on that?

Not every child who has experienced divorce and separation will experience long-term harm. I see that with those who come to my office. The quality of parenting, a lack of financial hardship and whether parents go through multiple relationships following separation are also thought to be key to the well-being of the child. Evidence suggests that helping more parents to work together throughout a child’s life means that the number of children missing out on relationships with both parents and their extended families is likely to reduce. If, as I believe, that is the goal of the initiative, we should support it, but we need to address the issues raised by hon. Members in this debate.

There is no doubt in my mind that a constructive and non-confrontational approach is important. Often, fighting through courts can become tit for tat, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East has suggested. That in turn will have only a negative impact on children as time goes by and the problems between the couple remain unresolved.

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Of course it would be wonderful if divorce and separation did not have to occur, but at times they do. The least we can do in those situations is to ensure that children remain the focus and the priority. Break-ups will affect children; however, by following the aims of the initiative, the impact can be short term and minimal. I ask the Minister to take on board the issue of the initial cost. A system that tries to get a working agreement between both parties is commendable, but will she tell us what action can be taken if it does not work? As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, we do not want the two parents fighting over money in the courts. The fact that two parents are separating or getting a divorce does not mean that they are separating or getting a divorce from their children. Children are an integral part of all this, and we must do all we can to make that very clear to the children who are affected.

3.9 pm

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing this important debate. I will not repeat the points hon. Members have made, but this is a welcome opportunity to discuss the impact of HSSF, as well as the expectations of it and of the new CMS.

The goal of the CMS must, of course, be to ensure that children are well provided for and looked after by both parents when those parents are separated. At a time when child poverty is rising—latest figures show that one in four children in my constituency live in poverty—maintenance has a crucial role to play. For the poorest single-parent families, it can provide up to a fifth of their household income, which is a huge amount for them. It is therefore important that the Government make this good new project a success, and if they are to reduce the use of a statutory maintenance service, which they have said is their goal, and to support families to form their own maintenance agreements, the success of HSSF will be absolutely fundamental.

The service is in its early stages, but the case of a constituent who came to my surgery last week gave me some concern about its success so far and about how it might be improved. My constituent’s case made me feel that it is not really clear when a case is eligible to be referred to the CMS, and I would love the Minister to give us some clarity today. At the moment, parents are required to seek advice first and then to get a reference number to go to the CMS. I should have thought that that would happen when the parents had exhausted all other avenues in trying to come to an agreement on their own.

My understanding from the information my constituent gave me, however, is that he had paid maintenance regularly every month for more than 10 years and had, indeed, upped the payment following a request from the receiving parent, but that he then received a letter from the CMS with a payment plan. My understanding is that he was not contacted previously about any mediation and was not involved with HSSF, and his record of paying monthly on time for more than 10 years was not taken into account.

As a result, my constituent was assessed as having to pay £236.71. Previously, he was paying £250; now, he has to pay £283.99 because of the 20% fee. There must

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be a failure somewhere in the HSSF process in my constituent’s case, and I worry that the problem is more widespread. The child in this case now has less money per month, while the father is paying more per month. How can that possibly be of any benefit to the child or the parents involved?

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I am quite disturbed to hear of that experience, because it sounds very much like the criticisms we made of the previous Child Support Agency. Often, the non-resident parent was chased for extra money without having gone through an understandable reassessment. That is quite concerning, because the whole point of the new system was to sort cases out long before they got to the CMS itself.

Pamela Nash: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The reason the issue has upset and angered me enough that I have come here to make my case today is that we were all very hopeful when we knew a new child maintenance service was required. As constituency MPs, we all have big CSA work loads—like others, I have personal experience of this issue—and we wanted the proposals to be a big success. I therefore hope that my constituent’s case is indicative just of teething problems, not of how the CMS will work in the future.

My constituent’s case also underlined my general concerns about the introduction of fees and how they will impact on children and families. I therefore renew my plea for the Government to publish, at the earliest opportunity, the information and analysis they have on the impact the measures are having on children. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us today when that might be.

The debate also gives me the opportunity to discuss the closure of cases from the 1993 and 2003 schemes and how those might go through HSSF and into the CMS. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made? My understanding from a written answer from the Minister for Pensions is that the closure process is due to go on until May 2018 and that the last cases to be covered are those in which

“Enforcement action is under way”—[Official Report, 1 July 2014; Vol. 583, c. 526W.]

In many ways, those are the cases deemed most difficult to deal with.

To return to the matter we are debating, I am concerned that the HSSF initiative is due to be funded only until March 2015, whereas the process of case closure is due to go on until May 2018. The cases involved are the most difficult and would, I imagine, need the support HSSF offers to make a successful transition. Does the Minister share my concerns? Are the Government considering extending the funding of the HSSF initiative beyond March and indeed until after May 2018, when the case closures are due to end?

Let me finish my short remarks by returning to where I started and to the reason why we are all here. Child maintenance is a crucial part of fighting child poverty and making children feel not only financially supported, but supported by both parents, and that is important for their well-being. The Government are continually telling us they are putting families at the forefront of their policy, and I hope they are doing everything they can to make their proposals a success.

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3.16 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Unlike the Minister—it is good to see her in her place—I am not moonlighting. I am a former director of the National Council for One Parent Families, which has since merged with Gingerbread, so this is part of my brief. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) in thanking Gingerbread for the helpful briefing it has given many of us in preparation for the debate.

I welcome the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend, who raises an important issue in relation to the separation of parents and the financial arrangements that follow separation. The issue is perhaps too little in the public eye these days, which is in stark contrast to the 1990s, when child support issues dominated MPs’ postbags. I fear that the reason is not that the difficulties we saw in earlier years between parents have gone away, but that too many parents have given up hope of ever seeing any maintenance at all.

I recognise that there were considerable difficulties with the legacy 1993 and 2003 schemes, and I strongly recognise the need for reform. I also acknowledge that the new 2012 scheme is being introduced carefully by a stable and respected team in the DWP—there are lessons there for other DWP projects. However, I have long been concerned about the overall objectives of the 2012 scheme. I cannot help feeling that the overarching objective is to get as many parents as possible out of the statutory scheme and into voluntary arrangements to bring in fee income for the Government—according to a written answer from 10 December last year to Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, the income is estimated to reach approximately £1.2 billion by 2022-23—and to cut costs. While it may be argued that voluntary arrangements between parents, freely and equally entered into by them, will often produce the best outcomes, the new scheme means that many more parents will not choose those arrangements but will, effectively, be coerced into them. The jury is out on what that will mean in practice for their success.

Of course, the overarching objective of the new scheme should be to get maintenance flowing for the benefit of children. Yet neither the Government’s express intentions, nor the monitoring data that we have been able to get, nor the help and support for separated families initiative described by my hon. Friends, have focused, as far as I can see, on that specific goal. Yesterday I received a written answer from the Minister for Pensions, who said he could not tell me, with respect to new applications to the scheme, what change there had been in the proportion of children receiving maintenance.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East said, the DWP’s early iterations of the purpose of the HSSF innovation fund gave two key objectives: increasing the number of children who benefit from child maintenance arrangements, by reducing conflict and improving collaboration between separated and separating parents; and testing a wider range of interventions to understand what is effective in encouraging such collaboration and reducing such conflict. However, in later iterations, the object of increasing the number of children to benefit from the arrangements has disappeared.

I can understand that the 17 HSSF innovation pilots differ greatly with respect to the groups that they deal with and the approach that they take; but surely a

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simple, measurable way to test their success and compare them would be to assess whether something, at least, is being paid towards the cost of raising children by the parent who is not the one with care. Hon. Members have acknowledged that ensuring the flow of maintenance to separated families is one of the best forms of support that can be established. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight the pressures put on family relationships by poverty. It is right that the arrangements that we are discussing should be aimed at reducing that poverty.

NatCen Social Research and Gingerbread say that regular child maintenance can lift one in five one-parent families out of poverty. Those families are at a particularly high risk of poverty, and escaping poverty is the route to a host of other improved socio-economic outcomes for families and their children. However, although it is early days, the introduction of application fees this June, under the new scheme, seems already to be having an effect. In May, before they were introduced, there were 9,700 fresh applications to the scheme, but by August the number of fresh applications had dropped by 38% to 6,000. The Government expected a drop of 12%, with 250,000 fewer cases in the statutory scheme by 2018-19; so the rapid fall-off in new cases seems to be well out of line.

Meanwhile, the number of parents contacting the options service who say that they would consider a voluntary arrangement is also falling. According to a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, the number who say they are considering one is down from 5,540 in August last year, to 3,590 in March 2014. Ministers responded that the phenomenon would be temporary, and that it resulted from the fact that people are now for the first time being required to go through the options gateway. However, the two sets of statistics, showing a decline both in new applications and in the number who think that they will make a family arrangement, are clearly cause for concern. The unavoidable implication must be that some families—perhaps many—will end up with no arrangement at all. That is a worrying prospect. What is more, as has been pointed out this afternoon, the early statistics cannot yet tell us much about parents who intend to make a family arrangement and try to do so, but find that they cannot, or that they cannot sustain it. Will those parents attempt to go on to the statutory scheme, or will they give up at that point?

We will shortly be able to get more information. The Pensions Minister told me in a written answer on 14 October that the Government intend

“to publish the results of the Child Maintenance Options survey by the end of the year.”

I welcome that. The survey is carried out quarterly by the options service and it goes back to callers who telephoned the service in the previous six months or so, to find out what child maintenance arrangements they made, and whether they in fact receive any maintenance. It has its limitations, but it will at least offer some measure of what callers actually did about child maintenance after their call.