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Baroness Byford: My Lords, in my maiden speech nearly four years ago I spoke about the role of voluntary organisations and the work they do in today's society. I mentioned the WRVS and their work in running centres for families and as a place for visiting parents, usually the fathers, where they could come together to meet their children on neutral territory.
In an ideal world parents would work through their difficulties and remain together. However, this is often apparently not possible and instead means have to be found to ensure that the absent parents remain in touch with the children and help to support them. Equally, the parent with custody rights has to be
I can imagine little worse in an already fraught situation than to have to grit my teeth and wave the children a brave goodbye as they trot off to meet an absent parent who pays little or nothing towards their support or who regularly fails to pay on the due date.
The Child Support Agency was intended to make the lot of those with the responsibility of care easier to manage. As it stands, and as others have said, the accumulation of the information necessary to decide the level of payment takes, I believe, 90 per cent of the time available, leaving only 10 per cent for enforcing the ruling. This is clearly not enough, especially as about one-third of absent parents--usually the fathers--refuse to co-operate with the agency.
I am sure we are all agreed that reform is necessary. Biological parents must take responsibility for the children they beget. The formula to be used in deciding the form and level of that support should be simple but, I believe, flexible. The administration system should be direct and effective. The time taken from the receipt of request for help to settlement should be comparable with the targets set in other areas of professional life--for example, in the treatment of major illness in hospital.
The recent employment of the private sector in the provision of advice on debt management and in the collection of overdue moneys is to be welcomed. However, the Government's proposal to establish new specialist inspectors to obtain information from employers and the self-employed needs very careful consideration. It suggests that they have in mind a formula which will be based on the assessment of ability to pay rather than on the assessment of the child's need followed by the hearing of an appeal that may be brought by the absent parent.
In his thoughtful contribution to the Second Reading debate in another place, Frank Field highlighted the formula as an area of concern. He also said that the proposed rates are set too high and that the moneys due should be collected by the Inland Revenue and not by the social security agencies. In the same debate Anne McIntosh raised the question of whether overtime payments should be taken into account in calculating the sum due. Jeff Rooker, in response, was of the opinion that it should be where it was a regular part of the income. Perhaps when the Minister comes to respond, she might enlarge upon the Government's thinking in that area.
I should like to suggest that that argument should be left to an appeal panel to decide. I was interested to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, has just said. Many absent parents are only too willing to help support their children. They want to be assured that the level of support is fair and is comparable with what others in the same position are paying. If they have to work overtime to meet the required sum they will do so. Why spend time and effort trying to meet trouble where there is none?
While I support the need for reform, I am seriously concerned at the volume of detail which has already entered the debate. It may well be that we shall need to look at it again more closely when this issue comes up before us at committee stage. It has been suggested that were the formula simpler it would be seen as fair by the vast majority or parents. Were this linked with a simple appeal system, along the lines perhaps of a small claims court, only a relatively small proportion of parents would feel constrained to use it. The net result would be a considerable reduction in the amount of dissension generated by the system and the children would obtain the benefit earlier.
I would also like to suggest that--just as having a named nurse when in hospital--it would be sensible to have a named official in charge of each of the CSA claims. This might speed the agreement between the warring parents. My suggestion is that it should be the same person who would deal with both sides, the male and the female concerned. Surely, this would be aided if that named individual were clearly responsible for listening to both sides of the argument within the family debate. Perhaps a simple formula, an easy-access appeal system and a named official would reduce the need for sanctions against non-co-operative parents. Where the argument is about money and what can and cannot be afforded, it seems self-defeating to talk about fines of up to £1,000 and the removal of driving licences when so many people cannot work without a car. Indeed, that point has been echoed by many speakers in the debate. Surely, if there is to be an ultimate sanction, it would make much more sense to consider removing someone's passport than their driving licence.
This Bill deals with a multitude of subjects, including the number of benefits, national insurance contributions and that well known catch-all "miscellaneous". However, I shall confine my remaining remarks to a few words on pensions. At Second Reading in another place, the Secretary of State said:
I have added that up and it totals 19.5 million people who are to be helped by this Bill. Will the Minister assure me that my mathematics are correct, because that is one-third of our population who will be helped if this Bill is passed?
I refer to something my noble friend Lord Higgins mentioned about the actual payment of benefits to people, whether they are in the form of pensions or of welfare payments. I have looked carefully in Hansard at the responses of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, to the various questions. While I accept that the Government are looking at different ways, I did not see any final decision as to what method will be used to pay these benefits--will it be by Giro or by a card?--if they are to continue to be paid through the Post Office.
Finally, am I the only person wondering whether it would not have been simpler to require everyone, earning or not, to contribute to the state pension; and whether it would not have been simpler to carry out a radical review of the rules for crediting contributions? Would it not be possible to use the mobile phone licence bid money--I understand that that is likely to amount to several billion pounds--to convert the state pension scheme to being partially funded? At the same time, I feel that the Government should look very carefully at the system of annuities. At Second Reading in another place, the point was made that low inflation, low interest rates, an increase in private pension money in the market and a lack of gilts on offer will drive annuity rates even lower.
Lord Christopher: My Lords, I fully support the principles of the Bill. There are some loose ends which I hope can be tidied up, but I do not wish to deal with them. I seek to address the question of pensions and, in particular, the national state pension, to which a number of noble Lords have referred.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that we can only start from where we are. I cannot quarrel with him over that. But it is sometimes interesting to find out the route we took to get there. I was particularly impressed by what the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, who is not in her place at the moment, had to say. I would wish to take the noble Baroness back to the early 1970s, when it was at last beginning to dawn on people that the post-1945 situation of social security and benefits was in grave danger of running slightly out of steam. At that time, Anthony Barber, as he then was--the noble Lord, Lord Barber, as he became--produced a Green Paper on the concept of a negative income tax. The union of which I was then an assistant general secretary--the Inland Revenue Staff Federation--supported that proposal in principle. The proposal certainly had two serious faults. The first was its huge cost and the second--perhaps because of the first--was that the numbers gave the shifts of income not from the middle ranking paid people to the lower paid but the other way round.
The strongest opponent of that paper was probably the noble Baroness, Lady Castle. With the help of Lord Kaldor--Nicky Kaldor as he then was--a highly respected economist, she was successful and the Green Paper disappeared into limbo. It has taken almost 30 years for anyone to go back to that thinking and try to see whether there did not lie in it some assistance towards the serious problems which we currently face.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, by way of an historical footnote, the proposal had gone rather further than a Green Paper. We did in fact have a draft Bill prepared. It was only because we lost the election that it did not come forward. As the noble Lord rightly implied, it would have involved spreading the cost over a
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