HC Deb 28 March 1990 vol 170 cc562-75

`(1) After section 24 of the 1986 Act (recovery of expenditure on benefit from person liable for maintenance) there shall be inserted—

"Recovery of expenditure on income support: additional amounts and transfer of orders.

24A.—(1) In any case where— (a) the claim for income support referred to in subsection (1) of section 24 above is made by the parent of one or more children in respect of both himself and those children, and (b) the other parent is liable to maintain those children but, by virtue of not being the claimant's husband or wife, is not liable to maintain the claimant, the sum which the court may order that other parent to pay under subsection (4) of that section may include an amount. determined in accordance with regulations, in respect of any income support paid to or for the claimant by virtue of such provisions as may be prescribed.

(2) Where the sum which a court orders a person to pay under section 24(4) above includes by virtue of subsection (1) above an amount (in this section referred to as a "personal allowance element") in respect of income support by virtue of paragraph 1(2) of Schedule 2 to the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987 (personal allowance for lone parent) the order shall separately identify the amount of the personal allowance element.

(3) In any case where— (a) an order under subsection (4) of section 24 above is made against a person ("the liable parent") who is the parent of one or more children, in respect of the other parent or the children, and (b) payments under the order fall to be made to the Secretary of State by virtue of subsection (6)(a) of that section, and (c) that other parent ("the dependent parent") ceases to claim income support, the Secretary of State may, by giving notice in writing to the court which made the order and to the liable parent and the dependent parent, transfer to the dependent parent the right to receive the payments under the order, exclusive of any personal allowance element, and to exercise the relevant rights in relation to the order, except so far as relating to that element.

(4) Notice under subsection (3) above shall not be given (and if purportedly given, shall be of no effect) at a time when there is in force a maintenance order made against the liable parent— (a) in favour of the dependent parent or one or more of the children; or (b) in favour of some other person for the benefit of the dependent parent or one or more of the children; and if such a maintenance order is made at any time after notice under that subsection has been given, the order under section 24(4) above shall cease to have effect.

(5) Except as provided by subsection (6) below, where the Secretary of State gives notice under subsection (3) above, he shall cease to be entitled— (a) to receive any payment under the order in respect of any personal allowance element, or (b) to exercise the relevant rights, so far as relating to any such element, notwithstanding that the dependent parent does not become entitled to receive any payment in respect of that element or to exercise the relevant rights so far as so relating.

(6) If, in a case where the Secretary of State has given notice under subsection (3) above, the dependent parent makes a further claim for income support, then— (a) the Secretary of State may, by giving a further notice in writing to the court which made the order and to the liable parent and the dependent parent, transfer back from the dependent parent to himself the right to receive the payments and to exercise the relevant rights; and (b) that transfer shall revive the Secretary of State's right to receive payment under the order in respect of any personal allowance element and to exercise the relevant rights so far as relating to any such element.

(7) Any notice required to be given to the liable parent under subsection (3) or (6) above shall be taken to have been given if it has been sent to his last known address.

(8) In this section— child" means a person under the age of 16, notwithstanding section 26(3)(d) below; court" shall be construed in accordance with section 24 above; maintenance order"— (a) in England and Wales, means—

  1. (i) any order for the making of periodical payments or for the payment of a lump sum which is, or has at any time been, a maintenance order within the meaning of the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971;
  2. (ii) any order under Part III of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 (overseas divorce) for the making of periodical payments or for the payment of a lump sum;
(b) in Scotland, has the meaning given by section 106 of the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987, but disregarding paragraph (h) (alimentary bond or agreement). the relevant rights", in relation to an order under section 24(4) above, means the right to bring any proceedings, take any steps or do any other thing under or in relation to the order which the Secretary of State could have brought, taken or done apart any transfer under this section.

Reduction of expenditure on income support: certain maintenance orders to be enforceable by the Secretary of State.

24B.—(1) This section applies where— (a) a person ("the claimant") who is the parent of one or more children is in receipt of income support either in respect of those children or in respect of both himself and those children; and (b) there is in force a maintenance order made against the other parent ("the liable person")—

  1. (i) in favour of the claimant or one or more of the children, or
  2. (ii) in favour of some other person for the benefit of the claimant or one or more of the children;
and in this section "the primary recipient" means the person in whose favour that maintenance order was made.

(2) If, in a case where this section applies, the liable person fails to comply with any of the terms of the maintenance order— (a) the Secretary of State may bring any proceedings or take any other steps to enforce the order that could have been brought or taken by or on behalf of the primary recepient; and (b) any court before which proceedings are brought by the Secretary of State by virtue of paragraph (a) above shall have the same powers in connection with those proceedings as it would have had if they had been brought by the primary recipient.

(3) The Secretary of State's powers under this section are exercisable at his discretion and whether or not the primary recipient or any other person consents to their exercise; but any sums recovered by virtue of this section shall be payable to or for the primary recipient, as if the proceedings or steps in question had been brought or taken by him or on his behalf.

(4) The powers conferred on the Secretary of State by subsection (2)(a) above include power— (a) to apply for the registration of the maintenance order under—

  1. (i) section 20 of the Maintenance Orders Act 1950;
  2. (ii) section 2 of the Maintenance Orders Act 1958; or
  3. (iii) the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgements Act 1982; and
(b) to make an application under section 2 of the Maintenance Orders (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act 1972 (application for enforcement in reciprocating country).

(5) Where this section applies, the prescribed person shall in prescribed circumstances give the Secretary of State notice of any application— (a) to alter, vary, suspend, discharge, revoke, revive, or enforce the maintenance order in question; or (b) to remit arrears under that maintenance order; and the Secretary of State shall be entitled to appear and be heard on the application.

(6) Where this section applies, the Secretary of State shall be treated for the purposes of any enactment or instrument relating to maintenance orders as if he were a person entitled to payment under the maintenance order in question (but shall not thereby become entitled to any such payment).

(7) In this section "maintenance order" has the same meaning as it has in section 24A above, but does not include any such order for the payment of a lump sum."

(2) Until such time as there comes into force an amendment of Schedule 1 to the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971 (maintenance orders to which the Act applies) which has the effect of including among the orders specified in that Schedule any order for periodical or other payments made or having effect as if made under Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989, the definition of "maintenance order" in subsection (8) of the section 24A of the 1986 Act inserted by subsection (1) above shall have effect as if, in paragraph (a), after subparagraph (ii) there were inserted— (iii) any order under paragraph 1(2)(a), (b) or (c) of Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989 (financial provision for children against their parents);".

(3) In section 26 of that Act, in subsection (3) definitions for purposes of sections 24, 25 and 26) after the words "section 24" there shall be inserted "24A, 24B".'.—[Mr. Newton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Newton

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Before I launch—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) looks puzzled. I am sure that she will accept that I have done the right thing.

Ms. Short

indicated assent.

Mr. Newton

I am grateful.

Before I say anything else about the new clause, which concerns lone parents, I simply want to say that I hope that I shall not be accused of being sexist if throughout I assume for practical purposes that lone parents are generally female and absent parents are generally male, simply to ease my sentences. Of course, as the House knows, there is a significant number—although small in proportion—of lone parents who are male and absent parents who are female.

New clause 21 focuses on particular problems relating to maintenance for lone-parent families. As the House knows, the number of families in Britain headed by a lone parent has risen substantially in recent years. The proportion of those families that have to rely on supplementary benefit and now income support has also increased and stands at about two thirds.

It is important to recognise, in view of the concern expressed about that, that those trends are not unique to the United Kingdom. Similar changes have happened in several other countries. Our social security system rightly provides help to lone-parent families who need it, as it does to others, but another valuable source of help for those families is maintenance. Regular payments of maintenance provide a basis of income that can help smooth the path from dependence on benefit to full-time work and independence. That is valuable to the family, but too often it is not paid. Absent parents have a clear legal responsibility to maintain their families as far as they can, but in far too many cases that responsibility has not been fulfilled or properly enforced.

The number of lone-parent families dependent on income support in 1988 is more than double the number on supplementary benefit in 1979, but payment of maintenance has not kept pace. In 1979 maintenance was paid for about half of the lone-parent families on benefit, but in 1988 the equivalent figure was only a quarter.

The Government have already announced that they are reviewing the maintenance system to see what changes need to be made to the way in which maintenance is awarded and operated. A survey of the work in a sample of courts and DSS local offices is under way to provide full, up-to-date information as a basis for deciding on the best way forward. We are examining the system that is in use in other countries to see what lessons can be learned from them. I am planning to visit the United States next month to see the approach that is taken there. We aim to bring forward proposals later this year. Radical changes, should they prove possible, will obviously take a little time to come into effect. That does not mean that we could or should stand still in the meantime. We have also been seeking to improve the effectiveness of the present system. The House will recall that I announced in the uprating debate a month or two ago that we are tightening the way in which we assess an absent parent's ability to pay maintenance for his family on income support.

Mr. Tim Smith

My right hon. Friend spoke about a review. Does he agree that this is a serious and urgent problem, and can he say whether the results will be announced in time for legislation to be introduced in the next Session? We should have as little delay as possible in bringing forward worthwhile changes.

Mr. Newton

At this stage I cannot respond exactly and in detail, not least because, as my hon. Friend will be aware, it is not the practice for Ministers to comment on what may be in the Queen's Speech. We certainly hope to bring forward proposals this year at a time that would enable us to consider the possibilities that my hon. Friend has raised. I entirely accept what he says about the importance of the issue. I hope that he will agree that it is also a complex and difficult issue that needs to be properly considered.

As I said, we are seeking in the meantime to make various changes in the present system. New clause 21 seeks to take us further in three ways. One of them is in relation to the realistic assessment of maintenance and the other two seek to help maintenance work more in the interests of lone parents than is often the case at present.

The first step in the new clause brings social security law more into line with family law. We took a step in that direction last year when we extended liability for children beyond the 16th birthday to cover those children who remain dependent at 16, 17 and 18. Family law could already do that. In the new clause we are proposing to empower courts to consider the cost to the mother in caring for the absent parent's children, which will mean that Department of Social Security staff can do the same in seeking voluntary agreements on maintenance.

The Department can currently seek its own order against an absent parent, which reflects that parent's liability under social security law. In brief, where the parents were divorced or were never married, it applies only to the benefit paid for the children. Under family law, courts can look wider and can consider the mother's costs as child carer in deciding what to award for children. Before we even consider going to court, the Department seeks to come to a voluntary arrangement with the absent parent on the basis of what the courts could award. The new section 24A in the new clause will provide a regulation-making power that will be used to specify that, once having looked at the allowances and premiums that are paid because there are children, the court should also have regard to the income support personal allowance paid for the mother. By increasing the scope of what the courts can award, we are increasing the scope of what voluntary agreements can cover and, therefore, what the Department can seek.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I should like to put to my right hon. Friend two points that he may be about to cover in his speech. What will he do in cases where maintenance has been awarded to a mother and her children and the mother then moves in with another man whom she does not marry but by whom she is supported? Will the court or the legislation insist on the natural parent paying the maintenance? What happens when access to a child has been granted but the mother does not provide it? Will the legislation still insist on the maintenance payments being made?

Mr. Newton

I shall deal first with my hon. Friend's second point. Over the years I have been child care Minister in my various welfare capacities and have dealt with that subject. Access to the children should be considered quite separately from whether maintenance should be paid for the children. It is not appropriate to tie the two together.

The other matter which links with that and which focuses specifically on the question asked by my hon. Friend is perhaps not sufficiently appreciated. At the end of the day, the Department of Social Security on its own cannot enforce anything that the courts are not prepared to enforce. We cannot compel a lone parent to agree to something, although we can go to court if we want the court to impose something. Once a court has imposed something, it is open to the person on whom the maintenance order has been made to go back to the court for a variation.

It is not for me to speculate on what someone would do in circumstances such as those referred to by my hon. Friend. However, I expect that in such cases the absent parent might well wish to go back to the court and argue that the circumstances in which a maintenance order was imposed in respect of the former partner as carer and the children should be varied. It would be for the parent to decide whether to pursue the matter and it would be for the court to decide on it.

Mr. Marlow

I shall put my second point again. If access has been granted and is denied by one parent, does my right hon. Friend think that it is right, fair and proper that the other parent should still be required to pay maintenance?

Mr. Newton

They are separate issues. If access has been granted under a court order—I take it that that is what my hon. Friend is postulating—the denial of that access can be pursued in the court under that order. Equally, if maintenance has been granted under a court order, the failure to pay it can be pursued under that order. In considering a maintenance order, it would be for the court to decide whether to have regard to a sense of grievance about access.

Ms. Short

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Newton

I understand that the hon. Lady wishes to take part in the debate.

Even if my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) does not totally agree with what I have said, I hope that he will at least understand the points that I have sought to make.

Mr. Devlin

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Newton

Yes, but I am conscious of the fact that Opposition Members wish to speak.

Mr. Devlin

Will my right hon. Friend confirm an important point that is frequently misunderstood by people when they talk about access? Access is a right that belongs to the child to see its parent. It is not a right that belongs to the parent to see the child. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that?

Mr. Newton

I should need to take advice before saying whether that was the legal position. I rather doubt that it is. It is somewhat outside the scope of the main thrust of the debate and I should like to get on with my speech, if only in the interests of ensuring that the hon. Member for Ladywood can make her speech.

I want to emphasise that when deciding what to award, the courts will continue to look at what the absent parent can afford to pay, as will DSS staff when negotiating voluntary agreements; but in a case in which an absent parent can afford more than the children's benefit, we shall look to obtain some or all of the caring parent's personal allowance. The courts will be able to order that a personal allowance be paid on top of the children's benefit, which means that in those cases the courts will have a flexibility similar to that under family law.

8.30 pm

The second change that we propose as part of new section 24A also concerns an order that the Department can obtain on its own behalf. It seeks to remove the need for a lone parent leaving benefit to go to court to obtain a separate private maintenance order. We propose that when a DSS order has been obtained, it should be possible to transfer it to a lone parent who is leaving benefit. That would apply in so far as the order relates to the costs of the children and when the lone parent does not already have a maintenance order of her own. The aim is that a transferred order should be consistent and fit in as nearly as possible with family law, so that a lone parent who leaves benefit and takes a DSS-obtained order with her is in the same position as someone who obtains her own maintenance order. We believe that that measure will make it easier for a lone parent without her own order to make the transition from benefit to work.

By enabling a lone parent to take with her the maintenance for children obtained under a DSS order, we avoid the need for her to go to court for a new set of proceedings to get her own order, which is often argued to be a significant disincentive to taking the step of going back to work. She will have the same rights to enforce or vary the order afterwards as we in the DSS would have had. Both parents and the court will be informed of the transfer, and of course the absent parent—to pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North—will still be able to go back to the court, as now, if his circumstances have changed or if he feels that other circumstances have.

In our view, it would not be right or necessary to transfer a DSS order if a private maintenance order were already in existence. The private order would have priority, and the same principle would apply if a private maintenance order were obtained later. The existence of a private order would mean that a transferred DSS order would cease to have effect.

Thirdly, new section 24B will enable the DSS to enforce a claimant's own maintenance order for her when payments are not being made in full, if the lone parent is claiming income support for herself and her family. Quite properly, the Department has a strong interest in ensuring that absent parents go on meeting their responsibilities for the family and that payments under any such order to the lone parent are made. The proposed new section gives practical effect to that interest when payments under a court order are not made in full and an absent parent, for whatever reason, is not minded to put that right.

As things stand, the only remedy in such circumstances is for the lone parent herself to ask the court to enforce, and many such parents, for understandable reasons, do not want to do that. We propose to take power to do that on their behalf, with the aim of ensuring that prompt action is taken in all these cases, thus reducing the chance of the absent parent getting into the habit of non-payment. We also think it right that the DSS should be able, if necessary, to be heard on any proposal to reduce the amount to be paid.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Not having served on the Committee, I have not followed all this, but in the event of a delay and of the mother not being able to obtain the maintenance to which she is entitled, while the Department is pursing the father to try to get the money, will it be able to make extra payments to the mother to compensate her until the money is forthcoming from him?

Mr. Newton

One of the reasons for our concern about this matter is that, given that the basic purpose of income support is to make people's income up to a given level, the practical effect is precisely that unpaid maintenance is replaced by income support.

Mr. Frank Field

The right hon. Gentleman is telling the House that he is seeking powers to enable maintenance orders to follow the mother when she starts work. Under the third part of the new clause, will the Department's power to collect money also continue when a mother is in work, or is the measure only to do with saving welfare payments while she is on benefit?

Mr. Newton

No, I have already said that once an order has been transferred, under the second of the proposals, a lone parent will have the same rights to enforce it as the DSS. Under the current arrangements, once a lone parent was not on benefit and an order had been transferred to her, it would then be her responsibility to enforce it. The hon. Gentleman, with his close interest in this subject, will know that the issue that he has raised is one of those that we shall examine in the broader review of maintenance that we are undertaking—which will include experience from Australia, the United States and various other countries.

Mr. Field

I promise my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) that this will be my last intervention. Neither I nor mothers outside the House can understand why the Government have not sought powers in this measure to help women when they move back to work to take over responsibility for the collection of these funds. That would be quite feasible, but the Government have decided not to do it. Why?

Mr. Newton

Because it raises much wider issues. Once a maintenance order has been transferred to someone who is not in receipt of social security benefits of the type that I am discussing—primarily income support—there seems no reason to treat it differently from a maintenance order in favour of someone who has never been on benefit. Many such orders exist. I am not saying that such a move could not be contemplated under any circumstances, but it could be considered only in the context of a much wider reform of the maintenance system.

These three measures form a consistent and sensible package within the constraints of the current system. However, we are doing more than merely making the legal changes that I have announced. I should like to take this opportunity to mention some further steps that we are taking to improve the way in which all these arrangements work at local office level.

First, we shall shortly issue revised guidance covering the need to do more to emphasise to lone parents the responsibility of the absent parent and the advantages of reflecting that responsibility in proper maintenance arrangements established at the outset. Those advantages will clearly be increased by the legal changes proposed in the new clause, not least by easing the way for the lone parent who wants to move back into employment. The guidance will make clearer the fact that the normal expectation should be that a lone parent will co-operate in establishing where responsibility lies and in obtaining maintenance, while continuing to recognise that there may be cases in which, for particular reasons, the lone parent still does not want to name the father.

At the same time, when lone parents are unwilling to help in establishing the responsibility, we shall seek to build up a clearer picture of the reasons to help our further and wider consideration of the whole problem of maintenance.

Secondly, the House will be aware that as a result of action initiated last year the amount of maintenance recovered by the DSS in respect of lone parents on benefit rose from £155 million in 1988–89 to an expected £180 million in 1989–90. That improvement in part reflects the extent to which, over a number of years until recently., that work has been given a lower priority than most would think it deserves. In our objectives for the coming year, we shall underline even more strongly the fact that that work should be given proper priority and resources, and I expect a further increase in maintenance paid in this respect, to about £260 million in 1990–91.

The proposals in the new clause together with the other actions that I have outlined make clear the Government's commitment to ensuring that absent parents do more to meet their responsibilities for their families. We are pressing ahead with work on the more radical options—I have noted the point made by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—but in the meantime we are doing what we can to improve the position because we believe that it is important for everyone involved, especially for lone parents and their children.

What I have proposed will be widely welcomed, and I commend the new clause to the House.

Ms. Short

I am extremely angry. It is 8.40 pm and we have a guillotine at 9 pm. We have another whole group of Government new clauses and amendments to come. This is an enormously important matter. The new clause covers three and a half pages, yet we have so little time to discuss it. This could have been considered in depth in Committee. The Government say that they did not have time, but the previous Secretary of State for Social Security, the right hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore), said at the 1988 Tory party conference that there would be measures, and implied that they might be punitive, to get money back from fathers whose children were living on supplementary benefit. That is a long time ago.

In January the Prime Minister made her speech and, according to the Library, the Secretary of State gave an unattributable briefing on the same day about the Government's intentions. The House is brought into disrepute. This is a serious and important matter and it is intolerable that it is being dealt with in this way. The Government should be ashamed of themselves.

The Government's main motivation behind the package is to save the cost of social security benefits, not to assist lone-parent families to come off benefit and enjoy a free, independent life. The narrowness of the Government's objective is deplorable and sad. Only one of the three measures in the new clause will assist lone parents: when a mother comes off benefit she can take the order which has been obtained by the Department with her. We welcome that. It is entirely good and will help mothers to make the move off benefit and into work.

The Secretary of State misleads the House when he says that the law of his Department is being brought into line with family law. That is disputed by the National Council for One Parent Families. The Library was surprised by his assertion. I know the one case to which he refers and I suspect that he is misleading the House. I do not suppose that he does it deliberately.

If a mother is on income support it will be possible to claim the costs of the income support against the father. That is all that the Government are providing. The minute she comes off income support, if she has never been married to the father, she has no right to claim maintenance for herself, because she is caring for the family. The Government's motivation is entirely to save the costs of benefit. There is no intention to help women both to stop being dependent on benefit and to work, if that is what they want.

The third provision is exactly the same. The Government intend to take action where fathers do not pay, if the mother is on benefit, in order to make him pay and to save benefit costs. Absent parents, who are usually fathers, should pay for their children, but we need to do something for the overwhelming number of lone parents who are living in poverty and caught in the poverty trap. The Government have not attended to that serious issue.

I am deeply disappointed by the package. It is unworthy of the Secretary of State, who I thought had more to him. The figures are shocking. We have in Britain about 1 million lone parents, of whom about 722,000 are living on income support. The proportion who live on income support has increased considerably under the Government because of the erosion in the value of child benefit and other benefits, and the growth in the poverty trap. The Government's benefit changes have trapped increasing numbers of lone parents and their dependants on benefit. They have removed the right of a woman who lives on supplementary benefit and works part time to offset some of the costs of going to work and of child care against benefit. The Government have changed that and trapped more women in complete dependence on benefits. In 1961, one in six lone parents were on supplementary benefit whereas in 1987 two thirds were.

The size of the trap is shocking. A lone parent with two children on benefit gets the enormous sum of £65.80 a week to spend on herself and her children. A lone parent on £150 a week wages, paying £55 a week for child care—that is a reasonable cost for two children as child care can cost more—would get £57.26 a week to live on and would be worse off. A lone parent with two children must get at least £172 a week to be better off than when she is living on benefits. That is the problem and the trap.

The way out is non-means-tested benefits, such as child benefit which the Government have been busy eroding and which they seek to allow to shrivel away, better child care provision, training and access to jobs for women. That is the strategy of the Labour party policy review; our aim is to create pathways out of poverty—stepping stones to assist people who are forced to live in poverty. One such group is lone parents. When they choose and when their children are ready, they should be able to step into part-time work and training, and child care should be available.

The Government are not concerned about that. They are not concerned that many women and children who have been badly treated by the man in their life, not always but often, are living in poverty. Nothing in this package seeks seriously to help. The Government are trying to claw back benefit costs. We cannot discuss the matter properly. The proposal is not good enough to deal with this serious problem. Because one part of the provision is positive, we shall not oppose it, but we are deeply disappointed. The Government have muffed an opportunity to assist lone parents.

8.45 pm
Mr. Frank Field

If it is true that there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, given the line that the Treasury Bench is taking, paradise must be breaking out in celebration this evening because the Government's stance has changed.

Although the Secretary of State was too modest to mention it, in the past 11 years we have seen a collapse in the idea that wherever possible a male should be responsible for his offspring if the offspring are left to be dependent on welfare. It is to the Government's shame that they allowed that to develop. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) said, that has resulted in an increasing number of women being forced to be dependent on means-tested assistance. Nevertheless, the Government are turning and I am pleased about it, although I share my hon. Friend's reservations about the measure's limitations.

I am not against the collection of maintenance to offset it against the cost of income support payments. That is proper. I am not against mothers being asked about the whereabouts of the father or who the father is.

Ms. Short

I was brief so that my hon. Friend and others could speak. As a result I neglected to mention that I believe that, under the guidance that the Secretary of State announced, women will be pressurised and harassed to name the absent father when, for good reasons, they do not wish to do so. That will be an ugly side of this package.

Mr. Field

I am not against those questions being asked, but, as my hon. Friend has said, this is a delicate area. Some women will not want to name the father for fear of being beaten up. They will look at the Government's package to see whether it is worth taking that risk. Their lives, like many people's lives, are full of risks and they must make those decisions. They will ask the very questions that my hon. Friend has asked. To what extent are the Government offering a new package?

The Government are showing considerable interest in moving quickly at the Prime Minister's behest to save on the cost of welfare, while providing a limited bridge to the world of work, in that a maintenance order may remain with a woman when she goes back to work. The Secretary of State gave no explanation why at this stage he could not include in the new clause, which we are discussing for the first time and which looks like a new Bill, the idea that the Department would continue to be responsible for collecting the funds and paying them to the mother, whether or not she is on welfare. That would have changed the balance of the package to a mother who is making the crucial decision whether it is worth accepting it.

There is a further stage. It is right to consider mothers who have never been on benefit and who might want the state at some stage to take over the responsibility of collecting. It is extraordinary for Ministers to argue that, because we cannot do everything, we cannot achieve tonight what is realisable.

My brief comments are almost identical to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood. One part of the new clause is to be welcomed. Despite the Government's change of heart, this is a missed opportunity to strike out and to begin to offer a new deal to show that the Government are on the side of single mothers, of making parents responsible and of encouraging people, wherever possible, to take up work when it is available. The new clause will be viewed for the measure that it is: although the Government have some interest in these issues, their primary purpose is merely to save taxpayers' money. Although that is important, this is, sadly, a missed opportunity.

Mr. Newton

I shall respond only briefly, although with some sadness, compared with my feelings during the previous debate, and with some surprise at the tone adopted by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). He, of all people, should know that, in essence, we have a system of assessing and collecting maintenance that has proved increasingly unsatisfactory because of the unhappy increases in marriage breakdowns and, for a variety of other reasons, in the number of lone parents.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, other hon. Friends and I have consistently made it clear over some months that we see a need for much wider reform than could possibly be encompassed within the scope of an amendment tabled to the Bill. The matter is complex. In most of the countries that have introduced new systems, considerable preparation time and, because of the number of interests involved, considerable consultations have been required. The system has often had to be introduced by stages—first, by improving the arrangements for enforcement of existing orders and then, to take the Australian example, by coming forward with a new system of assessing maintenance for future cases. Much the same has happened in the United States.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead implied that somehow, in two or three months, we could have reached the stage of tabling to the Bill amendments containing the kind of sweeping, overall reforms that we both agree would be desirable, if we can find the right basis for them.

Mr. Frank Field

I was not trying to cause offence to the Minister. I am pleased that he has a grasp of how strongly I feel about this subject. If the Government had gone on to the next stage requested by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) and me and had introduced a separate measure, we probably would not have opposed it. We would have had a full debate and the provision would have been quickly dispatched to the other place and would have returned. It is a matter not of the constraints of the Bill but of the Government having chosen to link this provision to it. We should have welcomed a more comprehensive measure, separate from the Bill, so that we could have a proper debate. The debate would not have been held up. The matter would have been considered expeditiously. The Secretary of State has not made an adequate defence.

Mr. Newton

There may simply be a misunderstanding between the hon. Gentleman and me. The Government are not at this moment in a position to bring forward a comprehensive proposal for reform. We have done a good deal of work. One of our senior officials has looked closely at the Australian system. We have set in hand a significant survey of courts and DSS offices to give us additional information about the way that the present system works. That is all intended to help us shape wider proposals which we hope to bring forward later this year.

We do not think that it is right, simply because it will take time to bring forward more comprehensive proposals, not to take any steps to make what improvements can be made within the present system. That is what we are trying to do in these proposals. That approach would be widely welcomed outside the House and inside it, if not by those hon. Members who have spoken. It contains useful improvements in the portability of orders obtained by the DSS and in the capacity of the DSS to enforce orders that a lone parent has obtained while she remains on benefit.

Ms. Short

There is nothing in it for her.

Mr. Newton

There is something in it for her. The maintenance will go on being paid in a form that at some stage can improve her position if she returns to work.

Mr. Frank Field

What will happen if the father does not pay up?

Mr. Newton

That is precisely the point. If the DSS is prepared to enforce the maintenance order that has been made in favour of a lone parent, it is more likely that the absent father will continue to pay up.

Mr. Frank Field

It is the exact opposite. If the DSS has problems in getting the money off the father, what chance will the mother have without the sanction of the DSS behind her?

Mr. Newton

We are again talking at cross purposes. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) made a point about the third element in the proposal whereby if a lone parent is on income support but has a maintenance order that she has obtained, the DSS will enforce that order. The hon. Lady said that that did not do anything for the lone parent. I think that we would all agree that the position of a lone parent for whom maintenance is paid, for various reasons, is better in a general sense—not necessarily in the immediate monetary sense—than the position of a lone parent for whom maintenance is not paid. The DSS's capacity to ensure that a private maintenance order continues to be paid is therefore an improvement on the present position.

Mr. Frank Field

indicated assent.

Mr. Newton

I am glad that the hon. Member for Birkenhead at least agrees with me on that point.

Ms. Short

I wish that the Minister would be straightforward about what he is doing. The fact that the Department will claim for an absent father who does not pay only when the woman is on benefit shows that the Department wants to look after its money, not the woman. The fact that the Department will claim against the man for the time that the woman spends in maintaining the child only when she is on benefit shows that the Department wants to save its money. The only tiny provision in the package for the woman is that the order obtained by the DSS can go with her when she goes off benefit. The Department's overwhelming concern in this package is to save money for itself, not to assist low-income, lone parents to have a better life, more freedom and higher incomes. I wish that the Secretary of State would be honest about that.

Mr. Newton

It would be thoroughly dishonest of me even to begin to suggest that I accept the hon. Lady's comments, which are ridiculous. Her suggestion that securing the more effective collection of maintenance under maintenance orders does not help the interests of lone parents is a piece of absolute nonsense of which she will be ashamed when she has had the opportunity to think about it.

Clearly, the Opposition are anxious to make further progress, and I understand that. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Ladywood, even with her rather less than generous and less than understanding remarks, does not intend to oppose these proposals. I commend the new clause to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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