HC Deb 18 July 1991 vol 195 cc566-75

3A. (1) The Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 1985 shall be amended as follows.

(2) In section 32 (vesting of estate and dealings of debtor after sequestration)—

(3) In section 37 (effect of sequestration on diligence), in subsection (5A) for "or a conjoined arrestment order" there is substituted ", a conjoined arrestment order or a deduction from earnings order under the Child Support Act 1991".

(4) In section 55 (effect of discharge under section 54), in subsection (2)(d)—

  1. (a) after "being" there shall be inserted "(i)";
  2. (b) at the end there shall be inserted—
  1. (ii) child support maintenance within the meaning of the Child Support Act 1991 which was unpaid in respect of any period before the date of sequestration of—
    1. (aa) any person by whom it was due to be paid; or
    2. (bb) any employer by whom it was, or was due to be, deducted under section 30(5) of that Act.".'.

No. 92 in page 49, line 3, at end insert— '(4A) In section 72 (effect of sequestration on diligence against earnings)—

  1. (a) in subsection (2) after "order" there shall be inserted "or deduction from earnings order under the Child Support Act 1991";
  2. (b) after subsection (3) there shall be inserted—
(3A) Any sum deducted by the employer under such a deduction from earnings order made before the date of sequestration shall be paid to the Secretary of State, notwithstanding that the date of payment will be after the date of sequestration."; (4A) A deduction from earnings order under the said Act shall not be competent after the date of sequestration to secure the payment of any amount due by the debtor under a maintenance assessment within the meaning of that Act in respect of which a claim could be made in the sequestration.".'.

No. 90, in page 49, line 20, at end insert— '(6) In section 106 (interpretation) in the definition of "maintenance order"—

  1. (a) the word "or" where it appears after paragraph (g), shall he omitted; and
  2. (b) at the end there shall be inserted "or

Order for Third Reading read—[Queen's Consent on behalf of the Crown, signified.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Boswell.]

7.24 pm
Mr. Allen

We are coming to the end of a fairly speedy dispatch of the Bill. It is interesting that the Government are not prepared to put forward a defence on Third Reading. Perhaps the Minister will be inspired to make a few final remarks, having taken the Bill through Committee.

We started this trek a fairly long time ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), perhaps too generously as always, welcomed the Bill in principle. Perhaps he should have been more cautious, but, as it is in his nature to be generous, he was prepared to accept that the Government's general approach was to try to do something about a very difficult problem. That attitude and that generosity continued throughout the Committee stage. However, the more that we looked at the detail and examined the Bill in Committee, the more that we found flaws in practice. That was essentially because the Bill was the product of an off-the-cuff remark by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher)—now dearly departed. Her reach comes back from beyond the political grave to lumber Ministers such as those on the Front Bench tonight with a sad post-Thatcherite corpse which they had to parade through Committee and establish on the statute book.

As always, and as I have been told by my more senior colleagues, one should never make law on the wing. It is always poor law. Poor law is an appropriate phrase in respect of the Bill. The key clause for which it will be remembered is what will become the infamous section 43. It made a bad Bill into a malicious Bill and a Bill which will punish individual mothers and children. That is the upshot of the parting shot of the right hon. Member for Finchley about penalising and pursuing fathers. Such statements strike an emotional chord in all of us. Fathers should live up to their responsibilities. However, in making law we must consider the effects on all children and all caring parents.

The speed with which the Bill came from the brain of the right hon. Member for Finchley to fruition—or almost to fruition—tonight has led us to a state in which we have legislated too quickly and we shall create many victims. Enforcement of maintenance orders was never going to be an easy area in which to legislate. It involves separations and deep emotional feelings such as love, hate, malice and greed. Any one of those human emotions would be enough to strike caution into legislators' hearts, but the Bill has proceeded too fast for those emotions to be considered.

Complicated issues are involved, such as why people separate and why the child lives with the caring parent rather than the absent parent. Such deeply complex motives cannot be considered in general when making law. They must be considered in the specific. That is why at the last gasp I asked the Minister to reconsider the punitive sanction that we are about to create which will be imposed on the caring parent if she refuses, undoubtedly for good reasons, to name the father.

The child support officer should have the discretion not to levy a fine of some £350 on the caring parent but to levy a different amount over a different period on a different percentage of income. We are not talking about people on substantial incomes. By definition we are talking about women with a child under the age of 11, who are lone parents and whose weekly income is £65.40. The people of whom we are speaking cannot easily pay back money they owe. That is why it is essential for child support officers to have flexibility. After all, someone else in the social security system will have to pick up the problems created by the fine imposed on the woman

. Many examples have been cited by hon. Members. Consider the plight of those on income support who are obliged to pay back money they owe. We can argue about whether they are receiving a subsistence allowance, a poverty level wage, or whatever. Deductions will already have been taken from the small sum that they receive, yet the child support officer will not have the discretion to say, "In view of the large deductions already being made, we will stretch what is owed over a longer period, so reducing the percentage that we shall take from the amount of income support so that the person involved and the child do not suffer."

That lack of flexibility exposes the myth that the Bill is designed for the welfare of the child. It cannot be in the best interests of the child and mother if large sums of income support are taken away. Hon. Members have been given details of cases from the citizens advice bureaux, the NSPCC, one-parent family organisations and other pressure groups which have worked hard to introduce sense into the Bill. They have all explained how individuals could suffer because of the way in which that sanction will apply.

It was instructive for me, a newcomer, to examine the list of potential deductions from income support. I ask hon. Members to imagine the plight of a woman receiving £65.40 a week. What deductions can be made from the meagre income support that she is receiving? The repayment of social fund loans can amount to 5, 10 or even 15 per cent. of her total weekly benefit. Imagine being a single parent trying to look after a child, needing every ounce of assistance that one can get for the basic necessities of life and being charged such sums.

Up to £2 can be taken out of income support each week to clear outstanding gas bill debts. The same applies to electricity debts, with another £2 being taken each week from income support, remembering that current bills must be paid also. For community charge arrears, another possible £2 a week could be taken. Remember, we are talking of individuals in receipt of £65.40 a week.

For rent arrears, up to £2 a week might be taken. The same applies to debts for water charges, and the current bill must also be paid. For mortgage arrears, £2 a week might be taken, with the current amount covered by income support having to be paid. Let us not forget overpayments. If one thought one had been fortunate enough to get a little more out of the system, and one is required to repay overpayments, one can be charged £5.95 a week.

I am not suggesting that someone would have run up debts for each of those services. But with £65.40 a week, being in debt in only two or three of those categories would be frightening if a flat rate fine were imposed because she had refused to name the father, whom she may not have seen for years, of whom she was afraid and who she did not want anywhere near the child.

There is no need for any of that to happen. We shall be training child support officers, hopefully with the sensitivity described by the Minister, to help single parents. Why not give them—according to the Minister, they will get very good training—the discretion to say, "It is nonsense to remove £8 from this woman and child in these circumstances. While we must implement the measure, we will fix the charge at £2, £3 or £4 a week because only that sum can be borne by her."

The legislature will have another bite at the Bill. I do not know whether it will be possible to amend it in another place. Perhaps we can do something when the regulations are introduced, or perhaps we shall be able to examine the way in which voluntary deductions are made. The Minister said many times in Committee that he wished it to operate with flexibility. Let us have flexibility at the sharp end, where the mother is in trouble and is with the child support officer and could be fined up to £8 a week, with a potential fine of £350. We are talking about people who are struggling at the bottom of the heap.

The Government appear not to have listened to anybody during the passage of the Bill. I quoted in Committee from a letter that appeared in The Times. I will not repeat it now. It listed the most eminent people in the field—voluntary organisations and others—who had said that the scheme would not work and would be punitive. Without exception, all the voluntary organisations operating in this area have said the same. Add to that the view of their Lordships, of the all-party Select Committee on Social Security, of the Law Society and of all who have taken an interest in this matter, and it is clear that this is not the way to proceed. Without discarding the principle of the Bill, they say that clause 43 and the concept of fining a woman for refusing to name the father, probably for good reasons, is not the way to proceed. I urge the Government, even at this stage, to listen to those people. I suspect that their answer will be no.

We return to the origins of the Bill. The off-the-cuff remark by the right hon. Member for Finchley that we must pursue absent fathers was stimulated by the failure of the Department to maintain its complement of people who were pursuing maintenance. The rundown of staff in the Department, particularly of liable relative officers, was deplorable. It resulted in a problem being created to which the right hon. Member for Finchley invented a solution. Good and faithful servants are still labouring to drag that solution through the Palace of Westminster.

The Opposition will adhere to the principle that the responsibility for children rests with the parents, and their welfare will always be paramount in our consideration of these issues. The Bill accepts that principle, and in that sense we accept its main planks. But the practice through which clause 43 will operate makes a mockery of the principle that the child comes first.

In Government, we shall review the way in which the measure is working, will substitute incentives for punitive measures and will ensure that this legislation becomes what we all thought it meant when we first considered it and that the child's welfare will come first and foremost.

7.38 pm
Mr. Hardy

I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) about the Bill, which has many odious aspects. It seems to be another horse from the Finchley stable, similar to the one about which we heard a year or so ago when we were told of the merits in the Government's approach to sending investigators round to investigate social security fraud.

I pointed out that the cost of that exercise would not be much exceeded by the benefits that it secured. I said that the same resources devoted to the Inland Revenue to detect widespread tax evasion would yield an enormously greater harvest. I was told that there was a big difference: those who defraud social security are taking taxpayers' money, whereas tax dodgers merely try to keep their own.

The Government should understand that the Bill will involve substantial administrative costs, which could be better directed at securing a healthier and more substantial return to the taxpayer. However, I am less interested in the economics of the Bill than in its effect on children. Have the Government estimated the number of mothers, made even more desperate by this measure, who will decide to wash their hands of their children and leave them with the local authority social services department or the voluntary services? Has the Minister considered the matter in consultation with those who know about it in order to assess the additional burden that already hard-pressed local authority social services departments have to bear?

Whatever financial arrangements the Government make, children are sensitive and in thousands of cases their sensitivity willl be trampled upon by the arrangements in the clause. The Minister deliberately chose to misunderstand the point that I made during the last debate before Third Reading. I said that, in a substantial number of cases, the additional income that a woman takes in the form of maintenance from the father of her child may equal income support. She would then forfeit income support and, in so doing, would forfeit the additonal benefits—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North used the term "passported" benefits —that accompany income support. Her child would then lose benefits such as free meals and would run the risk of lower standards of living and nutrition.

This country is supposed to be more affluent than ever before, although many of us doubt that. Yet we tolerate people awarding themselves £300,000 or £400,000 a year, with increases of 50 per cent. or 100 per cent. over a 12-month period. It would be a disgrace to accept that it is necessary, in this year of grace, to plunge many children deeper into malnutrition. I hope that there will be a general election in October, because the values enshrined in the Bill should have no place in a civilised society.

7.45 pm
Dr. Godman

I hope that the general election will be not in October but in November, because I am going on holiday in September.

I was the only Scottish Member who actively participated in scrutinising the Bill in Committee. If hon. Members will forgive my conceit, I had a 100 per cent. attendance record. I cannot say the same for the other Scottish Member of the Committee who chose not to speak on these important matters. Whether the Opposition like it or not, the Bill will receive Royal Assent and will then form part of the growing body of legislation, on both sides of the border, which, aims to protect the interests of children. As a Back Bencher who is not a lawyer, I have sought as best as I can to protect the interests of children in Scotland. In some respects, there are growing divergences in the body of legislation to which I referred. An example is the Criminal Justice Bill which, once enacted, will give remarkable protection to children caught up in sexual abuse cases. I bitterly regret that we have no identitical legislation in Scotland. Last year, I attempted to bring Scottish law into line with the Criminal Justice Bill, but the Scottish Office Minister refused to accept my suggestions.

Scotland is drifting away in terms of people's perceptions of the union, but that is another story. It is also drifting away with regard to the Children Act 1989. In several of the Committee's sittings, reference was made to that Act as though it applied to the United Kingdom, but it is confined to the children of England and Wales. The Children Act 1975, which deals also with Scotland, is nowhere near as comprehensive as the Children Act 1989.

The Bill will affect the lives of children in Scotland. Despite my 100 per cent. attendance record and the work that I put into the Bill, I have had little effect on it. Nevertheless, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), has reassured me today about the need to protect children when they are caught up in those appallingly distressing and difficult circumstances. I spoke earlier about the need for a safeguarder and the Under-Secretary assured me that, in Scotland, specialist training would be given to those involved in the Child Support Agency, the headquarters of which will be located in Falkirk. On behalf of the children and mothers caught up in those circumstances, I want an assurance that the officials employed in that agency throughout the United Kingdom will be chosen extremely carefully. They must be given adequate training so that they can interview comprehensively children, and mothers who may be deeply afraid of physical retribution from estranged partners.

In Committee I gave three examples of young mothers, each with two children, who were caught up in those dreadful circumstances. They had appalling personal histories as victims of domestic violence. Because of what had happened to them in the past, the small number of women who are caught up in those tragic circumstances would hestitate long before they gave the names and addresses of their erstwhile partners. Given the fact that the Bill will be enacted very shortly, may I make a plea that those women, who number between 40 and 50 in my constituency, be treated with the utmost compassion within the framework of this disgraceful element of the Bill. I hope that when child support officers look for reasonable evidence of fear, threats and violence, they will not necessarily expect to find physical evidence of what has taken place. Instead, they should look for evidence of what may take place if they give the evidence required by the child support officer. That is why it is essential that, when selecting and training child support officers, we find the best. In some respects, we already have them in Scotland in some local Department of Social Security offices, despite my occasional complaints relating to incidents involving my constituents.

It is of paramount importance that, when the agency is set up, from top to bottom its staff are committed to the welfare of children—nothing less will do. That is what we are concerned about. The staff must also have a deep understanding of the domestic circumstances of these women caught up in dealings with the Child Support Agency and officers.

There is a growing body of law which I call child care law. Despite my earlier criticisms, we have some superb examples of that in Scotland. There is the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, which was steered through the House by the late Willie Ross and Bruce Millan, and other Acts that almost match that superb piece of child care law. The 1968 Act contains other provisions, but I am talking about its child care sections.

In some respects, the Child Support Bill is something of an aberration. It is right and proper that absent parents match and honour their obligations. I have one last plea, which I have made twice before: if a small number of men are to be imprisoned for more than six weeks, we should consider placing such miscreants in prison at the weekends. They should turn up at Barlinnie, Saughton or Perth on Friday evening after they have clocked off work or whatever they do these days, and be let out on Monday morning or Sunday evening, so that if they are in work they do not lose their employment. The small number of men who go to prison should be treated sensibly and realistically. If they go to prison, they should be put in the nick for the weekend. That is an important consideration and should be borne in mind when the Minister introduces regulations.

7.55 pm
Mr. Jack

It is always a relief to come to the end of a piece of parliamentary legislation, but this is the end of only one part of what I think will be a star-studded show, because the second part will deal with the introduction of the regulations. I hope that in the debates in Standing Committee and in the House this evening I have reassured right hon. and hon. Members that the Government will continue to listen, consult and think hard about the information that we receive about such a deeply sensitive but important matter. We have acknowledged, and continue to acknowledge, that there is no monopoly of wisdom on the subject, and we are certainly always pleased to learn.

It would be churlish of me not to give one or two words of tribute, and I shall start with those involved in introducing the start of the legislation—the White Paper, "Children Come First". Sometimes, it is with trepidation that we mention the people whom we should not mention, but they know who I mean—the Department officials who have worked not only on the White Paper but on the Bill. I know that they have the profound appreciation and thanks of all the Ministers involved for the way in which they have worked, sometimes under considerable pressure, to produce what was a good Bill when it started and is now immeasurably improved as a result of our deliberations in Standing Committee and in the House. Much of this would not have happened had it not been for the fundamental belief in the policy of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, who I am delighted to see on the Front Bench this evening.

In Standing Committee, we considered in detail many parts of the Bill. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Eccles (Miss Lestor) and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for their contribution and their probing of our policy, which was important and made us think. We have shown, by the way that we have responded, that we listened. We have also listened to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), who, in a short time, has taught me more about Scotland than I thought possible. He was right to advert to his attendance record in Standing Committee. Other Opposition Members would envy the number of times that he was able to join his few other hon. Friends on the Committee.

We have heard Opposition Members comment on points of detail. If I misunderstood the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), I apologise. I now understand the point that he was making, but it is important that he realises that, if maintenance boosts the income of a parent with care by providing additional resources—taking them from benefit—in essence, that merely restores the position that that person might formerly have enjoyed within his or her relationship. Clearly, the expenses related to the child would have been borne by the couple involved in the former relationship. If someone no longer receives income support or benefit, he or she may no longer receive some social security benefits, but the position will have returned to the status quo.

Part of the Bill's package includes amendments to family credit to assist women who wish to return to the labour market. Those benefits include many means of assisting lone parents, who will receive the same rate as two-parent families in terms of the family premium. In addition, school meals were included at the inception of the benefit. Those two examples show that the measures are not as draconian as the hon. Member for Wentworth said.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North talked about benefit deduction. I shall seek to reassure him, if that is possible, that any reduction of benefit—I think that he was referring specifically to income support—falls within the overall limit of 15 per cent. I spent some time in Committee talking in detail about the order in which deductions would take place, and I refer the hon. Gentleman to those detailed remarks.

In his somewhat grudging concluding remarks, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North suggested that we might be on the defensive. The Government can be positive about what they genuinely believe is an extremely good, well-thought-out package. He did not mention the Bill's provisions in relation to providing maintenance for children. Only at the end of his remarks did he refer to the quintessence of the Bill—putting children first.

In terms of maintenance, the Bill has replaced uncertainty with certainty. It has a clear objective to gain maintenance for children, which is to be followed up by the Child Support Agency. We have replaced the inconsistency of the old system—I am sure that Opposition Members could not support its retention—with an element of consistency. For the first time, we shall have a stated formula and process for the recovery of maintenance for the benefit of children. I believe that we have replaced irresponsibility with responsibility.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North failed to say that, 10 years ago, only 50 per cent. of maintenance orders were honoured. That figure has now dropped to 30 per cent. and, for those on income support, to only 23 per cent. That shows how responsibility has been shuffled away to the taxpayer, who has had to pick up the bill to the tune of £400 million. The Bill seeks to redress that imbalance.

Opposition Members continually chide the Government to improve the social security system. I am delighted to be standing at the Dispatch Box talking about increases in child benefit, as I also did some days ago. The money to pay for those provisions does not, as Opposition Members often imagine, grow on trees. It comes from the sensible allocation of resources available within the social security budget. The Bill will result in rebalancing £400 million of taxpayers' money. That is a good thing. It will assist the further development of the social security system.

The Bill brings into being a fine agency that is dedicated to the sensitive task that it must undertake. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North chided us for not listening, but a little recess reading of the White Paper will demonstrate to him how far the Government have moved to meet the representations of many highly respected voluntary bodies. We said initially that people would be allowed not to co-operate in cases of rape and incest only. However, we quickly moved to take into account domestic violence. We then went further and recognised harm and undue distress as reasons for non co-operation.

In many ways the agency is a buffer between the parent with care and the difficult world in which she lived before her relationship broke up. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow talked about evidence. It might be difficult to produce the kind of evidence that a court of law requires, but there is a presumption on someone to be believed. That is the greatest defence available to any individual before they face the possibility of a benefit sanction. The exercise of that sanction is meant to signal that seeking to secure maintenance and benefit for one's child—exercising that responsibility—is not an optional extra. A parent with care has a responsibility to her child to secure the necessary resources so that, should that parent return to work, those resources would represent a genuine addition to the family budget, to the benefit of the child.

The receipt of maintenance is possible through co-operation. If someone chooses not to co-operate—she may have good reason—we will have given them every option to co-operate and every chance to reconsider their position. If someone chooses that action, it means that a benefit sanction is applied, but that sanction can be stopped immediately through co-operation.

It appeared from the speech of the hon. Member for Eccles that the Opposition wanted us to have a strong association with the Australian system of social security. Under that system all benefits are removed in the event of non co-operation, yet the Opposition strongly favour the Australian system. I am sure that that has not gone unnoticed in the House and outside.

I hope that we have demonstrated our good intentions under the Bill. We shall finance the agency with the appropriate resources to do its work. It will draw on the best of information technology and on a resource structure unparalleled in terms of information to seek out the absent parent with care. Above all, the Bill will have as its motto putting children first in all that it does.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

That Standing Order No. 130 (Select committees related to government departments) be amended

in line 3, by inserting after the word 'departments', the word 'as';

in line 6, by inserting at the end the words '(excluding the expenditure, administration and policy of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Northern Ireland).';

in the Table by leaving out the words—

'3. Education, Science and Arts Department of Education and Science 11 3'
and inserting the words—
'3. Education, Science and Arts Department of Education and Science; Office of Arts and Libraries 13 3';
by leaving out the words—
'9. Home Affairs Home Office 11 3'
and inserting the words—