§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
We come to the motions on family law, and I call Mr. Alistair Burt.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Order Paper states that motions 2,3,4 and 5, on family law, have not yet been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. When the Government put the motions down for debate, they knew that the Joint Committee, which has a duty to consider such instruments and report on them to the House on a wide range of grounds, had not considered them. The Joint Committee considered them at a meeting which commenced at 4.30 this afternoon—the first available opportunity.
Several memoranda have been provided by the Department of Social Security to explain the instruments. The Joint Committee thought that they were of such value, as they are taken on a clause-by-clause basis, that they ought to be available to Members in the Vote Office. If we had reported them to the House, on the basis of elucidation, and had printed them, that would have been the case. Unfortunately, the meeting of the Committee has just finished, so we are unable to place the memoranda in the Vote Office, as we would wish and as we are obliged to do under the Standing Order. Therefore, hon. Members will be denied the opportunity of having the considered views of the Committee.
I emphasise that the Committee wanted to help hon. Members by providing information, but because of the haste with which the Government are rushing the regulations through—before giving the Joint Committee the opportunity to report on them to the House—hon. Members have been denied that information. I have raised this point of order because the Joint Committee has, in effect, been denied the opportunity to carry out the provisions of the Standing Order, which must be strongly deprecated.
§ Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to prolong the proceedings of the House, but I serve with the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I do not agree with all the sentiments that he expressed, but the Committee considers such matters carefully and it is concerned that its deliberations, which took more than an hour and a half, will not be discussed or considered by the House tonight.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
This is not a matter over which I have any control from the Chair. However, I have taken on board the points made by both hon. Members. It might be appropriate if they seek to catch my eye or that of my successor to make those points during the debate.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt)
I beg to move,That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.Perhaps it will be convenient if we discuss also the next three motions on the Order Paper: 756That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.That the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, he approved.That the draft Child Support (Arrears, Interest and Adjustment of Maintenance Assessments) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.The House will be aware that there are four statutory instruments relating to child support to be debated today. They are the first of a number of regulations that provide the detail for the Government's new scheme for the assessment, collection and enforcement of child maintenance. The framework for this scheme, as hon. Members will recall, was provided for in the Child Support Act 1991.
It is important that we can inform the legal profession, voluntary bodies and other groups that may be affected by the new scheme of the exact detail as soon as possible so that they have sufficient time to prepare themselves for its introduction. Regulations before the House today, therefore, include the procedures to be followed in making a maintenance assessment, the detailed provisions of the maintenance formula, provisions relating to the collection and disclosure of information and various provisions to do with payment of interest on arrears of maintenance.
Further regulations, which are not subject to the affirmative procedure and make provision for the collection and enforcement of maintenance, will be laid shortly. The remaining provisions, covering the detail of the appeals system, jurisdictional issues, fees and transitional issues, will be brought forward later in the year.
§ Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)
The Minister has just said that it is important that the regulations should be brought forward so that the legal profession is informed. What is his response to the charge that the regulations are being pushed through just nine days after they were laid before the House, almost before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments was able to conclude its deliberations and certainly before other hon. Members were able to examine the result of those deliberations? Why are the Government rushing the regulations through so unnecessarily fast?
§ Mr. Burt
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of two things. First, for some time the base of the regulations has been in the domain of the interested people and lobby groups; there is nothing new in relation to them. Secondly, he will know also that, to get the agency up and running and ready for its start in April 1993, a considerable amount of work will be done by officials preparing for that start. It is therefore extremely important for them that the regulations are laid out as quickly as possible. We have moved along quickly to ensure that those officials are given the best preparation possible.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said and I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), but we have acted speedily because we want the agency up and running. There is a lot of support for what we are doing and it is important that the practical, solid base of legislation is laid. That is what we are doing.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
I must add my concern to that expressed about the deliberations of the Joint Committee and the fact that the regulations were laid just nine days ago. More than 100 organisations responded during the consultation period 757 and all the information gathered from them is still within the precincts of the Minister's Department—none of it is in the public domain. We do not even have access to what the specialist advisers have said about the regulations, which makes things difficult when we are discussing complicated legislation.
§ Mr. Burt
The Government have done nothing to prevent the interested groups from making public the information that they kindly submitted during the consultation period. I would be happy if they had done so. There is no problem about the speed with which we are considering this matter. The general terms of the regulations are well known to the people concerned. They also know how important it is to get the base legislation laid, which is what we are doing now.
§ Mr. Cryer
The Minister says that there is no problem, but there is. If the House sets up a Committee to look at statutory instruments and to report to the House, the Government should take note of that. The Committee aimed to produce memoranda, which the Department had prepared for our Committee in order to help hon. Members. We aimed to make that available to hon. Members on both sides of the House so that they could have a greater understanding of the regulations. It is complacent of the Minister to say that there is the Government's action today. The Government must take the Joint Committee's work into account.
§ Mr. Burt
I take careful note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I can add little to what I have said about our need to get on with the regulations. People are depending on us to get the base work done so that the Child Support Agency, which is so important, can get up and running.
The principles behind the scheme were debated during the passage of the Child Support Bill and I think it is fair to say that, although some hon. Members expressed concern about certain proposals, there was widespread support for the fundamental aims of the scheme. I am sure that the House recalls well the strong and persuasive arguments put forward by my predecessors, both of whom I am pleased to see have moved on to higher office since this subject was last before the House. Let me summarise their arguments.
The responsibilities of parenthood are, of course, much more than just financial, but I am sure we all nevertheless recognise the importance of parents' responsibility to maintain their children. Regular payment of maintenance is of benefit to children and to those providing care for them. Most obviously, it provides a regular income to meet the day-to-day needs of the child. Maintenance is also an income that can be taken with the person with care when he or she moves from dependence on benefit into work. Three quarters of lone parents on income support have expressed a desire to work now or in the near future.
Unfortunately, the current system for child maintenance is fragmented and uncertain and does not work as it should. Awards are often inconsistent, even where the people involved appear to be in very similar circumstances. 758 There is no automatic way for awards to be reviewed to take account of increasing costs or changing circumstances.
Obtaining maintenance can require a significant effort from the person caring for the children, who may be having to cope with the breakdown of a relationship at the same time. If payment falls into arrears, as too many often do, the person caring for the children has to ask the courts to take action. There can be significant delays before payment is re-established. As a result, in 1989, only 30 per cent. of lone mothers and 3 per cent. of lone fathers received regular child maintenance. About two thirds of lone parents are reliant on income support to meet the day-to-day living expenses of themselves and their children. It is not right that, where a parent is capable of supporting his or her children, this responsibility should be transferred to taxpayers who often have children of their own to support. As my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State, now Lord President of Council, quite rightly pointed out, many taxpayers have children of their own to support.
The Government's response to those problems was laid out in the White Paper "Children Come First". Following this, changes have already been made to the benefit rules to provide support and encouragement for lone parents to work, if they wish to do so, and the Child Support Act has laid out the framework for the new system for the assessment, collection and, if necessary, enforcement of child maintenance.
There are two main features to the new scheme. First, maintenance will be assessed by an administrative formula which will ensure consistency between awards. The rules governing the formula will include provision for regular review to take account of changing circumstances.
Secondly, the Government will set up the Child Support Agency, within the Department of Social Security, with specific responsibility for tracing absent parents, for assessing their maintenance liability and for ensuring that full payment of that liability is made. The new scheme will be introduced in April next year.
The Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations cover the procedures associated with the making of a maintenance assessment. Many of the regulations are technical provisions detailing the procedures for applications, reviews and terminations of assessments.
Regulations 2 to 7 deal with application for maintenance assessments, including the issue and completion of relevant forms, and provisions to determine which application will be proceed with if more than one person applies in respect of the same child.
If an absent parent does not provide the information required to assess his—I say "his" for shorthand purposes—liability for maintenance, the child support officer may make an interim maintenance assessment. That assessment establishes the absent parent's liability and will provide an incentive for absent parents to supply information to the agency on time. The absent parent is given a full 28 days to co-operate before an interim maintenance assessment can be made and it will last only as long as the absent parent fails to supply the required information. The provisions for those assessments are made in regulations 8 and 9.
Regulations 10 to 16 are largely technical provisions relating to the notification of decisions, but the House may 759 wish to note the provisions of regulation 10, which ensure that no information will be included in notifications which would allow one party to be traced by the other.
Regulations 17 to 23 provide for reviews of the assessment to take place. That will normally occur at least annually, but provision is made for earlier review if there has been a significant change in the circumstances of any of the parties to the assessment.
Regulations 24 to 29 and 30 to 33 are also largely technical. The former deal with the situation where a party asks for a review of a child support officer's decision under section 18 of the Child Support Act, and make provision, for example, as to the time limits involved and notifications to be made. The latter deal with dates from which assessments will take effect.
Regulations 34 to 50 provide for a reduction in benefit to be made where a parent with care in receipt of income support, family credit or disability working allowance fails to comply with obligations imposed by section 6 of the Child Support Act. That section requires the parent with care to authorise action to be taken and provide necessary information to allow maintenance to be recovered from the absent parent.
§ Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)
Will the Minister explain where in the Bill procedures are available for appeal against a punitive decision? I have in mind an appeal on the interpretation of the regulations and failure to disclose the name of an absent parent. What procedure would a woman be able to follow to defend herself against her benefit being stolen by the state?
§ Ms. Primarolo
I am questioning the Minister not about a cooling-off period but about a woman having a right of appeal against a decision, referred to in the regulations, which would have the effect of taking away her benefit because of her failure to disclose the name of the absent father. That revolves around the definition of fear of violence, harassment or intimidation. That is not spelt out in the regulations but is left to interpretation. Where there is interpretation, there must be grounds for appeal. The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned those.
§ Mr. Burt
There are grounds for appeal to a social security appeals tribunal where a benefit direction is given to reduce benefit. If the hon. Lady will allow me to make progress, I will explain the circumstances which are obviously troubling her. I may be able to reassure her or satisfy some of her concerns.
Hon. Members will know that the issue was the subject of much debate during the passage of the Child Support Bill. The Government responded in a constructive way to address the legitimate concerns expressed to us then. In particular, we made provision in the Act for cases where, if the parent were to co-operate, there would be a risk of harm or undue distress either to her or to any child living with her. If there are reasonable grounds for believing that to be the case, the requirement to co-operate will be waived. The provision gives scope to enable each case to be looked at individually—this answers the intervention of 760 the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo). That is why there is no definition given in the measure. It is designed to give flexibility to the officers dealing with the case so as to allow the widest possible range of circumstances of undue distress to be taken into account.
§ Mr. Burt
I will give way after I have completed this section of my remarks. I remind hon. Members that we have made it clear on many occasions that, although corroboration of evidence will be welcomed, we will accept the uncorroborated evidence of a parent in such circumstances unless there are strong reasons not to do so. We will bend over backwards in the case of all mothers who may put forward good reasons why they should not name a parent, for it is not our wish to see those mothers caused any difficulty or distress. The regulations and the advice and training given to officers will make that perfectly clear.
§ Ms. Primarolo
The Minister talks about corroboration in respect of violence. It is unclear in the measure whether such corroboration needs to be, say, a court order or repeated reports to the police. Am I to understand from the Minister's remarks that, if a woman says that she fears violence as a result of disclosing the name of her partner, her word will be good enough and there will be no further proceedings to trace the absent father? If that is the case, it is not stated in the measure.
§ Mr. Burt
The hon. Lady is correct, and I repeat that the Government have made it clear on many occasions that, although corroboration would be welcomed, we will accept the uncorroborated evidence of a parent unless there are strong reasons not to do so. So we do not require corroboration in the manner suggested by the hon. Lady.
The difficulty is that were we to set the matter out in line-by-line terms, we might find that we were excluding women who had got themselves into situations of equal distress or fear which were not covered by, or set out in, a regulation. The purpose of keeping it flexible is to enable us to deal precisely with the point that the hon. Lady raised. Of all lone mothers—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) should not laugh, because I am dealing with a serious point.
§ Mr. Burt
The hon. Gentleman certainly was. He should keep his face straight.
Of all lone mothers who currently do not give the name of the father, only 3 per cent. say that that is because of the fear of violence. I am anxious that this key provision is not taken to be the sort of matter that discolours the rest of the regulations and what we are seeking to do. The basis of the regulations is to try to produce a better system for the maintenance of the child. We are attempting to balance the relationship and responsibilities of fathers with that of the state in general. By keeping the provisions flexible in the way that I suggested, we can best reassure mothers who may have concerns or be in distress. That is the way in which we propose to proceed.
§ Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith)
The problem is encapsulated in the word "flexibility". We are already seeing flexibility in the way the provisions are interpreted. I have several examples in Edinburgh of 761 people being harassed. If a woman says that she is frightened by the threat of violence, will that be acceptable? Are there any other exemptions? The Minister's figure of 3 per cent. suggests that there are many other good reasons why mothers may not wish to name the father. Is the Minister saying that none of those will be acceptable?
§ Mr. Burt
No. I gave violence as an example. Concern about a risk of harm or undue distress to the mother or to any child living with her could arise in a variety of ways, which is why it is kept flexible.
We recognise that this is a very difficult area and we will monitor these cases very carefully. Having said that, it remains true that both parents have a responsibility to do what they can to ensure proper financial provision for their children. In the same way that an absent parent should not be able to refuse to pay maintenance that he can afford for his child, a mother should not, without good cause, be able to refuse to co-operate in obtaining maintenance for her child. This is therefore a necessary and important measure.
The Child Support (Maintenance Assessment and Special Cases) Regulations deal with the calculation of child support maintenance. The basic formula for this calculation is included in schedule 1 to the Child Support Act 1991. The regulations fill in the detail in the formula, including the actual values that will be used in the calculations, and make provision for any special cases that might arise.
Regulations 3 and 4 provide for the calculation of the maintainence requirement, which represents the amount that is required to meet the basic day-to-day needs of a child. This is based on income support allowances and includes an allowance for the child and, if the child is under the age of 16, a further allowance for the person with care of the child. There is one charge from the proposals set out in the White Paper. We originally intended to reduce the allowance included for the person with care when the youngest child included in the assessment reached 11 and would be spending a larger part of the weekday at school. Several commentators felt that the role and financial responsibilities of the carer do not, in fact, reduce when the child reaches 11. Upon reflection, we agree with this view and, therefore, this allowance will not now be reduced.
The proportion of a parent's assessable income—income left after meeting essential needs—which will be available for child support maintenance is provided for in regulations 5 and 6. An absent parent will be expected to pay one half of his assessable income in maintenance until the maintenance requirement is fully met. After that, and subject to an upper limit, one quarter of his remaining assessable income will be added to his maintenance assessment.
Regulation 7 and schedules 1 and 2 set out the rules for the calculation of the income available to an absent parent, including the extent to which different sorts of income are to be disregarded. Regulation 8 provides that the same rules apply for the parent with care. In the main, we have adopted existing practices for the calculation of income in the income-related benefits.
A parent is allowed an amount of income, known as exempt income, to meet his essential day-to-day needs. This is the first charge on his net income before any money is available to start meeting maintenance obligations. We 762 therefore thought it important to confine this exempt income to amounts broadly reflecting income support rates, together with allowances for housing costs and for the needs of any natural or adopted child of the parent who is living with him. Regulation 9 sets out amounts allowable in exempt income, which depend on the exact circumstances of the absent parent and are, in the main, based on the various income support allowances and premiums that would be applicable. Regulation 10 provides that the same rules will apply to the calculation of the exempt income of the parent with care.
Hon. Members will, no doubt, recall that the maintenance formula includes provision to ensure that the absent parent is not left worse off after paying maintenance than he would be if he were on income support. That is achieved by calculating the protected income for the absent parent and all his family living with him. This figure is compared to the disposable income available to the family and maintenance will be payable only to the extent to which disposable income exceeds protected income.
The components of protected income are described in regulations 11 and 12. These include allowances for any partner and children, including step-children. There is also allowance for other expenses, such as housing costs and council tax, and there is a flat-rate margin of an additional £8 in each absent parent's case. Where total family income is greater than this basic amount, a further additional allowance of 10 per cent. of the excess is made to ensure that the absent parent is not discouraged from increasing his income.
Regulation 13 defines the minimum level of maintenance payable as 5 per cent. of the income support personal allowance for a single adult aged 25 or over. At today's benefit levels, that would involve a payment of £2.15 per week. We believe that it is important to establish both the liability for maintenance and the habit of making payment as early as possible, and hence that all liable persons should make some contribution to the maintenance of their children. There are, however, some special cases where this minimum amount could cause hardship, and regulation 26 sets out a number of conditions where the minimum maintenance will not be payable—for example, where the absent parent is disabled.
Regulations 14 to 18 make provision for the treatment of housing costs under the formula and cover, for example, the apportionment of responsibility for housing costs where the parent is a joint owner of his home. Regulation 18, in particular. sets a ceiling on the amount of weekly housing costs to be included in the calculation of an absent parent's exempt and protected income. That will reduce any incentive for an absent parent to lower his liability for maintenance by deliberately increasing his housing costs to unreasonable levels.
Part III of the regulations deals with special cases. The maintenance formula, as set out in the Act, is designed to deal with the most common case, where the child lives with one person and there is one absent parent from whom maintenance is sought. There will, however, be other, less common, situations—for instance, where both parents are absent or where the child spends some time with each parent. The regulations provide for the application of the standard maintenance formula to be appropriately amended in such circumstances.
Although I do not intend to describe in detail each of the different types of special case, I should like to mention 763 the provision dealing with the shared care of a child. We have decided that, provided the absent parent has the child for at least two nights a week on average, the maintenance he has to pay will be reduced. That is provided for in two different ways. First, an allowance will be made in the absent parent's exempt income in respect of the time his children spend with him. In addition, regulation 20 provides for the weekly amount of maintenance to be reduced in proportion to the number of night's care provided by the absent parent. We think that that provision strikes the proper balance between the interests of both parents and the interests of the child, given that shared care should mean joint responsibility for all important aspects of a child's upbringing, nurture and day-to-day care and costs.
Finally, regulation 28 sets out the conditions upon which a deduction can be made from an absent parent's income support. The effect of the regulation is that deductions will be taken only from absent parents who are aged 18 or over, who are fit and who have no children living with them. The deduction will be at the same rate as the minimum amount already defined in the regulations—5 per cent. of the income support personal allowance for single people aged 25 or over. That is the same level as for other standard deductions from income support and will be subject to the overall 15 per cent. ceiling.
We think that it is right that absent parents should not escape their responsibilities simply because they are receiving income support. A deduction from benefit will demonstrate an absent parent's liability and will establish a pattern of contributing to maintenance for his children.
I turn now to the provisions of the Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations. Regulations 2 to 7 deal with the collection of information. The Child Support Agency will have to collect information to identify and trace an absent parent, to assess the amount of maintenance payable and to collect and, if necessary, enforce the maintenance due.
During the passage of the Child Support Bill, a number of legitimate concerns were expressed about the sort of information that would be required and the powers that the agency would have. The Government have carefully considered all the comments that were made and believe the regulations strike the right balance between empowering the agency to collect the information required to deal with an application for child maintenance and safeguarding the privacy of the people with whom the agency deals.
We expect that information will normally be obtained from parties to the assessment themselves. In some limited circumstances, however, where the relevant party is unable or unwilling to provide the necessary information, it may be necessary to collect limited information from some third parties. Provision for that is made in regulations 2 and 3, taken together, which define what information may be required and from whom. Information may be required only for specific purposes directly relevant to the operation of the assessment, collection and enforcement of child support maintenance; and it may be required only from parties to the assessment themselves or, for particular items only, from their employer, their local authority or the courts. The remaining regulations in part II—regulations 4 to 7—provide further amplification of the detailed procedures governing the supply of information to the Child Support Agency.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I am intrigued. There is reference to disclosure of information. Regulation 7 says:Subject to Her Majesty not being in residence, an inspector appointed under section 15 of the Act may enter any Crown premises for the purpose of exercising any powers conferred on him by that section.Does that include Windsor castle?
§ Mr. Burt
We may be trespassing into areas that could cause grave concern and danger to us—the Tower of London and things like that. I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we shall proceed carefully from this point. If I may, I shall finish with the regulations.
Section 50 of the Child Support Act makes it a criminal offence for information to be disclosed without legal authority. Regulations 8 to 11 specify the very limited circumstances in which it will be possible to disclose information gathered for child support purposes.
Finally, the Child Support (Arrears, Interest and Adjustment of Maintenance Assessments) Regulations introduce a number of provisions to deal with circumstances in which maintenance is not paid correctly. Those regulations apply where the Child Support Agency has responsibility for the collection of maintenance payments.
The charging of interest on arrears provides a major incentive to ensure that absent parents make full payment of maintenance, and regulations 3 to 7 make the necessary provisions.
A number of safeguards are included to ensure that the absent parent is not charged interest where that would not be reasonable—for example, interest will be charged only if the absent parent has been notified of the existence of the arrears.
Where the absent parent is not able to clear any arrears immediately, interest will not be payable, provided he makes and adheres to an agreement to clear the arrears by instalments. A period of 28 days is allowed from the date the payment is missed for the absent parent to reach agreement with the Child Support Agency about the terms of such an agreement. Should an agreement not be made or adhered to, however, the absent parent will be charged interest for the whole period in which the arrears remain outstanding.
Only when increased income support payments have fully compensated a parent with care for the loss of income as a result of non-payment of maintenance will the interest be retained by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In all other circumstances, any interest payable will be paid to the maintenance recipient.
I am grateful that the House has allowed me time to set out in detail the important regulations before us. Taken together, they provide a comprehensive background to the new system of maintenance that we are introducing through the Child Support Agency. We want a better and a more secure system of maintenance for children. We are aware of some of the concerns that have been expressed, 765 particularly those reiterated by the hon. Member for Bristol, South. If she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall deal with those matters when I wind up.
I genuinely believe that the proposed system is better than the current ad hoc system. It will work better and it has the good will of many people. I am determined that we shall work hard to reassure those who have expressed concern about certain aspects by the time the system is introduced.
I commend the regulations to the House.
§ Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)
I have just listened to the Minister explain in considerable detail many complicated regulations, including several special cases. He has simply reinforced the complaint that some of us made at the outset—that the Government are unnecessarily rushing the regulations through. They were laid only nine days ago and it is only half an hour since the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments finished its deliberations on those complicated matters. The Minister said in response to that complaint that it was important to have a solid base in place for the lawyers and administrators to do their work. However, it is just as important that hon. Members should have enough time to play their role in examining and criticising the regulations. I simply do not believe that hon. Members have been given that opportunity, particularly in respect of the Joint Committee's findings. The Minister's failure to meet that argument shows the contempt in which the Government hold the House. I protest strongly at the procedure that the Government have chosen to adopt in this instance.
I make it clear at the outset that the Opposition very much support the principle behind the Child Support Agency—that parents should contribute to the maintenance of their children. The only reason why we are not voting against the regulations today is not because we do not have serious disagreements with important aspects of them but because, under the procedures of the House, we can vote against those aspects only by voting down the regulations as a whole, which would cut away our support for the underlying principle.
The Government have made certain improvements in the regulations as a result of the consultation, but I am not being churlish in saying that those improvements are pretty minuscule. The Government have hardly budged on the important aspects on which there is a consensus of opposition among all the expert organisations consulted. We welcome the increased level of protected income for low-paid absent parents, and the increase in the personal allowance for lone parents with children over the age of I I, which rightly recognises that lone parents have a legal and moral duty to care for their children up to the age of 16. We also welcome the fact that absent parents on income support who are under 18 years of age will not have to pay. Obviously, however, that introduces the arbitrary distinction that those who are 19 will still have to pay.
By far the most important objection is to the benefit penalty, over which the Minister seemed to glide rapidly. He was held to account only by the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo). He seemed to offer little justification, despite all the consultations, as to why the Government were 766 sticking to that principle. I expected him to discuss it at greater length, but he did not. The independent organisations unanimously oppose the benefit penalty, but the Government have refused to listen to the advice given.
Drawing on the point made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), I believe that the same advice was given by all 100 organisations which provided evidence, but because the Government have not published that evidence, we cannot be certain. Will the Under-Secretary of State confirm that in winding up the debate? It is not enough to say that the organisations can publish their work separately. If we are to have a citizens charter that means something, the public are entitled to know about this matter of acute concern. A large section of the population—there are more than a million lone parents—should know what was in the evidence submitted to the Government by that large number of organisations.
The benefit penalty was the issue on which the original clause was defeated in Committee in another place. The Secretary of State then insisted on reintroducing it, no doubt because the Thatcherite purpose behind the Bill of saving public expenditure far overrode such minor considerations as the welfare of the child or the aggravation of poverty. Ministers have never answered key questions about the ill effects of the benefit penalty, and the Minister has made no attempt to do so today. The Government like to proclaim the slogan that children come first——
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Miss Ann Widdecombe)
Children do come first.
§ Mr. Meacher
I am glad to have confirmation of that from the Under-Secretary of State. In that case, how is it in the children's interest to pursue maintenance when to do so is likely to disrupt a reconciliation process, disrupt the father's current relationship or his relationship with his new family, or cause the father to press for access or other rights over the child? The Government's view is that maintenance and access are completely different, and I agree with that, but it is not the view which research has shown is held by either party. Both parents believe that, if maintenance is provided, it is not unconditional. That is an important point. How can it be right to insist on a benefit penalty in such circumstances? Above all, how can it be in the child's interest if the benefit penalty increases poverty in the family, as it is bound to do?
I do not believe that the Minister can deny that. I know that the penalty is supposed to be a reduction in the personal allowance of the caring parent, but it is disingenuous of the Government to pretend that a 20 per cent. reduction in the family income—25 per cent. in the case of a lone parent under the age of 18—for six months in the first instance, will not gravely affect the child. That is the question that the Minister did not mention, let alone answer, today. We want such questions answered; they are at the heart of the regulations.
It is not as though the income support rates are not already cut to the bone. The Government have reduced income support rates, relative to average earnings, during the past eight years, one year after another. One quarter of all claimants of income support already have their income support deducted to repay social fund loans and a variety of different arrears. Single parenthood is already well understood to be one of the major causes of child poverty. 767 The 20 per cent. penalty on top of that is the last straw. A cut of £8.49 a week for the first six months and then half of that, £4.24 a week, for the next year is punitive.
§ Mr. Burt
The hon. Gentleman is talking as though the procedure were par for the course and the vast majority of people would be affected in that way. Surely he listened more carefully than that to what I said about the way in which we shall implement the legislation. We are dealing only with mothers who refuse to name the father and who do not have good reason not to name him. We are trying to establish the principle that, where it would cause undue distress or fear of harm, what the hon. Gentleman suggests will not come into play. There is no good reason why, in those circumstances, anyone should be affected by the reductions of which he speaks.
§ Mr. Meacher
I was going to come to section 46, which I am well aware is at the heart of the legislation, but will the Minister assure the House that, in all cases where there is good reason, the mother will not be subjected to the benefit penalty?
§ Mr. Meacher
The Minister says that that is the Government's intention. We have also been told that it is their intention that the social fund will be used with discretion and sensitivity so that all those in need will find their needs met. The manifest failure of the social fund to begin to meet the extreme poverty which exists among a large section of the population does not inspire confidence in the Minister. I do not doubt the Minister's sincerity, but I have doubts about what will happen in practice.
I believe that the pressure behind the Bill—to recover public expenditure—will be the driving force in terms of maintenance payments, not the welfare of the child or protecting the mother. I firmly believe that recovering public expenditure is the purpose behind the Bill, and that those other considerations are secondary. However, the Government have made up their mind, and their policy will ultimately be tested by experience.
I do not believe that the number of cases will be just a few, a handful, or something so easily dismissed as the Minister suggests. I think that there will be a significant number of cases. In some extreme cases the policy could work against the child's interests. Due to financial pressures on the family, it could lead to the child being taken into care or to deficiencies in the family's diet which could result in ill health. I do not believe that the Minister can deny that possibility. Everything hinges on the interpretation of whether the mother has good cause, and where the onus lies. The Department of Social Security does not inspire me with much confidence when I consider the way in which it has handled extremely intimate and sensitive matters in the past.
The fundamental issue to consider today is this: does the Under-Secretary of State believe that risking those consequences—that is putting it mildly—in some cases and exacerbating poverty in almost all cases where deductions are made, is in the child's interests or puts children first? If not, is it not clear that, after all the consultations, the regulations are still more about saving public expenditure than about the welfare of the child? If maintenance is paid, none of it goes to the caring parent or the child, but to the Department of Social Security. If it is 768 not paid, the child suffers indirectly, as well as the parent who cares. That is the nub of our case against the regulations.
I am well aware that section 46 of the Act bears on that important issue. The exemption clause allows a child support officer to take no further action against a lone parent whereif she were to be required to comply, there would be a risk of her or of any children living with her suffering harm or undue distress as a result of complying.The great weakness of that subsection is that it is discretionary. The Minister tried to make out that the great merit in the subsection was its flexibility, but the problem with discretion is that there will almost certainly be cases where it should be, but is not, exercised, and it will almost certainly lead to arbitrariness. Moreover, when we consider how the DSS has exercised its discretion in other matters, we are not encouraged to place our trust in it.
The only reason for the dispute across the Dispatch Box is the Government's constant rejection of a maintenance disregard and their insistence on a punitive benefit penalty. One cannot help noticing the difference in treatment currently given to two groups by the DSS. Mothers on income support are expected to comply with the Child Support Agency. If they do not, one fifth of their extremely meagre income of £42 per week will be docked. Meanwhile, banks which are knowingly in receipt of more than £200 million of stolen assets from the Maxwell pension funds are asked by the Secretary of State to "examine their consciences". They are asked to consider whether they have a "moral obligation". They are not expected to comply or be penalised if they do not, but to consider the matter and decide whether to hand back stolen property. What a contrast in the attitude of our Thatcherite Secretary of State!
Even the Government's other bêtes noires—those who make themselves unemployed according to the Government's definition—are not treated so badly as lone parents. I refer to the so-called voluntarily unemployed—a wonderful phrase—who suffer a variable deduction, which may be for 26 weeks, but could equally be for one day or any period in between. Under the Child Support Act 1991, however, the deduction is for a fixed time—the full period. The voluntarily unemployed can have their deduction halved where a member of the family is seriously ill or pregnant, but the regulations contain no such provision in the case of lone parents subject to the 20 per cent. benefit deduction.
If the Government insist against all advice on having a benefit deduction for lone parents, the very least that they could do would be to make the time scale discretionary and reduce it in certain circumstances. One can think of a variety of such occasions—serious illness in the case of the voluntarily unemployed, pregnancy, the need for special diets for one or more family members, or where the house is particularly hard to heat. Yet one searches in vain through 85 pages of regulations for any evidence of how discretion would and should be used in such cases. That is a serious deficiency in the regulations.
The only other major objection to the regulations that I want to raise concerns second families on low incomes. It has been stated repeatedly that a maintenance levy will have the effect of putting two families on income support levels rather than one. I would be the first to accept that the Government have made some minor helpful adjustments, but the regulations will still transfer almost 769 the whole of any increase in the second family's income to the first family. That is surely indefensible, especially when it is the increased income of the new partner rather than the absent parent which is diverted.
The really important point here surely is that despite all the consultations the Government have still not accepted the principle that absent parents should be zero-rated for the purposes of maintenance payments so long as they remain on unemployment benefit or income support. That seems a reasonable provision if we are not simply to transfer poverty from one family to the next, and that surely is not the aim of the Child Support Agency.
The regulations, 85 pages of them, which result from almost 100 regulation-making powers in the Act, still leave open many vital questions about how the powers would be operated. They embody an important principle which we all support, but they are spoilt by the unnecessarily punitive nature of the benefit penalty and by the harsh treatment in many cases of second families.
It is sad that, in the face of all the evidence from the consultations, the Government are still so wedded to the idea of compulsion for those on income support when for all other groups in society it is the language of incentives which prevails. That is why the Opposition, for all our commitment to the fundamental principle of maintenance payments, can give the regulations only limited support in terms of their detail and practical application.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
I intrude in the debate with considerable trepidation because those assembled here know far more about the issue and the regulations than I do, but I have one or two points to make. I have already told my hon. Friend the Minister that I fear that I may have to wait for his answers until I read them in Hansard tomorrow, because I have another engagement for which I shall have to leave shortly.
Listening to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), I was, as I have often in the past been, somewhat astonished at the assertiveness with which he declared that he was wholly in favour of the principle and the extraordinary difficulties that he then paraded in turning that principle into practice. That can only be a reflection on the enormous length of time that Opposition Members have had to spend being unable to turn principles into practice.
The truth of the matter is that the regulations are designed to try to make an exceptionally difficult and complex area of policy work in practice. I was particularly relieved, as I had expected to be, when my hon. Friend declared that the Government would assess with great care how the regulations work out in practice, because there are some difficult issues within them.
It may be just that I am ignorant of the details of the regulations on this point, but I thought that the hon. Member for Oldham, West said that every penny that was paid by a maintaining parent went directly to the Department of Social Security. My understanding is that, where a parent has a sizeable income, the maintenance will substantially improve the child's quality of life.
In his traditional and in many ways commendable anxiety to bring the needs of the poorest to the House, the hon. Member seems to have forgotten that a sizeable 770 number of single parents have an absent or an ex-spouse who is earning a considerable sum of money. The idea that the state should have to pick up the cost of maintaining their children when their incomes are more than sufficient to maintain them, is ridiculous. If the hon. Gentleman's commitment to the principle of the Bill means anything, it must surely mean that he supports that principle in practice.
The first point that I should like my hon. Friend to address when he replies concerns the fact that, where the state tries to attach some part of a family's income for any purpose, there is an inevitable incentive for those who are not entirely scrupulous to try to disguise the size of their income or to distort or to hide it in various ways.
Looking at the regulations, I was unclear about the penalty arrangements for a false declaration or for trying to divert one's income in inappropriate ways so that the statement to the inspector was false.
For the reasons that I have already sketched, I particularly welcome my hon. Friend's point that he was anxious not to create disincentives for absent parents to increase their incomes.
The other important point, which is well illustrated by the dismaying statistic of 3 per cent. of lone parents being fathers, is that one of the consequences of this important reform in making a reality of parents' responsibility for the children they create is that there will undoubtedly emerge quite quickly an even stronger feeling among some fathers that they are being denied appropriate access to their children.
It is bad enough now when fathers frequently have considerable difficulty in obtaining in practice the access that the courts have given them to their children. That will become much more a bone of contention if the fathers are contributing to the maintenance of their children without any choice and under a regime which would punish them for not doing so. If, in those circumstances, the same rigour is not provided by the authorities to enable them to claim the access which the courts have given them but which frequently in practice may be virtually impossible, there will be a justifiable outcry. I feel strongly that absent fathers are frequently badly treated in those respects. I hope that, even if there is nothing that my hon. Friend can say tonight, he will look carefully at the consequences of the regulations on that aspect.
I look forward to reading the answers to my questions tomorrow, because I am afraid that, to my regret, I shall not be here to hear them tonight.
§ Mr. Cryer
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I intervene now it will save me from making a speech. Earlier, on a point of order, I said that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments had not had sufficient time to deal properly with these instruments because the Government were rushing them through, and that we had made an effort to help the House by providing the memoranda which were provided by the Department of Social Security, but which, because of time constraints, we were unable to place in the Vote Office. There are 36 pages. I am happy to tell the House that, as a result of the considerable efforts of the Committee Clerk, copies of the memoranda are in the Vote Office. That should be recognised as a valuable contribution, largely at the hands of the Clerk, certainly not with the help of the Government, to the House tonight.
§ Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)
By the year 2000, only one in two children in Britain will experience what many would regard as a conventional childhood. By that I mean being born to parents who are married to each other, and spending one's childhood up to the age of 16 or 17, say, living still with parents married to each other. That projection alone is one indicator of why the regulations and the Act to which they relate are so important. The Act is important; therefore, the regulations and getting them right are absolutely crucial.
It is estimated that one in four children born this year will have parents who divorce by the time the children reach the age of 16. Every year, some 150,000 children in Britain under 16 see their parents' marriage break up. When that is related to the phenomenon of an increase in the number of single mothers in this country and the fact that cohabiting partners with children may also break up—something not captured in the official divorce statistics—it can be seen why the issues at stake are so important.
We are faced with two vital questions, with which the regulations seek to grapple: first, what are the financial costs of these family changes, and, secondly, who should meet those costs?
At the moment, most of the costs are undoubtedly being met by mothers and children, through poverty. The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) spoke about better-off families, but in fact seven out of 10 one-parent families—70 per cent.—draw income support, and during their one-parent-family lives, as many as 85 per cent. will draw income support. I therefore believe that it is right that the Act puts the principle of parental responsibility at the heart of this legislation. This legislation needs to be joined soon by a measure from the Lord Chancellor to put children at the heart of the divorce law reform process. That is the partner to this Act to which some of us on both sides of the House look forward.
In the rest of the world—the United States and Australia in particular come to mind—these questions are being addressed. Labour Governments in Australia have grappled with not dissimilar questions and have come up with not dissimilar solutions. The Child Support Act in Australia has been drawn on by the Government to some extent. So far, so good, but the practice is crucial. This is where I and many others both within and outside the House are very concerned to make sure that, even at this stage, the practice through these regulations is improved so that it matches the fairness of the principle.
There are two concerns. The first has been articulated already: the reduction of benefit where the single mother refuses to name the absent father. We know—this is my figure, anyway, from York university—that, in about 5 per cent. of cases where there is currently refusal, violence is cited as the factor. I believe that, rather than make up regulations on their own, we can draw on the experience of other countries.
At the end of 1990, I had the opportunity to spend several days talking to Ministers, officials of the Department of Social Security, officials of the tax office and voluntary bodies in Australia about the child support scheme. I hope that our Department and our Child Support Agency will draw on this experience.
I should like to see one difference introduced here. It should not be for the official who decides whether a benefit should be given or withdrawn to grapple also with the 772 sensitive issue of violence. Within the Department of Social Security in Australia, the task is given to social workers. An internal memorandum highlighting the guidelines contains the following statement:If clients refuse or are reluctant to take action to receive child support, it may be appropriate for them to be referred to the social worker for consideration as to whether they should be exempt from taking action.Later on, the memorandum says:The reason for involving social workers in the exemption process is to ensure that a professional assessment of sensitive and complex circumstances is available.It cannot be right that the official, who may be aware of agency targets to recoup certain amounts of money, is also the person grappling with these issues.
§ Mr. Wicks
The Minister shakes his head, and I should like his reassurance later that social workers and other people trained in this area will be involved in the process.
In Australia, at the end of 1989–90, 2 per cent. of cases were exempted because of violence, and there was a total of 14 per cent. So there is experience there to draw on, and I hope that the Government will draw on it.
The second concern has to be the lack of disregard for lone mothers on income support. To describe the whole process as a strategy of "children come first" is, in terms of implementation, a policy non sequitur. There is a sense in which the Act is not a child support Act but an Exchequer support Act. It cannot be right that the vast majority—this is no exaggeration, because the vast majority are on income support—will gain not a pound from what is meant to be a child support Act. The Minister cannot deny this and it has to be wrong.
The Australians told me that one reason why things worked so well over there was that the custodial parents knew that they would be gaining financially from the Act. The Australian tax office, which administers the scheme—it would be far better if our Inland Revenue had taken that responsibility—says that the mothers had a real interest in how the scheme worked. The office expected to be deluged by calls from fathers moaning about the scheme, but in fact the phones kept ringing with mothers asking how the scheme was coming along and when they would get their share of child support. The tax office said that the ability to share out the proceeds of child support among the parents, the children and the state was crucial to the working of the scheme.
I therefore believe that the child support scheme is at something of a crossroads, and I hope that there is still time for wiser counsels to prevail. At present, I repeat, most of our children affected by this will not gain financially; children will not come first. That is the reality that cannot be denied. Therefore, there is a genuine concern—I speak as a supporter of the overall strategy of parental responsibility in the changing family circumstances of the 1990s—that this will now be type-cast as yet another mean-minded measure from a Government who put money first.
That would be a great pity, and I urge Ministers to think again, as they have time to do. The principle of parental responsibility, allied to measures of child care and training and employment for lone-parent families, alongside child maintenance, could give us the chance to fashion a decent piece of social policy—decent because it would be based on sound moral philosophy.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
I must advise the House that the winding-up speeches will begin at a quarter to 8. It appears that four hon. Members wish to catch my eye, and if they will bear that in mind, I hope that it will be possible to call them all.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
I will try to stay within those constraints, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I could speak for an hour and a half on the regulations because in a previous incarnation I was a provincial solicitor working in a town in my constituency dealing with divorce law. I learned a great deal there and I recognise many of the problems which the regulations try to tackle, and I certainly support them in principle.
The Minister is a compassionate man. He is a new Minister and I am afraid that he has been given a difficult brief this evening, because the regulations are technically complex. If I had had more time, I would have added my voice and weight to the discussion on that question. The primary legislation is an enabling Act with far-reaching secondary legislative powers. I think that this is an abuse and I hope that when the Minister has a bit more experience he will tell the officials in the Box behind him that he needs a bit more time before he can bring such measures to the House. We all live and learn in this place and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that advice in the spirit in which it is intended.
The Act and the regulations do not live in the real world, because people do not easily absent themselves from their children. There are always complex psychological and emotional reasons for the parting of the ways. One is not dealing with rational people, in the case of divorced couples who have left their offspring behind. Sixty per cent. of the time, divorce settlements—which involve custody and maintenance determined by the courts-are difficult to arrange.
The regulations provide a rational civil service solution to highly charged situations. Some people use their children as weapons against their former spouses. I have seen that occur time and again. I do not have the time to detail all my reservations, but my main concern is that the regulations will cause distress far in excess of any financial benefit that they may bring—even to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They will disrupt not only the family of the caring parent but the second family as well.
Absent spouses—mainly fathers—will demand access to their children, some of whom they will not have seen for many years. That will cause great distress to the children. Suppose that the caring parent has reached the conclusion that disclosing information about the absent parent will lead to an application for access—which would distress the children. Would the mother be protected, as the Minister said earlier, because no other corroboration was needed to meet the regulations' non-disclosure requirements? Would it be enough for the mother to say, "My two infants will be considerably distressed if an access application is granted"? Would that be sufficient to avoid having to make the disclosures that the regulations stipulate?
§ Mr. Burt
I remind the hon. Gentleman that whether or not an access application succeeds is a matter for the court to decide—bearing in mind that the court will put the interests of the child first. An application for access might 774 come at any time, and for any reason. It will not necessarily be connected with a maintenance request. The two are decided entirely separately.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I understand that the court has jurisdiction in respect of custody, and the Minister is right to say that an access application can be made at any time. However, where a couple have split and lead independent family existences, the children who are in the custody of the caring parent may have no connection with the estranged and absent father. Nevertheless, the courts rightly take a jealous view of a father's right to have access to his natural child. All other factors being equal, the court may make an order. However, we are discussing the woman's judgment of whether access will distress her family to the extent that she is entitled to refuse making a disclosure.
I say with all the sincerity that I can muster in four and a half minutes that that, for me, that is the crucial issue. If a woman cannot, with her hand on her heart—and in the absence of any corroborating evidence—decline disclosure without question, the regulations will give rise to tremendous turmoil and upheaval the full length and breadth of the land.
I am concerned also about the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations 1992. I was teasing the Minister earlier about regulations that I do not really understand, but these regulations confer a fantastically widely drawn power on an inspector appointed under section 50 of the Child Support Act 1991, who can enter any premises for the purposes of exercising any powers conferred on him by that section. Regulations 2, 7, and 8 go much further in conferring administrative powers on officials to enforce the provisions of the 1991 Act.
I am nervous about the far-ranging nature of those powers. If I had longer, I could persuade the Minister that they are very dangerous. I hope that he will respond to those points when he winds up.
§ Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)
I will make only two points, because I am anxious that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey) should also be able to contribute. It is outrageous that complicated regulations that will so upset many women's lives must be debated in only one and a half hours. The regulations claim to have their origin in a document entitled "Children Come First", when the rationale for the proposals is to save money for the Department of Social Security.
Children are living in poverty if their single parents are claiming social security, and when the regulations are in force they will still live in poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said, not one penny will go to the single parent unless that parent exceeds the income support level—in which case, the other parent might be forced into poverty.
I am not against the proposition in principle that parents should take responsibility for their children, but the regulations are based on prejudice, and they will interfere in the lives of single parents. They also confuse the legal process with the punitive provisions that can be dispensed under social security legislation.
The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) spoke of the access rights of the absent father and said that, once maintenance was agreed, they could be reassessed. That 775 brings us to the heart of the regulations. Absent parents—fathers—who are forced to make payments will equate them with access or other rights over the mother and her children. The regulations will not only leave the single parent family in poverty but place them at risk of the actions of an aggrieved absent parent. If the courts are failing to make sensible maintenance arrangements, it is for the courts and the Government to correct that situation through family law, not social security law.
The explanatory notes, which were available only at the beginning of this debate, say that, under part I of the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations 1992, a notice will be sent when an application for maintenance has been received. It will not be an application for maintenance but a disclosure of the father's name under the threat that, in the absence or that disclosure, benefit will he deducted. That will immediately place the woman and her children at risk. The woman will have no grounds to defend herself, complain, or seek legal redress against an absent father who may pursue her by means of, for example, a molestation order. Nor will she be entitled even to make such an application, because the couple will have lived apart for a certain length of time.
The regulations give rights of access and ownership, at least in the mind of the absent parent, with no defence or appeal mechanism available to the woman. Their position will become worse rather than better.
My next point relates to the regulations. According to the explanatory note, regulation 5 informs the absent father that an application has been made, not that his name has been forced out of the mother. The regulation then lays down the penalties that will be imposed on the father as a result of the disclosure of his name by the mother, if he does not himself disclose all the information that the Department requires. Such action will lead to the building up of aggravation and resentment. The Government claim that they are legislating to put children first, but it seems to me that the lowest priority of the proposals is putting children first, and that their main priority is putting the Government first and saving them money. The proposals will do nothing to enhance parents' responsibility for maintenance and everything to weaken and endanger the position of single parents.
I have no time to go into the details of the regulations. Let me make it clear, however, that the legislation is wrong. The statutory instruments are fatally flawed, and women will suffer yet again.
§ Ms. Ann Coffey (Stockport)
Let me remind the Minister of another piece of legislation, the Children Act 1989. Social security legislation and personal services legislation are entangled with each other. On the one hand, we have the Children Act, which is designed to enable parents to go on undertaking their parental responsibilities—one hopes, outside the legislative framework—and to make private arrangements that suit them, benefit their children and are seen as non-prescriptive and flexible. Most people in social services departments were happy with those arrangements; they especially welcomed their non-prescriptive and flexible nature. On the other hand, we have a piece of social security legislation that is extremely prescriptive. Its implementation will impinge on the possibility of the Children Act's being implemented in the way that was intended.
776 I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the close connection between poverty and children going into care. As many Opposition Members have pointed out, the legislation will simply bring about a redistribution of poverty; it will not raise any family's standard of living. I am worried about the way in which the 1991 Act will impinge on private arrangements.
I sometimes wonder whether those who introduce such legislation appreciate the day-to-day life styles of the people who will be on the receiving end. For example, a woman wishing to protect an informal access arrangement might tell an interrogator from the Child Support Agency that she did not know the whereabouts of the father. That could lead to a repetition of the situation that arose under the cohabitation rules: DSS officers will start investigating people's circumstances to find out whether they are telling the truth. Will there be child support officers with binoculars in parks, trying to identify fathers with small children so that they can slap a maintenance order on them?
The Minister said that there were a good many caveats and discretionary powers, but DSS officers are very efficient. They have to be. I am sure that they will pursue the objective that has been set for them and try to collect as much maintenance money as they can to decrease the amount that is spent on benefit. No officer is going to say to a parent, "Tell me your personal circumstances. How helpful and understanding can I be?" That is not the rule; the rule tells DSS officers to collect the money.
The Minister may believe that he is making plenty of discretionary arrangements to ensure that everyone is treated with respect, but, because of the prescriptive nature of the legislation, that will not actually happen. Does he really want thousands of women to be subjected to humiliating procedures so that he can recover a few million pounds by taking the clothes off children's backs and the food out of their mouths?
If the Minister is seriously interested in children's welfare, and in ensuring that families have the income to support those children, I urge him to look carefully at the legislation. As it stands, it does nothing to dispel poverty or to improve the welfare of children, and it humiliates hundreds of our citizens.
§ Mr. Burt
I have enjoyed the debate. I have heard some extremely good speeches, and some to which I prefer not to respond because they are not worth it.
We are trying to provide a better basis for the recovery of child maintenance, both now and in the future. Where benefit is currently doing the father's job, it is not the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Department of Social Security who are paying out but millions of ordinary fathers and mothers who are paying taxes so that they can be used for the benefit of other people's children. Fathers retain a responsibility, and I believe that when they have the money to support their children it is right for them to do so. Most people believe the same, and that principle was accepted by the House. I have rarely known the Opposition Front Bench to accept the principles of an act so candidly and straightforwardly. I have also rarely heard so many Back-Bench comments which seemed to deny not only the principle of what we were trying to do, but its limited acceptance by those on the Front Bench.
777 I will deal again with the difficult point about mothers and potential benefit deductions. We are talking about, potentially, a very small minority of mothers who might refuse to give the fathers' names. I have tried to make it clear that, if they fear harm or undue distress, mothers will not be required to give those names. The dictionary definition of harm is to hurt, injure or damage; the definition of distress is to subject to severe strain or pressure, to cause pain or anxiety to, or to afflict, vex or make miserable. Those definitions strike the Government as wide enough to embrace all genuine cases in which we would not wish to pursue the question of child maintenance.
§ Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)
In a written answer on 22 June, the Minister said:Suitable and comprehensive training and guidance will be given to staff of the Child Support Agency to ensure that this sensitive area of work is handled professionally and sympathetically."—[Official Report, 22 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 87]As the Minister wishes to reassure us on that score, will he publish the guidelines that will be given to staff, so that Parliament is aware of them and other agencies dealing with the matter are well briefed on how it should be handled?
§ Mr. Burt
I am sure that the question of training will be made entirely clear. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will visit the Child Support Agency and see for himself what is being done. As for the publication of guidelines, we are anxious not to provide a charter for some fathers to evade their responsibilities.
To try to deal with the concerns expressed about appeals, I will run through precisely what the process will be. The Child Support Agency will contact the parent with care and discuss the reasons why the parent feels unable to co-operate in obtaining maintenance. We shall make clear the ways in which the agency can help by acting as a buffer, making all contacts and collecting the maintenance. There is no question of passing on an address. A six-week cooling-off period will give the parent with care the opportunity to comply or to make further representations, in which she may be supported by outside help.
We shall consider whether there would be a risk of harm or undue distress. If so, the matter will not be pressed. If we are not satisfied that the parent has good 778 grounds for not co-operating, the case will be referred to a child support officer for further consideration. There will then be a further two-week period in which to comply or make representations. If, at the end of that period, the child support officer is not satisfied, a reduced benefit direction will be issued. At that stage, the opportunity to appeal to a child support tribunal for independent assessment comes into play. Therefore, there are several opportunities for the situation to be made clear to the mother.
§ Mr. Burt
I dare not give way. We are running out of time and there are too many measures to discuss in detail.
I enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) who referred to Australia. In Labour Australia, the benefit reduction is total. All personal benefit is removed from the mother where there is no co-operation. That is the news in Labour Australia, but I do not think that we should like to see it here. Perhaps it makes what we are doing seem a bit more reasonable.
The provisions are designed to create a new arrangement for the maintenance of children. It is not done with the interests of the Exchequer in mind, but with the aim of providing a basis and platform of maintenance and support. Mothers who are on maintenance and benefit now may not want to remain so in the future. This gives them a better chance——
§ It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings, pursuant to Order [25 June].
That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
That the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
That the draft Child Support (Arrears, Interest and Adjustment of Maintenance Assessments) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]