HC Deb 30 November 1992 vol 215 cc3-5
3. Lady Olga Maitland

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what long-term savings he expects to make as a result of the operation of the Child Support Agency.

7. Mr. Milligan

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what long-term savings he expects to make as a result of the operation of the Child Support Agency.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt)

We expect that, in the long term. absent parents will contribute some £600 million to the maintenance of their children, a cost currently borne by taxpayers.

Lady Olga Maitland

I warmly welcome the establishment of the Child Support Agency. It is a relief to the average taxpayer—every father and mother in this country—who takes strong exception to paying to support other people's children. What estimate, for the average family, does the Child Support Agency make in asking absentee fathers to support their children?

Mr. Burt

Current information is that average maintenance awards for families are between £25 and £30 a week. We hope that that will rise to £45 a week. Maintenance is a helpful source of income, not just for the present but for the future. I recognise that many single mothers will want to go out to work, and the portable income that maintenance will provide should assist that.

Mr. Milligan

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the effects of the Child Support Agency is not only to achieve the benefits that he mentioned but to target help effectively on lower-income families? Will he give the House an assessment of how much such families have benefited since the social security reforms of 1988?

Mr. Burt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Since 1988, we estimate that some £750 million extra has been provided to low-income families by way of the changes. In 1979, some £1.5 billion was spent at current prices on benefits for lone parents. That figure is now £4.3 billion.

Mr. Wicks

Notwithstanding the fact that two Conservative Members have had the creativity to ask the same question about savings, does the Minister agree that the purpose of the Child Support Act 1991 should be to support children, not to produce Exchequer savings? Does he agree that more than seven out of 10 families with children in that position will receive no extra money as a result of the child support legislation? Is not it appropriate that the Minister should change the policy so that a pound for a pound is not withdrawn, for child support, from income support and that we have a reform so that children and not just the Treasury are supported by that measure?

Mr. Burt

As so often with the Opposition, the hon. Gentleman misses the point completely. There is no saving to the Treasury. The saving is to the many millions of mothers and fathers who currently pay through their tax for other people's children. The point about the Child Support Agency is that the money goes to support the children. In future, many mothers will want to go out to work and the portable maintenance income will assist them to do that. I do not see any reason to change the current policy on income support.

Mr. Dewar

We shall carefully monitor the work of the Child Support Agency. Does the Minister accept that real fears have to be addressed in cases where there has been a record of violence or no continuing relationship between, probably, the father and the mother and child? The Minister almost managed to give the impression that the cash that would come in from the work of the Child Support Agency would be ring fenced specifically for child benefit or some other relevant benefit. That is not true. Is he prepared to look again at some form of disregard for those on income support so that a parent paying maintenance has the satisfaction of knowing that the family will benefit and so that the parent, very often the mother who has custody of the child, has a real and positive incentive to co-operate?

Mr. Burt

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that there are maintenance disregards for in-work benefits such as family credit and housing benefit. Maintenance disregard will assist. As I explained to the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks), there is no maintenance disregard for income support, which is not an in-work benefit. The availability of maintenance to the mother will help not just at present but in the future because that mother will not stay on income support for ever. For her, it is the acquisition of maintenace that is most important.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Opposition would monitor the work of the Child Support Agency. We shall also do that, to ensure that what we have said about special care and consideration for women who are worried about violence is well met. We shall do our best to reassure the voluntary agencies and those who advise them and who may be worried about approaching the Child Support Agency. We would not want such fears to put people off approaching the agency. There is buffer protection for them and assistance for those who are worried. We hope that our reassuring work currently being carried on around the country through presentations will ease many of the fears which, I appreciate, are quite justifiably held. Equally justifiably, we say that we can reassure people.

Mr. Dickens

Does my hon. Friend recall irresponsible demands a short time ago to withdraw the Child Support Act 1991? Will he join me in inviting Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to condemn the resolution passed at the last Labour party conference that that legislation should be withdrawn? Now the Opposition seem to want to monitor it carefully. What a change!

Mr. Burt

As always, my hon. Friend is the champion of those who resist irresponsible demands. He is right to condemn the last Labour party conference on its callous attitude towards mothers who require proper maintenance from fathers, I invite the House to support my hon. Friend's attitude in this matter rather than the attitude adopted at the Labour party conference.

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