HC Deb 06 December 1993 vol 234 cc3-6
2. Mr. Burns

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the operation of the Child Support Agency.

6. Mr. Spellar

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will suspend the operations of the Child Support Agency.

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

The Child Support Agency was set up to secure more maintenance more reliably for more children, and that is what it is doing. I have, of course, been examining the criticisms that have been made of some aspects of the new scheme. The work of the Child Support Agency in securing maintenance for children will continue.

Mr. Burns

Does my hon. Friend accept that most people—including the authors of the Select Committee report that was published this afternoon—acknowledge the principle that fathers, including absent fathers, should pay for the upkeep of their children? Will he bear in mind, however, that in areas such as Chelmsford, and even St. Albans, a significant proportion of the working population commute down to London and that total commuting costs are in excess of £200 per month? Given that the average non-endowment mortgage repayment is now just over that amount, would my hon. Friend be prepared to look again at the formula in respect of travel-to-work costs to establish whether something could be done to alleviate the burden for fathers?

Mr. Burt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks, and for picking up the fact that the Select Committee has today endorsed the basic principles and operation of the Child Support Agency.

My hon. Friend's point about provision in the formula for specific expenses was discussed extensively with the Select Committee. I believe that the Committee is coming to the same conclusion as the Government—that it is very difficult to make extra allowances for different kinds of expenses because what is essential to one is not essential to another. We have endorsed that principle and have therefore tried to ensure that the amount of income available to the absent parent is around 70 to 85 per cent. of net income in order to cover the costs.

The Select Committee made some recommendations, as well as making supportive comments. I shall examine those recommendations together with other aspects that have been raised with us in connection with our own review.

Mr. Spellar

Regrettably, the Minister's reply was very unsatisfactory. Although he welcomed the report, he did not specify the parts to which the Government would respond.

Mr. Miller

We are usually given a statement in that time.

Mr. Spellar

As my hon. Friend points out, we seem to be given statements very quickly. These problems have been going on for a long time. Some Conservative Members may not have noticed that thousands of families across the country are being thrown into chaos. We have already had the first suicide resulting from the operation of the Child Support Agency. Does the Minister recognise that the fundamental problem has been caused by an attempt to force all the individual circumstances of thousands of different families into a national straitjacket? Is it not time to suspend the agency's operations until proper guidelines can be incorporated and the matter returned to local determination?

Mr. Burt

I think that what has made the hon. Gentleman unhappy is the fact that his own campaign for the agency's suspension has not been endorsed by the Select Committee in any way. That is because the Committee understands that the agency is already working to produce maintenance for children and that the suspension of its operations would cause chaos for many families who are receiving the money.

With respect, I feel that we must all be extremely careful in dealing with press reports, particularly those concerned with such sensitive issues as suicide. There can be many reasons for such tragic events, and we are certainly not aware that the Child Support Agency has been deliberately and provenly linked to any of them.

It is, of course, much too early to respond to Select Committee recommendations published less than an hour ago. I have given the hon. Gentleman an undertaking—as I did in last Thursday's Adjournment debate—to examine all these matters carefully, and we shall continue to do that. It should be noted, however, that the basic principle of what we are doing—that is, moving away from a discretionary system to a national system based on a formula—has been endorsed.

Mr. Madel

May I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) said about travel-to-work costs? Will my hon. Friend also note that people cannot appeal against their assessment until a review has taken place? The reviews need to be more thorough, as mistakes are being made. They also need to be carried out more quickly. Will my hon. Friend try to improve the efficiency of the Child Support Agency and speed up its operations?

Mr. Burt

I am sure that to ensure the acceptance of the principles of the Child Support Act it is essential that the agency should operate administratively as effectively as it can. To date, we have had only 174 appeals coming through the system. We shall keep a careful eye on the work of the independent tribunal service which considers those appeals. I understand my hon. Friend's point, which was well made.

Ms Rachel Squire

Does the Minister agree that, as other hon. Members have said, the Child Support Agency should take account not only of travel expenses but of items such as council tax, insurance costs and fuel bills? Does he further agree that it is totally unreasonable to expect one of my constituents—who is one of many—to be asked to live on a meagre £6.49 a week after he has paid his bills and met the increased maintenance costs, which he has always paid up to now? Does the Minister agree that response is considerably overdue on the points that I raised with him in October and early November about my general concerns about the operation of the CSA, especially the way in which responsible parents who have always paid maintenance are targets who are asked to pay more, while those who are irresponsible and have paid nothing continually get away with it?

Mr. Burt

I am not happy to accept the figures offered by the hon. Lady and I would welcome her clarification of them as they do not correspond with what should be the situation. The matter of targeting has been considerably distorted by media reports which do not give due credibility to the fact that some half of the work going on at the CSA at the moment is concerned with cases in which no maintenance has been in payment at all. In response to whether there are soft targets and people being unduly picked on, I will quote briefly from one paragraph of the Select Committee report because it considered the matter carefully—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

What paragraph?

Mr. Burt

Paragraph 18. It states: A large part of the public debate about the Child Support Agency has centred on the accusation that it was picking unfairly on 'soft targets', that is, those absent parents who were already making maintenance payments. Behind this accusation has been an allegation that the Agency's work is governed by the requirement to make substantial savings in the social security budget. We believe this objective to be an important one—

Madam Speaker

Order. I remind the Minister that it is Question Time.

Mr. Burt

Yes, Madam Speaker. It continues: The Committee believes that taxpayers have for too long been asked, in effect, to pick up maintenance bills that should have been met by absent parents. We strongly agree.

Mr. Barry Porter

I am pleased to have an opportunity to back the Government's policy of getting "back to basics", but does my hon. Friend accept that when we voted overwhelmingly in favour of the legislation we thought that it made sense that the evil absent father was to be the target. However, after all the letters that I and other hon. Members have had about the matter, surely the Government must now take into account all the objections, which I share with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), that there is something wrong and it ought to be put right.

Mr. Burt

The agency is indeed pursuing those who have not paid. Its take-on strategy was clearly declared before the Act came into force and the Select Committee considered that. We are looking at the matters of concern that have been raised, but I urge my hon. Friend to acknowledge that some parents have been traced by the agency who would never have been traced under the previous system. We are delivering what the public want through the agency.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Minister accept that it is essential to consider urgently the important recommendations made in the Select Committee report, especially those which add safeguards for second families, and deal with the protected income provisions? Will he also give an undertaking to look beyond the Select Committee report, especially at the experience in Australia, where it is possible to go to a review officer and depart from the usual rigid financial formula if special circumstances can be established? Will he consider the possibility of a disregard for income support to ensure that the children who are at most economic risk—those in families living on income support —gain support from a system which was introduced in their name and from which they often miss out?

Is not the Minister conscious of the very real danger that without urgent action there will be a breakdown of consent and that at the end of the day damage will be done to the very principle of parental responsibility?

Mr. Burt

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. The Select Committee report will be due a proper reply when its recommendations are looked at carefully. I undertake that the Government will give that reply. In relation to the principle behind the agency, it will help if it is recognised that the Select Committee has looked carefully at the fundamental objections put to it, but that it has essentially endorsed the existing principle and the work of the agency.

In the majority report, the Committee has recognised the importance of shifting the burden from taxpayers to those who should be most responsible for paying—the parents. That is the principle to which the whole House previously held, and it has now been further endorsed. If the work of the agency in dealing with parents who have not paid and in tracing parents who have been difficult to trace were recognised as it should be, there would be greater understanding and acceptance of the principles of the work of the agency.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Does my hon. Friend agree that priority is now being given to cases in which a court order can no longer be given? Does he further agree that it is vital that parents who are already paying successfully should not in any way be victimised?

Mr. Burt

First, my hon. Friend is right to say that we give priority to parents who must use the agency because they have no other mechanism to use. That involves people who have some dependence on benefit as well as those who do not. Secondly, it cannot be classed as any form of victimisation to ask people to pay sums towards their children which they are due to pay under the law. We recognised from the start that there would have to be an increase in the amount paid in many cases to provide a realistic sum of maintenance. That work is going on and is another principle endorsed by the Select Committee. Given time, the principles will be accepted and the work of the House in passing the Act, with immense good will on both sides, will be vindicated.