§ Mr. Burt
The Child Support Act 1991 laid the foundation for a new system of child support maintenance in order to achieve more maintenance, more regularly, for more children. We expect the proportion of lone parents receiving maintenance nearly to double in the long run. Regular receipt of maintenance will mean that many parents with care no longer have to depend on income support and will have a real choice to work if they are able to do so, thus increasing the family's income.
§ Mr. Wicks
Does the Minister accept that the vast majority of lone mothers —and, most important, their children—will not benefit from child support by one extra penny? The 70 per cent. of lone mothers who receive income support will have every pound of child support deducted from their income support, pound for pound. Is not child support now turning into a piece of a taxation? Is not the Child Support Act, in practice, an Exchequer Support Act? Does not this mean-minded practice risk undermining the important principle of parental responsibility?
§ Mr. Burt
The hon. Gentleman has spoken before about his support for the principles. I accept and am grateful for that: I think that he speaks for everyone.
This is the position relating to the increasing availability of maintenance. Improving a situation in which maintenance had been in decline, and giving more women the opportunity to receive a portable income, will improve those women's circumstances in the short, medium and long term. As their children become older, the regular payment of maintenance will be a major advantage to them when they seek choices. Even if some are floated off income support in the first place—which is always a possibility when income is increased—the regular availability of more maintenance will be a genuine advantage to them in the years to come. That is the purpose of increasing maintenance and the point of the principle behind the Child Support Act, which the whole House has supported.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I thank my hon. Friend for his clear enunciation of the purposes behind the Child Support Agency. It is not something for which we should apologise. Are not we right to try to prevent the state from undermining the responsibility of parents and promoting illegitimacy and irresponsibility? Is not it also true, however, that the system must not simply be fair, but must be seen to be fair? Is my hon. Friend entirely satisfied that it is as fair as it can possibly be? Are there mechanisms that we should review and will the Department consider reviewing and monitoring the way in which the legislation is operating?
§ Mr. Burt
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, any new piece of legislation must be kept under constant review when it is introduced; that is being done with the Child Support Act, but no changes are contemplated at present.
I must state clearly that, contrary to some items in the press, the Child Support Agency is indeed chasing fathers who have not been paying, as well as examining cases in which those who have been paying maintenance have not necessarily been paying a realistic amount and in which separation agreements have been largely based on support by the taxpayer. It must be right for us to ask parents to assume responsibility for their children, rather than placing a burden on low-income taxpayers with families of their own. Parents must support their own children wherever possible: that is the principle behind the Child Support Act.
§ Mr. Dewar
The Minister will know that the Labour party has a strong belief that every parent must contribute to the maintenance of his or her child. Is not he concerned that the inflexibility of the financial system means that some highly relevant circumstances cannot be taken into account, for example, the cost of exercising access, or major property settlements made at the time of divorce or separation? Does not that—at least in some cases on the face of it—lead to hardship?
On the important point of helping families, despite what the Minister has said, and while accepting the legitimate interests of the Department to recoup expenses, is not it true that a vast number of children will get no benefit out of that? If we are interested in the children and if that is what the system is about, is not there a strong case that there should be a disregard and some way of giving an advantage from maintenance collected to those who need it most?
§ Mr. Burt
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman's continued support for the principles and was pleased to see that this year the Labour party conference reversed its decision of last year to oppose the principles of the Child Support Act. In relation to the two particular points that he mentioned, I reiterate that the regular payment of maintenance for more children will be a long-term benefit for them even if, in the short term, some families are floated off benefit. It must be better that families are not dependent on benefits and that maintenance comes in as a regular source of income, which will increase the opportunities and choices to the family in the future.
As to the payment of maintenance to the child as a matter of priority, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the formula places the payment of maintenance to the child as the greatest item of priority after an individual absent parent has looked after his own housing costs, his own immediate physical needs and the needs of any natural children in a second family. We believe that it is right to maintain the priority of that payment to the child. Any concession on that principle runs the risk of once again making the payment of maintenance to the child a matter of discretion. That was one of the problems of the previous system which we were anxious to avoid.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the light of experience, it is almost inevitable that some fine tuning will be desirable when a major new agency such as the Child Support Agency is established? Therefore, will he take a detailed look at the rules and not hesitate to change them if he finds that in practice justice is not perfectly being done between the competing interests of the taxpayer, the first family and subsequent families?
§ Mr. Burt
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said. I shall repeat what I said previously. New legislation is looked after carefully and kept under review. We have no proposals to change the rules, but often the silent voice in the debate over the past few weeks has been that of mothers who previously had not been receiving adequate maintenance regularly. Many of the cases in the papers have shown what low sums of maintenance were previously paid and the need to provide increased maintenance that not only suits mothers with children but relieves the taxpayers who, in many cases, have been an unwitting party to separation agreements and have been asked to provide money that they can ill afford.