HC Deb 02 February 1994 vol 236 cc944-90

7 pm

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

I beg to move, That the draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 13th January, be approved. I am aware of the wide interest in the Child Support Act 1991 and in the changes to it that we are debating tonight. It is most important to set that interest in the wider context of child maintenance and to establish again the principles that underpin the Act and the Child Support Agency.

The Child Support Act was introduced with all-party support on the back of a deteriorating situation in respect of child maintenance. Nearly 1 million lone parents and their children depended on income support, yet only a quarter of those received any regular maintenance. The old system of obtaining maintenance through the courts or the Department of Social Security offices was obviously failing those parents and their children. It was slow, inaccessible and led to low and inconsistent settlements. The Child Support Act was designed to halt the significant decline in the payment of maintenance that had occurred during the previous decade and to move away from a system that, all too often, involved the taxpayer as an unwitting party in the settlement.

The basic principle behind the new system, as the House well knows, is that both parents should be responsible for maintaining their children where they can afford to do so. The taxpayer should have to help only where parents do not have the means to meet their obligation. That basic principle is widely supported, but it means in practice that those who have responsibility for children must shoulder a greater degree of the financial burden for them than in the past. In other words, in many cases parents must pay more if other taxpayers, often on low incomes with families of their own, are to contribute less. Those who support the principle must recognise the need to support putting it into practice.

We always made it clear that we would keep the operation of the scheme under review, and we were aware that other people would also do so. It is no exaggeration, therefore, for the all-party Social Security Select Committee to have described the Child Support Act as the most far reaching social reform to be made for forty years". We recognise also that there have been genuine worries about the way in which the new system is working in detail. We have, therefore, conducted a thorough review of its operation, during which we considered all representations from hon. Members, the public and other interested parties. At the same time, the all-party Social Security Select Committee examined the policy and the operation of child support. The Committee had the opportunity to suggest tearing the whole thing up, but did not. Instead, its thoughtful and balanced report is unequivocal in its support for the basic principles of the scheme.

In drawing up the regulations, we have especially sought to answer the worries of those absent parents most affected by the new scheme, while bearing in mind that any change that is beneficial to an absent parent is potentially of disadvantage to a parent with care and her children. Some of our conclusions coincide with those of the Select Committee, some do not and some have gone further.

We agree with the Select Committee that it is better to leave absent parents more financial choice to meet other demands on them than to try to incorporate into the formula a range of specific costs, such as travel to work, visiting first families and other debts. Such a move, we believe, would provide a shopping list of items that would be viewed as essential by some but not by others, and would have the effect of reducing the priority given to child maintenance. The Select Committee said, and we agree: We believe, however, that child maintenance in the form of money should have first call on a parent's income.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

I accept all that my hon. Friend has said so far, but does he accept that in some regions, such as the one that I represent, for many people the cost of travelling to work is greater than the cost of the mortgage? Will he consider that in his future deliberations about the development of the scheme?

Mr. Burt

My hon. Friend makes a fair argument, but my response is the same as that of the Select Committee. The difficulty is that my hon. Friend has mentioned a special issue relating to his geographical location. It is precisely for that reason—hon. Members in different parts of the country can draw attention to similar matters—that one would end up with that shopping list of special exemptions that needed to be included in the formula. The argument that I put to the Select Committee, and the argument that the Select Committee accepted, was that, rather than creating that shopping list, it was better to ensure that sufficient residual income remained to meet the costs. I note my hon. Friend's interest in that point, but I would refer him to the Select Committee's response to it.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

I am glad to confirm that I agree with my hon. Friend on the general principle on which the Act is based. I am, however, seriously worried about the detail, which, as he says, obviously is not working.

I have written to my hon. Friend about eight specific cases. I can assure him that in each case the details of the Act have caused great hardship to hard-working men who now have two families to support. On each of the eight occasions on which I have written to my hon. Friend I have had the same anodyne reply, drafted by a civil servant, which has wholly ignored the individual points that I have put to my hon. Friend, and which has ignored the plight that the individuals are suffering as a result of the details of the Act. I ask my hon. Friend not to rely entirely on formulae, but to look with some compassion at the individual cases in which huge hardship is being caused and to amend the Act and the regulations accordingly to ensure that that injustice ceases.

Mr. Burt

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to develop the case for the regulations tonight. He will find that some of the worries that he has mentioned in his letters are met by some of the changes that we propose.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)


Mr. Burt

I shall take one more intervention and then I should like to make some progress.

Mr. Cryer

To many of us, the changes represented in the regulations are wholly inadequate. If the Minister thinks for a moment that they will satisfy the need for common justice, he is mistaken.

Let me take as an example a situation that is not confined to a region of the country, but is common to the whole country—the complete lack of recognition when a settlement is made on a former partner, including sometimes the marital home, with mortgage payments, often considerable, that continue when the second family starts. It promotes a very strong feeling of injustice, and a feeling that the Child Support Agency is more interested in the Treasury than in the child.

Mr. Burt

Perhaps I might develop my argument. I shall discuss clean breaks later. When the House passed the Act, all hon. Members were conscious of the pressure placed on taxpayers—ordinary men and women, often on low incomes, with families of their own—and the worry that they had for too long supported other people in the costs of their separation. When I hear arguments about the Treasury, I sometimes feel that hon. Members fail to realise that what lie behind the Treasury are everyday men and women who make their contributions to it.

The Government accepted the Select Committee's conclusion that there was no sensible way in which the capital value of past settlements could be reflected in current maintenance assessments, even if that were thought desirable. So-called "clean break settlements" are, essentially, ways to settle the question of spousal maintenance. There can be no clean break between a parent and his children. In any event, the formula already reflects the practical consequences of property settlements. Where an absent parent has not taken his share of any equity in the matrimonial home it is likely that he will incur higher costs when rehousing himself. As housing costs are taken into account pound for pound in the calculation of assessable income, his maintenance bill will lower.

I shall now outline our specific proposals—

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

Before the Minister does that, let me tell him that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, there is great dissatisfaction among people who are contributing, as opposed to those who are not contributing and who have disappeared. I urge the Minister to think again about the basic principles in the Act. It is not working. People are showing it up to be what it is—a fraud. Something ought to be done about it.

Mr. Burt

With respect, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Select Committee, which had the opportunity to say, "Tear the whole thing up, because it is a fraud, and it is not working", did not do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] I hear some hon. Members saying that the Select Committee was rubbish, but I suspect that that would not be the view of the House as a whole.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Burt

I should like to make some progress now and outline our specific proposals. As well as introducing some important changes in child support arrangements, they make, as always, some technical drafting improvements designed to ensure that the original policy intentions are fully achieved. It might be of assistance to the House if I dealt with the most significant changes first. I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall confine myself to those changes.

Regulation 4 modifies in several respects the amount of maintenance calculated under the Child Support (Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases) Regulations 1992. Paragraph (2) concerns the assessment of maintenance to meet the basic needs of a child or children aged under 16. When maintenance is assessed, the calculation includes an amount in respect of a child's need to be looked after by an adult—the so-called carer element. The amount is set at the single adult personal allowance for income support, and it is included in recognition of the fact that children cannot look after themselves.

In drafting the amendment, we recognised that, rather than ending suddenly, that need reduces gradually as children grow older. Accordingly, it provides for the amount to be reduced by 25 per cent. when the youngest child reaches the age of 11, and by 50 per cent. when the youngest child reaches the age of 14. As now, that element is removed altogether when the youngest child reaches 16. Other allowances for children in the formula continue to rise as children grow older, recognising that some other needs increase as children grow older.

Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

As the Minister has pointed out, under the regulations the absent parent has to pay the entire amount calculated by social security for the attendant parent maintaining the child. That now results in a payment of £44, on average. At the beginning of his speech the Minister said that the purpose of the legislation was to ensure that both parents accepted their responsibilities. Will he therefore explain why only one parent has to pay the entire bill for the attendant costs of caring for the child under the formula, both as it was originally drawn up and as he is now describing it?

Mr. Burt

That happens because the child is physically present with only one of the two parents. Because the child is present with one parent and needs care, that care has to be provided and paid for. That is why the other parent, who does not have the physical care of the child, makes a contribution in financial form, by way of the carer element.

Ms Primarolo

In total?

Mr. Burt

Yes, in total. That is the point.

The new provision introduced by paragraphs (6) and (7) concerns cases where a person has care of the children of more than one absent parent, and is a consequence of the reduction in the carer element that I have just explained. In such cases an absent parent's maintenance assessment will reduce when his youngest child reaches the age of 11 or 14, even though the parent with care may have other younger children.

Paragraph (3) concerns the calculation of the additional amounts of maintenance paid by better-off absent parents. Where the absent parent has income left after meeting the basic maintenance requirement, he is currently required to pay 25 per cent. of that balance in additional maintenance. That element ensures that children share in the increased prosperity of their parents, even though they may live apart. The deduction rate is set at a lower rate than the 50 per cent. taken to meet the basic maintenance requirement, in recognition of the fact that parents are likely to spend a smaller proportion of their income on their children once they have met their basic needs.

The amendment will reduce the rate of deduction for the additional element of 20 per cent. where there are only two children to be maintained, and 15 per cent. where there is only one child. That provision recognises that extra expenditure on children, over and above their basic needs, is not likely to be as high for one or two children as it is for three or more, and will moderate the very high amounts that some absent parents are expected to pay. That change goes beyond anything recommended by the Select Committee, and will alleviate some of the concerns put to us by hon. Members.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend and the Government have listened and have made some changes. However, in my view, those changes do not go far enough. My hon. Friend is talking about expenditure on children. One problem that has arisen in my constituency concerns stepchildren. Will my hon. Friend explain why such children are not considered? The idea sems to be that the step-parent should simply adopt them. I find that an extraordinary approach.

Mr. Burt

Again, one of the principles of the Act was that parents should, as a priority, be responsible for their own natural children. We believe that the formula sometimes protects stepchildren—the children of a second family—at the expense of the first family, especially where income is near the basic protected income level. At that level, it is possible that, while no payment is being made to a natural child in a first family, there is still protection for the child in a second family. We believe that the principle is important, and we therefore felt unable to accept the recommendation on stepchildren. However, we felt that by increasing the amount of protected income—I shall deal with that later—we would be able to provide extra for the stepchild. The principle that a natural child should have first call on a parent's income is important, and we did not wish to devalue it.

Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Burt

No, I want to make a bit more progress before I take another intervention.

Paragraphs (4) and (5) substantially increase the level of protected income for absent parents—that relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). Protected income is the minimum amount that an absent parent and any second family must retain from their disposable income after payment of maintenance. Instead of only £8, as at present, absent parents will now keep a minimum of £30 above the level of help that they, and their new family if they have one, would get if they were on income support.

In addition, absent parents to whom protected income level applies will be able to keep an additional 15 per cent. of the difference between their basic protected income level and their total family income, instead of only 10 per cent., as at present. They will improve incentives to work by ensuring that the absent parent keeps an additional amount from any extra that he earns, and that will benefit not only the absent parent but, ultimately, the parent with care and the children. Again, that recommendation goes further than what the Select Committee suggested. I hope that that will be for the benefit of hon. Members and those whom they represent.

Regulation 4(8) streamlines the calculation of housing costs allowed in exempt income. It provides for the full amount of premiums on an insurance policy to discharge the mortgage on a parent's home to be allowed in the calculation of the parent's exempt income where the mortgage does not exceed £60,000. Where the mortgage exceeds £60,000 the existing provision will continue to apply, so there will be a reduction in the amount of premiums allowed to take account of any "with profits" element of the policy. That, too, goes beyond the Select Committee's recommendations.

Regulation 5 amends regulations 1, 3 and 4 of the Child Support Fees Regulations 1992, which make provision for the charging of the collective service to absent parents where the application for maintenance has been made by a parent with care in receipt of income support, family credit or disability working allowance. Regulation 5 proposes that where a parent with care is in receipt of one of those benefits and the absent parent is making regular child maintenance payments direct to the parent with care, the Child Support Agency will not make a charge for the collection fee to the absent parent. Fees in such cases will become payable only where the agency becomes directly involved in either collection or enforcement action. That, too, was a Select Committee recommendation strongly supported by hon. Members.

Regulations 7 and 8 provide for a significant extension to the current provisions by introducing new arrangements for phasing in the higher awards under the new scheme. Absent parents with second families or care of a child for at least two nights per week, and with an existing court order or written maintenance agreement, whose maintenance assessment is over £60, will have any increase in their liability phased in over an 18-month period in six-monthly steps of £20, or 25 per cent. of the difference between the old and new liabilities if that is higher.

The new provisions also ensure that absent parents who are not entitled to the original phasing scheme, because all the qualifying children were not named on the maintenance agreement or because they did not have a second family, but nevertheless retained care of a child for at least two nights per week, are now included in a similar scheme. The new arrangements will help absent parents to adjust to their commitments over a period of time, while gradually increasing the amount that they pay. Those orginally on the phasing scheme will continue to be assessed under those rules as they are more beneficial to those on lower incomes.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Will my hon. Friend explain to the House why, in framing the changes to the regulations, welcome as they are as far as they go, he has distinguished between those absent parents who have families to support and those who have a sick wife to support? Both have calls on their income, but only one is recognised.

Mr. Burt

We took the view that those in greatest difficulty in meeting new commitments to their children would be those who had taken on a second family. Clearly, all changes in circumstances force a certain amount of reconsideration, but the greater problem lies with those who have a new family and therefore new responsibilities to those families. Therefore, we believed that it was better to make the adjustments to allow them to have a greater period of time to pay because it was on the new children that the greatest burden would lie.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

We have all listened with a great deal of interest to the reforms that the Minister has proposed for the benefit of absent parents. What proposals does he have that would be of any benefit whatever to parents with care of children? Would not he agree that there are thousands of parents with care who are suffering from the Child Support Act as it exists and see precious little benefit from his proposals? Those parents have the responsibility of looking after their children on an income that is depleted through the harsh regulations of the Act.

Mr. Burt

The hon. Lady puts the case that I made in my opening remarks. Any concession made to the absent parent who is paying has a consequent effect on those who expect to receive the money. The whole point is to recognise the fact that extra expense improves the circumstances of the parent with care of the child. If those who are required to pay maintenance pay less, somebody has to make up the difference. Either it is the parent with care of the child or it is the rest of society. All of us cannot have it all our own way. Somebody, somewhere bears the burden of looking after children. We firmly believe that where people cannot afford to look after their own children, the taxpayer and society in general have a responsibility to step in.

Also, because of various pressures on all the people who may be on low incomes and who have children of their own to support, where parents can shoulder that responsibility, they should do so. That was the whole point behind the Act. No hon. Member disagrees with that principle but when it is put into practice, the House finds it more difficult, because shifting the burden from the taxpayer to individuals means that, as the taxpayers pay less, some individuals may pay more. We tried to ensure that the burden was placed on those most responsible.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Burt

If I may, I would like to proceed. Many hon. Members wish to take part. I have tried to be generous in allowing interventions, but I should make some progress.

Regulations 10 to 14 relate to the procedural changes needed to implement the important changes. We should not underestimate the extent of the massive task that the agency faces to implement the changes. However, I thought it essential to introduce the changes as soon as feasible, even if that may cause some difficulties and delays to the normal day-to-day business of the agency.

The changes that I have announced tonight and that are contained in the regulations are designed as a measured response to concern from constituents, hon. Members and independent commentators, who welcome almost without exception the Child Support Act, but are worried about aspects of its implementation.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

Should not my hon. Friend's regulations take into account the fact that, where mothers do not give enough care to their child, there are caring fathers who replace some payments by seeing that the children have clothing and so on, which they would not have otherwise had? Should not they also take into account the fact that the father who is paying has to spend money on travel? In my area of north-west Leicester, most people have to travel to Leicester, to Derby or to Burton to work and it costs around £60 a month.

Mr. Burt

With respect to my hon. Friend, I dealt with his latter point earlier. I would appreciate us considering the way in which the Select Committee dealt with the same argument. My hon. Friend's first point is important. In the initial consideration of the Act, we considered the instance in which a woman with care of a child was often not given so much money in maintenance. Instead, the absent parent would say that, while he was not giving the mother much money, he would see the children all right for clothes or shoes or something like that. The problem was that where those arrangements worked, all was well, but in many cases they did not and the woman was left wondering whether the extra offers would come through.

In putting the Act together, the House took the view, which was confirmed by the Select Committee, that it was better to receive a regular sum of maintenance money in the hand than to wonder whether that extra support in kind was coming through. Because of that practical reality, the change was made to ensure that maintenance money was delivered.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Burt

I am coming to a conclusion and want to allow more opportunities for hon. Members later. I shall be winding up and I shall have an opportunity later to deal with their concerns.

It is not possible to meet all concerns that have been raised by the Child Support Act. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is."] No, it is not. If we did so, we would end up renouncing the principles so soundly endorsed by the House in 1991 and again by the Select Committee report more recently.

In recognising the difficulties of those with second families in meeting adjustments to bear a heavier responsibility by allowing them longer to come to terms with payments, by reducing the level of payments in certain circumstances and by safeguarding still further the basic protected income, we believe that we are making more acceptable the balance in those matters between children, parents and the taxpayer. Each has a legitimate interest and a voice, and I am determined that the voice that has tended to be most silent in the matter, that of the mother with care of the child, will not be the voice least regarded.

For too long, an inconsistent and ineffective system allowed a sad decline in the payment of maintenance, and the taxpayer became the sleeping partner in separation agreements. I should emphasise to the House that in 96 per cent. of cases currently handled by the CSA, whatever may be the circumstances of the absent parent, there is dependency on benefits by the parent with care of the child. We should not return to that system. I hope that the changes will embed the principles better, and ensure that the system is fulfilling its aim of securing more maintenance, more regularly for more children. I commend the regulations to the House.

7.27 pm
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

One thing is clear about tonight's debate—it has underlined that every Member of the House knows that for many of his or her constituents the introduction of the Child Support Act has been traumatic and painful. I use the word "traumatic" almost in a literal sense, because it has been a shock which has in many cases threatened the process of rebuilding lives. Whatever we may think of the ultimate solutions and the merits of the regulations, every hon. Member must have been impressed by the anger, the genuine bewilderment and sometimes fear of people who wondered how they would manage in new and strange circumstances.

I recognise that I have repeated many times before, but I shall do so once more, the sentiment that, of course, Opposition Members share a good deal of common ground with the Minister—for example, we accept unequivocally that there is a duty on parents to support their children in all circumstances and in all the ways they can. I personally do not believe that financial contributions are an adequate substitute for the protection and support that full parenting brings, but I want to emphasise that they are an important part of the process. I also agree with the Minister that, having made the decision, Opposition Members must live with the fact that implementation is not easy and will inevitably cause problems and difficulties. I entirely accept that; there is no way that we can escape from that.

One of the most important factors in the new system is certainty of collection. I certainly want us to end what I think can fairly be described as the scandal whereby only one third of absent parents regularly contributed maintenance to their children. I hope that the Child Support Agency—with certain reforms which I believe we ought to consider—will move against that scandal.

Let me make it clear, too, that I can offer no comfort to the writers of many of the letters that I receive. Take the case of someone who writes and says, "My maintenance payment has gone up by 400 per cent." If it becomes apparent from the second paragraph of that person's letter that he has hitherto been paying on the basis of an outdated and inadequate court settlement bearing no relation to the true costs of educating and bringing up a child, we must reply that he will have to accept the fact that he will face a considerable increase in his contribution. Those facts are not an issue between us. I repeat, however, that there is pain and suffering and that there is perceived injustice, and those are not factors that the House can ignore.

I should at once make it clear that I do not propose to advise my hon. Friends to vote against the regulations. I welcome them as far as they go, although I do not believe that they go far enough. They are not just adjustments: some of them are—I want to make that plain—but some of them are quite significant. One of the difficulties of assessing these matters arises from the fact that the complexity of the whole financial system attached to the Child Support Act would drive anyone who tried to master it into a home for the bewildered. It is an extraordinarily difficult thing to come to grips with—I say that with some personal feeling as my lower mathematics creaks under the strain. My real criticism is that, although the regulations are specifically helpful on particular points, they do not soften the harsh outline of what is happening and will not affect or ameliorate the storm of protest.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Before I came down to the Chamber, I telephoned a constituent of mine who had received a letter outlining the six points that the Minister raised. I asked that very intelligent man whether he understood it and he told me that he had absolutely no clue. He said, "Tommy, I'd need a Philadelphia lawyer; what the hell's going on in the House of Commons?"

Mr. Dewar

I want to make it clear, first, that as a sort of retired refugee Scottish lawyer, I certainly do not offer myself as a Philadelphian version of the animal, although I agree with my hon. Friend that the complexity of the system is a problem.

The most significant of the proposals before us is the increase in protected income, which, according to the Government's own estimates, will mean that, in 1996–97, something like £60 million a year less will be gathered by the Child Support Agency. I have no doubt at all that the substitution of the £30 addition for the £8 addition will ensure that there is a much more healthy gap between net income less maintenance payments and what a family would receive if it were driven on to income support. I do not want to belittle that change; it is of some significance and it is welcome.

I am not so impressed by the remainder of what is on offer. It is interesting that the collection fee, which was much hated for very good reasons and of whose demise I thoroughly approve, has gone at what was put to me in a parliamentary answer as "negligible cost". I suspect that, if one went through the regulations, one could find further practical changes that would help the atmosphere.

The phasing applies more widely as a result of the changes and is extended over 18 months—at a price in revenue forgone of about £15 million. I accept that it is practical and sensible to suggest that the £44 carers element of the maintenance requirement should be reduced to £33 when the youngest child reaches the age of 11 or £22 when the youngest child reaches 14. I have some sympathy, though, with the point made about stepchildren, which may be a point of some contention in the implementation of the change.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major problems with the Act and the regulations is the position of second families, whether there are stepchildren or other children? A constituent of mine came to me saying that he had adopted a child but had thought about going back to the court to give it up because the burden on him and his new family was oppressive. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Child Support Agency has set itself up as judge and jury and that is a bad thing? Should not there be an independent appeals procedure? Will my hon. Friend also deal with the question of the clean break, because that is a major bone of contention for families?

Mr. Dewar

I will indeed come to those contentious and difficult issues. On the first point, I agree that language is important. I understand how convenient it is, but the very term "absent parent" causes great distress to parents—usually fathers—who cannot live with their families for all sorts of good and practical reasons but who maintain a very close personal interest and give as much support as they can. I must say that my own warmth of feeling for the Child Support Agency suffered somewhat when a very senior official of that agency started talking to me about the circumstances that would change when an absent partner "repartnered". I realise that that is a useful technical term, but it took me a little while to get up to speed on the phraseology.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the real problem is one of trust and that as long as anyone dealing with the agency believes that its members are operating on the basis of financial targets, the trust felt very strongly in relation to normal civil service procedures will be lacking?

Mr. Dewar

I understand that point, although I accept that certainty of payment is very important. I do not go along with the argument advanced in one intervention that it is satisfactory for people to say, "We always get on well together. When I have a few bucks, I pass them over."

Mrs. Dunwoody

I was talking about the staff of the agency.

Mr. Dewar

I may have misunderstood my hon. Friend's point. I shall certainly read what she said.

I was discussing the reduction in the £44 element of the maintenance requirement, which I described as sensible and practical; I think that it will also do something to reduce the resentment that is felt when an absent parent cannot understand why he should be paying what he regards as his ex-partner's income support. That particular change will be useful.

As I said, these are minor changes. Even more minor, and rather more puzzling, is that not recommended by the Select Committee—the reduction from 25p to 20p and then to 15p in the pound in the payment that has to be made from excess income once the maintenance payment has been exhausted. That will apply to those on rather higher incomes and is a concession to the better-off absent father. I must say that that would not be my priority given the problems faced by others in the system, especially those who have to care for a second family.

The package is not enough to restore confidence and encourage hope, although it has some useful points in it. The present settlement—if it is to be the final one—will be seen by many as unpleasantly like an effort to do the essential minimum to diffuse an awkward political situation. I entirely accept the Minister's word that that is not the intention, but if that is the perception it will be extremely damaging.

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the vast majority of complaints that we have received are perfectly genuine complaints from people who not only pay their first wives but are trying to establish a new life with a second family? My hon. Friend the Minister used the words "and can pay". The sad thing is that many cannot pay. It is that element of the whole business that causes so much distress.

Mr. Dewar

The balance is extremely difficult to strike. I agree that one of the simple facts of dealing with matrimonial breakdown is that, very often, two into one does not go. If two families have to be supported, it is extremely difficult to do that from one income. As someone who once did matrimonial legal work, I am painfully aware of that fact.

I do not believe that the package goes far enough or that it strikes the right balance.

Ms Gordon

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dewar

I give way for the last time. I must make progress.

Ms Gordon

My hon. Friend says that the package does not go far enough. Does he agree that the package should include abolition of the benefit penalty for women on income support who refuse to give authorisation to the agency, even if the agency is not satisfied? Is it not clear that, if a woman were to derive financial benefit for herself and her child without feeling under any threat, she would willingly give the authorisation and that, if she did not, her opinion should be accepted?

Mr. Dewar

I am sensitive to the concerns that were expressed, particularly by people representing the women's movement, about the CSA when it was last set up. The number of people who have had a reduction, at the latest count, is 87; the House might say that it is 87 too many, but it is a small number.

This is a time when we have to be frank. I am not in favour of making it a voluntary principle that people co-operate or do not co-operate as they will. It is important that there is co-operation, but I should certainly like to see an end to the penalty if we can encourage co-operation in other ways, if that is possible. That takes us to other changes that I will certainly try to discuss briefly.

At Question Time, when referring to the Select Committee report, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), said that it was a good day for the Child Support Agency".—[Official Report, 6 December 1992; Vol. 234, c. 12.] I am not sure whether there was a touch of triumph or, perhaps more realistically, relief in his voice, but it is unwise to use the Select Committee report as a cover for closing the file and toughing it out. For the Select Committee—hon. Members can speak for themselves—the package is a pick 'n mix—the Secretary of State's selection. Someone will correct me if I am wrong, but it is the Select Committee's intention to return to this matter, and it does not regard what was clearly an interim report as the final word on the matter.

I have never heard my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) so unfairly used by Ministers, as he and his colleagues have become a walking alibi for doing nothing more. That is not a particularly helpful approach to the problem.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dewar

I must make a little progress.

Mrs. Mahon

Will my hon. Friend give way on this point?

Mr. Dewar

I shall give way for the very last time.

Mrs. Mahon

Members of the Select Committee were not unanimous. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) made some excellent points with which most hon. Members would agree.

Mr. Dewar

I take that point. I have read the minority report of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, which was printed.

In fairness, I should say a word or two about what should be done. At this stage, I have no intention of arguing at length the case for the points that I shall make, because many hon. Members want to speak. Also, there is to be some Opposition time during the coming week, and we hope to devote it to a debate on the Child Support Agency, on a motion which will allow us to test in the Lobby the opinion of the House about further change. That will also allow hon. Members to express more widely not only the anxiety that is felt by absent parents and other constituents but the hopes and concerns of parents with care, because both must properly be weighed in the balance.

The matters which should be considered are, first, the possibility of having a right of appeal to a review officer. In other systems—the Australian system is the one that we always mention—there is power to order a departure from the normal formula if specific circumstances tested against criteria defined in statute justify it. Of course, there are differences between the Australian and the British systems, but the similarities are much more striking and the purposes are similar. I must say—we should not shrug it off—that the Australians tell me that their system has been an important safety valve. Anyone who has dealt with the range of anger and dismay that have arisen over the present system will recognise the importance of a safety valve.

I do not want to pretend that such a safety valve will be a wide-open gate through which thousands will be able to go, but there are undoubtedly cases—all hon. Members can recall them from experience—in which factors directly related to the care of children are not taken into account because they cannot be taken into account. A review officer would be an investment for every one of us in terms of public confidence in the system.

Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

I am sorry, but I must make progress, otherwise it is not fair to the House.

I will return to that matter in some detail if we have such a debate next week. That should be done, subject to discussion about the details.

Secondly, we should consider the clean-break problem. I accept entirely what the Minister has said—that one cannot have a clean break with one's children, that one should not have a clean break with one's children. Again, the Australian system—it is worth looking at it because it was implemented in stages in 1988 and 1989—has been running for four or five years, so there is a body of experience. Under that system, if parties are separating or divorcing and they have a formal agreement about, for example, the transfer of the matrimonial home or a major financial settlement, they can specify in that agreement, both parties being signatories, a reduction in the maintenance payments in recognition of that transfer. If that is registered and lodged with the Child Support Agency and it collectes the maintenance, it will observe that reduction. If one party subsequently goes on to benefit, it is still possible to vary that benefit, although within well-defined limits, the top variation being 25 per cent.

I am not standing on every detail of that system, and I am not suggesting that we lift it as it is and pop it into our legislation, but there is a strong case for considering what appears to have been a successful system and then looking at the monumental problem that we face and seeing whether there is some way in which we can learn and improve the position.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

I am going to plough on, if the House will bear with me. Hon. Members will be able to return to this matter—it is a checklist.

The third matter—I use my terms carefully—is the possibility of a disregard. I have always been attracted to the idea of a disregard, because there is one compelling argument, and that is that the system is supposed to be about more money being collected from more parents for more children. On the figures available to us, that does not fit with the facts as they exist in the real world.

I recognise that there are competing arguments and that, for example, there is worry that an overgenerous disregard will make work less worth while. I recognise also that there are always problems with the financial implications of a disregard. That is why such matters should be thrashed out and discussed. They should be on the agenda for discussion, if only because my conscience does not live easily with the fact that I know—that the children who are most at risk economically, the children who are living with families who are dependent on income support, will almost certainly get no direct benefit at all from additional maintenance that is paid. Just because of that fact, such matters should be considered.

Those are meant to be three positive proposals for discussion. There is a very positive commitment on my part to consider the proposal on the right of appeal to a review officer. Of course children should be at the centre of the system—that is the point of the Child Support Act 1992, and that is why, in many ways, we have got the balance wrong. Children's interests must be balanced, but they should not be subordinated to the interests of absent parents, and certainly not to the interests of the taxpayer, the Treasury or whatever term the Minister likes to use. We all agree that it is difficult to get it right, but the confusion and the pain surely justify further movement.

I am fearful—I might sound a little like an academic constitutional lawyer—about what I see around me. A legal system must command respect. There is a danger that if disrespect grows to the point at which consent is withheld, we will bring everything into disrepute. We are near to doing that. Despite the changes that the House will approve tonight, I trust, we should not ignore the continuing and dangerous unhappiness that underlines and reinforces our duty to get the balance right. In answer to a question in Hansard, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Bury, North, said: There are no plans for further change."—[Official Report, 1 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 578.] In the light of the opinons expressed in every part of the House, I hope that the Minister will reconsider that position.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Many hon. Members wish to contribute, and short speeches would be greatly appreciated.

7.49 pm
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

I have had many contacts with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), including contacts in consistorial practice. He and I have both dealt with many of the tens of thousands of marriages that have broken down, and we know about the difficulty and the sadness. The children and both parties have to make sacrifices, as do succeeding parties.

It is strange that quotas are to be allotted to parents in certain circumstances. In my experience, these matters were dealt with by the courts, which saw the mother, the father and the children, knew the locality and comprehended the circumstances. I cannot understand how a vast new bureaucracy in Belfast will be able to do that simply by asking ordinary people to fill up a form.

Mr. Stephen

On the issue of court orders, does my hon. and learned Friend recall that, under the old system before the child support legislation, the lawyers for the husband and wife would often put together a settlement which paid no regard at all to the interests of the taxpayer? It was often designed to place the maximum burden on the taxpayer. For example, it could transfer a house with a large mortgage, which the taxpayer was expected to pay. Does my hon. and learned Friend approve of that?

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

I am glad to say that I am a Scottish lawyer, and that what my hon. Friend outlines does not apply in our civilised society. If it applies in England, that increases my contempt for the absurdity of its law.

We are dealing with the terrible sensitivities of former human relationships and with children. I was horrified by the Minister's index of what people receive. A person who has four children and has been married for four years gets tuppence, and so on. But I was even more horrified to hear that, as I understand it, the matter is to be taken out of the hands of the courts in April and put into the hands of a bureaucracy in Belfast. What do the bureaucrats know about these matters? On what possible basis can they be sensitive to the needs and realities of the children and the families?

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

My hon. Friend is not a member of my family, but I shall give way to him anyway.

Mr. Burns

I appreciate that my hon. and learned Friend is not an English lawyer, but does he accept that a problem with the court maintenance system in England was that the people who suffered most were the child and the mother? That was because of the extremely low maintenance that was set, and in three out of four cases no maintenance was collected.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

That increases my contempt for the law of England, because it is certainly not my experience in the law of Scotland. My experience there is the reverse. I am glad to say that at least civilisation starts at the Tweed.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

I think that my hon. and learned Friend will accept that no hon. Member is suggesting a return to the old system. Does he agree that the system under the Child Support Agency is at least as unjust as that which preceded it? A compromise, taking account of the hardship that the Child Support Agency logistics is causing, could allow the court to review, in appropriate cases, the special circumstances that I put to the Minister and to which I got only a standard response from the CSA. It had no relevance whatever to the individual circumstances of my constituent's concern.

Could we have a compromise arrangement, whereby the CSA remains but the regulations are amended to make sure that such injustices do not occur?

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have had dozens of cases from the Child Support Agency. In one that came to me last week, the CSA had decided to reduce the amount that the court had awarded. What right has the agency to do that? Are the people in the agency gods, lares et penates, who oversee our lives?

A committee of bureaucrats in Belfast is directing people in the courts who have seen the facts, the family, the children and the circumstances. Upon what possible basis do those bureaucrats across the sea have the effrontery to reduce the award that a judge and justice thought was appropriate? The award was not opposed by the other spouse. He came to me and told me that he was appalled and that the CSA had said that his contribution to his family should be reduced.

The whole development of this matter is offensive in principle and in application. As it develops, it will get more hubristic, more bureaucratic and more unfair. I cannot see any justification for the ordinary citizen not having a right to go to court. I have done tens of thousands of consistorial cases in the Scottish courts. Some are easy, and some are difficult, but the children are always the principal concern. I do not see how a bunch of bureaucrats can do that armed with a form.

I cannot fill up forms, and I am supposed to be a Queen's counsellor. How is Mrs. Snodgrass to fill up a form? When it has been completed, some bureaucrat will read it and say, "You will not get this or that." For the Minister to rabbit on about £42 for this and £42 for something else is totally insensitive. We are talking about families and children; we are not talking about buying postal orders and paying taxes.

I find the Government's whole approach grotesquely offensive. We are dealing with children and families, with human frailty and human difficulties. Such issues cannot be dealt with by a committee or on a form, and I disapprove of that completely. Let us ensure—let the Government be warned that I shall try to ensure—that the matter is left to the courts, who comprehend it. At least they are in reason and in knowledge of the locality, the families and the relationships. I plead, please, for humanity.

8 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I shall be brief. There is good reason why today's debate will sound to many outsiders as though we are set on representing the views of some men against their families. That response is understandable, but it is not adequate.

Many of our male constituents feel that the ground under their feet has shifted markedly over the past 15 years. One in five of all males are now unemployed. If they are unskilled, the figure is one in three. Those males feel disfranchised. The lack of a wage packet means that they no longer feel head of the household; they no longer feel equal to their partners, and they find it difficult to carry out their role as fathers. There is disquiet on those grounds.

There is disquiet on other grounds too, and the Government are even more directly responsible for them than for the unemployment figures. Under the stewardship of the present Government, until the advent of the Child Support Agency, we witnessed the near-collapse of the collection of maintenance for those mothers who are on income support and who were on supplementary benefit. The proportion has halved.

The word went out, therefore, that the Government were not interested in ensuring that those on benefits also received maintenance. That trend continued for 15 years. Many males will have made arrangements with second families which they will be unable to sustain if an Act is introduced retrospectively forcing them to pay a large proportion of their income towards their first families.

The Government have to approach the debate with more humility than usual. Many of those people who thought that they were totally free to make new arrangements with their second families now find that, late in the day, the Government have changed the ground rules under which they are to be judged, and the grounds on which they will have to pay. That is one reason for humilty, but there are also others.

The Minister was generous in his selective quoting from the Select Committee report. If I had introduced the debate tonight, I would have made similar partisan use of that report. However, Ministers will not have forgotten that there is unlikely to be a vote tonight. It is the only night this week when hon. Members do not have to stay, yet we have a presence in the Chamber far in excess of what we normally have at this stage when there is a three-line Whip, especially in social security debates. It gives those on the Treasury Bench some idea of the temper of the House tonight.

As the Minister quoted from the report, I should mention that the Select Committee considered the regulations to be the most far-reaching change since the Attlee settlement of 1945. That means that, if the Government are wise, tonight's debate will be the beginning and not the end of the reform of the Child Support Agency.

The bigger the reform, the more important it is for us to listen carefully to what our constituents tell us and for the Government to take into account what we relate in the Chamber and in private to Ministers, so that the Act can be reformed to make it workable in the way that we all hoped it would be.

Any major change means a resettlement between the three parties that have an interest—taxpayers, first families, second, and perhaps third, families. There are five reforms which the Government will have to consider sooner of later, and the sooner they consider them, the more credit they will get. More importantly, not only will our constituents feel that the House of Commons listens to them, but the Act will win widespread support rather than hostility.

First, the agency is the only body in existence to look at what is happening to family budgets. It has all the details. Despite the attempts of our constituents, we often get an incomplete picture. May we have some information as to the income ranges with which people manage with their second families?

Secondly, the Select Committee backed away from the idea of raising the clean break settlements. We could not get agreement on that, and we hoped that the courts would rule in a way that would have broken open the whole debate. It is not good enough to rely on the argument that some people have managed to hand over a house which is largely a debt for taxpayers to service. Such matters can be considered, justified and calculated.

It is monstrous for those who have made a large settlement—and often acquired debts in order to make that settlement—to be penalised, particularly as the whole House believes that it is a good thing to own houses.

It is absurd that, despite some adjustments to the formula, in all circumstances it now pays for a man to put his first wife and children out of their home and to sell it, and, if there is anything left from the settlement, to buy something very much smaller, and then for the man to get the biggest, most expensive house he can, as that is taken into account in calculating his income.

It cannot make sense to have a formula that puts mothers and children at risk of homelessness and for single males, perhaps less single if they have new partners, to occupy the most expensive premises they can possibly find.

Mr. Burt

The hon. Gentleman will concede that it is not solely a decision for the man at the time of separation. It would require a court to force a mother and children out of their house in the circumstances that he has described.

Mr. Field

One of the reasons why the courts stand convicted tonight, although clearly in Scotland they have a much better system, is that the courts have generally worked in favour of men and against women and children. It was the men that were represented by lawyers and, generally speaking, women and children were not. If they wanted time to push the court around, the men's lawyers got the proceedings adjourned. There are certainly many complaints from women and children about how the procedures work. I have had no request from women and children in my constituency to go back to the old English court system to settle disputes.

Thirdly, because we wanted the formula adjusted so that those towards the lower end of the scale would be able to keep more of their income and thereby maintain their incentive to work, we plumped for a big increase in the amount of income that people could keep when the formula had been applied.

But it is clear from two Question Times, let alone tonight, that travel-to-work expenses are massively important for some of our constituents, particularly if they live in what are called satellite towns or areas and travel far. Again, the Child Support Agency will have more information on that than any other body in the country. If other constituents are like my own, they will have told the Child Support Agency what those fares are. It is important that that information should be published.

Fourthly, it is meanness on stilts to say that, because it takes 13 or 14 weeks for the Child Support Agency to send out an assessment, a person should begin the arrangement in arrears. We hope that the arrangement will work and work fairly, and to the advantage of all parties concerned. To begin by having to pay off a debt is, in any circumstances, difficult, but it is doubly difficult if the brown envelope contains a statement saying that a person's disposable net income for his or her second household will be considerably less than it was hitherto. Surely we must bear in mind the Select Committee's recommendation that people should not have to begin the new arrangement with a large debt around their necks.

My last point is one on which I have changed my view. When we first debated the matter in the House, I argued against the first family on benefit being able to keep part of the money paid in maintenance. I thought that it was unfair between those mothers, the fathers of whose children are unknown or cannot be traced, those who are widowed and those, the fathers of whose childen have been found and are paying over money. There were grounds of equity there.

There were also other considerations. I do not approve of the attitude that has gained currency that somehow it is our responsibility in the first place to pay income support and that any money that fathers pay should be a bonus, rather than a relief of taxpayers who have been paying up to that point. The failure to chase people for maintenance payments, which I have highlighted in questions during the past 15 years, was an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

But although those points stand, when I put forward my views about grounds of equity in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) simply said, "That's life." She said that life is often unfair, but because it is unfair to some does not mean that all women and children should be disadvantaged.

The Child Support Agency now needs above everything else large numbers of mothers and children to speak up in favour of it. That could be done quite cheaply with a small disregard. Therefore, my last suggestion—

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

As my hon. Friend is an influential person, and as the Minister seemed to frame his concessions with my hon. Friend in mind, will he consider adding a sixth point to his list on the business of phasing in?

The Minister has made a concession on phasing in, but he has limited it to certain people. He does not seem to have accepted the general principle and the fact of life that people do not exist in a vacuum, and that, when one relationship breaks down, it is entirely natural for people to get on with their lives and build other relationships, and perhaps other debts and financial commitments. For the Child Support Agency to drop on a person, whatever his or her domestic circumstances, at a point in the future, completely ignoring financial commitments that that person has genuinely entered into, is most unfair.

Mr. Field

I am grateful for that invervention. The reason I will not disappoint my hon. Friend when I say that I shall not add his point to my list is that it is in the report, although it has not been fully endorsed by Ministers tonight.

They are the outlines of an agenda that I hope the Select Committee will consider in its second report—

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Field

In fairness to other hon. Members who wish to speak, I shall not give way. I am about to bring my contribution to a conclusion.

I hope that that will act as a basis for an agenda for what will be the Select Committee's second report. That itself will not be the final report that the Select Committee will need to bring to the House.

I said at the beginning that I thought that this was the most significant change in the way that people have had to behave toward one another since the Attlee settlement of the great 1945–50 Government. The bigger the change, the more important it is that we are sensitive to how the reform works.

It is important tonight that Ministers win this and other victories against the Treasury, so that the Treasury's mean-minded policy in trying to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement to a more satisfactory level does not put at stake the principle of the Act. The force of interventions will have shown Ministers that hon. Members will not go away, and that, if further reform is not forthcoming, the Act will be at risk.

8.15 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

Listening to the debate reinforces my view that the vast majority of hon. Members wholeheartedly support the principle that fathers should pay for the support of their children when they are financially able so to do, and for the state to maintain support through the benefit system when fathers, for whatever reason, unfortunately do not have the necessary income or are not able to do so because they are in receipt of benefit.

Since the Act was brought into operation in April 1993, there has been much concern about certain aspects of the operation of the formula, but not the principle behind the Act. I trust that even after this debate that almost bipartisan support for the principle will be maintained because it is essentially the right principle: parents should be financially responsible for their children.

On the other side of the coin, it is interesting that we hear little about the mothers who, all too often before April last year, suffered a significant drop in their standard of living or found it difficult to make ends meet on the benefit system because far too many fathers had simply abandoned them without meeting their financial responsibilities.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Burns

I shall not give way because there is little time and many hon. Members wish to speak. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] I will give way once and no more. I give way to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

Mr. Cryer

The Act was presented to the House on the principle that fathers should be responsible for their children and that non-paying fathers should be made to pay. No one disagreed with that, but that principle has been set aside and fathers who are paying and who are exercising responsibility are now being subjected to further burdens and being hounded by what many people consider to be "Lilley' s Gestapo".

Mr. Burns

I reject the last part of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but I was about to deal with the first part.

There is an impression among responsible fathers who are being asked to pay through the Child Support Agency that they are the soft target and that the Act is not being used to target absent parents who have abandoned their responsibilities. I can understand them thinking that. They are an angry group of people and the more the point is made, the more acceptable it becomes. With respect, I urge the hon. Gentleman and others to look at the facts. It is unfair to say that the agency is ignoring irresponsible fathers who have never paid anything. They are, rightly, being pursued. Perhaps the CSA, or we as Members of Parliament, have failed to convey that it is not a lone attack on responsible fathers; the CSA is also going for fathers who pay nothing. I urge Opposition Members to study the facts before perpetuating a myth.

I welcome the regulations because they respond to the Select Committee's report with proposals which seek to alleviate some of the problems that fathers face. I welcome also the phasing-in arrangements, the increased level of protected income and changes to the additional reduction rate. However, my constituents have raised a number of points, which I suspect are not unique to Chelmsford, and those matters ought to be considered once the effect of the regulations on existing and future assessments is known.

The precise aim of and philosophy behind paying for the upkeep of children should be identified. Is the purpose —as I believe it should be—to meet the cost of looking after a child or children at an acceptable level? If so, just because an individual's income increases each year, perhaps through salary rises, it does not necessarily follow that further significant amounts of his income should be taken to pay towards the upkeep of his children. While it is important that a sufficient amount is provided to provide care to an acceptable level, thereafter money should not automatically be taken from the father according to a sliding scale.

One constituency case causes me particular concern. It involves a man who fathered three children by his first marriage, and who is now remarried and in work. His first wife has also remarried. My constituent and his second wife look after two of the children by his first marriage, while his first wife cares for the third. Her second husband has been out of work for five years and one might deduce that, whatever the situation in the employment market, that husband has no intention of getting a job.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)


Mr. Burns

The hon. Lady makes a noise from a sedentary position. That accusation is made not by me, but by my constituent and his second wife, who look after two of the children from his first marriage but are required to pay the carer's allowance of £44 through the CSA to the children's mother. I question whether my constituent and his second wife should be required to do that.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), other hon. Members and I have raised in parliamentary questions the issue of commuter costs. That is not special pleading as such, because usually only the belts around metropolitan areas have a commuter system of the sort found in London. Such a system is not common to all parts of the country. A monthly season ticket to commute to work from Chelmsford to London exceeds the monthly cost of a £30,000 non-endowment mortgage. That significant take from an individual's income, more so than an average figure, should be borne in mind.

Can anything be done about fathers or mothers who deliberately make themselves unemployed to avoid being required to pay child support so that they may contact the CSA to claim that support from their former partner? I appreciate that in some circumstances there can be substantial disadvantages in making oneself intentionally unemployed, but in others that is not the case. It is particularly irksome to a working couple to be traced by the CSA because a former partner of one of them has deliberately taken himself or herself out of the employment market, either to avoid paying child support or to make themselves ineligible for it.

There is widespread concern about the time taken by the agency to reply to cases raised by hon. Members and to members of the public who have complained or challenged assessments. I was heartened by the written reply that I received from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, saying that measures would be taken to speed up the CSA's response. However, on the assumption that the regulations will be approved, in the short term an even greater burden will be placed on the agency. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to do all that he can to ensure that assessments and other matters are dealt with by the CSA as quickly as possible, even if that means taking on extra staff on a temporary basis. It is unfair to those who are assessed to have to wait an inordinate amount of time because of bureaucratic processing.

All those aspects are of vital importance to our constituents. I trust that the regulations will make a genuine difference, and I suspect that they will. However, we may have to keep a watching brief on other aspects of the agency's activities, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said at Social Security Question Time on Monday.

8.27 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

To the extent that the regulations will make a difference, I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that they should be supported in the Lobby this evening. Nevertheless, I do not want the Government or the Under-Secretary to go away thinking that will be the end of the story.

The regulations are detailed, and the Under-Secretary described—in his usual competent way—the changes that they will make. However, he has not begun to address the anguish, anxiety and concern that is evident the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman has any time to respond to the debate, he must give an indication this evening of the Government's intentions after the regulations are introduced.

I listened carefully to the reasoned speech by the hon. Member for Garscadden, which made a positive contribution to the debate. I should be grateful to him and to the official Opposition if they would make use of a valuable Supply day further to debate the subject, for that would greatly benefit the House.

Even though short speeches have been made, many other hon. Members will not have an opportunity tonight to represent their constituents' interests in the way that they would like. In fact, given the tight confines of the regulations, it might not be in order for certain points to be made—but the Under-Secretary has not made any difficulty about that.

I emphasise that the issue will not go away, and the House should not allow it to do so. It must be raised again, by the Select Committee, the House itself, or as a result of public pressure—which is increasing, judging from the volume of post on the subject that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House are receiving. The power to make necessary changes resides in the hands of the Under-Secretary and the Department.

I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State is here, and appreciate his presence. We are all struggling to try to get an appropriate response, which the regulations do not provide. The Minister knows me well enough to understand that I do not make rash or casual threats. I do not want it to be put by way of threat, but there has been much discussion across the Floor of the House, with everybody agreeing to the principle of the Act.

I agree with that. In Scots law, parents have always had financial as well as other legal liabilities and duties to their offspring. That has always been the case, and was so before 1991, when the Act was introduced. I say this carefully and urgently. There are circumstances in which I would recommend to my colleagues that support for the principle of the Act should be withdrawn if the implementation of the Act is not substantially changed. It would be a serious matter for the Minister if support were withdrawn, and for Opposition Members.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred to the system that must be put in place. It has a 15-year time span—or longer. If it is to be responsible and respond to the needs, it must survive changes of Government. The Government must take that into account, because if they do not change the practice in a way that is acceptable to the House, were there to be a change of Government, which, I presume, will happen eventually, but goodness knows when—that can be debated on another day and is in the hands of the electorate, not just here—he has a responsibility as a Minister to ensure that a system is in place that will withstand the test of time and changes of Government. I assure him that it is a fact that he does not have such a system.

I took part in the consideration of the Bill in 1991. The House gave it quite thorough scrutiny. I was not on the Standing Committee, but many concerns were raised about the agency and were dealt with in the way in which the Government introduced the Bill. There was much pressure and worry about mothers being forced to divulge. The Government have dealt with that, but the circumstances have changed dramatically since then. The element of retrospection is a far greater problem in practice than I ever aniticipated. That problem was referred to earlier.

The selection of the Government's target of trying to recover £530 million in the first year of operation, against the background of the fact that they have professional staff who are on performance-related contracts, is one of the most difficult things for people to understand. The people who are being hit by this legislation believe that it is by people who are making their own pay. I do not believe that that is the case. I consider the people who are running the agency to be professionals who are doing the best they can, although that may not be everybody's experience.

There is real concern that the selection of the target of £530 million in the first year was a bridge too far. The transitional arrangements were inadequate. Something has been done about that, but not enough. The whole question of the way that the Act is impinging on second families is completely contrary to natural justice.

Because of the pressures of the Act, I have constituents who are threatening to emigrate, stop work or walk away from their second families. There are also tales of suicide. I do not know how much truth there is in them, but some of the newspaper reports are a cogent body of evidence that cannot and must not be ignored by the House and the Government.

The simple fact, in my experience, is that second families are being asked to pay amounts that they simply cannot afford. One of my cases last week was of a father whose offspring are in Plymouth. He is desperately trying to keep a relationship between himself and his two young children. There is no way in which the current formula can take account of the travel costs involved in seeing his children. He has had to sever the relationship with his children or borrow money from his parents to maintain it. It is a nightmare. It is a mess. There is no administrative machinery available to exercise any element of discretion.

The hon. Members for Birkenhead and for Garscadden listed five or six suggestions. I shall add a couple. In the longer term, if one put money into a proper system of conciliation, that would be a better way of saving Govermment money. Child care services may be technically out of order in the debate on social security, but those are two important parts where social investment would reduce the long-term costs of the breakdown of families that we see in this country. A whole series of issues could and should be raised, such as getting a proper appeals system and dealing with capital settlements. A raft of things must be considered.

When the Minister comes to reply, if he gets any time, he must address the question of the future. Tonight's regulations are welcome as far as they go. I will recommend that my colleagues support them on that basis. But if he says, "This far and no further," he is storing up trouble for himself, and deservedly so.

8.35 pm
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Despite my hon. Friend the Minister's best intentions, some of my constituents still view the CSA as a cross between the Court of Star Chamber and the Spanish inquisition. They see their second marriages at stake, and the actions of the agency not only burning a hole in their pockets but threatening or destroying their relationships and jobs. We all have a mass of cases. I have mine here tonight. I shall refer only to two.

First, a car worker in my constituency came to see me a week or so ago and said, "Must I really give up my job because of the proposals?" I found that distressing. He was complaining about the scale and the speed of change that had been brought about by the Act. Secondly, a newly remarried man told me that the enforced change in his circumstances was already undermining his second marriage. Again, I found that a distressing case.

I must tell my hon. Friend that I have had more letters, more approaches and telephone calls on this issue this Parliament than on any other. I voted for the Act. I approve of the principles, and I want to see it work. I welcome the new provisions, which, in my view, are fairer. They might persuade that car worker in my constituency to hold his job. They might help the second marriage of the other gentleman to whom I referred. I question whether the relief package—perhaps we should call it a transitional relief package—is enough. I hope that it is.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said to my hon. Friend, "Please do not regard this as the final settlement." We must regard it as the next stage in the evolution of the CSA. I am mindful of the fact that, tomorrow, 300 aggrieved parents will attend a meeting in Leicester, that there is an action committee in my constituency, run by a Mr. Klenk, and that marches are being organised. There is a body of opposition from a large proportion of the population. When marches are organised and there is that level of activity, as we saw over some of the legislation in the last Parliament, we ignore it at our peril.

I do not wish to detain the House for long; I shall refer to a few points of particular concern, some of which have not been raised. The first is the intrusive and unsympathetic nature of telephone calls from the CSA to families, frequently at night or when they are with their families at tea time. At times they are rung at the office and it is made perfectly clear that it is the CSA. Those actions are damaging the reputation of the CSA at the very least, and are certainly damaging families and job prospects.

Hon. Members have asked for an appeals procedure. I must say that I consider the CSA's powers too final. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) expressed concern about the removal of the courts' powers; I understand that move, because I think that the system was breaking down, but my goodness, the CSA seems all-powerful now. My hon. Friend the Minister must think seriously about some form of appeals procedure.

Then there is the whole issue of former spouses having access to personal and financial details. Until the CSA came along. I thought that an Englishman's home was his castle; the agency, however, seems to have powers similar to those obtained by Customs and Excise over VAT. I find that alarming: the data protection provisions are too weak, and it is threatening second marriages. Something must be done.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Surely it is wrong in principle for the operation of the CSA to force a second wife whose divorced husband is perfectly capable of meeting his obligations to his children to give all the details of her income, or of shares that she possesses. The present Government, after all, introduced separate taxation for husbands and wives—which I think is absolutely right. The information is given to the first wife, and the income concerned may well support not only her and her child, but her second—unemployed—husband.

Mr. Tredinnick

That might have been a planted question. I have already referred similar cases to my hon. Friend the Minister. There is a general feeling that second wives are supporting first wives: I raised the matter in a parliamentary question before Christmas. For a number of reasons, a highly undesirable "arcing" of cash payments is taking place between first and second families.

Ms Gordon

Not only is confidentiality being breached because the agency is able to inquire into the financial affairs of a second partner; it even reaches for information about the financial affairs of the second partner's children. If grandparents have invested money and some interest is due, that can be taken into account as well. I think it is outrageous.

Mr. Tredinnick

My hon. Friend the Minister is receiving a clear message from all quarters in the House that people are very unhappy about that aspect. I hope that he will deal with it when he winds up.

We have heard much about the "clean break". I may not be as sophisticated as some, but I always thought that a clean break meant precisely that, I have subsequently learnt that children's interests are paramount, that the old system was not working as well as I had supposed, and that adjustments were necessary. It strikes me as strange, however, that a visitor to my surgery should tell me, "I pay for the clothes and the holidays, repair the car and do a host of other things, but that is not taken into account."

I respect my hon. Friend, and recognise the work that he has put into this, but it is all very fine to say that it is too complicated to consider a range of individual points—travel costs, for instance; he must consider such matters. If we are to do away with the courts and impose a new agency, we cannot operate such an unsophisticated system.

The attitude of the CSA staff is of concern, too. Generally, when we telephone a Minister's private office —or when an experienced secretary or research assistant is briefed to do it—we are given a courteous and prompt response.

I must tell the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State, however, that several experienced secretaries—and one or two hon. Members who are not present—have told me that the response of CSA top management is less than forthcoming: in fact, it is downright insolent. Those people had better wake up to the fact that we are elected representatives. When we raise issues, they had better listen.

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)

When people refer to a "clean break", they often misunderstand the situation. What is really at issue in the event of a clean break between husband and wife may be a nominal, or even significant, maintenance order in favour of children. Because people think of a clean break as referring to the entire family, they may feel hard done by when the matter is reopened by the CSA.

Mr. Tredinnick

My hon. Friend has made his point effectively, and I agree with him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) spoke eloquently about travel costs. My hon. Friend the Minister explained why it was better to bundle the separate charges and requirements into a single package, but I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford.

My constituency is in the middle of England: people commute from such areas as Hinckley to London. We are not that far away—only about 100 miles—but the rail fare is very expensive. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford provided another dramatic illustration of this argument. Such factors cannot be ignored: commuting and other travel costs are astronomical. One constituent told me, "I love my little girl dearly, but it is costing me a fortune to go to see her. I can no longer manage it." Something is wrong, and my hon. Friend the Minister must deal with it.

The Act is good in principle, but it needs a good deal of polishing. The measures announced tonight will go some way towards alleviating some of the problems, and I welcome them; but Ministers should not go away believing that they have done their job. This must be seen to be one stage in the process of getting the CSA right.

8.46 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I hope that the Minister will not assume from the fact that we are not voting against these measures that any hon. Member receives them with approbation. I am sorry that we are not voting against them: I think that this part of the legislation should be junked entirely. It is defective; it was rushed into operation without being thought through; and the pressure on those operating it is such that they are not exercising the highest standards.

One of the dangers of this unfortunate legislation is that many people now feel genuinely and deeply angry about what is happening to them. Trust is very important— people must believe that the Government, in particular, are dealing with them fairly, and there is now deep unease in the population.

I have encountered many such cases in my constituency and have attended two or three exciting and lively meetings of people suffering from the CSA's attentions, but I do not want the House to run away with the idea that only the male of the species is suffering. The ineptitude of the whole business was revealed by a letter from a constituent, who wrote: In April 1993 I applied to the CSA, because I wasn't receiving any maintenance for my two children, then aged 8 and 5. At about the same time I moved in with my new partner after being on my own for 3½ years. A while ago my new partner was sent a form from the CSA, as he has a child, aged 12 … On Saturday 22.1.94 we both received the outcome of our cases. Mine having taken 9½ months. We were shocked … at the outcome. I am to receive £2.20 a week for my two children from my ex-husband, who is working full-time and has no second family, and my partner is to pay out £88.79 a week for one child, whilst he has to support us as well. My ex-husband is self-employed and is apparently showing accounts that don't compare with his lifestyle. The woman went on in considerable detail to point out what happened to her.

Another woman instituted proceedings for divorce on 20 April 1993, then made an application to the Child Support Agency for an assessment against her husband on 7 June 1993. That assessment related to two children. She heard nothing in reply for some time and eventually ascertained that the inquiry form had not been sent to her husband until 9 September 1993. She eventually received an assessment on 30 October. She was informed that it would be backdated but, because of the delays, her husband is now in arrears of £1,300. As no agreement or order was in force in respect of the children before April 1993, the lady has had no support whatever from her estranged husband. Because of the Child Support Act, she was also unable to apply to the court for an order for interim maintenance.

Those two cases sum up starkly the fact that the machinery simply is not working. All hon. Members can produce examples of cases in which people are suffering hardship and unhappiness and are being put through the wringer in an extremely short period. It is destroying them and I am genuinely frightened about what will happen to the children of both sets of partners. Numerous people complain to me that they will be forced to sell their house and tell me of the pressure on their relationships—those relationships may have been fragile, but a form of stability existed. No matter how the CSA's efforts are justified by the Minister, they are putting so much pressure on people that not only previous partnerships but existing partnerships are directly threatened.

I received a long, sad letter from a woman in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), saying that she had written to me because her Member of Parliament seemed unable to take up her case. She was deeply concerned about the mental health of her new partner and described in detail what had happened to him since he received an assessment for amounts which he knew that he could not meet. That is the reality.

I am also horrified at the number of people in high-stress jobs who come to me because the CSA's actions are having a direct effect on their jobs. If people in the police force get into debt, their jobs are at risk because they have broken the terms of their contract.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley)

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Dunwoody

It is no use the Secretary of State shaking his head. If he does not know the effect of his legislation, he should ask somebody to tell him. I have raised the matter with the Home Secretary, who wrote to me saying that it was a matter for the chief constables of each individual force. I have received no guarantee that the CSA's efforts will not cause policemen to appear before a disciplinary board. Indeed, two or three of them have already resigned and I know of at least two more in the same position. Firemen are experiencing similar problems. A social scientist would find the effects of the legislation revealing because those in stressful professions, including Members of Parliament, seem to have second and third marriages.

The implementation of the Act has a direct effect not only on adults but on children. It affects the children's relationships with their parents, the amount of money available for the children and the atmosphere in both partnerships at every level.

I do not wish to go on for ever but I believe that this legislation was not put on the statute book to improve conditions for children. If I believed that it was wholly devoted to improving the lot of the children of divorced and divided families, it would have my wholehearted support and I would not criticise it in any circumstances. I believe that it was put on the statute book for just one reason, and many of my constituents have the same view. It was to obtain money for the Treasury. It does not help those whom it purported to help and should be taken back to square one so that the Secretary of State can start again. He has got it all wrong. Why will he not admit that and at least try to put it right?

8.55 pm
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Like so many other Members, I supported this legislation enthusiastically when it was introduced because of the number of women who had been to my surgeries who were desperate because they could get no satisfaction on maintenance from the court. They were also desperate to get their wriggling absent husbands, ex-husbands or partners to pay something towards their children's maintenance.

Having supported the legislation, however, I am desolated by the effects of the agency. Some hon. Friends have complained about the agency's attitude in answering them on the telephone or by letter. They were lucky to have had an answer at all. I have received no answers to letters that I sent to the agency as long ago as October. Constituents who come to see me complain that the agency simply will not answer their questions, either by telephone or by letter; all it does is send those draconian assessments. Even when a response by the agency is received, it is belated and does not solve the problems that have been put to it.

Like many other Members, I have many commuters in my constituency. It costs some £2,000 a year to travel the 30 miles from my constituency to central London, although many thousands of my constituents do so. Many of them do not have well-paid jobs and the fare represents a substantial proportion of their income, once the cost of housing has been taken into account. To be forced to decide whether to travel to work or feed the family is a stark choice indeed.

The complaints that I receive are the same as those received by many other Members—that no account is taken of the many essential household bills such as gas, electricity, water, insurance, mortgage arrears and council tax. None is taken into account, yet they are all essential expenses faced by every household. Another peculiarity is that only 50 per cent. of pension contributions is allowable as an expense. Many people have no alternative to making pension contributions; indeed, the Government encouraged them to do so.

What worries me is the attitude of the Child Support Agency. Like the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I am particularly concerned that reviews of decisions take for ever. I welcome these changes, as far as they go. However, I should have liked to ask the Minister, during the course of his speech, to answer one very simple question. I am not absolutely clear about whether the changes will apply to all those who have been subject to assessments up to the present. I should be grateful for an answer on that matter.

If the changes are applicable to everyone who has been assessed hitherto, they will make a substantial change in the case of my constituent Mr. L, whose assessment for one child increased the £10.75 a week payable under a court maintenance order to £122 a week, even though he has a second family. Will he be helped? His assessment included the reimbursement of his travelling expenses. That amount was added to his income in arriving at the assessment. He asked in October for a review of his case. Goodness knows when it will take place. In the meantime, paying £122 a week, he is building up enormous arrears. I agree absolutely with the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that such arrears must not be allowed to get out of hand simply because the agency is not carrying out the reviews that it should be undertaking.

I am worried by the fact that many ordinary, decent folk are harassed and hounded by the agency. In the case of at least one person, I wrote personally and urgently to the Secretary of State because I was so worried that she would do something desperate as a result of demand from the agency. There must be a taming-down. The CSA is too mechanistic in its whole approach. There is no sensitivity whatsoever towards the first, second or any other family.

Like the constituents of many hon. Members who have spoken and, no doubt, of many who have yet to speak, people in my constituency are darkly suspicious that the main motive of the agency is to save income support money. It is no coincidence that every constituent from whom I have heard pays some form of maintenance. Court maintenance assessments are often hopelessly low, and people are receiving new assessments. I have received not a single letter from among the absent fathers whom I hoped would be caught by this legislation. I am sure that that is no coincidence.

9.2 pm

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

I agree with the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) in that he seems to be yet another advocate of doing away altogether with the Child Support Agency. The legislation was brought in hastily and for the wrong reasons. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that there were two reasons for the introduction of the Act. The first was moral indignation. Here we had the first sign of the Tories' "back to basics" policy. It may be that in this case the moral indignation was justified. In any event, it was fuelled by the Treasury in an attempt to cut back on the social security budget.

The proposals contained nothing that would help children. There was nothing to reduce child poverty or to protect the family, as the figures tend to prove. Of the £530 million being collected, only £50 million—less than one tenth—goes to the family or to the children; the rest goes directly to the Treasury. I try, and I hope that others will try, to avoid taking the moral line of those who seek new scapegoats. The unemployed man living with the first wife is now being paid by the second wife for the children. What we have here is an attempt to find other scapegoats. The truth is that the situation must be looked at in a sensible but compassionate way.

It would be very difficult to disagree with the principles of what the Government proposed in the first place, but it is very easy to disagree with the practice, with what has acutally been happening. Many of the constituents who come to see me are not just angry or mad, but desperate. They are desperate because they have nowhere else to go. They come to me, but I cannot give them any advice. They put their wage slips in front of me and show me their expenditure figures. They are in a Mr. Micawber situation: their expenditure after CSA payments is greater than their income. They ask what they can do because they clearly cannot pay, but I have no answer.

The CSA does not take into account people's real needs. The main problem is the lack of flexibility and the use of a crude and unsophisticated formula. Under the formula, children of a new relationship are not considered to be natural children and so do not count. In other words, stepchildren and adopted children are presumably unnatural children. The CSA considers people's protected income, but not their ability to pay. There is no point in having a protected income if it is worked out according to the formula.

I was not as impressed as my party's spokesman about the significance of the proposed changes. Indeed, everyone to whom I have spoken about them says that they are not significant and I do not believe that they have made a real difference to the majority of our constituents. I shall not vote against the proposals because they may help individuals, but they do not help the majority.

When I first read about the changes, I was impressed for a moment because I thought that something radical might happen. The leaflet, "Proposed changes to child support maintenance", published by the Department of Social Security states that the formula takes account of the income of both parents, by allowing for tax, national insurance —we knew about that— and essential expenses such as rent or mortgage costs. I also knew about the rent or mortgage costs, but I wondered what other "essential expenses" were taken into account. I thought that the best thing to do would be to ring the CSA and I did so today—not once, but five times.

The first four times I reached an answering machine which told me that the lines were busy. On the fifth occasion, I spoke to a young woman who was very helpful. I explained that I wanted to know about the "essential expenses" other than rent or mortgage costs which were taken into account. Were there one, two or three additional expenses? The truth is that not one other item is considered, which makes nonsense of the changes. It means that the formula is dealing not with reality but with theoretical sums. The use of the formula to decide what they should be paying is leading people into despair and I probably have a better example of that in my constituency than anyone in the Chamber.

One of my constituents committed suicide, although I hesitate to refer to him. His family have my greatest sympathy and I do not want to add to their grief, but I believe that I should be failing others in a similar situation if I did not mention his case. The day after receiving notification from the CSA that his contribution was to be increased by 300 per cent., Graham Clay was found hanging at Newstead abbey. Even if the coroner was not prepared to say so, I am convinced that he hanged himself because he had nowhere to turn.

I ask very little. If the Government are not prepared to scrap the CSA, will they please provide some method of appeal? Will they provide desperate people such as Graham Clay with somewhere to go where their needs will not be assessed according to a formula and where some discretion will be involved in assessing their payments, where they will be considered as individuals and not as numbers?

I am not saying that the CSA is unsympathetic. We cannot blame the Child Support Agency, because we are telling it to work to the formula and if it works to the formula it will seem as though it does not care. I have one request. The Australian scheme gives a right of appeal from the Australian agency. Let us have that right so that people can be considered as individuals. Even at this late stage, let us try to put a human face on the CSA.

9.9 pm

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I begin by congratulating my right hon. and hon. Friends in Government on listening to my views and those of many other hon. Members about the implementation of the Child Support Act 1991. I welcome the changes that are before the House tonight. I think that they demonstrate that we have a listening Government who are prepared to take action and make changes when the need has been proved. I also congratulate the Social Security Select Committee on its report, which made a valid contribution to the debate on the subject.

However, I think that it is important that the changes do not undermine the principle behind the Act, which many of us, including agencies such as the National Council for One Parent Families, supported and still support. It is important that we ensure that what was previously a poor system becomes better. The principle is that both parents should be responsible for supporting their children, even when they split up. The taxpayer should have to help only where parents do not have the means to support their children. Sadly, before the establishment of the agency, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, nearly 1 million lone parents and their children were dependent on income support.

I attended the Lobby meeting against the Child Support Act and the Child Support Agency that took place in the Grand Committee Room on 2 December 1993. I sat on the platform and listened to the representations that were made. As promised, I discussed the many arguments that were made to me with Ministers in the Department of Social Security.

One point that struck me forcibly was that there seemed to be a predominance of police officers, firemen and members of the armed forces in the audience. When I queried that, I was told that they were there because they were extremely concerned about the implications of the Child Support Agency's financial demands on them, because those demands might cause them to run into debt and thereby affect their job security. That point was mentioned by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I should be most grateful if the Minister would kindly clarify the Government's position in relation to the CSA's claims on those people's income when he replies to the debate, because it will be helpful for all of us to know the correct position on that understandable anxiety.

At the meeting, I made it clear that I too had reservations about the aspect of implementation, especially in two respects. First, I was concerned about the impact on a family budget of an immediate increased claim upon it and, secondly, I was not sure that the formula levels relating to the protected income went far enough. Therefore, I am pleased that those issues and others have been tackled by the Government.

During the meeting on 2 December, a number of major misunderstandings and misinterpretations came up repeatedly. The first is that the agency concentrates primarily on people who already pay some maintenance and neglects the pursuit of fathers who have not acknowledged any responsibility for their child or children. It must be made clear that 96 per cent. of cases handled by the CSA involve children supported by benefit, and that nearly two thirds of cases taken on by the CSA this year will be ones where no maintenance is being paid. In more than 15,000 cases where the lone parent has been unable to provide the address, the absent parent has been tracked down by the CSA. That represents 89 per cent. of completed cases. It also shows that the CSA is not only seeking absent fathers but finding them.

There is no doubt that the old system of obtaining maintenance through the courts was slow and uncertain and led to low and inconsistent settlements. That procedure was clearly failing. However, it must be explained that where both parents are content with existing maintenance arrangements and the taxpayer does not have the burden of supporting the children, the parents are not forced to apply to the CSA. Therefore, in every case that the CSA has taken on, the existing arrangements were to the disadvantage either of the children or of the taxpayer. We must remember that many outstanding maintenance orders are indefensibly low—£5 or £10 a week. No one can pretend that that is adequate support from a father on a reasonable income.

Another misunderstanding concerns clean-break settlements, which were touched on earlier in the debate. I stress again the fact that there can be no clean break between parents and their children, and there never has been, even under the court system. The term "clean break" refers to a spouse's rights, including ownership of assets acquired during the marriage. That would frequently include settling half the house on a wife. However, frequently the couple's mortgage is transferred to the parent with care, along with the house, and if she is on income support that leaves the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Another important result of improved maintenance is that it will make it easier for lone mothers to return to work. That fact is often overlooked by critics of the CSA.

Maintenance gained through the intervention of the CSA will provide a portable income for mothers, which they will continue to receive even if they go back to work. The first £15 of maintenance is ignored for the purpose of calculating benefits if a mother is receiving, or is entitled to, family credit.

I participated in social security questions last Monday, and I was appalled that not a single Opposition voice was raised in support of the lone carer, usually the mother, and her children. I heard a male chorus, promoting in unison the absent father's point of view alone. Tonight I fear that both sides—

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Roe

No, time is short and Mr. Deputy Speaker has asked us to be brief.

Both sides of the House have again presented a one-sided story, and I must tell the House that many women in this country—

Mr. Wicks

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Roe

Many women in this country, including some in my constituency, fully endorse the work of the Child Support Agency—

Mr. Wicks

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am in some difficulty because the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) has said that no one spoke up during social security questions. I did.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) is responsible for her own speech.

Mrs. Roe

I was in the Chamber at the time and listened carefully to the questions put to Ministers. I did not hear anybody supporting carers and their children on that issue.

Mr. Wicks

Read Hansard.

Mrs. Roe

The case of.Mrs. Janis Richards was described in an article in The Times last Monday. She said: I didn't know what to do until the CSA took on the case"— [Interruption.] The Opposition should listen to this. They are proving my point; they are not interested in lone carers and their children.

The article said that, as a result of the intervention of the CSA, Mrs. Richards had received more money for the support of her eight-year-old daughter in the past two months than she had received from her estranged husband during the whole of the previous year. She originally received only £65 a month from her husband, which was totally inadequate. Out of just over £15 a week, she had to pay £8 for her daughter's school meals and bus fares. The remaining sum—£1 a day—was supposed to pay for her daughter's food, clothes, shoes, occasional treats and school trips.

Mrs. Richards said: Whatever happens in my case, I cannot fault the CSA". I shall also read from a letter that I received from a constituent who supports the Child Support Agency. She said: For many years mothers have been left to feed, clothe, and care for the children on very little money, while the fathers walk out and continue to enjoy their income regardless of the fact that they have left their children living in poverty. Many fathers are encouraged to leave their families once they realise that their wives will receive income support who will also pay the interest on their mortgage, leaving them to enjoy their new found financial gain. When my ex-husband left me and our two children, he left income support to provide for us and pay the mortgage interest, while he lived in a rent free police house. When I finally received maintenance for the children from their father he ensured that I would receive minimum maintenance by purposefully committing the majority of his income to various loan and debt repayments stating to me that I wouldn't be able to have what he hadn't got so he would ensure his available income would be virtually non-existent by taking out as many loans etc. as he could. While myself and the children have been living in poverty for the past four years, he has been enjoying his police inspector's salary with holidays abroad, new clothes, new car and all the luxuries he desires, with no thought or help with providing his children with even the basic essentials they need."

That letter came from that man's second wife with two children. The taxpayer is funding the mortgage and providing income support for that family. The taxpayer is also providing exactly the same for his first family. He is now on wife number three. Surely it cannot be right for other working families to pay through their taxes to support the children of absent fathers on reasonable incomes. Fathers who can afford to do so should pay the full cost of maintaining their children.

As responsible Members of Parliament, we must listen to both sides of the story and ensure that children receive the support from both parents, which they deserve and need. It will take time for people to adjust to a new system such as the CSA, but we should give it the support that it merits. Let us not forget that bringing up children is an expensive business. What matters are regular payments for their day-to-day living expenses. Children's welfare must have the priority.

9.22 pm
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Before I embark on my speech, I shall clarify one point. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) was absolutely wrong when she said that the question of carers had not been raised by Opposition Members during Question Time. The hon. Member for Croydon North-West (Mr. Wicks), as he rightly said earlier, said then, inter alia: Will he reform the measure to ensure that the vast proportion of money goes through to mothers with children, and that we have in reality a Child Support Act?"—[Official Report, 31 January 1994;: Vol. 236, c. 602.] It may be in order for the hon. Lady to withdraw what she said.

I speak on behalf of my party and the Scottish National party and I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) for asking me to raise some points. I shall be brief as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

Perhaps I should begin by declaring an interest. No, I have not fallen foul of the "back to basics" purge. I am a lawyer who practises in divorce law. It is basic good sense that an absent parent should maintain his or her children, provided that he or she can afford to do so. The final words need emphasis since they do not appear to weigh heavily in the balance at the present time. It would be wrong to deny that the underlying theory behind the Child Support Agency is a right and proper one. Of course society should ensure that children are given proper financial support. Therefore, my argument is not about the principle of the CSA, but about the operation of the agency under the present regime.

I read with great interest the Adjournment debate of 31 January. I have also read numerous letters from the Under-Secretary of State on the subject because, like all hon. Members, I have received numerous letters about it. The Under-Secretary said: The principle of parental support for children is not new. However, there is no doubt that the old, court-based system was failing the majority of children. Alas, the Child Support Agency is failing the majority of absent parents because the rigidity with which the formula is applied is mischievous. As many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, we have all had dozens of letters of complaint. People have suddenly been finding that maintainance orders evaluated by the county courts and regularly paid have been trebled overnight. Many absent parents have another home and another family, and the pressure is passed on to that new home and family.

In my years of practice as a divorce lawyer, I often saw clean-break orders—indeed, such orders were actively encouraged by practice directions and under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Frequently, a husband would transfer his equity in a substantial property to the wife and pay maintenance to the children. I know that the courts could never sanction a clean break between father and child, and I would not wish them to do so because that would surely be insidious. The Government, however, through the agency, have missed a very important point. Any lawyer who knows anything about divorce law knows that part of the reasoning behind making a clean-break order with the extra capital being transferred was to enable the wife to provide more than adequately for the children. Allowance has therefore been made in clean-break orders—

Mr. Burt

indicated dissent.

Mr. Llwyd

The Minister shakes his head. I will take the matter up with him at another time because time is short this evening, but as a practising lawyer I can tell him that that is absolutely correct—[Interruption.] As a part-time lawyer, then. That point appears to have been completely missed by the CSA under the current rules.

The Minister was also wrong when he said in the Adjournment debate that there were no investigative powers available to the courts. That is nonsensical. Courts often ordered that specialist accountants should become involved in investigating matters and ensuring that they were thoroughly looked into. If those in the legal profession were doing their job correctly, the courts naturally worked properly and adequately. It is wrong—and a slur on the profession and on courts—to say that maintenance orders were based on slipshod evidence and were the result of arbitrary decisions.

I respectfully hope that the Minister's somewhat facile knowledge of divorce law is not colouring his attitude to the debate. Closing the Adjournment debate, he said: I hope that the changes will help."—[Official Report, 31 January 1994; Vol. 236, column 711–8.] That is not exactly an inspiring sentence. The changes suggested by the Select Committee will have to help because we are dealing with misery, depression and even deaths as a result of the introduction of the Act. We are now attempting to amend the legislation to ensure that the changes help. Anything less simply will not do. After all, politics is the art of the possible.

I pay tribute to the members of the Select Committee for the urgency with which they investigated this matter and for the breadth of good sense in their report. No doubt that urgency is a fair barometer of hon. Members' bulging postbags.

To return to the main principle—the paramountcy of the child's needs—I am deeply concerned about the effect that even the amended legislation will have on stepchildren or children of a subsequent union. In a wide-ranging and informative debate in the other place, Lord Russell urged the Minister to look again—this time favourably—on paragraphs 81 and 82 of the Select Committee report. I echo that call. Time does not permit me to quote from the report, but I believe that it is as vital to secure the needs of the second family as it is to secure those of the children in the first family. The report deals with ways of achieving that.

At school—on reflection, to my utter regret—I was often told by teachers that I could do better. The Government can do better, too, and I want to concentrate on three or four cardinal points that need to be addressed. I understand the rationale behind the statement that the obligation to maintain a child adequately comes before any expense or cost, but it is a signal failure of the Act—and, sadly, of the amendments—that an absent father's travel-to-work costs and his right to have contact with his children are not taken into account. Both are vital components in the exercise and should be fully deductible.

I know of many cases, and I have read of many more, where absent parents take the view that without an allowance for travelling it will not be worth while working. That places a further burden on the state. Travel costs are as essential as those for food and clothing and should be recognised as such.

I make a plea to Ms Hepplewhite, if she is within the confines of the building or wherever else she may be, and her happy band of performance-related employees to target the people who decline to pay and then to move on to more lucrative preserves. Even under the amendment, absent parents on modest incomes will pay an additional element of 50 per cent. That is clearly regressive and it would be far better to reduce the 50 per cent. taper for second families so that low-earning as well as high-earning absent parents gain. The present proposals will cause hardship and is, prima facie, unfair.

I accept that there is an improvement to £30 a week in the protected income level, but it should be increased to £40 to enable lower earners to gain some benefit and to cope. The additional reduction to 15 per cent. is welcome, but there is leeway to reduce it to 10 per cent. Before Treasury Ministers tell me how much it will all cost, I remind them that this exercise was intended not to recoup money for the Treasury but to meet the needs of children.

I welcome the amendment to the formula to reduce the amount payable for care of children, but a 50 per cent. reduction across the board for children aged from 11 to 16 would be reasonable. It would be simpler to apply. It is just tinkering with the problem to say that reductions will go up from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. It would surely be simpler to apply a 50 per cent. reduction.

I sincerely hope and trust that further amendments will be considered because the regulations are widely viewed as a knee-jerk reaction to intense media attention and, of course, to the concerns of constituents, which have been expressed by all hon. Members.

We have seemingly gone part of the way, but we need to go the extra mile to ensure fair play to all concerned. I echo the view of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is experienced in these matters, that the amendments are not the last change that is needed to the Act. Without further amendments, there will be a widespread call in both Houses for changes in primary legislation.

We have an opportunity to stem the tide of widespread injustice. Let us take it for the sake of our constituents and, above all, in the interests of our children.

9.32 pm
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

What has happened tonight has been a tale of two debates. One debate has been on the narrow issue of the Government's regulations, which, I remind the House, were sneaked out three days before Christmas and after the House had risen for the recess. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is muttering from a sedentary position, but the way in which the regulations were introduced showed an extreme nervousness in the Government. As was argued at the time, it was also discourteous to the House and a denial of democratic accountability. In short, it was a transparent attempt by the Minister to seek to massage the media without proper scrutiny or debate. Belatedly, the Secretary of State has now introduced the measures.

The second debate that has surfaced tonight is the one that the House really wants. It is a debate on the effects and function of the Act that the hundreds of people—absent parents and parents with responsibility for care alike—have demanded should take place.

It is worth pointing out that on two separate occasions in the past few weeks the Government have denied time to the Opposition to allow a full and free debate on a motion on the wider aspects and implications of the Act and on the activities of the agency. I see the Minister shaking his head. I hope that he will deal with that matter in his reply.

Clearly the Government recognise that they have an unsustainable case. That is why they have denied the two debates on those two separate occasions. Such debates would expose the Government to even more ridicule and criticism from Conservative Members than there was this evening.

The Minister might be able to run away from a debate on this issue but, as hon. Members have said, he certainly cannot hide from it. "The debate will take place in the near future." We have heard that before, and Government business managers change the business to stop the debate taking place. However, a debate will take place in the future and it will allow proper examination of the many criticisms of the Act and its effects on families throughout the land.

Mr. Burt

The hon. Gentleman is smiling because he knows perfectly well that he and his colleagues have lost the chance of a debate because of their behaviour over the past two or three weeks.

Mr. Ingram

As for the procedural conduct in the House, democracy prevails in a particular way. Opposition Members have not acted unreasonably. There has been a deliberate attempt to stop the debate taking place. It is clear that many Conservative Members want such a debate.

It is worth bearing in mind that the regulations are a reaction by the Government to the substantial and sustained pressure which has been put on them to ease the financial burden imposed on absent parents and on the second families of absent parents. The Government do not intend to introduce any further changes to the Act.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)


Mr. Ingram

The hon. Lady is one of two hon. Members who take that view—[Interruption.]—apart from the Government.

Time and again, the Minister has made it clear that the Government do not intend to introduce any further changes to the Act. In fact, in a written answer, he stated: There are no plans for further change."—[Official Report, 1 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 578] Of course, the Government have said that before: "There are no plans to raise VAT, no plans to increase national insurance contributions, and no plans to increase taxes." Perhaps we should doubt such statements.

Mr. Frank Field

Does my hon. Friend accept that, as most people who will be affected by the legislation have not yet received their forms and as the build-up will be towards the next election, it would be foolish of the Government to abide by that statement?

Mr. Ingram

I agree entirely. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

Such a statement by the Government will come as a great disappointment to the many organisations and charities involved with parents with care and with the care of children. It will also come as a great disappointment —indeed, it will be viewed with great anger—by groups who are springing up all over the country in opposition to the Act. Given the contributions by Conservative Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), it will be greatly resented by hon. Members who face escalating demands for a further fundamental and detailed review of the Act and for changes to be introduced to reflect the many criticisms of the Act.

The Minister cannot ignore those demands. Is he still not prepared to go any further than the regulations? Does he stand by his statement in Hansard? If so, does that mean that he rules out any possible changes to build flexibility into the system? That was the main thrust of hon. Members' arguments. Such an argument was made with great passion by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell).

Does the Minister still say that representations that he has received to take into account clean-break settlements, travel-to-work costs, access costs, the effects on children of second marriages and many other financial consequences are to be ignored? Does he really say that, especially in view of the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the very hon. Member behind whom the Minister has hidden ever since the Select Committee report was published and who clearly set out his own trenchant criticisms of the Act and the way forward in terms of a review?

First, will the Minister confirm that the regulations bring no benefit to parents with care or, more important, to their children? I direct that point especially to the hon. Member for Broxbourne. The Minister will be aware that the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that a case can be made for an income report disregard payable to the parent with care. Is he completely ruling out that possibility?

Secondly, does the Minister accept that, depending on the family circumstances of both the absent parent and the parent with care, it is possible, even with the regulations, for parents with care to find themselves floated off income support because of the level of maintenance? At the same time, they can be denied other passported benefits such as free dental care, free prescriptions and free school meals. Is that fair? If the Minister thinks that it is not, why will he not accept the need for a further review of the legislation?

The next issue relates to the payment of family credit to a mother who is in part-time work and in receipt of maintenance. Family credit is payable on a six-monthly calculated basis, and if the maintenance stops or is reduced for any reason the mother's reduced family credit entitlement will remain unaltered for the remainder of the six months. Ironically, the new regulations could worsen that situation. I hope that the hon. Member for Broxbourne takes note of that.

The new transitional arrangements may help some absent parents but could also cause parents with care to suffer a reduction in income during the phasing in of payments for which family credit would not immediately compensate. As adjustments to family credit payments can already be made at any time under a reduced benefit direction, the Minister could act to introduce more flexibility on behalf of the parent with care. Surely even this Minister and this Government must accept that imposing a drastic fall in living standards for parents with care and their children is simply unacceptable. Is he still determined to rule out a review? Why has he not introduced regulations to deal with that problem?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said, the regulations, both separately and jointly, are welcome, but, as he also said, they do not go far enough. Much has been said about the problems being encountered by absent parents—usually, but not always, the fathers. We accept that the changes will help them to some degree. The new phasing-in arrangements are welcome to the extent that they will help to prevent the ludicrous situation of some absent parents with second families having their maintenance contributions trebled overnight.

It is regrettable that the Government did not follow their thinking through and extend the provisions to single absent parents, to those who are not part of a second family, or to those who may not already be paying maintenance because of a previous clean-break settlement. Those absent parents also need help in making transitional arrangements. Their needs should be taken into account, but they have been ignored in the regulations.

The phrase "clean-break settlement" has been used time and again in the debate. It is not acceptable that the Government should dismiss the issue. They maintain that it is not practicable to build into the process a way of dealing with significant clean-break arrangements of whatever type, but that is simply not true. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden said, the successful Australian child support scheme does just that by giving powers to an independent review officer to vary the formula determined assessment.

The increase in the protected income for absent parents is welcome as a step in the right direction. However, the proposed changes highlight the regressive nature of the formula which places disproportionate burdens on parents with low incomes compared with those on high incomes. Is that what the Government are trying to achieve with the legislation? Do they want to give the rich better benefits than those on low incomes? In a letter dated 28 January 1993 which he sent to The Guardian the Minister said: The new partner of a parent has no liability for the maintenance of the parent's children from a previous relationship. The implementation of the Act has shown this not to be totally accurate. The Minister should have known when he wrote that letter that the earnings of a second partner or any adult in the household of the absent parent are taken into account in determining the second family's ability to pay full maintenance to the first family. Perhaps he will set the record straight.

Only one conclusion can be reached on the debate that is raging outside and has been reflected in the House tonight: the Government have not satisfied their critics by tabling the regulations. As they are an improvement to the Act, we do not intend to vote against them. It is good to get something out of the Government even if it is not much.

In principle most people viewed the Child Support Act as a potentially helpful and necessary piece of legislation, but it is clear that, unless a fundamental far-reaching review of the Act and the agency is undertaken, the legislation will become no more than a poll tax in nappies for the Government.

9.45 pm
Mr. Burt

With the leave of the House, I shall take this opportunity to respond.

First, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. Although right hon. and hon. Members have different views about whether the regulations go far enough, there is a feeling that there will not be a vote at the end of the evening, so I do not intend to be combative in my winding-up remarks. There will be a further debate about the principle of the agency, and that might be dealt with rather differently.

I want to respond to the mood of the House. It has been an interesting debate which leaves a number of questions unanswered. Some of the remarks that were made go to the heart of the issue of child maintenance and some thoughtful speeches were made. Whatever we say here, we are left with the fundamental issue of how to handle child maintenance and who is to pay for the responsibilities of bringing up children.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), in an extremely good speech, did not shy away from the issues. He said straightforwardly that people cannot have it all ways and some difficult questions were raised for those who could be expected to pay more and that it was not always possible to reach a solution in which no one would be hurt and everyone had to pay for their children. He said that the hard facts had to be faced. Not all hon. Members took that approach.

The first issue that was raised—one that could detain us for a long time—was whether to scrap the agency and return to a court system or move to something else.

Although hon. Members are quick to say, "No, we must not do it," that was certainly the tenor of the remarks of the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn). It is clear that there is a dispute among hon. Members now that did not exist some two and a half or three years ago when the issue was thoroughly debated.

The problem that we confronted then was how to deal with a system where there was total discretion but widespread recognition that the system did not work. We had to decide how to deal with that and how to move on. The House at the time strongly held and endorsed the principle—but not the practice tonight—that it was better to move to a system which provided greater consistency. However, there is a price to pay and I fully accept that. That is what we are debating now.

I remind those who want to return to total, partial or increased discretion of some of the issues that were faced by women at that time. I refer to the remarks of Sue Slipman of the National Council for One Parent Families on a radio programme when she described her experience of the former arrangements. She said: Before April last year, only 30 per cent. of lone parents got any maintenance for their children whatsoever in this country. Most of it was at derisory levels and I'll tell you what happened when you went to court to get someone to pay maintenance. Maybe he would turn up to the hearing, but maybe he wouldn't, and if he didn't, it would be postponed for six months. You would then get a whole range of debts that would be presented and a whole range of other excuses for why maintenance could not be paid. You might then at the end of that get an order, and it might be paid for two or three weeks, no-one enforced it and no one was ever interested. And as a result of that, the experience of over 1.7 million children in Britain was abandonment by one parent and a life in poverty with the other. Hon. Members are quick to say that they do not want to go back to that; but if we do not want a system that provides certainty and consistency, which is what the House wanted two or three years ago, and we want to increase the element of discretion, we run the risk that that situation would increasingly occur. That is a genuine issue, but the House must decide—

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Burt

No, I have only 10 minutes and I must deal with the matter in my own way.

If we do not want to return to that situation, we will not move away from some formulaic system to deal with the problem and we would be dishonest with the country if we pretended that that could be avoided. That is a fundamental and crucial issue which some have raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) spoke of the problems faced under the previous system and she mentioned some of the successes of the Child Support Agency. Hon. Members sat in silence and listened to the distressing case histories, which they all come across in their surgeries, as I do in mine, but when my hon. Friend spoke of the sort of problems that people once had and then put forward points made by people in favour of the Child Support Agency, there was much less concern. Hon. Members talked through that and tried to dismiss it. That will not do. It is not an either/or situation.

There are problems in dealing with child maintenance, whether one is the absent parent or the parent with care. No system is perfect. If the House is trying to be honest, we are trying to find a way through to a better system. The regulations are moving us in that direction.

Mrs. Gorman

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Burt

I can allow only one intervention from each side.

Mrs. Gorman

My hon. Friend will be aware that many criticisms have been levelled at the agency. I have sent 12 cases through and I have received comprehensive explanations on each. I have also corresponded with Mrs. Hepplewhite and she has been most courteous and informative.

Mr. Burt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Many of my hon. Friends raised problems in dealing with the agency. It will be no surprise when I say that the agency has been under extreme pressure. It is working hard. I apologise to all hon. Members who have had to wait too long for responses. We are doing all that we can to try to speed that up. However, my hon. Friend makes it clear that that is not everyone's experience in dealing with the agency, whether hon. Members or not.

Mr. Bennett

The Minister has made a powerful case, referring to mothers who received no help in the past through the courts. The trouble is that the Child Support Agency has so far done little to help my constituents; rather it has penalised those who have conscientiously made payments. When will the Government direct their attention towards the people who do not pay as opposed to those who do?

Mr. Burt

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that at the moment about half the cases taken on by the Child Support Agency concern those where no maintenance at all has been paid. By the end of the agency's first year of operation, some two thirds of its cases will involve those who have never paid any maintenance. It is false to say that no search is made for those people.

The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) raised the problem of good cause and similar matters. Hon. Members will remember that, when the agency was set up, that subject was of great concern and the Government worked hard to deal with it. I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that some 36,000 cases, about 5 per cent. of all applications issued, have involved the consideration of good cause. Good cause put forward by the parent with care has been accepted in some 20,500 cases—about 57 per cent.—and some have still to be decided.

To date, only 160 cases have been referred to the Benefits Agency for a reduced benefit direction. If one considers that the agency has some 500,000 cases on its books, that puts the issue into some sort of perspective. We did care about that, we did think about it and we have responded as well as we can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) made some fair points in favour of the agency, but he also raised issues about which he is concerned, of which I take note. I repeat my apologies in relation to the correspondence. We are working hard to clear it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) raised a number of issues. In relation to the disclosure of information, I am sure that it is clear to all hon. Members that, in dealing with the financial aspects of a case, just as in the past affidavits used to be swopped in ancillary proceedings to ensure that both sides knew the financial circumstances, that has to happen here. That is why information about income, and the like, is revealed to both parties. There can be no way through that. The provisions of the Data Protection Acts apply to the CSA as well. However, we are taking steps to reduce the information requested from second partners in cases where protected income will not be at issue, because that is where it has most impact. I am sure that the House will welcome that.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke of the problems raised for members of the police force. When such cases arose, we discussed that aspect with the Home Office. It advised that policemen would not be dismissed solely on account of increased maintenance liabilities under the Child Support Act 1991. A policeman who is negligent in managing his financial affairs can be subject to disciplinary procedures. In extreme cases, that can lead ultimately to dismissal. However, cases in which maintenance increases are causing difficulty will be dealt with sympathetically, and appropriate advice and counselling will be provided.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) asked whether the changes announced tonight would apply to those who had previously had maintenance assessments. He cited the case of a constituent with a second family, whose assessment was made some time ago. The answer to that question is yes. The changes will apply to those who have had assessments made previously. I hope that also assists the House.

I enjoyed the comments of the hon. Member for Garscadden because they were sensible and dealt fairly with some of the issues. He did not try to hide from the fact that somebody, somewhere, must pay for children after their parents have separated. I thought that it was accepted by the House in the past that where such a situation occurs, that responsibility must rest primarily with the parents involved and not with the rest of society. That happened previously, and the previous system supported it. If we are to move away from that principle, that will be a major departure for the House.

The hon. Member for Garscadden again raised the issue of appeals. I understand his point in relation to a pressure valve, but I will repeat my earlier argument as to why the Australian system should not too easily be viewed as a counterpart—although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not want it introduced root and branch.

The Australian system works on gross income and does not take account of housing costs, a personal allowance, tax, national insurance and other costs. It simply applies a crude percentage. The crudeness of the system gives it an appeal base, but appeals are restricted. They are not open to all—there are strict gateways. The sense of the House was clear, in feeling a degree of unease about the legislation—I understand that. However, there is a danger of suggesting that an appeal mechanism is an abracadabra —that it would be available to all and that all the people who are currently worried would have their problems solved.

The hon. Member for Garscadden was fair and straightforward enough to say that would not be the case. But who among us would go to any of the constituents who have come to us over the past few months and say, "There will be an appeals system, but it will not apply to you"? We cannot tell all constituents that there will be an appeal system for all. That would merely return us to the discretionary system which previously existed. II is an issue to be looked at, but I warn the House that there can be a danger of seeing it as an answer to everything.

Mr. Dewar

The hon. Gentleman used the phrase, "It is an issue to be looked at." Does he mean that? If so, that is quite an important concession.

Mr. Burt

I will come to the future in a second, if I may. Continuing our warm and good relationship, I will deal with that matter in just a moment.

The House cannot hide from a point that I have made repeatedly: if there is to be separation, who is to bear the costs? In the past, society as a whole bore too many of the costs. I appreciate the point that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made and I am sorry not to have referred in more detail to his remarks. Yes, X used comments made by the Select Committee, but rightfully so because they backed up a case. I know that there were matters on which we could not agree. The point that he has made in his report was that the taxpayer has paid for too long. Somehow, we must try to get over that hurdle. If the taxpayer pays less, responsible parents pay more.

Mr. Frank Field

Apart from one person in Gillingham, who has gained a concession tonight, the Minister has not announced any new changes. Is that because the Treasury will not allow him to do so, or is that his position?

Mr. Burt

Forgive me, but if it had been a matter for the Treasury, none of the changes would have come forward, because they all cost. The Government have responded to need and the cost is less important. As to the future—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MADAM SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to order [28 January].

The House divided: Ayes 264, Noes 46.

Division No. 102] [10 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Bright, Graham
Aitken, Jonathan Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Alexander, Richard Browning, Mrs. Angela
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Burns, Simon
Amess, David Burt, Alistair
Arbuthnot, James Butler, Peter
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Butterfill, John
Ashby, David Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Aspinwall, Jack Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Atkins, Robert Carrington, Matthew
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Carttiss, Michael
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Cash, William
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Clappison, James
Baldry, Tony Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Bates, Michael Colvin, Michael
Batiste, Spencer Congdon, David
Beggs, Roy Conway, Derek
Bellingham, Henry Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Bendall, Vivian Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Booth, Hartley Cormack, Patrick
Boswell, Tim Couchman, James
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Cran, James
Bowden, Andrew Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Bowis, John Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Davis, David (Boothferry)
Brandreth, Gyles Day, Stephen
Brazier, Julian Deva, Nirj Joseph
Devlin, Tim Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Dorrell, Stephen Legg, Barry
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Leigh, Edward
Dover, Den Lennox-Boyd, Mark
Duncan, Alan Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Duncan-Smith, Iain Lidington, David
Dunn, Bob Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Durant, Sir Anthony Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)
Eggar, Tim Luff, Peter
Elletson, Harold MacKay, Andrew
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Maclean, David
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) McLoughlin, Patrick
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Maitland, Lady Olga
Faber, David Malone, Gerald
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Mans, Keith
Fenner, Dame Peggy Marland, Paul
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Marlow, Tony
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Fishburn, Dudley Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Forman, Nigel Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Mates, Michael
Forth, Eric Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Mellor, Rt Hon David
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Merchant, Piers
French, Douglas Milligan, Stephen
Fry, Sir Peter Mills, Iain
Gale, Roger Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Gallie, Phil Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Gardiner, Sir George Moate, Sir Roger
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Monro, Sir Hector
Gill, Christopher Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Gillan, Cheryl Moss, Malcolm
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Needham, Richard
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Nelson, Anthony
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW) Neubert, Sir Michael
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Nicholls, Patrick
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hague, William Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Norris, Steve
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Hargreaves, Andrew Oppenheim, Phillip
Harris, David Ottaway, Richard
Haselhurst, Alan Page, Richard
Hawkins, Nick Paice, James
Hawksley, Warren Patnick, Irvine
Hayes, Jerry Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Heald, Oliver Pawsey, James
Heathcoat-Amory, David Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hendry, Charles Pickles, Eric
Hicks, Robert Porter, David (Waveney)
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Powell, William (Corby)
Horam, John Rathbone, Tim
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Redwood, Rt Hon John
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Ronton, Rt Hon Tim
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Richards, Rod
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Riddick, Graham
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W) Robathan, Andrew
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Hunter, Andrew Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Jack, Michael Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Jenkin, Bernard Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Sackville, Tom
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr) Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Shaw, David (Dover)
Key, Robert Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Kirkhope, Timothy Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Knapman, Roger Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Shersby, Michael
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Sims, Roger
Knox, Sir David Skeet, Sir Trevor
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Soames, Nicholas
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Spencer, Sir Derek
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Viggers, Peter
Spink, Dr Robert Walden, George
Spring, Richard Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Sproat, Iain Waller, Gary
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Ward, John
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Steen, Anthony Waterson, Nigel
Stephen, Michael Watts, John
Stewart, Allan Wells, Bowen
Streeter, Gary Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Sweeney, Walter Whitney, Ray
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Whittingdale, John
Taylor, John M. (Solihull) Widdecombe, Ann
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E) Wilkinson, John
Thomason, Roy Willetts, David
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V) Wilshire, David
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N) Wolfson, Mark
Thurnham, Peter Wood, Timothy
Townend, John (Bridlington) Yeo, Tim
Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tredinnick, David
Trend, Michael Tellers for the Ayes:
Trotter, Neville Mr. David Lightbown and Mr. Sydney Chapman.
Twinn, Dr Ian
Ainger, Nick Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Alton, David Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kilfedder, Sir James
Bennett, Andrew F. Kirkwood, Archy
Benton, Joe Maddock, Mrs Diana
Caborn, Richard Mahon, Alice
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Pickthall, Colin
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Rendel, David
Clapham, Michael Rooney, Terry
Cohen, Harry Simpson, Alan
Cox, Tom Skinner, Dennis
Cryer, Bob Steinberg, Gerry
Cummings, John Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Turner, Dennis
Etherington, Bill Tyler, Paul
Flynn, Paul Wallace, James
Graham, Thomas Wareing, Robert N
Harvey, Nick Wigley, Dafydd
Home Robertson, John
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Tellers for the Noes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Mr. Terry Lewis and Mr. Eddie Loyden.
Illsley, Eric

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 13th January, be approved.