HC Deb 10 February 1994 vol 237 cc483-556
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister. As Members would expect, I have had to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches between the hours of 7 and 9. I seek co-operation outside those hours as there is a great deal of interest in the subject.

5.39 pm
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I beg to move, That this House believes a parent has a duty to contribute to the maintenance of his or her child, and that duty must lie at the heart of any system of child support; recognises the widespread anger and dismay felt by thousands of families whose lives have been affected by the introduction of the Child Support Agency and calls for a further urgent review of its operation; welcomes the changes announced by the Government and now approved by the House; but believes these do not amount to the fundamental review that is required and fail to tackle key areas of concern such as the lack of an independent review procedure to deal with special circumstances to be defined in statute, which must be addressed if perceived injustice is to be eliminated and public confidence restored. The House will be aware that about a week ago we discussed the Child Support Agency in the context of the new Government regulations. Some people may have been surprised that we have decided to return to it so quickly. By any standard, the decision is justified by the anger, dismay and sometimes the fear which have resulted from the change in the system of child support. People all over the country are worried about how they are to manage the unexpected consequences of the system. Arguably, they should have anticipated those consequences, but in many cases they did not and they have been left facing major problems.

Few hon. Members have not been startled by the strength of feeling which they have encountered in their constituencies and have not been left with the uncomfortable impression that the complaint which has been put to them so forcefully has some justification, yet redress is impossible.

It is important to stress that there are many more problems to come. It is difficult to get up-to-date figures in an organisation of such a size, but figures for 31 December 1993 show that 710,000 maintenance applications forms had been issued, of which only 210,000 cases had been cleared. In other words, there are at present about 500,000 cases in the pipeline on which final assessments are to be made. I fear that there is room for a great deal of heartbreak and anger in the figures.

Last week, we discussed the regulations—the Government's changes. It is not unfair to say that the view that was taken overwhelmingly on both sides was that the provisions did not go far enough and that more was required. I do not deride what was on offer. I made that clear on that occasion and I am pleased to say so again. I especially do not deride the increase in protected income. I recognise that the whole package, when fully implemented in 1996–97, will mean that about £95 million less will be ingathered by the Child Support Agency than would otherwise have been the case.

I have learnt from a parliamentary answer that I received only a few minutes ago that, from the Government's point of view, about £50 million will be offset because of the reduction in the tax allowance to 15p on maintenance payments from 1995–96. However, all that will be little consolation for those who are paying maintenance because they will feel that they are in double jeopardy. They are paying their increased requisitions to the agency and they will get less tax relief to set against that. That will do nothing to improve the atmosphere.

Ministers must face the fact that, the other week, speaker after speaker rose to say that there was a need for further action. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), apologetically defiant, but totally isolated—that is often his role these days—did his best, but he did not satisfy anyone. There is an urgent need to persuade Ministers to believe that they cannot close the file and tough it out.

I make it clear that I am certainly with the majority on this issue. Today, we should concentrate on positive proposals, some of which I listed last week when I did not have the time or the opportunity to argue in any detail. I make one general point which may command a good deal of agreement although it is, in a sense, a little academic now. Looking back—I accept that hindsight is a fine thing—it is unfortunate that we made the system retrospective.

I have talked to a number of people with experience of Australia. Australia will certainly crop up in my speech and I suspect that it will crop up in the deliberations of the House. In Australia, as many hon. Members will know, the Child Support Agency system applied to couples who separated on or after the introductory date of 1 October 1989 and to partnerships in which the youngest child was born on or after that date. It meant that there was a far longer transitional period as settlements made under court orders faded away. It also meant that there was not the pain and difficulty associated with our system in which long-standing arrangements and court settlements were torn up and in which settled arrangements were disrupted.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East

The hon. Gentleman is saying with the benefit of hindsight that the system should not be retrospective. Does that explain why his party is making a U-turn on the issue? Labour Members were in favour of the CSA in principle; when they found that there were difficulties, they wanted to run away. All they want to do is to throw the burden back on the taxpayer.

Mr. Dewar

I hope that I am not making a partisan speech. I am interested in the problem and I do not think that the intervention by the hon. Gentleman is helpful or typical of someone who takes these matters seriously. I make it clear that our support is for the general principle, which commands everyone's support, that a parent has a duty to contribute to the maintenance of his or her child. As the hon. Gentleman knows, if he was present at or has read the debates, there was a reasoned amendment dealing with the practicalities, on which we divided, which with remarkable perception identified and pointed to many of the difficulties that now haunt the system.

It is a little remiss of hon. Members—I am sure that the Minister will not do this—to say that because we approve of the principle that lies behind the Child Support Act 1991 and will have no compromise on it, we are therefore bound to everything that has happened and to every detail of the way in which the CSA operates. That is not the case. We should now concentrate on looking for solutions and at ways in which we can rebuild public confidence in the system, which has been greatly shaken.

There is nothing dishonourable in adjustment and change. The present system is not graven in tablets of stone. There were doubts in high places—I hope that this point is not thought to be partisan—from the very beginning. I draw the attention of the House to page 630 of "The Downing Stree Years" in which Lady Thatcher talks about her feelings. She writes: I was also appalled by the way in which men fathered a child and then absconded, leaving the single mother—and the taxpayer—to foot the bill for their irresponsibility …So—against considerable opposition from Tony Newton, the Social Security Secretary, and from the Lord Chancellor's Department—I insisted that a new Child Support Agency be set up". I do not say that to make a cheap point, but to illustrate the fact that there have been doubts on both sides of the House about what was happening and about how the new policy was implemented. Unusually, I advance Lady Thatcher as evidence of that—[Interruption.] It may not be the only time that the Leader of the House has been right and Lady Thatcher has been wrong. That is a more general political point.

I have been urging for some time the possibility of a review procedure. Hon. Members who attended our previous debate will remember that I briefly described it. An independent review officer would have the power to consider exceptional circumstances, to test the representations made to him against criteria defined in statute and, when the test was passed, to order a departure from the standard formula. I suggest that because of the fundamental concern, shared by both sides of the House, there is a great lack of flexibility in the system.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, which shows a certain charity.

The lack of flexibility has led to perceived injustice and on occasions, to real injustice, which has been embittering. The introduction of a review officer, a proposal that unashamedly leans heavily on the Australian experience, is well worth considering. I am convinced that there is a strong case to answer.

Mr. Shaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, thus allowing us to continue the debate we have had on previous occasions. If he feels that there should be an independent review procedure for child support cases, does he feel that the Inland Revenue tax system should have a similar independent review procedure in which independent officers could assess cases in which taxpayers felt that they were paying tax unfairly and wrongly? How would such a procedure be administered?

Mr. Dewar

I understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman; he is arguing by analogy. I have not considered that proposition. I have considered the difficulties that we face with the CSA and especially the breakdown of confidence in the system. I recognise that no one likes paying tax and that the Inland Revenue is unpopular when one gets a tax demand. Fortunately, I do not detect as yet the growing crisis of confidence that exists in the CSA system. That is why I want to speak briefly about the system in Australia and its relevance to this country.

As hon. Members may know, the Child Support Agency system was introduced in Australia in October 1989. It progressed until 1 July 1992 without the review officer system. It was then decided that a review officer system was an advantage. The Australians made the change because they were running into problems not dissimilar to, although not on the same scale as, the problems that we face now. They built on their experience and they moved into the review officer system because they felt that it would defuse the situation and would help people who had a perception of injustice. The system changed successfully to accommodate those aims.

I have inquired into the Australian system and I have been told that the review officer system is seen as speedy and effective. There is no legal representation, although the parties can meet the review officer and make their representations. The system is used sensibly and has not led to some of the practical difficulties that we have been invited to contemplate when such a system is suggested. I am not saying that we should adopt the Australian system with every dot and comma; it is not a lift and take argument. We may want to alter and argue the grounds, for example, on which a referral may be made to the review officer, and the test that he applies. It is important that we take this seriously.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

The hon. Gentleman is making an important proposal, and we accept that he is making it in all sincerity. The crucial point about the Australian system is that the appeals have tended to raise the amount that is contributed by the absent parent, rather than reduce it. It is incumbent on the hon. Gentleman to explain to people outside the House exactly who and what proportion of absent parents will be entitled to appeal, and on what grounds. If we are talking about confidence in the system, it is the constant demands for review which will undermine that confidence more quickly than anything else.

Mr. Dewar

Certainly I am conscious, and cautious, of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. I tried to address them briefly in my previous speech on this subject, and I shall turn to them genuinely in a moment. I take what he says seriously.

All I shall say on the general point is that review within the present system is based largely on change of circumstance and error in calculation. There is no independent scrutiny; at the end of the day, people who are discontented find that they are imprisoned within the iron walls of the present system. That builds frustration, which is dangerous.

The Government have clearly and fairly stated their objections. The first is—the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury, North, has said this on many occasions—that the Australian system is different, and there is no parallel, it is a broad-brush approach and it is much cruder than the sophisticated and, by implication, comprehensive and effective assessment formula that we use. I do not accept that. The similarities are much more important than the differences.

The Australians were grappling—and I will not go into detail—with social problems, the growth in expenditure on single parents, an increase in the number of single parents and the same sort of social phenomena with which we are familiar in this country. They have developed a somewhat different method of calculating the maintenance assessment. I take the point that there is no equivalent to the protected income. I agree that the formula of gross taxable income less exempt income to produce the adjusted amount is different. The Australians produced a system that relies on a set percentage of that sum as the final arbiter of the money to be paid. It is simpler but it seems to be similar.

I have been told by people who are wiser in the ways of the system than I am, and who have spent a good deal of time on this, that if we apply the Australian formula and the United Kingdom formula to families with exactly the same circumstances, we end up with comparable results. I do not accept, therefore, that we have no parallels and no common identity of interest or that the experience in Australia cannot at least be seen as relevant to our experience.

The second argument that was advanced can be put most crisply by quoting Viscount Astor speaking in another place yesterday: The plain truth is that there are two options: discretion or a formula. These options are mutually exclusive; you may have one or you may have the other, but there is no middle road."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 February 1994, Vol. 551, c. 1682.] I do not accept that. It seems that the noble Lord, or the person advising him, has an over-tidy mind. There is a touch of absolutism about tht view which is not justified.

I shall turn from the theoretical position to the practical. This is where we come to the point made by the Under-Secretary of State and to what happened in Australia. The practical results of what happened in Australia are the best advertisement for the case that I am advancing. There are many people in the world of law who certainly would not agree with Viscount Astor. Perhaps I shall quote only one of them. Recently, Mr. Michael Clancy, the deputy secretary in charge of law reform at the Law Society of Scotland, wrote to me in these terms. I quote: I should mention that the Society considers that the Australian model of the Child Support Agency represents a more acceptable structure. It is unfortunate that the United Kingdom version did not adopt more of the flexible aspects of the Australian system. I could quote that sort of opinion from sources who would be seen as having relevant expreience and expertise over a wide range.

I turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). I accept entirely that there is a danger that if we talk about a review procedure, people will see it as an open door—a court of second recourse rehearing the case from the beginning—and that that could lead to real problems. I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I will not represent it in that way, certainly not in any sophisticated argument or serious debate about this matter.

It is right that we should have some form of independent review that can look at situations where there are genuine facts that are relevant to the care of the children and the situation of the absent parent, which cannot be taken into account at present. I have a notice of determination by the review officer in Perth, Western Australia. He has before him all the grounds of application which are defined in statute. I quote: I have a duty to maintain another child or person has special needs. I have necessary commitments in supporting myself…High costs of access to the child. Special needs of the child", and so on. How they are interpreted is a matter of argument.

One issue which has worried Tory Members from the south-east is commuting costs. Previously, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) talked about being devastated by the impact of the Child Support Agency on his constituency, although he was a strong supporter of the system when the legislation reached the statute book. I will not say hard and fast—it will be a matter for further discussion—that commuting costs can be covered by those grounds.

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

For the purposes of clarification, the Australian system does not take into account travel costs. We have confirmed that with the Australians.

Mr. Dewar

That is fair enough. Undoubtedly, it will be a matter for argument. Some people may think that it will have to be argued under the heading: I have necessary commitments in supporting myself. The point is that there could be discussion about exactly how the grounds are interpreted. I am arguing the structural case—the need effectively to tackle the justice deficit that is perceived in the system.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)


Mr. Dewar

I want to finish this passage.

I have tried to make inquiries into the use of this system in Australia. I am grateful to Nicholas Mostyn—he is well known for his work in this field—for the facts and figures that I shall give the House. In steady state terms, there are about 120,000 assessments annually in Australia; 12,900—about 11 per cent.—of them have got into the review system. Of that, 6 per cent. have been successful. It may be of interest to the hon. Member for Colchester, North that in 4 per cent. of the cases, the absent parent—normally the father-got a reduction in assessment. In 2 per cent. of the cases—this is significant—mothers managed to get increased assessments. Therefore, the system has not been overused, and it has not been abused since it settled down. It has been used by both parties—both sides of the equation.

Having talked to people who are familiar with the system, I have to say that it is seen as effective, speedy, sensible and a necessary safety valve. I have talked not just to academics and lawyers here; I have had the advantage of discussing the issue with one or two Australian lawyers who specialise in family law, who are in the United Kingdom for a number of reasons and have the practical experience that I value. All of them have repeated that message and underlined it. I hope that the House will not slough off the arguments in this area. If we do so, we will do a great disservice to the agency and what it is supposed to stand for—and, indeed, what it potentially still stands for.

The final argument—I shall deal with it quickly—used by the Under-Secretary is a reprise of what I mentioned before: the system is unfair because it raises false hope. That cannot be right. Even if only a few people are suffering real injustice—I suspect that there will be a significant minority—we cannot erect a system that defies them and stops them from getting justice because it may lead to disappointment for others who do not have a good case. That is a dangerous—one might say pragmatic—argument and one that I hope will not find favour with the House.

Mr. Heald

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what he is describing—the right of appeal in only exceptional cases—will not do anything for the people who are complaining? Those include people who would like existing debts and the fact that the divorce happened many years ago taken into account. The hon. Gentleman is offering a narrow right to a small number of people. Is not that a bit of a con on the public, who may think that the Labour party is battling today for most of the fathers, when he is just talking about a handful?

Mr. Dewar

I think that the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer.

Mr. Heald

A what?

Mr. Dewar

A lawyer. [Interruption.] I did not catch what the hon. Gentleman thought I said, if I may put it in that rather Irish way. I tremble to think what was in his mind, and I hope that it was not the result of a guilty conscience.

In any event, I understand that the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. I quoted the figures from the rather controlled Australian situation, where 11 per cent. of cases went to a review officer and 6 per cent. succeeded. If one makes that 6 per cent. of the much larger figures in Britain, there is a significant constituency for the appeal procedure. Many of those involved would be the worst cases.

The hon. Gentleman may want to argue the opposite of what I suspect Ministers will argue, and say that the scheme ought to have wider scope. I am grateful for his intervention, because it shows that there is an area of debate as to how narrow the gate should be. The Minister and the hon. Gentleman may disagree about that if we get to that stage. The important thing, however, is to accept that there is a need for that safety valve. That is what I want to argue tonight.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

I must move on. It would not be fair to the many people who wish to speak.

Mr. Lilley


Mr. Dewar

There are two other points on which I want to speak, but I will of course give way to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman must not leave the House in confusion. Is he proposing a narrowly prescribed system which would help few people? Does he want to open the system up for wider use by discretion, which would inevitably take us back to the system which failed before and transferred all of the burden on to the taxpayer?

Mr. Dewar

I do not want to leave the Secretary of State in confusion, and I am sorry if I have. The balance reached in Australia looks not unreasonable to me. I have made it clear that I would be open to argument from other hon. Members if we get to that stage of discussion.

The Under-Secretary said in a broadcast this morning that my motion was defective because it did not specify exactly what the grounds of appeal for the review procedure would be. I am not trying to argue that case arrogantly at the moment. As I have explained, I am trying to put a point of principle to the House, and I hope it is one to which people will respond.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Will my hon. Friend put this point to the Minister? A constituent of mine who has never been in debt in his life and has always paid what the court told him to pay is now lumbered with more than £700 in debt. The agency has doubled the amount to £38 a week. The young man asked me how he was to get the money—should he rob a bank or disappear off the face of the earth? Is not that the situation into which the Government are putting people?

Mr. Dewar

Many people feel that they are in a cul de sac. I hope that my hon. Friend advised his constituent against both courses of action. I sympathise with the serious point that my hon. Friend makes.

I now turn to clean break settlements and to the situation in which a property or financial settlement has been made but cannot be taken into account. There is a great deal of anger over that, and a feeling of betrayal. The feeling very often is that good intentions are being ill-rewarded now that the system has been introduced. People have acted for the best, and have sometimes acted generously in difficult circumstances, and they are now being hit hard as a result.

There has been recent litigation with the Crozier case. I understand from those with whom I have talked that that was perhaps not the strongest case to take as a test to court. Be that as it may, I suspect that there may be more litigation before too long, with people suggesting that a reference to the CSA is a unilateral abrogation by one party of a contract between two parties. In any event, the Crozier case has decided the issue for now.

I again look to the Australian experience. There can be an agreement between the parties, and if there is a financial or property settlement which both parties agree will affect the maintenance award, they can specify how it is expected to affect that award. If it is lodged with the CSA for collection, that will be honoured. More important, if the parent with care ends up on benefit in the future and the CSA is making an assessment, it is possible to vary the assessment according to the recognition of the property transfer up to a maximum of 25 per cent.

There is always room for argument, but there is virtue in that and it is at least something which we ought to consider. I was interested—I know that the Secretary of State will remember this—to re-read the White Paper "Children Come First" which was published on 29 October 1990. Paragraph 4.12 states: There remains the issue of whether there should be some reduction in the formula award of child maintenance to reflect the fact that the absent parent has foregone permanently some or all of his share in the family home. If such reduction in the formula amount were to be permitted, the value of the reduction would he calculated by using standard accounting techniques for converting a lump sum into an equivalent weekly amount over a number of years. I draw attention to the fact that there is no suggestion in the White Paper that that was impractical or that there was some barrier which made it impossible. Clearly, it was an option in contemplation and the machinery, if it was to be implemented, was being outlined and defined.

The then Secretary of State for Social Security and the Lord Chancellor jointly produced that White Paper. Two months later, for reasons to which I am not party, that was not incorporated when the Bill was published. I believe now that it would have been sensible so to do. I have been told that it is not necessary to do that. I find those arguments perhaps the most implausible in this whole range of exchanges.

The Minister says that if a parent has transferred a house or has settled a large financial sum on the parent with care, he is probably creating a situation in which he must buy another house. That is reflected in his housing costs, and therefore everything is all right and he has come out at least with justice and honour satisfied. I do not believe that is true in a financial or a property settlement. I need hardly say that an awful lot of people agree with that point of view.

I do not often get annoyed with the Government's documents, or at least not in the way in which I did on this occasion. [Interruption.] There are exceptions when the personal authorship of a document sometimes riles me. On this occasion, I was rather miffed by paragraph 7.31 of the discussion paper on divorce law reform which we have before us. The document says that the CSA formula takes account of each parent's income and essential outgoings at the time of assessment and, because it deals with the financial consequences of any property transfer, takes account of the practical outcome of 'clean break' settlements. I do not think that that can be justified or held to be true when we look at the practical reality.

I cannot resist saying that I recommend that any hon. Member with an interest in the curious should read the Lord Chancellor's introduction. It must be the first time a Lord Chancellor has justified law reform by referring to what Jesus said to the Pharisees about Moses, as recorded by St. Mark. I cannot help thinking that the good Lord Mackay of Clashfern is remembering his roots.

Be that as it may, the quotation which I have given does not stand analysis. Therefore, it is wrong to say that it is not necessary to consider clean break settlements. There are thousands of cases which testify to that up and down the country.

My other argument—I will try to hurry this—is that the Minister commented on the Select Committee, and what it says in paragraph 74 of its report. The Committee has become the buckler and shield for the Minister in all the arguments and debates, and it is summoned twice to the aid of the party in the amendment to the motion. That is unfair, because it has been made clear that the Committee was making an interim report about the financial workings of the formula, and that it would return later to the matter in more depth. If we are praying in aid Select Committees, the Minister will certainly remember that, when the Bill was first published, the Select Committee on Social Security published two reports. Both argued that there must be a mechanism properly to reflect clean break settlements.

The Minister spouted paragraph 74 of the current report. Even it says: We can see no sensible way of attempting to place a current value on settlements made in the past in order to give some notional figure for current income which could be taken into account in the formula. That may be so, but it does not rule out some formula or arrangement of the type that I have mentioned, even at its most modest, to deal with settlements in the future.

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

The hon. Gentleman missed the little bit before, which states: Having examined the issue, we have to agree with the Minister.

Mr. Dewar

No. I am sorry. I did not mean to be unfair. In his eagerness to find a lone supporter somewhere—a prop on which to lean—the Minister is building too much on the words that I am quoting. The report said: Having examined the issue, we have to agree with the Minister. The issue in question is the paragraph that I quoted beginning, "We can see no sensible way". The Select Committee was referring to the difficulty of dealing with the past. On any reasonable interpretation of the text, it did not necessarily rule out the future.

I leave the matter to the Minister. It is of great concern and one to which we should turn our minds, as I am sure the Select Committee will—collectively, I hope, not individually—at some future date.

Mr. Thurnham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I point out that the report from the Committee is not an interim report? It is a first report and the duty of the Committee is to report "from time to time".

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

That is a matter for argument, not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Dewar

I do not want to get into a barrack-room lawyers' argument with the hon. Gentleman. I fear that he would win that. If he wants some guidance on the matter, he should perhaps read the interesting speech made by the Chairman of the Committee in the Chamber last week. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not obstruct a wish to have another look at the matter.

I recognise the difficulties with a disregard. However, I believe that a disregard of some benefit for the purposes of maintenance should be considered and should be on the agenda. I said it last week and I shall repeat it. There is one overwhelming reason for it. Ministers proudly introduced the system as being about getting more money from more parents for more children. In fact and in practice, it is not. One of the difficulties is the notorious estimate that, of the first £530 million that was expected to be gathered—we understand that the expected figure is lower now, because of the changes that are being introduced, if nothing else -£480 million would go to the Treasury and only £50 million would go to families and children.

Dr. Spink

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

As the hon. Gentleman gave a speech that was so much on my side during last week's debate, I will give way.

Dr. Spink

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the cost of a £10 a week disregard would be £340 million? The hon. Gentleman is a genuine man. Will he tell us two things? First, which taxes would he raise to meet that £340 million? Secondly, is he happy with the impact that the disregard would have in breaking up families?

Mr. Dewar

I shall come to that in a moment. I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would repeat his points about the difficulties in his constituency and the unfairness of the system, but I suppose we have to live with these disappointments.

The children who are most economically deprived—those in families living on benefit—are the least likely to gain any advantage from the operation of the Child Support Agency. I do not believe that that was the intention of the system. I recognise that it is a matter of balance and that the Government and the taxpayers have a legitimate interest in reducing bills. However, the balance is wrong and many people will see it as wrong.

The arguments are simple. One is that a disregard is unfair because it is something of a lottery whether the absent partner of Mrs. A is traced and pays. Mrs. B's partner may not be traced or, if traced, may not pay. So it is argued that it is unfair that one should be advantaged over the other. It seems an odd caricature of the position to argue for misery all round in order to preserve equality. If money is being paid, there is a strong moral case for saying that at least some advantage—however much goes to the Treasury and the taxpayer—should go to the children who are most economically at risk.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

I am sorry. I have given way to the hon. Lady on many occasions. I want to be fair and hurry on.

I do not accept the disincentive for work argument. I recognise that it is a factor, but although a small disregard might be important cumulatively over a year, it would be a poor job if people were stopped from taking up work by a £5 or £10 disregard.

The real argument is about cost. I do not believe that anyone has any doubt about the morality of helping the poorest families and children. I do not see the issue as a matter of tax, and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) did. The Government make a decision about how the money gathered is split. They do not increase the total amount of money by refusing to allow a disregard. It is a matter of to what extent the Treasury is prepared to forgo some of the revenue collected to help children.

Surely no one in the House will say that, in a system that is about the care of children and is supposed to be child centred and child based, there is not a case for considering a disregard and putting it on the agenda, especially in view of the figures that are emerging. The figure to which the hon. Member for Castle Point referred came from a parliamentary answer to a question that I tabled. I do not believe in dealing in generalities if I can get the information.

The decision about a disregard depends on some difficult calculations and on the size of the disregard. The cost of a £5 disregard, which might still be of some importance, is £160 million or £170 million, according to the latest estimate. There are many variables. I am simply putting the issue on the table. The argument about a disregard is important and we should not sweep it aside in the way that Ministers could be tempted to do.

In its recently published ninth report, the Social Security Advisory Committee said that it had examined the possibility of a disregard several times and believed that there was a case for a disregard. I have received representations from a range of opinion in favour of a disregard. At the end of the day, it boils down to bow we see the system, where the priorities lie and how we want to arrange these affairs. There is a strong case for putting children rather higher up the list of priorities than has been possible until now.

I regret what happened to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury, North when he was closing the previous debate. Hon. Members who were present will remember that he was cut short dramatically. He had just come to the pregnant phrase, "And now for the future", when the lights went out—metaphorically, you understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not literally. We did not learn about the future on that occasion and we were left to wait and wonder. We cannot afford to wait and wonder much longer. The issue will not go away. There is a justice deficit, and it has to be tackled.

I have listened to what the Government have been saying. I have heard a selection of reassuring utterances, some of which offered a prospect of change. I draw one to the attention of the House because it is the most optimistic that I have heard, although it has not held the line. The Yorkshire Post of 27 January 1994 had a front-page story containing an interview with the Prime Minister, in which he said: Where the operation of it"— the Child Support Agency— was inadequate—as people believed it to be—we have sought to make changes. I hope we have got it right now. I can only repeat that we can't be certain. If it turns out not, we will have to look at it. That certainly suggested something of an opening and a softening of attitudes. I was particularly interested in the phrase Where the operation of it was inadequate—as people believed it to be". It was as if there was now evidence that people no longer had that belief.

I fear that if that is the Prime Minister's position, he is being over-optimistic. Since then, I am afraid that the evidence has turned against us. At Prime Minister's Quesion Time last week he said: we stated that it would be kept under review. We are still true to that pledge—it still applies."—[Official Report, 3 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 1019.] That is a ministerial form of words. I make no complaint about that, as every ministerial team uses it; it is a sort of placebo for worried Back Benchers. We are told that everything is under review—a good Government always keep their eye on developments. That is a way of putting off action, rather than promising early action or taking action that little bit earlier.

The debates in the Lords yesterday, the interviews given today by the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security and others and the amendment on the Order Paper hold out little hope for movement in the short term, but we need movement. We cannot wait and see. We do not have the time, nor has the system. If we do not act, consent—which is the foundation of the law—may be eroded. Without consent, the law becomes unenforceable. The problem is serious and Ministers have to recognise it as such.

One day, a Tory who was sitting below the Gangway said, with great simplicity: It has gone horribly wrong. We have got to put it right. I do not dissent from that view, and if it takes primary legislation and there is broad agreement on the principle behind such legislation, we will do everything to expedite it in the minimum time.

Mr. Lilley

Is that a promise?

Mr. Dewar

I can give the Secretary of State that promise. If he introduces legislation that commands general support, I am happy to say that we will be helpful; I hope that he will take that offer seriously.

The motion is unashamedly narrow in focus; it does not have any general attack; and it is not decorated with political accusations of one sort or another. It states an important principle and restates what all hon. Members believe—that parents have a duty to maintain their children. The motion also welcomes the announced changes. I have repeatedly made it clear that I welcome them, despite my reservations about their scale. However, the motion also recognises that there is a problem, urges further reform and instances the need for an independent review procedure, which would go to the heart of the discontent—it is not the end of the list or the end of change, but it is a proper symbol of what we ought to be trying to do in the House and that is why it was included.

It is never easy for Conservative Members to vote for a Labour motion on a Supply day, but if the motion is approved it will be a strong sign—perhaps even a direction to Ministers—that the mood of the House is for further reform and change. It would not be dishonourable for Conservative Members to approve the motion because they would be reflecting the mood of the country and the troubles and anxieties in every Member's constituency.

The motion is fully justified and worthy of support. Many people will watch anxiously for a sign tonight that the House will not merely worry, agonise and do nothing. I hope that both sides of the House will support the motion, as it will have the support of people in every part of the country.

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

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'welcomes the support of the all-party Select Committee on Social Security for the principles of the Child Support Act; reaffirms its own support for those principles, in particular that every parent has a duty to contribute to the maintenance of his or her child, that the amount of maintenance paid for children should be increased, and that the cost of bringing up children should fall on other taxpayers only if parents are unable to maintain their children themselves; recognises the inconsistency and arbitrariness of the previous court-based system, which gave insufficient priority to parental support of children and left many children on benefit; welcomes the important changes recently introduced by the Government in response to early experience of the new scheme and the Select Committee's report on its practical working; and approves the Government's intention to keep the arrangements under continuing close review as further experience is gained.'. I apologise for the slightly groggy tone of my voice. I applied to the BBC for an actor's voice-over, but was told that I would have to join Sinn Fein.

I commend the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) for resisting the temptation to abandon his support for the Child Support Agency, which I know that some hon. Members will have tried to persuade him to do, and for the essentially non-partisan tone of his remarks today and when he has handled the issue previously. Although I must take issue with some of his points, despite the fact that this is an Opposition Supply day I shall respond in an equally non-partisan vein.

This is too sensitive a matter for any of us to want to play politics. In any case, there is a wide measure of all-party agreement on the issue. The Act was passed with all-party support and all parties agree on three key points. The first is the basic principle that parents are responsible for their children, that that responsibility continues even if, sadly, they should split up, and that the taxpayer should be involved only if the parents lack means to support them themselves.

Secondly, none of us really wants to return to a system which failed—failed our children, failed the taxpayer and failed to uphold the principle of parental responsibility. There are about 1.3 million lone parents and 1 million of them depend on income support. Three in four receive not one penny of regular maintenance, many of the one in four with such an agreement are often paid late, irregularly, or not at all and the amounts are often inadequate and inconsistent.

Sue Slipman, of the National Council for One Parent Families, put it very well recently when 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 will 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 6 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 to three weeks. No-one even enforced it, and no-one was ever interested. And as a result of that the experience of over 1.7 million children in this country was abandonment by one parent and a life in poverty with the other.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The people who are contacting their Members of Parliament with detailed complaints are not the people whom the Minister is describing. They are respectable, responsible people who have always paid their maintenance, but who now find themselves in devastating circumstances because of the operation of the provision. What is to be done for them?

Mr. Lilley

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must distinguish between people who were not doing anything to meet their responsibilities and those who have been honourable throughout. We have tried to reflect that in our changes.

Mr. Graham


Mr. Lilley

May I be allowed to make a little progress before I give way?

Thirdly, we are all agreed that we want to make the Child Support Act 1991 work as Parliament intended when it was passed unopposed. We want to make it work fairly. We want to be fair to parents who care and to absent parents, to first and to second families, and to parents and taxpayers. Surely that is a common objective on both sides of the House.

Mr. Graham

I have here all the letters that I have received from people who feel that they have been unfairly treated. They want an appeals procedure. Why does the Secretary of State not listen? He does not seem to understand that Opposition Members desperately want the right of appeal and review. We might then get some common sense.

Mr. Lilley

I shall come to that matter in due course. We have tried to respond to the obvious concerns that all hon. Members have experienced in their surgeries. Obviously, one of the healthy aspects of our political system is that we all have contact with our constituencies. Ministers also have direct experience of what their constituents are saying.

We have said all along that we would keep the matter under review. We responded rapidly to the concerns voiced by Members of Parliament, which were considered by the Select Committee on Social Security and reflected in its well-thought-out recommendations. We rapidly introduced some important changes, which I shall come to shortly.

I assure the House and my hon. Friends that we will keep the system under review. We will monitor it closely, will study how our reforms work and will respond to any new problems which emerge as a result of those changes.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the overriding problem is the scale of the change that parents have suddenly found themselves facing, for a range of reasons? The solution must be some easing of those circumstances. We have already had some helpful changes, but surely the mood of the House is that the process should be taken a stage further so that the system is perceived to be fair. Action of that kind would, I think, carry the House.

Mr. Lilley

My analysis overlaps with that of my hon. Friend. We felt that we had to make some changes that would be reflected in the scale and speed of the impact. I shall be considering the changes—from which, of course, no one has yet benefited. Surely it is worth waiting to see how they work out and affect our constituents. That is what I shall spell out in a moment.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

My right hon. Friend has moved quickly to make some changes, and I accept that they ought to be given some time so that we may see how they work in practice. I hope that when my right hon. Friend discusses the further review that is mentioned in the Government amendment he will give some indication of the time scale involved. Indeed, he might even set a date. I hope that he will address also the question of the efficiency and responsiveness of the Child Support Agency bureaucracy, which is very unsatisfactory from the point of view of Members of Parliament and, a fortiori, much more unsatisfactory from the point of view of the clients.

Mr. Lilley

We have demonstrated willingness to respond in a timely fashion to the need for change. That must be the best assurance that I can give hon. Members. It is better than setting out a specific time scale.

With regard to the second point in my hon. Friend's intervention, I should say that it is clearly important that the agency be made to work effectively, efficiently and responsibly and that it be sensitive to the needs of those affected by it and take account of the concerns expressed, either directly or through Members of Parliament, by them. We have drafted in extra resources for the purpose of dealing with queries and complaints.

However, it will be helpful if we can get the changes bedded down and under way. Continual change and turmoil will not help. The changes that are currently being introduced involve a major effort. If the agency were to suspend its normal operations every few months. for this purpose, that would not help in the provision of the sort of service that we all want.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Lilley

I should like to make a little more progress. I have no doubt that I shall be dealing with some of the points that hon. Members have in mind. In any case, I shall give way in a little while.

I shall elaborate later on the changes that I have made. But it should be no surprise to anyone that the implementation of this legislation aroused opposition. Every similar agency in every other country—Australia, New Zealand, various states in the United States and Scandinavia—has met strong initial opposition from absent parents who have been asked to bear an increased share of the cost of supporting their children. But the fact that opposition is inevitable does not mean that it should be ignored—and we have not ignored it.

Our task is to distinguish the genuine grievances and unintended consequences of the Act from an understandable reluctance to pay or to pay more. That is what I have tried to do, and I think that it is what the Select Committee tried to do. To be fair to the hon. Member for Garscadden, I have to say that he too has distinguished between, on the one hand, genuine and remedial concerns and, on the other hand, what he described last week as the inevitable problems and difficulties from which there is no escape.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

The Secretary of State will realise that my experience in this field is different from that of many other hon. Members. Half the cases with which I dealt at the last interview session in my constituency related to problems arising from the Child Support Agency. Some of the men I interviewed were in a quite distressed state. I am approached also by young, unmarried women with one or two children. I ask, "Who is the father? Who should be financially responsible?", and I am told, "I don't know where he is." Surely the Child Support Agency should be paying more attention to irresponsible young people rather than concentrating on people who are trying to meet their responsibilities.

Mr. Lilley

That is a very good point. There is no doubt that the hostility towards the agency has been heightened by a number of misconceptions, concerning which I want to set the record right. There is a misconception about whether the agency is pursuing people who are not paying maintenance. We are certainly not pursuing only those who are already paying some. In a clear majority of all the cases that have been taken on so far, the absent parent is not paying a penny of regular maintenance and has not even agreed in principle to do so. In 96 per cent. of all cases so far, the child and the mother are living on benefit, yet the vast majority of absent fathers and any new family they may have are living significantly above that level, even after making any maintenance payment.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Does the Secretary of Stae accept that if young unmarried mothers apply for a paternity suit in court the Child Support Agency holds up the process?

Mr. Lilley

I should like to receive evidence of particular cases. That is certainly not necessarily the case.

There is a third misconception. We are enjoying more success in tracking down absent fathers—men who have disappeared, leaving no address and making no contact. Indeed, the agency has been more successful than most people expected in tracing such people through national insurance numbers and information from Inland Revenue records. Indeed, in 90 per cent. of cases that we have pursued so far—15,000 cases, in which there was absolutely no indication of where the fathers had gone—we have managed to track down the individuals.

Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Treasury about the ex-husband who creates a one-man company or a sole-trader organisation, thereby pushing the weekly expenses of his household above the line for accounting purposes, reducing the assessable income and depriving the former wife of support for her children?

Mr. Lilley

My hon. Friend raised that matter in an Adjournment debate, and it is still being considered by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. It is always difficult to ensure that one has a proper income assessment in the case of a sole trader, but we have to do our best in the interests of fairness.

There is a final misconception. It is that child support officers are paid a bonus related to the amount of money they secure from absent parents. Let me put the myth to rest. That is not true. Agency staff receive an element of performance-related pay in exactly the same way as do all other civil servants. That means that they are assessed by their line manager every year as to accuracy, adjudication, clearance times and service to customers. They are not assessed on the basis of how much money they have collected. There is no element of bounty-hunting. I hope that I have put the myth to rest.

But even without those misapprehensions, there have been genuine concerns about the impact of the system. I decided that the best way to address the concerns and ease the position was not to elaborate the formula to accommodate specific concerns but to try to leave parents with more of their own money with which to cope with specific needs. The Select Committee reached the same conclusion.

I have sought to tailor the easements that we are able to make to remove some of the roughest edges of the formula and to respond to some of the main areas in which there is a feeling of injustice with which one could sympathise. But it seemed that demands often fell too abruptly—particularly where people had second families and an existing maintenance agreement, which they expected, rightly or wrongly, to continue for the foreseeable future.

So we have extended to all such families a phase-in period of up to 18 months. On a preliminary estimate, that should help a many as 100,000 absent parents over the next three years. Letters will go out this week and next to all those who have already received assessments and may benefit from that phase-in, telling them how they should apply for it.

We have made three other permanent changes to the formula. They should help to reduce maintenance costs for 40 per cent. of absent parents who have so far received a maintenance assessment.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one problem of perception is that, so far, we are seeing only cases where the women concerned are still on benefit and therefore see no direct result of the fact that the fathers of their children are paying an enhanced contribution for their responsibilities? We may come to a time when women who are not on benefit but on the borderline find that their maintenance is increased. If we are not careful, we may then find that many people come to our surgeries asking why we are campaigning to reduce a formula that could have made all the difference to them and their children. If the change had been made in tandem with the benefit of hindsight, it might have been a different story.

Mr. Lilley

Already, many women on benefit value and look forward to receiving their maintenance. It may lift them off dependency directly; if not, it provides them with stilts with which to walk away from benefit, because it is a portable benefit which they carry with them into work. That is extremely important.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Lilley

I shall come to that issue later, so hon. Members who wish to make points on it can do so then.

Mr. Frank Field (Berkenhead)

Although it is important to think about how the reform will help hundreds of thousands of mothers in the long term, when their children are older and they can get work, the House and particularly the Secretary of State must deal with the short term. What the reform lacks is supporters.

When we discussed in the House the specific proposal which the Secretary of State has mentioned, I argued against mothers on benefit being able to keep any of the money. I said that it would lessen the incentive to return to work, it was unfair on those whose children's fathers could not be traced, and so on. My hon. Friends the Members for Eccles (Miss Lestor) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) argued against me.

The Government must accept the fact that most of the assessment forms to the millions of people affected have yet to be sent out. In the meantime, we must build up support for this reform in the country. The best way to do that would be to see whether mothers on benefit should keep a small part of the money paid. We must accept the fact that taxpayers have, primarily, been footing the bill, sometimes when they should not have been. We must be pragmatic about the matter. We shall be overwhelmed by fathers coming in to our surgeries. It will not be those who have never paid, because they will be too ashamed to turn up. It will be those who are paying and feel that they are getting a rough deal.

Against that, we must build up a band of people who can see the value of this Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles was right from the word go and I was wrong. We should now seriously consider making that change.

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman has admitted to changing his mind. I am afraid that he has not convinced me that I should do so, and I shall explain why. Many people already know that they are benefiting from this system. Although they have not been vocal, my fear is that, once they realise that the changes that we are making will reduce correspondingly their entitlement to maintenance just as it reduces the maintenance obligation of the absent father, they will become more vocal. There will then be a redressment in the public's perception of the matter.

That is already beginning to show in newspaper correspondence columns. A letter in the Today newspaper said: I have even experienced my ex-husband saying on TV how unfair the system is to him and his new wife. The maintenance he pays for this two teenage sons is only fractionally more than the hire purchase repayments on his new hi-fi equipment. The woman values that maintenance because she is on income support.

Mr. Dewar

This is an important aspect. Will the Secretary of State consider the statistic that he gave? Although it will change to an extent, he said that 96 per cent. of parents with care are currently on income support. That will not change dramatically because we know that 70 per cent. of lone parents are on income support. There is a strong case for saying that we do not want to unbalance the argument by listening only to the absent parent lobby, but it would help the majority of people in the system—parents with care—if we included a modest disregard. For many absent parents, it would also give more point to the process of paying if they knew that some benefit would go to the families in whose name the system was introduced.

Mr. Lilley

The 96 per cent. includes some mothers and parents with care who are on family credit rather than income support. There, a disregard exists because it acts as an incentive to work. It has the perverse effect of a disregard given to those on income support, as well as substantially reducing the benefits to the other beneficiaries from the system, whose interests should not be ignored—the taxpayers. They may be bringing up their families on incomes far less than those whose second families they are contributing to through the tax system.

After phasing in, my next priority was to ensure that people on modest income should not feel that it was barely worth their while working once they had paid maintenance. That is why I have sharply increased the level of protected income. We have quadrupled the margin above income support level at which the floor is set. That means an extra £22 a week for many absent parents. We are allowing them to keep 15 per cent. of income above that level before paying maintenance. That goes beyond anything requested in the Select Committee's report.

At the other end of the spectrum, I was concerned about some of the large maintenance payments sometimes demanded. Those can come about only as a result of the additional payment element. That is the share of assessable income over and above what is necessary and sufficient to pay enough maintenance to lift the child off income support. I am reducing that from a flat rate of 25p in the pound to just 15p in the pound for people with only one previous child; 20p if they have two; and 25p for those with three or more.

The other major change is the reduction in the carer's cost once the youngest child reaches secondary school age. It will be reduced by a quarter at the age of 11; by half at the age of 14; and it disappears entirely at the age of 16. That could help 130,000 absent parents a year, and every absent parent will benefit in due course as his or her children get older.

Some people have said that the basic £44 a week carer element is too high when the children are very young. But when we offer a £40 disregard in family credit for the cost of looking after chidren, the same people say that the amount is far too low. They cannot have it both ways. It costs money to look after children and someone must pay for it. In the first instance, it should be the parents concerned.

I have included two other changes in the package. Henceforth, we shall include the entire cost of endowment mortgages up to £60,000, rather than trying to extract the with-profits element, which many people resented and which was also an administrative hassle that slowed up the process of assessment. We are also remitting the collection fee where the agency does not collect money it is paid direct.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

One of the more tragic aspects of this legislation is the fact that families are now arguing whereas previously they did not argue, which is causing many problems for children. Moreover, families are arguing and children are suffering as a result.

Another effect is this. I have talked to contract construction workers in my constituency. They talk about going on the black economy. We do not like that. We oppose it and do not want it to happen. Others talk about emigrating. Were all those factors considered when the legislation was introduced? If the overall impact at the end of the day is that families further deteriorate, surely there must come a point where Ministers begin to consider the whole legislation, and whether in principle it should be retained.

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous legislator, for which I give him credit, will have to tell us whether he considered any of those matters when the Bill was proceeding through the House. As to the black economy, he may be interested to know that, since the legislation was introduced, early evidence suggests that one of the successful consequences is that a number of people who were claiming income support withdrew their claim for it once their case was taken up by the agency and maintenance sought for them. One must assume that some were perhaps living with the alleged absent father—we call such cases collusive desertion—were living with someone else or were working and claiming at the same time. It is a benefit that such cases have been exposed. There are fewer of them now.

The overall impact of the changes is far more significant than many people realise. No one has yet experienced that benefit, but large numbers will soon experience a welcome reduction in their maintenance obligation. Let me give an example of how it will help in one or two specific cases. Take a father who is on £15,000 a year gross income, which works out at about £200 a week net after he has paid tax, national insurance contributions and half his pension contribution.

Suppose that he has one 12-year-old child by his former marriage, to whom he was paying £5 under a court order. He has remarried, and has a stepchild and a child of his own. Under the CSA rules prior to the changes, he would ultimately have had to pay £39 a week. Now, because of the changes that we have made, his maximum payment will be just £18 a week. So the new regulations will save him £21 a week.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will the Secretary of State give way on a relevant point?

Mr. Lilley

I should like to finish this point.

If the same parent had twice the income—net weekly earnings of £400, or about £30,000 a year gross—and a £20 court order, he would have had to pay up to £111 a week before the changes. He will now benefit from phasing in and pay just £40 in the first six months, rising in £20 steps to a maximum of £87—a saving of nearly £24 a week. The agency is starting to implement those changes now. Last weekend it began the computer scan of all existing cases. Tens of thousands of people will receive lower assessments as a result of the formula changes in the next few days. In addition, those who may benefit from phasing will receive a letter shortly about the new arrangements. I believe that there will be a significant shift in the atmosphere as the changes filter through.

I shall now deal with the specific proposals of the hon. Member for Garscadden. He called particularly for a discretionary appeal mechanism. That was considered as the original proposals went through Parliament. I believe that the Select Committee considered it, too. It decided against, because it would lead us back to precisely the problems that we experienced before under a discretionary system.

Of course, we have given parents the right to opt for a second tier review, by another officer, to ensure that their case has been properly handled. But that officer does not have discretion to override the formula. The trouble is that if anybody—be it a court or administrator—is given the discretion to transfer the cost of child maintenance to the taxpayer, people will increasingly resort to that. That is what happened under the court-based system. Any open-ended review will amount to a return to the system that clearly failed us as a whole.

The list of items that can be given priority over the parents' duty to their children will be progressively lengthened. I recall a case that was in the newspapers a little while ago of a lady whose case was taken under the court system. The court gave priority over the cost of maintaining the children that she was looking after—those of her former husband—and gave precedence to the cost of his holiday in Bermuda and the cost of his pet food. I believe that children are more important. Indeed, they are the top priority.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsorth)


Mr. Lilley

I shall make a little more progress, as I have been rather slow.

New Zealand has allowed appeal to the court to override the formula—albeit on what they thought would be restricted grounds. Huge numbers have resorted to it. The courts have been swamped, and the system seems to have become unworkable and is having to be reviewed. The hon. Member for Garscadden holds up the Australian system as a model. That is very far from allowing a review body discretion to override the formula in the light of circumstances that the rules might not have foreseen.

On the contrary, the Australian system allows adjustments in only a few highly specific and foreseen circumstances. Indeed, the Australian Government have made it clear that the whole purpose is to limit the use of discretion and to uphold the integrity of the formula.

In a recent report that they gave to their Select Committee, the Australian Government said:

The child support legislation provides certain specified grounds for departure from formula assessment. These grounds are based on certain costs and are deliberately and closely prescribed. This is to ensure that the integrity of the formula is preserved and that there is not a reversion to a highly discretionary process for determining child support amounts based on the views and values of an individual judge, or an individual child support officer. That is important in protecing fiscal savings and the taxpayers' interests.

Mr. Heald

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the system and the formula in Australia is far cruder than the system in this country, and that one of the reasons why they have a right of appeal is to deal with that problem? In this country we have a much more sophisticated approach through the CSA.

Mr. Lilley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The formula in Australia is based on the gross income of two years ago. It makes no specific allownace for tax, national insurance, pension or housing costs. Nor does it set a floor of protected income for second families, let alone stepchildren. The main task of the Australian system of overrides is to adapt their formula to take account of many of the features that are automatically assessed by our formula. Their overrides can be more limited than what we provide for automatically.

For example, in Australia, an absent parent will have to ask to have his child support reduced to take account of his housing costs. He may well not succeed. We provide automatically for housing costs in our formula. Nor does the Australian system allow any appeal for travel-to-work costs, any more than ours does.

Another factor that the hon. Member for Garscadden failed to mention about the Australian system is that, on balance, it increases the burden on absent parents, raising maintenance awarded to the mother with care. Fewer than half of fathers' appeals are upheld, but nearly 90 per cent. of mothers' appeals are granted. Moreover, reductions in maintenance costs awarded to absent fathers result in only a £5 a week diminution. Yet increases awarded to the mother average three times as much.

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that he wants an appeal system, but would strictly limit the grounds of entry. He thereby holds out to everybody the hope that their special circumstances would be taken into account. Yet in his fine print he admits that most would be excluded. Until he is forthcoming about the grounds on which the formula could be overridden, he is trying to sell us a pig in a poke.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Australian system is not retrospective? That question goes to the root of most of the problems that we encounter in our surgeries.

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and the Opposition have no proposals to change the current arrangements in that regard.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

Few hon. Members want an open-ended appeal system; but we have all encountered several cases that no formula would fit. People on both sides of such cases are unhappy, and they desperately need to be catered for. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that such difficult cases will be dealt with sympathetically? Will he also assure me—I know that such an assurance has already been given, but it is worth asking for it again—that the entire process will be kept under review continually? The current system has been operating for only six months; it will take a long time for it to settle down, and for the rough edges to be smoothed.

Mr. Lilley

I hope very much that many of the cases that have caused us most concern will benefit from the changes. I repeat that we will keep the system under review, and examine cases brought to us by hon. Members to ensure that we have got it right.

Mr. Enright

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lilley

I have given way a few times already; this is not Question Time.

The hon. Member for Garscadden mentioned the clean break principle. He rightly reaffirmed that there cannot be, never has been and should not be a clean break between parents and children: the courts have never accepted that, and the Crozier case confirmed the point. It was stated at the time of that case that, precisely because it had always been possible for both parents and the Department of Social Security to seek changes in maintenance orders, no fundamental change had been made in that respect; the only alteration had been in the mechanism whereby maintenance assessments were updated, in connection with recipients on income support.

The asessment relating to the applicant in the Crozier case, in fact, had been increased as a result of a DSS application under the old system. It happened then, and it can happen now. [Interruption.] The statement did not apply solely to that case; its import was that, because the possibility existed, the position was as the judge decided it had to be.

The hon. Member for Garscadden suggested that we should adopt the Australian system, because it would allow a reduction of up to 25 per cent. in maintenance assessments to take account of the impact of property transfers between husband and wife as part of a clean break settlement. Under our system, it is possible to secure a larger reduction: if an absent father earning, say £20,000 a year transfers his £40,000 equity in the jointly owned house, and must therefore take out a further £40,000 mortgage to house himself subsequently, our formula—taking account of the effect on his housing costs—may reduce his maintenance assessment by more than 25 per cent. I agree with the findings of the Select Committee, which specifically stated that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was right: our formula could not take account of the impact clean break settlements in a better way.

I have already dealt, essentially, with the hon. Gentleman's proposal for a disregard. According to him, a £10-a-week disregard would cost the taxpayer £340 million. Every penny would come from the taxpayer, and not a penny would go towards helping the absent parents who are responsible for the problems that we now encounter in our surgeries; perversely, such a move would create an incentive for parents to split up by increasing the amount that they would receive as a result of such action, relative to the amount received by parents who stayed together, and would also create a disincentive to work.

Maintenance is valuable to mothers even when it does not directly remove their dependence on benefit, it provides them with the stepping stone back to work that many of them want. We have responded rapidly to problems that the whole House has recognised, having considered the well-thought-out proposals of the Select Committee. I believe that the impact of the changes that we have made will be far greater than many hon. Members perceive; but we need to let those changes take effect. We must be careful to ensure that we do not empty our surgeries of angry absent fathers, and fill them with angry mothers who have been left to care for their children.

We have shown our willingness to respond to problems. We will fulfil the promise that the Prime Minister and I have made and will continue to keep the system under close review. I believe, however, that the changes should be allowed to bed down. We will keep the system under review, having given a gauge of our good intentions and our willingness to respond when difficulties emerge. I hope that the House will take this opportunity to reaffirm its support for the underlying principles of an Act that passed through the House unopposed, and—I believe—retains the support of the majority of British people.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Hon. Members will be aware that the 10-minute rule is now operating. I urge them to speak even more concisely, to earn the gratitude of others.

7 pm

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham)

Of course I accept the underlying principles of the Child Support Act 1991; but Liberal Democrats welcome the chance to debate the issue again, especially in view of the Minister of State's wholly inadequate response last week.

Like many other hon. Members, since last summer I have received what has seemed to be a never-ending stream of visitors to my weekly surgeries—people complaining of the workings of the Child Support Agency. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux regards 1,000 evidence forms a year on any one subject as a sign that something is pretty seriously wrong; on this subject, it received 290 evidence forms in October, and 430 in November. That suggests that something is indeed seriously wrong, and that the Act requires a fundamental review.

Mr. Heald

During last week's debate on the new regulations, the Liberal Democrat spokesman said that his party would support the Government. When it came to the vote, that did not happen. What is the party's position today? What changes should be made? Tell us.

Mr. Jones

I shall come to that later. As for my party's reason for opposing the Government, the Minister of State had given a totally inadequate response: when asked about the future, he did not reply, so we decided to register our protest.

The spell-checker on my word processor rejects the initials "CSA", suggesting an alternative. It must be American, because its proposed alternative is "CIA". Some of those affected by the workings of the Child Support Agency have thought up some interesting names of their own, including some not very polite ones—for instance, "Complete Shambles Agency" and one that I particularly deplore, "Lilley's Gestapo".

When the issue was first debated in 1991, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said that he considered the concept that parents should be responsible for their children's maintenance "entirely unexceptionable". That is still the case; we support the principles behind the Act. My hon. Friend, however, was worried by the possibility that the DSS had adopted what he described as a "somewhat knee-jerk approach", pointing out: Civil servants will always look for a quick administrative fix, but in doing so they may create difficulties for the child support officers for which the Bill provides".—[Official Report, 4 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 211.] How right he was. It is symptomatic of recent legislation that we are constantly debating, and the Government are constantly amending legislation that was enacted only in the past few years, or, in the case of the Child Support Act, the past few months.

Much of the debate on the Child Support Act in the House and outside has focused on the problems of fathers faced with high demands for maintenance.

There is a fundamental problem with the modern Conservative party: it underrates the amount that people can pay in taxation, and overrates with equal consistency the amount that people can afford out of the other pocket, which is labelled private.

The alleged Labour tax bombshell in the 1992 general election was £1,250 a year. My noble Friend Earl Russell has an interesting formula: when he hears of someone's maintenance assessment being increased by £2,800 a year, he says that his assessment has been increased by 2.3 bombshells. When the Leader of the Opposition was shadow Chancellor, had he proposed to increase people's taxes by £2,800 a year, the Conservative party would have gone apoplectic and used the term "tax holocaust".

At the last general election, the Liberal Democrats proposed increasing tax by 1p to pay for better education. One of my constituents has had his maintenance increased to 150 per cent. of his income tax. I cannot imagine what Conservative Central Office would have said if the Liberal Democrats had proposed a tax rate of 37.5 per cent.

The amounts being demanded by the Child Support Agency will have to come down. No one should be expected to pay more maintenance than income tax. There are many worthy causes for complaint and we have heard some examples today, but we cannot escape the fact that having families is an expensive business. I have three demanding children so I know about that. Maintaining two families is even more expensive. Because of or perhaps despite that, the difficult obligations of fathers must not become more important than the rights of children. We must not lose sight of the fact that children must come first.

The Government must act once and for all to bring about a fundamental review to clear up the problems surrounding the Child Support Agency. They must make clear tonight exactly what they plan to do. Shilly-shallying and saying that they plan to keep it closely under review are just weasel words. Too many families are suffering.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire warned that the Government risk losing all-party support not for the fundamental principles of the Act but for the operation of the Act if they refuse to take prompt action. The Liberal Democrats are one step away from calling for the Act to be scrapped and for a fresh start.

The Government can save money in other ways. They should make a serious attempt to help marriages survive. It is a staggering fact that at some time in their lives, 50 per cent. of children under 16 will live in a home without both biological parents.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, in one of the bluntest speeches I have ever heard from him—he is normally a mild-mannered man of the Clark Kent newspaper reporter variety—said that there would have to be a properly funded conciliation service. Organisations such as Relate are scratching around for money to provide counsellors for those whose relationships are in difficulty.

Proper child care services and nursery education might help to save marriages and remove the need for the CSA to step in. Research in the United States shows that every dollar spent on nursery education is worth seven dollars later.

The Social Security Select Committee has already suggested several changes to the Act and the Government have implemented 3.5 out of 13. The Government must allow greater flexibility in the formula. It is simply not possible to put people in the straitjacket of a formula and expect the right results every time. We are dealing with human beings, and all individuals are different. We have all heard of ludicrous demands being made on absent parents who do not have sufficient disposable income.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones

No. I have given way before and as there is a 10-minute limit on speeches, I shall not give way again.

Absent parents who have made a commitment to their children in non-pecuniary ways, risk losing touch with their children because the cost of travel is not taken into account.

What will happen to the clean break settlements entered into in good faith by both parties. Since the Child Support Act, clean break settlements are effectively dead, yet when relationships break down, it is often in the interests of children that they can remain in the same home and school and keep the same friends. The Government should compare the system with that in Australia.

What about travel-to-work costs? Surely the formula has to include an assessment of disposable not gross income. Travel-to-work costs bite deeply into people's available income. The Government must make a choice either to treat as allowable expenses certain activities they do not wish to stop—and I suggest that they should encourage people to go to work—or they must accept that some people will give up such activities.

Each case is different and the effect on second partners cannot be overstated. There is bound to be animosity between first and subsequent partners. Why does not the Department of Social Security talk to the Inland Revenue? It would be another way of saving money. Most of the information about the income and outgoings of a household is held by the Inland Revenue and computers are clever enough to avoid the unnecessary duplication of form filling demanded by the CSA. Why should taxpayers pay for the CSA to investigate absent parents who are on income support?

The Child Support Act was and remains right in principle, but it is turning out to be a disaster in practice. Tonight the Minister must promise fundamental reform, or he will damage families and children alike. I know of a six-year-old child in my constituency—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


7.11 pm
Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Like the majority of my parliamentary colleagues who were Members of Parliament in 1991, I supported the legislation. We all knew about unfortunate cases involving women who were desperate because they could get no satisfaction or payment of maintenance through existing court procedures. They were unhappy about the previous arrangements, and understandably so. As a consequence the Government were right to introduce measures designed to correct a social injustice about which we all agree, irrespective of where we sit in the Chamber.

I accept the principles underlying the new system. Both parents should be responsible for maintaining their children and the state should be involved only when parents do not have the means to support those children. Having supported the legislation and the creation of the Child Support Agency, I am disappointed by the adverse practical effects.

All Members of Parliament receive scores of representations—[Interruption.] Some of my hon. Friends say, "No." I can speak only for the south-west. During the past six months, the volume of representations to me has been almost as high as those on animal welfare. That may not be significant outside, but it certainly is among my parliamentary colleagues.

There is no doubt that people are anxious and annoyed. To be as fair and objective as possible, I should add that, although the majority of those representations come from constituents who feel aggrieved at the new financial arrangements, they are not alone. I have also received complaints from single mothers about the response, or the lack of response, from the CSA in chasing up errant fathers. That is the very set of circumstances that we were led to believe, when the legislation passed through the House in 1991, would be the prime target of the CSA.

It is also relevant, on the basis of my constituency experience, that some of the alleged errant fathers are employed by organisations such as Her Majesty's armed forces, so the CSA should have no problems associated with identification and location in those situations.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hicks

No; I have only 10 minutes.

It would be fair to conclude that far too many people feel aggrieved. What is more—I have to agree with the sentiments that were expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)—regrettably, people are experiencing an increasing loss of confidence in the operation of the CSA as a result of the way in which it has treated people whom all of us would regard as responsible and mature members of society.

Ministers must accept that the majority of complaints that I have received are genuine ones from individuals who not only pay their first wives on the basis of a court decision or mutually agreed private arrangement, but are attempting, in many instances, to establish a second relationship—a new life—with a second wife. Many of them have children of that second union. Of course, many of them, when breaking up with their first wife or partner, agreed a clean break solution, or what was perceived to be a clean break solution, between partners. We recognise, attempting to be objective about that situation, that there was always recourse to the courts in respect of the level of child maintenance payments.

The sad fact is that in certain instances the second permanent relationship, which may include children of that union, is placed in jeopardy, not only in financial terms but in personal terms.

Mrs. Gorman

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hicks

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) says from a sedentary position that that is not true. If she sits with me next Saturday week in my surgery in Callington, she will have tangible evidence to the contrary.

The danger to the second relationship must be avoided. I believe, therefore—to return to the sentiments of the hon. Member for Garscadden—that it is incumbent on all hon. Members, since we are all in this together, to find a satisfactory way forward.

How do we do that? First, we should change the formula for assessing child maintenance levels. Whatever may have been said by Ministers hitherto, it is evident to me that in its application it is too rigid and restrictive. The protected income element should be widened in some way. It should be remembered that in many instances the previous settlement was acceptable to both parents. We have all been told about the situation in which basic household costs—items such as travel-to-work costs and certain arrears and debts—are not included in the present assessment. There is therefore a strong case for extending the application of the assessment formula by including other regular financial commitments.

Secondly, in order to restore confidence in the whole system—whatever Ministers may say tonight—the Government's amendment says that they will continue to monitor the situation carefully; they must not dismiss now all possibilities for amending the existing arrangements, whether it be widening the formula or considering the question of some reference or appeal procedure. I hope that, when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State winds up, he will confirm that that is the Government's intention.

We must not rule out the possibility of introducing some type of review procedure. Any review officer, in my judgment, would also have to have some powers of discretion to bring a more human and sensitive dimenstion to the existing formula. Whatever may be said by some of my Conservative colleagues, in my judgment the present system is too mechanistic. I look to the Minister to introduce at some stage modifications that bring a greater sensitivity and understanding to what are delicate, and often sad, human situations.

7.20 pm
Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

I wish to reflect the indignation, resentment and anger of many of my constituents at the Child Support Agency adn the legislation that begat it. One could mention many arguments, but in 10 minutes they could not all be included, so I will mention merely a few.

First, the fathers who have come to my surgeries and whom I have also met at meetings are not absent fathers. They resent being described as "absent fathers". They have legal access to their children. They exercise their rights of access; they love their children; they pay their maintenance payments, whether they are voluntary or court-imposed agreements; they take their children out, usually at weekends; they buy them presents and clothes; and they try to do their best, in difficult circumstances, for their children.

It may seem an insignificant point, but I hope that Ministers will stop referring to my constituents—the people I have met—as "absent fathers". They are not absent fathers. They try to look after their children. Let us not draw any moral conclusions as to the reasons why there are two families. We have learnt enough about that during the past few weeks not to moralise on those matters.

Secondly, this is not a men versus women issue, as a writer in The Guardian tried to imply the other day—The Guardian, as we know, is out of touch about those matters. Most of the men who visit me are accompanied by their second wife. Most of the meetings that I have attended have been represented almost 50:50 by men and women. The second wife is often deeply resentful because she is a human being and a person in her own right.

As a result of the patterns of employment in the country, often she not only works but also earns more money than her husband. In constituencies such as mine, many are professional women. They therefore resent being hounded, as they see it, by the Child Support Agency. They also resent finding that up to one third of their income can be taken into account in making the assessment.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

The Secretary of State quoted the example of a man with an income of £15,000 who would be helped by the changes in the review. However, if he had a new wife who had part-time earnings of £60 a week, he would be no better off.

Mr. Davies


Mr. Lilley

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

I must continue. I have only 10 minutes.

Such women resent the fact that apparently up to one third of their income can be taken into account and, in effect, aggregated. They have been brought up under successive Conservative Chancellors who, in the taxation system, have made it clear that women should be taxed independently; that there should be disaggregation of income.

They understand their income as being their own, yet they find now that their income, or some of it, has to be taken into account. They resent the intrusion into their privacy when the Child Support Agency asks them for their income.

Several Hon. Members

indicated dissent.

Mr. Davies

It is no good Conservative Members shaking their heads. If they will not give their income, a deemed income is estimated in order to get to the one third. Those are independent women, who work for their family and who resent the intrusion into their privacy that the legislation imposes on them.

My third worry is the element of retrospection. I am old-fashioned and I remember debates in the House when all parties agonised over retrospective legislation, not only in the case of the liberty of the subject but in property arrangements, taxation and other spheres. The modern Conservative party has thrown the rule of law out of the window. Such issues are no longer matters of concern to modern Conservatives. It is extraordinary that I should have to remind Conservative Ministers that retrospective legislation that overthrows property arrangements and agreements is apparently acceptable.

Proudhon would have been proud of the Secretary of State, who is apparently a right-wing Member of the Government. He understands property matters, but he stood at the Dispatch Box to defend retrospective legislation that overturns not only private property arrangements but arrangements imposed by and pronounced in a court of law.

One of my constituents understands the situation very well. He told me that, at the end of the day, he did not mind having to pay what a judge told him to pay. He had been to court and sat through an inquiry which cost him £4,000. It was a traumatic experience for him and his ex-wife, but the judge pronounced. He resented the fact that a civil servant, in accordance with a mere formula, could overturn the arrangement and tell him what he should pay.

Does the Secretary of State know of any other administrative agency that transfers money from one private citizen to another?

Mr. David Shaw

The Inland Revenue.

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman has been making stupid comments from a sedentary position for a while, and he is getting even more stupid. The Inland Revenue does not transfer money from one private citizen to another; it transfers money to an individual or takes money from an individual.

I repeat my question: do the Secretary of State or the Minister know of any administrative agency—not a court of law—that orders one private citizen to transfer his money to another private citizen?

Mr. Burt


Mr. Shaw

I have only 10 minutes. I am sure that the Minister will get a note from a civil servant; he can reply then.

The Government have imposed a monster—

Mr. Burt


Mr. Davies

I am not giving way.

Mr. Burt


Mr. Davies

I am not giving way. The Minister of State will have half an hour in which to wind up the debate but I have only 10 minutes.

Mr. Burt

I am not a Minister of State.

Mr. Davies

No, and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman ever will be, after today's debate.

Fourthly, I deal with travel to work, which is not a problem only in the south-east. A constituent of mine who is a lorry driver came to see me. At 4 am every day, he has to drive to a lorry park to pick up his lorry. His travel-to-work costs are 50 per cent. of his net take-home pay. There is no way he can afford what he is supposed to pay under the new child support arrangements, and pay to get to work to earn the money in the first place. It is ridiculous to suggest that the problem applies only to the south-east.

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), who mentioned the Inland Revenue, is knowledgeable about tax matters. If an individual can prove that his expenditure is fully justified, I do not understand why it cannot be allowed against his assessment, as happens with the Inland Revenue's calculations.

I end by referring again to my constituent, who resented being told by civil servants how much he would have to pay. He is not a professional person, but an ordinary working man. He queried whether the system—the intrusion on his privacy, the overthrowing of arrangements, the spying on people, the overturning of court agreements and the lack of an appeal or hearing—were very British. I am sorry but I had to say that, after 14 years of arrogant government under the Tories, it seems to have become a very British system. It is a system that flies in the face of the rule of law.

Mr. Heald

The Opposition voted for it.

Mr. Davies

But the Conservative party is the party of government, and it has to do something about it.

If the Secretary of State thinks that this issue will go away, he is making a big mistake. The system is fundamentally flawed and will have to be changed. If it is not, it will probably bring down the Government and the Tory party.

7.34 pm
Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

The Child Support Act 1991 has benefited some people—for example, lone mothers whose male partners have not supported them in the past, but have deserted them and been traced, and are now being made to pay proper maintenance for their child or children. However, for others the Act has become a bureaucratic nightmare, with which hon. Members, legal advisers and others are unable to deal. Unless something is done, I fear that the beneficial aspects of the Act will be far outweighed by the hardship that it is inducing in many people.

Legal advisers are telling their clients that they cannot understand the elaborate formulae that have been devised. They can tell them, however, that there is no appeal against the CSA's findings—only a review conducted by the very civil servants who made the assessment in the first place. It is not in accordance with natural justice that the assessment of child maintenance should be completely removed from the courts and applied by civil servants in accordance with ever-changing rules. Nor does it seem fair that CSA decisions can be retrospective.

I am aware that the clean break settlements between the parties can never be clean breaks for the children. I am also aware that too many fathers were leaving their children dependent on income support. I do not resile from that. However, when civilised arrangements have been made between parties to a former marriage, often sanctioned by the courts, it is wrong and unfair that those arrangements should be wholly ignored when calculating what is proper for a parent to pay for the maintenance of a child.

Civil servants now substitute their judgments for those of the parties and the courts—not for future cases, which would be understandable, but for past cases, in which parties have lived for many years under the arrangements. Those arrangements have been made within the law and often have the sanction of the law.

I have had to deal with many cases relating to the CSA. There have been many such cases in my constituency, but perhaps not so many in the constituencies of colleagues who are happier with the way in which the Act is working. No one has questioned the need for the Act, but, in every case with which I have dealt, the couple—it is usually a couple, not only a father—have said that the pendulum has swung too far against so-called absent fathers, and that there is very little fairness in the way the system operates.

As the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) said, it is often unfair to describe these fathers as "absent" fathers. They try to maintain close relationships with their children, but those relationships are being made more difficult by the demands of the CSA.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) to accept that we have to allow second families to live decently. It is not only the children of first marriages whom we must look after—second families must live decently, too. We must be more compassionate in calculating a father's protected income.

These days, the mobility of labour means that travel-to-work costs must be taken into account. Certainly in my constituency it is often difficult to find work without travelling away from home. Travel-to-work costs, the costs of travelling to see one's children who are often in distant parts, the insurance on a second home, the council tax and water rates are all essentials in a second marriage. They are not luxuries. Because the assessment is so high, many parents also believe that the costs even of employing a child minder should be taken into account as essential.

I have been dismayed to be told by fathers about the way in which they have been treated by the CSA. They have reported indifference, rudeness and smart alick answers. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that civil servants are encouraged to show more humanity than they have hitherto shown to many of my constituents? Unless we tackle the way in which people are dealt with, we shall have produced a system that is inhumane and builds up resentment, which will not be easily forgotten. It is often the decent parent who is penalised under the regulations. Violent partners often escape, as women whose former partners were violent are not obliged to name them.

Parents have said that the Child Support Act 1991 is squeezing them, even when they have usually done everything to maintain their financial and emotional links with their children. The result is an enormous strain on second marriages. I urge hon. Members and the Minister not to be blind to the unacceptable pressure that swingeing, unfair demands place on second marriages. Taking any of the second wife's income into account penalises someone with no responsibility for the children of the first marriage.

I support the Government's proper concern for the children of the first marriage, but I doubt their lack of obvious care and compassion for the effects on children of the second marriage. I am anxious that my right hon. Friend should be aware of that. We can all accept the broad aims of the Act—there has been little dispute about that across the Chamber—but it will not save money for the taxpayer if its operation breaks second unions and encourages fathers to give up their work and their family responsibilities.

Many of those who have been to see me say that that is what they will probably have to do—and that is not an empty threat. We must not create clear financial advantages for people to be feckless and unemployed, and stay single rather than marry, if there are children from a first marriage.

I support the ideas and aims of the Act, but my charge relates to its unfairness, unpredictability, retrospection and lack of an appeal mechanism. Another serious charge is that it may discourage many men from marrying for a second time, and thus increase the number of never-married single parents. I urge my right hon. Friend to give greater thought to many of those implications, and to do so soon.

7.43 pm
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

The Act imposes punitive assessments on non-resident parents and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, resolutely refrains from passing on any maintenance to the parent with care. It causes turbulence in the lives of countless children of first and second families. Families who have come through bitter times to reach an uneasy peace are thrown back into the melting pot, causing turbulence.

If the Act were really about children, first and foremost it would consider the roof over the head of the child. The Act does no such thing; it endangers the roof over the head of the child. The Minister cast much scorn on clean break settlements, but they were proposed and, indeed, encouraged by courts and by the Government in 1984 to preserve homes. That was a worthy objective.

The Secretary of State said that that objective was still taken into account because the parent's next mortgage would be taken into account. But not all non-resident parents have another mortgage. Some of them rent and some live with relations. The housing costs of those who live with relations are not even counted. The housing benefit of their relation, however, is deducted. The Government try to have it both ways.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) that the retrospective element should be removed. In the future, it should be possible to make a notional calculation of equivalent income if a capital settlement is made to preserve the children's home. That is particularly important in view of the ferocious attacks made on the housing rights of lone parents by the Government. Under the Act, children may lose their homes, but not even have the rights of homeless families.

The punitive assessments do not count travel-to-work costs. Much has been said by Conservative Members about that and I agree with their comments. There is one danger; I would not like the Secretary of State to say that arrangements will be made if the travel-to-work cost is very high, as it may be if one commutes many miles to and from London. Some travel-to-work costs may not seem high to hon. Members, but they will seem high to many of my constituents on low wages.

Travel-to-work costs of £10 a week are common and they take a big slice out of the wages of many of my constituents. Those costs should be exempt, whatever their level. I agree with the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) that council tax and water rates should also be exempt. If parents defined such expenses as non-essential and refused to pay them, the courts would soon have something to say about that. Council tax and water rates are clearly essential expenses.

There should be a right of appeal and it should be widespread. It is normal to have an appeal system that is open to everyone who has a complaint. That system should allow special circumstances to be taken into account—not everybody lives a straightforward life. Some people have the "temerity" to take on responsibility for aged relatives. Is the cost of looking after such relatives taken into account? No, it is not. The appeal system and some discretion would allow such expenses to be taken into account. There should be a recognition of other responsibilities, as well as the cost of parenting and access.

Parents with care can also be worse off. It is often said that the great advantage of the maintenance benefit over income support is that it can be continued after one finds a job. That theory is based on the assumption that there is a job to be found. The jobs of most women in my constituency pay low wages, which are getting lower as a result of Government policy. If those constituents claim family credit, they are allowed to keep the magnificent sum of £15; yet the absent or non-resident parent might be paying £100 a week. That is unsatisfactory. There should be a substantial disregard to provide an incentive and to put children first.

I tell the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State that, when the first statement was made on the proposal, I asked a critical question. My gut reaction was that nothing good would come of it. Unfortunately the Opposition were misled, because we actually believed the title of the White Paper—"Children Come First". In reality, children come last. Conservative Members talk about children as a burden on the taxpayer, which they want to transfer to parents. Only people such as they can think of children as a burden.

Last Wednesday one of the principles of the Act was enunciated by the Under-Secretary of State: The principle that a natural child should have first call on a parent's income". Just before that, he had said: one of the principles of the Act was that parents should, as a priority, be responsible for their own natural children."—[Official Report, 2 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 945.] So if someone is trying to build a second family, in which there are stepchildren, and trying not to make the same mistakes that he made with his first family, that is just tough. The stepchildren are regarded as "unnatural" children. The Under-Secretary of State talked about "natural" childen and refused to take the cost of parenting stepchildren into account. The concept of deserving and undeserving children is disgusting; yet that is what the Conservative party is introducing into family life, and it will cause more family breakdowns.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli that this is not a matter of men against women. A woman spoke to me this week who has been driven to such despair that she is threatening suicide, because the Child Support Agency is threatening to deduct at source. She says that she will have no money left to live on. I have her budget here, and it is frugal in the extreme. That woman works six days a week and manages to bring home an income of £146 a week after tax and national insurance. She has been driven to threatening to commit suicide; she may not actually do that, but she will have a breakdown, and that will be a cost to the state. No wonder there is a big public sector deficit if that is the way affairs of state are managed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) talked about people being driven into a cul-de-sac, but it is worse than that; it is a trap, which is driving them to desperation—men, women and especially children. Children will see the disturbance and bitterness and they will feel responsible. Any calm that may have been achieved will be disturbed and if no calm has yet been achieved, the Act makes sure that it never will be. It is a disgraceful Act; indeed, its effect on family life makes it a wicked Act.

I speak as a Member of the House who believes in stable relationships and has a moral appreciation and a stable marriage. Conservative Members, with all their moralising, which is not in any way backed up by their personal behaviour, are causing unlimited harm to countless children and other people who simply want to be able to live peaceful lives—

Mr. David Shaw

At the taxpayer's expense.

Mrs. Wise

There we hear it. There is the truth of it. They will not be able to sustain the tax cuts—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


7.53 pm
Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

I thank Ministers and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)—Ministers for the way in which they have looked after my constituency cases, and the hon. Member for Garscadden for having remained calm, sensible and reasonable.

There is no doubt in my mind that children should be the responsibility of their own parents. Everyone with whom I have spoken agrees with that—although I am not sure what the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) really believes. My speech will necessarily be brief, so people will have to read the rest of the debate and take the arguments about travel-to-work costs, absent fathers being consulted, and so on, from what other people have said.

There is a general acceptance of the Child Support Agency, but it cannot continue as it is. It must be continually reviewed, or it will ultimately damage the young women whom it is meant to help. Make no mistake; we must realise that there are thousands of women whom it can help. I went to a meeting about child support recently and before I set off a young lady rang me to say, "Don't let them bully you. There are a lot of us who are very glad that the Child Support Agency has turned up."

My three main concerns are flexibility, the clean break, and the mistakes that the CSA has made. The agency sometimes rolls on despite the wishes of the people likely to benefit from it. A lady in my constituency, whom I have known for some time and have helped with other problems, has two children by one marriage and now has another young child. She heard about family credit and applied for it by filling in the forms, but then she found that her former husband was immediately dunned by the CSA. The woman is appalled. She does not want to fall out with her former husband and is willing to give up the family credit. She and her new husband are willing to manage without it, but there is no retrospection and no unpicking the situation. The good relationship that the sons have with their father, who does not live with them any more but sees them every weekend, is now in jeopardy.

Flexibility must be the watchword of any new legislation and any changes that we make to it. But inflexibility is revealed in the following letter written by the CSA in Merseyside to a constituent of mine: Further to my telephone conversation today, I am writing to confirm the information that you requested:

  1. (i) Payments that are made monthly, are made monthly in arrears.
  2. (ii) I asked you to pay £335.75 today for your regular maintenance whilst I clarified the position regarding your arrears.
Also it appears that an error has been made by the Child Support Agency and that the information previously given was incorrect. I am looking into this matter". As a result, my constituent says that he is now £800 in arrears, and he is bitter. He wrote to me: I still find this very hard to believe that from the point of the CSA, that if things were left as originally planned, I would not be suffering with over £800 in arrears. So I have to suffer from somebody else's negligence. I await your comments". I shall comment; I shall send him the Official Report of the debate, advise him to read it all and say that I have written to the Minister. As I have said, Ministers have been most courteous.

Finally, I shall deal with clean breaks. What are we to make of the following document from Keighley county court if it does not mean a clean break—not with the children but with the former wife—and that the money can be adjusted later? It is headed "By Consent", and continues by saying that one party is to get 75 per cent. and the other 25 per cent. of the goods and chattels when sold, and the house, upon the parties acknowledging that neither has any further claim in respect of the contents of the former matrimonial home. Referring to the child of the family, the document also says that there will be periodical payments at the rate of £15.00 per week payable weekly until she shall atttain the age of 17 years … Upon compliance with Order 36 Rule 1 the Petitioner be at liberty to register the aforesaid periodical payments order in the appropriate Magistrates Court. Finally, it says: This Order be in full and final satisfaction of all claims the parties hereto have against each other of a capital and/or income nature and the Petitioner's prayer in the Petition for periodical payments for herself be dismissed. That is a clean break. Or at least, back in 1989 the recipients of that document would have thought that it was a clean break. I can understand that £15 a week. The rates set out in a typically good document from the Library state that payments are made of £15 for children aged under 11, £22 for ages 11 to 15, £26 for ages 16 to 17 and so on. I can understand why the periodic increases should be set by the Child Support Agency, but my constituent says that he has had a clean break from his wife, so he wonders why he should have to pay £44 a week to look after his children. I could continue, but I shall not.

I was appalled in the previous debate at the ways in which the Opposition sneered at my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) when she tried to convey women's point of view. It was a poor display from Opposition Members who have mostly been compassionate. The Government are rightly trying to correct many things which were wrong in the original Bill. Hon. Members have unanimously accepted those elements.

Without being partisan, I feel that there is growing feeling among young women and in the country that the male-dominated unions are urging the Opposition to push the Government to return support for the child from the natural father or the parents to the taxpayer. The union lads are feeling disgruntled. Many of the constituents whom I have met are rightly fed up with the rough justice. If that pressure grows from the male-dominated unions, it will rebound on the Opposition and on the House.

I shall finish as I began. Parents are responsible for their children. To make that possible, the CSA will have to be continually reviewed in a flexible manner in ways in which we have heard already. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends will continue along that path.

8.1 pm

Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

The Secretary of State said that there are 1.3 million lone parents in the country and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said that 70 per cent. of those are on income support. Of that figure, 53 per cent. are women who were married to the fathers of their children and who were separated or divorced and 32 per cent. were never married to the father. Considering those lone mothers, the fathers and the children together, one can see that the lives of a large percentage of the population will be affected by the Child Support Agency and by the Act. It was absolutely important that the Government got it right and, tragically, they got it so wrong.

The courts had a lot to answer for when they made maintenance assessments which were often low and which varied in different parts of the country. The system for pursuing defaulters was imperfect to say the least and there could have been a time lag if the father refused to appear in court. The system needed altering, but one important aspect that that system had in its favour was that the courts had discretion and they could assess all the valid factors when making a maintenance order.

The CSA has a rigid formula which has caused misery and fear and has wrecked relationships. The more people that it pursues, the more the turbulence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) termed it, will increase. Groups throughout the country are mushrooming in opposition to the agency and the Act, which is unusual.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Gordon

I have only 10 minutes, so I shall not give way.

There is a clear divide in the House between Members who are worried about the enhancement of their electoral chances if the Government are not in a position to give another round of tax cuts and Members who think that the interests of children should come first. I am pleased to say that there are Members on both sides of the House who support the latter. The Act's purpose to facilitate tax cuts is clear because it has been said that only £1 in every £10 will go to the family and that the rest will go to the Treasury.

That tax-cutting angle is certainly clear when one takes into account the benefit penalty. I asked the Minister the other day if he would abolish that penalty. He answered that only 160 cases have been referred to the Benefits Agency for reduced benefit and that 20,500 cases where good cause was pleaded had been accepted. The Minister said that that was about 57 per cent. Therefore 43 per cent. of such cases have not been accepted.

Are they to be directed to suffer a benefit penalty? What about all the other mothers who have the threat of a benefit penalty hanging over their heads? No Government who care about children would have a benefit penalty for people on income support who are already below the poverty line so that £8.80 of their income is taken away—leaving less money for food, clothes and all the things that children need. That cannot be right. It is evil.

The collection fee should also be abolished. Mothers who feel that contact with absent fathers is threatening ask the agency to collect the maintenance. Those very fathers threaten the mothers when they are asked to pay the collection fee. That fee will engender violence and should be abolished.

Another sore point is that of absent parents who are on income support and who are being pursued by the agency for a measly £2.20 a week. A constituent of mine is a father with care. His ex-wife is mentally ill and has been sectioned innumerable times. He has begged the agency not to force him to sign the form to pursue his wife because he says that it would drive her into hospital from where, drugged up to the hilt, she would phone and upset their child. Even if she receives the order, she would not be able to manage her affairs properly and would never regularly pay that £2.20, but he and the child would lose it. There are many such cases and the section should be abolished.

The Government will not have an income disregard for parents on income support because they think that that would be a disincentive to taking a job. However, they say that a £15 disregard for caring mothers will enable them to take a job with considerably lower take-home pay than if there had been no disregard. Those lucky women will be able to take a low-paid job in addition to looking after their family and doing the housework and can claim £15 a week disregard plus family credit.

Many, perhaps most, will be worse off, because they will get no help with the mortgage interest payments and no more free school meals—with a number of children that is significant. They will lose other passported benefits such as for glasses and for dental treatment and they may get £28, as the Government have promised, for child care. That may pay for looking after an older child after school until the mother comes home, but in my constituency, I believe that the standard rate for having a young child looked after all day is £90 to £100 a week. Mothers who need such care will be in trouble. In addition, on family credit, it takes six months to review a change in circumstances, whereas on income support, changes can be reviewed at once. Many of those mothers will be far worse off.

Fathers who have previously paid the mortgage payments on the home of their first families will have to choose whether to meet their CSA assessments or stop paying the mortgage, and repossessions will result. The Labour party will be monitoring carefully how many mothers and children will be thrown out of their homes because of that dreadful law.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) rightly said, separated fathers object to being called absent parents. One such father came to my surgery and told me that his former wife had moved to the north of England. Once a month, because he wants to keep close contact with his children, he pays a high fare to travel north. He has to rent a hotel room, pay for looking after the children for the weekend and take them out. It is expensive. After the assessment, he will not be able to afford that. He will become an absent father and he does not want to be one. He, his ex-wife and their children will all suffer. That cannot be right.

Separated fathers need a discretionary body, but the Government do not want one. What factors need to be taken into account? What factors require discretion? Travel to work is one. A commuter may pay £2,000 to £3,000 a year, and even when the cost is less, it is a significant part of a person's income, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston said. No account is taken of the cost of travel to see children, the cost of keeping them, the cost of taking them out and the cost of providing treats and all the extras that children need, such as sports gear. There is no discretion about that. There is no discretion about the cost of looking after elderly parents. There is no discretion about paying the mortgage for the first family. Voluntary payments are ignored.

When an assessment is made, it applies from the date that the maintenance inquiry form has been sent out. That can create huge arrears. The courts used to take past maintenance paid into account and they gave credit for it. All those matters require a discretionary body which could take them into account. This is real life; we cannot use an abstract formula to rule people's lives and drive them to despair.

A constituent who was deeply in debt came to see me. He had been honourably paying off his debts, which he had incurred because of illness. He has now been assessed and he will not be able to continue to pay off his debts. He does not know what to do. He said, "Shall I give up my job? What shall I do? I cannot pay my debts and pay the assessments." He was already making voluntary payments and buying equipment and clothes for his child.

Another factor that has not been taken into account is that of families abroad. There are immigrant fathers in my constituency who have children abroad and who send money to them. No discretion is allowed there.

The case for a discretionary body is irrefutable. Such a body could take a family's whole situation into account. In our debate last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that the Government had got it wrong, that the agency should be wound up and that they should start again. I fully agree. We need a system that is responsible and workable and which puts the interests of children first.

8.11 pm
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

It is clear that the Opposition are speaking with many different voices in the debate. They would have been better advised not to press the matter to a Division tonight. I do not believe that they foresaw the current situation any more than the rest of us did. The reasoned amendment moved by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) on Second Reading of the Child Support Bill contained not a hint of the problems that might arise for absent parents.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Haselhurst


Miss Lestor

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Haselhurst


Opposition criticism then centred mainly on the welfare of the children and on the needs of the caring parent. For most of the time, they looked in the opposite direction. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) seems to be getting quite excited about what I am saying. She came nearer than any other Opposition Member to recognising that there might be some problems of the type with which we have been preoccupied in this debate. By and large, it is clear from the reports of the Committee and Report stages that the Labour party was looking in completely the opposite direction and cannot claim now to have foreseen the present problems. I find it faintly odd that Labour Members now seek to present themselves as leading the pack in defence of the absent parent. Although I am critical of the status quo, I shall not be tempted into the Labour Lobby this evening.

I am content to rely on the continuing close review offered by the Government. I note, however, the words in the Government's amendment: as further experience is gained". Considerable evidence is accumulating and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will take good note of it and learn some of the lessons from it.

It would be preferable for this debate to be approached not in a spirit of partisanship, but in a shared acceptance that our scrutiny process at the time of the Child Support Bill was defective. Many of us simply did not anticipate what was to follow the implementation of a reform that we were all happy to support in principle. We may have accepted that it would change people's lives, but we did not realise how drastic the change would be in may cases. If 'we are honest—one or two of us have been very honest in this debate—some of us thought that the legislation was directed mainly at absconding rather than merely absent parents.

The main problem has been the dramatic nature of the change that we have wrought. Fairly or not, divorced parents have lived their lives on certain assumptions. New marriages have been made and new families have been created. It may be right for Parliament to impose suddenly on those people the judgment that they must bear a heavier responsibility for their natural children, but we must at the same time appreciate the impact that that can have on the life they are now leading and on the people who are part of that life. The CSA has seemed, in many cases, to have no appreciation of the effect that swingeing increases in maintenance payments will have.

The affected people feel that they are being retrospectively censured for doing something that was not in itself wrong—separating from an unhappy marriage and starting all over again. The new demands have been the cause of worry and despair which, in some cases, has turned to tragic extremes. When society's judgment about what parents in this position should pay is being delivered with seemingly impervious bureaucratic zeal by the Child Support Agency, their despair turns to deep resentment. Many of us have felt that deep resentment in our mail bags and through our surgeries over the past few months.

Like many of my hon. Friends, I am very unimpressed by the performance of the CSA. It has been bad in responding to the anxious queries of the clients whom it has contacted. Its response to letters from Members of Parliament has, for the most part, been extremely wooden. If the explanation for the poor performance of the CSA is that it is overwhelmed with work, that is surely a reason for implementing the new requirements more gradually and on a phased basis. Ministers seemed to be under pressure from the Opposition throughout our proceedings on the Child Support Bill to promise that everything would be done with all possible speed. The Opposition are the last to have the right to criticise the Government for some of the consequences.

We have been told that 50 per cent.—I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested that the figure might be more than 50 per cent.—of the cases so far tackled by the agency are those in which no maintenance at all has been paid. If that is the case, why did not the agency confine itself exclusively to such cases to start with? Why did it not get those out of the way before moving on to people who had already made settlements, as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) has recently described?

The trouble with the formula is that it gives insufficient regard to the current circumstances of the client. I welcomed very much the changes that we approved last week. They may make life bearable in a number of cases. It is perfectly fair for the Government to say that not until those changes have been implemented can we see the effect on assessments. The mists may then clear, allowing us to gauge the degree of injustice that may remain. On that count, it is right for the Government to say in retaliation to the Opposition that their motion is premature as well as presumptuous.

However, I contend that the formula is not right. Mention has been made of clean breaks, and I emphasise that too. It may be difficult to quantify, but the plain fact is that a property settlement, heavily biased in favour of the parent with care at the expense of ongoing maintenance and accepted as a reasonable deal by a court, affects the resources available to the person who becomes the absent parent. A greater allowance in the formula for housing costs is simply not adequate compensation for some of the housing and financial settlements that were made. My right hon. Friend should not rely on generalities in dismissing that factor altogether from the equation.

I also add emphasis to what has been said about travel-to-work costs. It may be easy from an administrative point of view to want to ignore those costs, but they are creating genuine difficulty in many cases. On the clean break factor and the travel to work factor, I ask my hon. Friends to look at the consequences of making such sweeping exclusions from the formula. In some cases, it is having a devastating and totally unfair effect.

In conclusion, the figures contained in the formula still need some moderation, even if it takes longer to reduce the burden on taxpayers. Taxpayers have borne the burden for many years. We now have arrangements in sight which are intended to reduce that burden, and I do not disagree with that. Surely, the speed with which we reduce the burden must be governed with an eye on the effect on those who will be affected.

There needs to be some further degree of phasing. I want to hear less about administrative convenience in any future discussions of this matter, and more about fairness to all the parties concerned. It cannot be right to have swung the pendulum so violently that we have shifted the misery and deprivation across the spectrum from the parent with care to the absent parent.

All I say to the Government is that we must recognise that this is not yet a closed chapter. We must have a guarantee of more attention to the details which many hon. Members have raised tonight, and a promise of further action if equity so dictates. Surely, all of us want to ensure that we get the balance right in determining how the burden should lie between the various parties involved in these matters.

8.20 pm
Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

I think that all hon. Members agree with the principle that parents have the responsibility of looking after their children, certainly in my territory of west Belfast, where there is great poverty and deprivation and, for many reasons, there are many lone parents.

I shall start by making a point about poverty and the lone parent and her children. The majority of lone parents, certainly in my constituency and in other parts of Northern Ireland and elsewhere, experience various degrees of poverty. Their children require a coherent strategy of family support covering social security and child care and a positive employment strategy, rather than an approach that is characterised by a single Act solution, as in the Child Support Act 1991.

Punitive measures have been referred to a number of times. Such measures for achieving compliance with the operations of the Child Support Agency will risk further disadvantaging children in lone-parent families who rely on benefit, as well as the second families of absent parents. As to family violence, it is important to appreciate that theemphasis placed on parents to provide information about the identification and tracing of liable parents fails to recognise that some mothers have good reasons for refusing to name an absent father.

I make no apology for referring directly to my constituency of west Belfast where, no matter what indications of deprivation are used—whether it is the Jarman index of social deprivation or social class distribution—there is more deprivation per 1,000 of the population than anywhere else on these islands. I should point out that in, west Belfast, there are more people in prison per 1,000 of the population than anywhere else on these islands. Taking those points together, one realises that the question of the lone parent is a major one.

As I said, the emphasis on parental responsibility is welcome. Many hon. Members have put great emphasis on that. Unfortunately, most fathers are not responsible for the children when parents separate. The people who must be looked after are the children. The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) made many of those points earlier and I congratulate her on an excellent speech.

Family breakdowns, terms of maintenance and related child care disputes are complex and stressful. Families in that position need a co-ordinated package of support services. It must therefore be clear that detailed monitoring of the implementation of the Act is fundamental in assessing whether the objectives of decreasing child poverty and increasing parental responsibility are achieved.

Inclusion of the personal allowance for the caring parent in the maintenance bill conflicts with the recent adoption of divorce legislation which promotes a clean break between partners, and may be strongly resented by caring parents and absent parents alike. I appreciate the fact that that point has been covered by a number of hon. Members.

Another point is that the provision for children with disabilities and special needs requires additional costs. I am not convinced that that aspect was covered adequately in the legislation. What we need is a comprehensive child care policy—that is what should be developed. The Child Support Agency should not undertake any child support activities on behalf of a family without the formal authorisation of at least one of the parents. Parents should also have the right to appeal against a proposed maintenance assessment before its implementation. Finally, there should be a continuing review of child care and child support.

8.25 pm
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

I oppose the Opposition's motion because I believe that they are morally wrong. They are supporting the continuance of anti-social behaviour and seeking to undermine the position of 1 million single mothers. They are arguing that pensioners and others on low incomes should pay more for the children of absent fathers. That is wrong.

During Prime Minister's questions today, the Leader of the Opposition showed his skills as a lawyer. Three years ago, he used his skills as a lawyer to support the Child Support Bill and the Child Support Agency. Today, he used his skills to undermine the Act and the 5,000 staff in the Child Support Agency. Having made a tough decision, he now finds that he cannot live with it and seeks to run away from it. That is not acceptable.

The Child Support Act is, first and foremost, about children. It is concerned with the priority of parents in relation to their children. If people have children, they must make up their minds whether they will be responsible for them, or try to pass them over to other people. It is surprising and sad that the low priority some absent parents give the first family is often seen in our constituency surgeries. It is sad that not enough attention is paid to the first family by absent parents in their second family.

Recently, I was extremely saddened by one case that came to my office whereby the second family showed in their budget that they put a higher priority on dog food than on the child in the first family. I was staggered that dog food appeared in the long list of items of expenditure that were deemed to be a higher priority than the child in the first family. That is not acceptable. We cannot expect the child in the first family to go without so that the dog in the second family can be properly fed.

The old system was totally unfair. It was inconsistent and the administration often broke down. In our constituency surgeries, we saw many cases where that happened. I have seen court assessments for £15 a week or less. They are totally unacceptable. Such assessments meant that pensioners and others on low incomes had to pay for the children, and the absent fathers were simply not paying.

We are concerned not just with taxpayers but with the children of taxpayers. We must make sure that they have equality of treatment and that those children in a one-family situation do not suffer so that absent fathers can have two or more families. Priority must be given to those families who are united and who intend to stay together, otherwise many more families will break up.

The work of the CSA and what is contained in the Act should be supported. I wish to make a few comments about the CSA's work. I have met the local staff in my constituency, and they are courteous, knowledgeable, and well trained. They deserve the support of hon. Members, and it is sad that not enough has been said in their support today.

I should also like to pay tribute to those who work in the Hastings regional office. I took up a case on Christmas eve with the Hastings regional office on behalf of a constituent who was concerned about his assessment. The office staff devoted considerable time to the case. They were helpful and efficient, and they wanted to ensure that they were correct in dealing with the case. I believe that that was very much in their favour.

Dr. Spink

I have had exactly the same experience with the Hastings office and the staff were very helpful.

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend confirms the hard work which is put in by the CSA. With colleagues on the Social Security Select Committee, I interviewed Ros Hepplewhite, the chief executive of the CSA. I was left with the impression that she was knowledgeable and sincere, and that she was an effective and capable manager who was concerned with doing a good job. She and her colleagues should be congratulated on the good job that they are doing on behalf of the nation's children and on behalf of the many women who are benefiting by receiving maintenance in proper amounts for the first time.

There was all-party support on the Committee for the principle of the Act, and also for the vast bulk of the operations of the CSA. There was support for the way in which the Government had implemented the Act. It has been a difficult Act to bring into being because it requires people to pay, including many people who have not being paying enough and many who have beeen been evading payments. Consequently, the Act was never likely to be popular with everybody.

It is the duty of hon. Members to be prepared to stand up and explain to people why they have to pay more. We have had to do that to many taxpayers and to absent fathers. We cannot single absent fathers out and give them special protection from paying more, and then say to our taxpayers that they have to pay more in VAT or more in taxation generally. The Committee's investigations showed that the Act was operating in a fair and balanced manner, but the problem unquestionably was that it was tough on some fathers who had not planned their budgets. Those fathers had married for the second time and had not properly worked out their finances.

Clearly, that is not something for which either Parliament or the Government can take the blame. If an absent father does not budget properly for his second household, that father somehow has to re-budget, as everybody else does. All our pensioners will suffer if they have to receive less in their pensions to support absent fathers.

The Government have adopted many of the Committee's recommendations, and they have shown that they are capable of being flexible in relation to the Act. They have also shown courage in realising that there is a point where one must stand up and be counted. The Opposition will not do that. They have gone weak at the knees at the thought of having to stand up for something. That shows that they will be unfit to govern this country, if they are ever in a position to do so.

Clean breaks do not adequately take into account the distribution of capital. Clean breaks do not look at deferred pensions, which some absent fathers have, and wives often come off second best in them. Such settlements are about capital and its distribution, but I do not believe—nor did the Committee—that capital in a marriage can be worked out to the extent that is necessary to get a fair settlement. Consequently, there would be enormously complicated calculations if the Government adopted any arrangements to take into account clean breaks on capital. The CSA would not be qualified to work out those calculations. Even the Inland Revenue finds it difficult to assess capital and valuation, and the CSA is not in a position to take on that job.

The appeals procedure for which the Opposition ask would be unique because it would be based, so they say, on fairness. I am aware of no other appeals procedure in government or in administration which is based on fairness. The Inland Revenue appeals procedure is based on the law, not on fairness. The social security appeals procedure is based on law, not on fairness. We have to accept that the law sometimes operates unfairly and, until Parliament has the opportunity of reviewing and changing the law, all appeals procedures must be based on law. It is not possible to have an appeals procedure in any other way.

Hon. Members have a chance in the Lobby tonight to show whether they support fair payments—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)


8.35 pm
Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) made a characteristically robust speech, but he was somewhat unfair about the motion and the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). Given the hon. Gentleman's small majority in Dover, it might also be regarded as a somewhat reckless speech.

As a member of the Select Committee, I welcomed the Government's decision to accept the recommendations which allowed absent parents to keep more of their income. I believe that that addresses the real problems which absent parents have been experiencing.

The Government could have gone further in their response to other issues—particularly asking absent parents to pay retrospectively from the moment that the assessment form is sent to them. The Government should carefully consider the recommendations by the Committee that the payment should be made from the time the assessment is made after the form is sent back to the CSA.

The CSA has been criticised by hon. Members today, and the Committee did so previously, for the way in which it has been working. It has been suggested that the CSA is swamped with work. Hopefully, further changes might be made to the formula which will affect the targets the CSA has been set and the way in which it manages its work. We need information about how the CSA has been affected, and what assistance will be given to the staff to meet the changes.

I turn to one area which has not been mentioned in the debate. In the letters which I have received from constituents, and from people from all over the country—as a Committee member, I have been sent letters from different groups—what has come across to me is the bitterness, hurt and anger which people are feeling about the work of the CSA.

I have been somewhat surprised to hear hon. Members say today that they have been surprised at that reaction. Surely, if the Government set out with the task of requiring parents to take financial responsibility for their children, there is bound to be such a reaction. We should have known that that was going to happen and been prepared for it. Perhaps we should have taken more seriously the idea of phasing in. We should have thought about it.

What has happened demonstrates to me a certain myopia in the way that we have dealt with families and family issues in social policy. We have sought to make divorce easier and more civilised by making it easier to arrive at. We have enabled couples to divorce in a way that allows them to maintain a relationship with their children and, necessarily, with their former partner. We have not sufficiently taken into account the effects of all that on children.

Anyone who saw the "Panorama" programme on Monday night could not fail to be impressed by the anguish that had been caused to children. Parents believed that they were doing the right thing and helping their children by separating and ending an unhappy marriage. But they caused anguish to their children which the children did not express because they were unable to do so, given their relationship with their parents.

Perhaps the Government should take some of the taxpayers' money that we have been talking about—the rights of the taxpayer are recognised by Opposition Members, too—and use it to help families to stay together. If they used it to fund research into the effects on children of the child support policy, other policies, long-term unemployment, divorce, separation and becoming mem—bers of new families, we could start to see a real return from the work of the Child Support Agency.

We would not simply be in defensive mode, trying to justify the work of the agency. The agency is hurting people. There is real hurt out there. Genuine hurt is being expressed to all of us, if we are honest about what people are saying to us. If we used some of the money in the way that I have suggested, we could make something positive come out of the experiences of the past few months.

8.41 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I agreed with the tone and substance of the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy). The problem that we are grappling with today is how we frame arrangements for divorce. We are rightly asking parents to take responsibility for their children. Often, those parents have entered into financial arrangements or commitments to a second family on the basis of ground rules that Parliament has now altered dramatically.

My concern is not so much for families who divorce now, after the Child Support Agency has come into operation. My concern is the extent to which we can and should mitigate the dramatic effects that the legislation is having on families who, under previous arrangements, made commitments in good faith for themselves, their second partner and their second family.

I found it difficult to take seriously some of the comments made by some Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon), who is no longer in her place, wanted to see the whole system swept away. She condemned any idea that there was merit in using revenue from the Child Support Agency to offset benefit payments provided by taxpayers.

The point about tax was well made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when he pointed out that maintenance provides the parent with care with a portable income. It enables the parent with care to take employment, without the risk of benefit automatically being withdrawn, leaving her no better off than before. Certainly, women have come to my surgery since the general election to complain to me that, under the previous arrangements, it was impossible for them to take a job, because they would have been no better off in employment than remaining on income support.

Nor should we dismiss the idea that it is important to put money back into the Treasury. I believe that about £4.9 billion is spent by the taxpayer on income-related benefits for single-parent families. That is roughly equivalent to half the total annual spending of the Department for Education. It is not a small sum.

To be fair to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), to his credit he has never shied away from the fact that any arrangements that we may make to mitigate the impact of the Child Support Act 1991 on the absent parent will mean either that less money goes to the parent with care or less accrues to the Treasury, with consequences for Government spending or taxation in the broader sense.

Some Opposition Back-Bench Members have neglected the extent to which the old system was inadequate. It was arbitrary. Decisions were inconsistent. Far too many parents with care of children were left without any support.

My right hon. Friend gave the statistics. He said that 90 per cent. of CSA cases involved children whose parents were so poor that they were on benefit. In two thirds of cases in the first year, no maintenance whatever had been paid. Three quarters of lone parents receive no regular maintenance whatever. That is evidence that reform was urgently needed.

I am afraid that I am unpersuaded by the notion that a review process is the way in which to address the matter. If an independent review body is to meet the expectations of the people who complain about the impact of the CSA, it will have to go further than the four or five constituency cases to which my hon. Friend for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) referred in an intervention. Then we will be into a discussion of what should be the criteria for a review. Either we would risk returning to a system of pure discretion, with arbitrary and inconsistent decisions, or we would have to list the criteria very clearly.

The hon. Member for Garscadden gave us some illustrations of the type of rules that might apply in such a review procedure. I am afraid that they sounded as if they were couched in general terms that would give rise to demand for an additional tier of appeal beyond appeal at first instance, or to attempts to seek judicial review of a decision on the grounds that the independent reviewer had failed to interpret the rules properly in the specific case before him.

An area in which we could take further action, following the welcome changes announced by my hon. Friend the Minister last week, is in some of the details of the formula. The arguments about stepchildren have been well aired in the Chamber. I simply refer my hon. Friend the Minister to the case of one couple in my constituency who are both now in their second marriage.

The man is being asked by the CSA to make a much higher maintenance payment for the children of his first marriage, who live with his ex-wife. His stepchildren—the children of his second wife—receive virtually nothing from his second wife's ex-husband, because he is unemployed and receiving benefit. When there is that discrepancy in payments, it makes for neither trust and support for the arrangements that Parliament has put in place nor for healthy family relationships for any of the couples or parents.

Travel-to-work costs have been mentioned by several of my hon. Friends. Certainly the cost of travelling from Aylesbury to London is not small. I would not expect the Government to enter an open-ended commitment to pay any amount of travel-to-work costs of an absent parent for all time, but I wonder whether they should consider a time-limited or cash-limited arrangement to enable people to make the transition.

Even with the 18-month transitional period announced last week, there is no doubt that the new arrangements put in place by the CSA can make life extremely difficult for absent parents who have entered into financial and family commitments on the basis of previous rules.

On the operation of the Child Support Agency, when I have phoned the parliamentary desk at the Dudley regional office my queries have been answered courteously and efficiently. However, I am concerned for those of my constituents who have not had such a fortunate experience. I have been told of forms lost, letters going without response and telephones left apparently permanently engaged.

However, the hon. Member for Broadgreen alluded to the worst problem—the great gap in time which so often elapses between a request for a new assessment being made to the CSA and that assessment being served on the absent parent. As a result, the parent is faced all at once with arrears, which may run into many hundreds of pounds, with no opportunity to make provision for the payment.

My right hon. and hon. Friends should therefore consult the chief executive of the Child Support Agency to find out how those administrative and managerial problems can be overcome. That task, as well as possible further changes to the formula, needs to be tackled, if the agency and the principles that underlie the Child Support Act 1991 are to win the public support that they deserve.

8.50 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Although it is tempting, because of the time factor I will not respond to some of the remarks made by Conservative Members. Suffice it to say that I find that the arrogance of some of their remarks—especially those of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw)—does little to enhance the democratic processes. We are trying to resolve a difficult problem which, as constituency Members of Parliament, we all face.

It is also easy to think that we are debating the abolition of the Child Support Agency, when we are trying to resolve the problems that have confronted certain people and to consider how they affect children. Sometimes, one would think from hon. Members' comments—especially those of Conservative Members—that children are inanimate objects, who can be moved around like pieces of furniture. We are talking about children—the children of first marriages, second marriages and stepchildren. We are also talking about the hurt and concern that has been caused not only to children but to all the other family members.

There has been an element of hypocrisy in the debate. Conservative Members say that they care about children, when in reality they are talking about saving money. They talk about the rights and responsibilities of taxpayers, but as a taxpayer who does not have children I am happy to pay my taxes for their benefit. I think that they are a greater priority than spending money on Trident. Those are the sort of political priorities that we are here to decide, and hon. Members would be well advised to heed them.

My colleagues and I on the nationalist Benches will support the Opposition motion. The Minister and the Secretary of State should realise that we are being asked to absorb a series of complex changes in the working of the agency. Announcements were made before Christmas, and the officers with whom I have had to deal were not sure how and when they were supposed to implement the changes.

Another series of changes was announced last week and today, and the Secretary of State said in his opening speech that thousands of reassessment letters would be sent out during the next two or three weeks. That will place the agencies and their representatives under a huge amount of stress and it also places continuing stress on the parents involved. Whenever a new letter arrives, they do not know whether it is good, bad or indifferent news, or whether they will face yet another problematic form, which they have to fill in to resolve the situation. There should be a clear time scale for implementation of the changes. Our constituents should be given that reassurance.

I have had to deal with a substantial number of cases in my area. Other hon. Members have referred to the fact that they represent constituencies where armed forces personnel live. There are two Royal Air Forces bases in Moray—RAF Lossie and RAF Kinloss—which are well recognised and respected. The bulk of the cases that I have had to deal with have involved people from the bases. They seem to be readily identifiable, and have already been paying maintenance for their children from a first marriage or previous relationship, yet they seem to be the first people to be landed with a reassessment. They are also not allowed to get into debt.

At my surgery on Friday, I learned of a flight lieutenant who has taken early retirement from the Air Force because of debts that he could not meet, caused by his reassessment. As a result, he will lose some of his pension rights. There is a strong argument for reviewing how we deal with the people we expect to go into any conflict on our behalf, if that is how we treat them.

The formula lacks flexibility. The Secretary of State seems to be arguing for a rigid formula, but when one is dealing with families and children, we cannot have that rigidity of rule. We need flexibility.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) would agree, given his legal training, that we need the sort of attitude that has been tried and tested in the sheriff courts of Scotland for centuries, where decisions on aliment and maintenance were based on very sensible grounds. The men in those courts listened and understood the reality of life. They knew all about hard knocks, and ensured that all aspects of people's lives were taken into account before decisions were reached.

I must emphasise that the retrospective aspect of the legislation is intolerable, as other hon. Members have said. Also, in a rural constituency such as I represent, travel-to-work payments are important, and I ask for discretion on that matter.

The Secretary of State did not understand my argument earlier. Perhaps I did not express it effectively. From my work with one of the legal companies in my constituency, I know of a girl who is seeking to raise a paternity suit in the Scottish courts. She has been denied access to legal aid because, until she proclaims the name of the child's father to the Child Support Agency, the legal aid forms cannot be signed.

That role is not suitable for the CSA. Surely it should be restricted to the legal profession. I shall send the papers to the Secretary of State and the Minister, as the matter concerns me greatly. I may have come across only one such case, but I am sure that other hon. Members will have encountered similar ones.

It is very difficult for these young women to decide to raise paternity suits. Such a course is not undertaken lightly; it requires courage, especially in small communities where people tend to know a great deal about each other's business.

I should like to refer now to a matter about which I wrote to the Secretary of State this week. A couple from my constituency who separated last year decided to reconcile. In such a situation, will money be reclaimed from the wife if she received income support during her husband's absence? Will there be any exchange, or will the separation be deemed never to have occurred? A couple trying to get together again should not have to face such a debt. This is an unusual aspect of the situation, but it is an important one as people do try to work out their differences.

The Secretary of State has said that the chief executive of the Child Support Agency did not receive performance-related pay. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of evidence that was taken on 2 November 1993. On that occasion, Mrs. Hepplewhite made it quite clear that performance-related pay was involved. It was stated that clear targets had been set, and that if they were not reached, there would be an alteration in pay structure.

I have it in black and white. This is one aspect of the whole affair that our constituents find difficult to accept. They feel that they are being penalised in order to pay someone else. What we are asking for, in the name of all humanity, is not performance-related pay for executives but flexibility and a humanitarian attitude towards our constituents and their families.

9 pm

Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

I welcome in particular the last part of the amendment, which indicates that the Government will keep the arrangements under continuing close review as further experience is gained. Like many other hon. Members, I am sure, I shall gain further experience of the Child Support Agency at the constituency surgery tomorrow night. When one is confronted with such cases one never knows what problem is going to arise.

During the debate on 2 February, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), referring to constituents rather than to himself—as I am doing—said: 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."—[Official Report, 2 February 1994; Vol 236, c. 968.] The Child Support Agency ought to make much better use of the telephone when contacting fathers about their assessments. If it wonders what sort of standard it should aim at, let me suggest one. My constituents and I received nothing but help from the disability living allowance telephone unit in Blackpool when we encountered difficulties with the introduction of that allowance. If the CSA aims at such a standard, progress will be made.

However, it must phone at sensible times. It is obvious that people who go out to work should be called when they have returned home. That will mean evening calls. My experience is that when, occasionally, people manage to get through to the CSA by telephone, problems can be solved, but the agency must demonstrate flexibility and sensitivity.

I agree with those hon. Members who have said that they do not like the term "absent parent". It is a misleading and upsetting term. On 2 February 1994 my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State—my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt)—said: There can be no clean break between a parent and his children."—[Official Report, 2 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 943.] It would be much better to refer to the parent without custody.

As I have said, the amendment refers to the Government's intention to undertake a close review as further experience is gained. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will remember that many fathers not only are in touch with their children but contribute over and above maintenance payments. Sometimes they take the children on holiday or buy them clothes and presents. In other words, there is no clean break. These people are making an additional contribution towards the well-being of their children.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the question of travel-to-work costs. As a Member from the south-east, I want to emphasise this problem. Some system of relief ought to be built in. Of course, such relief would be time-limited, as children get older and maintenance changes accordingly. If, as I suspect, the Child Support Agency is anxious about how this might be worked out, let me suggest that there is a case for looking at the tax system to see whether it can be used to provide some relief in respect of travel-to-work costs. Some people have a company car or receive a mileage allowance for using their own car or have their British Rail season ticket paid for by the firm. Anyone who does not receive such help could be granted a temporary adjustment in his income tax code.

It cannot be beyond the wit of the Government to use the tax system to provide a temporary help to people who want to stay in work but find, as a result of their assessment, that their travel-to-work costs swallow even more of their taxed income so that they face difficulty in staying in work. Throughout the debate, the Government have endlessly emphasised that they want as many people as possible to stay in work or get back to work. Will they use the tax system to help people pay their travel-to-work costs?

People are understandably worried about what will happen if their income suddenly drops. Will their assessment be changed quickly or will they be pursued immediately on the basis of their previous income? The Child Support Agency sometimes makes the mistake of not differentiating between salary and earnings. Earnings fluctuate and some bonuses are paid not monthly but annually, if one is lucky. I had a dreadful job trying to get it across to the Child Support Agency that a constituent received an annual bonus if he was lucky and that a monthly bonus was not built into his earnings. The agency must take the greatest care to differentiate between straight wages and earnings.

Another problem experienced by constituents arises when the father can genuinely no longer pay because he has lost his job or been sacked. In that case, will the mother be able to return to benefit quickly and without difficulty? That problem needs attention.

I welcome the Government's assurance that details of the second wife's income will not be passed to the first wife where it is irrelevant to an assessment. I hope that there will be more publicity on that, because it is one of the greatest causes of complaint. We should stress and explain to people that, if the second wife has a very low income or no income whatever, taking it into account for an assessment means that her husband will pay less. People do not mind giving intimate details of their financial affairs if it means that they pay less.

In the previous debate on this subject, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) spoke of the welcome changes which the Government are introducing. He said: 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."—[Official Report, 2 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 947.] That sounds a little ominous. It is a political decision to introduce more phasing in and alter assessments. Those changes are welcome and I support them, but I am worried about delays to the normal day-to-day business of the agency because that might mean further delays for people who are in the middle of dealing with the agency.

I appeal to the Government to make the Child Support Agency more sensitive, courteous and customer friendly. They have made political decisions in the right direction and assured us that further changes will be made in the light of experience. I appreciate the fact that they do not do the day-to-day administration. It is done by the Child Support Agency. I hope that the agency will strive for better standards, because those are vital.

9.7 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

While many of my constituents would put out the flag if they heard that the Child Support Agency was to be consigned to the scrap heap, I hope that we can, by less drastic means, adapt the working of the agency to the mutual benefit of absent parents and parents with care. I hope that we can reassure parents that the agency can do its job without striking fear into the hearts of people who are paying three and sometimes four times what they were paying under a court agreement. We should also send the message that we are listening to their concerns and are prepared to take action.

Reassurance can only come from a change to the fundamental workings of the agency itself. We all agree that an absent parent must fulfil a financial obligation to his children. The CSA can never function fairly unless that is its only objective. The powers of the CSA go far beyond that basic principle. In many cases, the formula has given rise to such huge increases in maintenance agreements that it is hard to believe that the assessment was based on the needs of the child. Indeed, we have all heard of the classic case of the absent parent who can no longer afford to visit his children because of increased maintenance payments.

Under the present system, many absent parents are being asked to increase maintenance payments substantially, with next to no consideration being given to their financial obligations towards any children that they have by a subsequent marriage. When a maintenance settlement previously agreed in court between parents is trebled, or sometimes quadrupled, can it really be said that it is for the sake of child maintenance? If a perfectly reasonable court settlement is destroyed by increasing the maintenance payments, in many cases far beyond the amount that the individual can afford to pay, such action will act against the interests of the child.

Even after the recent changes, the scheme will disproportionately benefit the wealthiest parents. The poorest absent parents will pay an additional 85p in maintenance for every extra £1 of income. Those whose disposable incomes allow them to meet the basic requirement will pay an extra 50p, while the wealthiest absent parents will pay only a further 25p maximum, and less if they have fewer children. If the child support scheme is to succeed, it must be fair to all parents. How else can it be said that it protects the interests of the child?

I believe that the formula for maintenance assessment is designed specifically so that the maximum amoung of money is extracted from the absent parent. That is the root of the problem. If the formula is to remain unchanged, at the very least the public should be given the right of appeal to the agency for a review of the assessment, although I am sure that we would all have preferred to see a fairer system in the first place. All too often, there is no justification for the agency's involvement. I refer, for example, to a couple who made an informal mutually acceptable and long-standing financial agreement based on the needs of the child. Why interfere in such cases? What can the agency achieve by its involvement that has not been achieved already by the parents?

One case came to my attention of a woman who has had an informal agreement with her ex-husband for many years and received money from him every month on the same day without fail. The CSA came along—not at her request—and upped his maintenance payment. She readily admits that she did not need the increase. The result of that interference was that the ex-husband now pays the money direct to the CSA, which is supposed to pass it on to her within a few days. She has not once yet received her money on the appointed day. When she telephones the CSA to complain about that, it can never tell her when she will receive the money. The reason that the agency give is that the cheque may be in one, two or three different places.

Who benefits from that? The absent parent who pays more does not; nor does the parent with care who does not receive the maintenance on time, although the CSA has received it on time. Quite clearly, the interests of the child are not the motivating factor in the CSA's involvement in such a case. Why does it need to be involved in a mutually successful arrangement? I hope that the Secretary of State can explain who benefits from that and perhaps clarify whether it is to prevent child poverty or simply to raise money for the Treasury as a form of indirect tax.

I would dearly like to see the CSA doing what we were told that it would do—chase absent parents who pay no maintenance or pay it at inadequate levels. Like my colleagues, I have cases in my constituency where people are vowing to leave work rather than work to pay such huge increases and be left with just a pittance. Recently, a gentleman wrote to me: I have no objection to paying sensible, affordable maintenance but the CSA has left me financially worse off working than being on benefits … I would prefer to work but I am not stupid and if the CSA make it easier to be unemployed, that then is my obvious option. The issue of clean break settlements has been widely discussed, and rightly so: it is a bone of contention that will not go away. For years, the courts have encouraged property transfer as part of a comprehensive divorce settlement; any parent who walked away from the marital home with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes he or she was wearing has a right to feel aggrieved when told that that now means nothing at all—which is fundamentally wrong.

A gentleman who came to see me recently had been party to a once-and-for-all break. He told me that he had left the marital home with a cut-glass vase that his mother had given him for his birthday, and nothing else. He was paying £100 a month in maintenance for his children. The CSA became involved. Now he has to pay £400 a month. He feels aggrieved, and no wonder.

Many absent parents simply cannot afford to pay what is asked of them. I examined the weekly budget of one family in which a parent had remarried, had one stepchild and was responsible for the maintenance of a child from a previous relationship. That parent could pay his maintenance only by ceasing to travel to see his son, and by paying for no more school trips, clothes, holidays, pocket money and telephone calls: those were the only voluntary elements of his budget. That gentleman lives in my constituency, in Durham; his child lives on the Isle of Wight. That is why I mentioned the travelling.

I believe that the Government misled us by suggesting that the agency's purpose was to pursue maintenance dodgers. It exists simply to reduce social security costs. It is not too late to reassess the workings of the agency, and to refine them—in short, to enable it to carry out what I was led to believe was its purpose: securing maintenance payments for children who would otherwise receive nothing, or next to nothing.

9.16 pm
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

There is plainly an enormous amount of common ground on the assertion that the problems we have encountered with the CSA stem not from the principles of the Child Support Act—which are fundamentally sound, and generally approved of—but from the consequential regulations and administrative provisions that the House empowered Ministers to put into practical effect.

We—by which I mean hon. Members on both sides of the House, including busy Ministers: they have constituents too—trusted, perhaps too readily, that a measure containing so much justice in principle would be justly administered from the outset, and would be seen to be so. The Child Support Agency was introduced into an extremely sensitive and emotionally charged area. I remember the matrimonial cases with which I dealt during my practice at the Bar in the early 1970s; nothing much has changed since then. The bitterness, anger and resentments that are inseparable from divorce proceedings—particu- larly where children are concerned—are all too frequently of a harrowing magnitude that no one could fully understand without experiencing or witnessing them.

The CSA set out to unpick many of the arrangements that had been so carefully constructed, and so often finally settled after months—even years—of recrimination and sorrow. That required very sensitive handling. Unfortunately, the whole thing got off to a poor start owing to bad publicity based on, for instance, a leaked report of priorities, and the reporting of examples that, by comparison, almost rehabilitated Shylock.

Initially, I had a sense that my serious concerns on behalf of some constituents with genuine grievances were not being dealt with sympathetically enough. Since then, Ministers and the CSA itself have been working fast to improve matters—to publicise the true facts effectively, and to persuade us, our constituents and the media of those facts. Those moves include the welcome concessions on which we voted last week, which will help matters significantly when they are properly understood. That is a crucial condition.

I do not intend to go into individual constituents' cases. I shall continue to take them up by letter and by personal meetings with my hon. and right hon. Friends the Ministers most directly concerned. My main purpose today is to mark my continuing concern about certain features of the operation of the agency and of the rules and regulations which apply. I reinforce what the Government amendment makes clear: that the present arrangements will be kept under continuing close review. Of course they must be.

9.19 pm
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I feel as though I have become the Marjorie Proops of the House of Commons as I have brought into the Chamber a pile of letters—more than a foot high—that have been sent to me from all parts of the country about the so-called Child Support Act. Those letters express the anger, bitterness and despair that many men, women and children and their families feel about how the Act is working.

I received one letter this morning; it is the last one on the pile. It says: As a person who has always supported my children and has done so not because it was the law but because I take pride in my duty as an absent parent, I now find myself unable to comply with the unrealistic demands of the CSA formula and unable not to comply with the CSA demands for fear of criminal prosecution … this crippling increase, implemented in a haste destroyed mine and my partner's life … we are not unwilling to pay we are unable.". When we examine any legislation, we should consider whether we support the principle and the way it is to be put into practice and agree that the result is what was intended. Each letter supports the principle of parents maintaining their children. Far from wanting to abandon their children, there is an overwhelming feeling of wanting to maintain contact.

The Minister should see some of the letters that I have received from Families Need Fathers to know how desperately fathers battle against women who use children to spite their former partners and deny them access, and how they struggle to maintain contact. Even where there is no conflict, it is mostly men who travel many miles to reassure their children that they still love and care for them. So there is no disagreement about the principle of the Act, but there is a huge tide of feeling about how it is being put into practice.

Many of the letters speak of clean break settlements under the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings act 1984 which had been agreed in courts and not discouraged by the Government at the time. How can the Government now turn that Act on its head and say to absent fathers, "You may have given up your home and its contents and given a lump sum to your wife as well as paying some maintenance to the child. You may have taken out a large mortgage and bought a car on hire purchase, which is essential for your work, with any money you had left. You may have other purchase agreements and responsibilities, but we shall ignore your commitments and previous court settlements with the statement that your first responsibility must be to maintain your child." What do the Government consider such a man had been doing under the court procedure?

The inflexibility of the formula is damaging the lives of far too many people. The Government say that the vast majority of those approached so far have never paid maintenance. That is good, but what about the remainder, the responsible parents who have been paying maintenance, who have taken over family debts and who are now faced with long-term commitments which they can no longer meet? They may have long-term commitments to new families or other children. Do they have no rights?

Are those responsible, caring men and women to be threatened and treated in a way which reduces them to pleading desperately in those letters, "I cannot pay this amount. Please can someone help me?" When did it become right to act arrogantly, without even a spark of decency or understanding, when dealing with families and children?

What of the children? Not very much has been said about the children by Conservative Members, but have the Government no understanding of the strain that divorce and family break-up cause to children? Do they not understand the need of children to know that both parents love and want them? Does the standard formula that produces predictable and realistic amounts—as the Child Support Agency describes its formula—take into account the warmth and reassurance that children need to grow arid the contact that they need with both parents? As many of the letters show, contact between parents and the children does not enter the calculations of the Child Support Agency.

Is that what the Child Support Act 1991 was intended to do? Can we not find a halfway house, another way—something that takes the children's feelings into account? Is there not some other way of assessing maintenance which considers children and their needs—not the need for money, but for care, for contact and for their feeling and the way in which they wish to grow to be taken into account?

I would not wish the decision to be made by courts again, for they, too, failed miserably in dealing with maintenance payments. The principle of the Act is right. The inflexibility of the formula is wrong. Surely an Act with a formula that puts so many decent people into debt and drives them to despair, causing them to write letters in such vast numbers to me, cannot be what was intended.

The Minister must reconsider immediately and amend this flawed and unsatisfactory Act.

9.26 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Since time immemorial, women have been left holding the baby in poverty and it has taken until 1993 and the present Government to put the matter right. If the teeth of the Act are to be drawn, we shall return to the situation of relatively rich father and relatively poor mother, and we do not wish to do that.

There has been a black hole in much of the debate—one that was referred to by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) in his opening remarks, in which he said, blatantly, that the majority of people in the House were in favour of major changes. That is simply because the hon. Members who have been able to speak—or perhaps have come to speak—have largely spoken for an articulate minority of men who have sat down and written to us or come to our constituency surgeries. However, I shall speak for the great number of women—the silent women—who benefit from the reforms and are grateful for them.

I shall also speak for another silent minority in the country, those who pay for the reforms. I have received a letter from a pensioner who says: As a … pensioner, no State benefits, I was delighted to hear that the Government have at last decided to ensure that people who have children do not expect them to be supported by single people, pensioners and childless couples". She says that she has saved and paid for her pension all her life and that she should not be expected to help men shirk their responsibilities. That is another silent group of people that we need to take into account before we start speaking about changing the Act.

It is interesting that in the debate all that we have heard about is men not wanting to part with more money for the children of their first marriage. That has been the basic theme. We have heard about the little treats that they give children—the extra pair of trainers, the sweeties, the trip to the zoo, the holiday. Why should they not pay? They should pay a proper amount so that their children do not have to wait for daddy to turn up and give them a few crumbs from his income. That is not how we should expect people to behave.

Reference has been made to the way in which the Child Support Agency operates. I am glad that some of my colleagues complimented the agency because every case that I have brought to its attention has been handled courteously, promptly and kindly. I have nothing but good to say about the job that Ms Hepplewhite is trying to do under new legislation which is extremely contentious.

I am sure that all hon. Members will admit that most complaints have come from men. It is almost axiomatic that it is articulate, middle-class men—or sometimes their second wives—who are writing to us because it is the better-off fathers who are expected to pay more. By definition, poorer fathers are not expected to pay, if they are expected to pay anything at all. Their second family responsibilities are taken into account before the payments for their first families are calculated, and stepchildren are included in the calculation.

There must be no suggestion that the Government reverse the changes that have been introduced. The changes were greatly needed and were welcomed by all the women to whom I have spoken. I have only one further suggestion to make to the Government.

The women to whom I speak are grateful for the help that the Government are giving, but, in addition to keeping the extra payments, they would like to be able to go out to work and earn a little more. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to talk to the Treasury team about giving these women a little more support. They do not want to be dependent on state benefits or have to hold out their hand for a little extra from the father of their children. They want to be independent and the Government are helping them to be so.

9.31 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

This is the International Year of the Family, an irony that has not escaped me as I have listened to the catalogue of complaints from hon. Members of all parties about how a Government agency acts against the interests of parents and children. One of the aims of the IYF, according to the Government-funded office in London, is to be a catalyst for building a more family friendly society. The IYF booklet tells us: Opinions may vary about what family means, but we all agree now more than ever before, that families matter and their well being and that of each individual member of the family is crucial to the well being of society. The Children Act 1989 also put centre stage the interests of the child.

I am glad that that the Secretary of State seems to have moved on a little from his appalling speech at the Tory party conference two years ago when he talked about single young ladies trying to jump the housing queue by becoming lone mothers. I hope that some of his remarks tonight mean that he has a little more understanding of the situation.

From what we have heard today and from our constituency post bags, it is abundantly clear that the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency are not working in the best interests of children and families—they do not have their interests at heart—and that they are not working in quite the way the Government predicted. Last week we debated the Government's regulations to amend the agency. The changes were welcome, but they were not sufficiently far reaching or comprehensive.

The Secretary of State, and the Prime Minister only today, said that the agency would be kept constantly under review. I think it was the Prime Minister who said that we should need more evidence before we make any more alterations. Presumably, we have to wait for the other 250,000 cases to come forward. We are all aware that the agency will have to be altered before long if its principle is to work without the hardship that its application causes to many people.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) rightly said that some mothers—4 per cent.—have benefited from the legislation, and I welcome that fact; it is great. Most of us support the principle of non-resident parents—mostly men—supporting their children financially and emotionally. Precious few have said that it is not a matter of either/or—just because 4 per cent. are benefiting does not mean that the rest should suffer as a result. That is the implication. As we have heard tonight, some will be worse off, as they will be floated off income support, with the subsequent loss of passported benefits.

The hon. Member for Billericay ridiculed the loss of one-off payments. There is nothing wrong or worthy of derision in a father agreeing to pay for a holiday, buy the shoes and contribute—that is what fatherhood is all about and I welcome it. Those are some of the things that the non-residential parents are doing.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Lestor

I shall not give way. With great courtesy, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that both the Government and the Opposition Front-Bench teams agreed to cut the length of their speeches so that more Back Benchers could speak. I have a lot to say and, although I speak quickly, I might not have time to advance all my arguments.

Some people have lost benefit because they have refused to co-operate with the agency. That is terrible. It may involve a small number of people—160, I believe—but if people had an incentive and a disregard, it might assist in bringing irresponsible, absent fathers to book.

We are all aware of the devastating impact of the Act on second families and stepchildren. It puts a strain on new relationships and causes hardship to the children. It is the children about whom I am concerned. All those problems were predicted when we first discussed the then Child Support Agency Bill. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) referred to my speech in that debate, because the Government refused to listen.

The then Minister, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), accused us of political deceit when we tabled our reasoned amendment. He said that we were trying to undermine in the mind of the public the wholly honourable intentions of the Bill."—[Official Report, 4 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 240] A lot of history has been rewritten tonight. I want to make it clear that we supported the principle that men should be responsible for the children that they father. That was why we did not vote on Second Reading of the Bill. We tabled the reasoned amendment to show some of the difficulties that would arise from the Bill.

We argued that clean break settlements should be properly taken into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) now supports the principle that the impact of the Act on second families should be taken into account. Indeed, Ministers were keen during discussions to play up the moral argument, but they did not take account of the fact that many people were already contributing. I remember one hon. Member referring to "tower block stags", who tend to jump from one flat to another with no responsibility for the children they father. That got a "Hear, hear" from Ministers. The message was clear and many people were misled.

The Child Support Agency was supposed to be the means by which non-resident, irresponsible fathers who did not contribute a penny to the families they had abandoned were to be brought to account. I am afraid that it has not worked out like that. CSA staff have been advised to go after the soft targets first—parents on higher than average incomes, parents with second families, parents who rent rather than have a mortgage and those who are in regular contact with their first families. Those are not the Jack-the-lads whom we were told were the principal targets of the Act. It is disgraceful that those who refused to name the father of their children have had their benefit taken away or reduced.

There is another difficulty. The agency has made many mistakes. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) gave me the example of a man who received through his letter box a demand for £75. He was told that he was responsible for a child he had fathered and for whom he had not paid. The demand bore his name, but it was not his child. When he asked for details, he was told that he could have them. What happened? His marriage temporarily broke up and, as the man had had a vasectomy, the efficacy of medical science was also undermined. That is not on. Surely to goodness when an agency or anyone else is chasing an absent father, it should make sure that it has the right man before it makes a move.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Even worse than that has happened in the same neighbourhood. A father committed suicide when he was told how much he had to pay, and the inquest said that it was all because of the Act.

Miss Lestor

Yes; I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Many such parents are responsible caring parents, who pay regularly and who share the care of their children. The hon. Member for Billericay dismisses such matters, but those fathers take care of their children, take them on holiday and buy them clothes and all sorts of other extras above the maintenance levels agreed in court.

The White Paper "Children Come First" has been totally undermined. Because of the agency's involvement, some first and second families are financially worse off, and some children are seeing less, or even nothing, of their father if he cannot afford visiting costs on top of the increased maintenance. Is that putting the interests of the child first?

Indeed, some fathers have been told that they would be better off if they became unemployed, because the sums demanded from them are unworkable. Who would benefit from that? Not the family, not the father and not the Exchequer. Some fathers slip through the net altogether. I was advised that when fathers are really absent, because they are resident abroad, the agency can take no action.

The giveaway was making the agency chief executive into a bounty hunter. When the Secretary of State opened the debate—

Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)


Miss Lestor


Mr. Jenkin

You are wasting time, dear.

Miss Lestor

Don't call me dear.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Come over here and say that.

Miss Lestor

He dare not. He has not got the guts.

The giveaway was making the agency chief executive into a bounty hunter through the introduction of performance-related bonuses. The Secretary of State said that that was not so, and that the arrangement was no different from what happened everywhere else. However, he said that there were no plans to make the document available in the Library; so if what he says is true, will he publish the details of the enforcement and special tracing section? My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) has already asked for that, and his request was refused.

When the Bill was passed, it was said that it would operate on a straightforward principle, aiming to improve on the existing court system that had failed so many mothers and their children, leaving more than 80 per cent. of lone parents on income support. We were told that that was the principle—but family policies are never that straightforward, and Acts of Parliament, especially those such as the Child Support Act, which have such a strong and direct impact on the lives of ordinary families, cannot be viewed in isolation.

The backdrop should be a coherent family policy which embraces employment opportunities, a national child care strategy and a mediation and conciliation service to help families cope with the stresses of separation and divorce. The CSA is operating in a vacuum. Although this is the international year of the family, there is no Minister for the family to develop a co-ordinated approach to support for families; instead, the Government are concentrating on penny-pinching short-term measures that increase costs in the longer term, both financially and socially.

At the beginning, when the agency was first set up, the Government argued strongly that the taxpayer should not be left to pay for other people's children. I do not regard money spent on children as wasted, unlike the tens of millions of pounds that were lost pushing ahead with the iniquitous poll tax and then scrapping it, or the administrative bungling recently unearthed by the Public Accounts Committee, the £48 million Whitehall project. There have been all sorts of losses. I say to hon. Gentleman, and to the Minister in particular—[interruption.]—and hon. Ladies—that most people in this country would prefer—[Interruption.] Don't be so stupid.

Given the choice, I know how I should prefer my taxes to be spent, and I think most people in the country would want to put children first. Cherishing children is an important principle, yet today their interests are being sacrificed to feed the Exchequer.

Most of the hon. Gentlemen who spoke—not the hon. Ladies—said that they were dissatisfied with the working of the agency. They pointed out the hardship that it was causing and they were absolutely right to do so, as were all my hon. Friends who spoke. If that is true and if that is what those hon. Gentlemen believe, I ask them to join us in the Lobby tonight. There have been hardly any supporters of the Child Support Act 1991 here tonight.

Mrs. Gorman

The supporters are outside.

Miss Lestor

The hon. Lady said that they are not here, but outside. Few have got up and stood for the Act—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman ought to get up and say what he has got to say and not snipe.

Mr. Burt


Miss Lestor

I am not talking to the Minister. I am talking to the one with the silly grin on his face.

If Conservative Members who have spoken are concerned—I share their concern and we know that what they say makes sense—about the operation of the Act, if they join us in the Lobby tonight, we can begin to alter the Act and establish a principle that, yes, not only makes people responsible for their children but does not impoverish second families and put the interests of children at risk. Those are the principles and that is why we have moved the motion. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen who have complained about the operations of the agency will join us in the Lobby tonight.

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

This has been a lively debate with a variety of speeches. They have been mostly measured speeches on both sides of the House, and there have been one or two that we would have wanted to listen to again. As I said in the past week—the debate is second on child support recently—I am not 100 per cent. certain that all the speeches made in the House showed an acceptance of the basic principles of the Child Support Act 1991. I should like to develop that theme and suggest to the House why our amendment is the best way to move forward in the circumstances.

The Child Support Act 1991 did a number of things. It certainly reiterated a principle which we all find easy to sign up to—that parents should be responsible for their children. No one seriously disagrees with that. However, I must remind the House that the Act did other things as well which we now find not so comfortable with which to identify.

First, the move from a discretionary system to a formula system was deliberate. My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) said clearly, and with some degree of honesty, that hon. Members had not appreciated the full impact of the move from the discretionary system to the formula, and he was right.

Secondly, the Act gave a retrospective ability to the agency to consider settlements. I wanted to make the point to the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) that it is by Act of Parliament that the agency does what it does and it is not for us to say that it is a bureaucratic organisation that acts on its own. The House must recognise its responsibility for creating the Child Support Agency which works to the formula that we set.

I am grateful for the variety of comments made about the CSA by my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), for Newark (Mr. Alexander), for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) and for Bedforshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel).

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) spoke about those who worked in his local CSA. As with all public servants, we probably all have constituents who are Child Support Agency officers. As with all other civil servants, they work according to what we wish them to do and try to do their job. I found some of the criticisms of the Child Support Agency made by Opposition Members quite uncalled for. Those who work for the agency are civil servants doing a job. I wish that all colleagues would take the opportunity to see their local field officers and to talk to them about their work.

I shall now respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy), who made an excellent, measured contribution to our debate. She especially asked what assistance we were giving the agency with the changes. We are giving assistance to the agency. We recognise that the changes will make a difference to targets and that they will make a difference to administration costs.

I hope that I have reassured the hon. Lady. She was the first Member this evening to raise the point about the sheer misery of divorce and separation, and about our growing awareness of its impact. No hon. Member of any party can safely ignore that point. The hon. Lady was right to raise the matter in the way that she did.

I spoke earlier about the House's responsibility for the Child Support Act 1991. The move from a discretionary approach to a formula and the reasons for acting retrospectively were justified. Colleagues must understand the position from which we moved. Few hon. Members have pointed out how bad the previous system was. It was because so many women did not receive maintenance through the courts that we realised that we could not go on as we were. It was because we recognised the effect on the taxpayer that we had to look at all aspects of the previous position.

I shall quote, justifiably, from the report by the Select Committee on Social Security. I want to quote this paragraph because Opposition Members repeatedly made the point about the taxpayer. I want them to see what a Select Committee—not the Government—said about that point, and I want to remind them of what they clearly intended to do a couple of years ago.

At paragraph 20, the Committee says: The Committee has received complaints that causing absent fathers to pay money which was formerly paid by the social security system is a distortion of the original purpose of the Act. There have also been criticisms that the money being sought from absent parents does not provide any extra benefits for the children. Given what was said in the White Paper, these criticisms are misconceived. One of the purposes of the changes was to provide a secure income that would enable parents with care to take paid employment without losing another part of their income, as would be the case with Income Support. However, it was always intended that, in cases where it was assessed that the absent parent could afford to do so, the financial responsibility for the care of children should move from the social security system to the absent parent. In some cases maintenance will be a substitute for Income Support; in others, the sums received by the children will certainly improve their circumstances. That is what we passed; that is what the Select Committee recently said we were right to pass. That is the principle that we should all live up to, it may be uncomfortable for hon. Members.

As we did last week, we have today confronted a number of genuine issues. The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) was right when she talked about how she wished to spend her taxes. How do we strike the right balance for our children, especially in relation to separation? How do we get the balance right between the interests of both parents and the interests of the taxpayer? Three years ago, the House was clear—let us make no bones about it—about what was the best thing to do. We felt that the first family had been disadvantaged for too long. We knew that we had to redress the balance for such families, and we knew that we had to redress the balance for the taxpayer as well.

The mood of the House has now changed; we are not quite so clear about the issue. That is the honest truth. Having seen the Act in operation, we are not quite so clear about the balance. It is because the House is less clear than it was that I invite the House to support the Government amendment. I believe that it more accurately reflects the mood of the House than does the Opposition motion, which tries to come up with a solution before the issues have been thought through.

We made our position clear with regard to the legislation. As the Select Committee said, it is the most major social change in 40 years. We made a commitmenmt that we would review the Child Support Agency once it was established. When a piece of considered work came to us reflecting the concerns of the House, our constituents and many commentators, we listened and responded. That pledge is not the empty words suggested by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). When we said that we would keep something under review, we meant that if something came up, we would respond—and we did so. That is what the House approved last week in the proper terms that we proposed.

It is right to allow the changes that we made, prompted by the Select Committee, to have effect so that we can judge the impact. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the impact on the changes will be significant. It is right to assess the impact. From the variety of issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I do not believe that simply accepting the hon. Gentleman's solution is the right answer. He suggested that there was one easy panacea.

I refer to the debate that I had with the hon. Gentleman this morning—I have had the same debate with him on one or two previous occasions—about what an appeal means. I still cannot get it out of my head that what he means by an appeal, which sounds attractive, is that in some way all those people who are concerned and upset about the changes will have a way out.

I did not think that that was a genuine and honest proposal to put to the people. We must define the gateways to the appeal system because, if everyone appeals, we would go back to the discretionary system to which the hon. Gentleman in his next breath said the House did not want to return.

As I cannot be sure that the hon. Gentleman is clear about what he wants the appeal system to do, and how he wants it to be drawn up, I cannot recommend it to my colleagues tonight. I simply say that, because of the degree of concern and uncertainty raised by my colleagues, we meant what we said in terms of keeping the Act under review. In the past, we have proved that we are able to respond, and that is what I offer my colleagues tonight.

Once again, a voice not heard so much in this debate was that of lone parents—that silent group mentioned by the Select Committee and one or two hon. Members in this debate, and championed so strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). They made the point that the House must not forget why we made the changes in the first place. If we move too precipitately to change—the House should have some experience of this now—and if we lose the gains that we have made, that would be wrong.

I shall quote from a letter that I received yesterday morning from a lady in Northampton: I am just writing to say as a single parent through no fault of my own, I am very grateful for the CSA's help. After two and a half years of no maintenance, it is now being sorted and feel I can now get on with my own life. As a nurse I can now seek employment, as the maintenance will help with costs for a childminder giving my son and myself to have a better future to look to. You have my full support and I just hope that any changes wail not affect us too much. That is the honest and straightforward voice of a woman who has seen a number of changes.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)


Mr. Burt

No. I must refuse to give way to many of my hon. Friends because time is short.

I cannot recommend the Opposition's motion to the House because of my uncertainties about it.

Let me now comment on the question of absent parents—this may help hon. Members on both sides of the House. An absent parent does not mean an errant parent. [Interruption.] I am happy to reassure the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) that we know the difference. We are chasing errant parents who did not pay money before. We are trying to find them. We have a tracing mechanism that has been successful in 89 per cent. of cases. In the past, the men involved in those cases would have disappeared. We are now catching them, and it is right to do so. All that the term "absent parent" denotes is the distinction between them and the parent with care. It is not meant to be pejorative in any way.

We have proved that when we are offered solid reasons for reform, our commitment to review the legislation is good and we respond. I am not prepared without proper consideration to return to a system of discretion, which I fear is behind much of what the hon. Member for Garscadden has said.

We will look carefully at what the Act is doing, but it was introduced to improve a system of maintenance that was bad. The system left women dependent for too long on maintenance which was not there, and on the taxpayer on whom she did not want to be dependent. I am not going to allow the lone parent to return to that position, and I ask the House—

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

rose in his place, and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 285, Noes 316.

Division No. 118] [10 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Bray, Dr Jeremy
Adams, Mrs Irene Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Ainger, Nick Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Burden, Richard
Allen, Graham Byers, Stephen
Alton, David Caborn, Richard
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Callaghan, Jim
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Armstrong, Hilary Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Ashton, Joe Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Austin-Walker, John Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Canavan, Dennis
Barnes, Harry Chisholm, Malcolm
Barron, Kevin Clapham, Michael
Battle, John Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Bayley, Hugh Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Beggs, Roy Clelland, David
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Bell, Stuart Coffey, Ann
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Cohen, Harry
Bennett, Andrew F. Connarty, Michael
Benton, Joe Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Bermingham, Gerald Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Berry, Dr. Roger Corbett, Robin
Betts, Clive Corbyn, Jeremy
Blair, Tony Corston, Ms Jean
Blunkett, David Cousins, Jim
Boateng, Paul Cox, Tom
Boyes, Roland Cryer, Bob
Bradley, Keith Cummings, John
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Darling, Alistair Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Davidson, Ian Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jowell, Tessa
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Keen, Alan
Denham, John Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Dewar, Donald Khabra, Piara S.
Dixon, Don Kilfedder, Sir James
Dobson, Frank Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Donohoe, Brian H. Kirkwood, Archy
Dowd, Jim Leighton, Ron
Dunnachie, Jimmy Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Lewis, Terry
Eagle, Ms Angela Litherland, Robert
Eastham, Ken Livingstone, Ken
Enright, Derek Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Etherington, Bill Llwyd, Elfyn
Evans, John (St Helens N) Loyden, Eddie
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Lynne, Ms Liz
Fatchett, Derek McAllion, John
Faulds, Andrew McAvoy, Thomas
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) McCartney, Ian
Fisher, Mark Macdonald, Calum
Flynn, Paul McFall, John
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McGrady, Eddie
Foster, Don (Bath) McKelvey, William
Foulkes, George Mackinlay, Andrew
Fraser, John McLeish, Henry
Fyfe, Maria McMaster, Gordon
Galloway, George McNamara, Kevin
Gapes, Mike McWilliam, John
Garrett, John Madden, Max
George, Bruce Maddock, Mrs Diana
Gerrard, Neil Mahon, Alice
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Mallon, Seamus
Godman, Dr Norman A. Marek, Dr John
Godsiff, Roger Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Golding, Mrs Llin Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Gordon, Mildred Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Graham, Thomas Martlew, Eric
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Maxton, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Meacher, Michael
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Meale, Alan
Grocott, Bruce Michael, Alun
Gunnell, John Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Hain, Peter Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Hall, Mike Milburn, Alan
Hanson, David Miller, Andrew
Hardy, Peter Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Harman, Ms Harriet Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Morgan, Rhodri
Henderson, Doug Morley, Elliot
Hendron, Dr Joe Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Heppell, John Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Hinchliffe, David Mowlam, Marjorie
Hoey, Kate Mudie, George
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) Mullin, Chris
Home Robertson, John Murphy, Paul
Hood, Jimmy Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Hoon, Geoffrey O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) O'Hara, Edward
Hoyle, Doug Olner, William
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) O'Neill, Martin
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Paisley, Rev Ian
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Parry, Robert
Hume, John Patchett, Terry
Hutton, John Pendry, Tom
Illsley, Eric Pickthall, Colin
Ingram, Adam Pike, Peter L.
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Pope, Greg
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Jamieson, David Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)
Janner, Greville Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Prescott, John Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Primarolo, Dawn Steinberg, Gerry
Purchase, Ken Stern, Michael
Quin, Ms Joyce Stevenson, George
Radice, Giles Stott, Roger
Randall, Stuart Strang, Dr. Gavin
Raynsford, Nick Straw, Jack
Redmond, Martin Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Reid, Dr John Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Rendel, David Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Tipping, Paddy
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Tyler, Paul
Roche, Mrs. Barbara Vaz, Keith
Rooker, Jeff Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Rooney, Terry Wallace, James
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Walley, Joan
Rowlands, Ted Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Ruddock, Joan Wareing, Robert N
Salmond, Alex Watson, Mike
Sedgemore, Brian Welsh, Andrew
Sheerman, Barry Wicks, Malcolm
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Simpson, Alan Wilson, Brian
Skinner, Dennis Winnick, David
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Wise, Audrey
Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury) Wray, Jimmy
Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E) Wright, Dr Tony
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Snape, Peter Tellers for the Ayes:
Soley, Clive Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and Mr. Dennis Turner.
Spearing, Nigel
Spellar, John
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Burns, Simon
Aitken, Jonathan Burt, Alistair
Alexander, Richard Butcher, John
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Butler, Peter
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Butterfill, John
Amess, David Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Ancram, Michael Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Arbuthnot, James Carrington, Matthew
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Carttiss, Michael
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Cash, William
Ashby, David Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Aspinwall, Jack Churchill, Mr
Atkins, Robert Clappison, James
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Coe, Sebastian
Baldry, Tony Colvin, Michael
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Congdon, David
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Conway, Derek
Bates, Michael Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Batiste, Spencer Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bellingham, Henry Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Bendall, Vivian Cormack, Patrick
Beresford, Sir Paul Cran, James
Biffen, Rt Hon John Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Blackburn, Dr John G. Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Body, Sir Richard Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Davis, David (Boothferry)
Booth, Hartley Day, Stephen
Boswell, Tim Deva, Nirj Joseph
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Devlin, Tim
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Dickens, Geoffrey
Bowden, Andrew Dicks, Terry
Bowis, John Dorrell, Stephen
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Brandreth, Gyles Dover, Den
Brazier, Julian Duncan, Alan
Bright, Graham Duncan-Smith, Iain
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Dunn, Bob
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Durant, Sir Anthony
Browning, Mrs. Angela Dykes, Hugh
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Eggar, Tim
Budgen, Nicholas Elletson, Harold
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Knapman, Roger
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Knox, Sir David
Evennett, David Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Faber, David Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Fabricant, Michael Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Fenner, Dame Peggy Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Legg, Barry
Fishburn, Dudley Leigh, Edward
Forman, Nigel Lennox-Boyd, Mark
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Forth, Eric Lidington, David
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Lightbown, David
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Lord, Michael
French, Douglas Luff, Peter
Fry, Sir Peter Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Gale, Roger MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Gallie, Phil MacKay, Andrew
Gardiner, Sir George Maclean, David
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan McLoughlin, Patrick
Garnier, Edward McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Gill, Christopher Madel, Sir David
Gillan, Cheryl Maitland, Lady Olga
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Major, Rt Hon John
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Malone, Gerald
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mans, Keith
Gorst, John Marland, Paul
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW) Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Mates, Michael
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Grylls, Sir Michael Mellor, Rt Hon David
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Merchant, Piers
Hague, William Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Moate, Sir Roger
Hampson, Dr Keith Monro, Sir Hector
Hanley, Jeremy Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hannam, Sir John Moss, Malcolm
Hargreaves, Andrew Needham, Richard
Harris, David Nelson, Anthony
Haselhurst, Alan Neubert, Sir Michael
Hawkins, Nick Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Hawksley, Warren Nicholls, Patrick
Hayes, Jerry Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Heald, Oliver Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Norris, Steve
Heathcoat-Amory, David Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Hendry, Charles Oppenheim, Phillip
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Ottaway, Richard
Hicks, Robert Page, Richard
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L. Paice, James
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Patten, Rt Hon John
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Horam, John Pawsey, James
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Pickles, Eric
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Porter, David (Waveney)
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W) Powell, William (Corby)
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Rathbone, Tim
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hunter, Andrew Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Richards, Rod
Jack, Michael Riddick, Graham
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Robathan, Andrew
Jenkin, Bernard Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr) Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Key, Robert Sackville, Tom
King, Rt Hon Tom Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim
Kirkhope, Timothy Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
Shaw, David (Dover) Thurnham, Peter
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Tracey, Richard
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Tredinnick, David
Shersby, Michael Trend, Michael
Sims, Roger Trotter, Neville
Skeet, Sir Trevor Twinn, Dr Ian
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Viggers, Peter
Soames, Nicholas Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Speed, Sir Keith Walden, George
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Waller, Gary
Spink, Dr Robert Ward, John
Spring, Richard Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Sproat, Iain Waterson, Nigel
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Watts, John
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wells, Bowen
Steen, Anthony Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Stephen, Michael Whitney, Ray
Stewart, Allan Whittingdale, John
Streeter, Gary Widdecombe, Ann
Sumberg, David Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Sweeney, Walter Wilkinson, John
Sykes, John Willetts, David
Tapsell, Sir Peter Wilshire, David
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Wolfson, Mark
Taylor, Rt Hon John D. (Strgfd) Wood, Timothy
Taylor, John M. (Solihull) Yeo, Tim
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Temple-Morris, Peter
Thomason, Roy Tellers for the Noes:
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V) Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Irvine Patnick.
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Thornton, Sir Malcolm

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 314, Noes 279.

Division No. 119] [10.15 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Bowis, John
Aitken, Jonathan Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Alexander, Richard Brandreth, Gyles
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Brazier, Julian
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Bright, Graham
Amess, David Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Ancram, Michael Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Arbuthnot, James Browning, Mrs. Angela
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Budgen, Nicholas
Ashby, David Burns, Simon
Aspinwall, Jack Burt, Alistair
Atkins, Robert Butcher, John
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Butler, Peter
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Butterfill, John
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Baldry, Tony Carrington, Matthew
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Carttiss, Michael
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Cash, William
Bates, Michael Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Batiste, Spencer Churchill, Mr
Beggs, Roy Clappison, James
Bellingham, Henry Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Bendall, Vivian Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Beresford, Sir Paul Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Biffen, Rt Hon John Coe, Sebastian
Blackburn, Dr John G. Colvin, Michael
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Congdon, David
Booth, Hartley Conway, Derek
Boswell, Tim Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Bowden, Andrew Cormack, Patrick
Cran, James Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Davis, David (Boothferry) Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Day, Stephen Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Hunter, Andrew
Devlin, Tim Jack, Michael
Dickens, Geoffrey Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Dicks, Terry Jenkin, Bernard
Dorrell, Stephen Jessel, Toby
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Dover, Den Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Duncan, Alan Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Duncan-Smith, Iain Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dunn, Bob Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Durant, Sir Anthony Key, Robert
Dykes, Hugh King, Rt Hon Tom
Eggar, Tim Knapman, Roger
Elletson, Harold Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Knox, Sir David
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Evennett, David Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Faber, David Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Fabricant, Michael Legg, Barry
Fenner, Dame Peggy Leigh, Edward
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lennox-Boyd, Mark
Fishburn, Dudley Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Forman, Nigel Lidington, David
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lightbown, David
Forth, Eric Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Lord, Michael
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Luff, Peter
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
French, Douglas MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fry, Sir Peter MacKay, Andrew
Gale, Roger Maclean, David
Gallie, Phil McLoughlin, Patrick
Gardiner, Sir George McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Madel, Sir David
Garnier, Edward Maitland, Lady Olga
Gill, Christopher Major, Rt Hon John
Gillan, Cheryl Malone, Gerald
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Mans, Keith
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Marland, Paul
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Gorst, John Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW) Mates, Michael
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Mellor, Rt Hon David
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Merchant, Piers
Grylls, Sir Michael Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Hague, William Moate, Sir Roger
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Monro, Sir Hector
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hampson, Dr Keith Moss, Malcolm
Hanley, Jeremy Needham, Richard
Hannam, Sir John Nelson, Anthony
Hargreaves, Andrew Neubert, Sir Michael
Harris, David Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Haselhurst, Alan Nicholls, Patrick
Hawkins, Nick Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hawksley, Warren Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Hayes, Jerry Norris, Steve
Heald, Oliver Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Oppenheim, Phillip
Heathcoat-Amory, David Ottaway, Richard
Hendry, Charles Page, Richard
Hicks, Robert Paice, James
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L. Patnick, Irvine
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Patten, Rt Hon John
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Horam, John Pawsey, James
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Pickles, Eric
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Sykes, John
Porter, David (Waveney) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Powell, William (Corby) Taylor, Rt Hon John D. (Strgfd)
Rathbone, Tim Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Redwood, Rt Hon John Temple-Morris, Peter
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Thomason, Roy
Richards, Rod Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Riddick, Graham Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Robathan, Andrew Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Thurnham, Peter
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Tracey, Richard
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Tredinnick, David
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Trend, Michael
Sackville, Tom Trotter, Neville
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim Twinn, Dr Ian
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Shaw, David (Dover) Viggers, Peter
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Walden, George
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Waller, Gary
Shersby, Michael Ward, John
Sims, Roger Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Skeet, Sir Trevor Waterson, Nigel
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Watts, John
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wells, Bowen
Soames, Nicholas Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Speed, Sir Keith Whitney, Ray
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Whittingdale, John
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Widdecombe, Ann
Spink, Dr Robert Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Spring, Richard Wilkinson, John
Sproat, Iain Willetts, David
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Wilshire, David
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wolfson, Mark
Steen, Anthony Wood, Timothy
Stephen, Michael Yeo, Tim
Stern, Michael Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Stewart, Allan
Streeter, Gary Tellers for the Ayes:
Sumberg, David Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Timothy Kirkhope.
Sweeney, Walter
Abbott, Ms Diane Burden, Richard
Adams, Mrs Irene Byers, Stephen
Ainger, Nick Caborn, Richard
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Callaghan, Jim
Allen, Graham Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Alton, David Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Armstrong, Hilary Canavan, Dennis
Ashton, Joe Chisholm, Malcolm
Austin-Walker, John Clapham, Michael
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Barnes, Harry Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Barron, Kevin Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Battle, John Clelland, David
Bayley, Hugh Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Coffey, Ann
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Cohen, Harry
Bell, Stuart Connarty, Michael
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Bennett, Andrew F. Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Benton, Joe Corbett, Robin
Bermingham, Gerald Corbyn, Jeremy
Berry, Dr. Roger Corston, Ms Jean
Betts, Clive Cousins, Jim
Blair, Tony Cox, Tom
Blunkett, David Cryer, Bob
Boateng, Paul Cummings, John
Boyes, Roland Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bradley, Keith Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Dalyell, Tam
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Darling, Alistair
Davidson, Ian Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jowell, Tessa
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Keen, Alan
Denham, John Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Dewar, Donald Khabra, Piara S.
Dixon, Don Kilfedder, Sir James
Dobson, Frank Kirkwood, Archy
Donohoe, Brian H. Leighton, Ron
Dowd, Jim Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Lewis, Terry
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Litherland, Robert
Eagle, Ms Angela Livingstone, Ken
Eastham, Ken Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Enright, Derek Llwyd, Elfyn
Etherington, Bill Loyden, Eddie
Evans, John (St Helens N) Lynne, Ms Liz
Ewing, Mrs Margaret McAllion, John
Fatchett, Derek McAvoy, Thomas
Faulds, Andrew McCartney, Ian
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Macdonald, Calum
Fisher, Mark McFall, John
Flynn, Paul McGrady, Eddie
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McKelvey, William
Foster, Don (Bath) Mackinlay, Andrew
Foulkes, George McLeish, Henry
Fraser, John McMaster, Gordon
Fyfe, Maria McNamara, Kevin
Galloway, George McWilliam, John
Gapes, Mike Madden, Max
Garrett, John Maddock, Mrs Diana
George, Bruce Mahon, Alice
Gerrard, Neil Mallon, Seamus
Gill, Christopher Marek, Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A. Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Godsiff, Roger Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Golding, Mrs Llin Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Gordon, Mildred Martlew, Eric
Graham, Thomas Maxton, John
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Meacher, Michael
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Michael, Alun
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Grocott, Bruce Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Gunnell, John Milburn, Alan
Hain, Peter Miller, Andrew
Hall, Mike Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Hanson, David Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hardy, Peter Morgan, Rhodri
Harman, Ms Harriet Morley, Elliot
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Henderson, Doug Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hendron, Dr Joe Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Heppell, John Mowlam, Marjorie
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Mudie, George
Hinchliffe, David Mullin, Chris
Hoey, Kate Murphy, Paul
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Home Robertson, John O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)
Hood, Jimmy O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Hoon, Geoffrey O'Hara, Edward
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Olner, William
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) O'Neill, Martin
Hoyle, Doug Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Paisley, Rev Ian
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Parry, Robert
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Patchett, Terry
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Pendry, Tom
Hume, John Pickthall, Colin
Hutton, John Pike, Peter L.
Illsley, Eric Pope, Greg
Ingram, Adam Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jamieson, David Prescott, John
Janner, Greville Primarolo, Dawn
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Purchase, Ken
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Quin, Ms Joyce
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Radice, Giles
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Randall, Stuart
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Raynsford, Nick
Redmond, Martin Strang, Dr. Gavin
Reid, Dr John Straw, Jack
Rendel, David Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Roche, Mrs. Barbara Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Rooker, Jeff Tipping, Paddy
Rooney, Terry Turner, Dennis
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Tyler, Paul
Rowlands, Ted Vaz, Keith
Ruddock, Joan Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Salmond, Alex Wallace, James
Sedgemore, Brian Walley, Joan
Sheerman, Barry Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wareing, Robert N
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Watson, Mike
Simpson, Alan Welsh, Andrew
Skinner, Dennis Wicks, Malcolm
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (SW'n W)
Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E) Wilson, Brian
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Winnick, David
Snape, Peter Wise, Audrey
Soley, Clive Wray, Jimmy
Spearing, Nigel Young, David (Bolton SE)
Spellar, John
Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W) Tellers for the Noes:
Steinberg, Gerry Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and Mr. Alan Meale.
Stevenson, George
Stott, Roger

Question accordingly agreed to.

MADAM SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the support of the all-party Select Committee on Social Security for the principles of the Child Support Act; reaffirms its own support for those principles, in particular that every parent has a duty to contribute to the maintenance of his or her child, that the amount of maintenance paid for children should be increased, and that the cost of bringing up children should fall on other taxpayers only if parents are unable to maintain their children themselves; recognises the inconsistency and arbitrariness of the previous court-based system, which gave insufficient priority to parental support of children and left many children on benefit; welcomes the important changes recently introduced by the Government in response to early experience of the new scheme and the Select Committee's report on its practical working; and approves the Government's intention to keep the arrangements under continuing close review as further experience is gained.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you recently any notification of a statement tomorrow at 11 am on the investigation report on the Beverly Allitt case? That subject should be brought before the House, and if that is to be done, the appropriate Department should have notified you tonight, so that people know in good time for tomorrow morning. Has the Department had the decency, good sense and sense of co-operation to do that?

Madam Speaker

I have not been informed of any statement this evening. As the hon Gentleman and the House are aware, the House and I do not need to be notified until 10 am if the Government wish to make a statement.