HC Deb 04 July 1994 vol 246 cc23-118
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Because of the great interest in today's debate, I have had to limit speeches to 10 minutes between 6 pm and 8 pm. I ask hon. Members who speak outside those hours to exercise some voluntary restraint; then I may be able to call them all.

3.32 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 be at the heart of any system of child support; recognises the anger and dismay felt by many families whose lives have been adversely affected by the activities of the Child Support Agency in its first year of operation, the collapse of public confidence in the system and the ever-increasing administrative problems besetting the Agency; and calls for an urgent and fundamental review to eliminate injustice by tackling key areas of concern such as the inflexibility of the financial formula, the failure to recognise, in calculating maintenance, financial and property transfers at the time of divorce or separation, the lack of an independent appeal procedure and the need to protect the interests of children in whose name the system was introduced. The Opposition tabled the motion, and devoted a day of Opposition time to the Child Support Agency, because we feel—and I suspect that our feeling is widely shared—that we cannot allow the situation to drift. Discontent can be found on every side, in every constituency in the land, and support for the agency is vanishing at an alarming rate. Tolerance is in increasingly short supply; public confidence is collapsing, and public anger is rising. I believe that any Government who pursue a "wait and see" policy at this point are fuelling the crisis and playing a very dangerous game.

When we have tried repeatedly to raise the matter at Question Time and during debates, the reaction has been unsatisfactory. To be fair, the Under-Secretary of State—who occasionally gives a good impression of the White Rabbit, running around in anxious confusion—has shown worried concern, but in the background has been the glacial silence of the Secretary of State for Social Security.

This morning, we have seen the agency's annual report and business plan. It is remarkable that it is here at all: on 22 April, the agency's chief executive told me that it would be published by "late summer". It would be extremely unfair, however, to complain about its arriving earlier than expected. I think that there has been some honesty about the report, and credit has been given for that. The agency admits that it has made mistakes, that its performance is substandard and that it will have to do better. Mrs. Ros Hepplewhite writes in the foreword: Many things went well"— which is questionable— but there were other areas where we needed to make improvements. Overall our standards of service did not reach acceptable levels and we did not achieve some of our key targets. We apologise to our clients for the difficulties they have experienced because of our shortcomings. It is unusual for such a note to be struck in an official report. Indeed, the evening papers carry the headline "Child Agency Says Sorry". Many people will feel that an apology is merited, but that that is not enough in itself and that there must be changes to the way in which the system operates.

The annual report is unsatisfactory because it gives remarkably little information about what has been happening and, in some ways, adds to the confusion. In a number of areas, it contradicts what we had understood and had been told to be the position. It gives an incomplete picture of the agency's financial results and activities. It is inadequate, and it mirrors the chaos that is convulsing the system. I and, I am sure, many other hon. Members looked for fundamental facts—what one might describe as backbone statistics—such as how much maintenance the agency had collected in its first year of operation and how much had been paid by parents as a result of assessments that had been levied.

Despite the interesting intervention by the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security during Question Time, few of us will have any confidence that we have a clear and definitive picture of the position. It is very much through a glass darkly, and a great deal of confusion reigns. I give notice to the Minister that we will pursue the points that the Under-Secretary made and we shall be looking for a very full response.

Let us not forget that it was estimated originally that, in the first year of operation, £530 million would be paid in maintenance, £480 million of which would go in benefit reduction to the Treasury. That £530 million collected was translated, rather mysteriously, into £530 million-worth of benefit savings—a fact which was drawn to my attention by a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on 28 March.

In reply to another parliamentary question, this time from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), which appeared in Hansard on 12 May at column 235, we received another set of figures. Benefit savings were to amount to £335 million, but probably more because at least some, to use the jargon of the moment, would be scored retrospectively.

The scene was further complicated by the fact that £195 million of that £335 million came not from CSA assessments but from assessments carried out by the liable benefits section in the previous year. We now hear that benefit savings will be £418 million. It is important that we know to what extent that hides a figure that is not the responsibility of the agency. I am sure that either the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary can supply the answer.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor)

The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he was looking for facts, and I agree about the need to do so, but he also condemned the wait-and-see attitude. He has adopted such an attitude. He has been telling many groups that he supports the maintenance disregard. How much would be disregarded by the Labour party? Will he give the House the figure, rather than adopt a wait-and-see attitude?

Mr. Dewar

I shall deal with the matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] The hon. Gentleman thinks that he has made a devastating point, but we shall come to it in a minute or two.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way. He said in the House on 2 February: Opposition Members must live with the fact that implementation is not easy and will inevitably cause problems and difficulties. I entirely accept that; there is no way that we can escape from that."—[Official Report, 2 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 949.] Does he stand by that, or will his speech amount to an escape from it?

Mr. Dewar

The answer to the last question is no. I have never retreated from the fact that there would be real difficulties in introducing this system, just as I never retreated from the fact that parents have a duty to contribute to the maintenance of their children. I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the difficulties of being unpopular, and I have been booed off more platforms on this issue than on any other because I have tried to stand by what I have said and the difficulties that I have anticipated. I am not ashamed of that. I accept that there are problems, but it seems that they are being worsened because of a persistence with parts of the system that are clearly causing injustice and difficulty. We must therefore move on constructively to find answers to those problems.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)


Mr. Dewar

I owe it to the House to push on.

As I said, the original prediction was £530 million, which then became £335 million; but the agency's letter of 27 May, which has been in the newspapers a great deal as a result of my activities and which was put there in good faith, suggests that the expected total collected would be £210 million, of which £203 million would be benefit savings—£3 million would go to children, while £4 million was unallocated.

In my defence, I stress to the House that I spoke twice to the office of the CSA's chief executive, and it stood by the figures. The Minister has now popped up and put a very different complexion on them. I want to examine the matter carefully, but I am still deeply sceptical about the amount of money that is going to children, simply because the system as it stands insists that those children most at risk economically, of whom there are a very large number living in households dependent on income support, are very unlikely—I put it no higher than that—to benefit financially because of the £1 for £1 clawback.

I recognise that there are a few cases in which the family will be floated off income support and will benefit from the probably small amount of maintenance over and above the income support level which they can retain. I make no apology for saying that I do not know how many are involved, because when I tabled a question to the Secretary of State on this issue, I was told that the figure was not available and could not be obtained except at disproportionate cost. I regret that, because it is a fundamental figure, especially as Ministers have repeatedly paraded the fact that a certain number of families are being taken off income support as a primary justification for the system. Against that background, it is especially unfortunate that we are not being provided with figures to illustrate the truth or otherwise of that point.

I want to finish with the statistics on an important point. I am sure that hon. Members have studied the report that has just been published and will have seen that £210 million—the figure that I was given on 27 May—has suddenly become £310 million. That is still substantially below the figure given earlier in May to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). It may be because the £310 million excluded any revenue from assessments under the liable relative section. However, there are many discrepancies, and a better explanation must be given before those figures carry any conviction.

I ask the House to consider an important point. The report states that not only is the estimate of the amount of money being paid under assessments £310 million—£100 million up on what I had been told so recently—but that only £14.8 million has been handled by the agency itself, which seems an astonishingly small amount when measured against the £310 million. We are also told, without any explanation, that the savings in benefit arising from the £310 million collected amount to £418 million. At the very least, I should have thought it important to explain how £310 million paid in benefit under assessments could result in benefit savings as high as £418 million—it is a saving not just of £1 for £1 but of well over £1 for £1.

It may be—I want to be fair to Ministers—that the figure refers to the number of assessments that were not completed because of the withdrawal of claims for income support. I accept that some of those may be what, in the jargon of the day, are called collusive desertions, but it seems implausible that the extraordinary gap between the money collected and the benefit savings can be explained in that way. I very much hope that the Minister will make a fist at an explanation, because the figures read peculiarly at the moment.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

The hon. Gentleman seems to think that there is something wrong in the Department of Social Security being reimbursed out of recoveries made by the Child Support Agency. Surely he accepts that, if a child is on benefit, the right person to support that child is the absent parent and not the taxpayer? As we all know, many taxpayers are themselves on low incomes and have their own children to bring up.

Mr. Dewar

The hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) is being very kind to me by asking an extremely easy question. I merely have to repeat what I have said on almost every occasion when I have addressed the issue. I accept, of course, that there is a duty to pay maintenance and, as I have always said, there is a legitimate interest on the part of the Treasury, or on the part of the taxpayer, if the hon. Gentleman prefers to put it that way—Ministers do, understandably. What I object to is that the whole pot is scooped—to use a betting term—by the Treasury and little is left, particularly for the children who are most at risk. That is the point that I have repeatedly tried to make.

The Minister has said today, for the first time, that something short of 30 per cent.—but still a quite significant figure—is being retained by families. I do not believe that that is the right balance, but it is a lot better than any of the figures previously produced. I find it extraordinary that such an important matter was not mentioned, as far as I can recall, at any point in the report published today. It is an absolutely basic factor which we should take into account, and I am sorry that we are considering the matter on the hoof when we had the benefit of the report this morning.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

The hon. Gentleman has accepted that there is an obligation to pay maintenance. In the light of that, will he take this opportunity to condemn the activities of organisations such as the Network Against The Child Support Agency, which clearly engage in intimidation and threats, and undermine the work of the CSA?

Mr. Dewar

I make it perfectly clear that I have no sympathy with, and offer no comfort to, those who demonstrate violently, those who deface private residences and those who harass staff of the CSA who are only doing their job. None of that conduct has been, or will be, defended by me at any point.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), however, must accept—I suspect that he does—that much of the anger can be traced to difficulties in the system and to areas of concern that are proper and well founded, but which the Government have not addressed. In just a minute, I shall turn to some of those.

Mr. Burns

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

No. I realise that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) is a very keen interrupter in debates, but in this case, fair shares for all means that he will be excluded.

The other basic question I ask the Minister to address, for which information is not available, is how much maintenance should have been paid under the assessments that have been levied. That, too, is a fundamental parameter to the argument. I understand—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the computer system is being adapted to gather that information at some future stage. I find it remarkable that the information is not available at the moment, and I am sorry that it is not.

I conclude on the organisational side by saying that a vast organisation has now been built up which employs 5,200 people in Great Britain and 686 in Northern Ireland, who have been missed out of the graph that is provided in the annual report and for whom no figures appear to be supplied. Those figures represent a massive work force and I understand that 700 are to be added. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that.

I fear that one of the difficulties is that, for many people, dialogue with the CSA has become a dialogue with the deaf or the dead. It certainly is a dialogue that has brought no satisfactory responses. I know that Ministers are seized of the point that we must bring about improvement, but I hope that we shall see that improvement quickly.

I have no particular importance in these matters, although, tactically, correspondence with me may come to the top of heaps just to save trouble. I have found that letters that I have written in April have been answered in June. I know that that is speedy service compared with the experiences of many of my constituents. The Secretary of State in a radio studio today sitting at my side—a most unlikely scenario into which nothing should be read—described this year as a very difficult year. I think that one can say that again, and say it again.

Another important matter is the plans for 1994–95 which are attached to the annual report. Ros Hepplewhite described them in the media at lunchtime as challenging. In some ways, I find them a little depressing. I have four points to make about them. First, I notice that the net expenditure this year of £106 million—well below expectations; we ought to be grateful for that—will increase next year to £184 million. That is a spectacular increase in costs by any standards.

Secondly, the target for client satisfaction remains the same in 1994–95 as it was in 1993–94, at 65 per cent. I note from the report for 1993–94 that the satisfaction index achieved was 61 per cent. I greet that with stark disbelief. Even if it is a genuine figure, 65 per cent. is not exactly a dramatic improvement on it. That is disappointing. Can the Secretary of State assure me that exactly the same basis of calculation of the satisfaction index is used for the CSA and other Government agencies and other parts of the public sector? That is a fairly technical question, but I put it briefly to the Minister. Satisfaction ratings are a common form of machinery. I want to be satisfied that the satisfaction index is calculated in an exactly comparable fashion.

Thirdly, no more than 40 per cent. of outstanding maintenance applications are to take more than 91 days or 13 weeks. That is a serious matter. At present, 42 per cent. take more than 100 days. So the target for next year is not a dramatic change. The Minister knows that the problem with the extended time limit is that arrears mount up frighteningly. Many people can find themselves setting out on a career as a client of the Child Support Agency with £800, £900 or £1,000 of arrears. I immediately recognise that some of the most difficult cases have an element of non-co-operation which has contributed to the problems. However, it is essential that we get the processing time down if the Minister is to stand by the present arrangements under which the till starts ringing on the day the inquiry form goes out.

The fourth point is the £460 million benefit saving. It is down from £530 million last year. That is perhaps realistic. Again, there is no target figure for benefit collected and no target figure in percentage or money terms for cash going to the families and children in whose name the system was introduced. I put it to the Minister that that is a sad and important lack.

I am anxious to move on to some of the changes that we should like to see made to the Act.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

No, I intend to move on.

Ministers are determined to be unhelpful about the changes that we should like to see. Let us make it absolutely clear that the starting point was that the system was designed to help children. Again and again, the right hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) has referred to more money from more parents for more children. Despite the improved figures that have been thrown into the debate in the past half hour or so, I do not believe that a system advertised as giving help to children is meeting its target.

I noticed that, in an interview rather wittily called "Doing What Is Right", which the Secretary of State gave to a magazine called Third Way, which aims to present biblical perspectives on a wide range of current issues, he said, I thought rather prophetically and acutely, that the Child Support Agency was not proving as popular as some people imagined. I will not fight about that. He went on to say that it is men who are complaining and that a lot of the articles are written by journalists who themselves .. are recipients of demands from the CSA. I thought that that was a little fanciful. He continued: We are now getting protests from the corresponding 30,000 women who receive less money"— because of the changes last February. He then said: we hear very little at all from the children, who are the people who have to be our ultimate concern. I agree with the Minister. In this system, the children were always to be our ultimate concern. It was to be child-centred—that was the phrase that we heard time and again. It is not child-centred, judging by the figures available to us, and I do not believe that it is child-centred judging by the figures that the Under-Secretary of State just produced.

Will the Under-Secretary of State say whether he is satisfied? He gave us a figure that was below a third—on the figures that he mentioned, it was probably not much more than 25 per cent. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether he regards that as a sensible and satisfactory equilibrium. We do not, and that is why we have always argued that a disregard should be on the agenda.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Dewar

No, I shall not give way. Will hon Members just sit down?

A disregard should be considered. It is of particular importance to the people whom the Minister looks to for support and help—the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Council for One Parent Families, Gingerbread and a large number of people who want some recognition of children's needs.

If the Minister is not prepared to consider the principle of the matter, he might at least consider the tactical advantages of making a concession that would make the system seem relevant to the people who are caught up in it, and win him many friends—friends he badly needs.

In principle, the disregard should be on the agenda and in any package. I do not know what the cost figures will be [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Let me tell the House why.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

The hon. Member is avoiding stating an amount.

Mr. Dewar

No, not at all. I cannot get the figures from the Government. The Under-Secretary of State may recall that I got a parliamentary answer, which was presumably based on the assumption that the Child Support Agency was meeting its targets and would ultimately produce a collection of around £900 million. Now, none of us knows what the agency is producing, or the figures.

Clearly, the smaller the amount of money that it produces, the less the cost of a disregard. If one had a disregard on the basis that everyone on income support and in a position to apply actually applied, and an assessment was levied and paid, one would be in big money—at both ends of the equation. What is ludicrous and intellectually dishonest is to apply that assumption to the figures that are being produced.

I would certainly be prepared to consider and discuss with the Government the sort of figures that should be forgone, but that would have to be on the basis of practical examples and the reality. That is just one of the matters that should be dealt with, but it is by no means the only one, and I shall mention the others in short order.

One problem is that in some cases—I am not saying it is an enormous number, but it is an important number— there is a growing gap between the demands made in maintenance and a person's ability to pay, which poisons people's perceptions of the whole system.

I repeat—my views are known to the Government—that we should take a long hard look at how we can make the system a little more flexible. In some cases, charges that have to be met by the parent who does not have care of the child are relevant to the child and to the break-up of the partnership. Those include the cost of access to children; mortgage payments, when the father may be paying for a house in which his children live, but he does not; disability in the family, either of the child or another member of it; and debts incurred jointly during the partnership that have to be met entirely by the father.

Some more controversial considerations should at least be looked at—including, for example, travel-to-work costs, which I know are of particular importance to Conservative Members, because it is in no one's interests that anyone should be driven from work. Child care costs are also important.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

No. I have a great deal of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's constituency problems relating to the CSA, and I hope that he supports many of my points. I am sure that he does. Should he be fortunate enough to catch Madam Speaker's eye, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman expressing his support not just from the Conservative Benches but in the Lobby.

Certain considerations should be imported into the formula. Apart from that, an independent review system of the kind that is familiar in other systems should also be introduced. It is of basic fundamental importance in terms of justice that those who feel that they have a grievance or have been hard done by should have some form or system of redress. That does not mean, of course, that they will receive redress, but they should have a constitutional right to put it to the test. At present, there is no such right.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The hon. Member talks about people who feel hard done by having redress, but, as a taxpayer, I feel hard done by and so does the nation. [Interruption.] It is interesting to note that the Opposition do not want to listen to this. Yesterday, we heard a lot of talk about social and civil responsibilities, but I see little responsibility from fathers who will not pay for their children. They expect everyone who walks the streets or travels on the Clapham omnibus to pay. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that individuals should live up to the responsibility of fathering children?

Mr. Dewar

I am very sorry to say to the hon. Gentleman that I found that a rather tiresome intervention. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not have the humility required, but it is not too difficult to construct a mainstream CSA case—many of his hon. Friends would agree with me—in which one puts oneself in the place of a man who has been asked to pay, looks at his circumstances and his second family commitments. One can then at least understand that man's feelings of frustration. If the hon. Gentleman cannot do that, he displays a level of intolerance and lack of sympathy that are not much to his credit.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to a review body, for which I have a great deal of sympathy. I believe that, to an extent, he is right. Given the inflexibility of the rules, what will that review body be able to do? Are we not talking about going back to a domestic court, which would give a proper decision, having taken everything into account? Surely that is how the review would operate.

Mr. Dewar

I know that the hon. Member is learned in the law, and he should consider the Australian and New Zealand examples, in which the areas against which an appeal can be tested are defined and criteria laid down that must be met. That could and should be done in this case.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dewar

No, I am getting into trouble. I will conclude my speech quickly. I am conscious of the need not to take any further interventions, because it is not fair to the House.

An independent review procedure is important, but I understand from press speculation and heavy briefing that reform is likely to be granted on what are sometimes inaccurately called "clean break" settlements, under which substantial property or financial transfers are made. They are intended by the parties to influence maintenance, but they must be set aside and ignored by the CSA. That seems to be ludicrous.

I know that, in his broadcast this morning, the Secretary of State sheltered behind the fact that, in its first report, the Select Committee on Social Security sympathised with him about the difficulties encountered. It is not for me to anticipate what may emerge from the second report, but it is likely that there will be some rethinking on that point—to my mind, for what it is worth, there should be. What has happened to many people has been an offence, and one which could be corrected without too much difficulty.

I do not suggest that a disregard, an independent appeals procedure or a clean-break settlement will sweep away all the problems that we face. I read the fetching little press release put out by the Under-Secretary of State after his discussions with heads of the CSAs from New Zealand and Australia. It sounded like a comfortable set-up between a collection of old lags, but I know that it was not.

I recognise all the difficulties and know that, after a reform package, the sun will not shine every day and the Secretary of State will not be everyone's favourite uncle. But I seriously believe that this House has a duty to tackle people's concerns if we believe that they are justified. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have reached that conclusion in large measure and the Government would be extremely unwise to refuse to recognise that point. We should take the complaints seriously.

I was genuinely surprised to see an article in a local newspaper in the name of the Under-Secretary of State—he may not have written it himself—that produced the pet food theory. It said that there could be no form of discretion because, in the old days when we had discretion, people met the cost of their pet food before meeting the cost of feeding their children. That is not a helpful thing to say. I noticed that, in the subsequent correspondence columns of the same paper, his remarks were described as "offensive". I agree that they are offensive. We do not need to go to those extremes in building a little justice into the system. I hope that we shall make some progress on that.

The system needs friends, because disenchantment and disillusionment are growing. The Child Support Agency needs allies and must have public confidence if it is to survive. If the Government do not change the rules and the rigid framework in which the agency operates, I fear that it will not survive. Those who have looked for benefit have found none, and many of those who have looked for justice have been left waiting in vain. Too many of the demands that have been made begin to look detached from the ability to pay.

Laws rely on consent. We are near the point—complaints made by Ministers about non-co-operation make this point—at which consent is being withdrawn and the law will become unworkable. It may surprise Tory Members to know that I do not want to reach that point. I have tabled this motion because I believe that we must make that point forcefully. The worst may still be to come, because the recent interim assessments have the power to reinforce demands. The last figure that I saw showed that only 2,600 deductions from earnings orders have been made. There are thousands more to come and the temperature is likely to rise. The House would be irresponsible if it did not take that into account.

Action is needed fast. I pressed my colleagues for this debate because of a brief exchange that I had with the Under-Secretary of State in the House on 16 May. I asked him whether there would be a statement about the Government's intentions before we rose for the long summer recess. I asked him whether changes were on the way and whether the Government had decided to introduce a reform package, but he could not assure me on either point. I hope, for the sake of the good order of our maintenance system, that the Secretary of State will be more forthcoming when he replies to this debate.

I said the other day that there is a danger of an embarrassment becoming a disaster. It need not happen, but it can be prevented only by building confidence and giving a genuine impression that the House and, perhaps, the Government care. I tabled this motion not to be provocative or partisan but as an opportunity to reflect on the concerns felt in every corner of the land and as a chance to press in the House and, I hope, in the Lobbies, for reform which all of us believe is necessary. It would be widely misunderstood if Parliament rose for the summer recess and hon. Members dispersed to their constituencies without debating this subject and expressing our opinions on it.

There are many people—whether they are parents waiting for news, vocal parents struggling with a formula that they do not trust or children who, as the ultimate beneficiaries, have not yet seen any benefit—who want some sign of hope and some news. I believe that great damage will be done if we do not respond to that. The ultimate price would be if we ended up undermining the very principles of responsible parenting which the system was set up to defend. It is because I do not want that to happen that I commend the motion to the House.

4.10 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: 'reaffirms its support for the principle, to which the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency give effect, that parents should support their children where they are able to do so; accepts that the taxpayer should only have to provide this support when parents cannot afford to; welcomes the help the Agency has already been able to give many parents with care and the support it has received from organisations representing lone parents; condemns deliberate attempts to obstruct the workings of the Agency; recognises the changes introduced in February and the urgent steps being taken to improve the service the Agency gives parents; and acknowledges the continuing concerns over child support issues and therefore welcomes the Government's commitment to continue to keep the scheme under scrutiny and to bring forward further changes should these prove necessary.'. I begin by welcoming the fact that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)—despite his criticisms and his desire for change—has maintained and reiterated his support for the Child Support Agency and the principles on which it is based. I know that he has been under pressure to abandon that support, and I respect him all the more for sticking to his principles.

The Child Support Act was passed by the House on 18 July 1991 without a single dissenting vote. It has always had cross-party support. Despite all the controversy over the past year, I am still struck by the broad agreement on two key points: first, virtually everyone now accepts that parents are responsible for supporting their children and that taxpayers should be involved only to the extent that parents do not have the means to support their children; secondly, nearly everyone accepts that we cannot go back to a system which failed children, parents and taxpayers in the past.

I recognise, however, that there are deep concerns about how the new system has been working in practice—concerns both about the impact of the formula in particular cases and about how the formula has been administered. Because of those concerns, we responded immediately to the first report of the Social Security Select Committee. We accepted the bulk of the recommendations and went further in some respects than the Committee advised, and we implemented those changes as speedily as possible at the beginning of February.

At the same time, we made it clear that we would keep the new system under review. That is no empty form of words: my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reaffirmed that we are prepared to make further changes if and when we are persuaded that they are necessary. Moreover, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, whose sensitive handling of this very difficult issue has won universal respect, has been consulting a range of organisations involved in the area of child support.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lilley

Perhaps I may make a little more progress. I will certainly give way in a moment.

The Select Committee is also carrying out a further review in the light of the first year's experience. I shall not predict the Committee's recommendations or prejudge my response, but I can give hon. Members two assurances today: first, I shall continue to uphold the principles on which the agency is based; secondly, I will consider ways positively to strengthen those principles so as to improve the agency, to ensure that it is fair and to make it more acceptable.

Mr. William O'Brien

I appreciate the opportunity to intervene. Will the Secretary of State take into account a serious anomaly in cases where an absent father is prepared to maintain his children but is aggrieved because he also has to maintain his former wife in addition to his new family? Is the Minister prepared to adjust that to ensure that the absent father does not need to maintain his former wife?

Mr. Lilley

Obviously, spousal maintenance remains covered by the courts. The changes introduced for the Child Support Agency affect only child maintenance, and the Child Support Act does not cover the issue of spousal maintenance. However, I am happy to look at all the detailed points that hon. Members continue to put to me and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, and to approach them in the light of the assurances that I have just given.

Those assurances apply not least to improving the operational performance of the agency. There is no doubt that the response of our constituents to the requirement to pay maintenance has been aggravated by delays, problems of communication and other difficulties that have arisen in the first year.

The report published today sets out very frankly the scale of those problems, their origins and the steps that we are taking to set them right. There are three reasons why the problems have arisen. The first is the sheer scale of the task which, after all, had defeated the court system. Every part of the process is new, and we needed to create a wholly new organisation.

We are not alone in experiencing the difficulties that have cropped up during the first year. The hon. Member for Garscadden lightly dismisses the difficulties that other countries have had, but the director of the New Zealand Child Support Agency said in London last week: Our first year with the Child Support Agency was extremely difficult. Faced with a reluctance on the part of many absent parents to meet their obligations and the difficulties of settling in entirely new business processes, we substantially missed our targets. Only now as we enter our third year are we beginning to turn things around. So our problems are not unique.

The second cause of the delays in Britain was the changes that we introduced in February. I believe that the changes were necessary, and they were widely welcomed, but they inevitably delayed most other work, as the agency had to review every assessment already made.

There is, however, a third reason for the problems of the agency and one which should shame all those responsible for it. The agency has been the target of organised groups deliberately trying to disrupt its work. I have no objection to people voicing criticisms of the agency and seeking to influence the Government by legitimate means of persuasion. Indeed, I have had constructive talks with groups of absent parents, from Sheffield to Plymouth and from Bradford to Bournemouth. But there are other organisations which do not seek simply to lobby for their cause. Their undisguised aim is to undo the legislation passed by this House by undermining the agency that carries it out. Their weapons are disruption, harassment and intimidation.

One such organisation is the Network Against the Child Support Act, NACSA. In its January newsletter it called on its members to delay co-operating with the CSA…make it as hard as possible for the organisation to work…fill in the assessment form with information missing…swamp the CSA staff". Even worse than non-co-operation are the campaigns of harassment and threatened violence directed against innocent civil servants carrying out the duties laid down by this House. I quote from a leaflet issued by another of these organisations: all CSA and DSS workers are targets…you can hit their homes, cars, personal lives…put them under extreme stress…ring every time you can…remember to harass, insult, swear". I pay tribute to the courage and dedication of Ros Hepplewhite and all her staff for carrying on in the face of such attacks. No one can tolerate people who send hypodermic needles, razor blades and excrement through the post to innocent officials.

I am glad to say that the Select Committee did not stand for it and the hon. Member for Garscadden, to his credit, has not stood for it either. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's repeated opposition to it today and I give the House and CSA staff my promise that we will not stand for it. The Child Support Agency will not be deflected from its task by these groups.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

No one would condone the sort of attacks that the right hon. Gentleman has been describing, but I should like some reassurances from the Secretary of State for my constituents. Besides the people who are setting out to destroy the agency, there are many others with perfectly genuine cases. Some of my constituents have been waiting several months for their appeals to be heard. Meanwhile, they are experiencing a great deal of difficulty supporting their second families. One mother has been waiting since October—

Madam Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions are for asking questions or making brief comments. I fear that she is trying to jump the gun and make a speech. If she wants to catch my eye later, I suggest that she brings her comments to a close.

Ms Lynne

What is the right hon. Gentleman doing about the Child Support Agency? My constituents are extremely worried.

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Lady is right: a lot of people who are behaving perfectly lawfully have concerns. Those concerns are aggravated by delays, which are made worse by campaigns of non-compliance. Those matters are all interlinked; that is why we are determined to ensure that the campaigns of non-compliance, harassment and intimidation do not work.

Dr. Spink

Before my right hon. Friend moves away from the subject of non-compliance campaigns and wilful obstructors, may does he agree that we need more interim assessments and attachments of earnings so that we may care better for the mothers and children who are left without maintenance?

Mr. Lilley

Yes, we certainly want to do anything that will bring about better compliance. We are doing that, and greater use is being made of direct deduction from earnings. I shall explain in full what we are doing to try to cope with the problems.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Lilley

I shall give way when I have answered the points already raised by hon. Members.

The emerging operational and compliance problems became increasingly apparent before Christmas. Therefore, with Mrs. Hepplewhite, I took steps to strengthen the management structure, appointing a new senior operations director and senior managers seconded from leading consultants. The agency then developed a plan to get its operations back on track. That plan aims to restore to the service the speed, effectiveness and sensitivity that parents and hon. Members have the right to expect. I approved that and secured the necessary resources, and the first steps were implemented in February.

The plan involves more staff, streamlining the handling of inquiries, and better working practices. It has five main points. First, we are giving staff better information technology support. Secondly, we are hiring new staff and putting 400 staff on a dedicated service to handle telephone inquiries. That will mean a better service for parents and for hon. Members without disrupting maintenance work. Thirdly, we are deferring the take-on this year of 100,000 existing income support cases while we tackle the backlog. Fourthly, we are setting up specialised teams to clear the backlog. Fifthly, and finally, we are copying the best practice in each of the six Child Support Agency centres and making sure that it is used in all of them.

Mr. Ashby

My right hon. Friend will understand that I should like to dissociate the organised opposition about which he spoke from the opposition in my constituency, which is constructive, helpful and useful to me. A topic which comes up time and again is the benefit fraud by many wives. When fathers reasonably try to tackle that fraud they are told that there is not time to do it now and that it will not be tackled until September. Benefit fraud is not being dealt with at all. Once we tackle that, we shall tackle many of the objections to the Child Support Agency.

Mr. Lilley

I agree with my hon. Friend and I dissociate ordinary law-abiding people with legitimate and often strongly held complaints from those who indulge in organised disruption. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the aggravation of concern in cases in which one parent thinks that the other is fraudulently claiming benefit. In the past two months, 2,200 such cases have been referred by the CSA to the Benefits Agency which says that that is resulting in a significant number of benefit cases being altered or withdrawn. I shall deal with the full scale of that problem in a moment.

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lilley

Perhaps I may be allowed to make a little progress between interventions.

We have evidence that our changes are beginning to work. We have provisional figures for the first quarter of this year—April, May and June. Compared with last year, they show that we are completing maintenance assessments twice as fast. We have doubled the number of cases in which we are enforcing maintenance. Hon. Members will particularly welcome the fact that we have cleared more parliamentary correspondence in the first quarter of this year than in the whole of last year, although it is still not being cleared as speedily as we would wish. We intend to get back to our targets by the end of this Session.

The organised campaigns against the Child Support Agency have failed, and such campaigns will not stop us delivering the results that parents deserve and hon. Members expect. We have a long way to go and I am sure that this will not be the last debate before we get there. But performance is improving and more maintenance is at last being paid.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Although I deplore what has happened to members of the Government—people sending things through the post—I am extremely concerned that my constituents cannot afford medicine which keeps them alive. I have letters from constituents who cannot afford the medicine because of the amount of money that the CSA is taking off them. Surely to God that is not right. We should leave people with enough money to survive on and at least have their medication. I will provide the Minister with the letters, but I am sure that I shall still get the same reply: nothing will be done.

Mr. Lilley

I will certainly look at any correspondence that the hon. Gentleman sends me on that, but he must be aware that, because of the protected income system, virtually every absent parent and his or her second family will be at a standard of living significantly above that of the lone parent caring for his or her children and dependent on income support. Some 1 million lone parents are dependent on income support, and remarkably little concern has been shown by Opposition Members for the steps that we are taking to ensure that those parents receive adequate maintenance in future.

Mr. John Watts (Slough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with some of the figures announced recently in The Economist showing that the proportion of lone mothers receiving support from the fathers had halved during the past 10 years, and that that trend shows no sign of tracking the levels in unemployment? Will he say something about free will in all this? If the CSA did not exist, would we not still be seeing in our surgeries the mothers of the first families who do not receive support? Whether the CSA existed or not, going for a second family, having abandoned the first, surely means opting for a life of comparative poverty. We would then see the casualties in a different set of circumstances.

Mr. Lilley

I agree with all those points, and they should be borne well in mind by those who think that justification inevitably lies with all the complaints that we receive.

There is no doubt that concerns about the work of the agency have been exacerbated by a number of misconceptions about its work. Some people have claimed that it has been tackling only parents who have been paying maintenance. That is untrue. In some 60 per cent. of cases taken on so far, the absent parent was paying no regular maintenance at all. Others have claimed that we have done nothing to track down the so-called "feckless fathers". That, too, is incorrect. We have traced 85 per cent. of absent parents for whom the parent with care had no address. That is 32,000 people.

There are, of course, also cases in which we are asking fathers already paying some maintenance to pay more. The 1990 White Paper spelt out the fact that one of the aims of the new system was to produce maintenance payments that are realistically related to the costs of caring for a child. That was not happening before the CSA was set up. There is no more conclusive proof of that than the fact that 96 per cent. of the children for whom we are seeking maintenance have been dependent on benefit, whether or not they were receiving a modicum of maintenance.

As has been mentioned, a number of hon. Members have found that their constituents' resentment of the agency is heightened when one parent believes that the other is fraudulently claiming benefit. I can assure the House that the Benefits Agency investigates such claims, but for reasons of confidentially it clearly cannot report the outcome of specific cases to the parents who reported them. Those claims are being investigated at the rate of more than 1,000 a month, which is leading to a significant number of benefit alterations and withdrawals.

There is no doubt, too, that the agency's work has had a beneficial impact in reducing the level of fraudulent claims in the first place. In the first year, some 44,000 parents withdrew income support claims within a month of being contacted by the agency. In some cases, that would have been just a coincidence. In others, however, the parent may have been claiming as a lone parent while living with the child's father or with someone else, or was receiving adequate but undeclared maintenance and realised that that would emerge if the claim was pursued. It is estimated that those withdrawn claims alone result in savings for the taxpayer of £138 million.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the voice of the absent parent has been slightly louder in this debate than the voice of the parent with care? If the agency is to succeed, there must be a sea change in public attitudes. Too many quite well-meaning absent parents, provided that they saw their children regularly and paid pocket money, were content for income support to bear the brunt of the real costs of bringing up their children.

Mr. Lilley

I am glad to have the hon. Lady's robust support. She echoes the views of many organisations which represent lone parents. I remind the hon. Lady of their belief that there should be no further changes, and that they would entirely reject the motion. The hon. Lady must consider whether or not she will vote for it.

Of course, criticisms of the agency are not just the result of misunderstandings or operational difficulties. There has been strong criticism of how the policy bears on particular groups and circumstances. In response to those concerns, I introduced a package of reforms in February. The changes nearly quadrupled the margin above income support below which the income of a second family would not be allowed to fall; they extended phasing so that, normally, no one with a second family would face an increase of more than £20 a week above their previous agreement; they sharply reduced additional payments; and they progressively cut the carer element when the youngest children reached the age of 11 and above.

Those changes have given more help, more rapidly to more people than many anticipated during our debate at the time. Some 43,000 absent fathers immediately had their maintenance bills reduced. Contrary to what the lobbies assert, those reductions were quite substantial. Maintenance bills previously received reduced on average by 20 per cent., excluding the impact of phasing-in. Typically, that reduction was worth more than £450 a year to the absent parent. A further 4,000 parents will receive small reductions of £50 or less at their annual review. Any assessments starting since February have automatically been at those markedly lower levels.

Needless to say, the changes have not ended complaints about the system, but the volume of correspondence from hon. Members has fallen markedly since the changes were implemented, despite the rapid increase in the number of assessments made and enforced in recent months.

The Opposition motion seems to want the House to commit itself to specific action now, before the Select Committee has completed its work—but the Opposition have not fleshed out their own proposals. The hon. Member for Garscadden again calls for some sort of discretionary appeals mechanism. He knows that that was considered and rejected when the Bill was going through Parliament—and he knows why. Nobody wanted a return to an open-ended, discretionary system. If a court or tribunal is given open-ended discretion to give other costs priority over the cost of maintaining children, it will do so. It is always easy to transfer the cost of child support back to the taxpayer.

In our last debate, the hon. Member for Garscadden tacitly recognised that problem and called for narrow gateways and restricted grounds for appeal. Today he suggested that anyone who feels hard done by should be allowed access to the appeal system. The hon. Gentleman had several months to think about how to limit access to the appeals mechanism, but he has not produced any proposals. We need to hear what would be the grounds for appeal and, more importantly, what grounds he would not allow if access were narrowed in the way he previously assured us that he would do.

Mr. Dewar

I cannot in one intervention canvass my argument in detail, but I am anxious to put the record straight. If I gave the impression that there should be an open-ended, totally discretionary appeal system, which simply second-guessed the formula in every case, I did so unintentionally. I said that there should be grounds against which an appeal should be measured and that those criteria should be defined in statute. It is important to make that point as the Secretary of State has—unintentionally, I believe—misrepresented my position.

Mr. Lilley

I take the hon. Gentleman's clarification. In the past, he has said that the system should be narrow. I was surprised at his later form of words, and I obviously put the wrong emphasis on it—I accept what he is now saying. We now need some indication of how he intends to keep the system narrow. What grounds will he not include? If he does not give those grounds, he will be suggesting to all absent parents in this country that their cases are open to appeal while saying that in the small print that they will not. If he does that, he will be trying to sell us a pig in a poke.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House seek an element of flexibility and a recognition that commitments were entered into between the parties during their marriage and when they divorced. There should be a recognition that the second family is also entitled to a certain standard of living. Provided that that element was built into the reforms, the system would give great benefit.

Mr. Lilley

I entirely accept the point made by my hon. Friend and the widespread feelings that he expresses. I am not here today in the business of ruling in or ruling out specific proposals. It would be premature for the House to commit itself to vague proposals about an appeal mechanism based on experience in New Zealand and Australia, where the gateways are narrow and the formula more rough and ready than here. Such a system could well result in more arbitrary treatment of, for example, housing costs, which are not allowed in the New Zealand and Australian formula. Only very few people there are granted set-aside to allow for high housing costs.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is handling the subject with skill and judgment and does not want to be rushed into decisions or to anticipate the Select Committee's report, but will he at least consider that one of the grounds for appeal might be when the Child Support Agency assessment is in excess of the total agreed and established disposable income of the father or mother?

Mr. Lilley

I find it hard to see how those circumstances could arise, but I will happily consider the point made by my right hon. Friend. It is only possible for the assessment to be 50 per cent. of the assessable income, after deductions have been made from the net income of the household. However, I shall happily consider the point raised by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Wray


Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)


Mr. Lilley

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) later.

The hon. Member for Garscadden suggested that something should be done about past property settlements, but he is unspecific about what he wants done. If Parliament wants to give further recognition—we must remember that the formula automatically gives some recognition, often to a greater extent than is the case under the Australian system, as a result of transfers of housing resulting in increased housing costs and reduced maintenance requirements for the absent parent—some formidable difficulties would first have to be overcome.

How would the house in the past property settlement be valued—at its present value or its original value? If the latter, what would happen if no valuation was made at the time? How would it be possible to know what trade-off was intended by the court between the transfer of the house and the amount of child maintenance set? If the hon. Gentleman expects his ideas to be taken seriously, he must at least address those questions before further progress can be made.

Mr. Jim Lester

All of us who have handled many such cases recognise that interpreting the variations requires the wisdom of Solomon. It is possible to fall into the trap which lies between the comparative rigidity of the formula and the difficulty of feeding in the variations involved in individual cases; that applies particularly to retrospective court orders.

Mr. Lilley

I entirely agree. However, if the Opposition are serious about the narrowness of the grounds for appeal that they propose, and if they are basing their proposal on experience in New Zealand, which is very similar to ours, they should bear in mind that for as long as that system has operated—somewhat longer than ours has—it has allowed only 1,200 appeals to be heard, which have resulted in some 500 departures from the formula. That really is a narrow system. If that is the kind of system that the hon. Member for Garscadden is proposing, he should inform those outside who are expecting him to offer an easy way out.

Mr. Dewar

I have never represented the easy way out to anyone, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. I think that I have now been slightly misrepresented at both ends, as it were. Having persuaded the right hon. Gentleman that I did not want a completely "open door" discretionary system, I am now being accused of trying to do a camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle job. In fact, there is a via media, if that is not too much of a mixed metaphor.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that it is possible to define in statute a number of the grounds that I mentioned as at least serious considerations? I thought one or two of them self-evidently sensible, while one or two others, being controversial, would require discussion. According to the last figures that I saw, 12 per cent. of cases had gone to appeal in Australia and 6 per cent. had resulted in variation of maintenance awards. If we apply those figures to the many hundreds of thousands of cases in our system, it is clear that we are not talking about a negligible number.

Mr. Lilley

There are rather more cases in Australia, but they tend to result in increased maintenance assessments because many involve parents with care protesting that the income of the absent father is higher than has been suggested.

Mr. Wray


Mr. Lilley

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, in recognition of his persistence.

Mr. Wray

The Secretary of State is finding it difficult to convince the House of what he is saying about the Child Support Agency, which has created nothing but havoc and misery. If its purpose is to trace absent parents and make them pay, why did it send out a memo saying that those who have already paid should be targeted? Why are Members of Parliament receiving thousands of letters from people baring their souls about all this misery? Why have the clean break agreements been thrown aside, regardless of the Minton v. Minton agreement?

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman must be as much opposed to the views of those on his own Front Bench as he is to mine if he believes that we should abandon the CSA, and if he denies that pursuing our current course is preferable to reverting to the old court system.

A third change was mooted by the hon. Member for Garscadden, who called for a partial disregard of maintenance in the setting of lone parents' income support. No Opposition speech would be complete without a spending pledge, and there it was. Again, the hon. Gentleman refused to cost his proposals; he now says that he wants to assess the costs not on the basis of a steady rate, but on the basis of the early days when the number of maintenance assessments is smaller.

Mr. David Shaw

My right hon. Friend may be suggesting that the Opposition could find a way of avoiding the costs. Have not Labour Members been saying that social security benefit rates—on which many payments by absent parents are based—are too low in relation to children? Surely if a Labour Government raised those benefit rates, absent fathers would pay more. Perhaps that is how Labour wants to achieve a "nil savings" result.

Mr. Lilley

There is certainly a disparity between the attitudes of some Opposition Members to the level of income support received by lone parents and to income support when used to assess the maintenance requirement.

I question the case for a maintenance disregard because it would cost the taxpayer money. The hon. Member for Garscadden has mentioned a figure of some £340 million for a £10 per week disregard. Not a penny of that would go towards reducing the burden on absent parents; perversely, it would mean that a lone parent receiving maintenance would be better off than a widow looking after children and dependent on income support—and, indeed, better off than other lone parents receiving no maintenance.

The case is distinctly weakened by the figures given earlier by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, which showed that about a third of the maintenance paid in the past year has increased the incomes of parents with care, many of them on family credit. Low-income households have benefited significantly.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lilley

I should like to proceed, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

From time to time, the hon. Member for Garscadden has claimed that his proposals would be a step towards the Australian system. Australia does indeed have a limited appeals system and a maintenance disregard, and excludes settlements made before the establishment of the agency. The hon. Gentleman, however, should not delude himself—and none of us should imagine—that such a system would empty our surgeries or our postbags.

When I met the deputy commissioner of the Australian CSA last week, he told me: even after six years, Australian Members of Parliament receive more complaints about child support than any other issue". Australia's CSA is also currently the subject of a Select Committee review, as is New Zealand's. The Australian Committee has received more submissions on the subject than have been received by any other Select Committee in the history of the Australian Parliament.

The lesson is not that we should abandon our principles or our determination to make the Child Support Agency work better, but we should recognise that anything to do with children, family breakdown and money is bound to raise strong emotions. We must handle such matters sensitively and with patience, and we should not imagine that there is a simple cure-all that will make the issues go away.

It is right to listen to the genuine concerns of absent parents, but we must also remember the 1 million lone parents on income support. Before the agency existed, three out of four could expect to receive no regular maintenance, while others usually received small and uncertain amounts.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lilley

No, I must make progress.

Lone parents increasingly resent the attention given to complaints from absent parents, almost all of whom have a standard of living well above benefit level. We must be careful that we do not empty our surgeries of absent parents, only to fill them with angry lone parents. Mothers have been understandably disappointed by delays which result in part from non-compliance with the agency.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lilley

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I complete my remarks so as to allow the debate to proceed.

That is why I place great emphasis on restoring the level of service, and on ensuring effective and speedy payment of maintenance. That is also very much in the interests of absent parents, as it reduces uncertainty, problems with arrears and punitive levels of interim assessment.

We must not put the improvements in performance that we are achieving at risk by introducing unnecessarily disruptive changes; nor must we revive the belief that those who delay will not have to pay. However, we shall continue to keep the system under review, and we shall study the Select Committee's forthcoming report very closely. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself promised, we are committed to making further changes if we are persuaded that they are necessary, and we shall continue to improve the working of the system. Above all, we shall keep in mind the interests both of absent parents and of lone mothers, of children and of taxpayers—but those of the children most of all.

4.49 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I have said before, but I say again because it is important, that in discussing the Child Support Agency we are discussing the most significant change in the welfare state since 1945. The House therefore wants answers to a couple of simple questions: is the agency succeeding, or does it look as though it is doing so? If that question cannot be answered, does it appear to be working?

The plain fact is that we cannot answer either of those two crucial questions, which we need to answer today. At the end of the debate, Conservative Members will have to decide whether to vote with the Opposition or quietly to express their concern about the agency to Ministers. Like Opposition Members, they will be forced to base their judgment not on available information but on what they feel is happening with the agency. They will have to put together the information that they have received from their constituents. They will have to have a feel for what they think is happening to all the people who never complain when something is going well, and they will then have to make a judgment.

I sympathised with the Secretary of State for Social Security in his efforts to provide us with increased information over the past few days. Despite that, I believe that he feels that a big question mark remains over the working of the agency.

The Select Committee report will be ready when hon. Members return after the summer recess; it may or may not be radical—that is for the Select Committee to decide. It will be important that hon. Members keep an open mind regarding the extent of reform that may be necessary and that, although they may be loyal to the Government tonight, they make it clear to the Government that they believe that the jury is still out.

The increased information given in the past few days does not tally with other information that we have received. Hon. Members will have noticed the caveats—"This is estimated" or "The projection says". We can say almost nothing certain about the agency. The crucial information that we want is who is benefiting and how much mothers and families are receiving, but we cannot answer those questions.

I should like to compare the way in which the debate would have been conducted 100 years ago with the way in which it is being conducted today. Local government board reports in the age of quill pens, before anyone had dreamt of computers, were different from today's. Shortly after the end of each year, the most detailed information was gathered on subjects of interest to hon. Members. I have read reports on the poor law period. Riots in Peckham or Birkenhead were covered in reports at the end of the year. Hon. Members could be told what their constituents in the workhouses were eating on particular days.

We should compare that with our search for information on how the agency is working. The paucity of data is extraordinary. The unit responsible for establishing the agency, which set the computer programme on what information should be collected, should be sacked very quickly. Ensuring that the unit does not get its sticky fingers on the next project that the Government may establish is in the interests not only of the Government but of all hon. Members.

I do not want to state my views now because if I did, people might think that I was trying to bounce the Select Committee into making a report—and everyone should know that that is the last thing that I would want to do. I do, however, want to raise two issues. First, we must decide what proportion of income the agency may take from the second family. We are assured that families are left with 70 to 85 per cent. of net income, but none of us has met anyone whose experience tallies with that figure.

It has been impossible to obtain the most basic information from the agency—such as why a constituent has to fill in six application forms. It takes the chief executive three months to reply to such queries, let alone more detailed questions. If we can obtain information on how much money is being taken from net income, we shall be able to make a judgment in the autumn on whether we should try to get every penny from the second family or whether we should take a more rounded view and have a formula that delivers an appreciable sum that will regularly be paid and which mothers caring for their children will know will be paid, particularly if they have opportunities to work. We need that information badly and we will need to return to that important point in the autumn.

The second issue relates to the nature of the formula. I know that he is not listening to me, but the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is probably the only person in the Chamber who understands how the formula works. If I asked hon. Members how many of them understood and could explain the formula, no one would ask me to give way. If we do not understand the formula, how can agency officers, constituents and employers cope with it when they try to work out contributions?

In the autumn, we shall have to make a crucial second decision: do we want to modify the existing formula, which none of us understands, or should we choose a simple formula that exempts income and levies a rate of tax that all of us, including our constituents, can understand?

The Select Committee has asked the agency to explain the formula. We have been told that we must set aside at least two hours for an explanation. Last week, officials from Australia and New Zealand wanted, sensibly, to speak to the Secretary of State. They managed to explain their formula not in two hours, but in two minutes and most, if not all, the members of the Select Committee, understood it.

The other question with which we must deal in the autumn is this: will we solve matters by having a byzantine formula, believing that, if we can only add a little bit more to it, it will work, or should we go for a simple formula? We cannot sensibly propose reform until we get the formula right. We cannot think about introducing an appeal system if the formula is believed to be so unworkable that 6 million people will use that system. That would swamp and destroy it.

Mr. Stephen

We all accept that a simple system is more desirable than a complex one. But does the hon. Gentleman accept that the simpler the system is, the more chance it has of working justly in individual cases?

Mr. Field

That is a good intervention and it helps to underline the point that, when we debate any proposal for reform of the formula, we shall have to decide how much money will be taken from the first family. When we have set the level, we shall have to decide whether to hold the line on exemptions. We may have to set the figure at a level that will not deliver what we thought the present formula would deliver but that will be workable and accepted in the country. There would then be no sympathy for those who did not pay, because most people would understand the formula and would say that such a proportion of income should be paid.

I conclude by saying that—

Mr. Thurnham

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Field

No. In spite of my respect for the hon. Gentleman, I shall not give way, as many other hon. Members wish to speak.

It is extraordinary that none of us can answer the crucial questions: does the agency look as though it will be a success, and do we know much about how it is working? We have a feeling about it from our postbags and from what our constituents have told us but, at the end of the day, and in the absence of hard facts, we shall be called on to make a judgment. Even if Conservative Members cannot accept our motion, I hope that they will make it plain to the Secretary of State as they go through the Lobby that the jury is still out on this issue; that we shall have to return to it in the overspill session after the summer recess; and that we shall not act decisively until we have the information that we need to enable us to judge who is being affected, and to what extent, by this important reform.

5 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

A debate on the Child Support Agency can give the House an important opportunity to discuss fundamental pressures on society and how they can be dealt with; or alternatively it can descend into special pleading and an unconnected string of demands designed to avoid responsibility.

I believe that, in the face of huge pressure, it is vital that the Government stand firm on the core principles encompassed by the creation of the CSA. There has been a campaign of vilification against the agency and especially against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt). Both of them have handled the issue with courtesy and care, and I especially congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who has replied to all the questions that I have asked on behalf of my constituents, some of whom I took to see him a few months ago. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend and he will continue the work that they have begun and will not cave in to special pleading and the unparalleled campaign that has been waged against them and their officials.

I support the principle behind the agency, which is that one cannot evade responsibility for one's own actions; one cannot shuffle off responsibility to some convenient repository of all problems—the state—working on the myth that the state does not comprise other people with a need greater than one's own.

We all subscribe to the theory that fatherhood is for life, but I want to explore what that means. Do we have the moral courage to accept its literal meaning? Surely it cannot mean that, if a father loses his first family, he is entitled to insist on the state—other people, stranger—taking on a share of the care of the children of his first family because he wishes to start a second and can do so only if other people take on the burden of providing for the first.

It may not be his fault that he lost his first family—he may be entirely blameless, although other people will perhaps never be able to make an entirely fair assessment of tha—but, whatever the circumstances, the first family remains his complete responsibility.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I know of a case in which a couple divorced after having two children. The young man remarried and took on two of his second wife's children. He and his second wife then had a fifth child between them. But that young man is still only a trainee nurse and manifestly should not have taken on additional responsibilities and placed extra burdens on other parents who are also bringing up children.

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention because she makes my point precisely. We have to stand firm on this principle. It would be easy for us to shuffle our responsibility on to the state, but we must not do so. We should support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the hilt and not make a series of concessions that will weaken the principles behind the CSA.

It is often said that a court order should in no circumstances be overruled—a point often put to me by my constituents. I have some sympathy with that view if two equal, separating partners decide to divide their assets and incomes in such a way that the state is not in any way involved. However, I do not believe that a court order can be defended if it is predicated on the fact that the state will take on part of the burden of looking after the first family. I know from my experience of practising in divorce courts many years ago that, in the past, many maintenance orders were finely tuned to ensure that some convenient third party—the taxpayer—picked up a substantial part of the burden.

Mr. Heald

Does my hon. Friend agree that in such cases both parties often receive—or used to receive—legal aid and advice in making an agreement directly against the interests of the state? Nobody stood up to speak for the ordinary taxpayer who was often on a low income and unable to afford high taxes.

Mr. Leigh

Again, my hon. Friend makes my point. I well remember that, during my pupillage, my pupil master advanced the same argument, but he was very skilled at ensuring excellent settlements for his clients and used to laugh at how idiotic the state was to pick up the tab.

At first sight, the philosophy that I am expounding may seem to be pretty hard-nosed as far as the father is concerned; but it is not, because I believe that the full financial responsibility of the father should be balanced by full access, care and control rights. That is central to the debate. Absent but responsible fathers—my constituents—never complain to me about what they are required to pay for their children, but they do complain about what they are required to pay for the carer with whom they no longer live or to whom they are no longer married.

Philosophically, I want to try to resolve the dispute by making the absent father more responsible and less absent. I regard the absent father—I hate that phrase and would prefer to say simply "the father"—not as a distant sugar daddy required only to pay the bills but as an ever-present part of children's upbringing.

Parents may regrettably divorce in the sense that they refuse to live together or can no longer do so, but, if they have children, they cannot divorce their lives. Society should state that clearly and boldly. There can be no clean break. Young people must realise that parenthood is a lifetime system of care.

Of course the Child Support Agency mechanisms need to be reformed—that is inevitable with a new organisation—but not so that fathers are let off the financial hook. They should, if anything, be impaled on it more securely—but only on the basis of continued access to, care of and involvement in their children's lives. If they want to act responsibly, they should be considered equal to the mother in being allowed to bring up the children.

Equal time may not be feasible or wanted, but children need to be made aware of the traditional concept of their father having to be absent some of the time in order to work to earn money to care for them. Only if the father refuses to act responsibly, takes himself off and refuses to visit his children is the state entitled to view him as the impersonal source of child support and child minder taxation.

I accept that my argument flies in the face of much modern thinking to the effect that life is entitled to involve nothing but the pursuit of happiness, pleasure and self-fulfilment, and that relationships with other people and their children can be discarded when they cease to be a pleasure or mutually acceptable—with the sole proviso that a bill from some distant impersonal bureaucracy, together with a demand for a cheque, may fall with a thump on one's doorstep. Such a society degenerates into a mechanistic or even a cruel one.

If what I say is discounted as an unrealisable myth or as romantic poppycock, my reply is that, although it may be difficult, it is true. So many of the problems associated with the CSA are due to the fact that we have lacked the intellectual courage and clarity to state that complete personal divorce between parents is impossible where children are involved. We have required a Government agency, based necessarily on inflexible rules and procedures, and necessarily remote, to pick up the pieces that parents working together should have to hand.

I see the CSA evolving as a much more individualistic and personalised structure, evaluating individual needs and resources and committed to bonding parents more closely to the children whom they have brought into the world. Implicit in that view is that the CSA will have to maintain links between parents who may have fallen out with each other and who may not sleep under the same roof, but who must have a continual and continuing relationship based on the children.

Society has made divorce far too easy and it has made marriage far too easy. It has fostered the dangerous delusion that relations with children can be dissolved; they cannot.

The debate about the CSA is an interesting pointer to a wider debate about society as a whole. The 1980s may have been an era of dismantling inefficient, distant state structures. The problem with that was that people drew the wrong moral from the story. They came to believe that individuals could divorce themselves from each other and from society. Society came to be seen as a disparate collection of largely professional and expert groups. That view goes right through society. Business is first regionalised, then internationalised. The Army is seen as a professional elite divorced from society and the Territorial Army. Involvement in the community is downgraded in many parts of our society. It is bureaucratised, and not enough credence is given to individuals.

The real villain of the piece is social security policy, in assuming that we are all strangers to one another and to society. A vast churning process involving £80 billion of expenditure has erected a vast, rule-ridden, depersonalised bureaucracy in which the CSA is just one particularly painful cog, taxing and dispensing, often to the same people. Social security, including the CSA, is a convenient repository of problems, whether divorce, the underclass or single parents, which we would rather not solve ourselves as individuals.

When, at some distant date, our social security policy, including the CSA, is debated, it will be looked on in much the same way as we now look on Dickensian England. We should make the CSA and social security generally more personal, more human and more designed to empower people out of dependency and back into family, rather than state support. People will then have more faith in our social security system.

People may say that the Government and the Opposition lack a vision for the 1990s. Our disputes on the nature of ownership may be coming to an end. Surely one vision that we can share is the restructuring of social security across the board into something that is much more personal and positive, and that will ensure that we provide for our children in the way that they deserve in the next century.

5.12 pm
Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Stephen Milligan. Stephen's sudden death was a shock to the many people in Eastleigh who had come to know him as a hard-working and enthusiastic Member of Parliament. Stephen and I campaigned against each other in the 1992 general election. Although we disagreed vigorously on many aspects of policy, Stephen always argued on the issues. He never tried to gain advantage through personal attacks on his opponents. In this, he set a fine example which is all too rarely followed in political life today.

Stephen worked hard for his constituents. He was proud of Eastleigh and, I would add, with just cause. Eastleigh is unique among towns along the south coast of England in that it owes its origins to the expansion of heavy industry. With hon. Members' indulgence, I shall follow tradition and take a few minutes to talk about Eastleigh before I come to the points that I want to make about the Child Support Agency.

In the 1890s, the London and South Western Railway Company moved its wagon and carriage works out of London to a convenient railhead in Hampshire, and thus Eastleigh was born. In the 20 years that followed, Eastleigh's population increased sevenfold. With its excellent rail links, Eastleigh beckoned to industry and so a tradition of a wide range of manufacturing and engineering skills was established.

In more recent times, Eastleigh's factories have played a major part in the development of Britain's aero industry. Avro, Hawker Siddeley, De Havilland and Supermarine are just some of the famous names in British aviation associated with Eastleigh. Today, Hamble Aero Structures is Eastleigh's major employer. The tradition of railway engineering has continued in the railway maintenance works at Eastleigh, while in Woolston, the most westerly ward in my constituency, Vosper's shipyards continue to lead the world in minesweeper technology. In rail, sea and air transport, Eastleigh's industry continues to play its part.

Even today, almost a third of Eastleigh's work force are engaged in manufacturing industry. With the M3 and M27 motorways complementing the rail network, more than a quarter of all jobs in Eastleigh are in the distribution sector. If the much needed investment can be found to complete the development of Eastleigh airport, thousands of jobs could be provided to replace those slipping away from our traditional industries. Furthermore, investment in high-quality training for local people could ensure that they grasp these opportunities.

People in Eastleigh, however, feel insecure, not just about the operation of the CSA. One third of those unemployed have been out of work for more than a year. Many young families who bought their first homes in and around Hedge End in the 1980s' boom are now bust, trapped by negative equity. Energetic, able men and women are unable to move to take up better jobs and advance their careers because they are shackled to houses with values that are now far less than their outstanding mortgages.

People are worried, not just about the operation of the CSA, but about increasing crime in their area. It has increased by more than 20 per cent. in some places over the past few years. They do not understand why their chief constable's request to recruit 223 more officers just to bring the county force up to strength has been turned down.

People in Eastleigh are worried about career prospects for their children. They want investment that will guarantee high-quality education and training to provide young people with the skills they will need if they are to make their way in the modern, highly competitive world.

Hon. Members will know that by-elections bring into sharp focus the mood of the people, and Eastleigh is no exception. The people of Eastleigh have taken the opportunity to tell the Government that they want policies that recognise their concerns. I remind the House that the overturning of a Conservative majority of almost 18,000 in the 1992 general election to a Liberal Democrat majority of more than 9,000 just two years later is a powerful message from the voters of Eastleigh. It is a message to the Government that they should listen to the people and change their policies.

Of all the concerns of my constituents, the need to review and change the operation of the CSA is the greatest. Hon. Members will know from their own constituency postbags the extent of the anxiety and sense of injustice caused by the activities of the CSA. There is broad support from my constituents for the principle of the Child Support Agency—that both parents should be responsible for the maintenance of their children. However, the draconian operations of the CSA and the clear evidence that it is the Treasury—and not the children—that is far and away the major beneficiary only serve to underline the need for urgent and fundamental review of the current system for the collection of maintenance.

Just such a case concerns a constituent in Eastleigh. He divorced his wife seven years ago. He made a clean break settlement through the courts, with agreed maintenance payments for his two children. Two years later, he remarried, taking on the financial responsibility of two stepchildren as well as caring for his elder child, who by then had decided, again through the courts, that he wished to return to live with his father. Another three years passed. His first wife, who had also been married and then divorced for a second time, was required by the Department of Social Security to seek an increase in the maintenance paid by my constituent for the child still living with her.

The courts reviewed the case and determined that the original maintenance award was fair and just and should stand. This year, some seven years after his divorce, my constituent was contacted by the CSA. He sought its guidance on how to respond to its questionnaire. He was shocked to receive, instead of guidance, notice through the post that an interim assessment was about to be made. The assessment was estimated to be some seven times greater than the level of child maintenance that he is currently paying. It was some seven times greater than the amount set by the courts, subsequently re-examined by the courts and judged to be just and fair.

How can it be right for a Government agency to be able to overturn judgments made in the courts with no right of redress and no right of appeal? I believe that to make the CSA acceptable, far more radical reforms than those supported by the Government will be necessary. Formulae will have to take into account the father's necessary expenditure—for example, the cost of travelling to work. Calculations should be based on disposable income rather than gross income. Provision should be made for the costs of absent parents' access to their children. The CSA cannot be in the child's interests if a father's maintenance payments mean that he can no longer afford to visit his children.

Finally, there must be some mechanism whereby parents can challenge demands. No system can claim to be infallible. The very high number of mistaken demands shows that the CSA is no exception. It has been said that allowing for an appeal would simply mean a return to the previous discretionary system. However, there must be some place for discretion in a system which so directly influences people's lives. The Australians have established a successful appeal system, so there seems no good reason why it should be impossible to do so in this country. To provide no possibility for appeal is seen by many, not only in Eastleigh, to be in breach of natural justice. I urge the Government to make the provision of a facility of appeal for parents a top priority when they come to review the operations of the CSA.

5.23 pm
Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

I did not expect to be called so early in the debate. I am glad that I have been because it gives me a chance to thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) for the gentle way in which he referred to our colleague Stephen Milligan. Both Conservative and Opposition Members thank him most sincerely for that. We are sure that in the next year or two we shall hear one or two more of the hon. Gentleman's speeches. We look forward to that.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh is fortunate to be here on an important but not a cantankerous political day. He has heard the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Chairman of the Select Committee, make excellent speeches. The hon. Gentleman can be sure that they will read his speech in Hansard tomorrow because they will read their own speeches and will come across his in the course of events.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh has also heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State make a very good speech. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join us in voting for the amendment tonight, which concludes with the words: acknowledges the continuing concerns over child support issues and therefore welcomes the Government's commitment to continue to keep the scheme under scrutiny and to bring forward further changes should these prove necessary. I am sure that, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his able Under-Secretary say that, they mean it. I am sure that when the Select Committee has reported, changes will be made.

Marriage or parenthood is not a limited liability contract. One is not married as a limited company. One cannot put a limit on that. Nor is it an unlimited contract as at Lloyd's of London. When I got married 40 years ago, we were told, and we have been told ever since, that when a man gets married he gives his wife half his property and a third of his income for life. She can cash that in whenever she wants to walk through the door with the children, for whatever reason. That has always been so. It was so under the courts and it is so now.

Children are the responsibility of us all in the last resort. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) said, for the rest of the time they are the responsibility of their parents. Initially, they are the responsibility of their parents and they continue to be the responsibility of their parents whomsoever they live with afterwards.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told us that two thirds of absent parents contacted by the Child Support Agency in the first year had not been making regular payments. He also said that 96 per cent. of the families of those absent parents had been supported by the state. He said that 90 per cent. of the absent parents whose whereabouts were unknown and for whom the agency looked had been found. That is what the House hoped for and it is why we almost unanimously voted for the system.

However, many of my constituents are unhappy. It is my job to report as succinctly as possible their grievances. They are not violent or nasty. They come to my advice centres as sensible and reasonable men with problems such as the hon. Member for Eastleigh outlined. One young man said, "You daren't even go to t'disco and say owt to do wi't'CSA now." We all know exactly what he means.

My constituents say that the Child Support Agency must cost more to administer than the old system. I am not sure about that. The old system cost between £230 and £1,000 for every legal aid case. The lawyers are £80 million down, so no wonder they are complaining. I shall mention some of the objections of my constituents, bearing in mind that they will read every word of the Hansard reports that I send them and comb out every word. As we all do, they will agree with what they agree with and pooh-pooh what they disagree with.

The first thing that my constituents say is that clean-break settlements ought to be accepted or at least taken into account, especially where there is benefit fiddle or perhaps where they say that the wife does not deserve the £40 a week spending money that the formula directs. Secondly, my constituents say that the formula is too rigid and should allow for personal circumstances.

Most controversially, or perhaps least controversially, they cite the cost of access. No one automatically allows access to children by fathers. It is often, if not always, opposed because people say that access by fathers disturbs the children. It is better if the fathers are not there. My constituents have been advised to complain that their children have been molested by their father rather than to allow access to the children. My constituents also say that the formula ought to include an allowance for the cost of travel to work.

My constituents ask for more flexibility. I cannot see the difficulty in allowing more flexibility. Everyone in the House of Commons will have a different motor car insurance policy. Those policies will cover a range of special exclusions, special experiences and the lot. They will cover motor bikes, beginners, old people, young men aged under 23 and the rest of it. Such policies are put into being by a computer system with no difficulty. It may take a year or two to achieve flexibility in the CSA, but the systems are already available and could be used.

My constituents want a faster response to their correspondence and telephone calls. That includes both women appealing to the CSA to be included in the system and men appealing to be excluded. They need to be told more quickly, sharply and precisely where they are and what is going on.

My constituents say that retrospective legislation is destructive. Often, after a clean-break settlement has been agreed, an ex-wife spends her children's inheritance. The money is not used to support the child, as the lawyers intended five, six or seven years before. She has sold the house, the equity has gone, she has gone back on benefit, and her ex-husband is being asked to pay again. We must look into clean-break settlements, not only when they have endured and been fair and reasonable, but when one or other of the parties has taken advantage of them.

Finally, the Child Support Agency and its complicated formula are persuading men not to take promotion, move up the ladder or work harder because they know that any extra income will be creamed off. The formula is debilitating for people who are in business because, with the CSA as a silent partner, they cannot treat business profits in the same way as they would if it were a family business.

Those are the matters that my constituents have raised with me and about which I have often written to my right hon. and hon Friends on the Front Bench. The majority of my constituents—about 80 per cent—accept that the CSA is a reasonable and sensible way to ensure that those people who are responsible for children bear that responsibility properly. It would be a disaster if that near-consensus crumbled because of inflexibility and bad administration.

Since the CSA was set up, the amount of money that has gone to children has increased from about £16 a week to about £40. That increase is welcome to the children. I am sure that this debate and the excellent report of the Select Committee, which is to follow, will help to clear the Government's mind and make the CSA more effective.

5.31 pm
Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

First, I must congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) on his excellent speech and the accomplished way in which he made his debut. When I made my maiden speech about two years ago, precisely four other Members of Parliament were present, apart from the Deputy Speaker, and only my mother and my two children were in the Public Gallery. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his obvious ability and look forward to hearing him speak again many times.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) said, but I was somewhat worried about the way in which he began his speech. He said that this is not a controversial debate and that, unusually, there is general agreement today. I warn the Secretary of State, his colleagues and Conservative Members that if they make the subject of this debate party political, it will be to the detriment of the CSA and the children whom we want to help to get through all the mess created by the working of the agency during the past year. I detected a party political tendency in the Secretary of State's speech and in some of the comments his hon. Friends made from the Back Benches—albeit from a sedentary position.

I spoke on the issue when the House debated the report by the Select Committee on Social Security, so I do not want to be too long as I know that other hon. Members want to contribute. The Child Support Agency was set some targets when it began its work about two years ago. Very few of them appear to have been met, as the agency's report makes clear. It appears almost to have met the target for satisfaction. It claims that 61 per cent. of its customers are satisfied with its work and the target that it set out to achieve was 65 per cent., so it has done well in that respect, if not in any other.

If hon. Members, irrespective of the side of the Chamber on which they sit, are voicing the concerns of fathers, or absent parents—however one wants to describe them—it is not because they do not recognise the work that the agency is doing to assist those parents who care. For the most part, they are lone mothers, who are feeling the benefits of the agency's work. We want to articulate the real fears of the many constituents who, for the past year, have been plaguing us with their concerns about the way in which the agency works.

I am one of the luckier Members in this House in that only a small number of constituents have mentioned their worries about the agency to me—four or five at the last count. Other hon. Members have received many more complaints. Judging from those few cases, I am worried about the way in which the agency has been working and must bring one case to the attention of the House—that of Mr. Anthony Howard. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State about the matter.

I have been working with Mr. Howard, as his Member of Parliament, and trying to help him understand the way in which the agency has calculated the formula and applied it in his case. He is a systems analyst and works for British Telecom. He is used to dealing with complicated formulae—it is his bread and butter and he knows how such things work. He cannot understand why he is unable to work out how the agency has arrived at its final figures in his case.

When the original assessment was made, he came to me in real distress because he felt that it was a serious threat to the well-being of his family. In his case, it was not a second family, as he had married only once. He is required to pay maintenance for a 14-year-old son, whom he had in a previous relationship. As soon as he was made aware of his responsibilities, he undertook to pay maintenance, through a court order, and continued to do so until the CSA became involved.

He was not trying to evade his responsibilities. He took them seriously and still wishes to do so. He is anxious to make the maximum payment that he can afford, without damaging the family that he has created with his wife, which is a long-term commitment. He is worried that the agency's assessment is seriously jeopardising the stability of that marriage and his ability to care for the children he has in that relationship.

After the agency made its assessment, Mr. Howard followed the work of the Select Committee closely—I was a member of the Committee at that time. He read Hansard and the Committee's report. In December, that report was presented to Parliament and the Secretary of State and his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State, accepted many of its recommendations. I agree that they went further and we welcomed many of the changes that were made—especially the changes to the formula.

I agree entirely with the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who spoke earlier. If we cannot get the formula right and make it work, we cannot save the Child Support Agency in its present form. Things have got so bad that, unless we make the formula workable, easy to understand and simple, it will not stand the test of public support.

What subsequently happened to Mr. Howard was inexplicable. After he had read the Select Committee report and heard what the Government had decided to do in response, he wrote to tell me how pleased he was with the work that had been done. He genuinely felt that, as far as he was able to understand them, the changes would assist him, especially as the child he was paying maintenance for was 14 years old. He wrote thanking me for my work—not that I did a great deal—and was especially grateful to the Select Committee for its work and for the way in which the Government had responded.

The CSA wrote to him in terms that I do not understand. I sent a copy of the letter to the Minister. The agency acknowledged that his payments would be reduced. He expected a reduction of about 25 per cent.

In fact, the agency then started to use vague phrases. In a letter of 13 June, it tried to explain why Mr. Howard would not receive the 25 per cent. reduction in the maintenance assessment that he had expected. It merely offered the following explanation: because a fresh maintenance assessment following Anthony's birthday would not make the maintenance payable significantly different. This is known as the tolerance rule. The agency offered no explanation of that rule or how it applied to the formula. Mr. Howard, who could be expected to be able to understand such explanations, began to tear his hair out.

The agency cited in another letter that, because Mr. Howard's income was regarded as high and in accordance with the principle that children should share in the wealth of the absent parent as if they had continued to live with them", that also meant that his maintenance requirement would not be reduced. I do not disagree with that principle, but the CSA offered no figures or any explanation for how it had arrived at its assessment. Mr. Howard felt that the arguments that he had presented to me and to the agency over many months had been entirely disregarded.

I recognise that agency staff are working under extreme pressure and I agree with those who have said it is unacceptable that those staff should be attacked at work or at home. Such behaviour is entirely unacceptable in a democracy. The House should be aware, however, that Mr. Howard has been on the receiving end of harassment from agency staff. The Government should recognise that it is not acceptable for people who are already suffering from heightened anxiety because of maintenance problems to receive telephone calls at work while going about their daily business. Those calls were not made to ask for information that had not been provided or for clarification of a particular point—they can only be described as abusive telephone calls. Mr. Howard received calls in which he was asked, "Why have you not completed your standing order? What is the matter with you? It is only £400 a month. Get on with it." That is how agency staff responded to Mr. Howard's correspondence and his efforts and mine to get to the bottom of his case.

I accept that agency staff do not behave like that all the time, but they have done so sufficiently often to cause concern. That is why people get so angry. People are not justified in taking out their frustration on agency staff and I would not seek to condone that, but one must also recognise that such harassment from the staff is also unacceptable.

I know from talking to staff of the agency that their training is very good, so I do not understand why, once they are back in the workplace, they sometimes adopt unacceptable methods, which cannot be condoned. I can only assume that they have been set unattainable targets and that they are working under such pressure to achieve them that they sometimes stoop to methods of which we would not approve.

According to some publicity earlier today, the Secretary of State intended to use today's debate to announce changes in the targets. I did not hear him make such an announcement, but perhaps the Under-Secretary will. I believe that those targets should have been changed when the formula was changed as a result of the Select Committee's report. If the formula is not right and CSA staff are working towards unachievable targets, the agency will not function in the manner that we all intend it to do. That benefits no one—the people we are trying to help or hon. Members, as we seek to implement legislation that works.

5.44 pm
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

Before the CSA was established, all the relevant matters were handled by the courts. Whatever their particular disadvantages, those courts are concerned with justice and are empowered to take account of individual circumstances. When the Government created the CSA, they transferred that sensitive and personal material to a state bureaucracy, which was required to impose a standardised approach. That was a curious thing for a Conservative Government to do.

My hon. Friend the Minister will say that the transfer was necessary because the courts were producing unsatisfactory results. That is undoubtedly correct. They were slow, were inconsistent in their approach and, in particular, left the taxpayer to pick up a huge burden. All those problems obviously had to be tackled. Was it not possible, however, to deal with them directly by passing legislation that required the courts to minimise the call on Government funds? In addition, the Government could have seconded people from the Department of Social Security to chase up absent parents to ensure that they paid what the court had said they should pay. If that had been done, we would have adopted a more modest and less expensive approach to the problem.

I am surprised that that approach was not adopted by the United Kingdom, because it is the basis of the Australian approach, which has been more successful than our own. Stage I of the Australian Child Support Acts of 1988 and 1989 made it clear that the Family Law Act 1975 had been amended to take no account of custodial parents' eligibility for benefit. When the legislation was reviewed—my right hon. and hon. Friends would confirm that that is a continuous process—it was confirmed that the law should not be retrospective in that regard.

That raises another question about this phalanx of British law—it has been made retrospective. That is another thing about which people rightly complain. It is one thing for a group of people to be told, "From here on, if you do this, the consequences will be such and such." The fact that several years of law have been set aside, in circumstances that people could not have foreseen, is fundamentally opposed to traditional notions of British justice.

The fact that the legislation to set up the CSA was rushed through the previous Parliament with remarkable speed is one reason that the various alternatives were not explored thoroughly. The then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, made her speech to the Pankhurst group on 18 July 1990, and exactly one year later the relevant legislation received its Royal Assent. No Green Paper was published, so it was not possible to have wider consultation with relevant groups and individuals.

Many of us on both sides of the House are deeply critical of our legislative procedures, in particular those of the past few years, which have produced over-hasty legislation with many things at fault. The Child Support Act 1991 was passed unanimously, but, given the fact that it has had such adverse consequences for many individuals, we must all reconsider it. Individual citizens should not be penalised because of the faults of our legislative procedure.

I support the principle behind the CSA. I do not deny that parents, even though they live apart, should be responsible for their children. It is the methods about which I am concerned. I should like to relate the story of someone who came to my surgery only the Saturday before last. That young man's wife left him. He looked after their two children for at least a year, before, finally, the mother took the children to live with her and another man, 200 miles away.

The father earns £127 a week net and out of that he has to pay £40 in rent; £15 for gas and electricity; £30 for food; £5 for car insurance and road tax; for council tax; £3 for various other items and £20 for petrol to get to work. That totals £120 a week. The CSA wanted £28 a week from that man. As a result of my right hon. Friend's changes in the regulations in February, that £28 was reduced to £18.

In addition, the man is now in arrears and owes the CSA £466. It is demanding a further £5 a week, so he must now pay £23 a week when his net surplus—the money that he has left to pay for everything once he has paid his essential costs—is only £7 a week. No wonder he cannot concentrate at work and breaks down in tears all the time. No wonder he talked about suicide when he came to my surgery only a fortnight ago. I am concerned about such individual cases. Life is now a nightmare for that young man.

Although I fully recognise that none of that is the fault of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who have taken a consistently concerned approach and been considerate in handling matters—I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for agreeing to meet a group of people from the Croydon, Orpington and Bromley group against the Child Support Agency, COBACSA for short, organised by Mr. Brian Reavill—none the less, it is the essence of the problem which the House must deal with.

Two or three changes are essential. First, the standard assessment must be widened to take into account other costs such as travel, access and house insurance. Secondly, the formula should, if possible—I agree that a conflict exists—be simplified. It should not take two hours to explain it to the Select Committee on Social Security. Anyone should be able to grasp it quickly.

Thirdly, payments should begin when the assessment is finally settled. The young man that I mentioned faces a total bill of £466. He is being asked to pay just £5 a week, but other people have much greater bills. Not only should the existing power for people to spread payment over a long period be improved, but some of those debts should be cancelled.

Although my hon. Friend would say that that is giving in to people who refuse to pay, it would also take account of people who cannot pay. Because of the problems faced by the CSA, the gap between the time when the initial assessment is made or when people are first written to and a final settlement is much longer than was originally envisaged. Ordinary citizens should not be penalised for the mistakes that we make in the House or civil servants make at our behest.

All those changes should, as far as possible, be made through regulation or administrative order because they need to be made quickly. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to wait until the Social Security Select Committee has reported, but once it has had its say, action must follow extremely swiftly.

5.52 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I am grateful for an opportunity to speak in this debate. From speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House, it is obvious that we needed to have this debate. People outside can be assured that hon. Members on both sides of the House are fighting for a fair and effective system and to make the Government aware that the system of child support maintenance which they set up is close to collapse.

The country desperately needs a system of securing maintenance for children which works, is fair and takes unusual circumstances into account, which commands the support of parents but which, most of all, benefits children. That children should benefit is essential. The fact that so few have done so is central to the Government's failure.

In my experience, parents on both sides want a system that works. There will always be people who want to avoid their responsibilities and they should be pursued vigorously. Equally, however, many parents want to pay. They want a fair and efficient system that allows them to make and receive regular payments for the benefit of their children. Most hon. Members have had a crop of cases from constituents who feel aggrieved at how the CSA has treated them or are concerned about their ability to cope on the income which they have left. Concerned parents come from both sides—those with care and those who have left the family home.

A parent with care who contacted my office was horrified to learn that she would probably be worse off receiving child support maintenance. As a parent on income support, she was told that her income would be the same but that she would lose other benefits to which income support can be a passport. Parents can lose free school meals, which are worth several pounds a week, school clothing grants, and housing and council tax benefits. My constituent's hopes were built up only to be dashed, and she was potentially far worse off than before.

Many women who have not previously received maintenance but are on income support and receive help from practically no one now find themselves even worse off than before the system was introduced. The Government claim that those were the people they wanted to help. That shows the depth of their failure. Many parents with care on income support, many of whom are women, who may have no savings and manage from week to week, will soon receive no support whatever from the state.

By taking away their income support, the state is effectively denying them the help to which most people are entitled and throwing them to the mercy of their former partners. That does not represent progress for women in our society. If their former partners default and either do not pay or make payments erratically, they will have no money and will be forced into a crisis.

The lengthy procedures for reclaiming arrears and forcing people to pay are fine in theory, but how will those parents and children manage to eat in the meantime without the guarantee of regular payments? How can driving struggling families further into insecurity be considered putting children first? The Government are putting families on even lower and far less secure incomes while claiming that they have done so for their benefit. That is an appalling attitude. It is little wonder that people have so little respect for the Government when they show so little compassion for individual human circumstances.

Absent parents and sometimes their second families are finding themselves under pressure from the system, especially when they are in unusual circumstances. A constituent of mine has been left with thousands of pounds' worth of jointly incurred debts, but none of the repayments will be taken into account for maintenance purposes. An official of the Government's quango is now telling one of my constituents, "You must pay that amount of money, even though we know that, in reality, you can't afford to do so." The state is literally asking the impossible, yet that man's children will see not a penny piece of that money, as it will be spent on taking his ex-wife off benefit.

We are all aware of cases in which the formula has been inflexible and unresponsive to individual circumstances. The Government must respond to that problem and treat those delicate matters with the sensitivity and common sense that they deserve. They have failed to set up a sensitive and effective system of delivering maintenance because they do not have the welfare of the people involved at heart. Their overriding priority has been to save money first, second and last. By setting the £530 million target in the first year of operation, they gave the CSA a licence to pursue soft targets where maintenance was already being paid rather than first trying to help those who receive nothing.

The £335 million—the figure has now been questioned—that has been saved so far should be benefiting the children, but it is being used as part payment for the Government's economic incompetence. The end result is a system from which many thousands of children will see no benefit at all, and it will take thousands of parents with care—mainly women—out of the income support safety net.

The Government must review the system so that it guarantees that maintenance will be paid regularly and all children will be better off at the end of the day. They must also ensure that there is a right of appeal on both sides when there are circumstances that need to be examined in more detail. It is not good enough to say to people, "Those are the rules. I know that they do not work and have no relevance to your circumstances, but they are the rules". Yet that is what the Government have sought to do and are doing.

The Government cannot be short of evidence. With many letters from hon. Members, charities, pressure groups and individuals who are affected, even they should have worked out by now that a fundamental change to the system is needed. As well as the failure of the system, we have also been faced with the chaos of administration which seems to be rife throughout the CSA and which adds insult to injury for many people who are dealing with personal matters that are often urgent.

In the past few days, one of my constituents found that her case as it stands today has not advanced one iota since November. Last year, when she notified the local office of the change in benefit that she was receiving, the CSA said that the next step was an interim assessment—and the agency said the same thing to my office on the telephone only last week.

In another case, employers were contacted for information when no approach should have been made at all, causing potential problems for the constituent at work. In another case, the new name and address of a constituent and his wife were given to the former partner who had caused a nuisance in the past, despite repeated verbal and written requests that the address should be kept secret.

A catalogue of similar examples of misinformation, incompetence and delay have characterised the experience of many of my constituents with the CSA. Many hon. Members will have cases on their files which have lingered on for months, and many will have shared my experience of writing to the CSA and not having had a reply for more than three months.

The system is close to breakdown in terms of both organisation and support, and that is why I want to see a fundamental review of it. A number of positive suggestions about how the system could be changed could be made to the benefit of all those involved. Many hon. Members who attended the lobby on the Child Support Agency last week will have been impressed by some of the proposals raised there. Certainly the south Yorkshire contingent representing absent parents, second families and parents with care produced a persuasive case for change.

Mr. Frank Field

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because it allows me to put it on the record that, although the Select Committee received about 5,000 submissions in response to its inquiry, the submission from the South Yorkshire group was by far the best.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful for that intervention.

It is high time the Government took some notice of the hundreds of letters that they have received on the subject rather than simply passing the buck and evading the issue. They have got the matter dreadfully wrong. They have an absolute duty to act to introduce changes which will address the chaos that they have caused to so many people's lives. The message from my constituents is that we need a fair system but, most importantly, one which delivers benefits to the children and one which can be relied on. I hope that the Government will now hear that message and act on it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

I must remind hon. Members that Madam Speaker has declared that speeches between now and 8 pm shall be no longer than 10 minutes.

6.4 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Like most speakers in the debate so far, I strongly support the principle that we should have the Child Support Agency. It has almost become commonplace to say that we have a society with too many rights and not enough obligations. Of course, it would be completely empty words if we were to say that obligations will simply be achieved through exhortation and never through the bite of the law. There is no more important obligation in the ordinary way in society than caring for one's own children.

Before I come to some criticisms of the existing system, I shall stress three aspects of which we essentially must keep hold. The first is the principle that, even in the era of artificial insemination and all the other facilities available, every child has two biological parents, and if they are both alive and fit and well, they should both be involved in caring for the child, and not only financially.

Secondly, we are absolutely right to take the maintenance of children away from the courts. It is outrageous that for years the courts were allowed to get away with dumping two thirds of all cases wholly or largely on the taxpayer. Indeed, if the appeal system is expanded—at present there are limited grounds for appeal—it is essential that it should not go back to the courts.

Thirdly—to reiterate the point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—it is absolutely essential that, if the appeal system is extended, it must be only on a limited number of clearly articulated headings, not some sort of general appeal with weasel words such as "personal circumstances" or whatever, which would simply lead to everyone appealing and the formula being undermined.

I have four criticisms of the existing system—some of them have been aired already. First, the Child Support Agency must be allowed to take account of genuine working costs. Indeed, that is one area where there is room for appeal, because there is an unavoidable element requiring discretion. As other hon. Members have already mentioned this, I shall not dwell on it, but it would be a bizarre anomaly if, just as the Department of Social Security has made the strongest possible commitment—it was reiterated on the wireless this morning by the Secretary of State—to find ways of easing the unemployment trap, we turned a blind eye to the fact that the formula does not take full account of working costs, especially travel-to-work costs, and many absent parents, of which 10 per cent. are women, find themselves paying such sums of money that they are pushed into an unemployment trap.

My second concern rests on the agency's lack of legal bite. At present, I am dealing with a constituent whose former husband applied 10 months ago to have his case assessed by the CSA and, as a result, the court maintenance order which he had paid for many years ceased. For 10 months, the woman has been living on income support while her former husband skilfully evades the system by prevaricating over details. If the CSA eventually manages to sort out a payment for him and he then chooses not to pay it, it will still take several months to get an attachment order on his earnings. We must give the CSA some of the powers which the courts used to enjoy, so that it will be a clear offence if someone fails to fill in forms in a timely manner, gives a false statement of earnings and so on.

My third concern, on which I shall spend a minute or two longer, relates to the failure of the present system, in a different way from that which has been raised by Labour Members, to deliver money to the children. I do not mean the suggestion of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that there should be some sort of fixed disregard. It seems to be totally wrong that we should end up with a position in which some people are potentially better off with a family split than with it joined together. It would be wrong that in two neighbouring houses there should be a widow on income support and someone on income support whose marriage has broken down with identical family commitments, but the latter enjoys more money than the former.

A curious flaw in the present system is that there is nothing in it to say that the money has to go to the children. There is no way even in principle that an absent partner can chase up a case by appealing if he strongly believes that little or none of the money is being spent on the child.

I know of two almost identical constituency cases of wives running off with other men. Both former husbands were in reasonably well paid jobs, while the women's lovers were and remain jobless. Maintenance was being paid in both cases before the CSA was set up; it has substantially increased the maintenance now, with the result that the women's lovers have been able to enhance their life styles—spending more in the boozer and on various other activities.

In both cases the effect of the increased payments has been that the deserted fathers—at least one of them did not want the marriage to break u—can no longer buy their children the presents and gifts that they used to give them. Both fathers used to give their children clothes, holidays and so on, but they can no longer afford to do that. So the children are suffering, while the new boy friends only stand to gain.

I would not naively suggest that the state should interfere in the budgets of every household—that would be monstrous and unworkable—but absent parents in these more extreme cases should have access to some appeal procedure when it is clear that little or none of their money is going to their children. An appeal procedure should be able to provide them with an order stipulating that, if they give their children gifts in kind, those can be counted against their cash payments. In that way they can be sure that at least some of the money is spent on the children.

My fourth and last point relates to custody, but it fits in closely with the subject of this debate. Before the CSA was set up, I dealt with a bad constituency case involving an agricultural worker whose wife had run away with another man, abandoning him with the three children. Some months later, when their money had run out, the wife and lover realised that the way to acquire accommodation was for the wife to claim custody of the children whom she had abandoned—such is the imbalance in this country's laws of custody that she could easily and quickly do that, even though the children begged to stay with their father and have several times run away to see him.

With other areas of law, most strikingly in the White Paper on housing, it has now been acknowledged that state benefits can create perverse incentives. Teenage pregnancy to gain a council house is offered as an example of this. To some extent, child custody arrangements have always involved a perverse incentive, because they provide an incentive for someone who cynically wants to gain housing. I am sorry to say that I have had to deal with several such cases.

The downside of the good provisions of the CSA, which do ensure that real payments are made, is that they can sometimes add a second edge to this perverse incentive. I am afraid that I am talking about the woman, not the man, because child custody arrangements are biased towards the woman. On top of this possibility of acquiring the family home—regardless of whose name the home was in—the CSA can provide the added incentive of a large income which the woman and the new man can then spend.

Here, then, is a second reason for looking again at our child custody laws. I am aware that I am speaking against the White Paper on divorce law. I believe that we must go back to some of the pre-1969 ideas and ask where some of the fault may lie. If one partner has clearly abandoned the marriage and left the children with the other, that should be a prime consideration when subsequently awarding custody of the children.

I end where I started by expressing strong support for the principle of the CSA. In all the areas that I have described, however, we need reform, and it is important that it comes as early as possible.

6.14 pm
Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

One would think, after the fiasco of the poll tax which cost the country dear, that the Government would have learnt the lesson that they cannot operate an Act without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the majority of people in this country if we are to keep our democracy intact.

The Secretary of State has tried to demonise the campaigning groups, implying that they consist of nothing but violent, selfish fathers who do not want to pay maintenance for their children. That is totally untrue. There may be some fathers of that sort, but most members of the campaign network are decent men who care about their children and want to maintain them. The networks also contain single mothers with care and second wives—they are a mixture, not just groups of fathers.

The Government are already trying to reduce the democratic rights of these groups. The latter wanted to hold a rally in Trafalgar square on father's day, but the Heritage Commission banned it on the spurious grounds that large numbers would attend—as, indeed, they would—and that it would be dangerous for the large numbers of children who might be brought across the road. Will that be the pattern for the future when groups who might bring children with them apply to hold rallies in Trafalgar square? I hope not. Will the Government go further, as they did with the poll tax, and bring in bailiffs and imprisonment to deal with the men who cannot find the money to pay the huge debts that have accrued owing to retrospective awards?

Not only are the campaigning networks mushrooming all over the country and holding rallies of thousands of people who are against the Child Support Act 1991, but the legal profession has declared itself against the Child Support Agency and in favour of a court-based system. Even groups of lawyers who deal with family matters and divorce are of that opinion. I believe that we should take their expertise and advice into account.

The voluntary organisations which have thus far supported the idea of a formula are getting more and more worried too. Looking through the voluntary organisations' reports from the end of the first year of the CSA's operation, I find that the Child Poverty Action Group's report lists about 34 changes which should be made to make the formula function more fairly, the National Council for One Parent Families lists about 20 changes, and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux wants no fewer than 44 changes. Other organisations could add to that number.

It is time the Government realised that the agency is not going to work and that what is needed is a court-based system with an organisation to enforce the maintenance on which the court-based system decides. That would be much more efficient than the discredited CSA, but the Government should attempt it only after widespread consultation with the public. By now, millions of people are aware of the problem of child poverty and are discussing it, and thousands of people have been to meetings to suggest what system they would lik—how the Government's system can be improved or done away with and replaced. The Government should therefore consult the public and the campaigning organisations about what can be done, because it is clear that what the Government have done so far is not working at all.

The central question remains the poverty of children. In 1990, Breadline Britain showed the true extent and nature of the poverty of many children in this country; 2.5 million children were living without certain basic necessities, such as three meals a day or being able to take a full part in school activities—despite the fact that many parents went hungry to prevent their children from suffering the stigma of poverty in school.

On Government statistics, 3.9 million, or 30 per cent., of our children were living in households with less than half the average income in 1991. That means that they were living in poverty or on the margins. We need up-to-date figures so that we can compare what happened before the CSA with what has happened afterwards, but the 1992–93 figures have not been published. They have been ready for a long time and the Government have said that they will be released soon. Is it too cynical of me to think that they are being held back until the House rises for the recess? I challenge the Government to publish the figures before the House rises so that we can see what is happening.

The Government must take account of the fact that a man on average wages cannot keep two families. When the Act tries to make him do so, it simply spreads the poverty so that not only the families of single mothers but also the second families will live in poverty. The Government must face the reality that a low average wage will not keep two families decently.

The Act was introduced on the pretext that it would alleviate child poverty, but it is doing nothing of the sort. It seems to have become a grubby device to fill the Treasury's coffers. On 2 July the Evening Standard published figures showing that less that 2p in every £1 went to parents with care for the benefit of the children. Most of the money went to the Treasury. That may be good for the public sector borrowing requirement, but it is not alleviating the poverty of this country's youth.

Many people have come to see me or written to me in distress because of the activities and demands of the CSA. With the 10-minute restriction on speeches, I do not have time to go into these cases, and in any event it might bore the House as I am sure that many hon. Members have had mailbags full of letters too. In many cases, the CSA is acting illegally by not giving women, and especially single mothers, proper information about their rights. It may also give false information about the right to withdraw authorisation if a woman changes her mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) spoke of women being forced back into dependence on former partners with whom they wished never to have contact again. Some of them are even forced into financial dependence on their former partners' second wives, whose income is also taken into account. The Act has caused widespread misery and despair. It has disrupted many relationships which had been painfully rebuilt after the bitterness of separation and divorce, where parents had got together and established some kind of modus vivendi for the sake of the children. That has been shattered by the activities of the CSA.

Single mothers have been threatened with benefit penalties and fathers have often been saddled with huge debts because of the retrospection of maintenance demands. As hon. Members have said, some people have been brought to the point of suicide. The agency has acted with great insensitivity. I have had reports that wives who have been battered by their husbands or threatened by men have been interviewed by a male officer sent by the CSA. That also causes great distress.

The Child Support Agency has been dilatory and inefficient and it must go. The Child Support Act 1991 must also go. We are all concerned about proper maintenance of children and want to do away with child poverty, but this is not the way. The Government must go back to the drawing board. There must be public consultation and a Government rethink.

6.23 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, not least because—in common, I am sure, with many hon. Members—I have had a substantial number of letters and surgery visits as a result of the introduction of the Child Support Agency. I have discussed the recent visit of representatives from Australia and New Zealand with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), who takes a close interest in these matters. Unfortunately, that discussion gave me little room for hope that, within the next five years or so, matters will improve, as, after six years of the operation of similar legislation in Australia, there are still many complaints about its working.

That is hardly surprising, however, as we are fighting a whole culture which has built up in this country, not least with the encouragement and support of some Opposition Members. As a result, many people assume that at the heart of the way we run our society is the fact that, if people are not minded to pay for the upkeep of their children, the state will pick up the tab.

In dealing with correspondence and surgery cases, it is easy to get a slightly slanted view of the reality. I do not think that I am alone in saying that I have not had many representations from single deserted mothers, many of whom already benefit from the legislation. There has been a well organised and well orchestrated campaign against the Child Support Agency. As we have heard, that campaign has sometimes slipped into violence and intimidation and a kind of strike against filling out forms which are needed for assessments.

Almost all those who visit my surgery or write to me begin with the mantra that of course they support the principle of the CSA, and I am sure that some of them genuinely do, but as one strips away the layers of truth or untruth, one discovers that many do nothing of the sort as they plainly rely on the assumption which has existed until recently that, come what may, there will be state support. The job of hon. Members is to separate the wheat from the chaff before we come here to debate the issue.

We must remember that the balance must be tilted towards deserted parents, of whom we tend to read little in the newspapers and hear little in these debates. Just as important is the taxpayer. At the moment the average person in work pays £15 each working day towards the cost of maintaining the social security system. Those people have children and mortgages and have chosen a traditional family unit. They may have had their ups and downs, like all families, but they have stayed together and met their obligations; yet they are being called upon to pay such amounts.

It does no good to talk about the Treasury taking the benefit, as the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) did, because the Treasury is another word for the taxpayer. Money clawed back for the benefit of the Treasury benefits the ordinary taxpayer. I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security outlining the extent to which benefit fraud is being exposed as a result of the agency's actions. That has certainly been my experience in several constituency cases, and my right hon. Friend's figure of £138 million already recouped was impressive.

No modern industrial state can afford to ignore this problem. In a speech made a couple of weeks ago on the welfare system in the USA, President Clinton spoke about the toughest child support enforcement measures in the history of this country". President Clinton, a Democrat president, went on to say: How are we going to do that? First, by requiring both parents to be identified at a hospital when a baby's born. Second, by saying, if you don't provide for your children, you should have your wages garnished, your license suspended, you should be tracked across state lines. In August last year, the New York Herald Tribune said: Seventeen US States now deny driving, professional, fishing and hunting licenses to divorced men who are behind in their child-support payments. In Maine 18,000 'deadbeat dads' owing a total of $150 million were mailed warnings this week from the…State Department of Human Services. Licenses to drive, fish, practice law, work as a beautician or in any other state-licensed field are at risk. [Interruption.] As Opposition Members should know, the problem is not limited to this country, and other countries have different ways of dealing with it.

The changes in the working of the CSA are welcome and Ministers have not ruled out the prospect of future changes. I shall touch on a couple of problem areas that I have identified in my constituency cases. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will deal with them in his winding-up speech.

The problem of travel costs is particularly prevalent in the south-east, where people often pay substantial sums to travel to and from their place of work, mainly in London. Some even take out a loan for that purpose, which means that they are doubly penalised. I have some sympathy with those people, and I ask my right hon. Friend to look at the problem again. I appreciate that the general question of loans is a difficult one. Very often a divorced father has to set up a new household and borrow money to buy furniture and other things; yet I understand that those loans are not taken into account.

At the other end of the scale, a gentleman came to see me recently—he shall remain nameless—who before his marriage broke up was earning £40,000 a year. He had been paying some £1,000 towards child maintenance. After receiving the attentions of the CSA, he has set up a new business, is no longer making voluntary payments and is claiming that he cannot afford anything, because in the nature of starting a new business, his drawings figure is very low indeed. He seemed quite outraged by my suggestion that he was expecting the taxpayer to subsidise the start of a new business enterprise. As for my somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion that, when the business eventually took off and succeeded, he should send a retrospective cheque to the Department of Social Security, the thought had clearly not crossed his mind.

Although that is an extreme example, I appreciate that there are difficult cases. It is difficult to find a rule that would do justice to an extreme case such as that—someone who has given up a well-paid job and is starting a new business—and also to more deserving cases. But the fact remains that the system is necessary and useful. It is a system that is already being applied in a number of other countries. We have heard how Australia and New Zealand are still fighting to achieve an acceptable system and to make it as practicable as possible. Our job in the House is to ensure that the system works.

Some of the contributions that we have heard from Opposition Members suggest that they would like to see the whole system done away with and a return to the bad old days. The bad old days were totally unacceptable, because they involved a consensual burden being placed on the state and on the taxpayer, with the connivance of the courts. That resulted in an enormous bill for the maintenance of children when in many cases the parents were perfectly able to maintain them in the style to which they had become accustomed. If other changes are to be made to the workings of the Child Support Agency, I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will consider their merits in due course.

6.32 pm
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

Like many hon. Members who have spoken today, I recognise the importance of this subject. We are talking about one of the most important issues to have arisen in social policy over the past 10 or 15 years. It is important largely because of the force of family changes that are occurring, as has been acknowledged, in many societies such as our own, which mean that more and more children are being brought up by only one parent rather than two.

The evidence from the general household survey shows how rapidly some of those changes have occurred. In 1979, 83 per cent. of children under 16 lived with both their natural parents. By 1991, that figure had declined to 71 per cent. So only seven out of 10 of our children under 16 are living with both their natural parents.

That rapid change, which makes the debate all the more important, is being fuelled by two forces in particular. One is marital breakdown, which probably means that some one in four children under 16 will have mothers and fathers who divorce. The other—a peculiarly British issue in the European context—is the rise of those families headed by the single unmarried mother. It is a particularly vulnerable—certainly very poor—family. The issue of parental responsibility is crucial for the welfare of future generations of children. The futures of literally millions of our children depend on our getting the debate right and fashioning an effective child maintenance policy for children.

Although my own analysis of family change would not be all doom and gloom—a proper analysis would talk about the strengths associated with some changes as well as the insecurities, and proper social policy should play to strengths and not just recognise insecurities—nevertheless, in the context of the debate, we must acknowledge that the revolution of family change, which we have seen over the past 20 years, has not been a bloodless revolution. Although many are affected, including many men, the major victims of that revolution have been women and children.

In handling family change, our approach, implicitly, has been women and children last. I say that because, although I am sympathetic, as are many hon. Members, about the position of the many men who find that they have second family responsibilities, there is a sense in which the debate is affected by a major hypocrisy—we should be spending most of our time worrying about the position of women and children in one-parent families, the families with care, but the debate is becoming increasingly dominated by the interests of men.

There is something strange about that, because we know that, in the past, after a marital breakdown, the men were often not only unaffected financially but were better off, because they no longer had to pay the maintenance for their children. Invariably, the women and children have been worse off. If there were any justice in the debate, about the concern that we feel about the position of men—I share that concern, and we need the Select Committee report to show us how we get the right formula for second families—we would hear rather more about the poverty of women and children.

Although many of those women and children are beginning to come to our surgeries, we are letting the men's agenda dominate the debate. Unless we have the courage—sometimes it requires courage when discussing this with some of those affected by the CSA—as a Parliament to listen hard for the silent voices of poor one-parent families, we will make major mistakes.

The costs of social change are considerable. We must recognise that the debate is so controversial because it highlights questions about the costs of children. Any parent knows that children are very costly, and are increasingly so when one considers the demands of training, education and higher education. One way or another, our society, through partnerships between the family and the state, and perhaps other institutions, must invest more, rather than less, in our children in future. At the moment, the costs of social change and family disruption are being shouldered in the main by women and children through poverty. They are being shouldered negatively.

There is no getting away from the fact that children are costly. The York study, which sought to draw up a modern budget, showed that, for children under 11, a modest but adequate budget per week would be about £59. When one thinks of that, perhaps multiplied by two children and a monthly rate, it is not so surprising that so many absent fathers are shocked by the size of their child support bill. I think that, if parents in this country totalled up the costs of clothing, food, shoes and the rest, or had some Government agency doing that and sending the bill every week, they might well feel that they too would want nothing to do with those costs.

I am making a serious point. The issue highlights the costs of children, and there is no dodging that. The parents should share those costs in an equitable way through a revised formula; the mothers and children pay for it negatively—as I have argued, through poverty—or the state pays it. That is the issue. I am not one of those who talk about the state and the Exchequer—although I was one of the first on the day that the White Paper was published to call it the "Exchequer Support Act"—in some faraway fashion. I know that many poor parents in work in my constituency, struggling on low incomes to bring up their children, have been asked implicitly—perhaps explicitly—to help to pay for other people's children through social security.

Perhaps I may say something with which Conservative Members would not agree. I am one of those people who want a new formula and believe that major reforms must be made, but I regard the key criterion to be the attack on child poverty. I first studied child support legislation in Australia, where I spent several weeks some years ago. I was struck by the fact that, when Brian Howe, Canberra's Social Security Minister, introduced his child support measure, it was part and parcel of a strategy to attack child poverty. That was important. For that reason, there was a disregard.

In Australia, most of the money collected goes to the mothers and children. When I spoke to Ministers, officials and members of the Australian tax office that does the work of the CSA, I was told that, without the disregard, it would not have been possible to introduce the legislation with the degree of success that it has enjoyed. I know from talking to groups in Australia that it makes a difference to Australian mothers when the dollars come in every week.

I argue for a disregard, but many Conservative Members—some briefed, no doubt, by strange offices in squares nearby—like to challenge Labour Members, and in particular members of our Front Bench, saying, "Where would you find the money ?" We are debating a policy that is in deep trouble. It may not exist in a year or two unless it is sorted out and it wins public confidence.

The Government are quibbling about the cost of a disregard—which I acknowledge would be substantial—when that may save the scheme and one day result in a measure that will make sense for children in poverty but also for the taxpayer and other parents. That displays the peculiar short-termism that makes the Treasury so badly fitted to be the lead Department in social policy.

I urge the Government to think again. It should not always be the story of Mrs. Thatcher and the Treasury. We must find ways of making this a decent piece of social policy. We are about cultural revolution. We are about saying to parents, "Whatever the circumstances, you as parents have a long-term responsibility for your child. Yes, there will be a framework of rights"—such as child benefit and one day, I hope, child care and nursery education—"but you have a responsibility." If we are to succeed with that cultural revolution, there must be urgent reform of child support to make it not Treasury or fiscal policy but decent, child-based social policy.

6.42 pm
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

There are two dimensions to this debate—policy, and the administration of the child support system. I will confine my remarks to policy.

The starting point must be the amount of money each week that the Child Support Agency requires an absent father to contribute. I do not believe that anyone can say that that amount is generous. It is determined by the formula and is much less than the amounts recommended by the National Foster Care Association.

However, the principle behind the legislation is that the child who is not living with, usually, his father should not be confined to income support level but be entitled to benefit from any increased prosperity enjoyed by his absent father, just as if his father were living with him.

Having examined the formula and a large number of constituency cases, as have other hon. Members, I do not believe that it can be argued that the agency is asking absent fathers to pay more than is reasonably required for their children's maintenance.

It is often said that, if a court had been involved in the past and a clean break settlement reached, that should not be disturbed by the CSA. Having practised 15 years at the Bar and been involved in a good many such cases, I can let the House into a secret. Most of those cases were not considered by the judicial mind at all. The lawyers for the husband and for the wife got together and worked out an agreement that was acceptable to both parties, and that was rubber-stamped by the court. Neither the advocate for the wife, nor the advocate for the husband, nor the judge had to consider the interests of the taxpayer. Many orders cannot be left undisturbed, because they failed lamentably to take account of the interests of our constituents—the taxpayers—who fund all the social security benefits.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a concern shared by many of our constituents is the quality of the scheme's administration? That seems a recurring theme in debates on the agency's operation.

Mr. Stephen

The system's efficient administration is immensely important, but, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have only 10 minutes and want to confine my remarks to policy.

A major part of a settlement between a husband and wife would usually be the transfer of the marital home to the wife. In effect, the husband usually transferred not the property but a large mortgage. The wife would then expect the state to pay the interest on the mortgage, which accounts for the lion's share of the monthly payment.

I do not believe that anyone is arguing that we should return to the old system. I remind the House that, under that system, three out of four lone parents received no regular maintenance and where maintenance was paid, it was wholly inadequate. The average payment was £25 a week. Some ex-husbands have come to my constituency surgery and said indignantly, "I have always paid. Why does the CSA expect me to pay more?" When I asked how much they had been paying, one constituent told me that he was paying £25 a week. I replied that I did not think that was very much to support a child these days and he replied, "Three children." Some people have no idea how much it costs to maintain a child these days. If the agency has done one thing, it has brought home to everyone that parenting a child is an expensive business.

Earlier, the question was asked why absent fathers should be expected to maintain their ex-wives as well as their children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right when he said that there was no obligation as such to maintain an ex-wife, but there is an obligation to maintain an ex-wife in her capacity as the carer of the child. If she is unable to go to work to earn her own living because of the need to care for her child, who is to support her—the father or the taxpayer? Clearly, the father must pay in so far as he has the means to support her.

It is said also that the agency is a law unto itself. That accusation should be refuted here and now. Clearly, the CSA is not a law unto itself. It can only do what Parliament has authorised by the Child Support Act 1991, and any officer of the agency who sought to step outside his statutory powers would be brought to account by the courts.

Many absent fathers are, of course, taxpayers, but if everyone who was paying taxes had the right to have his or her children maintained wholly or partly at public expense, the whole system would collapse and no one would get anything.

Reference was made in a derisory way to cases in which fathers are spending money on pet food and say that they do not have the means to pay for their children's maintenance. That is actually a serious point. Does one put the interests of one's dog before those of one's child? Anyone who thinks about that for a moment will know the answer.

It has been suggested that the formula should be adjusted to include the cost of travelling to see the children. From my experience at the Bar, I know that that formula would be open to abuse. There would be arguments about whether the husband had actually been on that particular day. There would be endless disputes between the husband and the wife as to whether the husband was entitled to deduct an amount from his maintenance payments. Rather than going into specific details such as the travel-to-work costs or the costs of travelling to see the children, it is better to have a simple, basic formula that leaves sufficient income in the hands of the parent who is paying, for him or her to discharge those reasonable expenses.

I am conscious that any new scheme, particularly one as ambitious as the Child Support Agency, which has social as well as administrative and political consequences, is bound to produce teething troubles. Those problems have perhaps been worse than any of us expected, but we must not be defeated by that. It is, in essence, a sound system. No hon. Member has suggested that the system is not essentially sound and fair. We must get it right.

I congratulate the Government on responding positively to the Select Committee's report. The Government have made important changes which have benefited absent parents. From the outset, parents with second families whose maintenance liability was less than £60 a week had that liability phased in over 18 months. That phasing has now been applied to people with higher incomes. The protected income level, which ensures that absent parents and their new families stay above income support level, has been increased. Collection fees have been abolished in many cases.

Absent fathers sometimes ask why the CSA becomes involved when they have a reasonable maintenance agreement with their ex-wife which has been operating well. As I understand it, the CSA does not become involved in those cases. It becomes involved only if a party is on benefit, or asks it to become involved. If I am wrong, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would correct me. Another amendment that has been made is that, as the children become older, the amount payable to maintain the parent with care is progressively reduced. Clearly, the parent who has care of an older child is more able to earn his or her own living than a parent caring for a young child.

The Select Committee is continuing its valuable work, and we all look forward to reading its report. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give that report serious consideration and bring before the House those changes to the system that he considers necessary.

6.52 pm
Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South)

My reading of the debates that took place before the Child Support Act 1991 shows that they were based on two discussions: first, that absent non-paying fathers should contribute to the maintenance of their children, with which everyone in the House will agree; the second underlying theme of the debate was that we should try to tackle child poverty. I used to think that there was a hidden agenda and that the Child Support Agency might bring money to the Treasury that could be used to reduce either the public purse or taxes. That argument was introduced at a late stage.

The Government's amendment states that the Government reaffirms its support for the principle, to which the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency give effect, that parents should support their children where they are able to do so". There is no distinction between non-paying fathers and paying fathers with care of children, but that distinction is important.

If there were any truth in the suggestion that Conservative Members were concerned about the tax bill on those least able to pay, the Government would not have introduced the 8.5 per cent. value added tax on fuel at the last Budget, and they would not be contemplating increasing it to 15 per cent. in the next one. If the Child Support Agency were targeting non-paying absent fathers, half of today's debate need not have taken place, because that aim has the support of all hon. Members.

But the fact that the CSA targets parents who have consistently paid generous support for their children has clouded today's debate. That aspect of the CSA is getting in the way of the marginal benefits that could accrue to parents who currently have care of their children. The CSA is clogged up with bureaucracy, because people are using all the means they can to delay its effects. If the Government had tackled absent, non-paying fathers, that would not have happened.

Mr. Stephen

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hall

No, I shall not give way, as I only have 10 minutes and I must make progress.

The marginal benefits have been stopped.

When I listened to the Secretary of State today, I waited for him to say that there were still major problems for the CSA and that he was announcing measures to alleviate some of them. However, I heard nothing of that sort from the Secretary of State for Social Security, whose message was the usual one of wait and see—a recipe for doing nothing about the problems of the CSA. The message that the Secretary of State gave to all families and second families facing poverty was that he was not prepared to listen to their arguments and announce changes to CSA today. The message was that the Government are clearly trying to tough it out.

The Government's amendment states that the House acknowledges the continuing concerns over child support issues and therefore welcomes the Government's commitment to continue to keep the scheme under scrutiny and to bring forward further changes should these prove necessary. The hon. Members for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who is not present now, and for Calder Valley (Sir. D. Thompson, who is also not present at the moment, gave many reasons why action was needed on the CSA.

The idea of retrospective action is wrong. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I believed that Parliament could not legislate retrospectively on tax issues. But all those involved in the system of paying maintenance to children are having their circumstances looked at again, which is wrong. Fathers who have consistently paid for their children's welfare are finding that the agreements that were reached in court are being ripped up. The CSA is replacing agreements made in court with other agreements that ignore the generous financial settlements that were originally made.

There is one case about which I have written to the Under-Secretary of State—I am glad that he is present. One of my constituents agreed in a clean-break settlement to give all his equity to his wife, together with the contents of the house and the car. He paid the endowment insurance on the mortgage. He pays all the household bills and a second loan for double glazing. On top of that he pays £142 a month in maintenance to his children. The CSA took over the agreement and imposed an increase, bringing the child maintenance up to £250 a month. That father was not avoiding his responsibilities, but was totally committed to the children of his first marriage—a fact that was ignored by the CSA.

The financial calculation that has been mentioned by other hon. Members is too mechanistic and is not based on ability to pay. Another fundamental problem with the CSA is the false concept that men who are divorced and who have second families or partnerships have disposable income that they can pay to the CSA. There should be a more sophisticated mechanism to deal with the financial calculation. The Government could then say that they had listened to the arguments and were trying to do something to deal with the problem.

I am extremely worried about current families—to use the jargon, new families. I do not know whether they are new or current, but I know that some of my constituents tell me that, because of the actions of the CSA, they and their partners are unable to provide the basic means of support for their current families. That is clearly causing distress throughout the country, not merely in my constituency of Warrington, South, which is quite affluent and prosperous.

I know of no other Government policy related to benefit in tax that charges people for the so-called privilege of having their means assessed. One of my constituents, who was already paying maintenance to his former partner, was contacted by the CSA. The agency worked out the calculations and found that my constituent was paying the right maintenance. It charged him £44 for the privilege of knowing that what he was doing was in line with what the CSA had outlined.

The most fundamental problem, however, is that the agency does not attempt to deal with child poverty, which we should be trying to eradicate; indeed, that concept is completely ignored. The Government's original estimate that the agency would collect some £530 million, of which £480 million would be recycled back into the Treasury, shows how little extra money would have gone back to the children. According to the latest assessments in the agency's annual report, about £418 million has been saved for the Treasury—but how much extra money has gone to children whose parents are divorced and subject to the attentions of the CSA? I can find no mention of that in the report; perhaps the Minister will tell us precisely how much they have been given in this fiasco.

Let me say directly to the Minister that the system would be much fairer if it were seen to be fair. If an independent appeal tribunal were there at the end of the process, half the Government's current problems would disappear. If that tribunal had the ability and the discretion to re-examine the issue and make a fairer assessment, more people would be willing to go through the process: they would have confidence in the independent tribunal, and would pay what they were eventually asked to pay. That would remove the Government's three main problems with the Child Support Act, and by refusing to adopt such a course they do themselves a disservice.

Families are now considering the possibility of separation because of the bills being forced upon them. My constituents are afraid that they will have to pack in their jobs, or that their businesses will fail, because they cannot afford the settlements. Some tell me that the problems are causing friction between the children of their first and second partnerships. Families are being forced against each other, which surely was not the purpose of the CSA. Men are even contemplating suicide.

Another issue has not been mentioned. I am convinced that custody hearings following divorces will now be contested because of the CSA's actions. On television this morning, the Secretary of State said that the Government would build on the CSA's successes. I have seen no successes, and I should like to think that the Government would listen, recognise the agency's failures and remedy its problems.

Conservative Members must make a choice when it is time to vote this evening. They can accept Labour's motion, which asks the Secretary of State to act on the CSA's failures—in other words, they can do something positive—or they can join the Government in the Lobby, and vote to do nothing. Clearly, they should put their constituents' interests first on this occasion and vote with Labour.

7.2 pm

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall), not least because—as frequently happens when we sit on the Public Accounts Committee—I agree with a great deal of what he says. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have encountered cases in my constituency which lead me to believe that there is a clear choice between the motion and the amendment.

Many hon. Members have identified failings in the workings of the Act and the formulae adopted by the CSA. The choice is this: do we need to wait for a further indeterminate time for those failings to be corrected, or do we need to send the Government a signal that at least some of them can be corrected now? I feel that some of my constituency cases—which I have been examining for many months, while still awaiting any sign of positive movement to correct the obvious failings of the formula—have already lasted too long.

I shall refer to cases by initial letters and summary addresses, but I have conveyed the full details in a letter to my hon. Friend the Minister so that they are available to him and his officials. The first—which illustrates a couple of points that are becoming increasingly important—is that of Mr. H of Stoke Gifford. He and his wife separated about three years ago, when they made the great mistake of not being clairvoyant. The arrangements that they made for the care of their children, for who should take over existing debt and for who should pay the costs of the divorce were made under the existing law; the changes introduced by the Child Support Act and the agency have made their lives virtually impossible. Moreover, arrears of payments under the CSA's order now exceed £3,000, which is a great deal for someone on a moderate income.

That couple made two mistakes. First, they accepted that the legal fees resulting from a fairly acrimonious divorce should be paid by the absent parent—in this case, the father. Unfortunately, such decisions are not acceptable to the CSA. The legal fees for both parties, payable by the absent father, amounted to some £7,000. Although it is possible and, indeed, legal for the CSA to say, "You must reschedule the debt: we come first," the lawyers to whom the money is owed do not necessarily agree.

I never expected to see such a case, at least under a Conservative Government. I never expected, following the making of a legal contract when the law operated in a particular way, to see the wherewithal to fulfil that contract being retrospectively removed from one party. I do not consider that acceptable in any branch of English law. Indeed, I found myself in a certain amount of trouble when we were debating the Finance Bill last year and—using an only partially transparent device—I exposed the Labour party's desire to introduce retrospection into tax law. I find that no more acceptable than the introduction of retrospection into the contract by means of the Act.

Mr. Stephen

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Stern

I am afraid that I have no time.

The second mistake made by that couple setting up their settlement before the Act came into force was to assume that the absent parent would look after the children for as many days a year as he could. Unfortunately, because of their circumstances, that amounted to only 87 days. Of course, the husband should have been clairvoyant and realised that anything under 102 days did not count; nevertheless, according to the arrangements that he made with his ex-wife and wishes to observe, he continues to look after the children for 87 days and to bear the costs.

Indeed, he often bears more than he should. One of the agreements that he made with his ex-wife was that he should purchase more of the children's clothing. Of course, none of that is of the slightest account under the current formula: inevitably, the absent parent builds up arrears on arrears while seeing no hope of doing anything about it under the present law. As I have said, I find it difficult to envisage a Conservative Government introducing what is effectively retrospective legislation.

The second case to which I want to refer concerns Mr. G of Bradley Stoke, who is a police officer. Regrettably, police officers—like Members of Parliament—are probably more prone to marital difficulties than those in many other professions. I am told that, in the case of police officers, that is due to the stress involved in their work.

In this case, the officer concerned was presented with a huge bill for arrears and was told that, unless he did something about it fairly quickly, there would be an attachment of earnings order. Inevitably, because of the standards of conduct demanded of police officers, he would have to leave the force: police officers, rightly, are not permitted to get into debt of that nature unless they have serious proposals for dealing with it. The debt was so large that he could not have dealt with it.

A fortnight before the agency's action was due to take effect, the agency discovered that it had made a mistake and that there was no debt. Fortunately, the police officer did not face that extreme difficulty, but it caused me to wonder why a Conservative Government are putting the careers of serving members of the police force—public servants, whom I greatly respect—at the whim of an impersonal and inaccurate agency. That is unacceptable.

The final case to which I wish to refer involves a Mr. P. of Filton, who received an assessment from the CSA and was foolish enough to calculate, on the basis of that assessment, that he could just about afford to take out a second mortgage to provide an adequate house for his second family and pay his obligations to the first. He duly went ahead and purchased the property, only to discover a few weeks later that the agency had made a mistake. My attempts to get the CSA to acknowledge the horrendous financial tangle that it has created for that gentleman have so far been met with the response, "There is nothing we can do about it."

We have created a monster and it is not sufficient to say, as the majority of hon. Members have said, that we shall get round to tackling it in time. The agency is causing real hardship and we are entitled to expect the Government to take more radical action to deal with it.

7.11 pm
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I have some sympathy for the Under-Secretary, who carries the most poisoned chalice in the history of the House. In previous debates, the hon. Gentleman said that he did not think that the investigative powers of, for example, the civil courts are such as to ensure that all available financial and other information could be disclosed to enable the setting of an accurate and fair figure for child maintenance. As I said before, that is a slur on the courts—and I speak as a practising lawyer with more than 15 years' experience in matrimonial law and practice.

The Government's attitude has rightly outraged lawyers and judges. The Government had previously displayed their mistrust of the legal system, and said that the Child Support Agency brought with it far greater uniformity in terms of approach and results. I venture to suggest that that is a double-edged claim. The sheer inflexibility of the process is bringing it into disrepute. Under the courts system, there were often substantial variations, but—this is the crux of the matter—they reflected the way in which courts considered the minute detail of each couple's circumstances. Naturally, those circumstances varied widely, which produced different results.

Some absent parents have to spend a good part of their free income on travelling to work and purchasing a vehicle to do so; others do not. Some absent parents will have contact orders that enable them to have weekly contact, with the financial commitments that they bring; others do not. Such variations mean that a substantial charge may be placed on a person's income. A just system, employing the necessary flexibility to meet the requirements of each case, must take those and other factors into account.

This afternoon, I was interrupted by Madam Speaker when quoting from the report of the Select Committee on Social Security. Let me again quote what the chief executive said: We do not have discretion in relation to the size of the maintenance bill. We operate according to an administrative formula. She went on to detail the glorious appeal system, which, to say the least, operates slowly.

Investigative powers are at a premium under the new system. The husband of a constituent of mine, Mrs. Susan Macnally from Tywyn, left her in August last year, taking with him pass books and documents providing access to the family capital. Their investments totalled £12,000 and he had recently benefited to the tune of more than £20,000 as a beneficiary under an insurance policy. He left on 16 August, and on 18 August Mrs. Macnally reported his departure to the Department of Social Security and the Child Support Agency, making it clear that he had access to all their capital. Shortly afterwards, I sent the agency photocopies of the investment books and full details of the case, which would have satisfied any court of law. Incidentally, Mrs. Macnally gave her husband's current whereabouts as well.

Weeks later, the agency informed me that, when he completed the agency's form, the husband had no capital or investments. I wonder where the investments went. He said that he had no money, and the agency was blissfully satisfied. What a way to run a system! To add insult to injury, in May, the husband was refused a legal aid certificate in relation to the divorce on one of two grounds—either he had too much capital or he had too much income.

I do not know what the agency is up to or whether it is trying to do the job. I do know, however, that one lady in my constituency is desperately unhappy. She looks after her two teenage children but does not receive a penny piece from her estranged husband. That cannot be right. That is one of many examples that hon. Members can cite.

Should the current system therefore be preferred to the courts, which have come in for some grotesquely unfair criticism in this debate? I do not speak from any standpoint of vested interest when I say that I have heard time and again that the courts somehow connived at transferring financial responsibility for the family on to the state. To my great surprise, some of the hon. Members who made those allegations professed to be lawyers. If that is so, they should know that registrars in the county courts—latterly, district judges—have long since been subject to practice directions, going back five or six years, which specifically constrained such action. Clean-break orders were introduced to ensure that that did not happen.

I have previously spoken at length about clean-break orders. I understand that perhaps the Government now propose to take action on that—I certainly hope so. If a person divests herself or himself of all capital to ensure that a child has a roof over its head, the system should take account of it. If recent press reports are to be believed, the Government are at long last dealing with that important anomaly, and it is high time that they did. Will the Under-Secretary give an assurance that there will be movement on that issue?

In opening the debate, the Secretary of State for Social Security said that he was open to suggestions on how the value of property should be assessed—at the time of transfer or concurrent value. He went on to say that in many cases no valuations had been prepared for clean-break orders. I can enlighten him on the matter. In each and every case involving a clean-break order, a valuation is made and a redemption figure is set for the mortgage—ergo, the figure for the equity. If the Secretary of State's facts are untrue, it makes one wonder about the quality of the latest review.

As I said, more flexibility should be introduced into the present system. Standard formulae may be fine for many things, but they cannot produce fair results when there are so many individual variants, which may be extremely telling. I question whether the agency is capable of fixing maintenance. It has no experience in that matter, and the way in which it has operated leaves a lot to be desired. Clearly, the system is too rigid, and grossly unfair on many thousands of people throughout the United Kingdom.

Like Members of all parties, I of course do not argue with the principle that, if an absent parent can afford it, he or she should be the first to maintain the children. However, I am also acutely aware of the fact that the present rules discriminate against the children of second marriages or second unions, where fathers or stepfathers have to pay hundreds of pounds a month more than they can afford. Why should the children of those unions suffer when they are as innocent and as deserving as the children left behind? Is it right for second partners' incomes to be taken into account in any event?

I endorse what the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) said about police officers, but would extend it to members of the armed forces who are in a not dissimilar position. They are also having a very difficult time, which, as the hon. Member said, is not of their own creation. I hope that the Government will take on board what has been said and reconsider the position of those serving in the armed forces.

Why should the Government recover more than they pay out in income support? What is the basis for that?

I conclude with one or two general points that I hope the Minister will take on board. Full housing costs need to be allowed for, including any endowment assurance element of mortgage payments. The Government have made clear their view on pensions, and I believe that pension payments should be taken into account. It has been said that the cost of transport to work should be considered, especially in the south-east. I can assure the House that it is even more of a problem in rural Wales—and, I am sure, rural Scotland.

The cost of exercising the right to contact one's children should also be borne in mind, or the children will again be the innocent victims. The carer element should be substantially reduced if an ex-wife remarries, is cohabiting or is caring for an additional child or additional children.

To their credit, the Government have already made some changes to the Act, largely in response to the report published by the Select Committee on Social Security, but I ask them to consider the Act anew, because many thousands, if not millions, of people throughout the United Kingdom are being hurt by it. Many millions of children are suffering badly at the hands of the Government. The time has surely come—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)


7.21 pm
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I have listened carefully to all the contributions to this debate, from which two major points have emerged. First, this is a highly emotionally charged issue, because we are dealing with the breakdown of relationships between individuals, and one can claim that each will have an axe to grind. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, the constant theme that emerges from our deliberations is that most hon. Members appear to support the principle of the Child Support Agency although there is frequently a "but" which then undermines and destroys the whole structure of the scheme.

During a previous debate on the CSA, I spoke in support of lone carers and their children, because it seemed to me that there was no balance in the arguments being advanced—the voices heard were nearly always those putting the case for the absent parent. I think that the same is true today.

On 29 March, I sponsored a meeting in the House for the National Council for One Parent Families, to provide an opportunity for the case of the lone carer to be heard and the other side of the story to be considered. I regret that very few colleagues from any party attended, yet when the absent parent lobby took place here some weeks earlier, every Labour Member seemed to pass through. One might conclude that only those who shout the loudest will be heard and believed.

One of the main concerns of lone parents is that they do not have the resources to organise themselves to mount a campaign in favour of the CSA. They do not have the money or the contacts or the access to telephones, faxes and cars enjoyed by many absent parents. They do not have the time or the means to go on marches and demonstrations; they are on their own, often isolated and vulnerable.

The threat of suicide by absent parents has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. Lone carers are incensed by the media hype of "CSA suicides". They tell me that it is a luxury that is not open to them even though many feel despairing—their children rely on them too much for them to threaten or commit suicide. I draw the House's attention to an article in The Sunday Times on 27 March, which showed that the CSA was cleared of responsibility for suicides which had been blamed on it. Many of the cases outlined in the press were not accurate but wholly misleading.

There is no doubt that lone parents welcome the CSA and the fact that they might finally receive appropriate maintenance for their offspring. Why? Because all the evidence shows that, whereas lone parents and their children sink deeper into poverty after separation, absent parents quickly recover their former standard of living. Lone carers and families on income support want the CSA to deliver; they do not want the Government to give way any further.

There has been endless debate about the hardship caused to second and third families, but there has been little or no discussion about the hardship experienced by one-parent families. Many of the huge maintenance payments about which absent parents are worrying are in fact interim assessments that have been imposed because they have failed to co-operate with the agency.

Lone parents are convinced that the negative effects of the changes last February have not been fully appreciated, and that any further changes to benefit the absent parent will push lone parents and their children further into poverty. For example, in cases where the CSA has effectively delivered higher maintenance to lone parents, it has clearly given them the first opportunity in a long time to return to work and make plans for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, for many, the decision to return to work has now been seriously undermined by the February reforms, all of which resulted in a reduction of the maintenance due to one-parent families.

Shortly after my contribution to the previous debate in the Chamber on the CSA, I was subjected to a barrage of letters from absent parents and their current spouses or partners. Some politely admonished me for standing up for lone carers, but others were abusive and vicious. It appeared that a carefully contrived campaign was being orchestrated against me, almost to the point of harassment.

I was therefore interested to read in The Independent of 20 June 1994 an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in which she described the unbelievable persecution that she encountered from absent parents and their friends. She explained that, within 24 hours of starting to research her article, her telephone was virtually jammed with unsolicited calls, mainly from second partners telling her their side of the story. When she asked one caller why she was doing this, the woman said that she had been told to ring her. When asked by whom, the woman said: Well we have this network and this is what we do when we hear when somebody is writing about the CSA and we don't want you to say things like 'These whingeing men' and that. The article goes on to describe further persecution tactics inflicted not only on the reporter but on CSA staff. As a result of my own experience, I believe everything that she says. It seems that intimidation and thuggery are par for the course in this business. I think that colleagues should be aware that there are people in the anti-CSA campaign who are determined to get what they want at any price.

I should like to cite an example of the wholly unacceptable pressure being placed on lone carers by absent parents to destroy the CSA's work. I have here two draft letters recommended by an anti-CSA organisation. The intention is for absent parents to persuade the carers of their children to sign them, thus withdrawing authority for the CSA to continue their application. The first instructs the sender to "Put in own address", "Put in date", and "Put in CSA Address". It reads as follows: Dear Sir I hereby withdraw my authority to pursue my ex-husband/wife… Mr./Mrs…for any monies. The reason is the distress that is being caused to my child/children, as he/she/they…are obviously aware of what is happening to their father/mother… This also affects myself and my ex-husband, as we are both upset whenever our child/children…are. This and the fact that the MAF that I filled in was misleading in its content, and asking me to sign under duress. I even get comments such as, 'I'm not having children when I grow up, they're too much trouble.' Your actions are actually causing some problems that will only resolve themselves in the future, and who knows what damage this will do to young minds. If you are causing children to blame themselves for what is happening to their parents, then can you really feel you are doing a good job, I no longer can, so I must ask you to stop hounding my ex husband/wife immediately. Yours faithfully. The instructions continue: Sign and send…only enter the words applicable…put in ex-partner's name. Send the above as a hand-written letter, but keep a copy. Send it Recorded Delivery, so you have proof of sending. Amend anything that will help explain your own circumstances more clearly. The second letter reads: Re: Child Support Act. I am writing with reference to the forms which I recently completed, giving authority for the Child Support Agency to review, on my behalf, the maintenance payments made to me by my former partner. I now wish to inform you that I am withdrawing this authority with immediate effect, and do not wish the CSA to take any action in my case. This is because I am opposed to the way in which the Act is operating, and believe that the involvement of the CSA will have a detrimental effect on the welfare of my children. I understand that this withdrawal of authority may lead to a reduction in my personal benefit of up to 20 per cent. for six months and 10 per cent. for a further 12 months. I am willing to accept this reduction in order to allow my children to continue to have a relationship with their father/mother. Please therefore discontinue all action in this case immediately. Yours faithfully". Those are the draft letters being sent out for absent fathers to get the lone carer to sign.

With the sample letters goes a briefing which states clearly the way in which an absent parent can manipulate the system. It says that the lone parent, by refusing to give authority, will be at most £8.80 per week worse off and that that can be alleviated by the absent parent helping out by buying more clothes and so on. How very misleading that is! Not every absent parent provides anything like as much as all those extras. In addition, there is no obligation on an absent parent to make up the £8.80 to £9.14 difference, and the parent with care has no comeback on the absent parent if he or she does not do so. It is claimed that this contrived declaration has been used successfully in the Fylde area. Such a tactic should be made known in the Chamber. I hope that those who are perpetrating it will stop doing so.

7.31 pm
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

I sympathise with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), but I do not share her belief that the Child Support Agency is addressing the whole area of child poverty in the way that seems to have been her experience. From my experience and contacts with many lone parents, I know that they have certainly not found themselves better off as a result of the CSA, because many of them are on income support and remain at that income level whatever the actions of the CSA. They are not able to come off income support and go out to work because the low wage that they would get from the part-time work available is not sufficient to cover the costs of child care, let alone all the other essentials.

I too take this opportunity to raise some constituency cases, and to raise them directly in the Minister's hearing, rather than being fobbed off with yet another letter referring me to Ros Hepplewhite. I raise these cases because I too want to emphasise the widespread and justified criticisms of the financial rules and administration of the Child Support Agency.

Like all hon. Members who have spoken so far, I believe that every parent has a responsibility for his or her child, and that that includes a financial responsibility. I echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), especially those about the armed services. I have a considerable number of armed services personnel and retired service personnel in my constituency.

I certainly support the points made about the need to reform the CSA, the need to reform the financial formula, the need to introduce an independent appeal procedure, and the need to recognise the contribution made by the parent who no longer has care to the provision of what was once the family home. I also support the points that have been made about the disregard of income support.

I now raise directly some of the cases with which I have dealt. The first is the case of a gentleman from Rosyth who writes to me: Since my separation I have willingly paid £130 per month, which is the maximum I can afford and still afford to travel to work and keep a roof over my head". He is now being asked to pay an extra £114 a month. He continues by saying that if he has to find that money, he will not be able to afford to carry on travelling to work. He feels that he would be better off giving up work in that case.

The second case is of a constituent from Crombie who contacted me several months ago to tell me that, after he had paid the maintenance being asked for, all essential bills, travel-to-work expenses, housing insurance and heating, he would be left with the princely sum of £6.49 a week on which to live. He was upset that his travel expenses were not taken into account because he had made the deliberate decision, when he and his wife separated and she moved to west Fife, that he, too, would move to west Fife to be close enough to his children to be able to see them during the week after school as well as to have them regularly at weekends. That involved making an 80-mile round trip to work and back every day of the week, but that was not taken into account, and nor was his regular contact with his children, as it did not quite go over the 104 nights level.

The third case is that of a fireman from one of the west Fife villages. He is being asked to pay £82 a week from a net income of £141 a week. Again, he now has a second family and he is the sole breadwinner in that family. As other hon. Members have said, such cases highlight the immediate need for change to the financial formula. It is not only Opposition Members who are asking for that. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has pressed for several changes to be made to the rules, on which other hon. Members have touched.

There is also a widespread view about the need to ensure that there is an independent right of appeal. So far, I have had only one constituent who has found the appeal process to be effective, and in his case the assessment was reduced by the grand total of £5 a week. Opposition Members feel that there needs to be an independent appeal procedure.

Many hon. Members have raised the point about capital settlements. My constituent from Crombie who moved to west Fife to be near his children is one of many who, when the home was sold for £40,000, left his wife £30,000 and the furnishings to try to enable a suitable home to be set up for his children. That has not been taken into account. Other hon. Members have also raised the whole question of the interests of the children and whether the agency is in their interests or whether the operation of deduction from the level of income support is leaving families no better off, if not worse off.

I have recently come across a case in which the Secretary of State is apparently refusing to use his discretion to involve the Child Support Agency under section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991. A constituent who had separated from his wife and was told that he had a maintenance assessment form to complete found that his ex-wife was both working and claiming income support. He has reported that, but he still finds himself and his actions being apparently disregarded by the Minister and no discretion being exercised.

I join other hon. Members in expressing my complete dissatisfaction with the administrative delays that have occurred. To mention just one of many, a constituent had a maintenance assessment last February. His wages fluctuate—with performance-related pay, and so on, and overtime. He wrote asking for a review on 28 February. He was told last Thursday—30 June—that the agency had not got to the top of that pile yet: it was still dealing with letters from January. In the meantime, deductions are being made from his wages at source on the original assessment.

I conclude that, while none of us disputes the aims of the Child Support Agency, least of all our constituents—both men and women have largely raised anxieties about the way in which it operates—it is important to ensure that it is seen to operate in a more fair, reasonable and just way than it currently does.

7.40 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

I can certainly go some way with what the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) said about some of the administrative difficulties with the Child Support Agency. There have been problems partly because the agency has been overburdened, partly as a result of the actions of some of those who oppose it and partly because it perhaps needed more staff than it initially had. It is only right to mention to my hon. Friend the Minister two examples of the difficulties which can damage public confidence in what is otherwise a very important and useful system.

One lady in my constituency had been receiving maintenance regularly. Her former husband arrived on the doorstep with a letter from the CSA saying that he was entitled to £30 repayment. There was a scuffle on the doorstep, the police were called and an unpleasant incident took place. The following morning a letter arrived from the CSA saying that the former husband should have the money repaid to him at the rate of £1 a week. He had thought that he was entitled to his £30 immediately. If the letter had been clearer and a little more thought had been given, that difficulty and the incident on the doorstep would not have occurred.

Another recent example involved a police constable who had agreed to pay some arrears off at the rate of £19 per month. Two months later he received a letter saying that £300 per month had not been paid for two months. His ordinary monthly payments had been set against the arrears, in breach of the agreement that had been reached. When he took the matter up with the agency he was told that the file had been lost. Such problems do nothing to help the agency to establish itself.

It is right that the Social Security Select Committee, which is reviewing the issue, should have its report seriously considered by the Government. Its first report showed the way to make some important changes for the better. My constituents who are members of the North Herts Campaign for Fair Maintenance, particularly the two chairmen, Mr. Etienne and Mr. Howe, have submitted evidence to the Select Committee. I am sure that they are confident that their thoughtful contributions will be fully considered by the Committee and also, if those points form part of the recommendations, by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has throughout dealt with the issue with courtesy and great care.

Having criticised the work of the CSA to some extent, we should recognise that the duty to contribute is a duty to contribute fully: it is not a duty to contribute as much as one feels one can afford, given one's current standard of living. My experience as a lawyer for many years dealing with divorce cases was that there was a difference between the expectations of men and the expectations of women when it came to divorce. The women almost invariably expected to have a difficult time and to struggle by on a low income. They expected and always have expected that the man would often be unreliable in paying his maintenance. So the mother always wanted to have the home. In any agreement they always said, "Get me the home because that is some security for me."

The men had a different attitude. They were always extremely anxious to maximise the income available to them for the future. That was partly because they knew that it was extremely unlikely that they would have the home available to them for the future, so they knew that it was in their direct best interests to maximise their income. We would thus arrive at the court, with both parties on legal aid, and we would cut a deal which satisfied both parties: the wife would get the house and the man would get his income.

The principle in law is that one can never have a clean break from children, but in practice all too often the husband would receive an order to pay an unrealistically low level of child maintenance and the wife would receive no order, so both parties would achieve their aims at the expense of the state. I see the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) semi-nodding: when he said that the old system was a mess and unworkable, he was right. All hon. Members should accept that it was important to go to this new system and to make it work.

When the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) said so graphically that one income would not satisfy the needs of two families, she was right to an extent. That is particularly so if both parties retain the same high expectations for their living standards. One of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made was that the husband should have a right of appeal on the basis that the money was not being spent on the child. But all husbands say that. In my experience of such cases, they always point to the wife and say, "She has got a video machine." He forgets that the children watch the videos and that he has a video machine in his current home. Both machines are probably on hire purchase. So such a system of appeals would not be a sensible route for us to take.

It is important that we recognise that the principles behind the CSA and the amounts of money being delivered are right, and that both are equally important. It would be wrong if the result of any review were to reduce the amount of money going to mothers. They require that income. It is wrong to say that we are simply replacing benefit with income. To a mother who wants to go out to work, as so many mothers with small children do, a raft of maintenance at a high level is vital. If we reduce the amounts of maintenance too low, we shall stop women doing what they want to do in many cases, which is to go out and work part time and help to support themselves.

Nor is it right to make the point which was made by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) that it is wrong to take mothers out of benefit because they lose their passport to other benefits. It has always been the case that, if the level of maintenance rises above the child support level, certain benefits are lost. However, as I said a moment ago, a raft of substantial maintenance enables women to have options which are not otherwise available to them. It is too easy to forget that.

I hope that there will be a full and continuing review of the present provision. The principle of the CSA is right, and much of the practice of it has been successful. One has only to see the figures announced in the report today to realise that 28,000 fathers who were not paying a penny and were not easily traceable have been traced, which is an achievement.

Finally, on the way in which some of the groups opposing the CSA behave, I have no criticism of those in my constituency—they have been thoughtful and courteous. One of the organisations most against the CSA, however, has stated: Most separations and divorces are now caused by the women. Changes in family law…have ensured that these women may…continue their lives without responsibility towards anyone. The organisation intends to set up a register of women who have abandoned their husbands, sought to cut off fathers from their children or otherwise damaged a father and his children. When the organisation's representative was asked to state the purpose of the register, he was unable to do so.

Hon. Members may accept individual criticisms of the administration—

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

What was the name of the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman referred, as I would like to deal with it in my reply to the debate?

Mr. Heald

It is called Families Need Fathers. My quote came from an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The Independent on 20 June 1994.

Hon. Members will be cautious before they ally themselves with people like that. Dangerous individuals can be drawn into a campaign of that sort and we must be extremely cautious about how much credibility we give them.

7.50 pm
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

The organisation to which the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) referred in the closing part of his speech is not unknown to many hon. Members. A few years ago, part of its advice to fathers, if they were not allowed access to their children, was to kidnap them. If that failed and nothing else could succeed, it advocated the murder of the mother. There is little doubt that no reasonable person, either within or without this House, would give much credence to that type of fathering.

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North spoke of the differing expectations of husbands and wives after the breakdown of their relationship. Judging by the experiences of my constituents, some of whom I shall refer to, their expectations of hardship—as the present caring mother as opposed to the absent father—have been more than confirmed.

First, I shall quote directly from one constituent's letter to me. She looked to the formation of the Child Support Agency with no small excitement. She believed that it would bring her particular relief and said: As a single parent with a handicapped child, I had hoped to obtain some financial help through the agency. My son is totally blind, and since my separation from my husband, when my son was six months old, he has paid nothing towards his maintenance, despite written undertakings to do so. That was fourteen years ago. My constituent, who has only limited financial resources, spent more than £70 to avail herself of the agency's services. There were many months of delay and many hold-ups, as it was unwilling to take any action to enforce its award. Eventually, my constituent received the first payment, with which she was delighted, even though the sum bore no resemblance to the CSA's schedule. I regret that that case is still not resolved, as my constituent is receiving neither the full maintenance awarded nor the back payments owed.

Another mother in my constituency is still awaiting the first payment from her ex-husband. The lack of financial assistance to help with the upbringing of her daughter is causing her great difficulties. Her case echoes what the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North said about single mothers who are desperate to return to work, but who, if the maintenance payments are too low or if there is no disregard and they are claiming benefits, simply cannot provide the necessary quality of child care to enable them so to do. She writes: I am finding it absolutely impossible to hold on to my part-time job for much longer. I am on disciplinary action report for my absence because of taking time off to look after my daughter when she is ill and during school holidays as I can't afford a child-minder. I am also getting deeper and deeper in debt. This morning, I received another letter from that constituent in which she expressed her concern about the reply that I had obtained from the CSA on her behalf. The reply said that the agency was going to approach her ex-husband yet again for information that had already been requested, but not provided, on several occasions. Not only did the reply offer no hope of any enforcement action being taken in the near future against her ex-husband: it also got his surname wrong, calling him by the surname that she now uses. I am sure that the Minister will agree that such lapses on the part of the Child Support Agency are not acceptable when the subject being dealt with is of such particular sensitivity.

In essence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) asked most cogently, why was the Child Support Agency set up, and why was the Child Support Act 1991 brought into being? If one accepts the principle, to which hon. Members on both sides of the House referred, that both parents have a responsibility for caring for their children for as long as they are children, none the less there is surely the other element, which is to alleviate or remove child poverty.

We are viewing major changes in what constitutes a family in these islands. Ours is not the only society in which two parents and 2.5 children no longer constitute a family. There are increasing numbers of single-parent families, they all experience unacceptable levels of poverty and the problem is becoming more and more serious. That poverty is impacting particularly on the children.

In the evidence submitted by hon. Members on both sides of the House this afternoon, the male voice seemed to be the most predominant in the argument. Very often the voice of the single parent—the caring mother—is being ignored. However, the voice that is not heard at all—not even in a whisper—is that of the children. They are consistently placed in the middle of especially brutal and horrifying disputes between their parents, as we have heard from the evidence that has been presented today.

We are considering not merely the financial costs to our society, but the psychological costs that are being heaped on our children. The House should re-examine not only the formulae and practicalities of the Child Support Agency, but our responsibilities, as a House representing the people of this country, towards our children and their future. That should be the most pressing concern, both in this debate and in any review of the Child Support Agency and its system that the Government undertake.

When hon. Members present, as a validating argument, statements from male constituents who say that they are perfectly prepared to pay for the cost of their children but not for the cost of the mother, we are clearly in a parlous situation. Perhaps we should tell those fathers, "Very well, don't pay for the upkeep of your child's mother, but we'll ask you to pay for all those jobs that being a mother entails."

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have underlined the increasing cost of raising children and how expensive they are. I am perfectly prepared to accept that many absent fathers, who have paid a minimum amount of maintenance, would be extremely surprised, indeed shocked—and have been shocked—to discover the realities of raising children today.

The essential matter that we must concern ourselves with is that children are a blessing, not a punishment. We have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the difficulties that have been created, either because the CSA was not set up with sufficient personnel or because the formula is wrong. The arguments between separated parents after the breakdown of their relationship make it seem as though children are a punishment. The definition of their cost, and of what they need to be able to grow and flourish into caring and committed members of their society, has reduced them to the most pitiful level, in that they have been so spitefully and selfishly defined—possibly by both sides.

My perspective is based, in the main, on a single caring mother who is finding it extremely difficult to raise her children at the moment. In future, because of the problems that she encounters in obtaining the maintenance that is legally hers and the Government's absolute refusal to consider the possibility of disregards for those earning a low income, her difficulties will increase, as her income may fall even lower. That will put an additional strain on her and her children in circumstances that are already too stressful.

I am pleased to see that the Minister is listening with no small attention to what I am saying. I have no doubt that he has heard similar concerns expressed by many other hon. Members. I strongly urge him to consider the well-being of the children involved; that must be the primary concern. When absent parents are incapable of paying what the CSA has deemed should be their contribution, for whatever reason, surely it should be entirely possible for the Government to find some means to strike a balance between that and the requirements of raising children. They should offer disregards or continuing support from the Benefits Agency. Children are the most important consideration in this issue.

8 pm

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, unusually, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) on their thoughtful contributions to the debate.

I should like to start by giving some statistics about the CSA, which are necessary to put the issue in context. The agency has now assessed 205,000 cases and, of those, some 60 per cent., almost two thirds, represent absent parents who previously paid not a single brass farthing towards the maintenance of their children. I congratulate Opposition Members on joining my hon. Friends in denouncing those people. About 96 per cent. of all cases represent children who were left behind by a parent, for whatever reason, on state handouts, while the vast majority of those absent parents enjoyed a much higher standard of living in their new lives than their children.

I said earlier today that 28,000 feckless fathers have been tracked down by the CSA. In fact, my right hon. Friend corrected that figure and provided an updated one of 32,000. That is a commendable achievement. The CSA has had an 85 per cent. success rate, on which I congratulate it.

Those feckless fathers, who leave their wives and children behind, do not leave a contact address; they disappear without trace. One of those feckless fathers even came to my surgery and had the temerity to complain about his loss of personal liberty and his loss of freedom to do as he wished. He saw that loss as a breach of personal liberty. Can you imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what I told that feckless father? I think you can.

Mr. Dewar

Tell us—go on.

Dr. Spink

Suffice it to say that that gentleman will not be voting for me at the next general election. That does not cause me any concern, because he has never voted for me. I was not surprised, and nor will anyone else be, to learn that he is a lifelong socialist, although I was a little relieved to find that out.

That man told me that he would work less hard and might even give up work to avoid paying the assessment that he had been given by the CSA. I had to tell him that families who stay together have to decide to work longer and harder to support their increased family commitments. It is a pity that he did not choose to do the same.

The payment of maintenance helps all parents with care, even those on income support, because they will get that maintenance even if they go back to work. Those parents get a £15 disregard if they work longer than 16 hours and are drawing family credit. That is a good thing.

Let me consider the Opposition's views on the CSA—I cannot call them policies because, as in most other areas, they have little well-defined or costed policy to review. The Opposition propose a right of appeal to a special independent officer with powers to test special circumstances. The hon. Member for Garscadden should understand that every absent parent in my constituency would appeal, because each one has special circumstances. I would, of course, support their appeals because it is my job to support my constituents against the bureaucracy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I hope that I would not win, but I would help them all I could.

The Opposition also say that they would limit the grounds of entry to the appeal procedure, but, much as we tried to tease it out of the hon. Member for Garscadden, he has not told us yet how he would limit those entry grounds. Absent parents in my constituency, therefore, need not rejoice quite yet, because it would be a very limited and narrow gate. The Opposition are therefore holding out the hope to all absent parents, in a way dishonestly, that their special circumstances would be considered, although the Opposition know that, in most cases, those circumstances would be given no consideration. That is dishonest and it is typical of Labour policy, but that Labour ploy will cut no ice with my constituents, who are far too clever to fall for that one.

The Opposition have also called for a benefit disregard to help lone parents on income support, but they refuse to confirm that that is a spending commitment or to say how much it would cost and which taxes they would raise to pay it. The Opposition have been hopelessly inconsistent on this issue because they have changed their mind on whether a father should contribute from his unemployment benefit and on whether well-off people should pay a higher rate of maintenance.

In fact, Labour's so-called policies would encourage the break-up of families by giving financial inducements to those families that split up. It would pay those families more money than those that decided to stay together. Where is the justice and common sense in that? The Opposition would increase the tax bill as a result of their policy and offer a disincentive to mothers who work, because, under that policy, their income might fall if they decided to work.

Those are the embarrassing facts behind the Labour party's views on the CSA. Do not hold that too hard against the Opposition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because they are not evil or malicious people; they are simply deeply confused.

I cannot start to give the Liberal Democrats' policy on the CSA. I see that none of them is gracing us with his or her presence tonight. Their Bench is empty. They claim to support the CSA in principle—and so they should—but, opportunistically, they are seeking short-term political advantage by saying all things to all men—no change there. At their spring conference this year, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion which berated the relative impoverishment of single women parents, who are usually financially worse off than men. Then, illogically, they passed an about-turn amendment, presumably—not clearly—to reduce the amount that men should pay to those women for their offspring. I am frankly embarrassed by the vacuum that we continually meet from the Opposition parties about the CSA.

I should like to consider a topical and somewhat controversial issue. Last week, we heard about developments regarding lesbians and the CSA. The agency has stated that, if a man makes a woman pregnant, he will be responsible to support financially the subsequent child, even if that woman is a lesbian. That will apply even if the man draws up a legal agreement before conception stating that he wants no involvement in the child's upbringing.

Will the Minister confirm the CSA's clear policy that only men who give sperm to a properly licensed clinic will be accepted and can therefore avoid paying maintenance for their biological child? That is exactly as it should be. Nature never intended babies to be conceived by way of a legal contract between a man and woman, denying a man's ongoing responsibility for his issue in a wholly perverse way—[Interruption.] Opposition Front-Bench Members find that amusing. Many of my constituents will not find it amusing, because those children are conceived for the amusement and pleasure of a lesbian or lesbian couple. I fear for children brought up by lesbians, without a father.

Only yesterday, an instance was cited in The Sunday Times of a lesbian couple from Manchester who were receiving £180 benefit a week. Many of my constituents would like to receive that much money each week. Those two unemployed women already have two children-one six-year-old and one eight-year-old—and they now have a 22-month-old baby. Under CSA rules, the father must pay maintenance for that baby, which is absolutely right. If the lesbians refuse to give the father's name, as it is suggested they might, their state handouts should be reduced not just by 20 or 10 per cent. for a few months but by a significant amount indefinitely until they reveal the father's name.

The CSA's ruling is right, but the Government must toughen up their rules to deal with wilful obstructers of the system. By institutionalising long-term state funding arrangements, we must not establish another source of impoverished children simply to deliver the instant and selfish gratification of homosexual couples who want a particular life style but do not accept the physical or financial consequences of their choice to live in that way.

You will be outraged to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that groups representing lesbians have been vociferous in their opposition to the Child Support Agency. They defend lesbians' right to have children by what they call "private arrangements with male friends", most of whom are homosexuals. Yesterday's issue of The Sunday Times reported that, at a recent London conference, women urged non-co-operation with the CSA and outlined strategies to frustrate its attempts to trace the fathers. Opposition Members appear to agree with the moral of that story, which is that, if taxpayers are daft enough to pay, let them pay. That may be a socialist philosophy, but it is certainly not a Conservative one.

I understand that two lesbian couples who both want babies are now receiving fertility treatment on the national health service at Leicester Royal infirmary. Who will pay maintenance for those children, and what will be the CSA's policy towards them? That is an abuse of the national health service. The high cost of those two episodes of treatment will rob many old people of much-needed hip replacements, and sick children and babies in special care units of the equipment and nursing they need.

I acknowledge that the CSA has experienced difficulties in its first year. I have given an insight into how those difficulties have been promoted and aggravated by absent fathers or lesbian groups who either do not want to pay or would like to pay a small amount while the Treasury pays the rest—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) wishes to intervene, I should be delighted to allow him to do so, because I wonder how he will answer that argument.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the whole problem associated with the Child Support Agency has been created by the masses of lesbians in our society. That is not the case. There are many problems associated with how the agency functions. It does not even sign letters which it sends to constituents who have problems. Those constituents are not lesbians but hold responsible positions in society. Why does not the hon. Gentleman face up to the real problems and the fact that lesbianism is a minor issue in this debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman faces up to anything, I remind the House that there are 65 minutes left for this debate before the Front-Bench spokesmen reply. Six hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. With a bit of co-operation from hon. Members, they may do so.

Dr. Spink

I am indebted to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East made a good intervention. He is right to say that lesbianism is a minor issue, but it is a matter of principle that needs to be addressed. No one else has mentioned it, so I thought that I was right to raise the issue so that we can have it cleared up, because it concerns my constituents.

One of the key charges against the CSA is that the money goes to the Treasury. That misguided concept is promoted ad nauseam by the media and Opposition Members. The Treasury has no money of its own; it has only the people's money, which it simply distributes where it is most needed. If it gives it away unnecessarily to support absent parents' first set of children, the money will not be available for other needs.

It will therefore be taken from orphans and widows who depend on state benefit, from the sick who need hospital care and from truly vulnerable people—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is laughing again. She should not laugh, because that money is taken from vulnerable people in my constituency—the old, the mentally ill and the disabled—who need money in the kitty so that they can be cared for.

My constituents realise, even if the Opposition and the media do not, that there is only so much money in the system. If it is siphoned off by one group, it is not available for another, or for investment in education and fighting crime. Those issues lose if we spend the Treasury's limited resources on benefits for first families so that absent parents—usually men—can choose to support a second family. The only time that the Treasury should pay for child maintenance is when both parents genuinely cannot pay. That is the honest Christian truth, with which all my constituents agree. It is a pity that some of the bishops do not.

Improvements could be made to the Child Support Agency, and I welcome the Government's continued review. The carers' allowance should be reviewed and the formula changed to recognise the atypical position of my constituents, who often pay more for a season ticket to travel to London to work than for their mortgages. The Government should look at the full cost of pension schemes and many other matters which have already been dealt with in detail and which are so important to my constituents.

However, the Government must not go too far and impoverish vulnerable people in my constituency by taking too much financial responsibility for children of lone parents when the absent parent has the means to pay.

8.18 pm
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

We have just heard an appalling contribution, which completely misses the point.

The size of my file of correspondence on this matter is shocking. It is a disgrace for any hon. Member to have such a file. Ros Hepplewhite said that she has 5,000 letters waiting for a reply. I seem to have the 5,000 here, and I am not too pleased about it—and neither are my constituents.

I am delighted to note that the Child Support Agency is to create 500 more jobs. However, it is appalling that one of today's newspapers has reported that the CSA is sorry after a flood of complaints. Ros Hepplewhite has announced that there will be an extra 700 staff to improve the body's performance. The agency certainly does not have a head. If it has a head, it is a lunatic who has come up with this type of plan.

I am not knocking the policy. It is important that absent fathers should contribute to their children. As the Minister said, no hon. Members object to that principle and policy. However, the plan of action to recoup the money is the most crazy and disastrous plan that we have seen in the British way of life for a long time. It is time that the Minister listened. He should plan something which responds decently to the needs of our constituents.

Tonight, I have heard about lesbians, homosexuals, the whole lot. I do not want to go down that road. I want to talk about the genuine concerns of my constituents and the genuine problems they face because of the Government's planning—or lack of it.

We should get rid of the head of the Child Support Agency because she is not doing a good job. She is certainly not doing a good job when, suddenly, she decides that the CSA will become a job agency.

Undoubtedly, the formula is in a mess.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the agency is serious about the work in which it is engaged, it must look at the problem where single mothers cannot be recompensed—the agency has typically failed in this area—if their former husband happens to be in business on his own? The agency has done nothing about that. It continually makes excuses about it.

Does my hon. Friend also agree—this is my second point—that there are many one-parent families where the wife in particular cannot get a penny from her former husband, and the agency has utterly failed to chase the former husbands whom it was designed to chase in the first place? Does my hon. Friend agree with my two points?

Mr. Graham

My hon. Friend makes a very telling intervention.

As I said, I have many cases and many points that I should like to raise. If I raised them all, it would take the time of the House for the remainder of the week and I do not intend to do that. I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

The Minister should look at the mess that we are in. We cannot give decent information to our constituents when they write to us with problems. One constituent wrote to me on 11 October; then, lo and behold, I received a letter from Ros Hepplewhite on 31 March 1994. How in God's name can we act as Members of Parliament and give proper information from the House to our constituents if we have to wait months and people have the sword of Damocles over their heads? It is an appalling state of affairs. In a democratic system, it is totally unfair that people must wait to get information from the House and the appropriate people that the Government put in place.

I could go on. I have heard comments about organisations which have probably abused the Minister and some Tory Members. I regret that action. I regret that undemocratic methods have been used to put across points of view. But what about the thousands of people who have used the avenue of the parliamentary democracy of these letters? What about the thousands of people who have visited their Members of Parliament? What about the thousands of people who have demonstrated within the context of the law? Are the Government listening? No, they are not listening, because they have not put into operation a plan which at the end of the day could look sensibly at people's problems. As I said, the formula is a mess.

On many occasions, I have come to the House and read constituents' letters. Every one of them seems to be getting worse. The situation seems to get worse and worse. The Government seem to care less as time goes on. They simply want to fix the balance of payments. They seem to want to take money from every part, but are not too concerned about where it comes from. That is the danger. The Government are fraught with danger when they are supported by hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink). He is totally uncaring. He is not looking for a solution for his constituents, although he must have a postbag similar to mine.

I have written to the Minister on a number of occasions and the replies are all the same: we will put the plan in place, the plan of action stays, and we will think of it here and there. That does not matter; in the end, my constituents will still live in abject poverty. These are the people whom the Government have always known were making contributions to their children because of court action and levy of the appropriate money.

I could give many more examples, but I want to get straight to the point. I shall quote from a letter that I received from a constituent of mine. When I read the letter, I asked how we in civilised Britain could treat our men and womenfolk and their children in this way. The agency is called the Child Support Agency. It is a crying shame agency. It is a crying shame to the people it is supposed to help. As far as I know, it is not helping any child in my constituency. With my hand on my heart, I wish I could say that the agency is helping children in my constituency.

I do not want to take up the time of the House, but I shall read this letter because it epitomises what is happening throughout the country. I am sure that it is similar to the letters that we have all received. I quote: I am writing to you in a last, desperate hope that you may be able to give me some help or advice regarding payments which have recently been assessed for me by the C.S.A. I am an ordinary working man"— he is not a high flyer— I earn a reasonable wage"— he thinks that it is a reasonable wage; I shall explain later— but I cannot cope with the unreasonable increase the C.S.A. has made to my maintenance payments. I was divorced in 1990, at which time a court order was raised for a payment of £80 per month to be made in respect of my two sons. I love my two sons dearly and have done all in my power since the divorce to provide as much for them as possible over and above my maintenance payments. Although my two sons live in another part of the country— a 200 mile journey from my home—I drive through and bring them to my home approximately every third weekend and all school holidays. At no time have I ever failed to make regular maintenance payments. I have since remarried and now have a stepdaughter and daughter through this marriage. My wife does not work and I am the sole bread-winner for the family. My take home pay is £230 per week, but the C.S.A. has assessed my earnings at £270 per week from which they expect me to make payments of £76.76. I have been in contact with a counsellor from the C.S.A. who has agreed that the assessment is too high. She has phoned Falkirk on numerous occasions on my behalf to ask for a reassessment, but the C.S.A. has refused to give one as they say that the difference is not sufficient to warrant a reassessment. If I were to pay the amount the C.S.A. are requesting it would leave me in the position of not being able to provide my present family with even the basic necessities. I feel that I must do justice to my constituents who have written to me, but I have not seen any decent replies. The letter goes on: My car is a necessity. If my car were to be repossessed I would neither be able to visit my sons nor would I be able to get to work. I work as a security guard at a well-known company— a job which entails shift work for which I could not rely on public transport"— public transport in Scotland has been decimated— I suffer from osteo-arthritis and rely on pain killers to keep going. Although I have requested an allowance to be made on my assessment for prescription charges the CSA have denied me this. My wife and I are at the end of our tether. We can see no way around this situation. We have thought of uprooting our family and moving away from Britain, but my sons and I have a close relationship and I do not want to lose contact with them. My company has a policy of dismissal for arrestment of wages, but the only course of action I can see open to me is to continue to pay my £80 and wait for the CSA to arrest my wages. I am 39 years old and am proud to say that I have never claimed any state benefits. Sadly however if I am dismissed from my job, myself, my wife and my two daughters will be forced to be reliant on state benefits. At which point my ex-wife and two sons wouldn't even be receiving my present payment of £80. Our situation has now become desperate and we would be grateful for any help and advice you could give us on this matter. I supported the idea of the CSA, but I now regret allowing the Government to put a bad plan into operation just because I accepted the principle.

For the sake of the thousands of people all over the country who are suffering, I ask the Minister to take some caring action to end the terrible trauma that our constituents are facing-because the Government could not get it right.

8.30 pm
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

In the first two minutes of his 30-minute speech, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) referred to parental responsibility. He also said that the Child Support Agency had been set up under an Act that enjoyed all-party support. I had no difficulty agreeing with the first two minutes of his speech. Significantly, they showed that there is unanimity at least on the principle and about the fact that an independent and responsible body in the form of the CSA is needed.

Unfortunately I could not agree with anything else in the remaining 28 minutes—

Mr. Dewar

What a relief!

Mr. Shaw

I thought the hon. Gentleman might be relieved. I shall now try to explain why I disagreed with him.

Most people outside agree with the idea of parental responsibility for children. Most fathers who come to our surgeries start by saying that they think it right that they should be responsible. The issue then boils down to cost. That is the problem. We can tackle it in many different ways; we can talk about the formula, or about whether to include certain factors in it or not. Ultimately, however, the basic problem is that, although many absent fathers are prepared to agree to the principle, they are not prepared to agree to the calculations devised by the DSS.

The same appears to apply in Australia and New Zealand, and to judge by my observations on Internet, of the child support system in America. One of the hottest debates around the world concerns the costs of bringing up a child. Because we are asking people to pay extra, no wonder the system has proved unpopular with those who have had to pay it.

It is interesting to contrast the work that the Social Security Select Committee is doing on the CSA with the work we did last year on the disability living allowance and the disability working allowance. The systems administering the latter were in difficulties because of the large number of new applicants rushing to claim. Why were they so popular? Because they were paying out more money to more claimants. The CSA is, of course, charging more people money—charging many absent fathers who refuse to contribute more money.

We should therefore not be surprised by the difficulties that the CSA has faced. We should, however, be disgusted by the campaigns that have been waged against the staff and the agency. I have with me large numbers of documents copied from various organisations opposed to the Child Support Agency. The Minister finds himself on a poster, "Wanted for Murder". The newspapers have attempted to attribute seven suicides to the CSA and the workings of the Act. No one has had a thought for the fact that there may have been human tragedies behind those suicides. Nor has anyone had a thought for the fact that there are 4,900 other suicides each year. Are they all to be blamed on Government or Opposition policies, or on some other policies? The very idea is ludicrous.

Mr. Wray

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the agency is being used as a rogue body—and that the Government are not worried about children: they are worried about the Treasury, and getting as much as they can for it? Of £210 million, it has been said that only £3 million went to the children. Of £530 million, only £50 million was going to go to the children. If the Government were sincere and compassionate, why did they not give all the money to the children? Why did the agency attack the high-income families who were already paying up? Why did it not target the absent fathers?

Mr. Shaw

The hon. Gentleman, having observed me operate on the Select Committee, anticipates me with impeccable timing. I was about to talk about the Treasury. The idea that all this money is going to the Treasury is grossly misleading. I challenge anyone to tell me which room in the Treasury I can find all this money in. Where are all the huge sums collected from absent fathers? I walk the Treasury corridors, and I have to tell hon. Members: the money is not there.

We are either taking less money from taxpayers or we are paying out more in benefits than we otherwise would. Saying that the money is in the Treasury is the biggest lie about the child support system. Today the BBC, which prides itself on neutral broadcasting, allowed itself, I was distressed to hear, to fall into the trap by referring to the Treasury. The media should not refer to the Treasury unless they accept that they are biased. The true position is that either the taxpayer benefits or the benefits recipient benefits.

What is wrong with the taxpayer benefiting? The Labour Government in Australia are not upset by that. The evidence to the Select Committee and to the social security committee in Australia showed that the Labour Government were proud that taxpayers were going to benefit. We should be proud of it, too.

I conclude by taking a look at three proposals from the Labour party. The problem with a disregard is that it gives rewards to certain people; a system based on rewards is not to be found anywhere else in our social security arrangements. It has also been suggested that the formula should include more allowances. The experience of the Australian, American and New Zealand systems shows that the formula should be made simpler. There is no worldwide evidence to support more allowances in the formula.

The evidence from Australia is that the appeals system is tough and limited. There is no evidence to suggest that we should have a broad-based appeals system that would allow hon. Members to argue the case for a few extra pounds for their constituents as opposed to constituents elsewhere. There is no way that Members of Parliament arguing such cases could do so fairly. While some aspects of the system could be examined and, according to the Select Committee, could be made better, the lessons from Australia, New Zealand and the United States show that it is difficult to improve the system to please those who will have to pay more and become more responsible for their children.

8.40 pm
Mr. Hugh Bayley (York)

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) complained about a lack of objectivity and one-sidedness in the BBC, but what he said about Australia in the last few minutes of his speech showed that he is guilty of that to a much greater degree. If he had been honest in presenting the whole story, he would have told the House that in Australia there is a $10 a week disregard. Every parent looking after children gets $10 on top of the income support payment every week, plus 50 cents in every dollar that is paid in child support beyond that.

The hon. Member for Dover says that Australia has a limited appeals system. He forgot to say that the United Kingdom has no appeals system. If he purports to describe the Australian system fully and fairly and without bias, he should describe the whole situation and not just put those parts that suit his case, ignoring the Australian disregard arrangements.

Sixty-six of my constituents have raised with me cases of injustice and maladministration. Not one of them has objected to the principle that absent parents should pay, and only one has objected to the fact that she has to pay. She is a woman and lives in a one-roomed flat on invalidity benefit of £68 a week. She is expected to take less than the minimum amount that the Department of Social Security has determined as the required amount for invalids so that she can make a contribution to her ex-husband. He lives in a detached house, has two cars and farms 38 acres. He has horses and rides to hounds and goes fox hunting, but that woman is expected to contribute to him for their child.

The Minister will nod and say that that was what the Act intended. I wrote to the Minister and the CSA about this matter in March but neither has replied. I wrote again in June asking for a reply and I still have not received one. Throughout the debate the Minister has nodded sadly every time an hon. Member complained about the CSA's inefficiency. But nodding sadly is not enough. Somebody is responsible for the fact that simple answers to straight questions from people on the receiving end of the agency are not being answered. Either the agency is at fault, in which case the Minister should make heads roll over the failure of people to do their job, or he is at fault and he should do the honourable thing.

Nearly half the 66 constituents who approached me are women who are concerned about the way that the Act has worked. They expected to be beneficiaries. In his speech the Secretary of State peddled the myth that the agency champions the needs of deserted women, and that complaints come only from fathers who are being asked to pay. I shall state the initials of one of my constituent's so that the Minister can trace her case by way of the letters that I have written. She is Mrs. W. L. and her husband left her in January 1993.

Mrs. W. L. applied to court for maintenance but was told that the court no longer dealt with maintenance and was referred to the CSA, which she approached in January last year. The agency refused to act because she was on family credit, and she was told to reapply when the credit ran out. She reapplied in July, and in November she telephoned the agency to ask how her application was being treated. She was told that nothing had happened. As a result of her telephone call early in November, on the 20th of that month the forms were sent to her husband. Thereafter there was silence.

She approached me in March and I telephoned the agency, to be told that nothing had happened because the file was missing. The agency agreed to set in train a search for the file, and after that things moved quickly. The Child Support Agency can move quickly when it wants to. It approached the former husband, and on 13 April the first payment of the backlog of £1,988 was made. It was paid to my constituent on 21 April.

Why did it take 15 months from the time that Mrs. W. L. applied to the agency for support for her children and telephone calls from her and from me to numerous people in the agency to get the maintenance for her children? Who is responsible for that delay and what compensation is there for a woman who has been left without the resources to bring up her children because of the agency's incompetence and inefficiency?

Another of my constituents, Mrs. Susan Arkle, regularly received maintenance for 15 years from her ex-husband. She and her ex-husband tell me that he never missed a payment. In October 1993 the CSA took over the case and the payments ceased. The money was still being paid by Mr. Arkle to the agency but when I telephoned, the agency told me that it had no record of payments. It had mistaken my constituent's husband for another man who was not paying. The upshot was that the agency was getting the money, but my constituent and her children were not.

The hon. Member for Dover said that money must be piling up somewhere in the Treasury. It is piling up in the agency and I hope that the Minister will tell us how much interest has been earned and whether the interest will be paid to parents for the benefit of children. That was the Act's intention, and when money is not paid to the parent with care, that parent has to go without or raise loans and pay interest.

The application of interest on money held by the CSA would have a dual benefit: it would help the children and compensate the parent with care who has had to take out loans. It would also give an incentive to the Child Support Agency to shift the money out of its coffers and into the hands of the parents who are caring for children.

In a letter to me, Mrs. Arkle stated: The CSA now owes me over £363.06 which it has received from my ex-husband and which I need to feed and clothe my children. I have had to go into overdraft, thus incurring bank charges and worsening my financial situation. What will the Minister do to recompense my constituent for the suffering that she, and above all her children, have endured because of the agency's inefficiency?

The problems that have been brought to me by constituents do not just come from those who are having difficulty obtaining the money that is due to their children. They come also from absent parents who are due to pay. A constituent, Graham Lund, came to see me over the weekend and told me that his wife left him some time ago, and that he had given up his job to become a full-time carer for their three children. Later, the children decided to move in with their mother. At that point, he gave her the family home, because he felt that that was the best place for the children. He wanted the children to stay in the home.

Shortly afterwards, two of the children came back to live with him. He now has care of two of the three children. He has lost his home and is assessed to pay £66 per week on behalf of the third child, who is with the mother. He receives no child support from the absent mother for the two children for whom he cares. Having examined his budget, he is left with £29 per week for food, clothes and other expenses for his family. He now needs dental treatment. That will cost him £150 on the NHS. How is he going to pay for the dental treatment he needs when he does not have enough money under the Child Support Act to look after the two children for whom he is responsible?

What about when parents have split up and are both on income support? The absent parent loses 5 per cent. of his or her income, which gets paid to the CSA. The parent with care receives no increase, because, unlike Australia, there is no disregard. So the absent parent, who in the past, could perhaps save a little out of his or her income support to buy small treats for the children when they visit now finds that even harder to do. If the intention of the Act is to improve the lot of children, to draw children out of poverty, which is so important, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) and for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) have said, a system that reduces the combined income of both parents when both are on income support must undermine that principle. If a disregard is brought in nowhere else, surely it should be used in cases where a parent has that contribution taken out of his or her income support.

The principle that parents have a lifetime responsibility for their children is clearly right, but a combination of the inflexibility of the CSA rules and the bungling incompetence of the agency itself—aided, I have to say, by the failure of Ministers to reply to hon. Members on behalf of issues to do with the CSA—threatens to bring the whole structure tumbling down like a pack of cards, destroying a principle that hon. Members on both sides of the House have said is important—that absent parents should pay for their children.

The agency needs to be either radically reformed or replaced by a new regime, which puts children, and children in poverty, first. A disregard needs to be introduced, as in Australia. Changes need to be brought in to take account of past property settlements, which were often made under clean-break settlements.

I recently had a case involving somebody whose children stayed with him for 97 days during the course of a year, yet he got no money to provide for them during that period, because they did not stay with him for the 100-day threshold. We need a new formula that realistically has regard to the needs of children of second families. Above all, we need a new agency that will operate efficiently and with compassion.

8.54 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the current operation of the Child Support Agency. In Northern Ireland, the agency has operated with appalling inefficiency, bringing distress and anguish in its wake. No one in the House is against the principle that was first mooted when the legislation was sponsored—the principle of protecting and providing for children deserted by a parent or parents, and left, in some circumstances, with a single parent who has to cope with inadequate financial support.

That principle is not questioned, and I deeply resent those who accuse other hon. Members who bring to the House those matters that need to be reformed. The finger seems to be pointed at all who have been advocating reform, and at all who have been bringing forward the matters that need to be dealt with, as though we had weakened on the principle.

I believe in parental responsibility. I believe that it is for the lifetime of the child. I believe that with all my heart. But that will not keep me silent when I see the gravity of the situation that has developed, and the child for whom this legislation was brought in completely put on the sidelines. Instead of being concerned about the child who was to benefit, we have set estranged wives and husbands against each another. We have broken in two not one but two homes. We have caused great grief, great hardship and great wounds in our society. The Minister must face up to that.

But, unlike all the other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I am at a serious disadvantage, because the CSA in Northern Ireland is a strange instrument. The report that is before us, "Child Support Agency: The First Two Years" was issued before the debate. It tells us two things about Northern Ireland—first: There is a separate Child Support Agency in Northern Ireland which provides a similar service under Northern Ireland law." Secondly, it says: The Child Support Agency Centre at Belfast is an integral part of the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency. It also provides a service to an area of the mainland on our behalf. But at the back of the report, where the places that are served by the agency are listed, no reference whatever is made to Northern Ireland. I want to ask the Minister this question: is it the report of the Child Support Agency for Great Britain or is it the report for the whole of the United Kingdom? If it is not, where is the report for the central agency in Northern Ireland? We have graphs about the people who have been employed. Are they for the United Kingdom or are they for Great Britain? The Minister must come clean with the people of Northern Ireland and tell them exactly what has happened in respect of their system.

If the situation is bad in Great Britain, it is 10 times worse in Northern Ireland. I refer the House to a hearing by the Social Security Committee in Belfast on 7 March, and to page 49 of the minutes of evidence, when Mr. Pat Devlin, the agency's chief executive, and Mr. John Johnston, director of Northern Ireland operations at the Child Support Agency in Belfast, were examined. I urge hon. Members to obtain a copy and to read for themselves what was said by those two individuals.

Such was the insulting behaviour and the answers given by the people in charge of the agency in Northern Ireland that the Chairman of that Committee said that he thought that they came from the old Russia.

A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), who is also a constituent of mine in another place, received a letter at his home from the agency, stating that he had fathered a child and that he would be levelled with the upkeep of that child. He was absolutely amazed. His wife read the letter, and the House can understand what it was like in that happy home, where there were little children and all was well—before an impudent, arrogant letter arrived that pointed the finger of accusation at the head of that happy household.

Action was immediately taken to contact the central agency. The two agency people who arrived acted as moral arbiters. The husband said, "I am not the man in question. I did not father that child. I was never with the woman concerned. I know nothing about it." The agency people said, "You needn't lie to us. You're the father of the child and we are taking action against you."

That happy family was broken up. The wife left the home and took the young children with her. That husband was a broken-hearted man, bereft of his wife and of his children, and his marriage was shattered.

Later, the agency sent a letter saying, "We are sorry. It was a man in the same town. We got the wrong address." What good was that, when that home had been shattered, the wife's faith in her husband had been destroyed, and he was distraught and broken? How can anyone say that we should not expose such matters on the Floor of the House, so that the Minister knows what is happening? It is happening not only once but all over the country.

The Minister needs to put on his running shoes. If one does not have the consent of the people, the law breaks down. When the law breaks down, there is anarchy. When there is anarchy, the law will be forced to change its ways. Why not make up our minds tonight to change the procedure, take the arrogance out of those people, and deal with the matter for the sake of the future of our communities and their families?

I have for 48 years been the pastor of a large congregation in the centre of Belfast. I know what pastoral care and homes are about. There is nothing so devastating as when a well-ordered home that manages its budget suddenly has a colossal demand made on that budget. It is devastating. The agency's actions have devastated people. If the court determined a settlement and decided that so much money should be paid and everyone was working to that budget, why did the agency have the right to overrule the court and say, "No—our law is greater than your law"? The Minister must take into account the amount of damage that has been done.

When the legislation was passing through the House, I understood that the real offenders would be found out. The real offenders are the parents who have skipped, disappeared and never paid a penny to the children they fathered. I shall ask the Minister a fair question tonight. How many people who were paying the benefit that the courts said they should pay have had their payments increased, and how many who never paid anything have been found out and brought to book? Let us have those figures, because it is on those figures, and those alone, that we will judge the success of the legislation.

The Minister must take on board what has been said today. I do not know how one heals the wounds or makes up for what has gone astray, but I know that the time has come to change gear and to change course in this iniquitous system. Let us not do any more damage: there has been enough damage done and the Minister needs to face up to his responsibilities.

Please let the people of Northern Ireland have the report of their agency. Please tell us what the agency is doing. Please tell us how many of the people are not interested in Belfast, in our problem, but are doing something in the north of England. We have enough problems to attend to without doing the work for the north of England. With all due respect to the people of the north of England, I think that the agency has enough on its plate.

The report makes interesting bedside reading. Anyone reading it will become aware of the sort of officials who had weeks to prepare for examination and weeks of tutoring by those who tutor civil servants before they come before a parliamentary Committee. I used to chair the' parliamentary Committee in Stormont that looked after the finances—the Finance Committee. I knew that the people who came to talk to the politicians had been tutored.

The two men who came before the Committee were tutored and their answers were laughable and disgraceful—so much so that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said that he thought they came from old Russia. The Minister had better consider those matters tonight and give us some answers. If he says that he cannot answer for Northern Ireland perhaps he will be good enough to write to me with the answers.

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

indicated assent.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am glad to see that the Minister is nodding.

I want the answers. If we cannot get them tonight, we must get them later.

9.7 pm

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Having listened to most of today's debate, I do not think that one hon. Member—from either side of the House—has had unqualified praise for the Child Support Agency. There is no disagreement among hon. Members about the fact that there is such a thing as parental responsibility. It lies at the heart of the Children Act 1989, which had all-party support. Everyone accepts that being a parent continues for life. My children are young adults; I am still a parent and I still have a responsibility to them.

The cross-party concern comes as no surprise to me. I am secretary of the all-party parliamentary Child Support Agency monitoring group, which has been meeting for some time and taking evidence from interested agencies, including the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Council for One Parent Families and women's organisations. We shall meet the Secretary of State tomorrow on a cross-party basis.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) said in a thoughtful and analytical speech, the agency is involved in a part of public law that is a crucial element of social policy. What does parental responsibility mean? The CSA appears to reduce it solely to pounds and pence.

There has been much reference to the Australian model. I understand that, in its first year, the CSA in this country tried to deal with twice as many cases as the Australian child support agency, with half the staff. When we consider that fact, it is scarcely surprising that there has been such bureaucratic muddle and maladministration. As several hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, at least Australia's Child Support Agency is concerned with eradicating child poverty. That is what should concern our CSA, but many people still feel that its rationale is to make a Treasury raid on the social security budget.

Hon. Members have cited constituency cases. That is a valid way of drawing attention not just to the effects of the Child Support Act 1991 and the way in which the formula works, but to the maladministration that people have had to put up with.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned a constituent whose life had been turned upside down. A constituent of mine was telephoned at work one morning by his wife, who was hysterical: she had opened a letter addressed to him, asking him to pay maintenance for a child of whom he had never heard. He had also never heard of, or met, the mother of the child.

After a great deal of anguish, it was established that he did not know the woman and the child was not his; the child's father had the same name, and lived in the same part of Bristol. I am pleased to say that that marriage survived, but my constituent still does not consider that he has received proper redress from the CSA. It beggars belief that an agency could virtually trawl through the telephone book, find someone with the same name living in the same area and decide, "That must be him."

Another constituent has received seven different assessment figures from the CSA. To this day, he does not know which amount he is supposed to be paying; meanwhile, the clock is ticking, his arrears are building up and he has been denied access to his children because his wife is distraught at receiving no money at all.

Yet another constituent, whose income is low—we have a low-wage economy—cannot afford the one trip a year that he used to take to see his daughter in Essex and bring her back to Bristol. His only luxury was his telephone: he could ring his daughter twice a week to ask about her school work and what she was doing. Now he has had to have his telephone disconnected so that he can pay the child support, and his contact with his daughter may—I put it no more strongly than this—be reduced to one visit a year. How will that encourage that man to be a responsible father? How will it encourage a relationship between him and his little girl?

I have encountered cases in which the agency's procedure of disclosing a second wife's financial means to the first wife—because she is bound to see the correspondence—has caused intolerable anger and disruption when parties to a relationship are trying hard to be responsible and amicable and to get along in new circumstances. Stepchildren, and other children involved in second marriages, are a comparatively new phenomenon, as are the family patterns of which they are part. On many occasions the CSA appears to have tossed a hand grenade into those people's lives, leaving nothing but conflict and misery.

There has been most misrepresentation over what is termed the clean break. I have heard the Minister try to pretend that we should not take the clean break into consideration, because it has nothing to do with children. Let us consider the divorce jurisdiction. Here I declare an interest, as a former family lawyer.

When an ancillary relief hearing is in being, the court's paramount consideration must be the welfare of the children. Husbands were frequently leaned on to agree to clean-break settlements, with the result that all the equity in the family home was transferred to the woman. First, that secured a home for the children. Secondly, it took account of the fact that, in general, women were economically disadvantaged compared with men. If an agreement were made that the house would be sold when the youngest child reached 18, women would be too old to obtain a mortgage or would not have the means to do so, thereby causing homelessness in middle and old age.

The purpose of clean-break agreements was that the man would forgo a huge sum of money. A constituent of mine transferred equity of £51,500 in the former matrimonial home. Rightly, the court said that he would therefore have to pay a smaller sum of maintenance so that he could start again at the age of 44. He now finds that the agreement has been ignored, and he is being asked to pay a considerable sum of maintenance. His second wife has been to see me and is distraught. They believe that they will face repossession because they cannot afford to pay their mortgage. How can that be said to further the interests of family policy, the needs of children or the needs of parents?

Earlier today, I spoke to a former colleague at the Bristol Bar, a well-respected and experienced family lawyer. I asked him what had been the effect of the Child Support Agency on ancillary relief hearings. He said that it had created unhappy dads and bitter mums. It is now much more difficult to settle cases because men are more reluctant to agree to a clean break. They say, "What is the point of transferring the entire equity in the matrimonial home when it will be ignored by the CSA? I shall never be able to afford to get back on my feet, rehouse myself and begin another relationship."

That is leading to more problems for women. What used in family law to be called the Martin order, which was disapproved of, is now re-emerging. Under such an order, there is no clean break and the house is sold on death, remarriage of the woman or permanent co-habitation. At half-past 5 o'clock today, I was told by my former colleague in Bristol that the re-emergence of the order is once again leading to old questions like, "Is Mummy still seeing Uncle Bill?" If permanent cohabitation can be proved, the woman can be tipped out of the house, which can then be sold. That is what is happening in family law as a direct result of the agency. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) said that, as a barrister, he recognised that women want to keep the family home. The House must recognise that that is now less likely. I do not see how that can serve the interests of children.

Yesterday in The Observer, the Secretary of State for Social Security was quoted as saying that it was difficult to persuade the public that parents should be responsible for their children. I do not believe that to be true. Most people agree that parents should be responsible for their children, which is why the initial idea of the agency received such widespread support. The bitterness is in the experience. A few months ago, HTV held a phone-in after an hour-long debate asking whether the Child Support Agency should be scrapped. Such phone-ins are a bit hit and miss and anecdotal, but the response was staggering: 71 per cent. of people in the Bristol area thought that the agency should be scrapped, never mind modified.

The difficulty lies in persuading people that the agency is delivering a system which encourages parental responsibility, which provides that such responsibility is about things other than money—although money is very important—and which supports children. As so many hon. Members have said in the debate, children are so often ignored. The Government's own figures show that 3 million children in this country are living in poverty. They are the people whom we should be concerned about tonight and in the future.

9.19 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

To conclude a long and interesting debate, I should like to say that I regard this last year as an enormous achievement. I say that deliberately, because this evening we have heard a catalogue of personal disasters. Yes, the administration of the Child Support Agency has gone awry, but let us also consider the other side of the equation.

There has been an enormous cultural shift, in that parents now realise that maintaining their children is not an option but an obligation. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing the agency into being with a tremendous amount of determination and despite considerable opposition from the Labour party. It was curious that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) tried to steal our clothing. He can try, but the truth is that we have got the CSA on the road.

Thousands of feckless fathers are being brought to book and are now paying maintenance. We are teaching society, and now society is learning for itself, that a child is for life—one cannot opt out of a child's upbringing and support. The Government should be congratulated on changing the climate in Britain in that way.

9.20 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

I begin by putting on record exactly what the Labour party said when the Child Support Agency was introduced because, while the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said that we opposed it on all counts, the Secretary of State said that we supported it. The reasoned amendment that we tabled at the time stated this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which, while providing that absent parents should contribute to the support of their children, leaves lone parents on Income Support not one penny better off, makes lone parents worse off where they receive maintenance just above Income Support levels and thus lose access to passported benefits, allows maintenance payments to be disrupted if the absent parent defaults, does not take account of property settlements which could lead to an increase in orders for the home to be sold, leaves unclear in which cases the lone parent will be exempt from the requirement to help the Agency trace the absent parent and therefore from the penalty of loss of benefit imposed on the caring parent, and does not tackle more serious problems facing lone parents and their children, notably the provision of better childcare facilities."—[Official Report, 4 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 194.] I read that into the record again because I have been here long enough to have heard history being rewritten many times and want to make it clear what our position was.

It is clear from almost every contribution that we have heard tonight that what we said in our reasoned amendment has come to pass. Some of us also expressed grave concern about the plight of second families and stepchildren, and I hope to have time to comment on them.

Before I go any further, it is my great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) on his maiden speech. Many of us felt that we knew Eastleigh pretty well by the time the by-election was over; but having listened to his detailed information about housing, rising crime and the jobs situation in Eastleigh, we realise that we clearly did not know it as well as he now does. I am also pleased that the hon. Gentleman found time to highlight his constituents' concerns about the CSA. We all look forward to hearing from him again—perhaps next time, he speaks he will not have to compete with the world cup.

In the reasoned amendment, we expressed our concern, but where do we go from there? One of the difficulties with the Child Support Act 1991 was the way in which it was sold to the House. Many hon. Members who voted for it have since said that, although they agree with the agency in principle, the application is a bit rough. We were told that people would benefit and that most of those who would be contacted would be the Jack-the-lads— the tower block stags who jump from one flat to the other with no responsibility for the children they father". That quotation is part of the background to the Child Support Act 1991.

Mr. David Shaw

Name him.

Miss Lestor

The hon. Gentleman knows who said it; I remember it very well. That was some of the language that was used about the Act.

To be fair to the House, the Act was sold to us. It was a crusade, and hon. Members thought that the people targeted would, in the main, be non-paying people—absconding parents, not absent parents who were already paying. The Minister has said that 60 per cent. of fathers who were contacted were not paying maintenance. If that is true, 40 per cent. were, but the Minister always puts it the other way round. Some 40 per cent, of the men contacted were already paying.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made the important point that one-off settlements have not been taken into consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) said that children have been put against children of new relationships formed before the Child Support Agency came in. Stepchildren have been put against other children in an effort to try to meet the agency's requirements. Women, and especially children—I am very much concerned with the children—have been taken off benefit, as we said in our reasoned amendment. Having lost their passported benefits, they are often worse off; and they are also worse off because the maintenance of the men concerned has often militated against those men keeping contact with the children.

It has been said—some of this has been documented—that fathers who have previously paid mortgages on homes for their first families will have to choose between meeting the Child Support Agency's assessment and paying the mortgages. The house will then be sold, with dire consequences for the children.

To show that I am even—handed—I am not making a case for fathers alone—let me tell the House that I am still appalled by the reply I have received which says that fathers who are abroad can get away with it because there is no means of contacting them. If we are concerned with both sides of the argument, we should look at that point a little more carefully.

People have also asked where the money is. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) said that he walked around the Treasury looking for the money, but could not find it. It has gone in administration: it has gone in paying the staff of the Child Support Agency; and it has gone in paying for the buildings, in exactly the same way as the money from the poll tax, which we do not mention any more, went on equipment, buildings and staff. And we know what happened to the poll tax.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

We were right about that, too.

Miss Lestor

We were.

Some hon. Members said that they were concerned about the taxpayer. Australia, which started this business, was also concerned about the taxpayer, but in Australia, half the money went to the children and there was a disregard, which we have asked Ministers to consider.

Several of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have made points that we could all repeat time and again. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is so knowledgeable in these matters and who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, has asked the questions that should be answered tonight. The Minister is not an unfeeling man in these matters. I sat with him during a spirited lobby, and I know that he is under pressure. So let me ask him whether the CSA is working. Is it working for more people than the number for whom it is causing misery? Those questions should be answered.

Many of us are a little tired of the Government hiding behind the Select Committee. They hold off their hon. Friends who may want to vote with us, saying that they should wait and look at the Select Committee report. They say that they have made a few adjustments and that they will listen again. That should not be necessary, because we all know that many people are suffering under the Act and that few are benefiting. That is what we should consider.

We have asked how the formula works, but nobody has explained that in the House. I believe that it is computer programmed—that one presses a button and gets something out at the other end. That is why, when we try to deal with the agency, we find it so difficult to get any variation in its decisions.

It is important that we should consider the Child Support Agency alongside the Children Act 1989. The Children Act rightly seeks, in this year of the family and at all times, to ensure that people keep contact with their children. We all agree with that. The Children Act refers to the necessity at times of residence orders, joint residence orders, joint contact, contact with grandparents and a variety of other matters.

The CSA does not work as the Children Act works in that respect. The children must spend 102 nights with the father—if the father is the absent parent—before he can claim benefit. That does not take into account the 87 or 85 nights that are set against that. If the Children Act is to work properly and take into account the need for joint residence orders and so forth, the CSA must work with it and ensure that the parent without care who wants contact with the children and wants to share responsibility for them does not find that he is financially unable to do so because the CSA does not take into account what it costs him.

Several hon. Members referred to the difficulties in which we find ourselves in dealing with CSA cases. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy) said that, in one of the cases that she took up with the agency, the harassment and demands continued, even though she had made representations about what she and her constituent considered to be an unfair assessment and application of the principle. I think that that is the experience of many of us here. We take up a constituent's case. It takes a very long time to have the case looked at and at the same time the wheels continue to grind relentlessly. Our constituents think that we are not bothering because it takes such a long time to obtain an answer.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) was right—I never thought that I would have to say that about him—when he said that the legislation was rushed through; that no real consultative process took place; and that we had got ourselves into an unsatisfactory position. He made the point, as did other hon. Members, that arrears were cropping up before the final assessment was reached. That cannot be, and is not, right or fair.

Other hon. Members have made important points about the passported benefits and where we go from here. We will not go back to the courts. That is clear, because that system was unsatisfactory, but that does not mean that we have got it right now. I should have thought that it would be obvious to anyone that we are calling for a review to see what can be done to mitigate the worst effects. I hope that the Minister will give us some encouragement in that respect.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) and for York (Mr. Bayley) said that the Children Act was supposed to be a child support Act. It was supposed to alleviate poverty among children. Instead, for obvious reasons, it is increasing poverty among many children. I am sure that the House never intended that to take place, but that is what is happening.

I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks)—we always seem to agree on these matters—that what was needed was a family social policy, and that the Child Support Act 1991 was operating in a vacuum. If one operates in a vacuum and tries to deal with one aspect of child poverty, one is bound to get it wrong. That is exactly what has happened.

It is also important to consider carefully the way in which men in particular—I am not defending only men; it is usually men, but not always—have been put in a position which makes it difficult for them to continue to visit their children. That should worry the House very much. In these days of increasing divorce and breakdown in relationships, organisations such as Relate and others say that they want things worked out properly. The interests of the children are paramount. They tell the parents that they must work the matter out in the interests of the children, whatever their personal difficulties may be.

Mostly men, but occasionally women, have said to us, "I cannot afford to visit my children any more. It is a long journey. My travel-to-work expenses are not taken into account. The amount that it costs me to visit my children, with all that is associated with a visit, is not taken into account." Rather than enhancing the life of the child, we are making it much worse. That surely cannot be what the House intended. Yet we all know from our surgeries that that is taking place. In some instances, we have created a monster that has got out of hand in that respect.

I must refer to what the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) said about being harassed and treated unfortunately by people who are against the CSA, as it is important. We cannot be responsible for people who behave badly. I in no way excuse them, as the problem must be worked out through argument and discussion, not by trying to inhibit people who are making another point, and I do not support such action.

The hon. Members for Broxbourne and for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) quoted Families Need Fathers and some of the things that it has allegedly said. People on the fringes of all organisations can sometimes cause grave embarrassment and behave extremely badly. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and I have met members of Families Need Fathers on several occasions. The members whom we met were not as concerned about the Child Support Act 1991 as they were about access to their children. They have pointed out that, in many instances, the Act militates against access, rather than enhancing it. If some fringe elements are giving foolish advice, most members of the organisation would not go along with it.

The House should be concerned about changing relationships in this country today and about the number of children who lose contact with one of their parents because of divorce or separation. That is happening to hundreds of children all the time, and if the House has done anything to encourage it, or to make it more difficult for contact to be maintained, the Government should give the matter their urgent attention. The situation is frightening.

Under the Children Act 1989, contact orders can be made for grandparents to keep in touch with their grandchildren, but for a variety of reasons the courts seldom uphold them. Such contacts are vital for children. If the CSA is assisting the process by unwittingly preventing access to parents—which was never the intention—the matter should be reconsidered as it is very serious.

When the Government first introduced the Child Support Bill, they said that it would operate on a straightforward principle and that it aimed to improve on the existing court system, which had failed so many children and their mothers, leaving more than 80 per cent. of lone parents on income support. We were told that that was the principle. Many hon. Members who did not support our reasoned amendment at the time thought, "Great—something is going to be done." We have learnt since the enactment of the Bill that family policies are never that straightforward.

Acts of Parliament—especially those such as the Child Support Act 1991—that have a strong and direct impact on the lives of children and their separated parents, cannot be viewed in isolation from a proper family policy. In this international year of the family, I should have thought that the Government would take that into consideration when studying the way in which the CSA is working.

I think that the Minister is aware that most sections of the House have expressed disquiet of one sort or another about the operation of the 1991 Act. Knowing the Minister, I think that he will have taken to heart some of the criticisms, although we have not seen many changes—there have been some—in the Child Support Agency and the way in which it works. If we are concerned with children's welfare and with keeping them in touch with both parents rather than with driving wedges between new and first families, we need to reconsider. It is a pity that we do not have family courts of the type that some of us have described in the past, as that would be a good way in which to deal with such matters.

We have tried to be the voice of the child, not that of the father or mother. The agency was sold to us as a Child Support Agency, but we were then told that the money was to go to the Treasury, because, after all, taxpayers should not have to support children when their parents are in a position to do so. That is fine, but many parents are not in a position to do so. The fact that the terms of the Act were made retrospective, when people made arrangements without knowing that that would happen, is indefensible. That is why we have described some of the difficulties that have been encountered.

Conservative Members have expressed their disquiet about the Act, as they have done before, and said that, although they accept the principle—as we all do—the Act has gone sadly wrong for their constituents. They asked what the Government would do to make life better for their constituents and their children. I hope that those hon. Members will have the courage to join us in the Lobby tonight. I hope that they will not be put off by the Minister saying, as I know he will, that the Government are waiting for the Select Committee report, will consider what has been said today and will, if necessary, make adjustments as they have done in the past.

This is not a waiting game: it is important for all of us and for the children in our society. I hope, therefore, that some of the Conservative Members who spoke against the CSA will join us in the Lobby.

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

The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) is right. I will ask my colleagues to resist the motion standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, to read carefully the amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to support it.

I begin by echoing what the hon. Member for Eccles said about the new hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey). On behalf of all my colleagues, may I say how much we appreciated his kind references to Stephen Milligan and the work that he did for all too brief a period in the House. I enjoyed the hon. Member's strong contribution to the debate. He had the luxury of being the only spokesman for his party, and he took that role very well. I am sure that we will hear more from him in the future.

The debate was led off in fine style by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who conducted the House through the affairs of the Child Support Agency with clarity and precision. He made it clear how difficult it has been to introduce changes in child support throughout the world, whether in the United States, New Zealand or Australia. He put the difficulties in context. I wish that more Opposition Members had taken more to heart what he said about the difficulties that were bound to be faced when introducing such legislation.

My right hon. Friend was supported by strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), for Orpington (Mr. Horam), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). I am grateful to my colleagues for the support they gave, notwithstanding the fact that they all had concerns and issues that they wanted to raise at the same time, which is only fair.

As the hon. Member for Eccles wanted to put the record straight about Labour's position, let me do just that. She may have read out the Opposition's reasoned amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill, but she did not go on to tell us that the Labour party did not vote against its Third Reading. The Opposition did not vote against the regulations on all the occasions when we discussed the formula in Committee. It is not true that the House has not had an explanation of the formula, because it was considered in regulations dealt with in Committee. To my knowledge, that formula was not voted against.

I should like to mention the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who was one of the Opposition spokesmen on social security in 1991. He said of the Child Support Bill: The Opposition will adhere to the principle that the responsibility for children rests with the parents, and their welfare will always be paramount in our consideration of these issues. The Bill accepts that principle, and in that sense we accept its main planks."—[Official Report, 18 July 1991; Vol.195, c. 573.] I should have thought that we have been discussing those main planks tonight, but, all too often, Opposition Members try to wriggle free of them.

The debate has centred on administration and policy and I should like to tackle the question of administration first. The debate takes place on the day that the first report of the CSA has been published. It reviews last year's work and its prospects for next year. I believe that it was the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who referred to the report as an honest piece of work, and I am pleased that he did so.

Mr. Frank Field

indicated dissent.

Mr. Burt

I am sorry; if it was not the hon. Member for Birkenhead, it must have been somebody else.

It has been a difficult and challenging year for the agency, for a number of reasons which my right hon. Friend mentioned. The project was taken on from scratch and the agency had to do a great deal of work under extremely difficult conditions. I admit that a number of targets have not been met, but the agency has made it clear that it wishes to do better. Ministers must also be responsible for that. I say straightforwardly that the agency has not achieved everything that I wished it to achieve, but it is important to understand the context in which it has worked and recognise not only where it has not done well but what we have done to secure improvements and change.

The Child Support Agency should not be judged on one year's operation. It was accepted when it was set up that it would take on its case load over four years and be evaluated over 10 years. It must change a child support culture in circumstances which the hon. Member for Birkenhead described as the biggest change in social policy since 1945. It should therefore be judged over a longer period than a year, and Ministers have been determined to seek changes in the agency to improve its operation.

I repeat what my right hon. Friend said: although things were difficult last year, this year we are completing maintenance assessments twice as fast, we have doubled the number of cases in which we are enforcing maintenance, and we are taking steps to deal with the correspondence problems. Errors and delays in correspondence are known to all hon. Members, and I am sorry about all those cases in which the delay has been unacceptable.

Anyone who wants to know what it is like to be at the receiving end has only to listen to the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham), who left me in no doubt about what "errors in correspondence", which is an easy phrase to utter from the Dispatch Box, means to constituents and hon. Members who are waiting for something to happen so that they can inform people. The hon. Gentleman put it just right and we are making every effort to improve that system. Of course, I apologise for those cases that have been delayed.

Mrs. Jane Kennedy

Given that many of the complaints to hon. Members on both sides of the House have been specifically about administration and the delays and mistakes that have caused such anguish to those concerned, should not the Government have adjusted more quickly the targets to which agency staff were working? If staff were working flat out to achieve impossible targets, was it not far easier to make mistakes?

Mr. Burt

The staff have always been aware of the agency's targets. It was clear from the rearrangement of work that had to be made within three months of setting up the agency and the reaction to changes made in February that certain benefit-saving targets, for example, would not be met. Staff knew that from an early stage. They have always worked as hard as possible and the administration has constantly adjusted to ensure that the work was more efficient. I assure the hon. Lady that adherence to unrealistic targets has not caused the problems.

The hon. Lady will be aware that the targets set for next year are based, quite properly, on the agency's experience. It is sensible to look at the work that has been done and, allowing for reasonable improvements, set targets on that basis rather than on assumptions that must be made when setting up an organisation with no experience in live running.

I am happy to reassure hon. Members that the Government take the problems of the agency's administration extremely seriously. A plan is in operation to secure recovery in all aspects of its work and there are already signs of improvement in that work. Standards must continue to improve, and they will.

The debate revealed a couple of other factors of which we have not seen enough in the past. More voices were raised on behalf of women than we have heard in past debates on this subject. One of the defining moments was when the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) said that trying to provide better maintenance, which is aimed at helping mothers and children—nine out of 10 parents with care are women—had somehow turned into an argument about men's problems. He pointed out that much of the debate and newspaper coverage had focused on men's concerns.

All too often in these debates that point of view is not put clearly. However, tonight, it was put across by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), it was put across most clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, and it was put across in an intervention by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). The points that have been made to recognise the importance of women's position in this argument have all too often not been heard, and I was pleased that those points were made.

It remains a cardinal principle for us that the maintenance system will produce more maintenance for more children over a period, and that maintenance will be a continual source of support to women, often as they go back to work and as their children grow older.

Another argument that raged in the debate was on the law. Clearly there are two different opinions about how the previous system worked. There was stout defence by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), but that had to be posed in opposition to my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle, for Shoreham and for Hertfordshire, North. They gave their practical experience of how settlements were made in the past, which all too often recognised the position of the taxpayer. The taxpayer was used to underpin settlements and then everyone drifted on.

It is no wonder that the parties were often happy with the arrangements that were made: the unspoken voice was picking up the bill. On the balance of opinion, and the way in which this matter was looked at before the Act was brought in, it has been proved that there is no going back to the courts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point raised the sensitive issue of lesbian parents and other such matters. As society changes, my feeling is that such cases are slightly unhappy. But as for responsibility, my hon. Friend was absolutely right. Where there is a biological father and the child has not been produced through sperm donation, which is protected by confidentiality, there can be no private arrangement that will leave the taxpayer picking up the bill. It is right to pursue the biological father, and the Child Support Agency will do that.

Let me touch on some policy points. The first one—this was the second defining moment of the debate—is the continual discussion that we have with Opposition Members about the role of the taxpayer. I know that the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) has taken a great interest in these matters. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Conversations should take place a little more quietly. I can hear many voices which I can identify.

Mr. Burt

I would prefer it if conversations did not take place in the remaining nine minutes of the debate.

The hon. Member for Warrington, South suggested that the taxpayer's interest had been brought in only latterly by the Government, as a side issue. I refer him to both the foreword and page 1 of the White Paper, which set out clearly that the taxpayer's interest was always in our minds and must therefore have been in the minds of his colleagues when they voted on the Bill, or when they did not raise it as an issue. I quote from the foreword: While many absent parents make regular payments, 70 per cent. regrettably do not. The inevitable result is that more and more caring parents and their children have become dependent on Income Support. This makes it more difficult for them to achieve greater independence through working. And, at the same time, it places the responsibility for maintaining the children on other taxpayers, many of whom are raising families of their own. That was written in October 1990. The hon. Gentleman should not try to tell the House that this is a later issue that the Government have introduced. It is a cardinal point. The hon. Gentleman cannot avoid the importance of returning money to the taxpayer. That is part of the Act—and a part of the Act which he should continue to support.

It is interesting that the second defining moment of the debate was the silence that came upon the Opposition Benches when the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington referred to the fact that fathers found it all too easy to leave the mothers of their children on income support. The Opposition went very quiet then.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend is saying, I know that he will recognise that there continues to be disquiet among Conservative Members about the operation and policy of the CSA. I shall support him in the Lobbies tonight, but on the basis that we await the report from the Select Committee, and that we shall be looking for a truly serious review in the context of that report.

Mr. Burt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I shall cover that in my closing remarks.

Mr. Dewar

I am sure that the Minister would not like to leave the impression with the House or with those who read reports of our proceedings that the Government have no plans apart from waiting to see what the Select Committee produces. Can he give us any indication of any area in which he believes reform is necessary?

Mr. Burt

I shall come to that too in my closing remarks—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—because it is a serious point.

A number of hon. Members mentioned certain policy items to do with the formula or with something else about which they were worried. The Government showed by the way in which they introduced reforms in February that they do listen. The words that they used about keeping the agency under review when it came into effect were not empty. When they saw the need to change, and once the need for practical change had been proved, the Government acted.

A third defining moment in the debate came with the contrast between the speeches by the hon. Members for Garscadden and for Birkenhead. The hon. Member for Garscadden, asking us to support his motion tonight, falls into a trap avoided by his hon. Friend. He does not merely describe the problems with the agency; he defines the solutions, but only in the usual vague and unthought-through way. He talks about an appeal system, but he was unable to answer the crucial question, asked him by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, about who should be included in that system.

Some Opposition Members would take matters further; they urged the repeal of the entire Act. The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) clearly took that line. The House, however, should take note of what the hon. Member for Birkenhead said. He recognised how far the agency had come. That recognition means that we are in a position to keep it under review and to decide what must be done for the future. As he said, we still lack the information, even after the first year's running, to decide what to do about certain areas of policy.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about keeping an open mind on reform. The Government are clearly committed to responding to the need for change, as indeed they have already responded. That means that hon. Members should vote for the amendment, not for the motion.

Mr. Frank Field

What I said was that it was difficult for anyone to come to a conclusion because no one knew whether the agency was working or not. The Government have provided no figures to tell us whether it is a success, or whether the chaos is increasing. When will the Government provide us with the data to enable the House to come to a conclusion on these matters?

Mr. Burt

I do not accept that the issue is as stark as the hon. Gentleman suggests. He, more than most, should be aware of the number of cases being dealt with and of the work being done. Eight hundred and fifty thousand cases have been taken on. So far this year, 163,000 maintenance assessments have been cleared. Crucially, that is almost half the total—336,500—cleared in the whole of the agency's first year. That means that it is picking up speed; its case load is increasing and it is proving some sort of success.

As for the future, a great many concerns on a variety of issues, to which I have listened carefully, have been raised in the debate. A number of hon. Members know that I have personally spoken to them about those issues. It is still not clear precisely what changes may be needed and when they might be introduced. Our strong commitment was shown by the way that we introduced changes in February. When there is a need for change, the Government will make it. We are committed to keeping the agency under proper review, and we shall consider carefully how that should be done. We are not making vague suggestions and promises. The Opposition cannot suggest concrete ideas, and that is why our amendment should be accepted.

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

The House divided: Ayes 273, Noes 311.

Division No. 279] [9.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Bermingham, Gerald
Adams, Mrs Irene Berry, Roger
Ainger, Nick Betts, Clive
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Blair, Tony
Allen, Graham Blunkett, David
Alton, David Boateng, Paul
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Boyes, Roland
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Bradley, Keith
Armstrong, Hilary Bray, Dr Jeremy
Ashton, Joe Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Austin-Walker, John Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Barnes, Harry Burden, Richard
Barron, Kevin Byers, Stephen
Battle, John Caborn, Richard
Bayley, Hugh Callaghan, Jim
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Bell, Stuart Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Canavan, Dennis
Bennett, Andrew F. Cann, Jamie
Benton, Joe Chidgey, David
Chisholm, Malcolm Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Church, Judith Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Clapham, Michael Hoyle, Doug
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Clelland, David Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hutton, John
Coffey, Ann Illsley, Eric
Cohen, Harry Ingram, Adam
Connarty, Michael Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Corbett, Robin Jamieson, David
Corbyn, Jeremy Janner, Greville
Corston, Ms Jean Johnston, Sir Russell
Cousins, Jim Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Dafis, Cynog Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Darling, Alistair Jowell, Tessa
Davidson, Ian Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Keen, Alan
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Khabra, Piara S.
Denham, John Kilfoyle, Peter
Dewar, Donald Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Dixon, Don Kirkwood, Archy
Dobson, Frank Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Donohoe, Brian H. Lewis, Terry
Dowd, Jim Litherland, Robert
Dunnachie, Jimmy Livingstone, Ken
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Eagle, Ms Angela Llwyd, Elfyn
Eastham, Ken Loyden, Eddie
Enright, Derek Lynne, Ms Liz
Etherington, Bill McAllion, John
Evans, John (St Helens N) McAvoy, Thomas
Ewing, Mrs Margaret McCartney, Ian
Fatchett, Derek Macdonald, Calum
Faulds, Andrew McFall, John
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) McKelvey, William
Fisher, Mark Mackinlay, Andrew
Flynn, Paul McLeish, Henry
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McMaster, Gordon
Foster, Don (Bath) MacShane, Denis
Foulkes, George McWilliam, John
Fraser, John Madden, Max
Fyfe, Maria Maddock, Mrs Diana
Galloway, George Mahon, Alice
Gapes, Mike Marek, Dr John
Gerrard, Neil Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Godman, Dr Norman A. Martlew, Eric
Godsiff, Roger Maxton, John
Golding, Mrs Llin Meacher, Michael
Gordon, Mildred Meale, Alan
Graham, Thomas Michael, Alun
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Miller, Andrew
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Grocott, Bruce Moonie, Dr Lewis
Gunnell, John Morgan, Rhodri
Hain, Peter Morley, Elliot
Hall, Mike Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Hanson, David Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Harman, Ms Harriet Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Harvey, Nick Mowlam, Marjorie
Henderson, Doug Mudie, George
Heppell, John Mullin, Chris
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Murphy, Paul
Hinchliffe, David Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Hodge, Margaret O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)
Hoey, Kate O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) O'Hara, Edward
Home Robertson, John Olner, William
Hood, Jimmy Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Hoon, Geoffrey Paisley, Rev Ian
Patchett, Terry Snape, Peter
Pendry, Tom Soley, Clive
Pickthall, Colin Spearing, Nigel
Pike, Peter L. Spellar, John
Pope, Greg Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E) Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Steinberg, Gerry
Prescott, John Stern, Michael
Primarolo, Dawn Stevenson, George
Purchase, Ken Strang, Dr. Gavin
Quin, Ms Joyce Straw, Jack
Radice, Giles Sutcliffe, Gerry
Randall, Stuart Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Raynsford, Nick Timms, Stephen
Redmond, Martin Tipping, Paddy
Reid, Dr John Turner, Dennis
Rendel, David Tyler, Paul
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Walley, Joan
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Roche, Mrs. Barbara Wareing, Robert N
Rogers, Allan Watson, Mike
Rooker, Jeff Welsh, Andrew
Rooney, Terry Wicks, Malcolm
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Rowlands, Ted Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Ruddock, Joan Wilson, Brian
Salmond, Alex Winnick, David
Sedgemore, Brian Wise, Audrey
Sheerman, Barry Worthington, Tony
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wray, Jimmy
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Wright, Dr Tony
Short, Clare Young, David (Bolton SE)
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Tellers for the Ayes:
Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury) Mr. John Cummings and
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Mr. Ray Powell.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Budgen, Nicholas
Aitken, Jonathan Burns, Simon
Alexander, Richard Burt, Alistair
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Butcher, John
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Butler, Peter
Amess, David Butterfill, John
Ancram, Michael Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Carrington, Matthew
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Carttiss, Michael
Ashby, David Cash, William
Aspinwall, Jack Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Atkins, Robert Churchill, Mr
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Clappison, James
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Baldry, Tony Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Coe, Sebastian
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Colvin, Michael
Bates, Michael Congdon, David
Batiste, Spencer Conway, Derek
Bellingham, Henry Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Bendall, Vivian Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Beresford, Sir Paul Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Biffen, Rt Hon John Cormack, Patrick
Blackburn, Dr John G. Couchman, James
Body, Sir Richard Cran, James
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Booth, Hartley Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Boswell, Tim Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Davis, David (Boothferry)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Day, Stephen
Bowden, Sir Andrew Deva, Nirj Joseph
Bowis, John Devlin, Tim
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Dickens, Geoffrey
Brandreth, Gyles Dorrell, Stephen
Brazier, Julian Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Bright, Graham Dover, Den
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Duncan, Alan
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Duncan-Smith, Iain
Browning, Mrs. Angela Dunn, Bob
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Durant, Sir Anthony
Dykes, Hugh Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Elletson, Harold Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Key, Robert
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Kilfedder, Sir James
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) King, Rt Hon Tom
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Kirkhope, Timothy
Evennett, David Knapman, Roger
Faber, David Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Fabricant, Michael Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Knox, Sir David
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Fishburn, Dudley Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Forman, Nigel Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Forth, Eric Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Legg, Barry
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Leigh, Edward
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Lennox-Boyd, Mark
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
French, Douglas Lidington, David
Fry, Sir Peter Lightbown, David
Gale, Roger Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Gallie, Phil Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)
Gardiner, Sir George Lord, Michael
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Luff, Peter
Garnier, Edward Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Gill, Christopher MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Gillan, Cheryl MacKay, Andrew
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Maclean, David
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles McLoughlin, Patrick
Gorman, Mrs Teresa McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Gorst, Sir John Madel, Sir David
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW) Maitland, Lady Olga
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Major, Rt Hon John
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Malone, Gerald
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Mans, Keith
Grylls, Sir Michael Marland, Paul
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Marlow, Tony
Hague, William Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Mates, Michael
Hampson, Dr Keith Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Hanley, Jeremy Mellor, Rt Hon David
Hannam, Sir John Merchant, Piers
Hargreaves, Andrew Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Harris, David Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Haselhurst, Alan Moate, Sir Roger
Hawkins, Nick Monro, Sir Hector
Hawksley, Warren Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hayes, Jerry Moss, Malcolm
Heald, Oliver Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Nelson, Anthony
Heathcoat-Amory, David Neubert, Sir Michael
Hendry, Charles Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Nicholls, Patrick
Hicks, Robert Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L. Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Norris, Steve
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Horam, John Oppenheim, Phillip
Hordem, Rt Hon Sir Peter Ottaway, Richard
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Page, Richard
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Paice, James
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Patnick, Irvine
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W) Patten, Rt Hon John
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Pawsey, James
Hunter, Andrew Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Pickles, Eric
Jack, Michael Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Porter, David (Waveney)
Jenkin, Bernard Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Jessel, Toby Powell, William (Corby)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Rathbone, Tim
Redwood, Rt Hon John Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Richards, Rod Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Riddick, Graham Temple-Morris, Peter
Rifkind, Rt Hon. Malcolm Thomason, Roy
Robathan, Andrew Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Thurnham, Peter
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Tracey, Richard
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Tredinnick, David
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Trend, Michael
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Trotter, Neville
Sackville, Tom Twinn, Dr Ian
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas Viggers, Peter
Shaw, David (Dover) Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Walden, George
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Ward, John
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Shersby, Michael Waterson, Nigel
Sims, Roger Watts, John
Skeet, Sir Trevor Wells, Bowen
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Soames, Nicholas Whitney, Ray
Speed, Sir Keith Whittingdale, John
Spencer, Sir Derek Widdecombe, Ann
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Wilkinson, John
Spink, Dr Robert Willetts, David
Spring, Richard Wilshire, David
Sproat, Iain Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wolfson, Mark
Steen, Anthony Wood, Timothy
Stephen, Michael Yeo, Tim
Stewart, Allan Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Streeter, Gary
Sumberg, David Tellers for the Noes:
Sweeney, Walter Mr. Sydney Chapman and
Sykes, John Mr. James Arbuthnot.
Tapsell, Sir Peter

Question accordingly negatived.

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

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

Resolved, That this House reaffirms its support for the principle, to which the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency give effect, that parents should support their children where they are able to do so; accepts that the taxpayer should only have to provide this support when parents cannot afford to; welcomes the help the Agency has already been able to give many parents with care and the support it has received from organisations representing lone parents; condemns deliberate attempts to obstruct the workings of the Agency; recognises the changes introduced in February and the urgent steps being taken to improve the service the Agency gives parents; and acknowledges the continuing concerns over child support issues and therefore welcomes the Government's commitment to continue to keep the scheme under scrutiny and to bring forward further changes should these prove necessary.'.