HC Deb 28 March 1994 vol 240 cc622-5
9. Mr. Norman Hogg

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to introduce an independent appeal procedure to the Child Support Agency system; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Lilley

The Child Support Agency was introduced to ensure that parents meet their responsibility for the financial maintenance of their children where they can afford to do so. It replaced an inconsistent, often unreliable system that resulted in a drastic decline in maintenance payments over the last decade.

There is already the right of appeal, on the basis of an incorrect application of the formula, against a decision of a child support officer, to an independent tribunal.

Mr. Hogg

Is the Secretary of State prepared to accept that the changes to the Child Support Act 1991 implemented in February have totally failed to deal with the extensive criticism of the Act? Does he accept that there must be further fundamental changes if public confidence in the Act is to be restored?

Mr. Lilley

The changes that we introduced in February have already benefited some 30,000 or 40,000 people as a result of a direct reduction in the amount that they were required to pay. Many more people who receive assessments in the future will benefit. Extra help will also be provided in the form of phasing, for which people are now applying. That will be welcomed by those with second families who already have maintenance agreements.

If the hon. Gentleman seriously believes that such a measure can be introduced with no criticism whatever, he is mistaken. In every other country where such a system has been introduced—Australia, New Zealand and various states of America—it has met with criticism. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, since we introduced those changes, there has been criticism from lone parents who naturally receive less when absent parents pay less.

Mr. Ward

My hon. Friend will be aware that I support the principle of the Child Support Agency. Is he aware that, in a small number of cases, people may be better off unemployed than in employment if they pay what the Child Support Agency asks for? Will he look at that aspect?

Mr. Lilley

That was an aspect with which we tried to deal when we introduced changes in February. We nearly quadrupled the amount above income support level below which the income of an absent parent's second family cannot fall. We have increased the increment above that level which they can keep. That makes it difficult for people to find themselves in the position to which my hon. Friend refers. But, as I have made clear previously, we are keeping the matter under continual review as we want to ensure that we are aware of any continuing problems.

Mr. Kirkwood

The Secretary of State is right that there is a limited appeal system that will allow people to take cases to tribunals, but there is no appeal system for hardship. If the Government allowed a hardship tribunal for people who were asked to pay more than they could possibly afford, people would be given a chance to argue their case before an independent body. That would also provide the Government with better evidence of how badly the Act is turning out in practice for people with second families who are being blown apart by the sums of money that they are being asked to pay.

Mr. Lilley

We hope that, as a result of our changes and of the original proposals, endorsed by all parties represented in the House, people will have enough income left, after paying their child maintenance, to meet their other commitments. I am, however, keeping that matter under continual review. We must beware of going back to the discretionary system under which, in effect, the whole burden of child maintenance was transferred to the taxpayer. Indeed, we cannot go back to it: it betrayed the children, the parents caring for them and the taxpayer.

Mr. Brazier

I support my right hon. Friend's robust stance on this matter, but may I draw his attention to one anomaly that needs a fresh look—the problem of parents who are paying yet who believe that the money is not being spent on the children? At present, no avenue is open to such parents; I know of two constituency cases. Will my right hon. Friend look again at a system for dealing with such cases so that people can be sure that the money is being spent on the children?

Mr. Lilley

This is a difficult issue and the problem applied under the old system, too. Essentially, a court awards the primary responsibility of caring for a child to one parent, and the money transferred in maintenance, under a court order or under a Child Support Agency order, has then to be allocated for the child by that parent. But I take my hon. Friend's point and I will look at it further.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Minister realise that the growing public anger, dismay and despair are undermining confidence in the Child Support Agency system and putting at risk the very principles of responsible parenting that that system was brought into being to buttress? Does he accept that there is, in the name of justice, a need for a system of redress for people who find that maintenance demands are out of line with their ability to pay?

The Minister referred to the criticism that greeted the Australian system. Does he recall that, two or three years into the operation of that system, the Australians successfully introduced a review officer procedure to deal with some of the injustices and difficulties that we are encountering? If there is a review, when will we see its outcome?

Mr. Lilley

We discussed that issue in a full day's debate in the House a month ago. It became clear then that the hon. Gentleman's idea of a review system was very different from that practised in Australia, which is extremely limited, and which in some ways means a lesser alleviation of the burden on absent parents than is provided under our present system.

Mrs. Roe

Has my right hon. Friend seen the article by Liz Lightfoot in The Sunday Times yesterday, headed Child Support Agency cleared of suicides blame"? Does he share my regret that misleading and sensational reporting by the tabloid press has distracted attention from the excellent work that the Child Support Agency is doing to ensure that maintenance is paid to thousands of mothers and their children?

Mr. Lilley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to that article. I read it, and I think that it would be well worth many people's time to read it. Suicide is always a terrible tragedy and a terrible shock for the family and friends left behind. But it is monstrous to try to use it as a weapon in a political campaign against an agency—which, incidentally, had the wholehearted support of the House—especially when it emerges that the evidence for some of the claims is, to say the least, flimsy.

We in the Government do not comment on particular cases; we will continue not to do so. I hope that others will be more responsible in their treatment of areas in which bereavement is involved.

10. Mr. Frank Cook

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many assessment forms for the Child Support Agency have been completed.

Mr. Scott

In the period 5 April 1993 to 31 January 1994, the Child Support Agency issued more than 755,000 maintenance application forms to parents with care, of which more than 548,000 had been returned to the agency by 31 January 1994.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Does he realise that he is only just beginning to get into the water on this issue? He is barely up to his ankles. By the time the legislation really bites in 1996 he will definitely be "dans la mer jusqu' au cou" and will find it exceedingly difficult. Conservative Members are already feeling the anger and resentment of people who have been wrongly targeted. The Opposition agree that the legislation is right in principle, but it is very wrong in practice. The wrong people are being targeted and it is about time that the Government quickly withdrew from the mire into which they have led their supporters and made adjustments to the legislation before the tidal wave of resentment overcomes them completely.

Mr. Scott

That was a fair old polemical outburst from the hon. Gentleman. It is in all our interests to get this policy right. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the legislation had widespread support in principle in the House. We have already made some changes to improve the shape of the system. We are continuing to keep it under review, but I do not think that anybody can challenge the principle that those who have care of children, particularly women, should be guaranteed a regular amount of money to enable them to discharge their responsibilities.

Sir Donald Thompson

Will my right hon. Friend make sure that people working in the Child Support Agency are trained to deal with matters more thoroughly, more sympathetically and more speedily?

Mr. Scott

If my hon. Friend has any examples of cases in which he feels that individuals have not been so treated by the Child Support Agency, I hope that he will communicate them to me. The agency's aim is to deliver a speedy but sympathetic service to those who need its help.

Mr. Wicks

Does the Minister accept that those of us who genuinely believe in the principle of parental responsibility find it more difficult now to defend the Act against bad practice? Does he agree that among the reforms that we need are reforms to ensure that lone parents on income support actually receive some child support in terms of extra money so that the legislation truly becomes a Child Support Act and not, as it is now, a Treasury support Act?

Mr. Scott

I believe that it is right and to the benefit of, normally, the woman concerned who has care of children to receive a regular and guaranteed amount whether she remains at home looking after the children or takes on some employment, as many lone parents wish to do. People who started to earn money would have their benefits reduced. However, if they receive maintenance from a guaranteed source, manifestly they can use their earnings to enhance their living standards.

Mr. Waterson

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that about two thirds of the cases taken on this year by the Child Support Agency will be those in which no maintenance at all is being paid? Does not that fly in the face of the current misconception that the agency is going after only absent parents who have already faced their responsibilities?

Mr. Scott

My hon. Friend is right. One of the agency's great successes is that it has managed to obtain that maintenance for many women with care. It is all too easy for the Opposition to prate on about believing in the principle while seeking to undermine the practice of the agency every time they have the chance.