HC Deb 31 March 1994 vol 240 cc1083-91 11.45 pm
Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the problems created by the Child Support Agency.

Earlier this week, when I was called in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee of Selection to move a motion on the vexed question of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland, I had a much greater audience than I have this morning. Perhaps something I said did not appeal to the hon. Members who were present that day. There is one great satisfaction, however—in no speech that I have ever made in the House have I had so many interruptions as I did on Tuesday, and I am unlikely to have many interruptions this morning.

I make no apology for raising the issue again, although the vexed question of the Child Support Agency has had many airings this year. That demonstrates the misgivings about how the Child Support Agency is working.

When the legislation was introduced, I welcomed it. I believed that strenuous efforts would be made to ensure that absent husbands who were evading their responsibilities would be made to pay something towards their children's maintenance. I have been quickly disillusioned because the Child Support Agency has concentrated on the easy option and gone for ex-husbands who were paying what they could afford. I have now reached the stage when every advice bureau that I hold includes someone complaining about his treatment by the Child Support Agency. At one advice bureau earlier this year, I had to deal with four such cases.

My anger erupted when I received a reply dated 23 March to a letter that I had written on 29 January. My constituent's name was mentioned in the first line, after which there was no mention of his name and no answers to his problem. The letter was merely a statement of the aims of the Child Support Agency. The last line was: I hope this reply answers most, if not all, of your constituent's concerns". It did not refer to any of my constituent's concerns. The man's take-home pay is between £150 and £180 a week. Yet he is being asked to pay £178.22 per month. How can he be expected to pay that much out of what most people would agree are modest earnings? The letter that I wrote on 29 January was a waste of time because my constituent's personal circumstances were never referred to in the reply.

I am not complaining only about ministerial replies. The agency takes ages to respond, and its replies do not address the problems put to it. My constituents complain that the CSA will not answer their questions by telephone or letter. It seems only to send out draconian assessments. I am told repeatedly of the difficulties of obtaining any response by telephone—the number rings and rings, but no one seems to be there. One constituent wrote that when he telephones the agency, the number is permanently engaged. When, after persevering, the number answers, the staff are invariably rude and aggressive.

One case involves a couple who were divorced in 1990. They have a 10-year-old son, and the ex-husband agreed to pay £150 a month maintenance for his son and to transfer the family home to his ex-wife. He also pays the capital element of the mortgage. Despite being unemployed for 12 months, he maintained those payments and remained in weekly contact with his son. He now makes debt repayments also because of a failed business. In October 1993, the Child Support Agency approached the ex-wife and asked for her ex-husband's whereabouts. She was told that if she failed to reveal them it would jeopardise her income support. The ex-husband, despite his loan repayments, was assessed to pay £95.40p per week. He has been drained dry by those payments and only survived by borrowing from his parents. What particularly enrages him is that not one penny of that money has gone to his ex-wife to support his son. On 10 February, I wrote to the CSA's chief executive about that problem. I wrote again on 10 March. As yet, I have received no reply. That falls a long way short of the improved services promised in the citizens charter.

I encountered another difficult case at my last advice bureau, involving a marriage that broke up in 1987. The ex-wife lives in Wales with the two children. No animosity existed between the couple. The ex-wife works full time and receives £4.3p per week family credit. The son is now aged 19 and working, and the daughter is seventeen and a half years old and still in full-time education. The ex-husband was paying £25 per week maintenance for his daughter. That was acceptable to the ex-wife because at the time of the divorce a substantial settlement was agreed under which the ex-husband bought a home for his ex-wife in Wales. However, because she is in receipt of family credit, the law demands that her ex-husband is assessed by the CSA—and his assessment is £201.50p a month. Because there was no animosity between that former couple and the ex-wife feels that her ex-husband has been fair to her, she asked to come off family credit but was told that she could not do so for six months, which is nonsense. In that case, all was amicable before the Child Support Agency intervened.

I will cite another case, of a young man who came to see me last Saturday. His weekly living costs, which comprise repayment of two bank loans and other liabilities and expenses, amount to £242.34p per week, and his housing costs are £112.80p plus council tax of £9.85p—a weekly total of £364.99p. That constituent wrote: The large number of debts that I have are the result of a failed business venture and from being out of work for eight months last year. During that period of unemployment, I did not claim the cost of the mortgage even though I was eligible to do so. I originally left my ex-wife in August 1988. At that stage there were no children involved and we had been living in her mother's five-bedroomed house. I had left for a week when I was informed that my ex-wife was pregnant. It was totally unexpected and unplanned on my part. I decided to move back in to help with the pregnancy and the initial few months. I also agreed to buy a house for them to live in. I left in February 1989. I made regular cash payments during the course of 1989 and 1990, and I also bought her a car at her request so that she would be able to take our son to her mother or to friends, thus allowing her to work. I also paid for a holiday for them both to go to Switzerland. In February 1991 my ex-wife took me to court in order that more maintenance could be obtained. I defended myself, with the judge ruling that the payments I was making were sufficient and that we were to continue in the same manner. I continued to make regular payments through 1991. In January 1992 I applied through my solicitor to standardise my payments through an official court order, to which she did not reply. I then offered her £35 per week, which was rejected. At the beginning of 1992 my business fell apart, with my ex-partner departing for Hong Kong, leaving behind a company in debt. I was then struggling financially and not in a position to make payments to my ex-wife on a regular basis. Towards the end of 1992, whilst unemployed I once again made an offer of £30 per week to be enforced once I resumed working, to which she did not reply. The offer has been on the table for the last one and a half years … I understand that my ex-wife has worked since the separation but do not know whether she is at present. That constituent faces enormous financial difficulties. Yet all that he asks is that in the light of some of the horror stories you hear in the media … a fair assessment is made taking into account all the facts. That letter raises the important point of how much notice the Child Support Agency takes of essential expenses. What is the logic of a scheme that takes vast sums of money from the ex-husband that he cannot afford, particularly in cases where husbands have been paying their dues and no dispute exists between the ex-partners? That is a recipe for bitterness.

One hon. Friend told me that when a CSA case arose in an advice bureau held, unusually, on a Friday afternoon, he imagined that the agency's office would be open and telephoned it. He was passed from one office to another, and was eventually put in touch with an office in Scotland, where he received an abusive reply from the man who answered the telephone. That is not good enough.

The CSA should make better use of the telephone when contacting fathers about their assessments. I give as an example of the proper way to behave the disability living allowance telephone unit in Blackpool, which is invariably helpful and deals efficiently with problems put to it. The Child Support Agency should also telephone at sensible times. If people are at work, there is not much use calling them at home during the day. Perhaps calls to ex-husbands, for example, should be made in the evening, when they will be at home.

I hope that the CSA can be made more sensitive, courteous and customer friendly. It must be aware of the ill feeling that it has engendered. There is a suspicion that its principal motive is to save income support money. It is strange that every constituent who has seen me about the agency has been a decent person who always paid maintenance. I have not come across one absent father who dodged maintenance—the sort of individual the legislation was designed to catch.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister replies it will be interesting if he can give an indication of the number of absent fathers who have been brought into the net. The CSA's workings must be closely examined. Taxpayers have borne the burden of missing fathers for many years. Agency arrangements are intended to reduce it, but the speed at which that burden is reduced must be governed by consideration of those who will be affected. I want to hear less about administrative convenience and more about fairness to all the parties involved.

The scheme started as a good idea. It was greeted with approval from both sides of the House and it was passed without a vote against, but it has not worked out as we envisaged. I was distressed when a hard-working father with a decent job told me that if the assessment that he had been given was not reduced he would be better off giving up his job and going on benefit. That surely is something that we must avoid at all costs. It cannot be right, and it was certainly not one of the aims of the legislation. It is essential that we get the balance right in determining how the burden should be distributed between the various parties involved. I believe that it is urgent, because we shall keep getting those cases at our advice bureaux until action is taken. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can give some indication of what is being done.

12 pm

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) on securing this important debate. As ever, he has made a constructive speech, drawing my attention and that of the Government to several issues. He discussed the policies underlying the Child Support Agency, but the main thrust of his speech was about the impact of the new arrangements on a number of his constituents who have exercised their right to mention their worries to him. I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that I will consider the details of those cases and take careful account of the arguments that he has made.

Whatever detailed reservations my hon. Friend may have—I will discuss some of those subjects later—I am sure that he still agrees with the underlying principle of the Child Support Act 1991, which is that it should be concerned with the welfare of the children in such cases. I hope that he will accept that we are all genuinely trying to find our way through some new and difficult issues so as to develop a satisfactory and sustainable system in the long term. As I believe that my hon. Friend will understand, these matters are normally the detailed responsibility of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), the Under-Secretary of State; due to a minor indisposition, he is unfortunately unable to take part in the debate, but he will read with great care the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale has made.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has explained on several occasions, the principles that underpin the Child Support Agency are right. I believe that it is right that taxpayers' interests should be taken into account. I cannot understand why there should be circumstances in which taxpayers, who may be only marginally, if at all, better off than many absent fathers, should pick up the bill for the maintenance of children who are not their responsibility. We should not lose sight of that principle as we properly take account of the way in which the administrative and other arrangements are developing from the early days of the new policy. I believe that the taxpayers' interests should be taken into account.

A second immensely important part of the policy is that a parent with care—usually, but not always, a woman—should have the assurance of a guaranteed regular income, which she knows will be there regardless of whether she decides to work. It is an important underlying principle of the policy that that should be a part of the system. At present, if a parent with care is on benefit and decides to take work, even at a modest level, her income will reduce the amount of benefit and eventually eliminate the benefit to which she is entitled. That, manifestly, is not the best incentive to encourage lone parents to go out and earn their living, as many of them wish to do. If a woman has a guaranteed—and, in a sense, portable in terms of her circumstances—amount of money coming in week by week or month by month, it is an important underpinning of her standard of living, which she can improve if she wishes to add to her income by working.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale acknowledged, the 1991 Act was passed with the universal approval of the House, responding to widespread anxiety about the lack of proper financial provision for children whose parents live apart. That in itself is a significant burden for those children and causes considerable anguish to many of the parents. We faced a situation in which nearly 1 million lone parents and their children depended on income support, yet only one quarter of those received any regular maintenance.

The old system of obtaining maintenance through the courts or Department of Social Security offices was obviously failing parents with care, and their children. It was slow, inaccessible, unpredictable, and often led to low and inconsistent settlements. The 1991 Act was designed to halt the significant decline in the payment of maintenance which had occurred during the previous decade as people increasingly realised that it was possible to turn to the state to support children for whom they ought to have accepted responsibility.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I hope that my right hon. Friend will answer the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) about the large number of parents who have not paid maintenance or who have paid maintenance very irregularly. Those surely should be the prime target of the Child Support Agency, as the House believed when it passed that legislation without controversy, as my hon. Friend said. There is a widespread suspicion, which I believe is borne out by the evidence, that the Child Support Agency is going for the easy target of people with reasonably high incomes who are already paying maintenance and are therefore easy to locate.

Mr. Scott

I will answer the point made by my hon. Friend when I discuss more detailed points. However, the House should acknowledge that to endorse the principle but to argue, as many Opposition Members tend to, against almost every detail of the implementation of the Child Support Act is not a very constructive way forward. I do not accuse my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) of that, and he properly draws my attention to what I believe to be a misunderstanding, although perhaps the pattern of cases that he receives has led him to that view. No doubt he will take that up with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, as he may have done already, and have that worry removed.

I believe that it was important to move in the direction of the 1991 Act. It is worth reminding the House that this week the National Council for One Parent Families published its report on the first year's work of the Child Support Agency. In introducing the report, Sue Slipman, who is director of the council, did her best—as someone who has not been afraid to be critical of Government policy in a number of different sectors—to put the criticisms of the Child Support Agency into context. It may be useful to read two or three sentences that Miss Slipman included in her report: What has been forgotten in the uproar is that the Agency was set up to redress a great social wrong. The court system failed to deliver maintenance for children. Before the Child Support Agency, only 30 per cent. of lone parents got any maintenance for their children and, even those few who did, received woefully inadequate sums. As a result of this the growing experience of thousands of children was abandonment by one parent and a life in poverty with the other. I have no doubt that it was right for us to tackle that situation, and that was a clear indication to us all of the reasons why we needed a Child Support Act.

The basic and unassailable principle behind the new system is that both parents should be responsible for maintaining their children when they can afford to do so. The role of the taxpayer should be limited to those cases in which parents do not have the means to meet that obligation. I believe that that principle has widespread support within the country. However, no one could have been in the Department of Social Security since the introduction of the scheme without recognising that there were genuine concerns about some of the ways in which the new system was working.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)

This is an important matter and many people in my constituency have come under undue pressure from the Child Support Agency when we should be chasing absent fathers. Has my hon. Friend noticed that the Labour party, which has been huffing and puffing about the issue for some time, cannot be bothered to have a representative here to listen to this important debate?

Mr. Scott

That is a matter for the judgment of Labour Members. I can understand the temptation to be otherwise engaged on the last day of the Session, and I cannot say that the thought did not cross my own mind as to whether I might be better employed. However, in view of the important points put by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, I am delighted to be able to play a small part in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will recognise that we have made recent changes in the operation of the system to meet some of the concerns raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House during the early months of the Act's operation. Those changes included a substantial increase in the minimum amount of income that an absent parent will keep after meeting his maintenance liability, a reduction in the additional element where there is liability for only one or two children, a reduction in the amount included for the care needs of the children as they grow older and an extension of the arrangements for phasing in the new amounts.

It is early days for us to be judging how those easements, if I may so describe them, are working. As we have greater experience of their impact, I believe that they will represent a significant easing of some of the problems raised by my hon. Friend and by many others in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in recent weeks. They are important reforms and they will have a substantial impact on the amount of maintenance that some absent parents will have to pay. The other side of the coin is that they will have an impact on the amount of maintenance received by some parents with care. No doubt there will be voices from both sides as to where the precise balance should lie. I believe that the changes will be of particular benefit to absent parents on low incomes or with responsibilities for second families.

I understand that the changes have not met all the criticisms of the scheme and it is understandable that some absent parents continue to be dissatisfied. However, I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon Members who have raised points in the debate will give the changes a fair wind to see how they settle down and the extent to which they meet the concerns that their constituents have rightly raised with them.

Mr. David Nicholson

I thought that my right hon. Friend was about to conclude. I hope that he will pursue or take note and communicate to our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary the concerns of which we are all aware about the way in which the Child Support Agency pursues the regulations. My right hon. Friend knows that there is controversy about the regulations laid down by Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale talked about maladministration and I sit on the Select Committee which looks after the parliamentary ombudsman. The ombudsman is being encouraged to take up a number of cases in which maladministration has taken place, quite apart from the argument about the formula and the regulations.

Mr. Scott

I know that there is concern about this matter and it is shared by the chief executive of the Child Support Agency. The agency has devoted considerable resources to training its staff to provide prompt and courteous replies. In the early days there is no doubt that the agency was under considerable administrative pressure. However, the chief executive has deployed considerable resources and effort to seek to overcome those problems. There is now a customer service manager in each agency centre, as well as a national inquiry line for those who need particular help. The agency has recently restated its aim to provide a good service. I am always sorry when any part of what I call the social security family fails to deliver the quality of service to which people are entitled when they turn to it for one reason or another. I hope and believe that in the coming weeks and months we shall see a substantial reduction in the level of dissatisfaction expressed.

Points were made about the priorities that the agency had set itself. It is important to remember that in almost every case that the Child Support Agency will handle this year the parent with care and her children will be on benefit. In contrast, the vast majority of absent parents—I do not pretend that it is 100 per cent.—including many of those who have been in contact with the Government and have condemned the scheme, enjoy a much higher standard of living than the parent with care. It is right that their children, for whom they cannot brush aside their long-standing responsibility, should share in that prosperity.

The Government stand by their commitment to keep the child support scheme under review. The changes that we have made are proof of that commitment and of our determination to move swiftly in making adjustments as the need arises. The fact that we have already acted quickly shows that we intend to honour our pledges. The administrative shortcomings that have been mentioned are being tackled urgently. There is still too high a level of outstanding correspondence on this issue, but it is being tackled with great energy by those responsible within the agency system.

It has been said that the Child Support Agency has concentrated on the easy option—those already paying. However, at the end of January, 50 per cent. of assessments made were for absent parents who paid nothing at all. We believe that by now, the end of the financial year, that figure will have risen to about 60 per cent. So the agency is getting its priorities right.

I hope that I have dealt with the administrative problems. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and the chief executive are anxious to be made aware of any shortcomings in that area and, as I have already said, we are determined to address that as a matter of urgency.

In general, we must allow the changes announced by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to bed down and we must allow absent parents and parents with care to feel the real effect of them. I believe that when that happens, criticisms of the scheme will begin to abate. I have no doubt that there will continue to be individual cases that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to raise with Ministers, and we shall take those seriously. I took the trouble to look at some of the letters that have been written by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale expressing particular worries and I can assure him that they are being considered with great care. He has had some replies already and I know that others will follow. We shall look at the individual cases responsibly and carefully and see whether there are patterns that need to be addressed in any future changes that we make to the agency.

I reaffirm my belief and the Government's corporate belief that the Child Support Act represents a major step forward in the provision of child maintenance in Britain. Details may still have to be fine-tuned, but a formula-based scheme producing consistent results is a much better guarantee for the future of our children than the inconsistent and unsatisfactory system that we left behind. I repeat my commitment and that of my colleagues in the Department to keep the matter thoroughly under review and to take careful account of any continuing concerns that hon. Members may have.

12.19 pm

Sitting suspended.

On resuming: