HC Deb 20 June 1997 vol 296 cc556-95

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.45 am
Mr. Kirkwood

I had just made the point that I was deeply sceptical about the rightness of a formula-based approach to assessments by the CSA. I believe that Ministers have to be careful because they are initiating a review that may lead to changes. I believe that they are initiating that review in good faith, and I support their intention, but they must learn the lessons of the previous Parliament.

Some welcome changes were made. The previous hon. Member for Gedling and particularly the former hon. Member for Bury, North listened to hon. Members and introduced some welcome changes on departures, travel to work and pre-1993 property settlements. They made the changes in good faith, but the result was that the procedures became more cumbersome and complex and the delays increased. Delays are now a real part of the problem.

Can the Minister confirm that it is still the CSA's intention to try to clear the backlog between now and 1999, which was the previous target? That is a long time away. I understand the Secretary of State's impatience to try to get the assessment times down to six months. Six months is an inordinate period for people who are in distressed family and domestic circumstances. The target time for clearing cases must be made shorter.

I come from an area where there are many self-employed people. Self-employed assessments are fiendishly complicated and time-consuming, and something must be done about that. People become incensed when they do not know what is happening, when they do not get the payments and when enforcement procedures are not complied with.

If the Government introduce changes, they may increase the complexity, and they will have to introduce those changes against the background of the existing programme for change. As is the case with other financial constraints, this Government have inherited that programme. There was a 15 per cent. reduction in resources for the CSA last year, there is a 15 per cent. reduction this year and there will be a 15 per cent. reduction in staff resources next year.

I agreed with the Secretary of State when she said that the staff who work for the CSA deserve Orders of the British Empire. I hope that they all get them in the post tomorrow because they do their best in impossible circumstances. I do not see how Ministers will square the circle of increasing complexity and the reductions required by the existing programme. Any changes will have to take those factors into account. We must go for simplicity and Ministers will have to be very careful about the conflicting interests involved.

Will the Minister undertake a piece of research? Previous and present Ministers have said—this is not new—that the old family court system had been discredited. A very good research study by Jonathan Bradshaw and Jane Millar was published at the back of the 1990 White Paper, "Children Come First". Bradshaw and Millar examined the levels of assessment being allotted by family courts and sheriff courts throughout the United Kingdom.

I should like the Secretary of State to look at that research and, perhaps, to carry out some more. Never mind the interim assessment, never mind the arrears—some of the arrears are horrendous—let us look at the weekly maintenance awards that are being made for the average case. If the value of the maintenance awards that were being made by the courts in 1988 is uprated to where we are today, there is not an awful lot of difference. If the Secretary of State can persuade me that I am wrong about that, I shall pay attention.

I was a solicitor before I was elected to the House. I did family law, and it was very difficult. What really failed was the enforcement mechanism. The Secretary of State can stay true to her clear principle, which she set out clearly this morning—that a continuing duty of maintenance is crucial—while the enforcement procedures are followed through more rigorously. If the Child Support Agency was focused on enforcement and there was some other mechanism for determining awards, we would have a fairer and better operated system.

I was reassured by the Secretary of State's undertaking that she will consider carefully a small maintenance disregard. She is right; the Labour party document was not wrong when it said that the increased income support that that might generate could pay for it. We should look at that as quickly and as urgently as we can.

I am also very worried about the benefit penalty, which was doubled in the previous Parliament. The benefit penalty for women on benefit who do not co-operate, particularly those on income support, is now nearly £20 a week, which is deducted from basic benefit for three years. Why are women on benefit refusing to co-operate? More important, what on earth is happening to the families—and the children in those families—who are suffering that deduction?

The Secretary of State is right to say that getting help to the poorest children is one of her objectives, but she must look at the penalty again as a matter of urgency, because it is unconscionable. We are all concerned about fraud, but somehow the two things became entwined, and people thought that a bit of fraud was going on and that there was collusion. Perhaps there is fraud, but bona fide mothers on income support are paying a very high price—a £20 per week deduction year on year. The Government must look at that.

The standard margin element of basic protected income was set at £30 in 1994. It should be uprated. That would not cost a lot of money. If it remains at £30 for ever, injustice will be put into the system. I would like it to be considered for annual uprating, or at least occasional uprating.

I was astonished at the complacency of the last Social Security Committee report, which said that the CSA's service had improved. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and the Minister for Welfare Reform are not present. I agree with the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), who said that it has not improved much at all. Some of the performance figures suggest that there are improvements, but I would like the customer satisfaction service to be increased. I would also like the customer satisfaction service to be extended to deal with second family disruption, because that is one of the major problems.

I welcome the creation of an independent case review officer. I hope that she is not expecting to do much in her spare time. She will be very busy. I hope that some of her work and her conclusions might be made available to hon. Members, through either the Library or some other means of publication. The previous Government ran away from some of the worst excesses and difficulties. The message that I get strongly from the Secretary of State—I welcome it—is that she will not run away from the problems. If she is prepared to take them on the chin and share them with us, we will have a better chance collectively of resolving them.

I end where I started. The CSA is not fair enough. It is not efficient. It is not effective. Until those three points are put right, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches will cleave to the view that it should be abolished in the meantime.

11.54 am
Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make the first maiden speech by a Member of Parliament for Wellingborough for 28 years and the first by a Labour Member since 24 November 1964, when I was just two years old.

In view of the time that has passed since hon. Members were treated to a tour of Wellingborough, and in conformity with convention, I will describe it to the House. The constituency of Wellingborough lies in the county of Northamptonshire and is a constituency of many parts. It is part urban and part rural. It is also proudly multicultural. It is proud of its strong Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. The principal towns are Wellingborough, Rushden and the historic Higham Ferrers, which featured in the Domesday book. Smaller surrounding villages include Earls Barton, with a church tower more than 1,000 years old, and Wollaston which has more than 80 small businesses within its village confines, including a thriving example of a caring business—Scott Bader—employing 300 people, but run as a commonwealth. They also include the village of Irchester, with its Roman origins.

The local economy is diverse, based on farming and industry, the major industry being boots and shoes. The constituency still boasts 60 businesses involved in footwear manufacturing and employing more than 3,000 workers, which is more than 8 per cent. of the working population in the constituency. I can tell this honourable House that it was in great comfort that I walked the many miles of my campaign.

Although the seat of Wellingborough had been Conservative since the by-election which followed Harry Howarth's sad death in 1969, it was historically what it is today—a Labour constituency. We first won the seat through W. R. Smith in 1918—barely a decade after the party was founded. We won again in 1924, with Mr. Cove. In 1929, we won with George Dallas. In 1945, 1950, 1951 and 1955, we won with George Lindgren, who was privileged to make his maiden speech from the Front Bench, winding up the very first parliamentary debate in which he had engaged. In 1964 and 1966, we won with Harry Howarth, a man still fondly remembered both by many of my constituents and by hon. Members whose political longevity stretches that far.

The by-election that followed Harry's early death in 1969 was won by my immediate predecessor, Sir Peter Fry, who went on to hold the seat for 28 years. Throughout his time in the House, Sir Peter served the constituency of Wellingborough as a hard-working and courageous Back Bencher, earning a reputation as a good constituency Member of Parliament, a reputation that I encountered during the campaign, and again last week, when I was invited to visit a wonderful woman in my constituency who was 106 years old and had particularly asked to meet her Member of Parliament. When I arrived, the look of disappointment was manifest and she said, "You are not that nice Sir Peter Fry; I always voted for him." I wish Sir Peter well in his retirement. I hope that he now has time to enjoy his family and his many outside interests.

Having been in Tory hands for 28 years, on May day 1997 the Labour party reclaimed the seat of Wellingborough in a political tidal wave of support which swept away five out of six Tory Members in Northamptonshire alone. We did not win on 1 May because the electorate wanted change; we won not because of scepticism or despair but because of hope and vision. People were inspired by the values that the Labour party put before them—that although as individuals we are different, we are in a deep sense equal. We have equal rights to both justice and social justice—to security, a home, health care, education and opportunity. Those are the rights which make us free. But they are matched by responsibilities to others so that they, too, may be free— because we are indeed our brother's keeper, because we shall not pass by on the other side and because working together, rather than as individuals alone, we can all achieve more.

Those are the values that have always inspired the Labour party, even if today they find their modern expression in policies fit to meet the problems of the new age in which we live. They are values that burn in my soul as fiercely as they burned in the souls of those previous Labour Members for Wellingborough—men whose minds were not fixed on self and place, men who did not cringe before the rich man's frown, men who fought in this House and the constituency for human rights and human gain, men who joined the Labour party, as did I, not to put a ceiling on the aspirations of those without hope but to remove it.

Our values recognise that both liberty and equality are essential preconditions to civilised society. Although those preconditions are sometimes in tension, both must inform the policies of a Government who govern for the many and not for the few, and who recognise that enterprise, talent and efficiency are not the enemies of compassion but its friends. In that way, everyone has an opportunity to succeed and this nation can call on the talent and enterprise of all our people, not just the privileged few. Using the talents and enterprise of all our people, we can build an economy based on sustainable growth and not on unsustainable greed. Through that sustainable growth, our compassion may be more bountifully delivered to those in need. We can then apply the efficiency of business to the delivery of that compassion.

These are Labour's historic values. We must bring them to bear on the Child Support Agency now that we are in government, because in many important ways and for very many people the way in which the CSA operates is inseparable from the objectives that we pursue, as enshrined in the values that I have described. Our values must find a practical expression in measures which make a difference. We cannot govern by values alone. While the Government have a large scope for making this country more like it should be, that scope is limited in many important respects.

Ultimately, strong nations, economies and communities are not built by new legislation or Parliaments alone; they are built by the people, even if Parliament sets the framework to achieve those ends. If we are to rebuild this nation, we must do so not just in Parliament but in our homes and families, which is where prime responsibility for our national destiny lies. Our children are our future: they depend on their families and homes first and the Government second. How our children are brought up, supported, encouraged and inculcated with values so that they care for their fellow men and women rather than just for themselves is crucial to our shared future and prosperity.

The Government must recognise that we have less power to strengthen families than to mandate change in other areas. However, we must also recognise the power that we have—first, because by virtue of its limited nature it is important to identify what we can do, and secondly because the field of human endeavour in which that power can be brought to bear is so sensitive and important that we must exercise our power wisely.

We can and must act to take some of the stresses out of modern family life. We can play a small part in keeping families together by tackling unemployment, poverty pay, excessive working hours and bad housing. We can and must act fairly and responsibly—never judgmentally—if and when families break up or do not come together in the traditional model. After all, single-parent families are families none the less and they need special support and care if children and parents are to be given the equal opportunity to succeed that they deserve.

That is why the Labour Government now seek to address the dependency culture and the poverty traps inherent in the existing tax and benefits system, giving single mothers a better chance to return to work. It is also why we must reform the operation of the CSA so that it performs as it should and not as it has. Few, if any, hon. Members would question the essential premise on which the CSA was founded—that a parent is for life, even if the family breaks up. With rights come responsibilities, and the greatest of those are the responsibilities of parents to their children.

Given that the founding principle behind the CSA commands wide support— while acknowledging the bitterness and sensitivities that family break-ups can cause—something must be going badly wrong if the CSA none the less generates such hostility. To be honest, I had not expected to make my maiden speech in this debate; the fact that I am doing so is due to my constituency. The overwhelming bulk of complaints in my postbag and surgeries have concerned the CSA, and it is clear from what my constituents have told me that the CSA has failed comprehensively to command public confidence.

I would speculate that there are two reasons for that which stand above all others. First, the CSA has taken the path of expediency in pursuing soft targets first, rather than focusing its attention on cases of real need. That means that many who are already making payments according to agreements are being pursued for larger payments while others in my constituency and elsewhere have yet to receive a penny and do not believe that the CSA is working for them. Those people are often in cash-flow crises. We cannot get young mums back to work if they are not receiving the maintenance money to which they are entitled and which would enable them to pay for child care.

Secondly, the CSA has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare from which it has not escaped. It is the fault not of the workers, but of the system. Delays are legion and mistakes common. One example from very many that I could give from my constituency concerns a happily married couple with a daughter. They awoke one day to find a letter from the CSA asserting that the husband had fathered a child by another woman some years ago. The husband denied it, but the wife was understandably traumatised—after all, such letters bear the imprint of authority—and left the marital home with her daughter.

Two weeks later, a further letter arrived from the CSA, saying that it had made a mistake. The man was not the father. The real father had a different name, address and date of birth. The rigorous system designed to prevent such errors had not been followed. The letter went on to make apologies and to moot the prospect of compensation, but incalculable damage, great unhappiness, hurt and trauma had already been caused. Trust had broken down in that marriage and in what had been a happy family, and it will take a long time to recover that trust—if, indeed, it is ever recovered.

The process of healing was not helped by a third letter from the CSA enclosing an insulting cheque for £100 in the hope that that would help with the hurt. It was not even sufficient to pay for a decent break so that the couple could try to talk through their problems. The letter went on in the same sentence to deny any liability on the part of the CSA.

That is just one sad tale. Taken alone, it would be cause for concern. Taken together with the many other examples of which I have heard in my surgeries and in the Chamber today, we can rightly see that there are profound problems which need to be addressed.

There are five reforms which I believe must be our first targets. First, we must work to make the CSA more efficient so that delays are cut and mistakes are fewer. Secondly, we must give parents an incentive to co-operate so that children are better protected from parental disputes. Thirdly, we must improve the independent appeals machinery so that the system is perceived to be fairer. Fourthly, we must tackle as priorities fraud in the system and evasion of the system, so that those in greatest need are helped properly and helped first. Fifthly, we must ensure that there is a proper enforcement mechanism which works expeditiously.

That is a clear path forward which is true to the ethos of the CSA but is designed to ensure that it regains the confidence of the public. Those in my constituency and the country who have been gravely affected by the CSA during its short lifetime will not settle for much less—nor should they have to. We were elected to make things better. Let us hope we can do just that.

12.7 pm

Professor Steve Webb (Northavon)

I am grateful for the chance to make my maiden speech on an issue which, in my short time as a Member of Parliament, has proved to be one of considerable concern to my constituents. It is a privilege to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), which was passionate, committed and well informed. Given the industries in his constituency, I was surprised that he did not regard his result as a shoe-in. I noted that one of his predecessors made a maiden speech from the Front Bench and, given the quality of the hon. Gentleman's speech, I am sure that it will not be long before he, too, is speaking from the Front Bench.

When I explain that I am the hon. Member for Northavon, the usual response is, "Where is that?" On the off-chance that any hon. Member present may be thinking the same thing, I will explain that my constituency occupies the north part of the South Gloucestershire unitary authority. It runs from the Severn bridge in the west to Badminton in the east, taking in on its way towns such as Thornbury, Bradley Stoke, Yate and Chipping Sodbury. My constituency also includes more than 50 villages, each with its own attractive character and identity. I hope that, during my time as Member for Northavon, I can play my part in protecting those towns and villages from the threat of over-development which is constantly hanging over them.

My predecessor, Sir John Cope, served the people of Northavon faithfully for 23 years. He rose to hold the office of Paymaster General between 1992 and 1994 and spent several years as Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Employment. He always conducted himself with dignity, and was gracious in defeat. I wish him well in his retirement.

As for me, I had rashly begun to feel quite pleased with myself, having been elected to Parliament at the tender age of 31. However, since 1 May, two events have shaken my self-confidence. First, I was approached in the Central Lobby by a journalist who asked whether I was one of the new Members of Parliament. "Yes," I replied eagerly, expecting fame and fortune to beckon. "How old are you?" he asked. I said, "I'm 31," to which he replied, "Too old, I'm afraid—we are looking for someone in their 20s." Clearly, I am already over the hill. The second event occurred yesterday, shortly after 5 pm. Discovering that the new Leader of the Opposition is just five years my senior makes me feel decidedly like an under-achiever who needs to buck up his ideas.

Turning to more serious matters, I am, as I have said, grateful for the chance to contribute to the discussion about the future of the Child Support Agency, and I welcome the Government's decision to hold this debate. The fact that there are problems with the agency is clear to me from my constituency surgeries, as I am sure it is clear to every hon. Member in the Chamber. Such is the predominance of the issue in my constituency postbag that I have begun to wonder what hon. Members did with their time before the Child Support Agency was invented.

I make it clear that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), my preferred solution would be the outright abolition of the agency and its replacement—as replaced it must be—by a more flexible system of family courts which would seek to ensure that due maintenance is paid, but with more efficiency and humanity than the CSA has shown to date.

A family court system would have several advantages. First, the complexity of individual circumstances could be reflected in the amounts of maintenance finally awarded. While there is clearly a need for consistency, it is apparent that the current formula-based system is creating a great deal of rough justice and resentment by not taking into account the relevant details of each case. A family court system, operating within a clearly defined framework, would be able to remedy some of those injustices.

A second important advantage of a family court system is that it would be locally based. One of the great frustrations with the Child Support Agency clearly stems from having to deal with an anonymous agency located many miles away. A court-based system would at least allow people to express their grievances face to face rather than through endless and lengthy correspondence.

Of course, a family court system would not be without its problems. Given the cuts in legal aid introduced by the previous Government, it would be necessary to ensure that people had equal opportunities to make their cases to the court. None the less, in view of the fundamental problems associated with the CSA, this approach must be considered seriously—particularly if further attempts at reform fail to produce a significant improvement.

I recognise that the Government may be unwilling to take such a drastic step so early in the new Parliament, however, so in the spirit of constructive opposition I will offer a few brief suggestions as to how the CSA could be reformed in order to lessen its negative impact on the lives of my constituents. The first change would involve reversing the planned cut in the agency's operating budget—which I understand is planned to fall from £212 million this year to £191 million in 1998–99. It is hard to see how the promise made earlier by the Secretary of State to improve the speed with which telephones are answered is compatible with a significant cut in running costs. Given the agency's notoriety for slow service, the cut seems a recipe for disaster—the fruits of which we shall see in our surgeries in future unless action is taken now.

The second change, which was discussed earlier, would be to introduce a modest disregard of maintenance into the income support system. That would give parents with care and absent parents an incentive to co-operate with the agency and would ensure that the children involved benefited—which was, after all, the alleged purpose of the Conservative Government's "Children Come First" proposals.

I suggest that the state should act as guarantor of the lone parent in employment when maintenance payments are interrupted or unilaterally terminated by the absent parent. If we are to encourage lone parents to take paid employment, we must give them the security that allows them to do so. Faced with the possibility—perhaps probability—that maintenance can be withdrawn at any moment by an unreliable absent parent, many lone parents may opt to rely on income support. If the state steps in to guarantee all or part of the payment during the period of interruption, lone parents will benefit as well as children and ultimately the Exchequer.

My wish is that all those involved in the tragedy of family breakdown should encounter a system which is fair and efficient and does not make an already difficult situation worse. I hope that some of the reforms that I have suggested will contribute towards that goal.

12.15 pm
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

It is a great privilege to intervene at this stage in the debate, not least because we have just heard two very fine maiden speeches. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) reasonably well because I made a campaign visit to his constituency to talk about the welfare state, a subject not a million miles away from that of the Child Support Agency. My hon. Friend spoke with great eloquence and compassion. It was a strong speech and I congratulate him warmly on it.

I was struck by the fact that, as my hon. Friend said, when there was last a Labour Member for Wellingborough, he was only two years old. I thought to myself that, if he were a Conservative and given a couple more years, he would now be Leader of the Opposition.

We also heard a fine speech from the hon. Member for Northavon (Professor Webb). I must confess that the hon. Gentleman and I have an academic past. The hon. Gentleman was a specialist adviser to the Select Committee on Social Security before he became a Member of this place. He had also the rare distinction of teaching my daughter Caroline social policy at Bath university. The hon. Gentleman brought a great deal of expertise to his speech and made a good case for the family court solution—a solution that I reject, while I accept that it is an important part of the debate that we need to have.

My starting point on child support is poverty. Parliaments have considered the causes of poverty and the consequences for many decades. Indeed, I suppose that they have done so over many centuries. One of the real difficulties for our democracy is that, alongside the causes of poverty that have been well known to us for many years—economic recession, unemployment and low pay, for example—we are having to grapple with the poverty that is associated directly with family insecurities. There are high levels of divorce and many children are now born to single unmarried mothers. We, as a Parliament, are finding it difficult to tackle issues that are even more controversial and difficult to handle than the poverty that is associated only with economic insecurity.

I acknowledge, of course, that there is an overlap between economic and social insecurity. The latest data that I have seen are the low income data for 1992, which tell us that, of all children in poverty dependent on income support, 865,000 were in that position because their parents were unemployed. A more significant group of 1.7 million were in one-parent families.

Governments rightly stress the need to build up a strong economy, but we should stress also with equal passion the need to build up strong families. It is right that the Government are pursuing a twofold strategy. The welfare-to-work strategy has to be right as the first prong. We shall never be able to afford the benefit levels on income support that would bring people out of poverty. Income support is, of course, expensive to the taxpayer and socially it is expensive to the women and children, and some men, who are dependent on it. Work is the best pathway out of poverty in the longer term.

If we talk only about welfare to work, we risk being unfair to mothers. I would say that rule No. 1 for policy makers is that, when we talk about lone mothers, we should quickly talk too of complementary fathers. Unless we can ensure that we change the culture in Britain so that in future more fathers accept their financial responsibility for their children, we shall be in deep trouble socially. I welcome the debate initiated by the Government today. Over the centuries, women have been left holding the babies and the burdens. It is time to start redressing that balance.

We have heard much about the performance of the Child Support Agency. I want to ask Ministers a question, although I do not think that they can answer it—the previous Administration could not. I know about the performance indicators and the CSA but, at the more important end, what proportion of parents with care—that is the jargon, which usually means mothers on income support—are receiving maintenance? I emphasise the word "receiving". No one in the previous Parliament could tell me. My guess is that the proportion is less than one third. We need to know that. If we cannot supply the data, we need research on the matter, otherwise the performance indicators are misleading.

I have another question. How many maintenance assessments made lead to maintenance being paid? When I look at the performance indicators, I see encouraging statistics about assessments, but I see very discouraging statistics about money being paid, in full or at all. We need more data if we are to have a proper debate.

I disagree with those who argue—it is very much a men-dominated lobby—that we should scrap the CSA. I do not believe that to be the case. I say to our Liberal Democrat friends that if the court-based solution is the answer now, why was it not the answer when we had a court-based solution? Why did only one third of mothers get maintenance, and some of it in small amounts of money and irregularly?

Similarly, I am concerned about the complacency—to put it politely—that was creeping into the previous Administration. It was thought that, because performance indicators were moving in the right direction—although some of those were misleading because maintenance was not actually being paid—somehow we were getting matters right and the alarm bells could stop ringing. That complacency was not justified.

The Government must consider a radical reform of the CSA. That may necessitate a change in the name of the agency, to signal the radical nature of the reform. The first stage in the radical reform strategy is to focus not on cash, but on care. Hon. Members have touched on that during the debate.

Mr. Heald

The hon. Gentleman proposes changing the name—very much a new Labour policy. Would he like to change the logo?

Mr. Wicks

I am almost floored by that one. No doubt, we shall soon hear about the new Conservative party, so hon. Members should not knock changes of name. I am arguing a serious point, if the former Minister can cope with a serious point. If we introduce a radical reform programme and try to win a new public consensus behind what we are trying to achieve, we may have to signal that by changing the name of the agency. The term "CSA" may for ever be associated with the chaos that has been described.

I have seven recommendations in my strategy for reform. First, we should start with care, not cash. When the former Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, launched the expedition back in January 1990, she said that no father should be able to escape his responsibilities. Her great mistake was immediately to speak about maintenance and cash. She should have asked a more challenging question: in turbulent family times, when possibly as many as half of our children will not spend all of their childhood living with both natural parents, how can we ensure that as many of those children as possible are brought up by both of their natural parents, and that fathers play a full role? That is the aspect of family diversity with which the debate should have begun. We should not dodge it. Only afterwards should we get on to the issue of child maintenance.

That has implications for the Family Law Act 1996, which I welcome—for example, the move towards mediation when a couple are contemplating divorce. How can a divorcing couple ensure that, in difficult times, they are thinking first about children, and not about themselves, so that contact is maintained? It also has implications for the Government's thinking on access orders. Many male constituents come to me and say, "The court said that I should have access to my child every weekend, but the mother will not let me see the child." They are then told by lawyers that they can go back to court, but that it will cost hundreds of pounds. That is not right. If a judge makes an access order, it must be implemented and there should not be a price on implementation. So there is an agenda of family policy that we need to relate to the debate about the CSA. If the Government could break some of the departmental boundaries and start discussions going, I would welcome that. That would be the start of my reform strategy.

Secondly, we need a fairer deal between mothers and children and the taxpayer. I support enthusiastically the call for a maintenance disregard. The Labour party document stated that it would be introduced when more resources were generated by the reform programme. That has to be the right approach. People are justly cynical that the Act is an Exchequer support Act rather than a child support Act. How can it be a child support Act when the vast majority of children and 70 per cent. of one-parent families on income support do not get a penny extra as a result of it? That is a misuse of English language. There should be a maintenance disregard. It is socially important and it would generate more money by winning more public confidence. Treasury officials, who can think about social policy only in the short term, will argue against it. They have to be confronted because, in the longer term, it makes financial and social sense.

Thirdly, the Government should revisit the formula. I am not certain about this, but I think that I would put my money on a far simpler formula in which clear percentages of net income are deducted. We should look at the Australian example and consider whether we should implement it. I know that a simpler formula is rougher justice. I am not a populist who calls for simplicity for the sake of it. People may say that they want a simpler formula because they do not understand it, but when they are affected by it, they want the system to cope with their peculiar family circumstances. I understand the issue, but I urge the Government at least to examine critically the case for a simpler formula.

Fourthly, we need a CSA with a human face. If parents telephone the CSA, they must have the right to talk to one named official—Mr. Brown or Mrs. Brown—who deals with their case and acts in a sense as their general practitioner, tells them where things are and has a duty to report back to them. There should be speedier access to the appeals system. We should establish an independent child support advisory council, chaired perhaps by a family judge and including some critics of the system, to report to Parliament and the Secretary of State on how things are.

We should examine the interface between the Child Support Act and the Family Law Act 1996. It is naive not to have child maintenance issues at least on the table in the mediation process. People should be told when they contemplate divorce what the child maintenance settlement might look like.

I argue, as I have argued before, that in specific and difficult circumstances with which no formula or system of departures can cope, people should have a day in court and a judge should decide whether there should be a departure from the formula. That is the only matter on which I come close to Liberal Democrat colleagues. In a small proportion of cases—for example, where a child has special needs—there should be an opportunity to have a day in court.

Fifthly, my colleagues are right in saying that we should not pursue only the soft targets. We should devote special energy to pursuing the tough targets. It makes a mockery of the system when men can openly brag that they have never paid a penny for several children. I am sometimes in despair, as are mothers, when they tell me, "The agency said that it did not know where the father was. I found out where he was. I did detective work which the agency could never have done. I told it his address and where he worked. Two or three years later, the father has still not paid a penny." Why are we not getting the people who pose as victims but who are actually villains of irresponsibility? We shall never win public confidence until we tackle those dads.

Sixthly, the Government should consider the issue of collection. Australia preceded us in creating such an agency, and the Australia tax office was made the collection agency. It did not want to do it, just as our Inland Revenue said that it did not want to. In Australia, they said, "You are going to do it." We were not tough enough to say that to the Inland Revenue. How can it be that we got former employees of the Property Services Agency into the business of collection when the Inland Revenue had the records and the expertise? Even now, I urge the Government at least to look at this question.

Seventhly on my strategy for reform, we must relate the agency to the welfare-to-work strategy, and consider the issues that relate to guaranteed maintenance. It is difficult for mothers to make the jump from income support into work if maintenance is not paid regularly. It is a difficult question, and it may have financial implications. As part of the welfare-to-work strategy, the Government must examine the interface between child maintenance and irregular payments.

I have two general concluding points. First, we would fool ourselves if we believed that this will ever be anything other than a controversial policy area. Even if the CSA, or whatever it was called at the time, won prizes for bureaucratic competence and became a watchword for human sensitivity, it would still be controversial. This is an attempt by the state to intervene in the most personal and bloody matters, where emotions are raw and there is jealousy, and old battles are fought over. It will always be difficult and controversial for the Government—as they must, on behalf of the community—to try to get some fairness and balance into the system between the needs of men, women and children, and of first and second families. That is a reason to pursue the matter, not to avoid it.

My second point relates to my opening remarks on poverty. If we do not tackle the financial implications of family insecurity in a society where one in four of our children will have parents who are divorced, where every year 160,000 children under 16 have mums and dads who divorce, and with all the insecurities of single parenthood, we shall maintain new forces for poverty and social inequality that will destroy families and communities. Those are difficult issues for Parliament, but that is a reason to grasp nettles and pursue a radical reform programme for the sake of many of our children.

12.32 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I agree whole-heartedly with the two concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). This is an inevitably controversial area of policy, and it will always remain so. Our priority must be relief of poverty and family insecurity, which are a legacy of a period in which individualism and laissez-faire moral liberalism combined to create a new irresponsibility throughout society. The first step in restoring a sense of responsibility in society is for the welfare state to cease to insulate those who have from those who have not. The responsibility of taxpayers for the poor does not end with the posting of a giro cheque from the Department of Social Security. Our sense of responsibility for the less fortunate may begin with that relationship, but it certainly does not end there.

I had some difficulty comparing the wish list of the hon. Member for Croydon, North with what the Secretary of State said. Many of the things that he wants used to be demanded by the Secretary of State when she was in opposition. Now that she is sitting on the Government Front Bench, she is finding things much more difficult. The reality of office is much more difficult than producing the weekly soundbite, so she has retreated from many of the comments that she used to make.

It is good to say, "Care, not just cash," but I note that the hon. Member for Croydon, North immediately went on to the issue of the disregard which is, if anything, a cash question. He premised his party's commitment to the disregard upon the success that the agency will have collecting the cash. Then, he went back to the old canard of the simpler formula. The truth of the simpler formula is not just that it leads to rough justice, but that we then need to introduce into the system the discretion to deal with the rough justice. That is why he advocates a simpler formula, combined with an appeal to some judicial process. Again, that does not solve any of the problems that the agency has. Indeed, it will probably make them more complicated.

I heard many echoes of our joint visit, with the Select Committee on Social Security, to Australia when we studied the Australian system. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said, it is important to examine other systems, which show that there are no panaceas for the awkwardness and pain of the state intervening in this sector.

I do not apologise for the fact that this is about collecting money to relieve the burden on the taxpayer because that is the taxpayer's legitimate interest in this. The taxpayer should not underwrite the proliferation of people in a system, where the benefit system can be used to insulate individuals from the consequences of parenthood. We must keep that unashamedly at the forefront of our minds.

I join the hon. Member for Croydon, North in congratulating the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) and for Northavon (Professor Webb) on their maiden speeches. They both paid handsome tribute to their predecessors, whom Conservative Members miss for their personal qualities, not just for their political loyalty to the Conservative party. I thank both hon. Gentlemen for those tributes. I also congratulate them on breaking with what has become a rather tiresome tradition. When we came into the House five years ago, many of us were told to make uncontroversial speeches: that is the tradition of a maiden speech. Both hon. Gentleman demonstrated that it is a rather silly tradition. They both made real points of substance, which illuminated the debate and set the seal on their opening speeches.

The Secretary of State set out a broad philosophy of the Child Support Agency. In that philosophy, her renewed emphasis on the responsibility of parents and on the intentions of the agency to help children in poverty is identical to the philosophy that launched the agency under the last Conservative Government. I whole-heartedly agree with her invocation that this should not become a party issue. In the previous Parliament, we succeeded in maintaining, underneath the inevitable sparring across the Chamber, a solid consensus that the agency was going in the right direction. However, I am going to press her on some of her retreats, particularly that on the disregard. When we were in office, we said that it was a damaging policy because not only would it cost money, but it would act as a disincentive to single parents to return to work as they would lose the disregard the minute they started earning enough to disqualify them from benefit. That can only increase the poverty trap.

It is important to have a seamless web between dependency on welfare, work and maintenance payments from the CSA. Maintenance payments can provide a platform. While benefits are removed from the single parent pound for pound in benefit withdrawal, maintenance is not removed when the single parent returns to work. If half the income comes from benefit and half from maintenance payments, that is a considerably lower barrier to entry into the sort of part-time work that might be suitable for a single parent.

I want to make some general points about the Secretary of State's speech. She said—she can check this with the record—that no targets had ever been set for the CSA. As I said in my intervention, the Social Security Select Committee commented on the CSA's targets.

During the debate, I have been flicking through the CSA's excellent business plan for the current year, 1997–98. It is worth the right hon. Lady having a look at it as it shows that the targets that she thinks should be set have, in fact, already been set. In that plan, Ann Chant, the chief executive, said that it was part of our major objective to bring all maintenance assessments up to date by April 1999". If that is a good target, the Government will accept it; if it is a bad target, they will change it—yet we heard nothing on that from the right hon. Lady.

The chief executive also said that she wanted greater reductions in our unit costs"; that the CSA planned to further improve the quality of service provided to all our clients"; that the agency had extended its accuracy target and introduced an Independent Case Examiner to provide clients with an impartial investigation service into matters of administration"; that the CSA had made a commitment to achieve the Investors in People … standard"— that is an important role for an employer—and that the agency would make a quantum improvement in performance". That is all part of the bipartisan consensus and it ill behoves the right hon. Lady to harry the Opposition as though none of that was happening while my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was in office, and she had inherited nothing but a blank sheet of paper.

In the business plan, the chief executive talks about Providing the service our clients expect and the implementation of the programme of change. Under the heading, "What we will deliver", she refers to: A step change in performance and efficiency. All the necessary figures are given.

The business plan also states: We will collect or arrange for direct payment from the absent parent … to the parent with care … child maintenance of some £500 million in 1997/98. Is the Secretary of State planning to increase that target, is the target sufficient, or is it over-ambitious? That is the sort of qualitative analysis on which we expect to hold the Minister to account. She should not simply come out with inaccurate generalities about the previous Government.

I appreciate that the Minister without Portfolio has given instructions to Ministers to spend time slagging off the previous Conservative Administration and to keep up pressure on them to try to hide the inadequacies of the Government's policies. That will work for a while, but sooner or later the Government will have to take responsibility for what is happening. The right hon. Lady will have to say whether she thinks the Child Support Agency is working under her direction or, if it is not working, what she intends to do about it.

I shall conclude with a little hindsight. Indeed, the right hon. Lady indulged in a little hindsight. I shall make reflective points that are not designed to cause anybody any embarrassment. We should reflect, with hindsight, on two main points. The first is that the Child Support Agency was very much a big bang reform. The equivalent agencies introduced in Australia and elsewhere started by taking new cases and not by assuming old case loads. This Government, or future Governments, may well wish to consider other reforms. In dealing with such a sensitive issue, it is worth remembering that changing current arrangements is far more difficult and challenging than applying new rules to new arrangements. The departure formula and changes to the general formula were introduced not because of new cases in the system but to deal with the changed circumstances that have been imposed on people. Nevertheless, we understand why it was necessary and desirable to challenge current arrangements—because they were ill serving both children in single-parent families and taxpayers.

The second point is that the architects of the Child Support Agency—in some ways reflecting the main objections to the Child Support Act 1991 during its passage—took the perspective of the parent with care, who might not want to give information and receive the money. We thought that we were establishing a payment agency and that money collection was incidental to making payments—because, after all, the Department of Social Security is predominantly an organisation that makes payments.

The CSA, however, operates primarily as a collection agency, and one can therefore understand why the Australians used their equivalent of the Inland Revenue. It would be impossible, however, for our Inland Revenue to manage a formula that is as sensitive and sensible as the one that we are considering. In considering the future, we should bear it in mind that the CSA is increasingly perceived as a collecting agency.

Let us maintain a reasonable atmosphere of consensus on the issue and a wall of unity against the few people who are trying to break down the consensus, who resist making payments and who think that they should be able to escape their obligations. Recently, in my advice bureau, I learnt of a man who had deliberately taken much more expensive accommodation than he required so that the maintenance that he paid would be reduced. We should sympathetically, diplomatically but firmly challenge that type of attitude and close such loopholes to stop abuse of the system. Let us ensure that we maintain a wall of solidarity on the issue, so that the reform will lead to the type of responsible society that all hon. Members want to build.

12.47 pm
Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this debate. I speak with some apprehension, because I follow the speeches of many experienced hon. Members who have spoken with great expertise. I have been buoyed, however, by the speeches of my fellow maiden speakers, whom I congratulate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) spoke eloquently and inspirationally, and the hon. Member for Northavon (Professor Webb) spoke with confidence and was extremely thought-provoking. As a Scot, it is also a pleasure for me to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), although I am somewhat surprised to find another Scot in the Chamber on a Friday morning.

As a lawyer with about 20 years' experience who, in part, specialised in child law, the principles and practice of the Child Support Act 1991, as amended, are of practical interest to me. As a Member of Parliament for some seven weeks, whose growing case load already features many apparently intractable and frustrating Child Support Agency cases, the review and reform of the operation of the CSA is of immediate practical interest to me and to many of my constituents. Accordingly, I welcome the debate as a timely opportunity to make a modest but, I hope, helpful contribution to the planned review. The fact that the issue is being addressed so early in the life of the new Labour Government is confirmation that, consistent with our manifesto commitment, we shall put the welfare of children at the heart of social security policy.

As this is my maiden speech, I crave the indulgence of the House while I pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Willie McKelvey, give hon. Members a flavour of my constituency and share with the House some of its aspirations. I shall try in a few short paragraphs to capture something of the personality of Willie McKelvey. However, before so doing, I am sure that the House will join me in sharing his regret that, having represented Kilmarnock and Loudoun for 18 years, all of them in opposition, his greatest wish—to support in this House a Labour Government—was cruelly snatched from his grasp by sudden illness a few weeks before the general election. Thankfully, he bounced back to health and activity very quickly, and it is the mark of the man that, despite his disappointment, he has expressed no trace of bitterness. Throughout the election campaign, and since, he has been a source of advice, support and common sense to me. For that, I wish to record a personal note of thanks.

Willie was elected as successor to Willie Ross, who retired in 1979, having held the seat for 33 years. My election, if it achieves nothing else, has broken more than half a century of tradition in terms of the constituency's Members' first name. I consider that a small but significant blow for individuality.

Willie McKelvey was a hard-working, reliable and empathetic constituency Member of Parliament. He was a tireless fighter and eloquent advocate, not only for the constituency and its interests but for Scotland. He was a true parliamentarian. Above all, however, he was a true democrat. I know that he will wish to be remembered for his successful campaign to democratise the procedures of the parliamentary Labour party, a campaign that he conducted with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). It was a difficult time for both of them as rookie Members of Parliament, but their eventual success is to their great credit.

In the previous Parliament, Willie McKelvey's skills and experience were recognised by his peers when he was selected to chair the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, a task that he dispatched with ability and no small measure of political courage. The Committee's report "Drug Abuse in Scotland" will live on as a testament to both qualities. He is a man of wide-ranging interests—from foreign affairs to greyhound racing, from Scotch whisky to occupational pensions—but, above all, he is interested in people. Throughout his term of office, he enjoyed an almost unique rapport with all who worked here in the Palace of Westminster. Neither title nor grand office was any bar to Willie's winning way and humour. He enjoyed an unparalleled level of friendship with the staff of the Palace—a friendship of equality with all. Throughout my election campaign, I was struck by the level of genuine affection for Willie shown by nearly all my constituents; I have had a similar experience here in the Palace. In my view, there is no better legacy than that. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing Willie McKelvey a long and happy retirement with his wife Edith.

My constituency of Kilmarnock and Loudoun, which is part of Ayrshire, was my home for 20 years prior to my election. I have lived and worked with the people, and now I am both honoured and privileged to be their parliamentary representative. Kilmarnock, the principal town of the constituency, is an industrial and market town in an agricultural setting. The constituency is famed for the Scotch whisky industry—the major bottling plant for Johnnie Walker is there—but it also has lace, footwear, hosiery, engineering, carpet and high-quality fashion industries. It is at present home to the Scottish cup holders, Kilmarnock football club, and also to the Scottish amateur cup holders, Knockentiber Amateurs.

Since the war, in common with many other areas, my constituency has suffered the decline of its indigenous industries. It now enjoys the unenviable reputation as one of the areas of highest unemployment in Scotland.

Thankfully, the area still has a varied, if somewhat contracted, industrial base and is enjoying a period of consolidation and adaptation, which has meant that developments are constantly occurring. That is thanks in no small measure to the ingenuity, skill, talent and hard work of the people of Kilmarnock and Loudoun. That is hardly surprising, as my constituency is the birthplace of people with such diverse talents and backgrounds as Alexander Fleming, who identified penicillin, and John Lloyd Dunlop, the inventor of the pneumatic tyre.

There is also much to be proud of in the literary field. In 1786, the first edition of Robert Burns' works was published in Kilmarnock. More recently, the town has given us the respected Scottish author, William Mclllvanney, and his brother Hugh, universally regarded as one of the best sports writers in the country.

Many of the successful developments are testimony to the co-operation between East Ayrshire council, Enterprise Ayrshire and local industry. Those seeds of progress depend on the improvement of the area's infrastructure. The most important aspect of that is the completion of the major road link from the south of Glasgow to Kilmarnock. The constituency trusts that that project will survive the road building review announced yesterday.

I have three points to make about the subject of the debate. First, in reviewing the Child Support Agency, it is essential to restore the interests of children to the centre of the system of child support. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) reminded us that three of the four key problems that the CSA attempted to tackle were child-centred: the low level of support that the court systems required after parents paid; the disparities between different courts in fixing the amounts of child support; and the poor enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the court orders were met by absent parents.

However, there was another agenda, where the roots of the system's failure are to be found. Reducing the social security budget was a clear ideological objective of the previous Government. Their haste to achieve that objective resulted in the implementation of an ill thought out system. Within two years of the Act coming into force, major alteration was required, in the primary legislation and in the almost unintelligible regulations that set out its framework of operation. From that labyrinth, a bureaucratic nightmare has emerged. The system has lost sight of the child's needs. Its Inflexibility and incomprehensibility have become a reason—although not an excuse—for non-payment by absent fathers, who have taken great advantage of the incompetence of the system.

I refer briefly to the case of one constituent. I have not trawled through my files of CSA cases for it. I have extracted one letter from the correspondence given to me by a constituent who consulted me about a CSA problem at my surgery last Friday. After a period of manifest incompetence by the CSA, the agency wrote to him on 22 April saying: If you continue to pay child maintenance from 1 May 1997, the CSA will not ask you to pay arrears owing from the period May 1994 to April 1997. Please make your first payment of £371 maintenance by 1 May 1997 and then further payments of £425 per month by 1 June 1997. This payment of £425 is made up as follows: £371 maintenance plus"— yes, you've guessed it— £54 of arrears. No doubt there is some convoluted explanation for the letter and it is not the contradiction that it appears to be, but what better excuse for a non-payer could one imagine than a system that, after protracted negotiations, can produce such an incomprehensible conclusion? No wonder that, despite the improvements of performance recorded by the Social Security Committee in its fifth report of March 1997, the figures released by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in a written answer to the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) showed clearly that absent fathers continue to ignore CSA payment orders on an unacceptably large scale.

Secondly, while in no way wishing to disparage or demean the valuable work that lone parents do in nurturing, educating and caring for their children, I welcome the Government's objective of reforming the system of child support, so that all mothers who want to work may be freed from the poverty trap of benefits and can take up work outside the home. To achieve that objective, we require a system of child support that dovetails appropriately with further benefits.

A key to that objective is the maintenance disregard, a point on which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), and the hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and for Northavon. It is a valid criticism of the child support system that unlike those receiving family credit or the disability working allowance, who are allowed to keep up to £15 with no loss of benefit, lone mothers on income support gain no advantage from the payments made by absent fathers. The Benefits Agency takes the lot and sets it against the benefits being paid out. That policy is short-sighted.

The introduction of a maintenance disregard into the income support system would mean an improvement for the lot of children and would assist the Government's objective of helping more carer parents to move from welfare to work rather than in the opposite direction. A further benefit is that a maintenance disregard would undermine another lame excuse by non-payers, in that they would no longer be able to claim that their payments did not help the children. A maintenance disregard would also provide an incentive for increased co-operation with the system by carer parents. The resultant increase in absent fathers paying would increase the amount of benefit saved. For all those reasons, it is arguable that such a modest reform could be self-financing, a proposal that should be susceptible to assessment by research.

Thirdly, I draw attention to one aspect of the CSA that has received little attention other than from academics. The controversy surrounding the CSA has spawned many interest groups, but little attention has been paid to the issue of whether its operation is always consistent with the terms of the European convention on human rights. A Government who are committed to the incorporation of the principal terms of the convention into domestic law must be alert to the question whether the child support system can co-exist with the terms of the convention's articles.

I refer in particular to the terms of article 8, which enshrines the right to the enjoyment of family life. Like almost everything to do with the CSA, the arguments on that point are complex and it would be inappropriate for me in this speech to go into them in any detail. Principally, they centre on the view that following a previous agreement, such as a clean-break settlement, an absent parent who is required to make substantially increased support payments to children from a prior relationship may suffer a significant reduction in his opportunity to provide for his new family. In the European context, it may be no defence to say that the CSA is merely following UK domestic law. The argument that there has been a breach of the convention will be more accessible to an aggrieved party once we have incorporated the principal terms of the convention into domestic law.

I have limited myself to three points. I share many of the other concerns about the operation of the CSA. I trust that my observations will be of some assistance to the proposed review.

1.2 pm

Mrs. Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I am pleased to follow the excellent maiden speech by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne). He spoke with great eloquence and humour, and gave fulsome praise to his predecessor, for whom he obviously has great respect and affection. It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that there is yet another Scot in the Chamber this morning, albeit that I do not represent a Scottish constituency.

I hope that the public do not view the lack of attendance by hon. Members in this debate as a sign of lack of interest in the topic. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said that the protests and difficulties associated with the CSA had diminished. The protests on the streets may have diminished, but the difficulties have, if anything, increased, as other hon. Members have said when talking about their advice surgeries. Every week, we all have a steady stream of people who have had problems with the CSA.

To those people, the Child Support Agency seems to be an agency that was set up primarily to reduce the benefits bill or to pursue absent parents who had already made voluntary agreements for maintenance. It is not seen by most people as primarily an agency set up to support children, which is what it ought to be.

I hope that the Secretary of State will consider, as my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has said, the benefit penalty for non-co-operation with the CSA. I hope that it will be removed or reduced, because all it does is put more children further into poverty. Under the guise of punishing single parents, children suffer. Many women are frightened to pursue absent fathers, not just because of a fear, perhaps, of physical danger, but because of a fear that their relationship with the children or the absent parent will grow worse, and that their children will suffer indirectly as a result.

I use the terms "absent parent" and "parent with care" because they are in the legislation, but they are offensive to many absent parents who continue to care for their children. I hope that we can find better terminology.

The next area that I wish to touch on is that of the absent parent who is self-employed. I do not think that other hon. Members have mentioned that so far. There is a desperate need for effective assessment and enforcement in regard to the self-employed. It should be a high priority. Although I, too, would like to return to a system of family courts, I know that pursuing self-employed fathers for maintenance was no more successful under the previous system than it is now.

I know of one instance in which a self-employed sole proprietor was able in court to claim allowances for purchasing new computers and a new company car, and was finally assessed as having to pay maintenance of £1 a year for a teenage child. Even if that assessment had been reasonable—I should not think that anyone in the land would think that it was—the enforcement was not there. The enforcement system for children of self-employed fathers is still failing those children.

If the CSA is really an agency for child support, we need to look again at the formula for assessing maintenance, to acknowledge the needs of children of first and second families. Some hon. Members may think it irresponsible to go on to have a second family if the first family is not properly supported, but in neither family is it the fault of the children. They should not be punished.

I should like the Secretary of State to give an answer on this point—I should like him to consider when the CSA will start to deal with voluntary applications from people who are not on benefit. Again, their children also deserve a reasonable standard of living.

Each hon. Member who has spoken today mentioned three or four—perhaps even seven—things that they would like changed about the Child Support Agency and its operations. If all those changes took place, the CSA would not be recognisable as the agency that it is today. I believe that it is fundamentally flawed. The public perception of it is so bad—many parents with care are not receiving the maintenance to which they are entitled, and many absent parents are driven to despair or even to suicide by faulty or unfair assessments.

I do not believe that the CSA can be improved by tinkering. I believe that it needs root-and-branch reform. The House should admit that perhaps it did get it wrong when the CSA was set up, and perhaps the only alternative is to scrap it completely.

1.7 pm

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I congratulate hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. It must be a great relief to them to have got them over with and to have acquitted themselves so well.

I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on her decision, which she announced yesterday, I think, not to implement the housing benefit regulations which would have meant that single people up to the age of 60 would have qualified for benefit only if they were in shared accommodation. That is one inheritance from the previous Tory Government, and the new Secretary of State has dealt with it promptly and effectively. I congratulate her on that. I do not underestimate the problems that will be caused in her Department, not least on the budgetary front.

Sadly, the poisoned chalice that my right hon. Friend has inherited in the form of the Child Support Agency will not be dealt with quite so quickly. I am pleased that today's debate will allow hon. Members to put their point of view, which I am sure my right hon. Friend will take on board.

The Child Support Act 1991 is probably the best argument for fundamentally reforming the procedures of this House. As the former Secretary of State pointed out, it was passed without opposition, which the Labour party should live to regret. I happen to know that, at the time, the Opposition spokesperson wanted to vote against the Bill, realising how fundamentally flawed it was, but was barred from doing so by collective responsibility. There was consensus that absent parents should have to contribute to the maintenance of their children, and we were reluctant to be portrayed as wishing to disagree with that concept by opposing the Bill. That made for poor legislation. Had we used the Special Standing Committee procedure, we could have taken evidence from expert witnesses and ended up with much more effective legislation.

Mr. Kirkwood

I generally support what the hon. Lady says. I was there at the time and, by way of an alibi, may I suggest that we all pointed out that it was an enabling Act? The vast majority of the real damage was done by statutory instrument. There was all-party support for the principal legislation. I hope that the hon. Lady will discourage her Government from getting into the habit of passing brief, enabling legislation because all the damage is then done by secondary legislation.

Dr. Jones

The hon. Gentleman makes a telling point. He will be aware that the Government are reviewing procedures of the House and I am sure that they will learn lessons from some of the past failures.

Despite the fact that the Act came into operation just over four years ago, it has been amended by primary legislation on no fewer than two occasions since. So many changes have been made to the regulations that what began as a simple way to get parents to take on board their responsibilities is now extremely complex. In an Adjournment debate at the end of the last Session, the former Minister almost proudly talked about the 140 changes that had been made to the operation of the Child Support Agency. That just shows the chaos that has reigned.

When those changes were implemented, all hon. Members hoped that they would lead to improvements—that the backlog would be dealt with and that we would begin to get to grips with the problem. My experience, however, is that things are getting worse again. I do not know why, but lately the number of people coming to me with problems has started to rise again. More than half the cases are not in payment. In the Dudley office, which covers my area, on 23 May this year, there were 52,221 incidences of outstanding payments— probably 52,000 incidences of misery, let alone cases in which an assessment has not yet been made.

Most of the cases presented to me are of working women who are struggling to bring up their children but getting no help from the children's fathers who have, at every opportunity, tried to ensure that they do not contribute. The Secretary of State is well aware of that from the cases that she has cited.

My latest referral to the ombudsman is a case where the maintenance inquiry form was issued on 16 March 1994 and not a penny has yet been paid. Another case dates back to October 1993; it is another example of an absent parent denying paternity. Although paternity was established last October, no money has yet been paid because the man in question is wriggling out of his obligations in other ways. I could cite other cases but time is short.

From the perspective of parents with care and absent parents who pay their way and wish to contribute to the well-being of their children, the Act and the CSA do not work. It is not the fault of the staff, who face an impossible task. Given present circumstances, I have little confidence— notwithstanding the skill of the new Secretary of State and the new Government-that the targets will be met without fundamental change. The problem is that every time we change the way things operate and introduce new regulations, the more complexity and delay we create.

We have, in effect, the worst of all worlds. We do not have a simple formula, but we have a complex one that nobody understands. We have the ability to refer the matter to a tribunal—in effect, a court-based system for departures. It is time to look at proposals to go back to a court-based system, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will study the proposals by the Solicitors Family Law Association for a unified family court.

I listened with care to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), who I felt was making an argument for a return to a court-based system. He was advocating the opportunity for appeals. We could save money and simplify the procedures if we returned to a court-based system. Under the divorce reforms, mediation schemes are being set up. It seems to me that when a couple are breaking up and their marriage or relationship is ending, the mediation procedure is the time to look at the financial arrangements. In the long run, it would save money and I appeal to my right hon. Friend to consider it.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the biggest problems the agency has to cope with is absent parents who refuse to co-operate with the CSA or give the proper information, and who then refuse to comply with the payment demands? Will she take this opportunity to say that while the system continues to exist—she vainly hopes that it will be abolished—she will encourage her constituents and others to comply with the CSA and to pay the money asked for, as that is in the best interests of the absent parent?

Dr. Jones

That goes without saying, and I wonder at the purpose of that intervention. These are the very cases about which I am so concerned. Families are not getting the money from irresponsible fathers—invariably it is the fathers.

To return to my point about a court-based system, the change could not be implemented overnight; the CSA could continue with its current case load, but perhaps should not take on any new cases, which should be taken on by a court-based system. It will take time to implement such a procedure. The failure of the system was not necessarily in the decisions—although we could have had national guidelines to ensure consistency—but in enforcement.

The CSA is bogged down in assessments and has a horrendous job with the fathers to whom the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was referring, who are avoiding responsibility. I have one constituency case where the absent parent denies receiving any correspondence. That has been going on for months. That work is unnecessary, but it would not be the case if the matter was dealt with by the courts. The father would have to appear for a day in court where all the details of the case could be taken on board and the father questioned on his circumstances. That is something that the CSA is unable to do.

The CSA—or, preferably, some renamed body, possibly under the wing of the Inland Revenue—could concentrate on enforcement of the court decisions or, in the transitional period, the CSA decisions, to ensure that, once an assessment is made, absent parents have to pay up.

Before concluding, I shall return to the issue of the disregard. I also hope that, in time, it will be possible to implement the disregard. Although it is not a specific commitment in our manifesto, it is clearly implied that that would be the correct move. Politicians are not the only group to call for the introduction of the disregard. A report released in 1994 by five children's charities pointed out that many families on income support were worse off as a result of the CSA's demands for maintenance. In the past, many absent parents who did not pay maintenance often bought presents for their children, took them out and so on. Those arrangements are not taken into account when calculating maintenance payments.

I do not advocate a return to that informal system: I believe that mothers should receive payments as of right. However, many children are worse off as a result of the CSA's activities. It is a question not simply of creating disincentives to work, but of children's well-being. The disregard will help the very poorest children, and I hope that it will be implemented.

Sole parents often want to work, but I do not think that we should force mothers who do not wish to work—particularly when their children are very young—into employment. I returned to work when my children were only a few weeks old, but many mothers have good reasons for not doing so. I think that they should benefit from the maintenance that is paid.

I began my speech by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the important change that she has made already. I am sure that she will take on board the points that have been raised this morning and will do her best to ensure that we have a system of child maintenance of which we can be proud.

1.21 pm
Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) and the hon. Member for Northavon (Professor Webb) on their excellent maiden speeches. I did not know that William and Hugh Mclllvanney were brothers— one learns something every day.

I am glad to participate in this debate as I asked a question several weeks ago about the workings of the Child Support Agency. In his answer, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), commented that the CSA seemed to be getting slightly more efficient. According to most hon. Members to whom I have spoken, the situation appears to be worsening again. I am not quite sure why: it is probably due to the previous Government's successive cuts in social spending, year on year.

Virtually every hon. Member to whom I have spoken has confirmed that he or she has many constituency cases involving the Child Support Agency. I am a new Member of Parliament—I have been here for only seven weeks—and I have eight or 10 such cases, or about two new cases every week. One hon. Member to whom I have spoken has 97 cases and another has 140. One of those cases—none of which is trivial—involves a constituent who received two letters from the Child Support Agency on the same day giving wildly differing figures for maintenance payments. Such mistakes are causing enormous anguish and worry to thousands of our constituents. They are not just on the periphery: they are fundamental problems that point to major deficiencies in the workings of the CSA. I am glad, therefore, that there is to be a fundamental review of the CSA's activities.

Many demands are wrong, inaccurate and inconsistent. One of my constituents is told, almost weekly, of differing maintenance demands, ranging from nil to about £10 per week. My constituent is on benefit, so he should pay nothing. The Child Support Agency acknowledges that fact every few weeks but, in the meantime, continues to demand maintenance payments of £4, £6 or £8. My constituent is out of work but trying desperately to get back into work. He is finding that extremely difficult psychologically because he is being prevented from concentrating on finding a job. The worry remains at the back of his mind, "What will they come up with next? Will they force me to pay the wildly inaccurate assessments that they keep foisting on me?"

The main problem is not posed by those who provide accurate details. One of the greatest problems that the public perceive with the CSA is that if honest and straightforward people provide accurate details and are open with the agency, they will be hammered. The common perception is that those who do not provide proper details get away with it. Those who are under the agency's screw are those who are the more honest and straightforward.

The problems with the CSA were predicted by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform when he said: We shall be overwhelmed by fathers coming in to our surgeries. It will not be those who have never paid, because they will be too ashamed to turn up. It will be those who are paying and feel that they are getting a rough deal."— [Official Report, 10 February 1994; Vol. 237, c. 500.] My right hon. Friend was right and his remarks were prescient.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said, at about the same time: Despite the changes that the House will approve tonight, I trust, we should not ignore the continuing and dangerous unhappiness that underlies and reinforces our duty to get the balance right."— [Official Report, 2 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 95.] It is clear that the balance is still not right.

The Child Support Act 1991 enjoyed all-party support because no one in this place disagreed that parents who have become absent have a responsibility to support their children. That is generally accepted. Unfortunately, things went badly wrong between enactment and the creation of the agency. It is relevant to concentrate on the context in which the agency was introduced.

In 1979, only one in 10 children were living in poverty. Three or four years ago, the number had increased to one in three or one in four. A report was produced about three or four years ago by Action for Children, a long-standing charity that was set up more than 150 years ago. It claimed that 1.5 million families were unable to provide their children with the diet of a pauper living in an east-end workhouse 120 years ago. That is an indictment of the previous Government's policy if ever I heard one.

The Conservative Government spotted a golden opportunity to subsidise their social spending by taking money from absent parents, paying it to mothers looking after children—it usually is mothers—and then reducing income support. It was a golden opportunity that the Conservatives could not resist, and that is exactly what happened. They thought that they could cut social spending by taking money from absent fathers.

The scheme presented the Conservative Government with enormous problems. They set up the CSA in great haste and the result was a shambles. It was also set up on the cheap. It was not properly resourced, staffed or organised. I am pleased that in various documents issued by the Labour party there are commitments radically to reform the agency. "Children First: Reform of the Child Support Agency", which was issued about a year ago, states: Our proposals will rescue the decent principle of parental responsibility from the thoroughly bad practice of the Child Support Agency. In another document, my right hon. Friends then on the Opposition Front Bench stated: The CSA should be made to adopt a policy that would be consistent, fair and efficient. I suspect, however, that unfortunately the only way to reach that stage will be by getting rid of the agency and starting again. The mess left by the previous Government will not be tidied up by a few reforms here and there. We must be more radical. Perhaps it would be a good idea to examine the Australian model. The Australian version of the agency is rooted in the Australian version of the Inland Revenue, and there is a role for family courts which play an important part in dealing with absent parents.

I agree with earlier comments that whatever we do about child support, it will never be an easy matter and will always attract controversy. Nevertheless, we can do a great deal better than the shambles that we inherited from the previous Administration, who adopted their policy only to subsidise their social spending.

1.29 pm
Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford)

If we are radically to improve and reform the Child Support Agency, as we must, it is important to consider what went wrong after its implementation.

In my previous life—before I was elected as the Member for Romford—I was the constituency caseworker for the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). I was working for him when the previous Government introduced the CSA. The impact in our office and on the people involved was immediate and devastating, so I feel that I am speaking from experience.

Parents who had previously had amicable arrangements with ex-partners and who had felt settled were immediately thrown into turmoil. The legislation should not have been retrospective. The result was a shambles. When the agency was set up, it was incompetent and unable to cope with the volume of work. The staff were overwhelmed. Those whose forms they did not lose were pursued relentlessly. Fathers were caused untold misery and in some cases were driven to suicide.

The agency became notorious for its incompetence. Like much that the previous Government did, the agency was set up in haste and repented, not by the then Government, but by its victims. In my office we dealt with cases where parents—usually the dad—could no longer visit their children, give them treats or buy them clothes because of the crippling burden placed on them by the CSA.

It soon became evident that the CSA was mopping up easy targets—parents who had been openly and honestly supporting their children—yet was unable to call to account the irresponsible, couldn't-care-less parents. That was a reversal of the supposed aims of the Act, and who benefited? Certainly not the parents caring for the children, who gained little or nothing—indeed, many were worse off, because of the strain caused by the bitterness. That affected the children, as it did the children of any second family, who found it impossible to manage on the income that was left. That put strain on the second family, sometimes to breaking point.

No one is arguing that parents should not be responsible for their children. A child is a lifelong commitment. Both parents must share that responsibility, but the system must be fair and take into account the position of the absent parent. What is the good of starting off with one family in poverty and ending up with two? It makes no sense from the children's point of view or from society's.

I am glad that the Government are intent on a thorough reform of the CSA to make it fair and competent. The minor reforms introduced by the previous Government were too little, too late. Parental responsibility is one thing; parental misery is another. I hope that all interested groups will be involved in the reform process, and that those groups will be happy with the outcome, as I am sure they will be.

I thought earlier that I heard an apology from the Opposition Benches—an apology for the suffering caused when the CSA was established. I thought that it was an apology, but looking back, I think it might have been a case of new leader, new conscience.

1.34 pm
Mr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

I start by congratulating hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today and Opposition Members on what can be described only as outrageous impudence. The former Secretary of State—I think that that is who he is, although he seemed to be having an identity crisis earlier—presided over the first five years of the Child Support Agency. In his own words, it came to the point of virtual collapse. Yet he expects the Labour Government, in their seventh week of office, to have arrived at a recipe for sorting out the mess. That is impudence of a high order. I was amused to hear another Opposition Member try to make the Government accept responsibility for the mess. I seem to remember that for the past 18 years everything that went wrong was blamed on the previous Labour Government. So let us get that sort of nonsense out of the way.

It is clear to me as a new Member of Parliament and to all my colleagues that the CSA is failing to deliver. Our most common topic of conversation is the CSA and the problems that it brings us in our case work. It is certainly clear that the agency is failing to deliver justice. It is delivering primarily a great deal of hardship and heartache to its victims. I shall not spend any more time giving detailed examples. We have heard many harrowing cases already. I have more, but time is running short.

The question is what to do for the future. Unlike the former Secretary of State, I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not come into the debate with a fixed programme. It is brave to hold this debate so that we can have an open-ended discussion on this complex and difficult issue before any statement is made about action for the future. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that.

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman, like the Secretary of State, was not elected on a blank sheet of paper. The Labour party issued and stood for election on a policy document which promised, among other things, a maintenance disregard. Does the hon. Gentleman remain committed to that promise even if the Secretary of State has already reneged on it?

Mr. Turner

It is unfair to say that my right hon. Friend has reneged on that promise. She has not had time to start.

Mr. Lilley

She said no.

Mr. Turner

The system is under review. I intended to mention the maintenance disregard later. I support the principle. So the right hon. Gentleman's question is simply dealt with.

What do we do about the future? I am agnostic. I have a great deal of sympathy with hon. Members who advocate tearing up the CSA and starting all over again. However, we have enabling legislation which we can use to build a new framework without going through the time-consuming process of further legislation when we already have a packed legislative programme. We have an urgent problem to deal with and we should look for the fastest and most effective way of tackling it. If that means abolishing the CSA and if we can find a quick and effective way of doing so, that is fine. However, if it means a root-and-branch reform of the CSA, that is also fine and that is the way in which we should proceed.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy with those who want to return the responsibility to the family courts, but if a working mechanism can be found along that route, fine. There are arguments in favour of using the court system because it brings people together instead of placing them at either end of a paperchase. It allows them to discuss and resolve an issue and agree on the spot. Then we are simply left with an enforcement problem. The more this debate continues, the more obvious it is that the answer is not simple but needs careful discussion. It will need all the input that we can get before we can agree a solution. I have every confidence that the Secretary of State will undertake that process and make a statement to the House as soon as possible on her proposals to deal with the problem. I am glad that she opened this debate so early in the life of the Government and responded to the evident concerns of hon. Members. I tabled an early-day motion, which is attracting signatures at a considerable rate. That shows the strength of feeling in the House on the matter.

There are issues that are almost independent of structure, such as the maintenance disregard. I have much sympathy with guaranteed payments. I know that that may have budgetary implications, but it would be a great incentive for whatever collection agency was involved to get the money in if it had to pay money out. That would give stability to parents with care that they do not have at the moment. Having to switch around by moving from income support one week to getting paid next week can get people into an awful mess. I have the deepest sympathy for them. We should consider maintenance disregard, guaranteed payments and abolishing the penalty for parents who do not co-operate with the agency for whatever reason. That does not penalise the parents but penalises the children. An agency primarily concerned with the interests of children should not penalise them.

We must reconsider the proposed budget changes. The operational budget of the CSA has been reduced year on year. It is hardly surprising that it is not becoming any more efficient if it is suffering from staff cuts. Whatever its future form, it cannot tolerate further staff cuts and expect to deliver a service. We must have an open mind, but we must also deal with the problem with the greatest urgency.

1.42 pm
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I am glad that we are having this important debate today. The Child Support Agency is the most frequent problem that I encounter in my constituency surgeries. Several of my constituents had their fingers crossed on 1 May, hoping for a Labour Government to bring some sense to the madness of the Tories' Child Support Agency and to give them hope where the Tories had left them in despair. There is no doubt that the Tories' CSA has ruined many people's lives.

Mr. Heald

The hon. Lady calls it the Tories' Child Support Agency. Does she not realise that it had all-party support at all stages?

Ms Drown

I fully realise that, but the CSA was set up by the Tories and run by them for many years. They did not review it when many people said that it needed to be changed and changed again until it met the needs of families.

I agree with the Secretary of State that a review of the Child Support Agency is desperately needed, and I am glad that we are starting it today. My constituents ask for three things—that we make the agency foster co-operation between the agency and parents and between parents and children; that it should provide support to families rather than pulling them further apart, and be fair to both partners; and that it should give proper incentives for people to go to work and to co-operate with the agency. That means providing flexibility in the agency's rules. When I talk about incentives for lone mothers to go to work, that is shorthand for incentives to go into paid work outside the home—because if bringing up children alone at home is not work, I do not know what is.

It is shameful that the CSA has been ineffective in increasing the proportion of fathers who pay regular maintenance for their children. It confirms what constituents say to me: the agency seems to have been set up to penalise people who co-operate and to ignore those who do not. That is why we need to create the incentives for families to co-operate. All the fathers who have talked and written to me want to co-operate with their former partners and to contribute to the maintenance of their children. Rather than being helped by the CSA, however, they have been hindered and the result has often been a complete breakdown in communication between the former partners, to the great hurt of the children involved.

I am confident that we can improve the situation. We can make it a people-friendly service. We can make rules that are understandable and we can give people time so that their situation can be explained. We can also provide sensible links with the good money advice centres throughout the country, as I know constituents who have become stuck in problems with the CSA and have had debt problems. We can make an obvious link to put them in contact with people who can help them.

To give a couple of examples, a mother in my constituency knows that the father is contributing to the CSA and to maintenance payments. She telephones the agency regularly every week, giving them all the details of her situation and that of the father. That has gone on for months, but not one payment has been made to her. In another case, the father wants to co-operate and to understand the assessment that has been made of his situation. He even offered to go to the agency so that he could have the assessment explained to him in person, line by line. He was told that there was no point. Can hon. Members imagine the desperation that that father feels, not knowing how to make his pay cheque last until the end of the month and with the CSA saying that he has to keep paying at that rate?

My constituents' first priority is therefore the creation of a co-operative agency which allows partners to remain supportive, looking after their children, and which makes support a reality rather than just a word in its title. They also want fairness to both partners. Fathers rightly feel bitter that if they find a new partner, all of that partner's incomings and outgoings will be taken into account, but if the mother with care of the child finds a new partner, none of his incomings or outgoings will be taken into account.

Lastly, but most importantly, we need to create incentives which will work for fathers as well as for mothers. That means introducing flexibility into the system because no two families are the same. It is difficult to find boxes which fit all our different circumstances and many people suffer because they do not fit into the current rules.

Lots of expenses are not allowed, which common sense dictates should be allowed, in the CSA's equations. One of my constituents secured access to his children via a court order, which gave pleasure to him and to his children. After six months, however, the contact was stopped and he again had to go to the courts and spend a lot of money regaining access to his children. He spent £ 4,000 which he could barely afford, but the CSA will not recognise that, so he is in debt. That seems wrong. He wants to contribute to his children's maintenance, but he also wants to see them. He pointed out to me that if he were unemployed, he would at least qualify for legal aid in trying to get access to his children. It is surely wrong that he should be thinking about giving up his job in order to get legal aid to continue to see his children. The CSA's rules must allow the flexibility to give such parents incentives to stay in work.

Another of my constituents agreed with his partner that he would pay towards their child's education. Over the years, he paid out about £12,000. However, the CSA has decided that he has paid nothing. He and his wife made an agreement, but the CSA will not recognise it. Because of that, he and his wife no longer get along, to the great disadvantage of the child. The CSA simply says that my constituent has paid nothing and that he owes £12,000. That cannot be right. There needs to be some flexibility in the system to allow for parents to make such arrangements.

The third example is of a difficult break-up between a husband and wife. While together, they had financial difficulties and had to take out loans. They decided that it would be best to take a loan from the husband's parents. However, the CSA says that it was not an official loan and cannot be taken into account. That man's pay cheque simply will not cover his expenses and the maintenance for his child. Similarly, the CSA makes no allowance for the fact that the wife emptied their joint bank account when they split up, again costing my constituent thousands of pounds. When things like that can be proven, the CSA needs to have the flexibility to take them into account so that it can make a fair and just analysis of each parent's position. Without that, more and more fathers will want to give up altogether. Because there is no flexibility in the system to allow for those sorts of expenses, fathers think that there is no point in working. We need to create incentives for the fathers to stay in work as well as to encourage mothers to find work outside the home.

There is also a problem with tax relief. Some of the fathers who bring their cases to me have not been married, but they want to pay maintenance for their children. They rightly ask why their maintenance payments are not allowed for tax purposes when they are allowed for married fathers. Surely it should be the same for all fathers who are supporting their children.

My constituents want my right hon. Friend to ensure that the agency allows fathers and mothers to co-operate with each other. They want the agency to create the sort of atmosphere that enables it truly to be seen as a support agency. I am sure that they will welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement today of a telephone system with somebody on the end of the line when people telephone the agency. As she rightly said, people should also be able to telephone the agency outside normal working hours. Many of those who have spoken to me have expressed annoyance at having to conduct their personal life while at work.

We want an agency that is fair to both partners and provides incentives for both partners to work. That means creating flexibility in the rules.

1.52 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

We have had a good debate. The Secretary of State's objective of holding a debate in which all points of view can be expressed has been justified because a whole range of points has been made. Perhaps the right hon. Lady has adopted the slogan, "It's good to talk." British Telecom will be pleased with the adoption of the slogan as well as with the improvement of the telephone system at the Child Support Agency.

We have heard some excellent maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) paid a generous tribute to his predecessor, Sir Peter Fry—although it was somewhat marred by a snide aside. Other than that, it was a model of its kind. The hon. Member for Northavon (Professor Webb) was quite a contrast with the hon. Member for Wellingborough, who spent a good deal of time convincing us that Wellingborough was an old Labour seat. We have not yet seen whether he is old Labour, but he is certainly young Labour— whereas the hon. Member for Northavon spent a great deal of time explaining to us that he is really very old. Both hon. Members made extremely good maiden speeches.

In his maiden speech, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) rightly paid tribute to William McKelvey, who was very popular in the House and widely respected. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree with that tribute.

Added to the tributes paid to Sir Peter Fry and William McKelvey was the very generous tribute paid by the hon. Member for Northavon to Sir John Cope, who well served the United Kingdom over many years. Sir John was highly respected in the House, and I am sure that all hon. Members were pleased to hear that tribute to him.

In his speech, the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) continued his campaign on the subject in his customary fashion.

We heard a thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), who engaged in debate with me and other Opposition Members on the subject of social security. I always enjoyed debates with him when I was a Minister and he was an Opposition spokesman, and perhaps it will not be too long before he goes to the Treasury Bench.

I pay tribute also to Andrew Mitchell—the former hon. Member for Gedling—who has been mentioned in the debate. In the past two years, he was the Minister who presided over the changes and substantial improvements to the Child Support Agency. As Ministers will discover, it is rather easier to criticise an agency that is effecting a massive change in culture than it is successfully to manage that change. The changes implemented by Andrew Mitchell—with the full support of the CSA's chief executives and members of staff, who worked tremendously hard—have begun to change the agency, thereby making it much more efficient and effective.

We should not forget the situation before those changes were begun. In Britain, we had developed a culture in which knowledge that the state would provide led many parents to forget society's obvious expectation that parents could not simply leave a relationship and relinquish all responsibility for their children.

Responsibilities of parenthood were not sufficiently respected both by some mothers and by some fathers. Mothers often would not allow access to the children when they should have, and fathers often would not pay for the children's upkeep. The two issues were interlinked. Mothers often said, "We're not prepared to let you see the children because you're not paying," and fathers said, "I'm not paying because I'm not seeing my children." I remember many a court door at which, as the family finances were discussed, the Department of Social Security was the silent third party that was wrongly required to shoulder some or all of the responsibility for the children.

Under the old system, maintenance orders for children were very erratic and often pitifully low. Moreover, enforcement of the orders was not good. Many fathers failed to abide by court orders and were never sufficiently taken to task.

Most hon. Members realise that, even with two actively involved parents, it is tough to raise children, especially in their teenage years. When things go wrong and one parent leaves and is not at home to share the daily care of a child, it is vital that that parent should maintain contact and share some of the financial burden for the child's upkeep. I am sure that all hon. Members know how expensive it is to raise a child. Also, if the mother is wholly dependent on benefits, it is much harder for her to get off welfare and into work. Those two considerations drove the House to set up the Child Support Agency in 1991. If there is a raft of child maintenance at a reasonable level, the mother has a very real incentive to work.

The agency was set up with all-party support and the legislation was passed without a single opposing vote. The principle was that parents should pay for the maintenance of their children if they could and that the taxpayer should help if parents did not have the necessary resources. The scheme was designed to be fair and consistent.

The House was genuinely shocked at the reaction to the implementation of the scheme. It is easy to trade party political points, but I remember the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar), who was then Labour's leading spokesman on the matter, expressing that sense of shock from the Dispatch Box and accepting that changes would have to be made, just as the Government accepted it. Changes were made: payment levels were made fairer, greater weight was given to prior court settlements and further flexibility was added to the system.

I see that the Minister for Welfare Reform is now in his place. He was one of the two people—the other was my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) —who realised in advance that there would be implementation problems. I remember my right hon. Friend talking to Conservative Members—he alluded to this earlier—about the difficulties that there would be with fathers, but we were all surprised at the reaction to implementation.

The proper responses were made to the legitimate concerns raised after the initial implementation problems became clear. Too many people refused to pay and there was a co-ordinated campaign to disrupt the administration of the agency, but significant progress has been made. For example, 186,000 non-paying parents have been traced using the CSA's new specialist tracing service; new DNA tests have increasingly been used, and 2,000 cases of paternity were established in the first 10 months of the financial year 1996–97; and there has been a large increase in deductions from earnings orders—almost 50,000 in the first 10 months of the financial year 1996–97. In addition, interest is now payable on debts, and debts can be lodged in the county court register, affecting credit ratings. The departure system allows the agency for the first time to take account of life style and other evidence that contradicts a parent's claim, enabling proper settlements to be made. Those measures are working.

The agency is more efficient and improving. Recently, the agency collected four times as much as in 1994—a 55 per cent. increase on the previous year; 80 per cent. of assessments were accurate to the nearest penny; and 98 per cent. of payments were passed on within 10 days. We should recognise the progress that has been made. Some hon. Members were saying that the agency is worse than it was, but it is not. When Baroness Hollis visited the agency in Dudley, she rightly expressed her pleasure at the progress that has been made. She said: the CSA has made enormous progress in the last year. Around 80 per cent. of assessments … are now correct to the last penny", and repeated the statistics that I have just given. She went on to say: This improvement owes much to the expertise and diligence of CSA staff, and I am grateful to them for their continuing efforts in often difficult circumstances. I have been impressed by the determination of CSA staff to build on recent successes, and am confident they will continue to provide an increasingly efficient, accurate service. There is a great contrast between those comments—with which I agree, as would any objective person—and what the Labour party says in its policy document "Children First" and some of the comments that we have heard today. The document calls the agency "unsuccessful" and says that fundamental reform is required to create a system that is fair, efficient and puts children first. What are those fundamental reforms? We have heard many different points of view in the debate. Some people have called for the establishment of a family court. I practised in family courts when they dealt with child maintenance and I do not think that we had a good track record.

We must support the structure that is in place—the Child Support Agency—and make it work better year on year, as has happened over the past two years. When the Government talk of fundamental reform, do they mean fundamental reform or do they mean making the present system work better? When answering that, the Minister might like to bear in mind the fact that the hon. Members for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer), for Northavon, for Croydon, North, for Normanton, for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), and for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Turner) have all called for fundamental reform. I should like to know whether that is what the Minister wants.

In all the debates that we have had on the Child Support Agency during my time in Parliament, since 1992, the Labour position has been that there must be an income support disregard. Today, the Secretary of State made what might be a pledge—a possibility? a probability? —that perhaps, in due course, when circumstances allow, there might be a disregard. However, we have heard strong pleas from the hon. Members for Croydon, North, for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, for Northavon and for Kemptown, among others, for the maintenance disregard. Is that Labour policy? Is there a guarantee, or is it a pious hope for the future?

All those who have spoken have said that we must improve the efficiency of the Child Support Agency. Its targets for 1997–98, established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, are set out on page 19 of the business plan published in March this year. Are any of those targets to be changed? The Secretary of State said that more than 500,000 assessments would be carried out in 1997–98. The target in the business plan is 525,000. That is not a change. What changes are there? Is it just the new telephone system, or is there more to the issue than meets the eye?

Those in the Labour party are serial reviewers. The Commission on Social Justice reviewed all aspects of social security. When its report was published, the new Prime Minister described it as the best piece of work since Beveridge, then dropped it. He then asked the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who was the shadow Secretary of State for Social Security, to review the whole area and to think the unthinkable. He went away and thought. Perhaps it was unthinkable, but it was all dropped.

The Secretary of State has now come forward with review on review. I do not think that there is anything that she is not reviewing. About a week ago, I noticed one Labour Member below the Gangway whistling the tune of "I'm reviewing the situation". The interesting thing about Ron Moody's song in the musical "Oliver!"—

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

Oliver Heald.

Mr. Heald

Oliver is a good name. If the hon. Gentleman would like to join Oliver's army, he will find it on the Opposition Benches.

The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field)

Sing the whole song.

Mr. Heald

I could sing some more, but I am not going to. The final line is: I think we'll have to think it out again. I hope that the Labour party does not review and review and review—and then review some more. It is good to talk, but we want to know what Labour Members are talking about.

2.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley)

I have listened with great care and interest to this extremely serious debate. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions, which were extremely helpful and well thought out. They fully justify the fact that we have called this debate so early in our period of administration. The contributions we have heard today will clearly form part of our thinking on reform of the Child Support Agency. The quality of the contributions has been a tribute to Parliament.

It is important that I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate. We are firmly committed to the principle that lies behind the child support scheme—that children are entitled to the emotional and financial support of both parents. By emotional support, we mean that fathers should provide much more than just their money. They should provide their time, their attention and their care. By financial support, we mean that absent fathers must also fulfil their responsibility to contribute to their children's upbringing to the extent that they can afford.

The child support scheme was introduced because the old court system was failing lone mothers and their children in that it failed to get absent fathers to pay proper and regular maintenance for their children. As a result of that failure, there was all-party support for the previous Government's aim for the child support scheme, which was to get maintenance flowing through to the children. That is still our objective.

The difficulties encountered by the agency in its early days are well documented. During today's debate, many hon. Members have told us about their constituents' problems in dealing with the Child Support Agency. It was interesting that the previous Secretary of State had realised that there would be problems. It was a pity that he spoke only to his Conservative colleagues about them and that he did not bring his concerns to the House at that early stage so that we could be aware of his anxieties right at the start.

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman may recall that the then shadow Secretary of State, after discussions with me, was urged to invite the head of the agency to address Back-Bench Labour Members. I do not have the details, but I believe that he did so that those hon. Members would be aware of what was involved.

Mr. Bradley

I hear clearly what the former Secretary of State says. My point, however, was that he should have shared those concerns with the House so that we could have had a proper debate, after which some of the problems could have been dealt with.

There have been many excellent contributions to the debate; it would be quite impossible in the time available to address all the issues raised. However, I assure all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate that their views, which will be properly recorded in the Official Report, will be addressed. I give an assurance that where substantive cases have been raised, they will be looked at carefully. Hon. Members will get a response on each case so that they know that their contributions today have been taken seriously and will be part of our fundamental look at the workings of the agency.

I congratulate the three hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today and I welcome the comments made by the shadow Minister on them. First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) for his excellent contribution, and for his wonderful articulation of Labour values and the way in which they relate to child support and the needs of children generally. His explanation of social justice, rights and responsibilities was truly magnificent, and I welcome the five points on reform of the Child Support Agency. Clearly, they will be taken into account. The errors in dealing with cases that he described were not excusable and we shall look carefully at them so that we can restore public confidence in the Child Support Agency.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Professor Webb) made a welcome and thoughtful speech. I agree with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that it brings great value to our debates if hon. Members making their maiden speeches contribute to the debate.

Professor Webb

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his kind comments. 1 am particularly interested to hear of his offer to investigate the constituency cases that were raised, but that raises a question in my mind as to whether that sets a precedent. Rather than my endless correspondence with the head of the Child Support Agency, perhaps I should correspond with the Minister. Perhaps he will advise me.

Mr. Bradley

I was stating that we will look carefully at issues raised by hon. Members who have taken the trouble today to contribute to the debate and bring their issues to the House, as they are good examples that will form the framework of our thinking in the future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) on his excellent contribution and on his wonderful tribute to his predecessor, Willie McKelvey. It is very good to hear of his recovery to health, as we were all very worried about his illness. Again, I send him the good wishes of the whole House for a happy and healthy retirement. My hon. Friend made some excellent points, which will be noted. We shall respond to particular cases accordingly.

Speeches made by other Back Benchers have been equally valuable. In these debates, the experiences of hon. Members of what is going on outside the House are important. Hon. Members brought into our debate the reality of what is going on outside. It is a tribute to the way in which today's debate has been conducted and gives a real flavour of what is happening in our advice bureaux and constituencies. It is very easy for a new Administration quickly to become remote from the real world. We want to ensure that all our policy thinking and development is based on reality so that we address the real issues that Members of Parliament confront.

There was no finer example of that than my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), who has a good and long history of dealing with constituency problems about child support. He has diligently presented those problems to Parliament in the past. I pay tribute to him. He has brought a litany of problems to the House. Delays and lost correspondence are not acceptable. We have to ensure that we introduce a fast, efficient and effective administration to the Child Support Agency in the light of the problems that he identified.

Similarly, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), in his welcoming remarks, raised several issues, particularly about backlog, which has to be addressed urgently, and about research, because quality research guides thinking in this area. I am well aware of the Bradshaw and Millar research. We will look at it again in the light of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. It should be a valuable contribution to our thinking in future.

I always welcome the contributions to these debates that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) makes. He made a thoughtful speech. His expertise and knowledge of broader family support policies have always been a guiding principle in his thinking about child support matters, and they are welcome. It is a tribute to him that many of the Labour party's policies have been led in a direction of wider social policy and family policy matters. I note with great care the seven-point strategy that he developed in his speech. I shall pick out just two of his points. The first is how the agency has targeted soft targets, and how people have apparently been getting away with it. That situation has been reinforced by the way in which the agency has looked at those who have made an attempt to comply with it. Clearly, we must look at that problem and broaden the approach. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman spoke about developing a proper case work model so that, when people contact the Child Support Agency, they have regular and coherent contact with a particular officer. That is a valuable suggestion and we must take it seriously.

The hon. Member for North Essex made his usual Friday morning contribution to our debate. It is a great tribute, given the sparsity of attendance on the Opposition Benches. I noted the points that he made about the cases on which he based his experience and we shall take those into account.

We shall also take into account the contribution of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard), who came up with a four-point plan. I think that the plans suggested this morning ranged from one to seven-point plans, but they all contained welcome suggestions and many made reinforcing points about a range of issues. As we set out on our review of the Child Support Agency's work, it is important that those points have been made before the House so that we can form our thinking in the future.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind comments. Will he acknowledge that, in the business plan published before he was appointed to his present post, targets were set? Does he think that those are the right targets? If not, what targets will he now set? Given that a whole day's debate has been devoted to this subject, that is what we expected to discuss.

Mr. Bradley

Now that we are responsible for the Child Support Agency, it is essential to ensure that the targets are met and that the agency is effective and efficient in the future. We are determined to carry out that task to the best of our ability.

Mr. Lilley

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), but it is in flat contradiction to the central point made by the Secretary of State, which was that proper targets had not been set. [Interruption.] I shall give the hon. Gentleman time to receive his briefing from the Secretary of State. He appeared to say that the right targets had been set and that the Government must meet them.

Mr. Bradley

The point that I was trying to make was that the targets that are set must be achieved. We must give the public confidence that the Child Support Agency is improving. That is our intent.

I shall comment—briefly, because time is fast running out—on the other contributions from Back Benchers, because they are all worthy of comment in winding up the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) made an excellent contribution. She said that it is not acceptable for maintenance not to be paid and that delays in assessment and collection of maintenance cannot be tolerated. We must ensure that there is a secure base for mothers to receive that maintenance so that they are absolutely clear about their circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) said that we need to ensure fairness within the system. He said that the agency was not performing as well as it had in the past. It is our responsibility to ensure that that does not happen. We must improve the agency and make it more efficient and effective.

Mr. Heald

The Under-Secretary has welcomed the comments made in the debate, but many were calling for fundamental reforms or the scrapping of the agency. Is he prepared to contemplate that?

Mr. Bradley

As we said clearly, we are setting out on the review of what needs to be done. Today's debate is the start of the process of listening to the wide range of views in the House. We shall make an assessment of those views and, in due course, make our proposals. It would be quite wrong to initiate this debate, allow hon. Members to contribute and then prejudge its conclusion by announcing the outcome. I do not intend to do that.

Others who spoke included my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon), for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Turner) and for South Swindon (Ms Drown), who all made excellent speeches which I welcome. I particularly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon's point about bringing in the work of other agencies, and she mentioned money advice agencies. Clearly, we can use the interaction with agencies dealing with family debt and other problems to ensure that there is a consistent approach and that the CSA, as a consequence, can work more effectively. We shall consider her proposal.

I welcome the response of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon to the extra telephone line proposals. It is essential that clients of the CSA have the opportunity to make effective contact with the agency but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, at an appropriate time which leads to an effective outcome of the call. That is why we are looking at increasing the number of telephone lines and adding out-of-hours services, which will start to address the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon brought to the attention of the House a particular case. We shall look at it, because if the circumstances she described are correct, it is not acceptable.

One other general point concerns complaints. There is a new impartial complaints investigation system, and it has been said that the outcomes of investigations should be reported to the House. We need to consider that extremely seriously. However, the fact that the system has had to be set up is a mark not of success but of the failure of the system. The fact that so many cases have had to go to the ombudsman, and the chaos that that has caused, should not be seen as a great triumph. It is an admission of the failure of the previous system, but I hope that it will lead to more effective scrutiny of those complaints.

There is no doubt that the introduction of the child support system was beset by difficulties, not least the disappointing performance of the agency, but I can assure the House that work is already in hand to improve the agency's services further. Since she took up her post in April 1997, Mrs. Boardman, the new chief executive, has announced a number of initiatives to examine the agency's activities, including continuing action on the way in which the CSA establishes contacts with its customers.

I have alluded to the CSA making earlier telephone contact to help absent parents fill in forms, answer queries and arrange maintenance payments earlier to try to reduce arrears. The agency is also looking at the way in which it handles inquiries and complaints. The chief executive is examining the organisation and structure of the CSA's operations to see whether they represent the best way of meeting the needs of customers.

I recognise that the CSA has a long way to go and that improvements must continue. We must ensure that the agency provides as efficient and effective a service as possible. We must ensure also that absent fathers are not given any excuse not to comply with the agency's demands and pay proper maintenance for their children.

While some absent fathers have encountered genuine hardship as a result of the CSA's activities, many others have simply tried to wriggle out of their liabilities. My right hon. Friend gave an extraordinary example of that earlier, and that behaviour is not acceptable. In short, this nonsense must stop. Under this Government, fulfilling parental responsibilities will be, not an option, but a fact of life for absent fathers. Lone mothers need regular maintenance, and have a right to it, as a means of helping them off benefit and back into work.

Child support is about ensuring that children receive their income. As I have stressed this morning, in the coming months we shall look closely at all aspects of child support and all aspects of the workings of the agency.

It being half-past Two o-clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.