§ Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)
I beg to move,That this House, believing that both parents have responsibility for the financial and emotional welfare of their children during the whole of their childhood, that the taxpayer should only be called upon to provide income-related benefits to support children financially when neither parent has sufficient resources to provide that support, that it is in the best interests of children if the system of child support encourages their parents to agree voluntarily and then put into practice a financial arrangement for the maintenance of those children which is fair to those children, both parents and the taxpayer, and that the Child Support Agency has failed to meet these objectives, supports the repeal of the rigidly formula-based Child Support Act and its replacement by a system of child support which encourages parental responsibility, enhances work incentives, takes due account of the cost to the taxpayer, includes an effective right of appeal, and is flexible enough to produce a fair outcome for families whatever their circumstances.I am delighted to have the opportunity to move this motion today, because it is of interest across the House. All right hon. and hon. Members receive frequent correspondence about the Child Support Agency and the Child Support Act 1991, and I am sure that there will be great interest in the debate. Parents should be responsible for the financial and emotional welfare of their children throughout their childhood. That is—indeed, it must be—the starting point of any system of child support.
I shall begin by saying what the debate is not about. It is not about allowing fathers to desert their wives and children to run off with a new lover. It is not about reducing the financial burden on parents by loading more of it on to the taxpayer. However, it is about producing a system of child support that is flexible enough to be fair to parents with care, to absent parents, to the taxpayer, and, most importantly, to the children.
The principle that parents should be responsible for the financial and emotional welfare of their children throughout their childhood is widely shared across all parties in the House and among the public outside. Indeed, it is because the authors of the Child Support Act 1991 claimed that it was based on that principle that it originally won widespread acceptance in the House, from my party as well as the other two parties. We accepted that the objectives stated for the Act were worthy, even if there was much wrong with the detailed implementation.
However, the Act has failed to meet its objectives. It has failed to meet the needs of absent parents and of parents with care, and, above all, it has failed to meet the needs of children. The Child Support Act is beyond repair, and is now as friendless as it is unfriendly.
Let me demonstrate how the CSA fails to fulfil its objectives and give some examples of its failure in practice. In the second half of my speech, I intend to describe the system of child support that we should implement.
21 The Act's basic failing is that it rests on a rigid formula. It is supposed to treat people living in equal circumstances equally, but any formula will treat equally only those people for whom the circumstances that the formula takes into account are equal. It cannot take into account all the possible circumstances that may arise. As a result, the formula may produce identical settlements for people whose circumstances are very different.
We are all human. We are all individuals. We are all different from one another. What is more, each couple is different; each relationship between two people is unique. No formula-based system can be entirely fair in the myriad different circumstances in which people find themselves. Let me give an example of how the formula used by the CSA has been found wanting.
Let us consider a man still living with his ex-wife, perhaps renting her a spare room in his house, whose children are living with them while the man is paying for most of the family's food and clothing as well as its housing. If the ex-wife appeals to the CSA for maintenance, the agency will ask which is the parent with care. It is the wife, because she receives the child benefit, and she is therefore due maintenance.
What happens if the father argues that, as the children are living in his house, he must at least have shared care? After all, he is paying for their food and clothing. The CSA would say, "No, you do not have shared care, because there is not even one day, let alone 104, on which the child or children leave the mother's house to go to the father's house." How absurd. Yet that is the decision that the CSA makes in such cases.
What happened when the failures of the formula began to show up? The previous Government gradually amended it to take account of more and more of the circumstances that could arise. It became more and more complex, and therefore more and more difficult to administer. Still it did not meet all the circumstances that came to light. Then the Government decided to allow a few departures from it. Even then, only certain laid-down departures were allowed. Still the system throws up unfair results, and still Members of Parliament receive thousands upon thousands of letters detailing the unfairnesses of the Act.
Not least because of the complexities of the formula, the CSA has found it harder and harder to administer the Act. Let me give a further example of what that leads to.
A mother with care in my constituency made an application for maintenance through the CSA. An inquiry form was issued to the absent parent in January 1995. Incomplete information was provided, so no assessment could be made. Eventually, an interim assessment was imposed in March 1997. On receipt of it, the absent parent decided to co-operate, and a new assessment was completed in April 1997. By that time, the two elder sons were no longer eligible to be included in the assessment, so the mother will never receive all the money that she should have had towards the cost of bringing up her children. In that situation, it is nothing less than mad that the budget for the agency is being cut and the number of staff is expected to fall sharply, while the case load is expected to rise by 50 per cent. during the next four years. How can it be expected to cope?
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
I have sat on the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration for many years, and in the past three 22 years we have produced three special reports on the CSA that have detailed the terrible afflictions caused when the benefits have not been paid—in some cases, people have had to wait up to three years for that benefit. In all its history, the ombudsman's Committee has never before produced three separate reports on the same Government Department.
§ Mr. Rendel
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making such a valid point, which helps to support our case.
I should like to detail some of the other failings of the CSA. In the majority of cases, parents with care on income support stand to gain nothing from the receipt of child maintenance through the CSA, because, for each pound of maintenance received, another pound is deducted from their benefits. Indeed, it can be even worse, because, if the parent with care loses all his or her income support when it is replaced by a maintenance payment, he or she is liable to lose other passported benefits. They may end up even worse off than if they had never applied for maintenance in the first place.
Instead of child assistance, the CSA has created Treasury assistance. It should come as no great surprise to find that thousands of parents with care have reacted to such difficulties by refusing to co-operate with the CSA.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are extenuating circumstances to explain why parents with care are not co-operating with the CSA? In the case of one of my constituents, I received a statement of assessment on 13 January, and my constituent received a statement directly on 14 and 15 January. Three different statements were sent in three days. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that parents often do not co-operate because they cannot understand the procedures?
§ Mr. Rendel
Judging from the reaction in the Chamber, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that many of us have received reports of such cases. He is absolutely right, and I am grateful for his intervention.
As a result of such problems, one 16-year-old woman, now four months pregnant, has heard that she will not be able claim any benefits if she does not reveal the name of the father of her child to the CSA. He is a married man, and she is frightened what his wife might do if she found out. If that 16-year-old cannot claim benefits, she—and most importantly, her child—will be the ones who suffer.
It is also important to consider the strain that second families are put under. Very often, the financial position of such families suffers as a result of the maintenance demands placed on one of the parents for his or her first family. Indeed, that now seems to be one of the main causes of family break-up—in this case, the break-up of the second family.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
The hon. Gentleman is making a cogent speech, and is doing the House a great service. When second families are put at risk that is particularly tragic, because they are often trying to make a fist of it for the second time, when first time round was a disaster—in some cases, through no 23 fault of their own. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a question of principle is at the heart of the problem, because the CSA has the power to overturn court orders? Does he accept that that is essentially wrong, because we have always believed in the ultimate rule of law?
§ Mr. Rendel
I am grateful for that intervention, which leads me on to another observation I intended to make. A great deal of bitterness is caused by unfair assessment, which all too often causes the absent parents to cut all contact with the children of their first families. That is on the assumption, of course, that there was enough money left to such absent parents from their assessments to enable them to maintain contact in the first place.
Under the current system, families with children are no better off as a result of receiving maintenance. That system's decisions can be financially crippling for second families, and often do nothing to reduce child poverty; and it acts as a clawback mechanism for the Treasury rather than a support system for the child. The CSA has failed in its objectives, and it must go.
I am pleased to see that the Government appear to have moved a considerable distance in our direction. One might have expected them to insist in their amendment that the CSA must remain, and that the Act is a good one—after all, that is the principle on which they fought the general election. However, they seem to be moving toward the position long held by the Liberal Democrats, which is that the Act must go. I hope that their announcement this summer will prove that they have finally come to that conclusion.
What should be done to ensure that the principle that parents should take proper responsibility for their children is carried out in practice? Many parents, if given the right encouragement, will be capable of reaching suitable voluntary agreements for the sake of their children. If enough resources were put into an effective mediation system, the number of such agreements would hugely reduce the need for state interference.
Liberals have believed for more than 100 years that it is the duty of the state to help people to help themselves—not self-help alone, as it is not right that the vulnerable should be expected to fend for themselves; nor is it right that we should simply have big government, as the state should not place unreasonable demands on how people choose to live their own lives. However, it is the duty of the state to mediate in parental disputes, and to ensure the best possible outcome for the children.
For those cases where a voluntary agreement cannot be reached—doubtless there will be many—there should be a system involving some outside body, whether that is a family court, a tribunal or some other body. It would look at the exact family circumstances and come to a decision that was fair to all concerned—one in which all parties felt that they had had a chance to have their say.
§ The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field)
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why he thinks that the voluntary principle will work now, when it did not work before the introduction of the CSA? When Labour left office, maintenance payments were being made for about 57 per cent. of families on benefit; but when the CSA took over, that figure had fallen to 24 23 or 24 per cent. If the voluntary principle was so strong, why did it not work before the CSA, and why would it work if we abolished the CSA?
§ Mr. Rendel
I am not in any sense advocating that we return to the system used before the CSA. What I said was that many parents are capable of coming to voluntary agreements; they did so before the CSA, and many had perfectly fair and sensible agreements at that time. It is possible that we could encourage an increase in the number of voluntary agreements through an increase in mediation services.
However, we also need a fallback system involving some court or tribunal capable of seeking money from absent parents who are not paying. What was wrong with the old system was that there was little or no power of enforcement. It was not a problem of not having an Act or a formula in place, but one of inadequate enforcement.
In conclusion, we need a system that takes account of the following principles: that there should be fairness in making financial decisions and encouragement of voluntary agreements and of mediation in settling disputes; that children and not only the Treasury should benefit from maintenance payments; that parental responsibility should be encouraged; that the needs of children and their parents should be judged on a case-by-case basis; and that the cost of access by both parents to their child or children should be taken into account.
Such a system offers a humane, not a mathematical, solution, and it can never be governed by an algebraic formula. The Liberal Democrats believe that children deserve no less than that, and that is why the CSA must go.
§ The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field)
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:believes that all children have the right to the support of both parents wherever they may live, that the previous Government failed to set up an effective system of child support through the Child Support Agency because the CSA was introduced in a hasty and ill thought out manner, that the current child support formula is complex, difficult for parents to understand, and slow, inaccurate and expensive to deliver, that the result is that the CSA has failed to increase the proportion of parents who pay regular maintenance for their children and that 70 per cent. of parents with care are refusing to co-operate with the CSA and 60 per cent. of non-resident parents either pay no maintenance or only pay sporadically, and that the receipt of regular maintenance is an important part of the Government's strategy of tackling child poverty; and welcomes the fact that the Government is looking closely at all areas of the child support system to ensure that it is consistent, fair and efficient and that it expects to bring forward its proposals by the summer".I and about four other hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon have sat through every debate on the Child Support Agency since the measure began to wind its way through the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) not only participated in many debates, but initiated them, and was often kind enough to let me participate in them. There was not one debate in the House in which I participated when the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel) was not present. I must also mention my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell).
25 There is, however, a real difference between this afternoon's debate and previous debates that we have had on the subject in the House. The most striking difference lies in the way in which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) has moved the motion this afternoon and has made his case for reform, and in the support that he has received from his hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). That is in stark contrast to the behaviour of Liberal Democrat spokesmen in the previous Parliament, who seemed to over-emphasise the importance of an immediate headline rather than contributing to a debate that might lead to a substantial improvement in the lives of many of our constituents. I welcome the way in which the hon. Member for Newbury not only sought today's debate, but introduced it to the House.
Some hon. Members may not know that the hon. Member for Northavon has a history, and it is relevant to tell the House a little about it. At one stage during the 1979 Parliaments, the House of Commons was faced with an official report from the Government that showed that not only did the trickle-down theory work in this country, but that our poorest constituents were on the receiving end of an economic Niagara falls, and that wealth was being bestowed on them in a way that most of us failed to comprehend.
It was in the Select Committee on Social Security that, with the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise), who is not in her seat at present, we sought to test the Government's view. We turned to someone who was then modestly called Professor Webb to help us in our calculations. His abilities were such that he found that, where the Government added things, they should have taken them away. He found that, far from the poor getting richer, the poor had, sadly, become poorer during that Government's stewardship. He therefore comes to these debates in the House of Commons with a proven track record of advancing a cause, and I look forward to hearing him sum up for the Liberal Democrats this afternoon.
The second and equally important distinction in the nature of our debates on the CSA arises largely from the number of Labour Members present. In previous Parliaments, the Labour Front-Bench team was rarely supported by more than two, three or four Back Benchers. Both sides of the House are now showing a real interest in the question how best the CSA should be reformed and how we can do better for those of our constituents whom it affects. I rejoice in the fact that a large number of the suggestions from Opposition Members, and certainly from Labour Members, have been taken into careful account by my noble Friend Baroness Hollis, who is conducting our review of the CSA.
It is important that we do not become too lax during the debate. There is a crunch question that we have to face, and, with all the good will in the world, I do not think that the hon. Member for Newbury faced it as squarely as he might. At some stage, we shall have to choose whether we use the complicated formula we now have or whether we move to something much simpler—possibly a simple tax rate. The hon. Gentleman said that we now had a "rigid formula". The formula is anything but rigid. It has been built up as a result of representations from hon. Members in all parts of the House.
26 We shall soon have to decide whether to follow the voluntary principle that was suggested by the hon. Member for Newbury, under which people have rules that they easily understand when reaching their own agreements on these matters, although sometimes such agreements might have to be enforced; or the alternative of continuing in the way in which previous Parliaments of which I have been a Member have proceeded, in the belief that the House has the wisdom to legislate for the complex lives of many of our constituents.
§ Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)
Does the Minister agree that making a formula more complex does not make it any less rigid? The current formula is incomprehensible to most people, but it is rigidly applied by those who pretend they understand it, and they often give different reasons for reaching a particular result.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell
Why not use the system of family courts that operates in Australia? They go through financial matters, such as a husband's wage, with the divorcees, so that the divorce is squared up and the children are sorted out. If the husband gets another family, he returns to the family court, not a criminal court, and matters are again sorted out.
§ Mr. Field
I always pay careful attention to my hon. Friend, because, like me, he attended all the debates in previous Parliaments on this issue. We have a choice. Should we move towards reform for which legislation can be enacted in the foreseeable future, or should we tie reform to a change in the courts system, which would take some time to debate, agree, enact and put into operation? In the light of that operation, we could make changes in the child support arrangements. We must keep an open mind. I merely wish to pose questions and outline the choices.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
I declare an interest as a lawyer. Over the first 20 or so years of my practising career, we were able to reach many agreements in divorce cases. The problem was that the courts did not initiate enforcement: the participants had to do that, and that was one of the flaws in the system. Why cannot we go back to such a system? It is far better to get people to agree on payments that they will meet than to try to force them to make payments that they cannot afford.
§ Mr. Field
My hon. Friend has the opportunity to put his ideas to my noble Friend in the other place. I am sure that he has done that but wishes to record his views so that his constituents know about his participation in our affairs.
I should like to put on record our appreciation of the Child Support Agency staff. It is far too easy for us to pretend that errors are the fault of the staff. It is as if, like Pontius Pilate, we wash ourselves of all responsibility, and, with clean hands, blame the staff for misjudgments. The hon. Member for Newbury had a point to make, so I
27 do not blame him for standing at one side of the mirror. However, we should also stand at the other side and examine the CSA's record, which is somewhat more impressive than the checklist presented by the hon. Gentleman.
I shall deal with four aspects of the CSA's work, and compare the year before it came into operation with information and projections for the forthcoming financial year, when the case load will have risen from 210,000 to 850,000 families. The maintenance that will be arranged has increased from £140 million to £754 million. Benefit savings will have increased from £313 million to £630 million. Running costs will have halved, with the amount falling from 52p per pound to 27p per pound of maintenance collected.
None of those figures is acceptable, but there is something to be said on behalf of the staff, who do not have the freedom to carry out the job as they wish, but are governed by legislation that was passed by the House. If any criticism is to be made, it has to be directed at us, not at the staff.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
I absolutely agree with that. I was one of the people who took part in the original discussions in 1991, and much of the blame cannot be attributed to the staff.
The Minister helpfully informed the debate by giving some of the outcomes. The outcome that astonishes me—and I do not use the word casually—is in his amendment. It says that 70 per cent. of parents with care are refusing to co-operate. I for one have always operated on the assumption that the figure was about half that. It is useful for that information to be put in the Government's amendment, but will the Minister say how that figure comes about, because I am staggered by it?
§ Mr. Field
The hon. Gentleman obviously invites me to be honest, and I clearly must be careful at this stage. In our infinite wisdom as politicians, we are slowly going back to the previous system, where we had liable relative officers in local offices. When people who were separated from their partners or husbands came in to claim benefit, they were interviewed by a liable relative officer, who took down the necessary details.
To its credit, the CSA has been undertaking two experiments, as part of which it issues the maintenance assessment form at the point of claiming. However, as part of the second experiment, the CSA helps claimants to fill in that form. If that is done, the staggering figure that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) picked up on is reversed: 70 per cent. of claimants participate and wish to do so, as opposed to 70 per cent.—as is true in the rest of the country, where the experiment is not taking place—deciding not to co-operate. Again, that aspect has to be faced.
Under the liable relative officer system, less than 3 per cent. of people claiming benefit because they had been deserted by husbands or partners claimed good cause. The figure is now up to 70 per cent. It is impossible to accept that all those claims are justified. It has gone around on the grapevine that one way in which to avoid the CSA, continue to gain benefit and possibly pick up maintenance is to claim good cause in one's favour.
28 That whole issue needs to be dealt with immensely sensitively, because some women will claim good cause for all the right reasons—as some of us know from our constituents. What is important is that, when the CSA does not leave a mother six months to decide what her story might be, the ratio that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was quick to pick up on is reversed. I expect that the practice, which is so successful in this experiment, will soon be extended nationwide.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien
May I first say that we should express our appreciation to the Minister for his work, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, in focusing on the CSA?
My right hon. Friend referred to the work of the department. I do not criticise the junior staff, but the parliamentary ombudsman could not handle the number of cases of maladministration that were referred to him, and we had to appoint an independent case examiner to judge on issues of maladministration, so that someone in the department is responsible for the mistakes, which could cost the taxpayer money. Although I accept some of my right hon. Friend's points, we should record the fact that there is some maladministration—often of great magnitude—within the CSA.
§ Mr. Field
It is because we have taken so seriously the point that my hon. Friend puts so well that the Government will, before the summer, introduce proposals for reform that we can then debate. Given the mistakes that we have made in the past, it is important to table the proposals for this House and those elsewhere to debate before we actually decide what the next stage of reform should be. That process may take a few extra months, but I am sure that, if we approach reform in that way, it will significantly increase our chances of success.
On the issue of mistakes, it is worth recording why the CSA has such difficulty in operating more effectively. First, the measure was made retrospective—which might have some significance when we debate the reform proposals later this year. It is the only occasion during a CSA debate when I was staggered by an announcement. Even if, at some stage, we wanted to make the provision retrospective, surely the sensible way to advance would have been to apply it to new cases, and then, when that was successfully done, apply it retrospectively.
Secondly—this underlines the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton—there are problems with administration—or maladministration, as he called it—because of the deadly complications of the formula. I want to give the House a piece of information. If we separate the time spent on working out the original assessment and then on review from the time spent on enforcing the decisions, it becomes clear that more than 90 per cent. of the time of every member of staff is taken up trying to grapple with the formula, either to compute the original assessment or to check what it should be at every new stage. That might suggest that there is a case for seriously considering how the formula should be reformed.
Some of my hon. Friends who are present today have previously asked how departures can be enforced. It is clear from what I have said that there is a limited number of staff to enforce any changes, because so much time is spent on the original calculations. Even worse, under the 29 current formula, we could not move to a casework system that would enable one CSA officer to deal with a case. The formula and its ramifications are so complicated that it is impossible, with our resources, to train a member of staff so that he can be on top of the whole of the portfolio.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
The Minister is properly and conscientiously sharing his concerns with us. I want to pursue a point raised by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). Is the Minister considering a reassessment of the considerations that enter into play, especially the life style of the second family or families? I shall give a simple example—we could all give hundreds.
I think that the public would find it difficult to accept that it is fair that a constituent and his second wife, who are living in a one-bedroomed flat on straitened means, are asked to pay £250 a week, when the previous wife is living in a five-bedroomed, three-bathroomed, listed building with horses, stables, paddocks and so on, entirely supported by an extremely affluent second partner. Such cases discredit the system and the willingness of people to participate. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that he shares our view that we must reappraise that balance of considerations.
§ Mr. Field
I certainly do share it. I am hoping that, when we debate the reform package, the House will be able to adopt a reform or formula—or however we choose to do it—so that most staff time is spent trying to enforce agreements that have been made and helping people to collect information, rather than to digest the forms that we inflict upon them.
I end by briefly listing for the House the reform objectives on which I hope that we can agree. I do not want the list to be conclusive, and I hope that today's debate will add to the list. Moreover—as the process is on-going, and will not finish merely because this debate will end at 7 pm—I hope also that people will feel free to approach and to share their ideas with either me, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), or my noble Friend Baroness Hollis, so that we are clear about our objectives as we devise the means of achieving them.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I am grateful for the support that the Minister is giving to our motion. In summing up, will he deal with the biggest single injustice that our constituents undoubtedly feel—it has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House—which is that there is no opportunity to be heard? There is no hearing, and no opportunity to put the case or to compare the evidence. That is the biggest single fault in the current system.
§ Mr. Field
I shall not deal with it in my summing up, but I shall certainly make careful note of it, so that it is part of our internal discussions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman also will try to pursue the matter.
As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned the support that I am giving to his motion, I should sound a slight note of warning. I had hoped that I was participating in building a consensus across the 30 House on how we should proceed—given that quite a few hon. Members should be standing here in sackcloth and ashes for our past errors and for the damage that we have inflicted on some of our constituents' lives.
Although there is a natural tendency for a minority party to say that all hon. Members are bending before its will, it is important in the longer run—not only on this issue but on all the other issues that the Government will be addressing shortly—that the House feels that the reform programme is a shared one, rather than one that belongs to any one sect or party.
As I said, I want to conclude by examining the objectives for reform. It is quite clear from the comments of the hon. Member for Newbury—as I hope that it will be from the comments of every speaker in this debate—that hon. Members are as committed to the principle enshrined in the CSA as we have ever been: a child's right to be supported—which is our first aim—is crucial. Conversely, the second objective of our reform programme is to achieve a reverse and decline in the number of families on benefit who lack regular maintenance payments.
Thirdly—by achieving our second objective—we will be laying the basis, mostly for mothers but occasionally for fathers, to make greater choices in how they live their lives and in the mix that they will have from benefit and from benefit and work. That choice can be available only if adequate and regular maintenance payments are made.
Fourthly—although I listed it as first when I was in opposition, because I had always thought that it was overlooked—we have a responsibility to taxpayers. Although we want our reforms to be successful, for all the reasons I have just given, the cost of supporting separated families on benefit was approaching 5p on the standard rate of tax. Taxpayers also have to be taken into account in considering our reforms. The pleas on effectiveness of the system that we heard in interventions in this debate will help in achieving that objective.
The fifth objective that I hope our reforms will achieve is to move up the political agenda—quietly and without dispute—the entire matter of access. For far too long, the agreement has been that no problems will be made about maintenance, and that the benefit cheque will continue to arrive, but the quid pro quo is that fathers should not see their children.
Of course, one does not make access dependent on maintenance—indeed, there will be some cases in which the court will have to decide, given the record of some of those fathers and, very occasionally, some of those mothers—but, when we talk about the needs of children, we are talking not only about their financial needs, but about the full responsibility that parents have for their children. Parents sometimes tell me that it is all very well to say that, but that the children get deeply distressed when they see their father. That is the price that children have to pay for the break-up of a marriage or a relationship.
At the end of the day, one has to consider whether it is right to spare children some of the grief, as one parent comes and goes in their lives, or whether the children should never see the absent parent, and never have that parent ask how they are doing at school or bring them a Christmas or birthday present. Surely we need to widen the debate so that it deals not only with finances, although they are important, but with the full responsibility that parents should have for their children.
31 Finally, I hope that one of the objectives of the reform is that we have a system that the staff can understand.
I commend the amendment to the House.
§ Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
I welcome the debate. The sensitivities and difficulties aroused by the nature of the subject have been reflected in the thoughtful speeches and interventions that we have heard so far and by the fact that this is one of the rare occasions when the House is quiet, because hon. Members genuinely want to listen to the debate rather than score party political points by yah-hooing across the Chamber. That is refreshing, and I trust that the rest of the contributions will be as intelligent and of such a high calibre.
The motion restates the principles that lie at the very heart of the Child Support Agency. The fundamental principle is that both parents should be responsible for their children. Of course, that principle goes back to the beginning of the process that led to the establishment of the CSA through the Child Support Act 1991. It is vital that we focus on the various principles behind the CSA, principles on which all parties are agreed. We must consider how best to translate them into an effective working of the CSA.
The Liberal Democrats' motion has, to a certain extent, missed the point of the CSA. It proposes to encourage parents to reach an amicable agreement when they split up. Where that is possible, I entirely agree that that should be the case. In a perfect world, there should be a voluntary agreement in all divorce settlements or when partners split up. However, that is not the purpose of the CSA as, sadly, this is not a perfect world and, far too often—in fact, I suspect, possibly in a majority of cases—there cannot be a voluntary agreement.
When there is a divorce, when partners split up, or even when there is no relationship in the sense that we usually use that term, but when a child has been born as the result of an incident—that is rather indelicate, but I am not sure of the correct parliamentary term—there is going to be great difficulty in getting the various parties to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all. The situation is exacerbated when there are children involved and especially when one parent wants to keep away from the other. The CSA was set up to tackle such difficulties.
In the latter half of this century, there have been significant changes in the society in which we live. The traditional family unit and the finality of marriage have been eroded. Thus there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of marriages that end in divorce. However, a fact that is more important to the debate is the great increase in the number of children who are born outside marriage and the number of lone mothers who have been abandoned by the father of their child, or, less commonly, fathers who have been abandoned by the mother of their child. One of the fundamental purposes of the CSA was to safeguard the well-being of children in those circumstances.
Too many fathers simply abandon their children, adding to the number of lone mothers and turning away from their responsibilities. The lone mothers then become 32 dependent on the state for benefit, when the fathers should be making a financial contribution to the upkeep of their children. The CSA was created to address that problem and to provide a universal system of establishing child maintenance so that, whoever the absent parent was and whatever his or her means, there would be a consistent system.
Before the Child Support Act 1991, there were a great many problems in the way in which maintenance was established. In many cases, no maintenance was paid. By the end of the old system, 75 per cent. of lone parents were not receiving regular child support for their children. The system of child maintenance was clearly not working. It was fragmented; not only did it involve several different levels of courts, but it often worked in conjunction with offices of the Department of Social Security.
The system was often too slow in dealing with cases and it was judged to have been inconsistent. It was not possible to predict with any certainty what the absent parent's liability might be, as it was down to each court to establish the level of child maintenance. Therefore, someone in one part of the country earning £150 per week could be forced to pay £50 in maintenance, whereas someone on the other side of the country on the same income could be paying only £5 a week. Such discrepancies were unacceptable and the CSA was set up to address the problems of inconsistency.
As is recognised by the Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and, no doubt, hon. Members who will speak in the debate, the CSA had a difficult start. It was dealing with people who were often at a crisis point in their lives, when decisions were made on the basis of emotion rather than reason. There were various problems. Many of those who had been married found that the CSA was focusing on them when they were prepared to pay and—in most cases erroneously—felt that irresponsible fathers were being allowed to escape scot-free.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell
That is exactly what happened. When the CSA was first set up, it went for the fathers it could get. It did not go for the fathers it could not get, because the money that it could take off the fathers was needed to run the agency. The previous Government set up the CSA with no money. It had to find some, so it had to pick up the fathers it could find.
§ Mr. Burns
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I take issue with part of what he said. Of course, when the CSA started, it took up the cases of fathers who were seeking to make arrangements. It also sought to track down absent parents who were trying to evade their responsibilities. It is more difficult to find such parents and encourage them to take part in the process. Of course there was an impression, particularly among fathers who were co-operating, that the CSA was going for the easy target, but I do not believe that the facts sustain that argument.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an anomaly when the absent parent is making a contribution to the parent with care who has entered a new relationship? The absent parent still has to pay for the parent with care when she has another husband. Many people criticise that evil.
§ Mr. Burns
I fully understand and appreciate that point. From my constituency cases, I know of the deep 33 resentment that such a situation can cause. The Minister said that the issue was under review. I shall come back to it in a wider context. The principle of what the hon. Gentleman has said is right. A great deal of resentment has been caused because many people feel that the situation is unfair, for the reasons that he outlined.
The Child Support Agency had a difficult start. There were problems with the different treatment given to those who co-operated and absent fathers. Many people also found that the formula was too rigid and did not take individual circumstances sufficiently into consideration.
The initial problems that became apparent were addressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) in the Child Support Act 1995, which introduced a raft of new measures to improve the functioning of the CSA. Provisions were also made in regulations to ensure that absent parents were not paying more than they could afford. A ceiling of 30 per cent. of net income was introduced for assessments. In addition, a special allowance was made for travel-to-work costs for absent parents who lived more than 15 miles from their workplace. Further allowance was made for the housing of a new partner or stepchildren. The 1995 Act introduced new measures to enable departure from the formula, to take into consideration special circumstances that were not included in the calculations.
The changes dealt with many of the problems that had manifested themselves in the first years of the agency's operation.
§ Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 1995 Act failed to address one of the basic flaws, because there was no element of seeking consensus? Without consensus, people will not participate. The system is perceived as mechanical.
§ Mr. Burns
In an ideal world, consensus is the best way forward, but it was impossible to reach consensus in too many cases under the old system, which was failing because people felt that they could avoid their financial responsibilities. That does not encourage consensus. When a statutory body was being set up and the system was being put on a more consistent statutory basis, it would have been difficult to expect consensus, particularly in the early years after such a dramatic change in the system for child maintenance calculations.
Although the 1995 Act improved the technicalities of the CSA, there was still the problem of the loss of confidence in the agency. Before developing that theme, I join the Minister in paying tribute to the staff of the CSA, who do tremendous work under tremendous pressure for very little thanks. It is too easy constantly to criticise the staff and forget their day-to-day work.
The loss of confidence in the agency because of its initial problems was compounded by opposition to it in certain sectors of the community. As the breakdown of a relationship is not unnaturally very traumatic, delicate and difficult, it is inevitable, and only human nature, that people want to be able to lash out at someone or something. I am in no way criticising anyone; such a desire is human nature and a natural reaction.
There was a further problem, which still needs to looked into. If a couple are unmarried and the mother does not name the father of the child, she can simply claim benefit and the father has to pay nothing. To a great 34 extent, that led to the negative perception of the CSA as a body that did not meet the aims and aspirations of its establishment.
That illustrates how child maintenance will often be an extremely difficult issue to resolve further. It arises at a difficult point in people's lives. That makes it paramount to approach the issue with great delicacy and sensitivity. It is important that the CSA's principles are not only maintained but put into practice in the most effective way and, most important, are the best possible for the children, who are involved at a very difficult time in everybody's lives.
Improvements have been made, but there is room for more, as the Minister said. The agency's working can be improved by focusing on administration—making it more streamlined, making the assessment process quicker and making the appeals system more effective. The administration also needs to be improved in the pursuit of absent parents who are unwilling to pay.
Beyond that, more profound questions can be asked of the CSA, which the motion raises. The trend towards the increase of family breakdown is an important factor in the society in which we live. The CSA—and other approaches to the subject of child maintenance—can be a powerful tool in controlling the way in which society behaves. It can be used to provide behavioural incentives, which can in turn be used to strengthen not only parental responsibility but the very structure of the family.
The CSA formula was introduced to guarantee consistency in the assessment of maintenance, and it was originally intended to have enough flexibility to manage all situations. However, given opposition to it, there are clearly some problems with the formula and the way in which the system operates, which must be taken into account. I am sure that the Minister will not overlook that during the next few months, before he publishes the findings of the review.
The motion and Labour's amendment take us no further in the debate. I understand that that need not necessarily be expected from the Government at this point in the proceedings, because they are carrying out a review. However, much of the Liberal Democrat motion restates the principles. I should have liked more fleshing out of ideas on how to replace the CSA. I think that the hon. Member for Newbury described a special court system. It is well and good to bandy around phrases, but one needs to know exactly how such a system would work and to be able to pinpoint how it would improve the present system.
§ Mr. Burns
No, I want to finish.
One of the luxuries of opposition is that we, too, can afford to review our policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and other colleagues and I have no wish to be ostriches with our heads in the sand. We are in the process of reviewing the Child Support Agency, which we set up, in an attempt to come up with ideas for improving a system of child maintenance that protects the taxpayer, the parent looking after the child, and the child itself.
I was concerned to read a story on the front page of The Sunday Times two or three weeks ago suggesting that the decision had been taken to abolish the CSA. Although the 35 Government dismissed the report as untrue, I heard the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) on the "Today" programme this morning saying that there had been subsequent developments. He went on to outline how the Government have changed their mind yet again. I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will be able to tell us whether any decisions have been taken—
§ Mr. Burns
I am being tempted into my old ways. The Minister's point is that decisions cannot be taken while a review is still in progress—logically that is right. I will not tread on any toes this evening, except to say that decisions on welfare reform have been taken in recent months even though that review has not been concluded either.
§ Mr. Malcolm Wicks Croydon, North)
This is a vital debate on a vital issue. If, over the past two decades, Britain has become a more insecure society—there are many reasons for that, not least economic ones—what has been happening to our families has certainly been a major contributory factor, and if our children have become poorer, the same factor, among others, lies behind that increased poverty.
It is easy to attack the CSA; easy, as constituency Members, to champion the cause of those who have been maltreated. It is much more difficult to design and champion a reform that works and ensures that both parents pay for their children. Sometimes it is easier for the House of Commons to champion the men who have been maltreated than to speak up for the children and mothers who have been maltreated by an inadequate system of child maintenance down the centuries. Sometimes we should listen not just to the victims of maladministration who come to our surgeries but to the muted voices of the children and mothers who have never received any maintenance.
There have of course always been children living with just one parent—often because of the death of a father. Today a new social revolution is under way, meaning that a great many children will spend all or some of their childhood living with just one parent, usually, although not always, the mother. The other parent—the so-called absent parent—is still the parent of the child, however. The Liberal Democrat spokesman talked of the reluctance of a mother to name the father. We can help the argument along by including the right of the child to know who both parents are.
Those changes, for example divorce, have affected men and women, but they impinge most on children. Although we have to study the relationships between the genders, let us focus firmly on children, as the Minister did.
The divorce rate has increased dramatically; there are now about 13.1 divorces per 1,000 married couples in England and Wales. In 1966, the figure was just 3.2 per 1,000. Most parents who divorce have children under 16—currently about 56 per cent. The risk of a new-born child's mum and dad divorcing before he or she reaches 16 is 1:4 and every year, 160,000 children under 16 witness the divorce of their parents.
36 In addition, more of our children are born outside wedlock—about 36 per cent., which is more than one third. We must analyse carefully what is happening. I think that most of those children are born to cohabiting parents. When we study the data on single mothers, we have to realise that they are usually the product of a cohabitation breakdown, not merely a single mother who has never lived with the father of her child. Of course, the circumstances of conception are such that the father might disappear, so a number of children only ever live with the mother.
We are dealing with complex circumstances, which are made more complex by the factors about which we have heard. People remarry or, to use an ugly expression, re-partner. Many families are second or step-families and therefore many men and some women have a responsibility for two sets of children. However, they have that responsibility and, even in our consumer society, it is simply not on for people to give up one responsibility as they take on a new one.
About 1.7 million of our children now live in one-parent families—the figure was just 600,000 in 1971. Most of those families, although not all, are on income support. The group most likely to be on income support are children living with single rather than divorced or separated mothers.
The reform agenda concerns the Child Support Agency and some wider social policy issues. When the Government produce their reform agenda, I hope that there will be a maintenance disregard. If it is truly a child support policy, we cannot tell children and their mothers—the parents with care—that they have a duty to co-operate with the CSA, which may cause them some problems, but that if they are on income support, they will not get an extra penny in maintenance. Wiser Governments than previous Governments here—I was about to say than our own, but I did not mean that—in different parts of the world, have recognised the importance of the disregard; the Australian example comes to mind. The taxpayer must be taken into consideration because taxpayers are not some theoretical construct, but include many two-parent families on quite low wages who are being asked to contribute to the community chest, because some fathers will not pay for their own children. Let us face it: that is what we are talking about. Therefore, it is right and proper that the mother and child should benefit, too, through a maintenance disregard.
Secondly, we must have a simpler formula, and we have come to recognise that. However, that will mean rougher justice and I predict that those who are calling for a simpler formula will say in a few years' time that it is not merely simple but crude and does not take account of the complexities of their constituents' cases. It will be rougher justice, but it is worth going for.
Thirdly, we need a CSA with a human face. Many of our constituents complain that they can never talk to the same official twice. Every person dealing with the CSA, whether the mother or the father, should be able to talk to a named official—a Mr. or Ms Brown—about their case. They may also have to talk to a colleague, but people have a right to deal with a human being at the end of the telephone.
Fourthly, we have to pursue the hard targets. Understandably, people in full-time employment—in the public or civil service or with a big company—are rightly 37 pursued, but they get angry when they know of other people who easily evade the system. One constituent told me that she knew exactly where her former husband, who should have been paying maintenance, was. The CSA simply wrote to the address and someone, presumably the father, returned the letter with "Not known at this address" written on it. The CSA then told the mother—and me as her Member of Parliament—that he was not known at that address. We could be more rigorous than that and we need some clever and tough-minded detective work in pursuit of the hard targets. When that work results in a father being forced to pay maintenance and complaining to his Member of Parliament, let us be on the side of the mother of the child and not always on his side.
If we are to relate the policy to our ideas about welfare to work and if we are to tell mothers that they should think about their careers, training and all the rest, we must consider whether we can guarantee maintenance for the mother leaving income support and going into work. If a mother can manage to go into work and wants to do so, having calculated the cost of child care, but is banking on the £30 of child maintenance, there is no point in her starting work if two weeks later the father reneges on the deal for several weeks or for ever. It is a difficult question, but I urge Ministers to consider whether they could guarantee that maintenance, so that the responsibility for chasing it is the Government's and the risks are not all shouldered by the mother.
I recognise that this is a sensitive area—the Minister was right to remind the House of that, because many mothers are the victims of violence. Nevertheless, there is some sense in bringing closer together the assessment of income support for the mother and child and the CSA process. At the moment, someone may apply for income support and the CSA process may come into operation only some weeks or months later. If we are to mean it when we talk the language of rights and responsibilities, perhaps we should explain right from the start to the parent seeking income support that there is an entitlement but also an obligation to say who the father is and that we shall handle it as sensitively as possible. Right from the start, it should be clear that the income of that family is partly the responsibility of the father and not merely that of the taxpayer. I appreciate the sensitivities involved, but they should not enable the most irresponsible and thuggish men in our society to be the ones who never pay for their children. There is a real ethical dilemma there for us.
Although the reform agenda is largely about the CSA, hon. Members would be foolish not to consider some of the wider issues, which have been touched upon. We are not just living in a society in which most children—I am sure that it is most in these circumstances—receive no maintenance from their father. We are also talking about the most fraught and difficult emotional circumstances, when a proportion of the children concerned—some research suggests that it might be about a quarter-no longer have any contact with their father following the breakdown of their parents' relationship.
§ Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)
That is an interesting point. Is not one of the greatest problems the fact that sometimes children are used as pawns—I hope that Ministers will consider this in their review—in the sense that a mother may withdraw contact with them from the father, who is forced to pay 38 more maintenance by the CSA and who will be angry and concerned that he cannot have access to his children? That is a glaring hole and it needs to be considered, as it is not all one way.
§ Mr. Wicks
Sadly, adults do not behave like adults in such circumstances, and children are pawns in the game. The other day, I read in a newspaper of a case in which the child said, "Mummy wants me to hate daddy and daddy wants me to hate mummy." Adults can behave very badly.
I am not saying that, to balance access with maintenance, there should be one court; it is right and proper that there should be two systems. If the father has a history of violence, a court may say that he should not have access to the children for a period, but that he should pay maintenance. I understand why a father would be angry about such a settlement but, in terms of family law and social policy, that is sometimes right.
Over the past 10 years, Governments have focused in cases of family breakdown on cash—maintenance—but we should also focus on care. The more difficult and important issue is how, when there is family breakdown and fracture, we enable children wherever possible to be brought up by both their mother and father, which is not only a question of maintenance.
We should also take into account family law and court practice. Other hon. Members will have heard constituents, often the fathers, saying, "There's a court order that I should see my child every week, but when I go to the house the child is not there or the mother will not let me in." They are advised, "You can go back to court, but it will cost you several hundred pounds." We should consider family law issues in relation to the social policy of child maintenance.
We must ask about causation. There is no easy agenda, but I do not believe that Britain has to be top of the European divorce league. We should not have to spend £4 billion to meet the public costs of divorce while we are spending so little on guidance and counselling for couples who face difficulties. I am not saying that the divorce rate can easily be reduced, but I refuse to believe that it has to be so high. Preventive medicine is better than conventional medicine, and Ministers should consider prevention in this area. That has implications for our schools and how we teach our children about relationships, their lives, confidence and sex. Why, every year, do 100,000 teenagers conceive unplanned and unwanted babies, which leads to a horrifically high abortion rate and the creation of a large number of fragile families? We must not forget the preventive agenda.
Politics is a macho pursuit, so we often talk more about the strong economy than about the strong family but, over the past decade or so, family insecurities have become as important as economic insecurities in creating poverty and disadvantage for families and society. We need to strike the right balance between rights and duties.
Becoming a mother or father should bring not only rights—to child benefit, decent education and decent health care—but duties. We must change the climate, and tell people that, when they become mothers or fathers, they have a duty in all circumstances to care for and maintain their children. That is an obvious and almost trite point, but increasingly in recent years—for reasons on which we can agree or disagree—many parents, 39 usually fathers, have taken on the irresponsible role of not providing for their children. We face a big battle, and I hope that the House is united in trying to win the fight.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
It is always a privilege and pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). His record on this matter is well known and his speeches always repay careful study. I agree with him on some of the issues that he raised, but I hope that he will join me and other Liberal Democrats in regretting the fact that the rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies was dropped as a "Health of the Nation" target in the recent Green Paper. If the hon. Gentleman is willing to put some quiet pressure on his ministerial colleagues, I shall certainly join him, as that was a retrograde step in child support policy.
I pay tribute to the Minister for Welfare Reform. He had a distinguished career during the previous Parliament as Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, and I hope that he does not now feel that the many hours that he spent chairing the Committee's investigations into the Child Support Agency were wasted. The amendments that he tabled were not always successful because of the Conservative majority against him—I now know how he felt, as I am totally friendless on the new Select Committee. The work that he did then was valuable, and I am sure that when my colleagues on the new Select Committee turn their attention to the CSA, they will want to act as constructively as he did in working with the Government of the day, accepting the principle behind the agency and suggesting improvements to its operation.
This debate on the CSA has been less strident than some of the ones I remember. The Minister has, for the first time that I can remember, seduced the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)—if I had known that he would not be here now, I would have said this earlier—into being constructive.
It is important that the House responds to the depth of the problems caused by the Child Support Act 1991. Mea culpa—like the Minister, I was one of the guilty people who were then Members of Parliament, although, in retrospect, I think that we faced mission impossible. Like all hon. Members, I see the results of the Act in my weekly surgery. Last Friday, a postman from Duns, who earns £190 a week, showed me a demand note for £22,000. Such debts are unrealistic and will have to be written off. The interim assessments act as a shock tactic, but the psychology has completely failed and I am not surprised at some of the new non-compliance rates.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) said when he eloquently introduced our motion. The system is too complex and too rigidly applied. The speed at which the 1991 legislation was implemented meant that it would almost inevitably fail. I also agree with the hon. Member for Croydon, North. If the new system is to have any chance of success, it is most important that it deals—and is seen to be dealing—squarely with the "can pay, won't pay" merchants.
I shall, perhaps rather bravely, make some personal suggestions that we should consider in what I assume, from what the Minister said, will be a Green Paper—the 40 consultation will flow after publication. The arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury and in the motion are valid and must be addressed during the consultation.
I doubt that we shall persuade the Government to go as far as we want, so I shall run with what they say rather than with our more radical suggestions. I believe that given that the Government are set on creating a new system that uses a flat-rate formula, it must have two characteristics. First, the flat-rate system must be almost moronically simple—it must be transparent, so that everyone can understand it. Secondly, the rate must be set relatively low. If we introduce both those elements, we can then say that there should be no exemptions whatever.
I suggest that the liability should be set at 3 per cent. of earnings—it makes no difference whether it is net or gross—for the first child and 7 per cent. of earnings top-sliced for the second child, with no exemptions. That would indeed be rough justice, but it could be implemented.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
My hon. Friend is only a general practitioner, but I think that he might have no problem with a 3 per cent. and 7 per cent. system.
It is impossible for the CSA to continue to operate by trying to mirror the complex work that the Inland Revenue does in terms of working out weekly what people are due. We must carefully consider the period of assessment. I cannot understand why people are not assessed one year in arrears. The CSA could then take account of Inland Revenue figures and P60s, and stop having to alter assessments to include overtime changes, part-time working and short-time working. It should consider people's income from the previous year and base the 3 per cent. or 7 per cent. for one, two or more children on that figure with no exemptions. If we did that, the system would work.
We must look specifically at the position of the self-employed, because it is currently a complete nightmare. The system seems to perm any number from several, and people receive letters from the CSA on consecutive days which give different figures. The circumstances of some small businesses run by the self-employed are incapable of fair, consistent or coherent assessment under the present regulations and the Green Paper must contain a special section on the self-employed.
On the subject of retrospection, we must learn the lesson of the mistakes that we made last time, and the Minister was right to point that out. Some of us were perplexed at the time, but we did not realise how significant the degree of indirect retrospection was. We must have a cut-off date. I do not care what it is, but it must be clear and the new system must operate from that date, with no going back. We must look forward. An axe must fall and the new process must start on that date. That does not mean that people with assessed liabilities should get off scot-free. The poll tax has not set a good precedent for much but, as with local authorities and the poll tax, the CSA should be given a residual power under the new 41 system to define outstanding arrears and assign the debt to a debt collection agency. Even if the amount assigned were less than the actual amount outstanding, some money would be collected from the defaulters. In that way, those who had played the game and paid their money would not feel that they had been done down twice. The system must deal with the "can pay, won't pay" merchants, because they will always be with us.
I shall not dwell on the issue of disregards, but the hon. Member for Croydon, North is right on the subject. The Select Committee recently visited Wisconsin, which has effectively no unemployment and a 100 per cent. pass-through system, as it is called. Non-custodial parents are happy to make payments that go straight to benefit their children and our new system must have a similar element. We must also encourage custodial parents—usually women-to get involved in the process, even if we have to pay them bonuses instead of penalising them if they do not get involved. I am more convinced of that than ever now that I have read the Government's amendment. I assume that the 70 per cent. figure for non-co-operation is derived from the CSA report. Some 30 per cent. of custodial parents fall into a middle category, neither totally complying nor totally non-complying. That big chunk of 30 per cent. needs to be worked on, preferably with carrots rather than sticks. We have not had enough carrots in the past.
The time before 2000 when the new, rebadged CSA will be introduced is essential to try to minimise the damage of the current system. The CSA was protected from some of the worst effects of the change programme in the past, and the previous Government rightly added extra civil servants to its numbers to prevent it from grinding to a halt. However, I am now worried that the change programme will affect the CSA badly. It is now taking its share of the cuts, which causes great concern about the next 18 months to two years. The departmental spending review will be published at about the same time as the Green Paper and I hope that we can count on Ministers to fight the case for the proper staffing of the CSA so that it can respond to our constituents' needs. Our constituents are driven crazy with frustration because they cannot get through on the telephone. It is bad enough that they have to speak to different members of staff every time, but it is much worse if they cannot get through at all.
I wish to enter the competition set by Baroness Hollis, who has done valuable work on the issue of the CSA. She has asked for names for the new body that will replace the CSA. I claim the bottle of champagne by suggesting that the new name should be the "Liable Relatives Unit".
§ 5.5 pm
§ Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)
I wish to add to the comments that I made in the useful debate that we had on 20 June 1997. I am glad that the review of the CSA is progressing, and I am pleased that the Labour Government have already taken steps to improve the efficiency of the agency and to make it more responsive. I also wish to add my thanks to those members of staff who have courteously replied to the many letters that I have sent to them. However, there is a lot still to do. Response times to telephone calls and letters are still too long. One of my constituents told me on Friday about trying to telephone the CSA more than 40 times last week, but not getting through once. That is not good enough.
42 I urge the Government to finish the review as soon as possible. South Swindon wants a new start for the CSA now. I am glad that the Government's amendment states that the report will be out by the summer. I urge the review to produce rules that are simple to understand, but that allow some flexibility. No two families' circumstances are identical. Some hon. Members have argued in this debate that the answer is one simple, rigid formula—for example, £x per week per child or y per cent. of the parent's income. A simple formula is attractive, but rigidly applied, it would bring rough justice. The cases that I have seen raise concerns about the rigid application of any formula, if fairness and common sense are to be part of the new system. I know of parents who exchanged tens of thousands of pounds when they separated, yet the CSA fails to take that into account. Common sense would justify a departure in such cases from even the simple formulae described to allow for such large transfers of money.
Support for the children involved and for both parents must be part of the process. For the constituents whom I see—and I recognise that I see those for whom the CSA has failed—support is entirely lacking. The only visible support comes from the title of the agency, which has become sadly ironic. I urge the Government to recognise in the review that not only the rules, but the agency itself need changing. Its history is so rotten that amending the system will not inspire confidence from those it has let down. We need a fresh start, new rules and new attitudes which are flexible and supportive of parents. It is also paramount that we keep the interests of children at heart.
I mentioned attitudes. The language used by the CSA is an important part of that. It uses the term "absent parent", which is neither constructive nor accurate in respect of many of the parents whom I meet. One of my constituents is a father whose son is the most important thing in his life. He does not live with his son, but spends as long as his contact time allows with him and supports him in every way that he can, yet the CSA describes him as an absent parent. The term gives neither that man nor many of my other constituents the respect that they deserve. It does not convey to their children what I hope we as a society want to convey. I am delighted that the Government's amendment uses the term "non-resident parent". I congratulate the Government on that change of language and ask that it be used by the CSA throughout its work.
On attitudes, the public and politicians sometimes say that all the CSA's problems are due to mean fathers who take no responsibility for their children. I recognise that roughly one third of non-resident parents do not comply at all with assessments and that a further third comply only partially. I accept that that proves that the system is failing. There are irresponsible fathers, but that is not the whole story. They are not the source of all the CSA's problems. Most fathers whom I meet are willing to co-operate and want to support their children, but are confused by the agency's complex rules, bled dry by their unreasonableness and inflexibility and deeply offended by being described as absent parents. I urge those discussing the agency's problems to put blame where it is due, but not to generalise it by including those who are not guilty.
I await the Government's review with eagerness. I urge them to make a fresh start with a simple new formula, but to accept that some flexibility is needed because no two individuals' circumstances are the same. My constituents 43 want a change in attitudes and language. We need an improvement in responsiveness so that people stuck in the system can get the answers that they need. Rather than failing increasing numbers of children and parents, a new system needs to ensure that the interests of children are paramount.
§ Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)
There seems to be near-unanimity in the House about the problems of the Child Support Agency, and about what may need to be done. As a new Member, I am shocked and upset by the cases that I have got caught up with. They illustrate a wide variety of problems, often including the sort of situation to which the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) referred.
Too often, fathers who are willing to pay and who have been paying have become easy targets. They get caught up in the mill. One also finds the reverse situation, where mothers who are supposed to be paying have got caught in the mill. I had a case where a mother had virtually lost her job, quite unjustly, as a result of administrative inconvenience.
Case officers are essential. I fear that they may be impossibly expensive, but at present, as other hon. Members have said, any difficult case involves different people, telephones going unanswered, and a complete administrative mess. That is a waste of time. I like the idea that, as the Inland Revenue has the records, and as its records are supposed to get better as self-assessment settles down, it might end up as the body that dispenses money when certain other reforms have come through. The revised CSA may have more of a counselling job, trying to decide under simplified rules what is fair, and sorting out the mess from the past.
I have found many instances of what I would call anti-men attitudes. That is probably changing, and I do not wish to say it tritely, but the culture that has existed since the CSA was set up has not been completely fair to one side or the other. In particular, a case in which a wife takes the children and leaves her husband, and the husband is denied access, is very different morally from the reverse situation, or from cases of real father irresponsibility.
I broadly agree with the Government's suggestions that we need something simple to avoid getting into the sort of minefield that exists now, but I agree with the hon. Member for South Swindon that cases vary enormously. Returning to my case officer point, there is a need to assess situations on their merits, as lawyers do in working out divorce settlements.
In my experience, the self-employed present almost impossible problems, and not only in respect of pursuing fathers who are shirking paying up. I have encountered tragic cases of near-suicide when self-employed people have been driven to give up work or been assessed ridiculously. I hope that the Inland Revenue may be the key to the solution once the discipline of self-assessment becomes established.
I echo the sympathy for CSA officers. They must be utterly fed up with Members of Parliament writing furious letters about constituents who have been left in a terrible way by the CSA. I agree that its replies are remarkably 44 courteous and detailed. I sometimes think that, if the same efficiency had been displayed in the first place, some of the problems might not have arisen.
It is too early to judge the outcome of the review. Like my colleagues, I was surprised to read reports that a Minister in the other House had decided to abolish the CSA. Such a decision cannot be made without knowing how we are going to deal with the CSA's problems. There should be more focus on what the courts can offer. They cannot alone solve the problem of making recalcitrant parents pay up or of collecting the money, but the fact that the majority of cases now voluntarily go to the courts for settlement rather than to the CSA suggests that the old mechanism of the courts is better.
I echo the wish to get a move on. I appreciate that it is difficult territory, but all hon. Members know of heart-rending cases that one fears must be unnecessary. I hope that we can, as everyone wants, speedily reach a collective decision on major reforms and simplifications. As to whether that involves a new body altogether or a major radical reform of the existing body, I have no instant answer, but change is necessary, and communication is at the heart of any continuing effective role that a body such as the CSA should have.
§ Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)
I welcome the fact that we are having a debate on such an important issue, and the serious and constructive tone in which it is being conducted.
Child Support Agency cases quickly emerged as a major element of my work as a newly elected Member. I am sure that that is also the experience of all recently elected colleagues. In the first few months of being in office, I collected no fewer than 50 serious and complex CSA cases. I could quickly come to the conclusion that there is something badly amiss with the CSA as it currently works.
I believe that we agree that the principle of ensuring that absent parents meet their responsibilities cannot be faulted, but it has also become clear that, in many instances, the CSA does not help to realise that outcome. In some cases, its intervention has frustrated an agreement that might otherwise have emerged.
In many respects, the basic approach adopted by the CSA is flawed. It shows all the signs of being, in the first instance, the product of some rushed decisions and perhaps inadequate research.
Despite all the difficulties and the reports of non-co-operation that we sometimes receive at our surgeries, I doubt that the problems are the fault of the staff who work in CSA offices. Most do their best in impossible circumstances. To start with, they have had to cope with a flawed structure, a difficulty now compounded by the heavy work load with which many are trying to wrestle, and the inadequate resources that support them. It has been a chilling experience to see month after month at my surgery so many individuals who have been placed under intolerable stress as a result of having to deal, with the CSA.
From my experience, many former partners are willing to accept their shared responsibilities, and would be able to reach a mutually agreed arrangement, but the CSA stands in their way. In those cases where the non-resident parent is unwilling to meet his or her responsibilities, the CSA is often ill equipped to track that person down.
45 It is worth taking a closer look at cases to find out specifically where the CSA has gone wrong. I spent some time analysing in detail the 50 significant cases which have been forwarded to me. That analysis reveals that the biggest single problem to emerge in 37 per cent. of cases is faults in the assessment of maintenance made by the CSA in the first place.
That general category of difficulty then divides according to four sub-headings. The first relates to incorrect information about the absent parent's earnings. Often, detailed evidence has been lodged with the CSA about the earnings of the other party, but for some reason the CSA fails to take that into account, or cannot do so. Despite the clear evidence in its receipt, we cannot succeed in getting a reassessment made.
Secondly, the CSA also appears to disregard various forms of unearned income. In one case with which I am familiar, rental income from owned property was not taken into account. Despite the fact that it clearly affected the person's ability to pay, it was somehow excluded from the assessment.
Thirdly, I have also come across assessments that have not been adjusted after changes of circumstances have been reported to the CSA. Often, the necessary reassessment is not made for a long time. In other cases, assessments have been set at an unrealistic level.
Fourthly, there is supposed to be a formula according to which the absent parent is left with a certain percentage of income after payment to the CSA, but, because of the many other administrative problems that I have outlined, many parents find that their disposable income level falls below the threshold set by the CSA. They are simply unable to make the assessment payments decided by the CSA.
The second main category of problem, which affects 19 per cent. of my case load, is the time taken to complete an assessment. In some cases, that delay has lasted three years, and in many for more than one year. I am beginning to find that, sadly, longer-standing delays are not dealt with by CSA officers, possibly because they are so busy trying to speed up work on current requests to ensure that delays do not occur in the first instance. That chokes attempts to deal with those longer-standing problems.
The third main difficulty is the inability of the CSA to take into account relevant new information that can materially affect the original assessment. In addition to those problems, a list of other difficulties has become apparent from my casework. They include failure to provide an interview to someone who needs to present their case to an officer; failure to respond to requests for information; administrative errors; failure to stop attachment of earnings orders long after they have expired; the build-up of arrears without any explanation of how they have arisen; and, in more than one case in my experience so far, the loss of files.
As a result of those problems, the CSA is increasingly seen as lacking credibility by those who must deal with it. That becomes a problem in itself, and encourages many to find ways of avoiding their obligations.
I have discovered that a sub-culture has built up among absent fathers. Gradually, a knowledge is growing of various devices, schemes—even scams—to keep the CSA away, sometimes almost indefinitely. Most of those tactics and ruses are picked up in conversation at the works 46 canteen, but for those who can afford it, the information is provided by solicitors, who give advice on how to get round certain obligations. Either way, that practice undermines the credibility of the CSA, leaves too many children disadvantaged, and causes too much distress among many parents.
It is, of course, relatively easy to portray the quantifiable nature of the problems, but what sticks in my mind is the unquantifiable ones—particularly the individuals I see at my surgery who are evidently under immense stress as a result of their struggles with the CSA. I see mothers who struggle to cope with bringing up children while the absent fathers deploy any number of means to avoid paying.
One popular avoidance tactic that I keep coming across involves the absent father taking out the largest possible mortgage upon leaving a relationship, because those repayments are taken into account when an assessment of his contributions is made. At the same time, the child care costs met by the single mother are not taken into account on her behalf. Equally, I see fathers who are genuinely willing to support their children, but who are asked to do so at a level that destroys their lives and undermines any chance of starting again or sustaining a second family in a new relationship.
I should like to share with the House one case to illustrate the problems involved. My constituent, Mr. B, had his initial assessment by the CSA in May 1994. It was revised in April 1995, and further review documents were sent out and completed in April 1996, when his ex-wife was also assessed. The CSA stopped his maintenance assessment in February 1997 on the ground that his ex-wife had not co-operated. The CSA then admitted that that decision was incorrect, as his ex-wife had co-operated and returned her forms.
At that point, Mr. B requested that the status of one of his sons should be investigated: he suspected that he should no longer have to pay for him, since he believed that his son was no longer in full-time education. Mr. B was told via the telephone that the CSA did not undertake that type of inquiry, but, later, he received a letter from it giving the results of its investigation into his son's educational status. In October 1997, his case was closed again, and on the basis of that my constituent took out a mortgage to buy a house. The following month, he was told by the CSA that his case had been closed down again in error, and at this point I intervened. I received an explanation from Faith Boardman, whose letter contained the following observation:I was most concerned aboutMr. B'scase being incorrectly closed given the similar scenario which occurred last year.My constituent requested a review of payments to offset the arrears that had accumulated as a result of the failed closure of his case, and, on 4 February this year, he received no fewer than 12 paying-in slips from the CSA. Not surprisingly, we are still trying to sort out his case.
It is clear that the present system has become unsustainable. The CSA structures are, in many ways, fatally flawed, and when its failure to interact with the tax and benefits system is factored in, the landscape becomes littered with inconsistencies, perverse incentives and too many ruined lives.
47 I am therefore pleased that we are at last embarking on a far-reaching reform of the CSA. As we proceed, we must be entirely clear about our basic objectives: first and foremost must be support for children by their parents, but I hope that we shall also seek a regular and reliable flow of maintenance and fair, effective, clear and affordable outcomes for everyone involved. The solution requires a radical rethink, and I am pleased to hear that that is how Ministers are approaching the problem as they prepare the long-awaited Green Paper.
§ Mrs. Jackie Ballard (Taunton)
I am disappointed that, so far, few women Members of Parliament have been able to speak in the debate, as the Child Support Act is one of those matters that many members of the public feel would have been treated differently had the House been more representative of gender balance in the past.
The break-up of a relationship is distressing for everyone, and especially traumatic when children are involved. As we have heard, even normally sensible and caring adults may use children as weapons in their continuing war, either by denying access or by withholding maintenance payments. What is needed is mediation, not confrontation.
The Child Support Agency is hated by many people because it seldom helps to get extra money to children; it is administratively slow because it works under such a huge burden; it seems to make more than its fair share of mistakes; and, most important, it adds more confrontation and pain to an already difficult situation. As one constituent said to me:the CSA has led to ever-increasing arguments and the collapse of any civility between myself and my ex-husband.That cannot be in the interests of the children of the marriage.
The existence of the CSA and the volume of casework it produces for Members of Parliament should have convinced us all—if we needed convincing—of the value of retaining the link between us and our constituents.
§ Mrs. Ballard
That is not an argument against proportional representation, but one in favour of retaining the constituency link, which is possible with many PR systems. How else would those who have no personal experience of maintenance wrangles or marital break-up learn about the problems in the execution of an Act that initially had all-party support?
All hon. Members know of examples of delay and distress caused by the formula, which does not allow for individual circumstances. One of my constituents—a young man whose relationship broke up even before the birth of his child—wanted to be a good father, and had to go to court to get access to his child. However, although he is happy to pay maintenance, his current assessment does not allow for the legal costs he incurred in getting that access to his child to enable him to be a good father. That cannot be in the child's interests, and it might have deterred a less determined father from pursuing his case.
48 There are also cases in which, because of the legislation, the agency refuses or is unable to get involved, either because the parent with whom the child lives is working and not on benefit and so is not a high priority, or because there is an existing court order in place.
One constituent, whom I cannot name, wanted me to draw the House's attention to her plight. She left a husband who was violent and abusive, both to her and to her children. She has a nine-year-old court order for maintenance payments. Fearing for her own and her children's safety, she moved to another part of the country and has made a new life. However, an order that is nine years old requires the payment of far less maintenance than she should currently be getting. She does not want to go back to court, because her ex-husband might discover where she now lives; but the CSA cannot take up her case, because there is a court order in existence.
Another constituent—a working mother on incapacity benefit—was not considered a priority by the agency because she is working. She has been tempted to give up her job in order to get the agency to help her to obtain maintenance for her children. There are many such instances of the CSA inadvertently encouraging work to welfare.
When I spoke in the Adjournment debate in June, I outlined my four-point plan for reforming the system. I did not want to bore the House by doing the same today, so I wrote to all my constituents on whose behalf I had taken up CSA casework, and asked them what they thought should be put in place. What follows are their positive suggestions for reform of the CSA.
First, as has already been mentioned, my constituents say that we should not stigmatise people by using the terms "absent parent" or "parent with care". Secondly, we should make the system genuinely about child support. Thirdly, they feel that people should be able to get face-to-face interviews, as of right, at local offices, to have the opportunity to be heard.
§ Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)
I have a great relationship with the CSA in my part of the country. The staff work on many cases, but always grant a face-to-face confrontational debate with any client who has a grievance. However, I now hear that that office is in danger of closing, despite its being the last on Merseyside where one can go to make a face-to-face inquiry. That is happening all over the country.
In the interim period between now and the CSA being wound up and a new system being introduced—
§ Mrs. Ballard
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Given the demands on the Child Support Agency, it would not appear sensible to be closing offices and losing staff. I am sure that the Minister will respond on that point.
The fourth in my constituents' list of suggestions is that there should be individual, rather than formula-driven, assessments. Fifthly, some suggested that the income tax 49 code or the national insurance system could be used to recover payments, as happens in Australia. Sixthly, they said that maintenance must be fair, and should reflect the ability to pay. Finally, one constituent made a plea that we should not return to the days of continual visits to court and never-ending war between ex-partners, with suffering children in between.
All those points could be covered if one agency, such as a court, assessed liability on an individual basis, while another was responsible for the enforcement of court orders. Other hon. Members have referred to the system used in the past, which broke down when it came to enforcement.
Millions of people have been adversely affected by the Child Support Act, and it is essential that its replacement should be created only after the widest possible consultation—consultation far beyond this place, with people who have personal experience of both the current system and the previous one. It is important that the new system's overriding remit should be to support children whose parents can no longer live together. Parliament got the Child Support Act hopelessly wrong; we must not repeat that mistake.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to speak in today's debate, which touches on an issue that has been of great concern to my constituents.
While I appreciate the cross-party consensus that exists on many aspects of the subject, I do not believe that the motion, as moved by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), which advocates moving towards a court-based, tribunal-based system—although a number of the comments since made by Liberal Democrat Members have advocated something different—would resolve the difficult problem of ensuring that proper financial provision is made for children whose parents live apart. To say that we need a fair system that encourages parents to agree voluntarily to child support is unrealistic, given the great difficulty that parents have, often in the bitter climate of the breakdown of their relationship, in agreeing to financial support for their children.
There is no doubt of the size of the task. In 1995, 155,000 marriages, about half of which involved children, ended. In the same year, 90,000 children were born to lone mothers. Those are cases that would never normally go through the divorce courts. Those are the children who are most likely to be brought up in poverty, on benefit. Yet there is often a parent who should be contributing, at least financially, to the children's upbringing. I completely agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) that parents should also be exercising other responsibilities.
Whatever the difficulties in its administration, the principles behind the CSA are widely held, as is clear from this afternoon's debate. It is perhaps partly the achievement of the CSA that most people who ask for help start by saying, "Of course, I know that I have got to support my kids," before complaining bitterly about some aspects of its implementation.
The hon. Member for Newbury's criticism that the CSA is actually a Treasury support agency has some sting to it. However, my constituents in Northampton, North 50 would not necessarily want to see their hard-earned taxes supporting families where they know that there is a parent who could or should support the children, but chooses to walk away from his or her responsibilities.
One of my objections to the proposal that maintenance assessment should be down to courts and tribunals is that lone parents with children would often lose out, just as they did in the years before the CSA was set up, when I believe that three out of four children did not receive any support from one of their parents. The need constantly to go back through the courts or tribunals to get maintenance orders enforced would mean that only the more articulate and well-heeled would be able to chase errant partners. Yet to continue as we are now is not much of an option either.
The CSA's failures account for about one fifth of my casework; I am sure that most other hon. Members are in the same position. Some of the more dramatic cases have included a man whose maintenance payments were taken directly from his pay; because of mistakes made by the CSA and his employers, he was left with £26 one week and £36 another week over Christmas. His workmates had to have a whip round so that his family had enough to live on during the holiday period.
Another case involved a woman who could not get the CSA to respond for years, then found that she could not get it to enforce maintenance orders against her self-employed former husband. She was left severely out of pocket while she saw her former husband enjoying a good life style with his new partner.
Those are formidable problems that are distressing to the people involved, time consuming for all those who provide advice or help and expensive for the state. Ultimately, and most importantly, they leave many children to be brought up in poverty.
Owing to all the difficulties, towards the end of last month, I held a special seminar on the CSA for advice agencies in my constituency and a special surgery for CSA clients. Child Support Agency staff from Belfast and the east midlands attended, and I am most grateful for their support. The occasion provided a good opportunity to talk through some of the measures that could make it easier to achieve the CSA's aims—aims that many divided families say they agree with. Six points emerged that could help to transform the CSA and make it more effective.
The biggest change would be the introduction of a simpler tariff system for the assessment of maintenance, to simplify and speed up the present procedure. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that that should be based on a flat rate rather than a percentage of earnings, as one of the current problems involves people proving and disputing exactly what constitutes earnings.
One of the biggest sources of problems with the CSA is the fact that the present assessment procedure is so cumbersome. It provides for endless assessments and reviews, so an absent parent can put off paying maintenance for a couple of years, only to find that he or she is then faced with arrears running into many thousands of pounds. By that time, the family circumstances will have changed and the process will have to begin all over again.
Having established simpler procedures for setting maintenance, there then needs to be much quicker enforcement. The CSA's present enforcement procedures, 51 using deduction of earnings orders to stop money direct from people's wages, are draconian, but they usually come too late. One man who came to see me recently had £500 or more stopped from his £1,100 a month wages—his maintenance liability plus repayment of arrears totalling £12,000. The arrears were mainly his fault, but any sensible collection agency would not allow a person to accrue such arrears in the first place. I understand that the total amount owed by absent parents is £1 billion.
If the present assessment procedures are retained, better recognition needs to be given to the full cost of housing and travel to work because 15 miles is quite a long distance, particularly when there is no proper public transport. In addition, there should be recognition of parity of the cost of a first and second family.
A radical improvement is needed in the way in which CSA staff communicate with their clients. Computer printouts do not meet the needs of the many people who need to go through their affairs in detail, face to face with someone else. At present, face-to-face interviews are possible, but many people do not know about them and, in some instances, it appears that those facilities might disappear.
The CSA needs to be more proactive in chasing up the more difficult cases and getting absent parents who fail to support their children to recognise their financial responsibility. There is resentment of the fact that the CSA chases the more co-operative parents for yet more money while those who do not co-operate still get off scot-free.
Many absent or non-resident parents resent the fact that, however much they pay to the CSA, they still have little chance of improving the living conditions of children who grow up on income support. Many of my constituents would welcome a maintenance disregard for income support applicants—as suggested by a number of previous speakers—to provide incentives for absent parents to support their children, to provide some parity with applicants in receipt of family credit and to deal with child poverty. At present, we hear of absent parents offering their former partners so much a week not to co-operate with the CSA. The absent parent is better off, there is more money for the children and there is none of the bureaucratic hassle, but the state loses out, which means that other taxpayers lose out.
The Government are right to review and reorganise the CSA—perhaps to rename it and give it a fresh start. To abolish it would send out mixed messages to the public about changing the rules and letting people off their responsibilities just when we are making some headway and encouraging the idea of parental support and responsibility for children.
It is right to take a bit more time over the review as it is widely recognised by all parties that many of the problems were caused by the inadequacy of the original legislation and the lack of scrutiny. A botched job will not be made better by a botched repair job.
I would much rather that we have a thorough review that will produce the changes—I hope that they will be radical changes—that are needed for the CSA to achieve its goals and ensure that parents make proper financial provision for their children even if they do not live with their partners. We must ensure that the state—other 52 taxpayers—is not left to pick up the bill for children who are left by one of their parents. Above all, we must ensure that children are properly supported by both their parents, not brought up in poverty.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
One of the advantages of having sat out the previous Parliament is that I have spent five years without having to deal with CSA cases. On my return to Parliament, I found that CSA cases take up much of my time and cause me the most grief.
It was right and proper that we introduced the CSA through the Child Support Act 1991. I was in the House when the measure was proposed and its principle was welcomed in all parts of the House because it was felt that action was needed to deal with a widespread problem. I remind the House of what the then Secretary of State for Social Security, Mr. Tony Newton, said when he introduced his White Paper. He outlined what he hoped would result from the measure and said:Governments cannot, of course, ensure that all children always live with both their parents, but they can and should seek to ensure that, whatever the underlying circumstances, the welfare of the children is the prime consideration.It was always the Conservative Government's intention to ensure that the measure dealt adequately with the welfare of children.
In fairness, Mr. Newton said that the taxpayer also had an interest in the matter. He said that support for lone parentsplaces a large burden on those who pay tax, many of whom are themselves bringing up children on perhaps quite modest incomes."—[Official Report, 29 October 1990; Vol.178, c. 729.]Those two issues in that order were presented by Mr. Newton. The Minister has been good enough to admit that he has reversed the order. Both are important.
It was right for us to introduce a measure that tried to deal with the problem of gross irresponsibility because those who produce children, and particularly men, should not be able to walk away from their responsibilities. We must ensure that they maintain their children. The measure has worked but, as the House has heard, there have been grave shortcomings in its operation.
I agree with almost everything that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) said. My constituents tell me that the CSA seems to concentrate on those, particularly men, who are contributing. Without exception they tell me, "I acknowledge my responsibilities. I know that I ought to pay for the maintenance of my child and I want to do that, but there is a limit to what I can afford."
The overwhelming proportion of my case load on this issue consists of fathers complaining about the effect on their new family arrangements. Only two mothers came to see me and the husband of one of them is self-employed. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) spoke about the difficulties of the self-employed. That woman knows the life style of her former husband. He has a fine car, a good house, a mobile phone and a fax machine and so on, but he has not paid her a penny and the CSA has told me that there is no way that it can get any money out of him. Such failure is unacceptable.
53 The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who is not in his place, spoke about second marriages. The difficulties surrounding such marriages were graphically brought home to me by those who came to my surgery or whom I visited in their homes. Whatever our views on marriage and the desirability of ensuring that marriages are maintained—I know that the Minister and I share strong common ground on that—some break down and we have to try to cope with the consequences.
If people who have made arrangements remarry, there are inevitably children and it is a traumatic experience trying to cope with the demands that are placed upon them. The problem is not the principle that they should contribute to the maintenance of their children from the previous marriage but the amount of that contribution. They find it intolerable, and I understand why they are exasperated. One man said in my surgery, "Unless I can change the arrangements, I do not see the point in carrying on with life." He did not say that simply to dramatise the situation for my benefit: that is what he felt. A man with an attachment of earnings order loses that money from his account at once because it is the first claim on his income. Such men feel a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness and that is serious.
Another point that is put to me by constituents is that the first wife has found somebody else, is living comfortably and is being looked after by the new husband. The father who is trying to look after his children as best he can feels a huge sense of grievance. He knows that his child or children are being well looked after because the household in which his ex-wife is living is more comfortable than his own. The CSA does not make as thorough an investigation of how the parent with custody is faring vis-à-vis the father and the father's new family.
Much has been made of the CSA's staff. I have no doubt that, in a difficult job, the staff are well intentioned and trying to cope. However, some of their mistakes are unforgivable, and the CSA does not seem to be user friendly. As many hon. Members have said, constituents cannot get the staff on the telephone or get any sense from the CSA, and they deal with a different person each time. It took the CSA nine months to assess the review of one of my constituents, although he had provided all that was required. At the end of the nine months, the CSA sent him a bill for £2,000, which is a hell of a lot of money. The guy did not have it and the bill sent a shock through the household. The CSA does not seem to be alive to the implications of the huge burdens that it places on families.
In a garrison town such as Aldershot, there are also difficulties. There is a lack of sensitivity. A soldier who was about to be posted to Northern Ireland, which in some respects is an active theatre, got a load of stuff from the CSA demanding yet more money two weeks before he was due to go. When he was in Northern Ireland, more letters arrived demanding more money and his second wife told the CSA, "I am not sending these on to my husband. He is out there in Northern Ireland putting his life on the line." The CSA needs to put right that lack of sensitivity.
I agree with much of what has been said about improvements. If the appointment of case officers means more staff, I think that the House would be prepared to wear it if it means that constituents feel that they have some contact rather than the faceless and constantly changing scene of the CSA. The availability of interviews 54 will be beneficial because people want to speak to someone. There is no point in saying, as Mrs. Boardman once said to me, that much business is conducted on the telephone.
I am not sure that it is possible to devise a formula that will meet all circumstances. A simple formula could be unfair and a complex one would be incredibly time consuming. The CSA must acknowledge that those who are responsible for new families should be given more consideration of what is required to maintain that new family and prevent it from becoming another burden on the state. I hope that the Minister will take note of what has been said in the debate. I am sure that the House feels that he will deal sensitively with the matter, and we look forward to the results of his review.
§ Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this important debate. It enables me to do two things: first, to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform on the strong Government amendment and, secondly, to bring home to him, if I can, the extreme urgency of the review and of the measures that will doubtless attend us.
As you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, our surgeries are sad places; at least mine is. During our surgeries, we deal with just about every form of economic and physical disability and all the attendant miseries that they bring. However, I want to bring home to the Minister—I think that he knows this—that no single thing causes more anxiety, despair, depression and family break-up than the Child Support Agency.
I take issue with some hon. Members who have spoken about the complexity of this: CSA reform is not a complex matter. The agony of the CSA may be distilled, effectively, into three problems. The first, which has been touched on by many hon. Members, is the CSA's statutory impotence in pursuing and enforcing orders against people who will not co-operate. The vast majority of them are indeed self-employed men who are able to obfuscate the nature of their earnings.
The second problem is the ghastly and impenetrable formula with which we have to operate and in which CSA staff are trapped. I suffer particularly badly from the formula. Many of my constituents have picked up a rumour that, in my other life, I was a lawyer dealing with commercial fraud in the City. They therefore jump to the conclusion that I may be able to assist them with the impenetrable demands that are made on them by the formula. Thus, when they come to my surgery and perceive that I cannot understand a word of it either, to their many other complaints is added dreadful disappointment at the legal system and legal education.
The third matter that needs urgently to be dealt with—we all hear about it all the time in our surgeries—is the chaotic state of assessment reviews, which are now done not annually, but, if people are lucky, bi-annually. That results in the sudden, again impenetrable, sometimes downright contradictory demand—to men who have done nothing but honourably meet the debts that they were told they had—for many thousands of pounds, with all the shock and trauma that that causes.
Recognising as I do that anecdotal evidence is the last thing that the Minister wants in this case, may I bring to his attention one particular case, which involves a soldier, 55 interestingly enough? I also represent a garrison town. One particular soldier comes to me. I am honoured when soldiers come into my surgeries. In general terms, and this man is no exception, they are brave and honourable men who want nothing more than to serve their country and to support their children. In that respect, he is absolutely no exception. He and his family have been brought to the verge of despair by a series of completely impenetrable, totally contradictory demands for arrears running into many, many thousands of pounds, which has resulted in the break-up of his family.
When I see in my surgery that that otherwise brave service man, who would follow you anywhere, Mr. Deputy Speaker—indeed, he would follow you across the sands of Arabia—has been brought to the verge of a nervous breakdown, I reflect that there is one ghastly secret weapon that we must at all cost keep out of the hands of the world's dictators: the workings of the CSA. Indeed, if several million bogus letters resembling those from the CSA were addressed to British soldiers and allowed to waft across the battlefield, it would cause paralysis among the vast majority of our officers and men.
I advance three nostrums that would largely right the wrongs of the present CSA. First, I am against reinventing the wheel of the family court. The agency in itself, if reformed, is perfectly adequate, but it needs the power to obtain evidence on oath and by affidavit, particularly from people who are recalcitrant and will not provide the evidence that it needs. Thus, the enormously powerful remedy of perjury would be available to the agency, as it was to the courts.
The second reform that I urge on the Minister is that there should be a limit in the CSA's power to attract or to enforce arrears, where the accumulation of those arrears is the fault of the CSA. My third proposal is that the rigid formula that we have to live with should be replaced by a mixture of consensus and orders, to be backed, if necessary, by proper sanctions. However, those orders should be based on what the courts used to call, in the old days, when we dealt with such things, reasonableness between the parties.
If those reforms were brought into effect, many of our problems would be resolved and our surgeries would be shorter and infinitely more pleasant.
§ 6.6 pm
§ Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)
I hope that I can say without offending anyone that, as a new Member, this debate has been a refreshing experience for me. This is what the House of Commons should be about: adult discussion, with hon. Members expressing different views, but constructively. It is heartening.
The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) knows infinitely more about the law than I ever shall, but as other speeches have illustrated, the CSA's activities are not suited to bureaucratic methods. Those are not the right way in which to deal with the problems. Some sort of court system, which should be as informal as possible, would be better.
With that system, it should be possible to persuade more couples to come to an agreement, which is obviously better than some bureaucrat trying to enforce 56 something. It is harder to persuade other couples to come to an agreement, but under that system, they would respect a face-to-face discussion, with a neutral party adjudicating. Many people would accept the decision of that informal system and pay up. There is then the third group, which is totally bloody-minded and would not pay up at all.
An informal court hearing system that learnt from experience elsewhere—for example, the children's hearing system in Scotland, which works well in dealing informally with family problems that are not unrelated to the things that the CSA examines—would be the best way in which to deal with the matter, rather than having a bureaucrat who tried to enforce lots of rules.
I was struck by the Minister's comment, if I understood him correctly, that it was not possible for any competent official to understand the whole system. That one sentence demolishes the system. Any system that a reasonably intelligent official cannot understand is not worth having and should be thrown into the wastepaper basket.
The other aspect is enforcement, to which other hon. Members have referred. That has to be dealt with much more seriously. There could be a structure whereby people who acted in a civilised way and co-operated paid less than those who were bolshie and bloody-minded. It surely must be possible to extract money out of people, using the tax system or whatever other system is used, and ensuring that they pay up. Those who are willing to pay, but who have temporary difficulties, should be treated more leniently. It would be reasonable to have an informal court system to reach agreement on the figures, but a really strict enforcement system for those who will not pay. Then, we would get on much better.
My experience is that other parts of the benefits system create just as much trouble for people as the CSA. Indeed, I have more trouble with the disability living allowance system than with the CSA. The point is that child support is not a suitable subject for a bureaucratic system.
I hope that the Minister will consider the ideas put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the House in what has been a very constructive debate.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
Never has an Act of Parliament caused so much misery as the Child Support Act 1991. It was poor legislation when it was introduced, in too much haste, and it desperately needs reforming. If my right hon. Friend the Minister can create a simple new legislative system that actually works and is seen to be fair by all involved, at some time in the future we might find him perched on a pedestal somewhere along the embankment. My first experience of the Act was when I became a Member of Parliament last May, so I see it only through the eyes of my constituents. As I am by no means an expert, I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that even some of the staff at the CSA find the system difficult to operate.
I want to mention some of the problems that have beset some of my constituents. Several of them are still paying child maintenance, through deduction of earnings, way beyond the normal cut-off age of 18. One constituent is still paying for a child who is well past 19. Perhaps the date of birth could be programmed into the mechanism to trigger an automatic cut-off for the deduction of earnings order, so that my constituents would not have to fight to get the payments stopped.
57 In one case, the mother was initially awarded care of the son for 18 months. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that she was a drug addict. The father has now looked after the son, Simon, for three years. He has been to see me several times, in sheer desperation, because he is still being made to pay child maintenance to the drug-addict mother. Although I have tried, I cannot persuade the Child Support Agency to stop the order. It is a remarkable delay in taking any action.
Another constituent has tried to commit suicide three times. He often breaks down when he comes to see me in my surgery, so it takes me a long time to interview him and discover any new problem. Over a period of 18 months, he has had 16 reassessments of between £12 and £110, despite the fact that his wage has never changed. He has received no overtime or any other significant alteration in his income over that period. His mother also comes to my surgery, desperately pleading with me to sort out that tricky problem.
On a more trivial level, one constituent tried to contact the CSA many, many times—unfortunately, on a mobile telephone. When he finally got through, it took 45 minutes to get an answer to his query. He did not dare hang up because he was desperate to sort it out. That one telephone call cost him £28.
The Child Support Act is anti-marriage—as other hon. Members have said, although sometimes in a different way. A number of my constituents have told me that when they many a new partner, the CSA is quick to descend on them and take any earnings by the new wife into account. However, it does not seem to work the other way. A number of the fathers tell me that their former wives are living in the lap of luxury, often fraudulently claiming benefits. I have submitted evidence to the CSA showing that some mothers are living with new partners who are working and have good incomes, yet they continue to draw benefits, including housing benefit. The CSA just says, "Sorry, it is not our job to sort out fraudulent claims from the Benefits Agency." Surely something must be done about that. Because of such practices, fathers are often less well off than the mothers to whom they pay maintenance through the Child Support Agency.
The CSA claims that it does not take more than 30 per cent. of disposable income—or 40 per cent. when there are arrears. I have a constituent who is losing half his disposable income because of a CSA assessment. I have fought that, but cannot get it altered. I have not had an adequate response.
Several hon. Members said that the formula is extremely complicated and does not take into account individual circumstances. I concur with that view. In addition, the forms that must be filled in are far too complicated for many of my constituents, yet they get little help with them. I agree with other hon. Members that, if we are to continue with such a complicated system for the next two years, face-to-face contact with those operating the system is absolutely essential so that correct advice can be given.
In my constituents' experience, the CSA is unapproachable. Many of them would like to have a calm, collected interview with CSA staff, who could explain how assessments have been made. They would then feel reassured that no mistakes had been made. In fact, a face-to-face interview is difficult to obtain—and, as hon. Members have said, offices are being closed, so it will 58 become even more difficult. If, against our hopes, nothing happens, the expectation is that by 2000 there will be a 60 per cent. increase in the number of cases dealt with by the CSA. However, we have been told that in the 1998–99 financial year the agency is expected to make a 10 per cent. saving. That does not make sense. That sort of requirement will not produce the improved service that is obviously needed.
On behalf of my constituents, I urge good speed on my right hon. Friend the Minister in reforming this invidious piece of legislation. We look forward to a simpler system. None of my constituents disagrees with the basic principle that the care of children should be shared between the parents.
§ Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)
I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate. I reiterate what other hon. Members have said—what we learn at our advice surgeries and from the letters and telephone calls we receive shows the nightmare that the Child Support Agency has wreaked across the country. Hon. Members from England, Scotland and Wales have spoken this afternoon, but they all tell of the same experience—that the CSA is making many lives miserable. I was pleased to see the strength of language used in the Government amendment; I hope that it is a sign of the speed with which the Government will change the system.
Last year, at the back of the Child Support Agency's annual report—which was released in July and, in the circumstances, was a surprisingly cheery little tome—the Comptroller and Auditor General delivered his own report, in which he mentioned a few alarming percentages. Some examples included the fact that 39 per cent. of receipts from absent parents were wrong, as were 85 per cent. of absent parents' maintenance balances. Those mistakes have a clear and common root: the initial assessments made by the Child Support Agency were wrong, which led to the subsequent mistakes.
A related matter, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform said, is the system's complexity, in addition to its rigidity. Like other hon. Members, I have experiences of ringing the Child Support Agency with a perfectly reasonable offer that is turned down because those at the agency say that it is not allowed by the formula in the original legislation.
We must deal not only with mistakes in maintenance assessments and with rigidity and complexity in the original legislation's formula, but with enormous time lags in dealing with assessments or reassessments—which, last year, took at least a year in more than half the applications. Only 63 per cent. of cases requiring assessments to be readjusted were cleared in 13 weeks, which is an appalling track record for any agency.
One of my constituents, who was working as a docker at Tilbury docks, was earning £1,400 net per month—which included a great deal of overtime that he earned to pay £350 monthly to the Child Support Agency. After he received a serious injury—which often happens to dockers—his income fell to £1,100 per month because of lost overtime. The CSA refused to take account of that income drop, the consequence of which was that he breached the protected income figure that the CSA had determined. I was told over the telephone by the CSA that the figure was £880, but that figure was later denied.
59 Subsequently, although the CSA agreed that it was all right to breach that figure, there were further complications. The agency eventually made an adjustment of £8 per week and apologised for its mistake. However, that constituent was probably only one of thousands of people who have enormous problems with the CSA, which are making their lives a real misery.
The root of the problems is undoubtedly six years ago, when the CSA was founded. It was established hurriedly and incompetently, and on fairly inaccurate information, to subsidise state spending. It has consequently become the shambles that it is today. The previous Government saw in the CSA and in the Child Support Act 1991 an opportunity to subsidise their social security spending, and we are living with the consequences.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
The hon. Gentleman referred to the delays, which in my experience are absolutely critical. In his speech, the Minister rightly praised the work of staff who are already at the agency. Something that all hon. Members could look forward to is having twice as many excellent members of staff working at the agency. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in asking the Minister immediately to put more resources into staff, so that matters are dealt with more quickly? The review is bound to take much longer, and misery will continue to be inflicted on people unless there are more resources for staff.
§ Mr. Cryer
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have conveyed the message and agree that extra resources are desirable. However, the change programme—which is a leftover from the previous Government and was clearly an attempt to privatise sections of the public sector—is continuing, and it will not help the CSA or any other part of the public sector. As we are already seeing, that programme is really privatisation by the back door.
There is evidence that single parents—or parents with care—are deliberately trying to avoid going to the CSA. As I have heard in my surgery, if they go to the CSA, their benefits might be stopped and they might have to wait for six or 12 months—they do not know for how long—until they get money from the CSA. There are also fears that the ex-husband or ex-partner, if he is of a violent frame of mind, might come calling if the CSA starts pursuing him in the manner that it does.
I should like the CSA to be overhauled radically, which would effectively entail its abolition and replacement with something else. I have sympathy for moving towards the Australian system, but I do not advocate a return to using family courts, which are unnecessary. We could move towards a more consensual system, so that we do not have a repeat of the huge misery that has been caused in the past six years. However, that is the long term; in the short term, the system requires an overhaul of its method of assessment and of the criteria that it uses. The system will then start to work more efficiently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) mentioned the problem of lowering the divorce rate and said that there is not an easy answer to that problem. However, the easy answer is full employment. I guarantee that the divorce rate will drop like a stone if we have full employment. The causes of 60 divorce are poverty, financial insecurity and unemployment. Once we start more broadly to attack those problems, the divorce rate will start to drop.
§ Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, which has been very useful in allowing new Members to share the considerable knowledge of the operation of the Child Support Agency that we have gained in recent months. It is important that we have radical reform, as nothing less will bring respect to a vital service for children in the United Kingdom.
Sadly, I do not believe that, from its inception, the Child Support Agency has had respect—which is not an accusation against its staff. As other hon. Members have said in this debate, the agency's staff are working in very difficult circumstances. Specifically, because the legislation was retrospective, havoc was caused and good support agreements between parents were torn apart once the Child Support Agency became involved. The children are the ones to lose out when a quite reasonable relationship breaks down.
The CSA tackled the "easy cases" because it had to get the money in. Therefore, those who most need maintenance support for their children do not receive the help from the agency that they should have. Demands were made on absent parents—I, too, think that we should change that phrase, but it is the one that we currently use—that were seen to be unreasonable.
§ Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)
Surely the hon. Lady will agree that, as the Government have used the phrase "non-resident" in their amendment to the motion, she could use this opportunity to tell the Minister that there is no reason why the phrase could not be changed tomorrow. Making that change and doing away with the term "absent parent" would make a great difference to many people who complain about it. Perhaps the Minister will consider doing so tomorrow, and the hon. Lady can make representations on that.
§ Mrs. Dean
I certainly urge the Minister to change the term to "non-resident parent" as soon as possible and practicable. As has already been said in the debate, most parents—usually fathers, but sometimes mothers—want to pay to support their children. However, they are faced with problems such as those that have been mentioned. Ultimately, money is demanded of them and they think that the system is being unfair.
As hon. Members have said, there are cases in which a first wife who has care of the children becomes relatively well off when she remarries. It is a real problem when both the non-resident parent who is paying for a child's upkeep and his second family are struggling and suffering, whereas his ex-wife's new family are living quite well. The problem is that he is paying to support not only the child, but the mother and the child. Clearly, that causes a great deal of resentment. There have been so many mistakes in the calculations that the whole system has been brought into disrepute.
The other side of the equation is that the parent with care is not getting the maintenance that she—it is generally a she—should be getting. As has been said, it is particularly difficult to sort out when the non-resident parent is self-employed. We must introduce methods to 61 tackle that problem. It is easy to get money from an individual who is paid a wage—one can simply have an order placed on that wage—but it is not so easy when the individual is self-employed.
I quite like the idea of a percentage or flat-rate system being introduced, but whatever we do needs to be simple.
§ Mrs. Dean
I think that a percentage system would generally be able to recognise differences in income. There needs to be a recognition of additional children for whom people may care. For example, I know of cases in my constituency where a man pays to support his children from a former marriage. At the same time, his new wife has children from her previous marriage, but those children are getting no income from her previous partner. Effectively, the husband is being forced to support two families. Any new maintenance assessment procedure needs to cover such problems.
§ Mr. Rendel
Has not the hon. Lady just exemplified why any formula is so difficult to operate? Every Labour Member who has suggested a formula of any kind has immediately had to say that of course it would also have to take into account this, that and the other. To be fair, the Tories were beginning to introduce some changes, but the formula became ever more complex.
§ Mrs. Dean
Obviously, any review is going to be difficult; if that were not so, we would not be discussing the matter now.
I urge Ministers to consult as widely as possible and in the greatest possible depth on any proposals. Our main objective must be a formula that is simple enough for everyone to understand—not only parents, but the people who operate it. It must also be respected on all sides. That is crucial because where the country went wrong in the first place was in establishing an agency that did not have that respect. We must start afresh and introduce a system that everyone can respect.
§ Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)
Hon. Members of all parties have said what a good debate this has been, and I echo those sentiments. The tone was well set by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) in the measured way in which he moved the motion, and that tone was picked up by the Minister of State and, indeed, by the Opposition spokesman. Today's experience has shown the value of Opposition day debates and, at the risk of being ever so slightly partisan, of Liberal Democrat Opposition day debates in particular. We have sought to take a contentious issue and offer some constructive thoughts on how it might be dealt with.
As a new Member, I was intrigued to hear the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) and the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). They mentioned two things that Back Benchers can do to make individual constituents feel part of the political process. My hon. Friend related how she had asked constituents who had had contact with the CSA 62 and who had written to her about it what they would do. She has ensured that their voices have been heard today, and that is very valuable. The hon. Member for Northampton, North brought together all the stakeholders—I think that that is the phrase—in the Child Support Agency and enabled a dialogue to take place. Face-to-face dialogue is what is so often lacking—that is what we need more of, not the shutting of benefit offices.
I am grateful to the Minister of State for his kind remarks. He has been something of a sponsor of my involvement in these Corridors in that, while he was Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, I took on the role of specialist adviser. I think of him as a sponsor, or almost a godfather—[Interruption.] Yes, an absent parent. It is not a role that he will regret.
Many of the hard-pressed staff of the CSA have been praised by hon. Members, and I echo that praise. The people whom we telephone on the Members of Parliament hotline often give prompt and efficient service. That is good and it makes some of my constituents think that I am an effective Member of Parliament, which is always welcome. However, when I achieve something as a Member of Parliament by pulling strings or using special telephone lines, I wonder why my constituents cannot get the same service. I hope that whatever system we introduce will give everyone that quality of service.
Some of the praise for the staff rings a little hollow, given that we know that some of them will be laid off or not have their contracts renewed even though the agency's work load will increase by 50 per cent. In two years' time, the Government may have a simple system in place and those staff may not be needed, but between now and then, it is going to be hell—hell for the staff and for the people who have to deal with the agency. Although the language has been measured, and there have been good-natured comments from all parties, I hope that the Government will not take that as a reason for complacency—I am sure that they will not. The language has been measured, but for our constituents, this is a matter of great urgency. I hope that once the Green Paper has been produced in the summer and the consultation has been undertaken, the Government will act quickly.
Where should we go from here? It is easy to take an easy target like the CSA and to say that we should get rid of it—and get a few good headlines in the process—but to offer no alternative. We must not be guilty of that; we must offer a constructive way forward. Today, we have heard many elements of that way forward. The new agency, the court or whatever system we put in its place must be properly resourced from the outset.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) mentioned the CSA's annual report, which states that half of all maintenance applications are more than a year out of date. Sometimes, my constituents have to wait a while for a reply from me, but if half had to wait for a year, I suspect that I would not have a job after the next election, and rightly so.
The CSA's report also shows that in one in six cases, the assessment of maintenance owed is out by more than £1,000. How can that have been allowed to continue for so long? When will it get better? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us.
The agency's replacement—whether it be a new agency or a court—must be properly funded and flexible. Criticism has been made—rightly so—of a rigid, 63 formula-based system. The initial system was rigid and it was seen to be unjust, so departures from the rigid system were introduced to correct perceived injustices. If the original formula was too rigid and inflexible and created injustices, how can it be right to move towards an even more simplistic, rigid and bureaucratic formula?
The Minister of State essentially announced a non-residential child tax. That is my understanding of the drift of the Government's proposal. It will certainly be simple, it will save on staffing at the agency and it will cut the backlog but, as the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) said, a simple formula will mean rough justice. If there was a sense of rough justice with the fairly sophisticated formula with which we began, how much greater will the sense of injustice be if a tax—a flat-rate or a percentage system—is introduced?
§ Mr. Webb
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been washing their hands of what happened under the previous Administration, but I am not sure that we can be blamed for income tax.
To use the court system as an analogy, once innocence or guilt has been established, judges have flexibility in sentencing to enable them to take account of the circumstances of an individual case. There is no reason why the same should not apply to child support. We should have broad guidelines and principles, but the ability to take individual circumstances into account.
The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), who is no longer in his place, proposed a test of reasonableness. That is a good idea. Instead of having a flat-rate or lump-sum tax, there should be a reasonable assessment of individual circumstances. The system needs to be flexible, fair and seen to be fair. The Child Support Agency is neither. We have heard today that parents with care and non-resident parents want the chance to be heard. That will not happen if they are faced with a lump-sum tax that takes no account of their personal circumstances.
The agency has been accused of chasing easy cases. That is another instance in which the CSA is not seen to be fair. I make one suggestion as to how that perception can be changed. The performance targets for the CSA relate partly to how much maintenance it recovers and not to the number of people from whom maintenance is recovered. Members of the CSA staff worth their salt will, therefore, go for the easy cases in order to meet their performance target. The performance target should also relate to the proportion of people from whom money has been recovered and thereby change the incentive structure. Perhaps the next set of performance targets should create the right incentives instead of the wrong ones.
Most of all, we need a system of child support that puts children first. The hon. Member for Croydon, North made several proposals with which I heartily agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said that we needed to ensure that the incentives were right. At the moment, they are all wrong.
64 There is no incentive to co-operate as it is not in the interests of the absent parent or the children. For goodness' sake, we should allow the parents—and thereby the children—to keep some of the money. That would not cost much up front and it could even save money if it increased compliance with the CSA. It could also be introduced in the Budget. If there are a few hundred million pounds knocking around—and I understand that the Chancellor has a little to throw into the pot—let us forget about working family tax credits and have instead a maintenance disregard.
Just occasionally, the Liberal Democrats are asked where the money would come from to pay for our ideas. The working family tax credit will require several hundred million pounds. I would throw the money in a different direction. We need a system that puts children first and a maintenance disregard would do exactly that.
Mention has been made of letting people take maintenance into work as a firm foundation. That has to be right. If maintenance were enforced, a lone mother would have the confidence to take work knowing that the maintenance that she received was guaranteed by the state. If that money stopped, the state would have plenty of mechanisms for recovering it. The state is pretty good at getting money off people—much better than the CSA.
If we are interested in welfare to work—and apparently we are—let us give lone parents the bedrock of maintenance. Let us make sure that they get it and thus give them an incentive to co-operate with the agency. If they take low-paid work, let us underwrite their maintenance so that they have the confidence to take a job.
We have sought to be constructive about the direction that we want child support policy to take. We believe that a flat-rate or percentage tax would be a gross injustice and that the system should take account of individual circumstances and put children first.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley)
I acknowledge that the Liberal Democrats initiated the debate, and it is important that the Government respond to the many issues that have been raised.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in today's extremely interesting, thoughtful and stimulating debate. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) set the tone, and enabled it to be one of the better parliamentary occasions in which I have participated in the past 11 years. Similarly, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) summed up the Liberal Democrat position, although I am not totally convinced that he answered the question from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform about the future of income tax, but we shall leave that for another occasion.
Crucially, the debate has enabled hon. Members—and particularly Back Benchers—on both sides of the House to express their views about the way in which the Child Support Agency should be reformed. The important message that has come out of the debate is how clearly and consistently the issues that concern hon. Members have been placed on record, and the fact that many of those issues are common to all hon. Members through their postbags and their constituency casework. I can assure the House that Ministers deal with similar constituency cases. Many of the issues are common to us all, and form our thinking as the review progresses.
65 There is a fundamental principle on which all debates on child support should be based: all children have a right to the emotional and financial support of both their parents. That right does not diminish if their parents no longer live together. It is a principle to which the Government fully subscribe, and we shall ensure that it is at the heart of any reform of the child support scheme.
As my right hon. Friend said in opening the debate for the Government, child support has the potential drastically to enhance the quality of life of many of the poorest children in society. He set out the principles and objectives that we want the Green Paper to address, and the direction that we expect it to take. He and many other hon. Members rightly praised the staff of the CSA, and I add my voice to that—but not without caveat and exception.
In praising the staff, we have to recognise the difficulties they experience because of the nature of their work and the formula that we have imposed on them, as well as the context in which they operate. In addition, the technology that they use to assess people fails to communicate with other agencies.
For example, the Child Support Agency cannot communicate with the Benefits Agency, so income support and maintenance—fundamentals of the system—cannot be considered together. That results in anguish and concern for the parent with care and the absent parent when letters from the CSA cascade through their letterboxes. It is not necessarily the fault of the staff, but it is the fault of the system, which cannot suppress change after change to the formula. We have to address those issues if we are properly to address the needs of staff and ensure that praise is directed towards them.
As I said, many hon. Members have expressed their views on how the Child Support Agency should be reformed. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) assured us that he welcomed the forthcoming Green Paper, and that the Opposition would contribute to the debate and make their own proposals for reform. We look forward to those as soon as possible.
I welcome—as I always do in summing up such debates—the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). He always gives a thoughtful and comprehensive view of the state of child support in the widest sense. His contributions are always welcome. He particularly advocated a child maintenance disregard, as he has consistently for many years. I assure him that that will be included as part of our review.
Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend has called for a simpler formula, but recognised the rough justice that that may cause. The formula is part of the review. He also called for a more case-worker-focused approach to child support and assessment, as did many others, including the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), who is not in his place, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard). They recognise the need for face-to-face contact.
§ Mr. Blizzard
One of the most enlightening points made during the debate came from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform. When asked, "Why cannot my constituents speak to the same person?" he explained that many cases were too complicated for one person. That is an argument for simplification.
66 If a case is too complicated for the official, it must be too complicated for the customer. While we are seeking a way to reform the system, cannot a method be devised to enable our constituents to go back to a named official who either knows the answer or can get the answer from someone who knows?
§ Mr. Bradley
I understand that well-made point. We are looking carefully at interaction between the agency and the public.
Comment has been made about proposals to close offices. Those proposals relate mainly to the centralisation of processing work rather than direct contact, be it face to face, by telephone or through other methods of communication. We want to move towards individual casework, while recognising that an individual case worker may not have all the tools to deal with the case.
We want to streamline the process to ensure that the member of the public knows whom they are talking to on the telephone or has the opportunity to go into the office and make direct contact, which is the most effective way to get satisfaction. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform said, when more than 90 per cent. of staff time is taken trying to understand the formula, how can we ensure that face-to-face work is undertaken? The process has to be streamlined and simplified.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) proposed simplifying the system with a percentage scheme. That will have to be considered. He also pointed out the crucial problem of dealing with self-employed people. That point has been well made by hon. Members on both sides. I am well aware of it from my constituency cases. I assure the House that we shall examine the issue in the review.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown), the hon. Member for Taunton and others talked about terminology. We have recognised the need for more sensitive terminology. The term "non-resident parent" has been used. It has been suggested that we could make the change overnight. We can change the words we use when we talk, but my understanding—I shall confirm this—is that the terms "parent with care" and "absent parent" are used in primary legislation. Changing all references to those terms would require changes to primary legislation, which cannot be done overnight. However, that does not stop us using more family-friendly terms—perhaps "Mum" and "Dad" are suitable.
Many hon. Members have suggested that change should come as soon as possible. I recognise the anxieties expressed by hon. Members on both sides about their dealings with the Child Support Agency. We want to ensure that any change we make is a change for the better. We do not want to rush into quick fixes that compound the problems that we are all experiencing.
Debates such as this give Back Benchers a chance to express their views. There will also be an opportunity for proper consultation when the Green Paper is published, when we hope to have a further useful debate—as we have had this evening—on reform of the Child Support Agency. We want to reflect the wishes of all hon. Members, and do not want to compound the difficulties by rushing into reform without fully understanding all the problems.
I commend the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), who made a detailed examination of his cases. The evidence 67 he presented to the House will help to inform our decisions on the details of the reform process. I shall read the report of his contribution carefully, to ensure that the issues that he has raised are taken into account in the review.
I understand the anxiety that has been expressed about the Child Support Agency's budgets for the next two years. We have put in an extra £15 million for this financial year. Another £15 million will be put in for the next financial year in an attempt to resolve some of the agency's administration difficulties. On top of that, from April there will be an opportunity for Benefits Agency staff to help with income support assessments and the filling in of child support assessment forms.
I recognise the problems that have been identified on the complexity of child support assessment forms. Similar problems are experienced with all social security forms. A fundamental review of all social security forms is under way. There is no point in collecting information for the sake of it. We have to ensure that the information we collect has a purpose, can be used sensibly, and leads to a more efficient and effective service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North made proposals on sensible reform of the agency. I assure her that we shall consider them carefully to determine how they can best fit into the Green Paper. She will have an opportunity for further comment at that stage.
I also commend the contribution of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)—unfortunately, he is not in the Chamber. With his experience of the court system, his endorsement that a return to it is not the best way forward was important. He identified three reforms. We shall take them forward.
The hon. Member for Northavon made a careful point about performance targets. We have to examine all social security performance targets to ensure that we assess outcomes rather than using them as a tool to shift work that is inaccurate and inefficient, and leads to repetition later. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that work is under way.
We aim to bring forward proposals by the summer which will improve the CSA, encourage parents to fulfil their emotional and financial responsibilities, and, crucially, put children first. I therefore hope that the House will support the Government amendment.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 43, Noes 296.70
|Division No. 157]||[6.59 pm|
|Allan, Richard||Chidgey, David|
|Baker, Norman||Cotter, Brian|
|Ballard, Mrs Jackie||Davey, Edward (Kingston)|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Ewing, Mrs Margaret|
|Brake, Tom||Fearn, Ronnie|
|Brand, Dr Peter||Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Breed, Colin||George, Andrew (St Ives)|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Gorrie, Donald|
|Burnett, John||Harris, Dr Evan|
|Burstow, Paul||Harvey, Nick|
|Cable, Dr Vincent||Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)|
|Keetch, Paul||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)||Tonge, Dr Jenny|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Wallace, James|
|Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert||Webb, Steve|
|Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)||Wilkinson, John|
|Moore, Michael||Willis, Phil|
|Öpik, Lembit||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Rendel, David||Mr. Paul Tyler and Mr. Adrian Sanders.|
|Russell, Bob (Colchester)|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Allen, Graham||Dalyell, Tam|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Darling, Rt Hon Alistair|
|Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)||Darvill, Keith|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)|
|Atkins, Charlotte||Davidson, Ian|
|Austin, John||Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)|
|Barnes, Harry||Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)|
|Bayley, Hugh||Dean, Mrs Janet|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Denham, John|
|Begg, Miss Anne||Dismore, Andrew|
|Bennett, Andrew F||Dobson, Rt Hon Frank|
|Benton, Joe||Donohoe, Brian H|
|Berry, Roger||Doran, Frank|
|Best, Harold||Dowd, Jim|
|Blackman, Liz||Drew, David|
|Blair, Rt Hon Tony||Drown, Ms Julia|
|Blears, Ms Hazel||Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth|
|Blizzard, Bob||Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)|
|Blunkett, Rt Hon David||Edwards, Huw|
|Borrow, David||Efford, Clive|
|Bradley, Keith (Withington)||Ellman, Mrs Louise|
|Bradshaw, Ben||Ennis, Jeff|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Etherington, Bill|
|Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)||Fatchett, Derek|
|Brown, Russell (Dumfries)||Field, Rt Hon Frank|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Fitzsimons, Lorna|
|Burgon, Colin||Flynn, Paul|
|Butler, Mrs Christine||Follett, Barbara|
|Caborn, Richard||Foster, Michael J (Worcester)|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Foulkes, George|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Galbraith, Sam|
|Canavan, Dennis||Galloway, George|
|Caplin, Ivor||George, Bruce (Walsall S)|
|Casale, Roger||Gerrard, Neil|
|Caton, Martin||Gibson, Dr Ian|
|Cawsey, Ian||Godsiff, Roger|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Goggins, Paul|
|Chaytor, David||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Gordon, Mrs Eileen|
|Clapham, Michael||Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Clark, Dr Lynda||Grocott, Bruce|
|(Edinburgh Pentlands)||Grogan, John|
|Clark, Paul (Gillingham)||Gunnell, John|
|Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)||Hall, Patrick (Bedford)|
|Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)||Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)|
|Clelland, David||Hanson, David|
|Clwyd, Ann||Heal, Mrs Sylvia|
|Coaker, Vernon||Healey, John|
|Coffey, Ms Ann||Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)|
|Cohen, Harry||Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)|
|Coleman, Iain||Hepburn, Stephen|
|Colman, Tony||Heppell, John|
|Connarty, Michael||Hesford, Stephen|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Hewitt, Ms Patricia|
|Corbett, Robin||Hill, Keith|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Home Robertson, John|
|Crausby, David||Hope, Phil|
|Cryer, John (Hornchurch)||Hopkins, Kelvin|
|Cummings, John||Howarth, Alan (Newport E)|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Howells, Dr Kim||Marshall-Andrews, Robert|
|Hoyle, Lindsay||Martlew, Eric|
|Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)||Meacher, Rt Hon Michael|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Meale, Alan|
|Hurst, Alan||Michael, Alun|
|Hutton, John||Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)|
|Iddon, Dr Brian||Milburn, Alan|
|Illsley, Eric||Miller, Andrew|
|Ingram, Adam||Mitchell, Austin|
|Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)||Moffatt, Laura|
|Jamieson, David||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Jenkins, Brian||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Johnson, Miss Melanie||Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)|
|(Welwyn Hatfield)||Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Morley, Elliot|
|Jones, Helen (Warrington N)||Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Jones, Ms Jenny||Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)|
|(Wolverh'ton SW)||Mountford, Kali|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)||Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)||Mudie, George|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Mullin, Chris|
|Keeble, Ms Sally||Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)|
|Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)||Naysmith, Dr Doug|
|Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)||Norris, Dan|
|Khabra, Piara S||O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)|
|King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Ladyman, Dr Stephen||O'Hara, Eddie|
|Laxton, Bob||Olner, Bill|
|Lepper, David||Organ, Mrs Diana|
|Levitt, Tom||Osborne, Ms Sandra|
|Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)||Palmer, Dr Nick|
|Linton, Martin||Pearson, Ian|
|Lock, David||Pendry, Tom|
|Love, Andrew||Pickthall, Colin|
|McAllion, John||Pike, Peter L|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Plaskitt, James|
|McCabe, Steve||Pollard, Kerry|
|McCafferty, Ms Chris||Pond, Chris|
|McFall, John||Pope, Greg|
|McGuire, Mrs Anne||Pound, Stephen|
|McIsaac, Shona||Powell, Sir Raymond|
|McKenna, Mrs Rosemary||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Primarolo, Dawn|
|McLeish, Henry||Prosser, Gwyn|
|McNamara, Kevin||Purchase, Ken|
|McNulty, Tony||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Mactaggart, Fiona||Radice, Giles|
|McWalter, Tony||Rapson, Syd|
|McWilliam, John||Raynsford, Nick|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)|
|Mallaber, Judy||Rooney, Terry|
|Mandelson, Peter||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Marek, Dr John||Rowlands, Ted|
|Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)||Roy, Frank|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Ruane, Chris|
|Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)|
|Ryan, Ms Joan|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Tipping, Paddy|
|Sheerman, Barry||Touhig, Don|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert||Trickett, Jon|
|Short, Rt Hon Clare||Truswell, Paul|
|Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)||Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)|
|Singh, Marsha||Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)|
|Skinner, Dennis||Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)||Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)|
|Smith, Angela (Basildon)||Vaz, Keith|
|Smith, Miss Geraldine||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|(Morecambe & Lunesdale)||Walley, Ms Joan|
|Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)||Wareing, Robert N|
|Smith, John (Glamorgan)||Watts, David|
|Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)||White, Brian|
|Snape, Peter||Whitehead, Dr Alan|
|Soley, Clive||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Spellar, John||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Squire, Ms Rachel||(Swansea W)|
|Starkey, Dr Phyllis||Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)|
|Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)|
|Steinberg, Gerry||Wills, Michael|
|Stevenson, George||Winnick, David|
|Stewart, David (Inverness E)||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Stinchcombe, Paul||Wise, Audrey|
|Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin||Wood, Mike|
|Straw, Rt Hon Jack||Wray, James|
|Stringer, Graham||Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Stuart, Ms Gisela||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann||Wyatt, Derek|
|Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)||Mr. Robert Ainsworth and Mr. Clive Betts.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House believes that all children have the right to the support of both parents wherever they may live, that the previous Government failed to set up an effective system of child support through the Child Support Agency because the CSA was introduced in a hasty and ill thought out manner, that the current child support formula is complex, difficult for parents to understand, and slow, inaccurate and expensive to deliver, that the result is that the CSA has failed to increase the proportion of parents who pay regular maintenance for their children and that 70 per cent. of parents with care are refusing to co-operate with the CSA and 60 per cent. of non-resident parents either pay no maintenance or only pay sporadically, and that the receipt of regular maintenance is an important part of the Government's strategy of tackling child poverty; and welcomes the fact that the Government is looking closely at all areas of the child support system to ensure that it is consistent, fair and efficient and that it expects to bring forward its proposals by the summer.