HL Deb 27 April 1994 vol 554 cc666-8

3.3 p.m.

Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is true, as stated by Mrs. Ros Hepplewhite on the Jimmy Young Show on 1st March, that for parents paying maintenance under the Child Support Act 1991 "the formula makes it impossible for you to be worse off than if you were on the dole".

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the formula for assessing child maintenance contains an important safeguard called protected income. A calculation is made in all cases to ensure that an absent parent and his second family, if he has one, retains a level of income after paying maintenance which is higher than his income support would be if he were unemployed.

The changes to the scheme introduced in February significantly increased that level of protection, which is now at least £30 above the appropriate income support levels.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for confirming that the level of protected income is £30 above income support. Will he accept that the weekly cost of an annual season ticket from Chelmsford is £37, from Hastings £49, from Eastleigh £52, from Newbury £44 and from Oxford £51? Can he tell us how that is compatible with the view expressed by Mrs. Hepplewhite ?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I cannot possibly confirm the exact costs of travel quoted by the noble Earl. Of course expenses will vary from person to person. For example, for some people a particular method of travel to work will seem essential. Other people will regard some other expense as essential. The All Party Social Security Select Committee agreed that it would be wrong to allow a list of possible arguably essential expenses to take priority over basic child maintenance.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does not the noble Viscount agree that the figures which have just been read out by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, indicate that many people will have additional expenses over the £30 above income support? I hope that he agrees that that should be noted. Is it still the Government's intention to extend the scheme after 1996 to people who are not drawing any social security? If so, why is it that the Government wish to interfere in arrangements between private persons which have often been made legally through the courts?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, quoted the example of travel costs. It is not possible for the child support formula itself to make someone paying child support maintenance worse off than if he was on the dole. However, if account is taken of other commitments, such as high travel-to-work costs, then some absent parents may indeed perceive themselves to be worse off.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the Minister accept that his replies do not tally with the correspondence that many of us have received from victims of the CSA? Is it not becoming clear that the whole issue has been tackled from the wrong end and that we are attacking the wrong people? Those who already have legal agreements are being penalised with the result that great difficulties are caused where they did not exist before. Is this not another example of a cost-cutting exercise which has gone dramatically wrong and which ought to be put right as soon as possible?

Viscount Goschen

No, my Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. The basis is the maintenance requirement for keeping a child. The agency is not specifically concentrating its efforts on those absent parents who were already making financial provision for their children. It is estimated that in the first year 60 per cent. of all the cases dealt with were those in which no regular maintenance was previously paid.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the formula is rather inflexible? Would it not be a good idea to introduce a right of appeal? Will the Minister accept that we on this side of the House support the notion that absent, parents should contribute to the maintenance of their children? But should not the system be applied in a rather more sensitive manner than it has been hitherto?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the system is a very sophisticated one which we believe targets resources appropriately. There is an existing appeal system, which is comparable to the social security appeal system. If any of the parties concerned are unhappy with the decision of a child support officer a review can be requested.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that there is a small number of people who still believe that the courts are a more appropriate vehicle than a formula?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we believe that the Child Support Agency is the best method for ensuring that the maintenance requirements of children are indeed paid by those who are responsible, the natural parents.