Mr Deputy Speaker:
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 3, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 4, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 5 to 14, 16, 20 to 22, 24 and 25.
Lords amendment 26, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 27 to 46 and 48 to 72.
Lords amendment 73, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 74 to 110.
As Mr Speaker has indicated, Lords amendments 1, 2, 3, 4, 26 and 73 impinge on the financial privileges of the House of Commons. In disagreeing to the amendments, I will ask the Reasons Committee to ascribe financial privilege as the reason to the House of Lords. Notwithstanding that, however, the House of Commons has an opportunity to debate the substance of the amendments, and to provide the Government’s full rationale for rejecting them,
Lords amendment 1 concerns elements for disabled children. Let us be clear about the impact of the amendment. It would force the Government to reduce support for severely disabled children and, moreover, would go against our commitment to increase support for such children to £77. I believe that our original policy, as agreed in this House, is the right one, because it targets support for disabled people not on age but on need, and removes the cliff edge of financial support that is currently faced by young adults and their families.
In these difficult times, we must make tough choices about where to target our limited resources. The choice that the Government have made is to protect the money that is available to support disabled people in universal credit, and to use it more effectively to ensure that the people who face the biggest challenge are given more support. I repeat that all the money is recycled to support disabled people. What we are doing is thinking about the whole life of an individual, and removing the current artificial division between childhood and adulthood. I hope that that reassures my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood, who spoke earlier about the importance of supporting disabled people. We have ensured that we can protect the money that is so important to them.
As we have reiterated throughout our debates on the Bill, we are overhauling existing support. It does not really make sense to look at any one aspect of universal credit in isolation: it provides families with a new package of support to meet a range of needs, and for that reason we need to consider the overall impact of the offer rather than concentrating on any of its individual components.
A parent with a disabled child and who is working 20 hours a week on the minimum wage is likely to be £73 better off in work under universal credit, rather than only £13 better off under tax credits. About 30,000 more families with a disabled child are in work than are out of work, so it is right for us to target support in a way that helps working families. An out-of-work family with a disabled child can receive just over £8,000 a year in benefits for their child once universal credit has been introduced. That compares with just over £4,000 for an out-of-work family with a non-disabled child, and about £1,000 for a family who only receive child benefit. Our impact assessments and modelling demonstrate that, overall, families are more likely to be better off on universal credit, and that there will be no significant change for disabled children living in poverty.
As all Members know, increasing spending is not an option. We simply cannot maintain the existing rates for disabled children if we are to increase the rates for severely disabled adults. That would cost £200 million, which we simply can not afford. This is a critical point. If the amendment were agreed to, it would not be possible to increase the addition for the most severely disabled people to £77. Let us be clear: the decision to be made is whether we should maintain rates for moderately disabled children at the expense of raising the limits for severely disabled people. We strongly believe that the fairest approach is to align support between children and adults. We take an holistic view of an individual’s life. In summary, what is fair and right is to simplify benefits within universal credit, and to focus limited resources on the basis of need, not age.
Let me now turn to the amendments that deal with child maintenance:
“we should use every lever at our disposal to make reaching a voluntary agreement more attractive than coming into the Child-Maintenance Enforcement Commission.”
Those are not my words, but those of the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, now Lord, Hutton, to a Select Committee of this House in 2006.
Let me make four brief points to put the debate in context. Conflict when families break down is bad for children, as we all know from our constituency casework,
and we all know that all too often that conflict can be embedded and entrenched as a result of problems to do with the Child Support Agency.
The role of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission has changed fundamentally. It is no longer about recovering, pound for pound, the benefits payments made to lone parents. Instead we have a benefits system that gives more than £6.5 billion in welfare payments directly to lone parents, both those in work and those not in work. In the past, change has been piecemeal. That has created the current failing system, which costs taxpayers £500 million every year; has nil-assessed more than 250,000 people, some of whom really should be receiving support; and has 100,000 clerical cases. It would not be putting it too strongly to say that we have inherited a real mess from the Labour party. The reform that we are undertaking is long overdue.
My concern is that the amendment from the other place is not about improving the situation; if anything, it would make the situation worse. It is about attempting to divide parents into those who deserve to be charged, and those who do not. Our reforms are about creating a behavioural change for the benefit of children, and about helping parents to work together. The amendment from the other place would make that approach unworkable.
I have been listening carefully to what the Minister has to say. This is complex territory that has bewildered previous Conservative Governments and, frankly, the Labour Government. Will she tell the House how many parents with care do not receive any child maintenance from the other party?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman how many children do not receive any maintenance from the other party. Given that we spend £500 million a year on a child maintenance system, I think that it will shock the House to learn that for half of children living in separated families, there is no support in place. It is clear for everybody to see that the present system simply does not work, and the reason why it does not work is that it does not support families in coming together.
May I say how strongly I support the reforms, particularly the link-up with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which seems incredibly sensible to the parents in my constituency who come to see me? Will the Minister tell us what will happen on the ground locally to support families who are separating? I think that is where the rubber hits the road.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I will come on to this in a bit more detail in a moment, but I have been working with organisations such as Gingerbread, Families Need Fathers, Relate, and the Centre for Separated Families to make sure that we have the sort of support in place that has not been forthcoming for too many years, so that there is a structure for referring individuals to the right level of support via telephone lines, websites and the expert support that already exists. Importantly, we will also make available funding—some £20 million—to support
programmes that help families to resolve their differences. That is doubling the amount of Government support for family relationships.
I support a lot of what the Minister is trying to do, and I know how dedicated she is to trying to help the Child Support Agency. However, I support the Lords amendment on charging. I agree with charging later on, when people are refusing to adhere to an order, but if the relationship between parents has already broken down, there is a risk that people will not go for the maintenance that they want because of the charging.
I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to clarify an important aspect of the current situation. More than half of parents within the CMEC system would like to make their own arrangements—they positively want to do that—if they had the right support in place, but they do not have that support. They see the CMEC and the Child Support Agency as the only option open to them, and that cannot be right. It cannot be right that we are not doing more to support families so that they can take responsibility and do the right thing.
Is not the really big change that we are discussing the fact that when the CSA was first established, the maintenance moneys went to the Treasury to offset what taxpayers were putting up because, generally speaking, fathers were not prepared to do so, whereas now that money remains with the family? Is it not reasonable, in such circumstances, if people are going to get a top-up to their benefit that they should contribute to the cost of gaining that extra money? On the timing, should we not charge people once they are getting the money, not before?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. He is absolutely right. Indeed, back in 1991 when the Child Support Agency was initially put in place, some £400 million of savings were attached to it because there was a pound-for-pound withdrawal of maintenance and the welfare benefits that an individual received.
I just realised that I did not finish my response to Mr Field. He challenged me about the up-front cost, and why we were not just making an ongoing charge once money was flowing. It is very simple. We want not simply to use this to enhance a family’s income but to take the opportunity to help parents to consider whether they should go to the Child Support Agency as they could stay outside the system and make their own arrangements.
Hon. Members will forgive me if I make some progress, as I may answer some of their questions before they ask them.
On the cost of the up-front payment, it is important that we recognise that the system costs the taxpayer almost half a billion pounds a year. We want to ensure
that we are using the system to support families properly to take responsibility, but we also need to ensure that we make the prudent savings that taxpayers would expect us to make in these difficult economic times. The cost of charging up front will not disproportionately add cost to the whole system—far from it. We are incentivising people to come to their own arrangements. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend Andrew Percy, more than half the people currently inside the system would like to make their own arrangements. I know that by putting in place an up-front charge we will get some of those people to consider the actions they take.
The hon. Lady will forgive me if I try to make some progress. I know that many hon. Members want to contribute to the debate and we have another significant issue to discuss after this one.
We want to support parents in taking responsibility for their child’s financial support post-separation, so that they do not to see the costly and heavy-handed CSA as their only option. As I have said, half the parents using the Child Support Agency tell us they would like to make their own arrangements, with the right support, which clearly demonstrates that the CSA has come to be seen as the default option.
We have already announced that we are putting in place the support that parents need to be able to come to their own agreements, with the collaborative arrangements that are best for children.
I will make a little more progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
We are doubling Government spending on relationship support with an additional £20 million. I want to put on record my thanks to those groups that have worked hard with us to develop what that support should be—they are, as I have said, Gingerbread, Relate, Families Need Fathers, and the Centre for Separated Families. For families that need the more structured approach of the statutory scheme it will remain accessible and heavily subsidised, but there will be in-built incentives for parents always to see the advantages of working collaboratively and in-built incentives for parents to pay maintenance in full and on time.
Maintenance direct will be a no-cost way for parents to make ongoing payments to each other within the statutory scheme and the full statutory collection scheme, with its strong enforcement powers, will be a service that both parents pay for.
Does the Minister share my experience that it is not a question of the system but a matter of enforcement? Whether the process is voluntary or goes through the Child Support Agency, the problems of children not receiving any money come about because there is either no enforcement or the enforcement is not effective. How will the system provide the enforcement action that is needed?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s experiences of the current system and although I pay tribute to the staff who work in the Child Support Agency and the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission for their efforts to make the system work, we all know, as constituency MPs, that there is a big problem with parents’ attitudes towards payment. There is absolutely nothing in place at the moment to prevent parents from simply waiting until enforcement comes into play. Our measures will ensure that that changes, and will mean there is always an incentive for people to pay on time. Importantly, we will ensure that if we have to take heavy enforcement action, the individual who has caused the situation will pay for it, whether through a deduction of earnings order or through other measures we are putting in place.
It is not the Government’s intention to block parents from using the statutory scheme and we are listening hard to the concerns of parliamentarians in both Houses. To that end, the Government have proposed amendment 75 to ensure that there is a review of charging, and a report to Parliament will be completed within 30 months of the introduction of that mechanism. I can announce today that to underline that commitment the up-front charge for parents choosing to use the statutory scheme will be reduced to £20 for all applicants. In return, parents will receive a calculation of maintenance payable that will, for the first time, be based routinely on HMRC data. Additionally, domestic violence victims will be completely exempt from the application charge. I am sure the whole House will welcome this announcement, which demonstrates that no family will be deterred from accessing the statutory system purely on the basis of cost.
I think it is very important to work with individuals in all the organisations that support families going through separation. We will not always agree on everything but it is important to work together because we must get a solution that is right for mothers, fathers and children.
Will the Minister clarify that the gateway for access by parents will be £20 each and not, as was previously set out, a more complex one? If that is the case, I congratulate her and the Government on listening to people, reducing those charges and making this more simple.
It will be £20 for the applicant only, because we want to make sure that the system is easy and straightforward to administer. For that, applicants will get a calculation of the amount of money their ex-partner would pay them. I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that, on an ongoing basis, the levels of charges will always sit disproportionately on the non-resident parent, because it is important that there is always an incentive for people to come to an arrangement.
Obviously, any change of heart is welcome—I do not think we would not welcome this—but there is something I do not understand. If, as the Minister has said, many people are reluctant to pay, how will charging the applicant—the parent with care—make the other parent more likely to pay?
The hon. Lady and I know that it is very difficult for us to sit in judgment over parents. Family breakdown can be caused by many different things and we need to make sure that the support is there for parents to come together and work together. All our evidence suggests that 50% of people in the CSA system would rather not be there and would rather be working in the way I have described.
The Minister is absolutely right about the need for collaboration-based arrangements. To respond to the previous intervention, is not the inflexibility of the system one reason why non-resident parents often do not like paying? The constant barrage of letters, telephone calls and everything else means that they feel more and more reluctant but more and more pressured to pay. My constituency cases suggest that collaborative arrangements are sustainable and have worked.
My hon. Friend is right that the inflexibility in the system does not reflect true family life. Every single family is different. It is difficult to reflect that in a statutory system, which is why encouraging more people to work on those arrangements together, whether the issue is finance or access, is the way for children to get the best results after family breakdown.
It would be churlish to not recognise that the Government have listened, because a £100 access fee would have been prohibitive to families, especially the most vulnerable families, who matter most in all this. I put on record my thanks to the Government for listening on that point, because that will allow more engagement with the statutory agencies, which is how we can get to the bottom of these problems.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those kind words. It is important that we have a solution that we feel everybody can work with as we move forward.
May I address the amendment directly? The Government accept that Lord Mackay had the very best of intentions in tabling amendment 73 in the Lords. However, his approach means that the Government, before deciding who would pay a charge, would have to consider whether parents had tried to be collaborative. In considering that amendment, hon. Members should ask themselves whether it is the Government’s place to monitor and judge parents’ efforts to work collaboratively after their separation.
I will give way in a moment. The implication of the amendment is that we should say yes to that, but the Government know that the answer absolutely has to be no. Not even under the simplest model of implementation could we see a way to set a level playing field of the sort that parents really need at such a difficult time. It would cost, we estimate, more than £220 million across this spending review and the next—a cost that would not be right for us to accept, and certainly not driving the right outcomes for children.
I give way to my hon. Friend Mrs Grant, who has so much experience in this area.
I was a legal aid family lawyer for 23 years before being elected to this place, and I had the opportunity to represent many families seeking maintenance. It would be impossibly difficult, practically and fairly, to assess which families had taken reasonable steps to reach an agreement and which had not, unless we created an intrusive, Big Brother society, which I do not think anyone would want.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because she brings with her a wealth of experience of the practical problems that families face in these very difficult times. An additional effect of the amendment would be to put almost 100% of the ongoing charges on the non-resident parent. We agree that non-resident parents should have a clear incentive to pay a greater contribution to the ongoing costs, but I fear that simply loading all those costs on the non-resident parent could drive some perverse incentives and not provide the ability for parents to work in the collaborative way that I have set out.
We would acknowledge that reducing the amount of money that must be paid up front by the applicant is a step in the right direction, but I am still not clear about the rationale behind the non-resident carer being more likely to pay up because the applicant must pay a charge. I am concerned about conceding the principle of paying up front, because what will stop the Government coming back in a year’s time and hiking up the £20 fee to £100 or £150? Will the Minister explain how the uprating of that amount will be carried out?
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful support. It is really important that the up-front charge does not become a deterrent, which is why we will look at how charging is working 30 months after implementation. I remind her that the parent with care receives, in return for her up-front fee, a clear and detailed calculation of how much money would be payable to her through maintenance, and for the first time the calculation will use HMRC data, which will ensure that she has all the information needed to decide whether it is appropriate to go into either maintenance direct, where there will be no ongoing charges, or the statutory system.
I, too, welcome the fact that the cost for the applicant has come down, but will the Minister explain what the charging will be and how much it will cost the Government to collect the £20, because it seems to me that it will cost far too much to collect a mere £20?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Of course, we are all very quizzical about the CSA when it comes to costs, because we know that it has been very difficult to administer over the years. She will be reassured to know that we have taken a very straightforward approach and want to keep it simple. By charging an up-front fee and getting people to reconsider staying outside the system, we will be making considerable savings, as I have outlined. When she considers that each case costs around £26,000, or up to £40,000 if it involves any sort of enforcement, she will quickly see that getting people to reconsider will lead to significant savings.
My hon. Friend is being most gracious in giving way. I wish to help underpin her point. As MPs we all face multiple challenging CSA cases, the most distressing of which are those where claimants know that their spouse is earning lots of money but not declaring it. Getting a statement that for the first time is based on HMRC’s reported data and sets out clearly what recipients can expect is a huge advantage, and £20 for that is a cheap price.
I thank my hon. Friend for her support. The key is that we must ensure that we encourage both parents to work together, which is why we have configured the charging system in the way we have. That will always be in the best interests of the child, and hon. Members who work in this area will know that separation can be so damaging for children unless it is dealt with collaboratively.
I am still not absolutely sure what the enforcement action that will drive some parents to pay will be. On the point that Claire Perry has just made on people who have doubts about their spouse’s income, many of those people are self-employed and do not declare their incomes, so we will not be able to chase them, and that is the problem, not that PAYE will not catch them.
The hon. Gentleman and I know that self-employed people, although a small number of individuals, are disproportionately represented in the problem cases that hon. Members have. He will also know that self-employed people still have to do tax returns, so rather than ex-partners having to pursue individuals who might be self-employed and have no office at which we can get hold of them, we will be able to use the HMRC link, which I think is an important improvement.
With regard to the enforcement that we will be taking to ensure that things really stick, first and foremost it is about ensuring that there is an understanding in the House about the charges that we will put in place for that enforcement action. Implementing a deduction of earnings order does not currently cost the person defaulting on their maintenance a bean. We are talking about making sure that those charges are passed on, which I think taxpayers would expect us to do. We will also consider implementing some of the other enforcement measures that Labour Members put in place through the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008.
My hon. Friend is generous in taking so many interventions. My understanding is that each CSA case costs the taxpayer about £25,000 in administration
charges, and that can even go up to £40,000 if enforcement action is taken, so what estimate has she made of the savings to the taxpayer that will result from the new proposals?
My hon. Friend cites those figures accurately, and the savings throughout this spending review period and into the next will be considerable, indeed—running, I believe, into about £200 million. That is money we can use to support families directly through organisations, such as those I have mentioned, and that is why we have made up-front a very clear commitment to taking £20 million of the money that we will save and directly investing in it in beneficial support for families. That is the right thing to do with the money that we are saving, as is making our contribution to reducing the budget deficit, which we inherited from the Labour party.
Will the hon. Lady forgive me if I close on child support now?
We know that we have to get parents to work together, and the issue is not simply about maintenance, but about continuing to encourage co-parenting, post-separation. Again, where possible, that is the right thing for children, and that is why the coalition Government, with our commitment to shared parenting, are putting family relationships and responsibility first. I therefore urge right hon. and hon. Members to reject this amendment from the other place, which could seriously undermine the very principled reform that we are undertaking here today.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to turn to the housing measures in order to ensure that other hon. Members have an opportunity to contribute.
The amendments to clauses 68 and 11 would dilute our proposals to deal with the widespread problem of social tenants under occupying their accommodation. The proposed changes would effectively allow that group to keep one spare bedroom and, critically, wipe out up to £300 million a year from the estimated £500 million in savings, which we would have to find elsewhere. That approach is quite simply unrealistic, and in the current economic climate it would be totally irresponsible of us not to press ahead with our changes.
Does the Minister not accept that in many areas there is no alternative social rented accommodation to move to, and that, therefore, people will be expected to move from social rented housing to smaller, private rented accommodation, which will end up being more expensive and, therefore, increase the housing benefit bill, not decrease it?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a great deal of interest in that issue, as indeed do many other hon. Members, but I simply put it to him that many people in that situation will choose not to move.
They will choose to make other arrangements and, perhaps, to get other people in their household to contribute to the bills. Indeed, I am sure he is right that some people will choose to move, and we are ensuring that there is sufficient time for them to consider their options and, importantly, making sure that support, and a significant amount of discretionary housing payments, are in place, so that local authorities are able to support people who have difficulty with the change.
I am grateful for the Minister’s understanding, and, as somebody who represents more people in social housing than probably any other English MP, I know that the Government have absolutely the right policy to ensure that people do not occupy properties that are bigger than they need when the state is paying the rent. But it is not practical to insist that they move when there is nowhere smaller to move to, so Lords amendment 4 is entirely reasonable, because it states, where
“any such landlord is not able to offer suitable alternative accommodation which would not cause a person to under occupy.”
If a landlord is able to do so, of course the tenants must move, but if the landlord is not, the tenants will not be able to move anywhere appropriate.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention; I understand the feeling with which he delivered it. I say clearly to him that we are saying that there is a great deal of time and considerable support for individuals who find themselves in difficult situations. We need to make sure that as many people as possible are able to remain where they are and that they are given the support to do that.
We have made considerable moves to make sure that the right support is in place, particularly for those with disabilities or foster care responsibilities. But I ask my right hon. Friend to consider how we would deal with what would be an enormous loss to the savings. Our basic problem is that there are 1 million spare bedrooms while about 250,000 families live in overcrowded accommodation. It is important for us to try to balance all those factors.
Would the Minister like to visit one or two people who I know in my constituency? It is only across the river. They are elderly people with one extra bedroom who have lived where they live all their lives. Their children have moved outside London because they cannot get housing here, but they occasionally visit with the grandchildren. This is just unbelievable—it is genuinely unbelievable that any Government would think of making someone move away from their family home. Will the Minister visit and explain the situation to those elderly people, who are so worried and upset by what has been suggested?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Again, I understand the thoughtful comments that have been made. We are not making anybody move. The
average reduction will be about £14 a week, but for many it will be about £12. Given the amount of notice that we are giving individuals and families, we want people to be able to consider the available options.
In many islands or remote villages, there is simply no alternative accommodation; the turnover of social housing is so slow that it could take many years for a smaller house to become available. What support will be available for people on islands and in remote villages so that they can stay in their own communities?
My hon. Friend and I have spoken about these matters and I understand the very individual problems that his constituency faces. It is because of those very individual situations that we have put in place significant support so that local authorities can consider different ways to support families living in rural areas some distance from other communities and make sure that they are not dislocated from their support networks.
This issue has been of real concern to me. In a recent letter that I received, Community Housing Wales argued that more than 40,000 individual tenants in Wales would be affected by the issue of under-occupancy. What it failed to say is that, according to Welsh Assembly statistics, more than 50,000 tenants in Wales are over-occupying. There is a need for social housing providers to look creatively at how they move tenants within housing stock.
It is important that that part of the debate is recognised by the House. For every family in a situation of under-occupying, many have considerable problems with over-occupation.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall talked about her real concern for some of her constituents. I remind her, although she will know this already, that the measures that we are talking about are for working-age people only—not for pensioners. I encourage all hon. Members to ensure that the tone of our debate is based on fact and not fictional evidence.
About a third of my constituency casework is made up of Child Support Agency cases, but another third is made up of housing. In Wiltshire, more than 12,000 people are waiting on the housing list. Week after week, young families come in who simply cannot get the housing that they need. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we must support the principle and do what is being discussed to relieve the pressure on social housing lists?
If hon. Members will forgive me, I will make a little progress, because I know that many people want to contribute to this debate.
Aside from the financial issues, there is the bigger issue of fairness, which hon. Members have talked about in their interventions. Is it fair for taxpayers to take the tough choices about where they live, only to fund tenants in the social sector to live in homes larger than they need? Is it fair that people who are renting from private landlords get housing benefit to live in accommodation that is a suitable size for their household and that those in the social sector are not so restricted?
If I am allowed to make some progress, I will perhaps answer some of the questions that hon. Members want to ask.
If social sector tenants choose to continue to live in accommodation that is larger than they need, it is only right that they make a contribution towards the cost. They can meet any shortfall through employment or other means. Those are the sorts of everyday choices that people living in the private rented sector and those who are not getting housing benefit have to make every day.
Order. It is clear that at the moment, the Minister is not giving way. It is for her to decide whether to give way. I gently make the point that it is now four minutes to 6 and the debate must conclude at 7. If Members were to have the opportunity neither to make their points through interventions nor through speeches, I would anticipate an extensive disappointment. I am sure that the Minister will factor that into her calculations in tailoring her contribution to the debate.
I reassure you, Mr Speaker, that I will make the rest of my contribution very brief indeed.
The average weekly reduction is likely to be about £14. However, that is the average. Nearly 80% of claimants are under-occupying their accommodation by just one bedroom and will see an average reduction of about £12 a week. Working for just a few hours a week could help to meet that cost. The substantial investment that we are making in the Work programme and universal credit will ensure that people are supported in finding work, and that that work will pay.
We have listened to the concerns about the impact that these changes will have on specific groups, so we have committed to increase the budget for discretionary housing payments by £30 million from 2013-14. That additional money, which could help about 40,000 claimants, is aimed specifically at disabled people and accommodation for foster carers. We are working closely with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that we have an effective implementation plan that will support tenants, their advisers and housing providers.
Ultimately, the country cannot afford to fund what is approaching 1 million spare rooms from the taxes of hardworking families, when those spare rooms could be used by other families who are living in overcrowded accommodation.
The chief executive of Halton Housing Trust has written to me. He states:
“Based on existing turnover of smaller accommodation it will take over seven years to re-house all of those households who are under occupying their current homes.”
He goes on to state that, in particular, it will affect
“homeless households and those leaving care.”
Does the Minister really think that that is fair?
That is why we are already working with local authorities to ensure that they are well prepared for the changes. We have discretionary payments in place so that local authorities can take account of such problems. We reject the Lords amendment.
I will now move on to the remaining amendments so that I do not incur the wrath of Mr Speaker. The other Lords amendments in this group are minor and technical or simply clarify policy. They have already been announced and I do not intend to go into any further detail so that there is more time for Members to contribute to this important debate.
It is not entirely clear to whom the Minister is giving way.
The Minister has finished her remarks. We are grateful to her.
I will not follow the same order as the Minister. I will deal first with under-occupancy, because rarely have I heard such a pathetic defence of a Government’s position as I have heard here today. Their proposals are not based on fairness, and they are not intended to deal with the under-occupation of social housing. They are a bare-faced attempt to cut housing benefit.
Frankly, even though the Minister spoke for three quarters of an hour and kept telling us that she wanted to make progress, I felt as though we were back in the 19th century given some of what she said. She talked about social tenants as though they were a breed apart. I noticed that she called them “these people”. Many Members were once “these people” living in social housing, and some of us still are.
I thank my right hon. Friend. What would she say to the 55-year-old man I met on Saturday, who has lived in his council house with his parents for 43 years and is now on benefit? He was genuinely frightened about the proposals being put forward. What can we say to that particular gentleman?
That the proposals are unfair and are an attempt to disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged in many respects. They, along with some of the other elements of the Bill, are about to hit the poorest people.
I want to put on record the fantastic work of my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who is in her place. The Minister talks as though there were millions of houses out there ready for people to move into, but the Government do not know how many there are. They cannot even agree on what constitutes under-occupancy.
I will certainly not give way at the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North asked Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government what constituted under-occupancy, and they said that it was two spare bedrooms, whereas the Department for Work and Pensions has a far more restrictive interpretation.
We know from the Government’s own impact assessment that under-occupation is a problem particularly, but not exclusively, in the north of England, and that overcrowding is a problem particularly, but not exclusively, in the south. Local authorities have legal duties to their tenants, and if somebody from Salford is seeking to downsize, local authorities in Doncaster or Hull are not permitted to take them because of residency qualifications. Will my right hon. Friend help me to understand something that the Government have completely failed to explain? How will tenants be able to move from one local authority to another?
I want to make a little progress, and I also intend to leave some time for other Members to contribute.
I shall give the House an illustration of what I have said, for which I thank my hon. Friend Mr Campbell. Northumberland county council, which has a mixture of housing in various types of locality, has estimated that it will take eight long years before it can put in place the Government’s proposals. During that time, people on the housing list will not be able to get into housing that is suitable for them.
Does not what we have heard highlight the Conservative party’s misunderstanding of how social housing operates in reality? As my hon. Friend Kate Hoey said, we are talking about people’s homes. Even if they wanted to downsize, the housing stock is not there for them to move into.
I am most grateful. On a point of clarification, I thought I heard the right hon. Lady say that Members of this House continued to occupy social housing. Does she think it is appropriate for MPs earning £64,000 a year to occupy social housing and, presumably, have lifetime tenancy over it?
The hon. Lady has a philosophical misunderstanding about people’s homes and houses. My mother lived in a local authority house all her life. She never thought it was anything other than her home. She did not see it as second class or inferior. She lived in it and it was right for her.
Order. That is not acceptable. Claire Perry should not shout across the Chamber, “My grandfather lived in a council house, you twit.” She should apologise. Frankly, she and other Members need to calm down. There is a decorum to this place. I know the hon. Lady. She would not behave like that across the dinner table, and she will not behave like that in this Chamber. That is the end of it. I hope we have an apology.
Successive Labour and Conservative Governments from 1945 to 1980 built a massive supply of family council houses, but for the next 30 years, they did not. It is a question of supply and demand. Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need more affordable rented houses?
I would not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Housing was built in the 1940s and ’50s to deal with the nuclear family that everybody knew at the time. The way in which families have developed, including the growth in the number of single-parent households, was not factored in. That goes for the social rented and private sectors.
The hon. Lady definitely is not getting in—certainly not at the moment.
Mr Reid said that there are communities in all nations of this country—smaller communities, but sometimes larger ones—where there is an insufficient supply of houses, which is very true. People might have lived in them all their lives and would be unable physically to move.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. This problem is not isolated to Argyll and other island communities. In Scotland, 44% of social tenants need a one-bedroom house, yet only 24% can have one. That is the fundamental nature of the housing stock in the whole country.
I thank the right hon. Lady. It is very gracious of her to give way so that I can clarify matters. She will obviously be aware of the new national home swap scheme, which, importantly, will help people to identify housing in other areas, which is what she is talking about. We are also providing funding to councils of some £13 million over the next four years so that they can support under-occupying tenants who wish to move.
The right hon. Lady will also know that there is a great deal of commitment from the Government in terms of helping to build affordable housing: some £4.5 billion will help to deliver up to 170,000 new affordable homes. Those are all ways in which we can make the sort of changes that she wants. Just to clarify, as a lady who was born in a council house—
Order. This really is an abuse. It is a novelty, in my experience, for a Minister to intervene from the Front Bench reading from a folder. That really will not do. Interventions should be brief, and it would be good if the House—both sides—could get back into the courteous mood in which it found itself yesterday and for part of today.
I listened to what the hon. Lady said, but she has obviously had no experience of trying to arrange a mutual swap in a small local authority area. We will have not only mutual swaps in small local authority areas, but national swaps, all supported by some anonymous Government agency. Frankly, the hon. Lady is living in cloud cuckoo land.
Will my right hon. Friend encourage people to consider judicial review, because they are being asked to move to smaller accommodation that does not exist, on which basis the Bill is a fine on benefits and a fine on some of the poorest people in Britain?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point and no doubt he will pursue it outside this House.
Before I move on, I want the House to hear what Lord Freud said in the other place when asked about how people would cover the reduction in rent. The Minister glibly passed over it, saying that it was only £12 or £14 on average. Lord Freud said:
“Claimants affected by this measure will have to decide whether to meet any shortfall themselves—from their earnings for example, or they could take in a lodger, or someone they know, to fill the extra bedrooms.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
How many times does the Government expect people to take lodgers into their family home? Will social landlords even allow lodgers to be taken in, because in my experience they do not allow it? I see the Liberal Democrats are nodding. Ministers also need to make it clear whether rent received in such circumstances would be taken into account in benefit calculations. They are putting people in an unbelievable bind.
This proposal is ill thought-out and will not achieve its aims. It is predicated on an assumption in the impact assessment that will not work. It will push the poorest people, including those who are working—we should not forget that this is an in-work benefit—into even greater disadvantage. It will force social landlords to take eviction action if people end up in arrears. In other words, it is a disaster of a policy, and we should support the Lords in these amendments.
As well as the socially disastrous consequences that my right hon. Friend has mentioned, does she recognise that under the parity principle this measure would have to be transposed to Northern Ireland? Particular difficulties will be caused in relation to access to social housing in the future and to the demands for new social houses that are benefit-sized to be built in particular locations. Given the geo-sectarian tensions in parts of Northern Ireland, it could be a factor for destabilisation, with certain communities being seen to be punished for their current demographic status.
I have made it perfectly clear that I am not giving way: I am moving on to the subject of the CSA.
The Government should never have brought forward this proposal, although I welcome the Minister’s statement today that they have reduced the fee. Why they put everybody through the anxiety of putting a fee—
Order. Let me just make it clear. It is obvious that the shadow Minister is not giving way at the moment. On the Government side, during my time in the Chair since 5.30, there was a preference—on the whole—not to give way to Opposition Members and that is now being replicated by the right hon. Lady.
Members may make what they like of that, but there is nothing disorderly about it. It is no good people yelling from a sedentary position to express their frustrations. They must try to contain those frustrations, which I notice Claire Perry is now successfully doing.
The hon. Lady is asking me to speculate about a hypothetical. We could probably have a seminar about the matter, and it might be instructive. There could be a time for that, but it is not now. I feel sure that the hon. Lady has raised not a point of order, but a point of disappointment.
I always hate to disappoint Tories, Mr Speaker.
The Minister mentioned some concessions, but it remains an unfair imposition on parents with caring responsibilities to make them pay a fee to obtain, in her words, a calculation of what they may be entitled to. The Government are always keen to say that people should do the right thing, but what happens when they try to do the right thing and adopt a collaborative approach? Frankly, all the evidence shows that a collaborative approach is often the last thing that people can get when a marriage breaks down—all sorts of issues to do with personalities, emotions and children being part of the bartering process between two parents make that almost impossible.
The Minister was a bit dismissive of some of her colleagues in the House of Lords. I want to come back to them in a moment. If the Minister gets the opportunity to wind up, will she tell the House where the Government got the figure of £25,000 from? That, apparently, is the cost to the taxpayer of each case. I cannot find the source for that figure. If we divide 1,142,600 cases into £450 million, which is how much it costs to run the CSA, we get an annual cost of £393.90. So where on earth does the £25,000 figure come from? I would be interested to know.
Members of the House of Lords did not just object to the amount of money to be paid; they objected on the basis of the principle that if a parent with caring responsibilities was entitled to maintenance for the children or child whom they looked after, they should get that support. An array of Conservative Members of the House of Lords have asked the Government to change their mind: Lord Carrington, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, Lord Howe of Aberavon, Lord Jenkin, Lord Lawson of Blaby, Lord MacGregor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern,
Lord Mawhinney, Lord Mayhew, Lord Newton and Lord Wakeham. I remember the ’80s, and I do not think that any of these people were fully paid up members of the liberal tendency. Yet they have all asked the Government to change their mind on the point of principle. I hope, then, that we get something more than what we heard from the Minister tonight. This is a ridiculous provision that, frankly, should not have been in the Bill in the first place.
Now we come to disabled children. This is the cut that even the Prime Minister did not want to admit to. My hon. Friend Katy Clark again asked about it today, and again the Prime Minister refused to recognise the reality. I particularly congratulate the Lords on dealing with this issue and not running away from it, because it would have been easy for them to put this matter to one side after they were defeated by two votes on
The Minister has been clever with her statistics but according to Every Disabled Child Matters, the loss under the new system could amount to as much as £22,000 during the childhood of a disabled child and will cost the parents of a disabled child nearly £1,400 a year, and approximately 170,000 families will have this benefit frozen from 2013. I admit that there are transitional arrangements, but I have never come across a piece of legislation with so much sticking tape—there are reviews here and transitional arrangements there. This is not a strategy; it is a dog’s mess.
Every Disabled Child Matters estimates that approximately 63% of all future disabled children will lose out as a result of this policy. The Minister is an honourable woman and has tried to be gentle with the House today by using fine words about how this will not mean one thing to children and will mean another thing, but the reality is that in order to pay the most severely disabled children an extra £1.75 a week, children who are not as disabled—I use those words advisedly—will lose their benefit. We are talking about children who, for the most part, do not have night-time care needs. Typically, they include children with Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy, and children who are profoundly deaf. In future, disabled children will not receive any benefit from the transitional arrangements; indeed, any disabled child born after 2013 will access significantly less support.
I appeal to Members, particularly Liberal Democrat Members. I hope that they will look at what their colleagues supported in the Lords. In fact, I even appeal—although not very much—to some Conservative Members to look at what their colleagues in the Lords did. This is an amendment to be supported. It is about decency, about disabled children and about the support that families who are at the hard end of looking after disabled children deserve to receive. I hope that this House supports the amendment.
I said that I would not speak as long as the Minister, but I want briefly to draw the House’s attention to Lords amendment 77. At the end of the last day on Report, the Government secured an amendment to the Bill that, on closer examination, significantly weakened obligations that had been placed on them by the previous Government’s Child Poverty Act 2010. That amendment replaces references to “progress” in the 2010 Act with
much weaker language about “measures”. Child Poverty Action Group, among others, points out that that is, in effect, removing the duty to achieve any progress towards meeting the targets before 2020. I hope that we do not lose sight of that.
I have tried—in a shorter time than the Minister—to set out some of the issues that have been raised in recent weeks. Labour Members feel very strongly about those issues because they impact on the poorest, those who are most disadvantaged and those who have been demonised because they live in socially rented housing, and because they do not take into account that children at the age of 14 or 15 might require a bit of extra room and do not all need to be decanted into a tiny box of a flat. I appeal to the Government to consider seriously what is being proposed today, and to support the Lords amendments rather than disagreeing with them.
I notice that the shadow Minister commented on how she felt the Minister had performed. I would describe her own performance as a little bit chippy, but that is not to say that she did not make a few good points. Many of us on this side of the House have had similar experiences to those on her side. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I like her a great deal, but for her to talk about Conservative Members in the way she did—to intimate that they are in some way detached from humanity—not only does her a great disservice, but does the debate in this House a great disservice. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That is not to say that the right hon. Lady did not make a good few points, which I will come on to in a moment—I notice that the “Hear, hears” have stopped on this side of the House.
I want to speak about Lords amendment 73 and then say a little something about under-occupancy. I think all of us who have dealt with the Child Support Agency know that it is a body that is not fit for purpose. The example I gave to the Minister the other day—a close family member of mine is going through this at the moment—concerns an errant partner who is being chased more aggressively, and successfully, for his parking fine than for the maintenance of his own children. It seems that the system is currently based entirely on conflict. We need to do something to address that. I agree with everything that the Minister said—and with her intention—about encouraging people to come to their own arrangements. However, I am a little concerned in that I do not necessarily think that, for a lot of people, levying a £20 charge—or any charge—against what will normally be the mother is likely to effect that change.
We have all seen cases where communication has completely broken down and where the errant parent—normally the father—is doing everything they can to avoid having to pay, particularly if they are self-employed, because the system seems to assist self-employed parents in avoiding their responsibilities. I am not sure that imposing a charge on—normally—the mother is likely to change that situation greatly or effect the cultural change that I think we all want.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Minister was unable to give us any indication of the cost of collecting the £20 charge? Is it not clear that the cost of collecting and banking it will far outweigh the moneys received? The proposal is therefore vindictive, rather than anything else.
I am quite relieved that the Minister did not give us an estimate of the costs, because most Government estimates of costs tend not to be correct anyway. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, however, and it has also been made by Members on this side of the House. I welcome what the Minister has said about the £20 charge; it proves that he has listened.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s welcome of the reduction in the charge, but does he agree that the proposed collection charges do not seem logical? It is difficult to see the logic in making a family in need of child maintenance pay the cost incurred by the non-resident parent’s resistance to paying that maintenance.
That is exactly where I am coming from on this issue; I agree with the hon. Lady.
“The motivation of the Government for these charges is said to be trying to bring people to voluntary arrangement. I am entirely in favour of that.”
I would be, too. He continued:
“But if that proves impossible, when the woman is at the stage of having nothing more that she can do, she has to pay. What does that do? If anything, it might make her not go to the Child Support Agency”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 25 January 2012; Vol. 734, c. 1092.]
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is as gracious as ever. There is much merit in what he says about a woman who is on benefit chasing a father who is, frankly, not up to scratch. Although £20 is a lot of money for someone in those circumstances who is on benefit, does hon. Friend agree that, if the woman is guaranteed a system that is fit for purpose, there is merit in that small charge being excised on her because eventually she and, most importantly, her children will get what they deserve?
We all want to achieve a service that is fit for purpose, but I am not sure that the charge is about delivering such a service. It will certainly not cover the cost of so doing. It seems to be more about effecting a cultural change, and I do not believe that charging the mother £20 will effect such a change. It would therefore end up being a tax on the mother who is trying to get money from an errant father. That is why I have a bit of a problem with the principle.
I will not give way at the moment, as I want to say a little something about under-occupancy, and a lot of people want to speak in the debate.
I listened to the debate about under-occupancy, and I am sorry that it turned into such a knockabout. There is significant under-occupancy in parts of the area that I represent. In my time as a councillor in the city of Hull,
I represented a big council estate on which there was a huge amount of under-occupancy, which was largely, but not entirely, due to older people. Dealing with the matter is not as simple as just talking about housing swaps. I have tried to arrange housing swaps for constituents within the local authority, never mind outside it, and it is incredibly difficult. One party often gets cold feet and pulls out of the arrangement, for example. It is not easy to achieve at all.
That does not mean that we should do nothing about the problem, however. The point made by my hon. Friend Guto Bebb was interesting in this regard. We talk about under-occupancy figures, but we must also consider the figures for over-occupancy.
I will not give way; I want to finish in a moment.
When I was a councillor, a lady came to see me. She had inherited a house from her parents. It was her home; she had lived in it with her parents all her life. She would now be considered to be under-occupying that home. I am sure that the Ministers understand this, but I plead with them to take account of the fact that houses are not only public assets; they are also people’s homes, and people have an attachment to them. This is not a simple matter to resolve, even though we should encourage an end to under-occupancy.
My hon. Friend is right to say that houses are also people’s homes. Does he acknowledge, however, that the tenants of housing associations and local authorities are able to rent out their rooms?
I am not sure that that is really the strongest argument to plead in aid of change.
These are people’s homes, but we must do something about under-occupancy. My local authority attempted to put a scheme in place to deal with the problem. We moved my grandma out of a bigger house into a small housing association home because it suited her, and it was done at the right time for her. Speaking from my experience as a local authority councillor in an area where under-occupancy is a problem, however, I can tell the House that this is not going to be an easy one to solve.
It is a pleasure to follow Andrew Percy, and I shall echo some of his remarks on the child maintenance charge.
I have been privileged to be a Member for 20 years, and I have noted that the issue of child maintenance and child support has been a running controversy and a running sore through Parliament and Government during that whole period. I shall briefly remind the House of the background. While there have, of course, always been children in this and similar countries brought up
by only one parent—war widows after the first world war would be an obvious example—it is nevertheless true that in the post-war period there has been a kind of social revolution whereby very significant numbers of children spend either a proportion or all of their childhoods living—usually with their mum but sometimes, in a minority of cases, with their father—in so-called one-parent families. That is about divorce, which remains at a high level; it is about separation—and cohabitation is more likely to lead to separation than marriage; it is about the fact that many children are born “out of wedlock”, to use a quaint term, and live with a single mother.
This has been a major contributory cause to what we call child poverty, which interfaces with economic insecurity. I think that Parliaments and Governments have found it more difficult to grapple with and honestly discuss family insecurity than economic insecurity caused by low wages or unemployment. As I say, Governments have found it difficult. The old maintenance system, which was run by the courts, did not work: it delivered low levels of maintenance or no maintenance to many mothers and children.
The previous Conservative Government established the Child Support Agency—I think they were right to do so—but many former Conservative Ministers bear the scars of trying to make it work. They did not make it work effectively for all children. That was not because of incompetence—there were computer problems and the rest—but because this is one of the most difficult areas of government. It is the state—perfectly properly, in my judgment—trying to mediate during the pain, anger and passions of family breakdown, when issues of access and custody are also present. Although the old Child Support Agency had some successes, it never succeeded in getting maintenance from those fathers—yes, I know, sometimes mothers, but I am going to talk about fathers—who absolutely refused to fulfil their parental obligation and support their own children.
The last Labour Government tried to improve the situation and they might have done to some extent, but if we are honest about this—I am not normally one who tries to take the politics out of politics; otherwise I would have to join the Liberal Democrat party—some humility is justified in this case. For getting on for 20 years, Governments of left and right have failed to tackle this issue adequately. We really need to point again at the sheer scandal of there being too many parents out there who refuse to support their own children financially. That is the reality.
When I intervened on the Minister—it was good of her to give me the statistics—she said that among these families half, fully half, are not receiving child maintenance. What does that mean? It means either that the children are living in relative poverty and/or that other mums and dads in the community, whom we call taxpayers, are being asked in difficult economic circumstances to support not only their own children but other people’s children as well. What I am leading up to is to ask whether the idea of a charge to be able to use the system helps or hinders that process.
I do not think I am against a charge per se. Given that taxpayers have a stake in this, as well as, usually, the mother or “the parent with care” to use the awful jargon, and the child—they are the parties that have an interest in this—I am not against the taxpayer in a sense benefiting through proper payment of maintenance. We
could discuss how that might come about; but if there is to be a charge, as was argued by my right hon. Friend Mr Field, why should it not be levied when the flows of maintenance are coming to the mother and benefiting the child? Why should a fee be charged immediately rather than later in the process? I think that many Members would agree with that, but perhaps the Minister would like to comment.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to answer his question. Fees and charges have been inherent in the child maintenance system from the start, since 1991. As he knows, his own party advocated the use of fees when it was in government, as indeed did Sir David Henshaw. Why? Because charging fees is a way of trying to get people to take responsibility. If that is done up front before an individual gets into the system, we are more likely to effect the behavioural change that I think is so important.
In general, it is the mothers of Britain—sometimes it is the fathers with care, but it is generally the mothers—who have taken on huge responsibilities. It is the parent who does not pay who is the irresponsible party, and who reneges on his duty to care for his own children. I want a system that can be tough-minded about the fathers who refuse to pay. They are often self-employed, and have become deliberately self-employed. The mothers often know where they live. A mother will have heard about the new person in the father’s life, about the fancy car outside the house, about the foreign holidays—yet the system has failed to make those fathers pay. Let me put the question to the Minister again. Will a charge help in those circumstances?
Many mums will know that the Child Support Agency, or whatever we choose to call it, does not work. We want to make it work, but people say, “My friends didn’t get anywhere.” Only recently I discussed with the Secretary of State the case of one of my constituents who, throughout the lifetime of four children, never received any maintenance. That person thinks that the system does not work. I want it to work, but if some mothers are deterred from using the system, it will be a failure.
This should not be a big party issue, and I hope that the Department will reflect again on when the charge might be levied.
I support my hon. Friend the Minister on the issue of the Child Support Agency, but I want to make a brief observation on the housing benefit issue. My constituency might be wholly different from those of the Members who have spoke so far, but the overwhelming majority of the cases I deal with at my surgery involve people who want additional rooms because they have growing families or families who are becoming older. If this charge causes some people to want to downsize, that will help to strike a balance, but at present I do not encounter people who want to downsize.
I am grateful.
How are people supposed to downsize when such properties do not exist? Is it not a disgrace that the House is legislating to ask people to do something that they cannot do?
What I am saying is that in my constituency I encounter people who have no spare room but want one, not people who have a spare room and want to give it up. The situation may be different in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Let me now move on the point that I really want to make, which relates to the Lords amendment dealing with Child Support Agency charges. I am reluctant to discuss the Child Support Agency, as I was the hapless Secretary of State who had to introduce it after it was legislated for by my predecessor. Discretion being the better part of valour, I always delegated the matter to my hon. Friend Alistair Burt, whose emollient manner proved the text in Proverbs that a soft answer turneth away wrath. I kept as distant from it as I could.
I will not, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.
I am also reluctant to take issue with the Lords unnecessarily. When I was Secretary of State for Social Security, I found that from time to time the Lords would propose amendments to legislation that I had introduced. At first I was shocked that anyone could think that my legislation could be improved in any way, but when I listened to what was said by the Lords in general and the bishops in particular, I usually found that it contained an element of truth. There was something worth listening to, even if I could not take on board everything that they proposed. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to them, has modified the charging structure, and has taken their points on board. However, she is probably right not to adopt the whole principle of what the other place suggests.
I am not entirely persuaded of the Lords’ case, because I think that it is right in principle to charge for a costly service, and it is right that the people who principally benefit from it should pay an element of it in the form of a charge, rather than our leaving the entire cost to the other party or the taxpayer. It is right in principle, too, that wherever possible we encourage voluntary agreements, rather than reliance on state-funded bureaucracy, because voluntary agreements, where possible, are better, and because that reduces the load on an over-extended bureaucracy that has never been able to cope with the load that it has; it is better that it focuses on the most obdurate cases.
It is right in principle to charge both parents, as it is not possible, even though their lordships’ amendment implies that it is, to distinguish who is the goody and who the baddy.
I will let the hon. Lady make her own points in due course. We may reach our own judgments on who is right and who is wrong, but we cannot make the agency decide that. Both parents will benefit from an arrangement reached by the CSA, and it is right that it should make that arrangement.
I noticed that there were an awful lot of lawyers on the voting lists in the House of Lords. Lawyers do not say, “We won’t charge you if you’re right; we’ll only charge you if you’re wrong. We won’t charge you if you’re the aggrieved party; we’ll only charge the other party.” They should accept that similar rules apply to charging by the CSA.
Finally, as Mr Field said, now that child support is an addition to a family’s income, rather than it simply being about getting back the taxpayers’ money—I am not sure that it was right to make that move—it is sensible that there should be a charge to the beneficiaries. On balance, I think that my hon. Friend the Minister was right to make the modest concession that she did to her lordships, but to stick to the principle; I am glad that she has done so.
I want to make a point on child support, and a point on the Child Poverty Act 2010 and the change that the Government are planning to make to it.
I point out that there is an inequality of bargaining power, particularly in a high-conflict situation, which means that parents with care—usually women—do not have a choice on whether to arrive at a consensual agreement. In practice, women in particular will settle for little or nothing for the sake of a quiet life because they cannot afford the fee. I particularly take exception to the idea that a parent with care who has done everything possible to reach a voluntary agreement, but who meets with a resistant, recalcitrant non-resident parent, will have to pay a fee when it is absolutely no fault of hers that she and, more to the point, her children do not get the financial support that they should.
Mr Lilley says that it is right that those who benefit from or seek to access the service should pay a fee, but it is children who are intended to benefit from a statutory system of child support. Is it right that money intended for children should be hypothecated in that way?
The right hon. Gentleman and the Minister seem to believe that it is impossible for the child support system to take a view on which parent is at fault, but in clause 138 of the Bill, that view is taken by the system, because access to the collection service is being limited to cases in which the commission has decided that maintenance will not otherwise be payable. If it is possible for the commission to make that assessment and to determine that there is no prospect of the non-resident parent making payment, how can no view be taken on whether efforts have been made to receive a voluntary payment or not?
The majority of lone parents are women and women are already typically worse off after separation or divorce whereas men are better off. The fact that those parents will now be hit with a further fee as there will be both an up-front fee and a fee for collection when that collection fails—although I welcome the fact that the fee has been
cut to £20, I would like to see it at zero—means that those families on low incomes will be left with very little income.
How does the hon. Lady suggest that the agency should decide which parent stood in the way of an agreement? Would she take the same view as was taken in the debate in the other place, which is that it would always be the non-resident parent’s fault that an agreement was not in place?
The point is that a system is being established whereby the parent with care must access the system. There will be a discussion at that point about the process by which that approach to the agency is made. There is no difficulty at all at that point in taking a decision about the responsibility and behaviour of the parent making that application. I cannot understand why the Government think that it is perfectly okay for other officials in the DWP to make decisions on whether people are making appropriate efforts to make themselves available for employment, but not for a decision to be taken on whether a parent has properly engaged in a process of seeking to reach agreement with a non-resident parent.
I also want to speak briefly about the Government’s proposal to amend the obligation on the child poverty target under the Child Poverty Act. The current obligation is for the Government to report on the progress that must be made to achieve child poverty targets—targets to which every party in this House has signed up. There will now be a far weaker requirement simply to report on proposed measures. In other words, there will be an obligation on the Government to report on what they might or might not do, but absolutely no obligation to report on whether it works or on what difference it makes. That undermines what lies at the heart of the Act, which was a genuine wish across the House in the previous Parliament to see real progress in bringing down child poverty and for every politician in this House to be accountable for that outcome.
I very much regret such a weakening of the Child Poverty Act. In future, the Government could legally produce a child poverty strategy that makes no reference to the number of children in poverty—an extremely important measure in driving progress—and has no clear goals for how the proposed actions will reduce that number. When the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the cumulative impact of the Government’s welfare reforms on other measures will be to drive up child poverty between now and 2015 and onwards to 2020, one has to wonder whether the proposal is not a rather cynical and calculating step on the part of the Government to wriggle out of an obligation that they know they are not on track to meet.
I want to speak quickly on under-occupancy and the Child Support Agency.
The main concern on the Liberal Democrat Benches about under-occupancy and the housing benefit proposals—as hon. Members have heard from a couple of my colleagues and from Members on both sides of the House—is about the impact on rural areas and, in particular, the Scottish islands. There is also a concern about urban areas where an active allocation policy has
meant that families have been given larger houses in areas that are less popular. I appreciate that it is difficult to lay out in legislation the need to ensure that tenants are offered appropriate alternative accommodation, but it is important that we ensure that when alternative offers are made they should take into account issues such as family and support networks, which are particularly important in helping people to get back into work. Offers should also take into account the distance people will have to travel, how that will relate to the communities, the lack of public transport in rural areas and so on, as well as where people are working and how easy it is for them to commute if they are required to move.
I understand that the Government will be doing that through discretionary housing payments, but I would be grateful if the Minister would ensure that guidance making those elements very clear is provided for local authorities. I know that discretionary housing payments are ring-fenced, and that is extremely important, but it is also important that general rules taking into account a sensible approach of looking at community links and the availability of alternative accommodation, or lack thereof, are applied across the country.
I am not going to give way.
Another concern is that it will take a while to move people and for accommodation to become available. Registered social landlords are concerned to know how long the process will take, so that they can enable a managed process. While that happens, there will be an impact on their income as arrears are likely to build up before alternative accommodation becomes available. Some RSLs have done work on this, including Riverside housing association, which is based in Merseyside. It has calculated that it will take it at least three years to move everybody around. [ Interruption. ]
Order. I am having some difficulty in hearing the hon. Lady because of all the private conversations going on in the Chamber during this important debate. If hon. Members want to have private conversations, perhaps they could step outside the Chamber.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Will the Minister look at what an appropriate time frame would be and how long it is likely to take housing associations to move people around properties? Will she ensure that discretionary housing payments are available throughout that period so that people do not receive a large cut in their benefit while they are waiting for alternative accommodation to become available? This is a difficult issue and I know that the Government have made provision for those living in adapted accommodation and for foster carers.
I just want to reassure my hon. Friend on a couple of points. First, we intend to commission an independent evaluation of the impact of the size criteria measure, which will give her some of the information and reassurance she seeks about the impact of the changes. We will also be providing funding of £13 million to councils over four years until 2015-16 for support to tenants who wish to move.
I thank the Minister for that useful information, which answers in part some of the questions I was going to ask.
It would be helpful if the Government kept an eye on progress. Certain money has been put aside for adapted properties, foster carers and so on, but it would be useful to know that if other vulnerable groups or particular parts of the country are identified as a particular problem, the Government would ensure that that was taken into account in the future allocation of money and in how they look at the impact of the policy on households.
On the Child Support Agency, there is a problem with up-front costs, particularly with the gap that was originally in the proposals between the amount required from those who are working compared with that required from those on benefits. I therefore welcome the Government’s announcement today that they are reducing the fee to £20, which will make a significant difference for a lot of households. Now, we just need to make sure that the service being provided is worth the up-front fee, which frankly it has not been in the past. I hope that we will see some progress in this area so that people will feel they are getting something for their money.
The Minister knows about a particular concern of mine, which I want to raise again today. I still have serious concern about the closing down of old cases and their transferral to the new system. I am sure that all MPs have had people come to see them in surgery with cases in which an irresponsible non-resident parent will not pay, plays the system, refuses to support their own children, and takes years to pin down until a deduction of earnings order in finally put in place. I am concerned about the impact on children of cancelling those orders and making the parent with care start the entire process again, not least because of the difficulties many have had with the CSA in the past and the lack of faith they have in the system. I would be grateful if the Minister would ensure that those cases were prioritised to ensure that when they are transferred to the new system they are properly monitored so that payment keeps flowing as much as possible and that if payment must stop it is only for a very short period so that huge arrears cannot build up, because those cases are the most likely to have a background of large arrears already.
I will not I am afraid.
This group of amendments is very varied and we have had a wide debate this afternoon. The Government have made improvements to the Bill, which I welcome, particularly those to the CSA fee. I hope that the Minister will take into account the points that my colleagues and I have raised, particularly on the issue of housing under-occupancy, which is probably the issue of most concern to us in the Bill. So far, I have found that Ministers have listened and taken concerns on board, and I hope they do that today because the Bill is in a much better state now than it was at the beginning of this process.
I, too, would like to address the issue of under-occupancy and say that the concerns of my local housing department, Wigan and Leigh Housing, are so strong that we have been in correspondence with
Lord Freud. There are very few one-bedroom properties, private or council, in my local area, and it will take eight to 10 years to move the 1,450 to 1,800 people who, on the estimates, might want to downsize. During that period, it is estimated, on Lord Freud’s own research, that 35% of those people—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but I did ask Members of Parliament who wish to have private conversations to leave the Chamber, because those conversations are disrupting the debate. This is the second time of asking. Please listen to the debate.
During that time, 35% of those involved are likely to end up in arrears. That is 2,540 residents, and 83% will struggle to find the extra money. A total of more than 6,000 people will find difficulty in meeting their commitments, on top of the increases in food and fuel prices, and the fact that the Government have imposed rent rises of 8% for 2012-13. What are the Government going to do? I hear the Minister say that discretionary payments will be provided until 2014, but that is not the eight to 10 years that my association says it will take for even the people who want to downsize. That association is extremely concerned that the burden will be pushed on to housing benefit, even when people move, and that hard-pressed local authorities will have even more problems.
Briefly, I want to make three points about under-occupancy and disabled people. First, I welcome the Minister’s announcement of funds to ensure that disabled people and other special cases are given the help that they need in transition. The other points that I want to make both arise from a constituent’s coming to see me. This particular family has four members, with two disabled people within it, and it needs four rooms. From the outside, someone might say that parents and two children need two or three rooms, which would give them one spare room. Absolutely not: in this case, every single room was needed, and the family was concerned that under the legislation they would be told that they had a spare room and be forced to move. I would like some reassurance on that point—that where people need all the rooms because of disability, certain rooms will not be considered spare, even if the family being of such a size might otherwise justify that decision.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that if a disabled person has the need for an overnight carer, additional rooms can be allocated. Indeed, if there are disabled people in the house who require rooms, there will be clear support there for them to be able to have those rooms.
I thank the Minister for that reassurance. On my second point, as hon. and right hon. Members know, many homes have had thousands of pounds spent on adaptations, and rightly so, for disabled people. It would not make a great deal of sense to ask people to move from a home that had had such adaptations into another home, where making such adaptations would
cost plenty of money. Also, in the first home, the adaptations might have to be removed. Again, I ask for reassurance that common sense will prevail.
If ever a piece of legislation was to demonise and penalise people who live in the social rented sector, this Bill is it, and I have listened to the debate today. My local authority in Durham has written to me to say that many thousands of families will be affected by the under-occupancy provisions, and both the local authority and the housing associations have written to say that they simply do not have enough alternative suitable housing and that it will take many years to re-house people. That means that tenants, who are already on low incomes, will have no alternative but to pay an additional sum of money—up to £50 a month—that they simply cannot afford or move into smaller, private rented accommodation if it is available, and in places like Durham it is not available.
The point that the Government must take on board is that if those people go into smaller and more expensive accommodation, that will have to be paid for from housing benefit in any case, so the whole policy is an absolute—
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).