Maintenance

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Security – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th November 1990.

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Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood 12:00 am, 19th November 1990

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he will reconsider his decision financially to penalise mothers who refuse to name the father of their child

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

We have no plans to change the proposal that, where a caring parent has no good cause not to claim maintenance for the children but refuses to assist in obtaining it, there should be a power to make a reduction in the income support allowance for her own personal needs. Such a decision would be taken only after full and careful consideration of all the circumstances and would of course be subject to the normal rights of appeal

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

Does the Secretary of State believe personally that it is right to cut the income of lone mothers living on benefits who, for their own good reasons, refuse to name or pursue for maintenance the fathers of their children? Surely, a much better system is to make it easier to claim maintenance, to create an incentive to do so and then leave it to each individual woman to decide in her own circumstances what is best for herself and her child.

In my view, the Government's proposals are an outrageous invasion of privacy——

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

I have asked two supplementary questions, and I am making one minor comment.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

This is the usual harassment. I started with a supplementary question.

The Government's proposals—[Interruption.]Conservative Members are embarrassed by them and do not wish to hear what I have to say

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. This is Question Time. Hon. Members must let the hon. Lady finish

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Government's proposals are an outrageous invasion of privacy and have caused real fear among many women who have left difficult relationships. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman——

Hon. Members:

No

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. That is a little unfair. The hon. Lady said that she wanted to ask two questions; she cannot have three bites

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

Now that the Tory wets are developing some spine, will they stand up for what is right? I have great respect for the Secretary of State and I find it hard to believe that he believes in these outrageous proposals

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

As I have said on a number of occasions, it is no more right that a caring parent should be able simply to choose not to claim maintenance than it is right for the absent parent to choose not to pay it.

We have put forward a carefully balanced set of proposals, which include incentives. As a result of the mechanisms that we are setting up, it will be much easier to claim maintenance. However, we thought it right to include the possibility of a sanction, with all the usual rights of appeal, if someone unreasonably refuses to co-operate

Photo of Mr Anthony Favell Mr Anthony Favell , Stockport

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that many families who maintain their children find it difficult to makes ends meet and that it is outrageous to expect them to maintain the children of those who simply do not want to name the fathers?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

The White Paper acknowledges, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) will acknowledge, that there will be circumstances in which it would not be appropriate to expect a name to be given and we shall set up careful procedures to assess different cases. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right to suggest that to permit circumstances in which people could, with no good cause, simply pass on the bill to the taxpayers—including other families with children—would be wrong

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood , Roxburgh and Berwickshire

The Government's White Paper refers to exemptions for families with previous unhappy experiences—for example, rape or incest—and that is right. Will the right hon. Gentleman go further and help the House to understand what the Government have in mind for such exemptions? For example, would a caring parent who had been granted a divorce on the ground of unreasonable behaviour involving violence have the right to withhold the name of the other parent?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

She might. As is the practice in other parts of the social security system, we expect that well-trained officers would give full and careful consideration to all the circumstances. What would not be right, and what few people believe would be right, would be to bring about circumstances in which someone had only to say that she feared violence from the absent father for that absent father to be let off, or for the absent father only to make a threat of violence for that father not to be pursued for maintenance

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the first responsibility for maintaining children lies with the parents, and that the role of the state applies only where parents cannot or will not fulfil their obligations? Is not it remarkable that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) should ask such questions? Does not her failure to acknowledge the principle that I have enunciated show that she has a view of family policy that is unsustainable?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

I agree with my hon. Friend about where the basic responsibility lies and the proposals in the White Paper reflect it much more clearly than ever before

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Social Services Committee

According to the Government's figures, 95 per cent. of mothers immediately and voluntarily give information about the father. Why do not the Government do something to get contributions from that group of fathers so that mothers can have some of the freedoms to which the right hon. Gentleman referred?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

In the interests of accuracy, I should make it clear that we think that that figure may be a bit on the high side because it is drawn from a particular sample——

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Social Services Committee

The Government published the figure.

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

Yes, but we think that the sample might have gone a bit astray—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I thought that it might be sensible to put that on the record. We think that the proper figure is about 75 per cent. That is based on the best information that we have from our local offices.

Whatever the figure, as I said when I introduced the White Paper, the more that caring parents generally think it right to co-operate, the weaker is the case for ignoring those who choose not to co-operate.