I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As the House knows, the Bill follows from the White Paper published last autumn entitled "Children Come First"—itself in its title expressing a sentiment which I know right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise and support. Our proposals aim at benefiting children and those who care for them. In society today, increasing numbers of relationships are breaking down, but the breakdown of a relationship between parents does not remove the responsibility of the parents towards the children of that relationship. Having said that, I firmly acknowledge that parenthood is of course about much more than just financial responsibility. But financial provision is one very important part of the responsibility which parents owe to their children, and payments of child maintenance are a way of meeting that responsibility.
Regular maintenance benefits children. It provides a regular income, and serves, in a literal sense, to bring home the responsibilities that family members owe to one another. It also benefits parents looking after children, by providing a regular basis of what is sometimes called "portable" income which the parent can take with her when she moves, as so many lone parents want to do, from dependence on benefit into work. While it is a point of a somewhat different kind, it should not be ignored that, where maintenance can reasonably be expected but is not paid, the effect is to transfer the responsibility to taxpayers, many of whom will themselves be families who are bringing up their own children on perhaps quite modest incomes.
It is very widely—I might almost say universally—agreed that the present system of child maintenance is not working as it should. It is fragmented. It involves several different levels of courts, together, in many cases, with offices of my Department. It is too often slow. For example, a quarter of cases in magistrates courts take more than 70 days, or more than two months. It is unreliable. Payments not infrequently fall into arrears, the caring parent has to ask the courts to take action, and it can take weeks, or much longer, to re-establish payment. It is increasingly ineffective. In 1989, only 23 per cent. of lone parents on income support received regular maintenance, whereas 10 years before the figure was some 50 per cent. Lastly, it is inconsistent. People cannot predict with any certainty what their liabilities will be, and some variations in the levels of awards appear to have no systematic relationship to differences in circumstances.
Having considered all this, we concluded that significant change was needed, and the Bill represents the legislative framework within which we plan to bring about that change. That framework has been worked out in close co-operation between a variety of Government Departments—although the legislation comes before the House today as a DSS Bill. In particular, it had the close involvement of my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who introduced the Bill in another place. If I may say this without causing offence to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, that interest is reflected in my right hon. and learned Friend's presence in the Chamber today and his interest in the Bill.
The child maintenance formula takes no account of the extra cost of caring for a disabled child, and the Bill makes no special provision for families with disabled children. That is a matter of deep concern to Mencap. I ask the Secretary of State sympathetically to address that concern, and to explain how he intends to cope with what is viewed as a serious problem by the organisations that represent the interests of disabled children.
The right hon. Gentleman shows slightly less than his usual patience. I thought he might have realised that I have barely got beyond the preamble to my speech. I am aware of the concern to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, and I promise to address it later in my speech.
The Bill's provisions cover the whole of Great Britain, and we intend to make comparable provision for Northern Ireland. As the White Paper made clear, proposals have been informed by the results of research commissioned by the Department, which has for some time been available in the Library, and has now been published in the normal way.
The principles behind our proposals have had widespread support from many quarters—including, I think, from all parts of the House. Our strategy has three main features, two of which are provided for in the Bill. First—this touches on the right hon. Gentleman's point —we shall introduce a clear and consistent formula by which maintenance assessments will be made, and rules by which those assessments will be reviewed, to take account of changing circumstances. The key features of that formula appear on the face of the Bill, and I shall come to a fuller explanation of them in a moment.
Secondly, we intend to set up a Child Support Agency, accountable through me to Parliament, which will bring together in one organisation all matters to do with the assessment, collection and enforcement of child maintenance in the great majority of cases. That will be a new, specialised organisation to do a specific and important task. Because its powers and duties fall to be expressed as belonging to the Secretary of State, there is no explicit reference to the Child Support Agency as such in the Bill itself.
The third part of our strategy does not appear in the Bill itself, for different reasons, but it is an integral part of our proposals. I refer to the benefit proposals, which are designed to make it easier to combine working with the responsibilities of looking after children. We intend to introduce regulations reducing the number of hours of work needed to qualify for family credit from 24 to 16 hours a week. In addition, parents with care who are receiving family credit, housing benefit, community charge benefit and disability working allowance will have the first £15 of their maintenance ignored in working out their benefit.
I hope that it may be for the convenience of the House if I outline the main provisions of the Bill itself. It sets out all the main elements of our policy, and contains much detailed material, and also a considerable number of powers to make regulations. That structure reflects the need to strike the right balance between two considerations.
On the one hand, it is obviously right to ensure that the main features of the new system are plainly set out in the Bill and are open to full debate at this stage. On the other, it is also obviously sensible not to burden the Bill itself with detailed, technical or procedural matters—not least because of the need to retain flexibility to adjust the detail in the light of practical experience once the new scheme has come into operation. [Interruption.] I notice that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is giggling. However, as a former Social Security Minister, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the parallel that I must draw. The approach we have adopted is similar to one with which the House is familiar in respect of social security legislation, where most of the detailed provisions governing the administration are set out in regulations. Over the years, that has generally been thought to be sensible.
It should be said that hon. Members are becoming familiar with the procedure precisely because the present Government have taken such action repeatedly. Other Governments—including Conservative Governments—have not acted in the same way. The fact that so many important decisions will be left to regulation and discretion after the House has dealt with the primary legislation, rather than being contained in that legislation, represents a major flaw in the Bill.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at some of the social security legislation that was passed while he was a Social Security Minister—or, at least, under the Government in which he was a Social Security Minister. He will find that there is nothing new about the general pattern that I have described. It has been felt under Governments of all kinds, over most of the period since the war, that this is a sensible way to deal with much of the detail of social security and comparable legislation, especially when it is subject to change.
Lloyd George may well have started it. I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to expect to be able to present the House—as he so often does nowadays—with Bills from which so much secondary legislation consequentially flows and expect to get away with it. I have said that before. There will come a time, I believe, when the House will throw some of this primary legislation back in the right hon. Gentleman's face—and so it should.
It is not a swingeing attack; it is merely a light-hearted comment, addressed to an hon. Member for whom I have considerable respect. I hope that I have not ruined his chances in the Scottish borders by attempting to be nice to him. If, however, such a thing as a Liberal Democrat Government were ever to appear, I should wait with bated breath for that Government's assurance that no social security legislation would include any powers for secondary legislation.
I intend shortly to provide a note for hon. Members, explaining in fuller detail the intentions behind the provisions that will determine the way in which the regulation-making powers are used. I hope that that will be useful in informing discussion at later stages if the Bill is given its Second Reading. That does not, of course, go as far as the hon. Member for Oldham, West or the hon. Gentleman from the Borders—whose constituency I always find it difficult to remember, because it is such a long name—would like; nevertheless, I trust that they will consider it at least a constructive response to the points that they have raised.
The opening clauses of the Bill set out the basic principles in terms of what might be called the "usual case". By that I mean only that it is what most often happens: a man and a woman have a family, their own relationship breaks up and the woman is left with the care of the children. Although, in discussing the Bill, we shall probably need to use language that reflects that "usual case", we should of course acknowledge that roles are sometimes reversed. Of more than 1 million lone parents, however, only about 10 per cent. are men, and I therefore think it reasonable to use the lone mother as our starting point—although the Bill applies equally to lone fathers who are caring for their children.
The Bill establishes that the absent parent has a duty to maintain the children of the relationship, and that that duty may be discharged by the making of periodic payments fixed by the Bill. It also contains a power for regulations to be made covering precisely how the formula will apply to cases that diverge from the "usual case"—for example, a case in which the child is looked after by a third party and there are therefore two absent parents, or the care of the child is shared between both parents.
Child maintenance is not, in the general case, a public debt, but a private liability owed to the child and the person caring for him. We therefore intend the services of the new Child Support Agency to be available to all parties where child maintenance is an issue—apart from a relatively small number of cases, to which I shall refer later, which will remain for the courts' discretion. Parties will continue to be able to make private arrangements about child maintenance, but if they want to use the services of the agency instead they will be able to. In those cases, fees will, where appropriate, be charged for voluntary use of the agency's services.
As we have always made clear, there are particular considerations where the lone parent is in receipt of social security income-related benefits. A responsibility which should be borne, at least in part, by the absent parent is being picked up by taxpayers instead. We therefore believe that, in general, lone parents on benefit should be expected to co-operate in using the services of the agency to trace the absent parent and recover maintenance from him. That is the purpose of clause 6.
Clause 6 has been the focus of much discussion in another place. Indeed, the other place removed an associated clause designed to secure that, when a lone parent unreasonably failed to co-operate, a sanction could be applied by way of a reduction in her own personal allowance in her benefit payment. We have listened carefully to the arguments, and, as my noble Friend Lord Henley said in another place on 16 May, we are continuing to explore ways in which we might more fully describe the circumstances in which the obligation to co-operate in clause 6 would not apply.
In our view, that is best achieved not by a list of the kind that some have urged us to adopt, but by a more general definition that focuses on adverse consequences that could be held likely to occur if an application for maintenance proceeds, and on assessing the likelihood—which we expect to arise only rarely—of the parent with care, or her children, suffering distress or harm because she is required to co-operate. Expressing that in legislative terms will be a difficult drafting task, but we hope to present an amendment in Committee.
I have, I think, made it clear that the Government regard this as an important point of principle in establishing the Bill's general objectives. I do not, therefore, expect to be able to respond to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in quite so friendly a fashion as I did to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood).
In view of some of the concern that has been expressed, it is particularly important to be clear about some aspects of the way in which the agency will work. In particular, it will be able to act as a buffer between the parents. It is the agency that will approach the absent parent and assess his ability to pay maintenance, and set up arrangements for payment. If necessary, it will collect on behalf of the parent with care, and will take enforcement action. I strongly emphasise that there need be no direct contact between the parents if they do not wish it, and that there will be no question of the agency's passing on confidential information, such as the family's whereabouts, to the absent parent.
First, let me say how much I welcome the Bill. Secondly, let me say how glad I am that my right hon. Friend has decided to locate the child support agencies throughout the United Kingdom, not just in London.
My right hon. Friend will, however, be aware of the disappointment that I feel about the announcement of the siting of the agencies, and the fact that there will not be one in Wolverhampton. Will he take this opportunity to put the record straight? I know that he has tried his very best: he has telephoned me late at night many times [Laughter]— to ask my advice about Wolverhampton's difficulty in providing premises.
Wolverhampton had difficulty in providing premises in which to locate the agency. As I know of my right hon. Friend's commitment, I am disappointed to read today in the local paper that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) has already damned the Government for turning their back on Wolverhampton. I know for a fact that the local Labour council could not come up with a site. I ask my right hon. Friend to put the record straight.
This is another matter to which I had intended to come later in my speech—and I will do so. I am happy to confirm that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) and I have had a number of conversations about the matter, both on the telephone and in other ways, because of the very proper way in which she has vigorously sought to represent the interests of her constituency in respect of siting one of the agency offices. I share her disappointment that it has not been possible to respond in the way in which I should have liked to respond to her representations on the matter. She will be aware that our proposal for the siting of one of the proposed agency offices is well within the area in which recruitment in Wolverhampton would be a possibility. We will seek to encourage that.
My right hon. Friend is spelling out the details of his proposal with the skill and sensitivity that the House has come to expect of him. He confirmed a few moments ago that the mechanisms and proposals would apply to the minority of cases, some of which have been raised with me by constituents. In such cases, it is the father who has been left as the lone parent and the mother, unusually but with developing social pressures, who has abandoned her children. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is confident that the mechanisms will work in that minority of cases? Have he and his Department studied the practice in other countries that have similar systems to ensure that we can learn from them how to make our system most effective?
The answer to all three parts of my hon. Friend's question is yes. The first question was whether the arrangements would apply even-handedly, and the answer is yes. Secondly, he asked whether I am confident that the arrangements will work as effectively in what I have called "absent mother" cases as in "absent father" cases. The answer to that is yes. Thirdly, he asked whether we had studied the experience in other countries—notably, I must mention, Australia and some parts of the United States. The answer to that is yes. In many respects, our proposals represent an improvement, not least in connection with the points with which my hon. Friend is concerned, as a result of the lessons that we have drawn from that study.
I hope that I have left no doubt of our wish to ensure that there should be proper definition of the circumstances in which the obligation to co-operate will not apply. However, we remain convinced that, when lone parents do not have reasonable grounds for refusing to co-operate —in other words, when they are, in effect, simply choosing to pass the bill to the community at large—it is right that there should be some limited sanction in respect of their personal allowance in the benefit system—although not, of course, in respect of any benefit payable in respect of the children. We have carefully considered the points made in another place when the provision was removed from the Bill. However, we believe that an important principle is involved, so we propose to seek the restoration of such a power.
I must emphasise that there will be no question of any reduction in benefit until there has been the most thorough consideration of the reasons for the parent's refusal to seek maintenance for her child. A parent with care of the child who believes that she has good reason not to authorise the recovery of maintenance will have a full opportunity to make her case. She will then be given time to reflect and to make further representations before the issues are considered by a different child support officer—a review within the agency.
Only if at that second stage it is still considered that the mother does not have reasonable grounds for her refusal will there be any question of a reduction in her benefit. She will then still have the right of appeal to an independent child support appeal tribunal. We shall table the necessary amendments in Committee which—I must make this clear because I am responding to one specific concern raised in another place—will include a time limit on the duration of any reduction.
It may be convenient at this point to refer to clause 39.
Can the Secretary of State tell the House why, a month after clause 22 was deleted in another place, the Government still have not come up with a clear formula to insert in the Bill their decision on this point? The right hon. Gentleman referred a few minutes ago to consultations. He will know that every organisation is opposed to the reintroduction of a deduction of benefit for this purpose. It is perfectly clear from what he has just said that the Government have made up their mind, irrespective of any consultations. I ask again why the Secretary of State has come to the House so unprepared that he cannot produce the formula for the House to examine.
Two separate points are involved. The point that he has raised goes back to what I was saying about clause 6—that is, whether we can find a way in which to insert material into the Bill which will more fully express the definition of the circumstances in which a judgment will be made about whether a refusal is reasonable. I thought that I had already said enough to show that, although the matter is clear in general layman's terms—what we seek to achieve, for example, in cases in which there is good reason to believe that distress or harm may be caused by the pursuit of maintenance—there is a difficult drafting problem. I am anxious, as is the parliamentary draftsman, to ensure that the point is considered as fully and carefully as possible before it is included in the Bill.
There is a somewhat separate point about the circumstances and arrangements under which whatever grounds are in the Bill, or in any other form, are then considered, and about the procedures that are gone through before any question of a deduction arises. I am concentrating on those points at the moment, and I hope that that is reasonably clear.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for displaying his characteristic courtesy. I should be pleased if he would accept my apologies for my failing to be here for the first few minutes of his speech. I must inform the House that a large engineering company in my constituency is facing closure, and I had to speak to people who are directly threatened. That is why I was away from the Chamber.
I have a serious question for the Secretary of State—I have no wish to score so-called "party political" points on the matter. Clause 7(1) uses the words:
In Scotland, a child
When the clause was framed, was cognisance taken of the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Bill, which is at present passing through the other place? That Bill removes the distinction between a pupil and a child. On that technical question, at what age can someone representing a child in Scotland who is a non-pupil seek assistance in these matters?
By that curious process of osmosis which sometimes enables information to reach Ministers—that is, by a nod from a quarter to which I am not allowed to refer—I am already informed that the answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is yes. The Bill takes account of the measure to which he referred.
I am at a somewhat greater disadvantage on the second part of the hon. Member's question. The right course for me to take is to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, who will reply at the end of the debate, will seek to deal with the point. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Rather than attempt to digest in these circumstances what may be a complicated piece of information, which I have just been handed, I shall ensure that the matter is covered later in the debate.
The Bill's focus on the child, rather than parental needs, as the priority is welcome. With regard to such matters as naming the father, I remind the House that the Secretary of State is giving an identity to the child in need. That is what the children of lone parents, where fathers or mothers do not pay maintenance, tell me is missing. They feel rootless and without identity when the missing parent does not pay for their support. Therefore, I support the Bill and the naming of the missing parent wherever that is feasible and practical.
In many cases, that is indeed an important perspective.
I was about to refer to clause 39. I have said that we do not think it right that the parent with care should be able just to choose to pass responsibility for the children to the taxpayer. The same argument applies in principle to absent parents: their responsibility needs to be recognised. For that reason, even if the absent parent is on benefit, we think that, in general, he should at least make a small contribution to meeting his maintenance liability. This would be by a deduction from his benefit at the same level as those which can currently be made, for example, to meet arrears on various bills, and within the existing limits for such deductions. I look particularly at the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe when I say that, where the absent parent is sick or disabled, or has dependent children, liability will be established, but the contribution will be zero-rated.
We believe that, in general, equity and consistency can be brought to child maintenance by an objective formula. There has been much support, both inside and outside the House, for that. But we recognise that there will be situations where this does not apply, and I therefore draw the House's attention briefly to clause 8, which deals with the remaining jurisdiction of the courts. It provides a "principle of mutual exclusivity"; where maintenance may be sought under the formula, it cannot be sought from the courts, but the classes of case covered by the Bill are more limited than those currently covered by the courts, so existing court powers will continue to apply to cases not covered by the new scheme—for example, those involving stepchildren, where the court would need to decide whether the child was, in fact, treated as a child of the family and therefore eligible for an award of maintenance.
The courts will also retain jurisdiction to cover some elements of maintenance not covered by the formula. The first of these is the child's right to share in higher levels of income. The operation of the formula will be limited at the upper end to prevent excessively high payments of maintenance becoming due, but the courts will be able to award maintenance over and above any formula assessment. The courts will also have a top-up power allowing them to make an order in addition to the normal formula award, for education costs, which are not covered by the formula.
Thirdly—I look even more closely at the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe—in response to arguments which have suggested that special allowance needed to be made for disabled children, we have concluded that the courts should have a power to make discretionary additional awards in such cases also, and we plan to introduce an amendment to provide for that.
Is the Secretary of State aware that Mencap has said that the Government may decide to take all families with disabled children out of the new system and leave them with the courts, and that Mencap is resisting the suggestion? To what extent is the right hon. Gentleman consulting Mencap and other organisations which take a particular interest in the question?
Both before and, more especially, since the publication of "Children Come First" last autumn, we have received many representations, including some from Mencap, I am sure, as well as from a wide range of child care and other organisations. We have taken, and continue to take, those representations very much into account in working out what use should be made of the secondary powers to which reference has already been made.
Certainly, if Mencap wishes to make further representations along the lines suggested by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe, I undertake that they will be considered, although I hope that what I have just announced goes some way to meeting their concern. Certainly it was intended to do so.
I have been listening carefully to the Secretary of State, and many of the provisions of the Bill are about the enforcement of child maintenance orders. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether the Army Acts lay down that a commanding officer of a serving soldier has the right to set aside a court maintenance order it he thinks that the man concerned does not have enough income to meet it?
Is the Secretary of State aware that I have been dealing with a constituency case in which the sheriff court in Falkirk made a child maintenance order but, because the absent parent happens to be a serving soldier, his commanding officer has time and again set aside the court order, and there is nothing that the mother of the two children concerned can do about it?
The hon. Gentleman will understand if I say that, rather than attempt to comment now—apart from anything else, that would entail my knowing more about a specific case than I could conceivably pretend to here and now—I shall undertake to look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman. I should be grateful if he would provide me with the necessary identifying details, if he has not already done so. I suspect that such a case is best looked into specifically rather than commented on in general terms.
Clauses 10 and 11 deal with maintenance assessments and the basis on which they are to be made. Clause 10 gives effect to schedule 1, where the detailed structure of the formula is set out. I should perhaps say—wryly—that the algebraic form in which it appears seemed to offer advantages of conciseness and clarity, but I am not sure that it is entirely transparent, so it may be convenient to remind hon. Members of the main features of the formula.
There are four elements. The first is the maintenance requirement. That is the minimum amount which all parents will be required to contribute to the maintenance of their child if they can afford to. It represents the weekly cost of maintaining each child, based on allowances in the income support scheme.
The second element is the exempt income, which is worked out for each responsible parent. It represents the parents' own personal essential expenses which must be met before any maintenance at all is paid. The starting point, again, is the allowances in the income support scheme, plus—this is important—reasonable housing costs and the costs of any other natural children for whom parents are liable and who are living with them. The exempt income produced by this calculation will then be deducted from net income—income after tax and national insurance—producing as a result what we have called assessable income—net income minus exempt income—which will then be used to calculate how much maintenance is to be paid. Exempt income does not include allowances for any new partner because that would mean an adult taking priority over children.
The third element is the deduction rate applied to the assessable income to determine the minimum amount of maintenance to be paid. Until the maintenance requirement is met, the proposition is that assessable income will be shared equally between the qualifying children and the parent. After that, until a further ceiling is reached above which the formula will not apply, a lower rate will have effect. We have been giving much thought to what this should be, and have listened with particular care to comments made in another place.
The White Paper suggested for illustrative purposes a rate, above that minimum level, of 15 per cent. It is clearly right that the deduction rate at that stage should be lower. That reflects the normal reality that, at higher levels of income, a lower proportion of the total is likely to be spent on the children. But we nevertheless agree that it should still represent a significant contribution to the maintenance of children, and, while we are still considering the precise details of the additional element which will be needed in the formula, I can say that it is likely to be more than 15 per cent., as has been pressed on us from a number of quarters.
The fourth element is protected income. This will also be set by reference to income support rates, but with a margin above them in order not to discourage absent parents from working or provide a stimulus to default. It will produce an income level which no person liable to maintain a child will be allowed to fall below as a result of meeting both maintenance obligations and the essential expenses of himself and his new family.
The formula is thus very flexible. It deals with the circumstances of the parties as they are, and it adapts to changes in those circumstances. Indeed, the proposals for periodic review are a significant innovation. The formula also deals specifically with the housing circumstances of the parties, and reflects the financial consequences of any property settlement which may be made, or may have been made. Hon. Members and certainly the hon. Member for Birkenhead will know that the Social Security Select Committee has commented on this aspect, and we are, of course, considering carefully the points that it has made.
As I said, the courts will be able to award an additional amount to provide for disabled children. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe is still here, although he has moved his position. I am coming to another point which will be of interest to him. We have also given thought to how to provide for cases where one or more of the adults involved incurs extra costs as a result of a disability. We have decided that in such cases we shall include in the exempt or protected income the various disability-related premiums which would be payable if income support were claimed.
We shall also disregard as income the allowances which would be ignored if income support were payable. That will mean that a parent with a disability will still be assessed for maintenance but will receive an income advantage over a non-disabled adult. That income advantage will exactly equal the value of the premiums and allowances which recognise the person's need in respect of a disability. All our evidence suggests—I believe that the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe will agree—that people with disabilities want account to be taken of their disabilities, as the allowances and premiums seek to do, but otherwise wish to be treated like everyone else. Therefore, we believe that what I have outlined is the right approach.
I am glad to see the right hon. Gentleman nodding.
The formula is the basis on which full assessments will be made, but in some cases the agency may not have all the information that it needs to effect a full assessment—perhaps because one of the parties is being deliberately difficult. The Bill therefore allows for an enforceable interim assessment to be made in those cases. That is designed to assist in obtaining early payment of maintenance. It should also act as an incentive for the liable parent to provide information.
The bulk of the remaining clauses in the Bill provide for the powers which the Child Support Agency will need if it is to do its job effectively. Undoubtedly, those powers will receive a good deal of consideration in Committee, so this afternoon I shall simply outline some of the major features.
On the earlier point, will my right hon. Friend assure me that the exempt income—the income kept back for the absent parent—will be only the income essential for the upkeep of the parent? Even the existence of that exempt income puts the child second. In the child's mind, surely the child is the priority and should always come first.
The immediate and obvious answer to my hon. Friend's question is yes, but in one sense it begs what will undoubtedly be the subject of further discussion precisely what is essential and inessential. If we are both allowed to beg that question for the moment, the answer to my hon. Friend's question is undoubtedly yes.
Clause 12 creates officers to be known as child support officers. All staff of the Child Support Agency will be officers of the Child Support Agency and as such civil servants in the Department of Social Security. But in applying the formula to make decisions about how much maintenance individuals are to pay, they will be acting under the statutory authority of this Bill, independent of the political process; that is why, just as individual decisions are made in the benefit system by independent adjudication officers, so in the Child Support Agency, decisions will be made by statutorily independent child support officers. There will also be an independent appeal system, about which I shall say more in a few moments.
The practical work involved under the new scheme will be done by a Child Support Agency. I have announced previously that we hope to have the agency up and running early in 1993. I am pleased to confirm that we seem on course for the agency to begin operations by spring of 1993 with work being taken on in a phased way thereafter. The agency will be a next steps agency accountable to Parliament through me. My Department is already much involved in work to recover maintenance from people known in the trade—as some hon. Members will be aware as liable relatives. Apart from using my Department's experience in dealing with complex questions about people's income and circumstances, it is sensible for the Child Support Agency to build on the Department's specific expertise in liable relative work. Indeed, we have some 2,500 posts assigned to that work already, out of the total staffing of the Child Support Agency, which we currently expect to amount to about 4,700.
I shall now answer some of the points made in interventions about locations.
The people are there. The issue is to what extent they do liable relative work or whether under certain circumstances they are diverted to other tasks within the Benefits Agency. That might as well be openly acknowledged, because it is well known by several hon. Members. One of the advantages of the proposals that we are making, as well as of the measures already in effect to create a Contributions Agency alongside the Benefits Agency, is that there is a degree of what is called, in the jargon of the trade, ring fencing of the resource for that particular purpose.
Yes. The amount has increased substantially as a result of the extra effort that has been made and, indeed, the deployment of additional staff resources in the past couple of years. The figure is substantially in excess of £200 million a year. However, I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman an exact estimate of the outturn in the year which has just ended. If the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde, can assist the hon. Gentleman further when he replies to the debate, I am sure that he will do so.
The total staffing of the Child Support Agency will amount to some 4,700. A significant proportion of those staff will be grouped in six centres in various parts of the country where they will do the bulk of processing and assessment work which does not require face-to-face contact with the customer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) mentioned, we have said in a parliamentary answer that the Department is currently negotiating for centres in Hastings, Belfast, Falkirk, Birkenhead, Plymouth and the Dudley area in the black country.
The Secretary of State may be aware that I have campaigned for years for civil service jobs to be located in Falkirk. Although I have grave reservations about the Bill because it will do virtually nothing to give additional support to single parents or to children, I welcome the Government's recognition that Callendar Park is an excellent location for civil service jobs. I look forward to the location in Falkirk of more meaningful civil service jobs in genuine child welfare, social security, and, indeed, overseas development, for which I have campaigned for some time.
My right hon. Friend must accept the thanks not only of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren) and myself, but of those of our many constituents who work at Ashdown house in Hastings for his willingness to consider those premises as part of his plans and to negotiate for their use. I just hope that the Property Services Agency proves to be sensible and realistic in those negotiations.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in November 1989, I wrote to the Department of the Environment asking it to circulate all other Government Departments with the details of Ashdown house and the qualifications of the staff with the sort of eventuality that my right hon. Friend now envisages in mind? I hope that that practice becomes a precedent whenever a Government Department vacates premises in the hope that it can be used by another Government Department.
I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren), who is unwell and, unhappily, is unable to be here today. My hon. Friends, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, have vigorously and properly represented the interests of their constituents in this matter. From their point of view, I am glad that a successful outcome has been reached, as we are now negotiating for the use of the premises in Hastings.
I am retiring at the next election and, in my usual generous manner, I can afford to give all the credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) for attracting the jobs to Falkirk. I share my hon. Friend's reservations about the Bill, but I welcome those jobs with open arms. If ever an area needed new jobs and a broadened economic base, it is Falkirk. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has tremendous influence with his Cabinet colleagues and if he could persuade each one of them to give me a gift of 500 jobs before I retire, I will leave this place a happy man.
I am almost overwhelmed by the encomiums that are being heaped upon me by the Opposition. I am duly grateful for the generosity with which the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) has spoken.
As a number of hon. Friends have said, the six centres that we plan to locate around the country depend to some degree on the successful passage of the Bill. I should also make it clear that the agency will also have a presence on the ground, more locally, consisting of trained staff who will conduct interviews, visit customers, pursue inquiries locally and offer advice and guidance about the agency's services. I anticipate that, normally, those staff will be co-located with the Benefits Agency officers, as that will probably be for everyone's convenience.
In making assessments, the agency will need certain sorts of information—particularly relating to the financial and family circumstances of the parties. The Bill provides for this, subject to strict specifications about what information may be required for the purpose, and to rigorous controls over what information may be disclosed, in strictly limited circumstances, by the officers of the agency. We intend that, in cases where information about parties' incomes is not forthcoming from their employer after every other avenue has been tried, officers of the agency will have access to powers similar to those of officers of my Department who inspect premises in connection with national insurance matters.
Clause 14, as it stands, is the basis of the provision we seek, but, in the light of concerns expressed in another place, we shall table amendments to make explicit that the powers referred to are to be used only when specifically authorised on my behalf in particular difficult cases.
In addition to the provision for assessments to be automatically reviewed at regular intervals to which I have already referred, it is essential to provide for a right of appeal where any of the parties to an assessment made by the agency has reason to question it. The detailed provisions for this were added to the Bill during its passage in another place. At a first stage, the Bill provides that the parties may ask for the assessment to be looked at again, within the Child Support Agency, so as to provide a quick and relatively informal way of putting mistakes right. That first-stage review will be done by a different officer from the one who made the original decision.
Appeals from that process will go to specialist dedicated tribunals, along the lines of those which hear appeals against decisions of social security adjudication. Further appeals on points of law will go to specialist commissioners and thence to the Court of Appeal. Where the matter at issue is whether the alleged liable parent is in fact the father, the question will go, as now, to the courts for determination.
We shall seek to give fuller definition to the circumstances in which that may occur. In the legislation, we expect to define the nature and duration of the deduction that would be made in particular circumstances. The decision about whether a deduction was appropriate would be taken by the child support officer following the review and the reconsideration that I outlined earlier. That decision will be subject to an appeal to the child support appeal tribunal. At that point, however, it would simply be a fact that the Benefits Agency would take into account in determining the appropriate rate of benefit. That is our thinking on the matter at this stage, and I hope that it is reasonably clear.
The remaining substantial group of clauses in the Bill deal with the collection and enforcement of assessments. The House will be aware that the Maintenance Enforcement Bill now before Parliament seeks to improve the efficiency with which maintenance orders are collected and enforced by the courts by giving them a wider range of powers to order particular methods of payment when the order is made or dealt with. That reform, which, subject to parliamentary approval, will come into effect quite quickly, will be a valuable improvement to the present system.
In framing the proposals for collection and enforcement under this new system, we have been guided by two principles. The first is that the Child Support Agency should have wide powers to come to arrangements about the payment of maintenance which suit all parties and which give reasonable assurance that payments will actually be made. As a general rule, our preferred method will be the least intrusive one possible—that is, an arrangement between the parties. Where that presents problems, however, it will be possible for payments to be made by a range of methods, including cash payments at local offices, cheque, bank transfer, or standing order. It will be possible for the agency to make orders deducting money at source from a liable person's earnings where that appears the best way in which to secure payments. Very importantly, especially in view of one point in the reasoned amendment tabled by the Opposition, the existing arrangements whereby caring parents on income support can have their benefit paid gross will continue as now. In those cases, the agency will take responsibility for recovering maintenance.
The second guiding principle has been that enforcement provisions should mirror those at present available for maintenance debt. Where the normal range of payment methods—including deductions from earnings—has failed, the agency will be able to apply to a magistrates court for a liability order which will permit the distraint of the liable person's goods to meet the debt. It is our intention that the Bill will contain powers for the agency to apply, in the usual way, to the county court for garnishee and charging orders whereby money can be recovered, for example, from a liable person's bank account and from other third parties who in turn owe him money, or by a charge on the liable person's property, to meet the debt.
As a last resort, the Bill contains a power under which the agency may apply to a magistrates court for a warrant committing a liable person to prison if his failure to pay is due to wilful refusal or culpable neglect. That sanction, already available under current law for maintenance default, will be used very rarely, as it is now, and only where the court is satisfied that the debtor has the means to pay but simply refuses to do so.
It seems under clause 35 that the Government are authorising warrant sales, or the poinding process, yet are not anxious to initiate wage arrestment orders in such cases. It is important to note that clause 26 is concerned with the power of the Secretary of State for Scotland to initiate or defend actions of declarator. Will the Minister confirm that, under clause 26(1)(c)—remembering the relationship of all this to the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990, which allows for, among other things, DNA testing in certain civil cases—a DNA test could be imposed on a person who claimed not to be the parent of the child in question?
Despite the years I have spent dealing with social security matters, 1 am reluctant to pretend to have comparable experience with the detailed provisions of Scottish law. I will remit the hon. Gentleman's question to my hon. Friend, who may answer when replying to the debate. Otherwise, one of us will write to him on what sounds like a complicated and technical point.
I have an easier question for the right hon. Gentleman. Where a benefit reduction order is placed against a person's income support and an appeal is launched immediately, will the benefit reduction order be operative immediately, or will it be suspended until the appeal process has been exhausted? If the benefit were reduced immediately, the person concerned would suffer great hardship in the interim because of a decision which should not have been taken in the first place.
I would expect the arrangements in that respect to be parallel with those in the most obviously roughly comparable example of voluntary unemployment deductions, where normally the deduction would not go into effect until the appeal had been heard, as it were, and overturned at that stage. We can discuss the point further in Committee, but that is what I would envisage, according to our present thinking.
Most of the clauses to which I have not referred cover matters of technical detail, with which I will not weary the House at this stage.
The right hon. Gentleman's answer to a question I have could help me in winding up, and some of my hon. Friends in their consideration of the issues involved.
What consideration is being given to private arrangements that are made between couples where, for example, the man—it might be the woman, but usually it is the man—has left the other spouse in the matrimonial home with the children but pays no maintenance by arrangement? Often the man in such a case will pay no maintenance, because he may not be able to pay it, but will have the child every weekend and often in the school holidays. What consideration is being given to such private arrangements? Will they be liable to the law when they are working well and the child is being maintained, albeit not in the way in which the Bill suggests?
I hope that the hon. Lady heard the recognition I gave earlier to the recent interim report of the Select Committee which dealt with some of those points and to which I said we were giving consideration. I hope it is clear that the formula takes substantial account of such circumstances because of the inclusion of reasonable housing costs. To put the point at its simplest, if the absent parent has assigned interest in the matrimonial home, other things being equal, his own reasonable housing costs will now be significantly higher than they would otherwise have been, and that will be taken into account, because his reasonable housing costs will be allowed for. That will then be reflected, in effect, in reducing the amount of maintenance that he could be expected to pay, because his reasonable housing costs will be taken into account first.
The matter is not as simple as it has been presented in some quarters. I acknowledge that the hon. Lady will wish to comment on the subject in winding up. We shall examine carefully any points that she makes, as we shall look carefully at the report of the Select Committee. The formula seems to take account of such arrangements to a substantial extent. I hope that that gives the hon. Lady help in devising her winding-up speech. I am in a very helpful mood this afternoon.
The Bill reforms a difficult and fragmented area of legal provision which has clearly been failing to secure the interests of children. It is based on the clear principle of ensuring, so far as we can, that parents fulfil their responsibilities to their children. It is designed to bring consistency, certainty and reliability to the financial arrangements which are one important reflection of those responsibilities. Alongside the Children Act, it is a substantial step forward in protecting the interests of children, and I commend it to the House.
I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:
this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which, while providing that absent parents should contribute to the support of their children, leaves lone parents on Income Support not one penny better off, makes lone parents worse off where they receive maintenance just above Income Support levels and thus lose access to passported benefits, allows maintenance payments to be disrupted if the absent parent defaults, does not take account of property settlements which could lead to an increase in orders for the home to be sold, leaves unclear in which cases the lone parent will be exempt from the requirement to help the agency trace the absent parent and therefore from the penalty of loss of benefit imposed on the caring parent, and does not tackle more serious problems facing lone parents and their children, notably the provision of better child care facilities.
The Opposition strongly support the principle that absent parents should, within their means, contribute to the support of their children. Indeed, one might have assumed that that principle commanded universal acceptance. It is sad, if also ironic, that the one exception seems to be the Secretary of State's Department.
The Government are flaunting the demand that every absent father shall be forced to pay maintenance on pain of attachment of earnings or loss of benefit and that every mother on income support shall be forced to name the father or lose a sizeable chunk of the only income she has. It is sobering to discover that under the Conservatives the Department of Social Security has presided over a 50 per cent. cut in the proportion of children on benefit receiving maintenance.
That did not happen by accident. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, which were moved to examine the issue, put the blame explicitly on DSS neglect. Indeed, they could hardly do otherwise. The DSS had actually reduced the staff devoted to the collection of child maintenance by one third during the 1980s. So although the number of lone parents on benefit doubled, the DSS collected 9 per cent. less in real terms in 1988–89 than in 1981–82. That was why public expenditure on benefit for those children nearly tripled in real terms. The National Audit Office was clear that it was deliberate Government policy and said in its document, "Support for Lone Parent Families":
The National Audit Office found that among their representative sample of 42 local offices, the practice of transferring staff—
to which the Secretary of State referred—
from liable relatives work to help with other pressing tasks was widespread during the period examined. In 88 per cent. of the offices in the sample, staff were withdrawn from this work to help undertake work of higher priority. Seventeen of the offices in the sample were more than 25 per cent. below their complement for liable relatives work; seven had shortfalls of over 50 per cent.
The Public Accounts Committee was clearer still and condemned the Government outright. It said in its document, "Support for Lone Parent Families:
One of the main factors contributing to the steady decline in the number of lone parent families on supplementary benefit or income support also receiving maintenance has been the parallel reduction since 1981 in the resources devoted to liable relatives work by Department of Social Security local offices.
It went on:
We consider that their neglect of this important area of local office activity was regrettable.
That was in the modest language of civil service comment.
That drift and neglect through the 1980s was interrupted only when, on new year's day 1990, the Labour party published a consultation paper proposing new procedures to enforce maintenance orders. Apparently, it shamed the Government into action. I say that because that was the opinion of a thoroughly independent source —the Daily Mail— which considered the Opposition's proposals important enough to give them the front page lead on that day. Two paragraphs are worth quoting. It said that Tory Back Benchers
fear the Government will be caught on the hop by Labour promises to hunt down the fathers. Opposition social security spokesman Michael Meacher has said Labour's next election manifesto will include a scheme to improve the legal and tax systems to help single mothers claim cash from their former partners".
The Daily Mail also said:
But the Government has no plans to make them pay, Whitehall admitted yesterday".
That is a significant statement coming from that source.
Thus the Government were condemned by the auditors of public expenditure for giving child maintenance
contributions too low a priority and by their most loyalist tabloid poodle for being caught on the hop. However, it had its effect because three weeks later it prompted the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), to make a speech which included the statement:
No father should be able to escape from his responsibilities".
One might have expected that, at long last, the Department for Social Security would then have allotted the enforcement of child maintenance collection the priority that everyone else agreed it should have. It is somewhat dismaying to learn that even the former Prime Minister's admonition still has not made the DSS act in line with the principle that it is proclaiming so loudly today. It is still true that, even when introducing the White Paper last October, which roundly declared that all fathers should be made to pay up, the DSS was still thoroughly laid back about the whole exercise.
In a parliamentary question on 25 February this year I asked about the number of staff days allocated for liable relatives' work in each DSS region in the last nine months of last year—precisely the period when the Government were promoting the White Paper—and what proportion of the days allocated for that work was actually used. I was told that not one region used as much as three quarters of the days allocated for that work and that one—London south—used less than half.
Although the central principle enunciated in the Bill is undoubtedly excellent—the Opposition have already shown their support for it—it would be helpful if the Department of Social Security acted as though it also believed it, because it has still not done so. We are concerned that the Bill is still flawed in several of its applications.
By far the most important is the punitive approach to mothers who refuse to name the absent parent. Clause 22 of the original Bill, which enabled the Department to withdraw benefit from the lone parent if she failed to co-operate, was rightly deleted in another place. The biggest question that the Secretary of State needs to answer today is whether he intends to reintroduce a benefit deduction as a sanction on the mother to comply. Having listened to him for an hour, it is clear that he intends to do so. It is extraordinary that, a month after clause 22 was deleted, the Government—despite all the consultations about which they talk—have still not come up with a formula. That is a deplorable admission to make to the House today.
The Opposition's view is clear. There are several reasons why that course should be vigorously opposed. One is that it is impossible for a deduction in family income of 20 per cent. of the adult personal allowance —I remind the House that that comes to £7·93 per week at current rates—to be carried out without harming the child. In some cases, it might lead to children being taken into care because the mother could no longer afford to look after them. That alone should be a decisive reason for not reintroducing that benefit reduction. Another reason is that there are a number of circumstances—other than rape or incest, which were mentioned in the original White Paper—such as domestic violence or child abuse, where the pursuit of maintenance could damage the child. Those may be covered by the formula at which the Secretary of State hinted today. A third important reason, however, is that only a very small proportion of mothers refuse to
name the father of their child. Lord Henley has already admitted in another place that the benefit savings will be extremely small. He said:
I would he the first to admit that the benefit savings will be insignificant".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 March 1991; Vol. 527, c. 544.]
In that case, why reintroduce the clause? Why penalise a tiny number of mothers and children who have reason not to name the father when the gains to the Government are "insignificant"? That is exactly the argument used by all the relevant organisations in their letter to The Times today, of which I have a copy. They are unanimous in their support of that principle, which is why the question of consultation is so bogus.
If the Treasury has been so dominant over the Bill as to secure and demand the reintroduction of that clause, the Secretary of State, who is a polite and generous person, has been pretty feeble in defending the interests of his clients. It is a great pity that he cannot be as rude to the Treasury as the shop-worn Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), was yesterday about poor families, whom she accused of going hungry only because they did not shop around and bought the wrong food. She shoots her mouth off about what she patently does not understand, while the Secretary of State, I suspect, understands perfectly well but cannot raise his voice enough to make his presence felt with the Treasury.
Why are the Government so obsessed with punitive measures that will harm children? Why do the Government always give incentives to the rich but punish the poor? Why do they not provide instead an incentive to mothers to co-operate with the Child Support Agency? Why do they not provide a small disregard of maintenance for those on income support? Mothers on income support will not be a penny better off as a result of the enforced collection of maintenance under the Bill. It is curious, but typical, that the Government can afford thousands of pounds as an incentive to make Lord Hanson co-operate, but cannot afford one penny to win the co-operation of vulnerable mothers and children.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as there will be an election between now and the full implementation of the Bill—certainly before the Child Support Agency is set up and running—there will be a significant number of changes. We do not believe in a punitive social policy, but we believe in incentives—not only for people who are well off, which is fair enough, but for those members of society who are less well endowed and less privileged. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] We are discussing the Government's Bill—that is what is before the House, and I shall continue to talk about it.
That is all very well, but the hon. Gentleman is speaking to a motion which has been formally put on the Order Paper and which contains the proposal to which he has adverted. We are entitled to know whether an income support disregard—the cost of which would run into tens of millions of pounds—is or is not an official Labour party policy commitment. Is it a priority?
Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I was saying. I said that in our social policy we do not believe in punishing people, but in giving them incentives. He cannot be right in fantasising about the cost because he can have no idea about the level at which the disregard might operate. If one provides a firm base on which the lone parent can build, there is a far greater possibility—particularly in conjunction with other measures to which I shall refer—that as long as his or her children are not very young, the lone parent will be able to get back to work and the cost to the taxpayer in the medium and long run will be less, not more.
The right hon. Gentleman referred vaguely to the formula of harm and distress. In another place, Lord Henley, also referred to it and I shall rehearse to the House the phrase used by Lord Henley about a month ago. He said:
If we were reasonably satisfied that the consequences might harm or distress the caring parent or her children, or something of that kind, that would be the trigger for the Secretary of State not to require co-operation."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 May 1991; Vol. 528, c. 1777.]
As the Government have not come up with a formula since then, we are entitled to ask for a clear answer to a number of questions because the Government have certainly had long enough to think about it. What exactly is included in the phrase, "harm and distress", particularly as the Minister in the other place also referred to something of that kind? Presumably, the phrase includes domestic violence. But does it include the threat of violence? How will that be proved, particularly if the claim is challenged?
The Public Accounts Committee was certainly aware of the intention of the DSS to increase liable relatives work. It said:
We recommend too that the Department monitor the way in which this work is undertaken to ensure that the pressure on officers to achieve a substantial increase in maintenance recoveries does not lead to undue pressure being put on lone parents to co-operate in liable relatives work.
How will the Secretary of State avoid undue pressure being brought to bear? Whether we use the formula suggested or another one, there will clearly be a demand from the Treasury and from DSS headquarters to increase maintenance recoveries. How is undue pressure to be avoided?
Does the Secretary of State accept that fine judgments will be required and a heavy burden of responsibility will fall on social security officers in a sphere which, we all understand, is one of intimate and complex human relationships? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that his officials—fine body of persons though they no doubt are —can exercise that degree of sensitivity, given the experience that we have all had of the social fund in the past three years? If he is satisfied, all I can say is that many of us beg leave to doubt his confidence.
Is giving information for maintenance pursuit a condition of benefit receipt? There seems to be some genuine uncertainty about that. Perhaps we could be told in the wind-up speech whether the Secretary of State will publish revised guidance to DSS officials so that the legal process is made quite clear.
Having expressed our strong opposition both to the right hon. Gentleman's craven retention of benefit deduction as a form of sanction and the specific formula that he seems to have in mind, I turn to the maintenance formula in the Bill, which has several faults. First, it is regressive and does not ensure that those on lower incomes pay least, which we believe is an essential requirement. The absent father of a child under five who earns £120 per week net might, under the formula, typically pay about 27 per cent. of that income, while a father with £350 assessed income—nearly three times as much—would pay a significantly lower proportion at about 21 per cent. The Bill is wrong in that the 15 per cent. illustrative deduction level—I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman says that the figure could well be above 15 per cent., so let us assume that it is about 20 per cent.—for those who can afford more than the basic maintenance bill is clearly insufficient to ensure that the child shares the absent parent's living standards. But surely the philosophy of child maintenance in family law is that it has always contained a relationship to the standard of living that the child would have enjoyed. We strongly object to the fact that the Government are tying maintenance too closely to income support levels.
At the other end of the scale, the Bill is as harsh on low-earner absent parents as it is lax on high earners. If there is to be an incentive to work, the protected income needs to include work-related expenses as well as some significant reward for working, but it does not. If the protected income is not set at a high enough level, many second families may well end up living below the subsistence level of income support—a point that appeared to be lost on the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), and I was surprised that the Secretary of State did not make more of that. Clause 35 deliberately creates that result by requiring absent parents on income support to contribute a proportion—it might be 5 per cent.—of their benefit in maintenance. To impose that on every unemployed father who clearly cannot afford it when, in the past, the DSS has been so negligent in collecting it from those who clearly can afford it surely smacks more of Thatcherite dogmatism than of workable social policy.
We believe that the principles of financial liability towards children should be recognised, but we also believe that the deduction should be zero rated—to use a phrase that is coming into the trade—while the absent father remains on income support. One of the most worrying aspects of the Bill is the way in which it will contribute further to a disturbing proliferation of deductions from benefit. There are already almost half a million claimants who are forced to live below income support subsistence levels due to social fund loan repayments. Some 250,000 are forced to live below those levels because of deductions for gas and electricity arrears, about 50,000 suffer because of poll tax liability orders, and 150,000 suffer because of deductions of pay off rent and water charge arrears. There are also those who are subject to the so-called voluntary unemployment deduction, which operates for up to six months at a time. That accounts for more than 1 million people who are compelled to live below income support levels, and the Secretary of State is adding to the list by including those who will pay deductions for maintenance. The list is far too big already. It should be cut and certainly not be increased.
Enforcement will be crucial to this enterprise, and in that respect the Bill has a number of weaknesses. Deduction from earnings orders can be evaded by changing employment. Payment by the self-employed cannot be ensured when for them deduction from earnings is an inappropriate measure. Surely the simplest, most cost-effective and reliable means of ensuring maintenance for the caring parent would be for the DSS to provide guaranteed maintenance payments. The DSS already does that in some cases, and Sweden and a number of states in the United States operate a guaranteed maintenance system. Why cannot such a system be made available for all lone parents in the United Kingdom? That is the only certain way to ensure that a lone parent who has used increased maintenance as a springboard to return to work will not be forced to give up the job as soon as the absent parent defaults on maintenance.
Why is such a system not in the Bill? I suspect that it is because once again the Bill is not so much about ensuring that lone parents get their maintenance as ensuring that the Treasury gets a reduction in public expenditure.
If the DSS provided guaranteed maintenance payments it would have to be sure that the Bill's enforcement procedures were effective, but they are nowhere near watertight. Child maintenance is thought to be relevant to about 2 million families, and each year our courts handle only 4 per cent. of that total in maintenance enforcement cases. Therefore, the Child Support Agency will have a vast clientele. The only effective instrument of enforcement is the Inland Revenue. Automatic maintenance deductions could be made by changing tax codes, and that would make it much harder for the liable person to avoid payment by switching jobs.
I take no credit for originality, because such a system has been adopted in Australia and has a high level of compliance. Why is it not in the Bill? I suspect that it is because of the inveterate intransigence of the Inland Revenue in refusing to become involved in what it always regards as marginal and messy social policy. I may be wrong about that; if I am the right hon. Gentleman can put me right. Whatever the reason, the failure to use Inland Revenue tax coding, which is the only really effective instrument against evasive fathers who consistently fail to pay or who regularly move both job and home, is a huge gap at the centre of the Bill.
We are concerned about other serious issues in the Bill, but I can deal with them only briefly. I shall mention two. Ministers have argued, perhaps rather curiously, that there is no connection between what happens to the family home and the provisions of the Bill. The Secretary of State said that housing expenditure could be exempt. If the new system does not allow substitution, there will be a real risk that more absent parents will insist on the home being sold. That would certainly place great strains on the child and the caring parent and, possibly, on the local authority which could have an obligation to rehouse. Despite what the Secretary of State said at the end of his speech, it is worrying that the Bill does not provide for cash maintenance payments to be reduced where a property transfer is agreed.
Another problem is that, while the Bill proposes that caring parents on low wages who claim family credit will get a £15 maintenance disregard, it does not begin to address the real obstacles in making the transition from home to work. A lone parent who stays at home on income support and gets her mortgage payments covered does not receive that benefit in family credit if she goes to work. The Bill says nothing about the shortage and the cost of suitable child care for the lone parent who tries to get a job.
The Bill is useful, and to that extent we welcome it, but its detail and application are seriously flawed. It enshrines a principle that we strongly support, but it would gain considerable credibility if the Secretary of State and his Department were already acting in a way that suggested that they also believed strongly in that principle. It addresses the problem of lone parenthood, the solution to which is a major deficiency in the area of social policy, but it does it in a halfhearted and lopsided way. It reflects priority for the interests of the Treasury rather than for the welfare of the mother and child and it requires substantial amendment and improvement. For those reasons, we shall vote in support of our reasoned amendment.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) quoted from the Daily Mail which reported that the Government had been caught on the hop. We were not caught on the hop, but it is right to say that millions of taxpayers throughout the United Kingdom must foot the bill for other people's children. I support the Bill because many of those taxpayers have wives and children of their own, and many of them earn a great deal less than the parent who has abandoned his children. That cannot be fair, right or just and we must do something about it.
Only lone parents who are receiving social security benefits will be required to name the father, and about three quarters of them already do. There are some reasons for exempting them from doing that, but I shall not give them publicity because some people would quickly play the system.
No. There are certainly avenues of exemption, but they are few.
Absent parents must accept responsibility for their children, and the Bill supports the children. Maintenance payments help the lone parent, even if she is on income support. I use the word "she", as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did, because we know that most of those involved are lone mothers and just a small percentage are lone fathers. Nevertheless, the principle applies in both directions. It would be easier for a lone mother than a lone father to enter employment, particularly as £15 a week of maintenance will be ignored for calculating entitlement to family credit, community charge benefit or housing benefit. No reference has been made so far to the fact that the number of hours worked which qualifies a person for family credit will be reduced from 24 to 16. That will be a tremendous help.
The main thrust of the Bill is that all parents should honour their responsibilities to their children by paying a reasonable amount towards their upkeep. Why do we say a reasonable amount? At the moment, the maintenance system operates through different courts and the DSS. Let me recite a little story. Research has revealed that in different parts of the United Kingdom there were two fathers with identical circumstances. Each had one child and each earned £150 a week. The judgment in one court was that the father should pay £5 maintenance towards his child. In the other court the judgment was that the father should pay £50. That difference is absolutely absurd. It may surprise hon. Members to learn that the median time to produce a maintenance award varies from 48 days in a magistrates court to 131 days in a county court.
Under the current system, there is no automatic way of reviewing awards. Yet, as children grow older, they cost more to feed and to clothe. The income of one or both parents may change over time and, of course, prices change. In two fifths of cases the payment of the award falls into arrears. The full amount of arrears is recovered in only 23 per cent. of cases where the DSS takes action. Enforcement can take six weeks or more.
In 1989 only 30 per cent. of lone mothers and 3 per cent. of lone fathers received regular child maintenance. In 1989 only 23 per cent. of lone parents receiving income support received child maintenance payments. In 1979 the figure was 50 per cent. Although absent parents as a group have lower average incomes than the population at large, there is evidence that higher maintenance awards could be afforded in some cases. Maintenance awards represent only about 11 per cent. of the total net income of absent parents on above average incomes.
We are talking about numbers. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West rightly said, it is estimated that child maintenance is an issue for 2 million families. The proposals are expected to ensure that about 200,000 more lone parents receive regular child maintenance payments once the new system is fully operational. The Government have already increased the target amount of maintenance to be recovered from —180 million in 1989–90—a target which has been achieved—to —260 million for 1990–91. It is forecast that in the fullness of time we may save the taxpayer about —400 million. That is a lot of money.
Under the Child Support Bill, maintenance will be calculated according to a formula outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. An analysis of that formula reveals four elements. The first element is a maintenance requirement. That represents the day-to-day expenses of maintaining children and it is the sum which all parents should pay if they can afford to do so. The maintenance requirement consists of income support allowances which would be paid for the children and for the parent who is responsible for their care if the family had no other income.
The second element is exempt income and applies for each parent. It represents the income that the parent keeps for his own essential expenses before any maintenance payments are calculated. That is the first charge on each parent's income and takes precedence over any contribution to maintenance. In fairness to the child's needs, it is therefore right that the sum consists only of essential expenditure. We must remember that when one partner leaves home he often has another partner who has children and there is no sense in making both families dependent on social security benefits. We must strike the right balance and the Government and their advisers believe that this formula does so. The exempt income comprises the cost of caring for the natural children when they are living with their parents and the day-to-day living expenses and housing costs of the liable parents.
The third element is the rate of deduction from the assessable income, which ensures that absent parents contribute reasonable amounts towards their children's upkeep as soon as they can afford to do so. That is important. Maintenance will be deducted only from assessable income, which is total income after tax, national insurance contributions and the absent parent's basic living and housing expenses. For that reason, the Government want the remaining assessable income to be shared equally between the children and the absent parent until the maintenance bill is paid.
The final element is a protected level of income. That means that a person who is liable to pay maintenance and is not receiving income support will keep enough of his or her income to ensure that it remains above income support levels even after maintenance payments have been made. Those elements are a protection and the Child Support Agency will work closely to that formula. The system will not be hit and miss as it has been through the courts. There will be consistency, and that is important.
The maintenance requirement does not fix the maximum amount of child maintenance that should be paid. Once the requirement is met, the liable parent should pay something above that amount so that the children can share in their parents' standard of living. About one in four parents will meet the maintenance requirement in full in the first instance. As liable parents tend to be younger than the working population in general, and as real incomes tend to rise over time, it is to be expected that many other liable parents will be able to meet the requirement in full. However, once the maintenance requirement is met, the rate of deduction from assessable income will be reduced. There will also be an overall limit above which the formula will cease to apply.
We have not heard much so far about pounds, shillings and pence. The formula is designed to produce an average child maintenance assessment of about —40 a week. The average assessment in the current system is about —25 a week. In about 25 per cent. of cases the maintenance requirement will be paid in full. It is expected that the maintenance requirement generally will represent some 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of the absent parent's take-home pay and about 20 per cent. of his or her gross income when all the deductions have been taken.
Under the new system there will be virtually no need for the application of discretion or for a process of bargaining or negotiation. Those of us who have sat as magistrates in juvenile courts have heard bargaining and negotiations going on. We have heard the false promises and so on. The process is lengthy, promises are not always met and people have to be brought back to court. We should now dismiss any discretion because the formula is laid down. The Government plan to transfer responsibility for the assessment of maintenance to the new Child Support Agency. That will relieve the courts of a heavy case load and avoid the increase that would take place when annual reviews of maintenance are introduced.
The functions of the agency will be to provide information and advice to the public on how the formula works and how to make a claim for child maintenance, and on its services. It will certainly help a number of Members of Parliament when that is accurately spelt out. The agency will identify and trace liable persons if their whereabouts are unknown. It will become skilful at that. There are now many more ways of tracing people than there were years ago. People can be traced not only through community charge lists, but through medical lists, dental lists and polling lists.
The agency will also obtain information on the incomes and circumstances of the parents of the child for whom maintenance is claimed. It will also assess maintenance to be paid by applying the rules that are laid down. It will make an estimated assessment in the absence of all the required information. That will be tricky, but the agency will become experienced. The agency will notify both parents of the assessment in the absence of all the required information. It will record and monitor payments made where appropriate, take appropriate enforcement action at an early date when payments are not made—a point that worried the hon. Member for Oldham, West—review the assessment at regular intervals and present the facts when an appeal against assessment is made.
Hon. Members heard a list of places where it appeared likely that the Government would set up the agencies, but the agency will have a number of processing centres throughout the United Kingdom, each with up to about 500 staff processing applications, tracing clients and calculating complicated assessments. According to information that I have been able to glean, the agency's total staff is thought likely to number about 5,000. Over a period, the agency will take on all cases where a lone parent is receiving income support or family credit. Others will be able to use it for a fee.
Briefly, almost in conclusion—I was hoping that some of you would intervene so that I could make a longer speech, but you have left me alone—
Not you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, except when you were blowing your nose.
Over a period, the agency will take on responsibility for assessing and reviewing child maintenance claims. The courts will continue to have jurisdiction over related matters which arise when parents separate or divorce. Such matters include residence of and contact with children, disputed paternity and spousal maintenance. Those are matters on which we could not ask an agency to rule. They must be judged by a court—there is no other way of doing it. If somebody says, "I was not the father of that child," the only place to settle the matter is in court with evidence being presented by both sides. Obviously, we do not want the Government, the Secretary of State or his junior Ministers to be involved in deciding whether somebody is the father of a child.
The courts will also deal with contact and maintenance. Both issues must be decided by reference to the interests of the child. However, the Government believe that those otherwise two separate issues should be decided on the basis of rather different criteria. There can be no direct connection between those issues.
Opposition Members are being mischievous. I have several more pages of notes, but I have a reputation for being a fair man and many hon. Members wish to speak in this important debate.
In conclusion, it is fortunate that the Government have introduced this Bill. It is absolutely outrageous that a man can walk out on a women with a child, start another relationship and have no concern or care for his own child, leaving the women to get on with it. All parents should take responsibility for their children. The taxpayer should be relieved of the burden. The Bill is in the interests of mothers, children and, certainly, taxpayers.
The only thing that I share with the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) is his distrust of the court system in settling maintenance matters. However, the hon. Gentleman said that this measure will save the taxpayer many millions of pounds. That statement goes to the root of Conservative Members' thinking—it is a matter not of child support but of how much the taxpayer can be saved. The hon. Gentleman's approach has been far too simplistic in a complicated and emotional issue.
I enjoyed the speech of the Secretary of State. It was a very caring speech. The Department of Social Security has genuinely attempted to deal with an extremely knotty and difficult question to the best of its ability. I listened to the equally caring speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). I like the principles of the Bill. I like what the Secretary of State has done, and I like what the Government are doing.
I understand why my hon. Friend moved his reasoned amendment. I wish that it had not been a reasoned amendment because I support what the Government are trying to do. I wish that we were not voting tonight and that we could put matters right in Committee and on Report. If the fact that we shall vote on a reasoned amendment, which I shall support because I agree with my hon. Friend, gives some power to the elbow of the Secretary of State for Social Security against the Treasury, it is well worth doing so. My hon. Friend is right: the Treasury's influence in this matter casts doubt on the excellent intentions of the Bill and of the White Paper.
Twenty years ago, before I came to this House, I was a solicitor. I dealt with many matrimonial and maintenance cases—gruesome cases indeed for any caring person to deal with. My experience is shared by every hon. Member. Some of the most difficult cases with which we must deal in our surgeries relate to custody and maintenance. All hon. Members deal with such difficult cases, irrespective of party affiliation. I congratulate the Government on at least making an attempt to tackle the problem.
As a very young Back Bencher, I was lucky enough to move a private Member's motion on this very issue. That was in 1966 or 1967. I said that all maintenance payments should be made through what was then the Department of Health and Social Security, and that such matters should not be brought before the courts. My own Front Bench divided the House on the grounds of cost and rights, and I was opposed by all sorts of people. The Government are introducing similar provisions now, and I believe that they are right to do so.
Let us make no mistake about it: this is not just a matter of statistics; it involves the group in the most acute poverty and deprivation in this country today—the single-parent family. We are dealing with one of the most emotional matters of which one could possibly conceive. We are talking about love turned to hatred, and about hatred and fear. There is fear in courts when mothers fear that they might lose their children.
Hitherto, such matters have almost invariably gone through the magistrates courts, but to the average citizen the magistrates court is a criminal court. Although the mother is there on behalf of her family, she feels that she is going to a building that administers the criminal law and in doing so is going against her husband. The husband feels bitter that his wife is branding him a criminal by taking him to a criminal court.
The most terrible thing of all is if the children are old enough to be involved in the case and to attend the court, because they see their parents fighting over them in a place that deals with criminal law, not family law. In their wisdom on this matter, the Government are taking us away from that system and away from the courts. I can forgive many of the Bill's defects for that very reason, although I hope that those defects will be amended in Committee or on Report.
If there is any attempt in this House to reintroduce a penalty clause, I hope that the other place will reject it again and again. Their Lordships were right to reject the provisions of the original clause 22. They were independent of the Treasury, took a balanced view and acted according to their consciences. I hope that they will do so again if the Government are misguided enough to force through the equivalent of that clause 22. This is always a matter of acute emotion.
In view of my right hon. Friend's legal training and experience, may I ask him whether a woman who is appealing against a decision would have the right to legal aid?
I have not practised for 20 years, so I cannot advise my hon. Friend. However, I hope that such a woman would have the right to legal aid; otherwise, she will be in an impossible position. If she had to represent herself, realistically, she would not then be able to contest the matter.
The Government have some difficulties with the Bill, but we would have similar difficulties if we were in government. Indeed, any Government would have difficulties: this is a difficult matter. I believe that about one in three marriages in this country end in divorce. That is a terrifying figure. Many of those marriages result in children, so children are involved in divorce.
From my experience, which I am sure is shared by all hon. Members, divorce is rarely a matter of black and white. It is rarely a case of the husband being wholly wrong and the wife being wholly right, or vice versa. It is often six of one and half a dozen of the other, or some other proportion. One of the divorced parties may get married again, cohabit or form another relationship. That is perfectly legal.
I was a little doubtful about what the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth would do with such people. Any Government must accept that remarriages or subsequent relationships happen. It is all very well to watch "Dallas" on television or to watch Hollywood films and to see American millionaires who have two, three or four wives, but the fact remains that the average working or middle-class person in this country cannot afford adequately to keep two families. That is the truth of a high divorce rate, and the Government, the House and the nation must accept that.
It is a difficult job being a Member of Parliament, but I would not like to be a child support officer. It will be a virtually impossible job. The child support officer will have to decide whether to rob Peter to pay Paul. It is no use the House saying that the family of the first marriage should be so adequately maintained that the family of the second marriage faces deprivation. We are talking not about punishment, but about children, their rights and support for them. That is the central issue that the Government are trying to tackle and, having listened to the Secretary of State, I am certain that they are trying to do so in a balanced way.
I know that the Government have been criticised about the regulations. I would give a lot of discretion to the child support officers and would not tie them down with too many regulations. Although the Treasury would not like that and people would criticise the system because of it, I would give those officers that discretion. They will face such manifold variations that no Secretary of State or civil servant can lay down regulations that will meet all the situations that they will encounter.
The Secretary of State suggested, probably at the behest of the Treasury, that he would reintroduce some provisions along the lines of the original clause 22. I hope that the Government will be lenient if they do so. If not, as I have said, I hope that the other place will throw them out.
Apart from the reasons given in the White Paper, such as the obvious and clear-cut examples of rape and incest, there are many reasons why a woman will not disclose the name of her child's father. Let us take an example from the best end of the scale. A woman may have had an affair with a married man who has a family. The woman may not apply for maintenance because she does not want to break up that family. That is not vindictiveness or lack of co-operation; it is compassion. It would cost the nation and the Department a lot more money if the woman were to name that father.
Let us now consider the position of a youngster who was a little under age when she conceived—I have had all these cases in my constituency. The father was a brilliant student, going on to university. The young woman did not take any action, because she did not want to blight his career. She was not acting out of cowardice or trying to sponge off the system. The sort of question that the child support officers will have to consider is, was the woman's refusal to name the father simple wilfulness or compassion and kindness?
Some women will not apply for maintenance because they fear that it will give the father the right of access and custody when they do not want him to have it. The woman loves the child and does not want him or her under the influence of the father. I am not talking about sexual abuse —just about an influence being brought to bear on the child that the mother does not want. Such a woman may refuse to reveal the name of the father.
At what we could call "the bad end of the scale", a promiscuous girl may have a baby without even knowing who the father is. We must remember that we are talking not about the mother, but about the child. The Bill deals with providing adequate maintenance for children. The Government should not take £7-odd off a woman who may be acting with the best of motives.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West said, we should look at the Australian and Swedish systems and at what happens in other countries which are facing the same problem but which have found a far better solution to it.
I found particularly upsetting a recent constituency case which I submitted to the Secretary of State. I am not sure whether the reply came from him or from his Parliamentary Private Secretary. I have a constituent—I shall call her Mrs. N., because I do not want to reveal the family—a grandmother, living in Widnes, whose daughter died when she was 26. Her daughter was married and her husband had never contributed a penny in maintenance to either the child whom the case concerned or to another child. In that caring family, the grandmother looked after her grandchild, Leanne, and another daughter who lived in another part of my constituency looked after the other child.
The grandmother came to see me about a guardian's allowance, and I wrote to the Secretary of State. She could not obtain a guardian's allowance because, on her own admission, the father, although he had never contributed a penny, was still alive. He had been to the mother's funeral, but she did not know where he lived except that it was somewhere in Liverpool. The grandmother was refused a guardian's allowance, and it was suggested that she consulted a solicitor and start proceedings against the father. The mind boggles at the idea of her being able to do it. I am not even sure whether she would be eligible for legal aid.
I hope that, in such acute cases of guardianship, where the child is in effect an orphan because one parent is dead and the other has never maintained the child, under the new system, if the Department of Social Security fail to find the father and to obtain an order against him, a guardianship allowance will automatically be paid to a grandmother, aunt or sister, or whoever it may be. That person, quite apart from keeping the family together and keeping the child within the love of that family, is saving the Department and the country tens of thousands of pounds a year which it would cost if that child were put in care.
I hope that, within the tight rules of guardianship allowances, if the Department fails to find a father and to obtain an order against him, a guardianship allowance will automatically be paid to the person within the family who is caring for the child.
I welcome the Bill. I will vote with my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West tonight, because there are defects in it, but I wish the Bill and the Secretary of State well. I wish that we had done this years ago. This is a good Bill, which will affect for the better hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of people in Britain.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes). I congratulate him on his speech and his welcome to the Bill. He made an excellent speech, in contrast with the poor one made by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). He spoke with great feeling and sincerity and with long experience from his time as a solicitor of the acute deprivation, the emotional problems and the hatreds and fears which develop in these cases.
The Opposition's only real criticism of the Bill is that it was not introduced earlier. The Government can take full credit for doing now what people might have liked to see done earlier, but we are looking at many changes in society.
The Family Policy Study Centre has set out clearly many of the changes that are occurring. The right hon. Gentleman said that one in three marriages ended in divorce. The centre says:
If present trends continue almost four out of 10 new marriages will end in divorce and in future between one in four and one in five children will experience their parents' divorce before they reach 16.
How children are brought up is the hallmark of any civilised society and the Bill directs itself to that by bringing about a sense of responsibility. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) said when she was Prime Minister, no father should escape responsibility for his children. That is why this is such a good Bill which has met with agreement on both sides. I am only sorry that the Opposition intend to divide the House on it today.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Oldham, West did not reply when I asked what exactly was the small disregard that the Labour party wanted on maintenance payments. I do not think that it has thought that through. If it had, it would have specific figures. As I understand it, if it thought that £7·50 was an appropriate figure, the cost would be £100 milion. Is that the figure that it has in mind? A disregard of £15 a week would cost £180 million. We need to be clear about the Labour party's thinking on that.
The fallacy of the Opposition's thinking was apparent when the hon. Member for Oldham, West talked about the need for an incentive in relation to maintenance payments. The incentive must be that offered by the Government which is to help those mothers who want to work to obtain work by providing a £15 a week maintenance disregard for people who would be entitled to family credit. As well as economic benefits there are social benefits for single mothers who want to work which gives them the opportunity to make new contacts. Every mother faces the dilemma of deciding how much time to spend looking after her children and how much time to spend making other contact & which a single mother in particular needs, but there is no reason why the Labour party should simply think about incentives in terms of maintenance payments. What is the incentive for? Is the incentive just for the mother to be honest? Is that what the Labour party thinks the incentives are needed for?
A table published by the Family Policy Study Centre gives reasons for not wanting to give names and addresses to the Department of Social Security under the present arrangement. It shows that 30 per cent. of single mothers want no more to do with the former partner, 28 per cent. do not know where he or she is, and 14 per cent. do not want to cause a problem for the partner. I should not have thought that those were reasons which needed some sort of incentive for the mother to come forward with a name. Fear of violence, which is a real factor, is given as a reason by only 4 per cent. Obviously, there are others making up the 100 per cent. But clearly there are no real reasons there for an incentive.
It is important that the Government should allow a lot of discretion if clause 22 is included in the Bill. It is right that it should be there as a deterrent, but it is not something that we want to see used. Perhaps the Labour party has difficulty in understanding that argument as it has failed to understand the importance of a deterrent in other areas. We need a deterrent even though it is used only in the rarest circumstances. I agree with the right hon. Member for Halton that a great deal of latitude should be given to officers who have to work in that area so that they can use their discretion and not apply the sanction unless it is really necessary.
The mere fact that a sanction exists would be a safeguard for the mother because it would mean that she could not be accused by the father of having given his name to the Child Support Agency just on a whim. She could say that she had to do it or she would have lost her benefit. One would have to take the greatest care where there was any danger of violence, but we need not worry about including clause 22 on that basis. There have been cases of violence, but I imagine that they occur anyway. One could not argue that the violence occurred just because the mother had given a name to the Child Support Agency.
I am not sure whether the mother needs to give an address. It must be possible for the Department of Social Security to trace people using just the name with perhaps some information about where the person used to live or work. It must be possible to trace people by their national insurance number, without necessarily knowing their address.
The centre's figures show also that the number of lone parent families has increased from 500,000 in 1971 to more than 1 million today. Only one in 10 of them are headed by a man. More than half are headed by divorced or separated mothers, and single, unmarried mothers make up another 250,000 of the total. More than 1·6 million children—one in eight of all dependent children—are members of lone parent families. It is estimated that between one fifth and one quarter of all children will at one time live with a lone parent.
Lone parents head one in six families with dependent children, which is double the number 20 years ago. Divorce is the biggest cause of the increase. Seventy Iwo per cent. of lone mothers were found to be claiming income support, but 85 per cent. had received income support payments at some time since becoming a lone parent. The proportion of lone parents claiming income support who also receive maintenance payments fell from 50 per cent. in 1979 to 23 per cent. currently. The cost of social security benefits to lone parents is calculated to be £3·2 billion in 1988–89, compared with £1·4 billion in 1981–82.
We must do all that we can to impart a sense of responsibility at an early age. Many health workers in my own constituency feel that such a sense of responsibility should be imparted even to primary school children. Bolton health authority reports that there were 64 pregnancies in girls of school age in 1989, compared with 62 in 1985. That demonstrates the need to instil a sense of responsibility at an early age.
One case involves a boy of 14 who is in care, and who has just fathered a child. I am not sure whether the Child Support Agency will have powers to pursue the parents of such a boy. Mention has been made of the arrangements in Australia. In Switzerland, welfare arrangements include the extended family. One should be able to look to the parents of such young fathers to accept responsibility for contributing to the maintenance of children born to school-age mothers. A sense of responsibility must be instilled into the extended family as well as into the individual.
I wish the Bill well, and I am glad that the Opposition support it in principle. It is perhaps a sad reflection on current trends that it is necessary to introduce such legislation now because of the increase in the number of lone parent families. Clause 22 should be reinstated, but only as a deterrent to be used in rare cases. A woman could use the provisions of that clause as a reason why she divulged the father's name. There should be no need for a payment to encourage such honesty, which is what the Opposition, with their half-baked thinking, are suggesting.
The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) made an interesting speech about the need to instil enlightenment and responsibility into our youngsters, even at the early stages of their schooling. Society is not doing enough to encourage a responsible attitude towards parenthood.
I am frightened by the nature of the debate so far, in two particular respects. I am nervous that we seem to be accepting that nothing can be done about the increase in marital breakdowns. It is difficult for Governments to become involved in what are really family matters. If the Government do interfere, they must do so with great care, in legislating on relationships between individuals. However, I hope that no one will argue that it is impossible to stem the increase in family breakdowns, which are not in the interests of society or the Department. The Minister knows better than most that, in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, every saved marriage saves the state a lot of money.
The Department's responsibilities are limited to maintenance enforcement and maintenance payments, but I hope that the Government will not lose sight of the fact that it should be possible to introduce measures to support the family and to prevent marriages from breaking down. Moving towards a system of administrative law is fraught with difficulties. The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) said that the court system does not work. Only this week, I encountered the case of a lady who has been waiting six months for maintenance payments to be obtained from her husband, who walked out on her six months ago, and who is now earning a handsome wage in London.
It might be possible to expedite matters within the legal system. Family courts could be one way. I agree that it is inappropriate to drag marriages through magistrates courts or sheriff courts. As a former practising solicitor, I hold the view that the adversarial efforts of the respective spouses' solicitors can make matters worse. However, a family court could act with greater sensitivity and urgency in establishing the parents' rights and circumstances. I hope that the Government will not give up either on finding ways to save marriages.
The concept behind the Bill—which is that parents should be responsible for their children's maintenance—is entirely unexceptionable. It is only right and proper that we should support it. No father should escape his responsibilities. However, perhaps the Department has adopted a somewhat knee-jerk approach. Civil servants will always look for a quick administrative fix, but in doing so they may create difficulties for the child support officers for which the Bill provides in making its provisions operate smoothly and successfully. Although the court situation has disadvantages, at least a magistrate or judge can use his discretion within the law in a way that child support officers will not be able to do.
I support the argument that the Bill's provisions should be implemented on a voluntary basis. That is the only sensible way in which civil servants will have any chance of acting effectively.
Given his experience of social security matters in Scotland, does the hon. Gentleman envisage representation by lawyers for those caught up in the appeals procedure—perhaps through the granting of legal aid—or does he expect them to be represented by local welfare rights officers, as happens with social security appeal tribunals?
That is an important point. Certainly nothing in the Bill suggests to me that legal aid will suddenly become available to those who appeal—although, as a former practising solicitor, I feel that that would be right and proper.
The hon. Gentleman has reminded me of a point that I sought to make when considering the possibility of family courts being used as an alternative route. If legal aid were made available and sensitive arrangements involving family courts were introduced, the Bill might not even be necessary.
I would be "dumfoon'art"—as we say in my part of the world—if the Minister confirmed that legal aid would be available. I think that single parents will be forced to argue their own cases, or—as the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) has suggested—forced to rely on citizens advice bureaux and welfare rights officers to try to make the best of a bad job on their behalf.
I should be interested to know where the £400 million saving will come from. Let us leave aside the political argument about the Treasury. The Secretary of State said that he thought that £200 million was generated each year by the liable relative section of the Department of Social Security. Is the £400 million saving mentioned in the explanatory memorandum in addition to that sum? If so, I should like to know how it is possible to make such an estimate.
Will there be any way of judging the success of the agency in meeting the target set for it? Will this free-standing agency be able to advert each spring, when the public expenditure White Paper is published, to the amount that it has saved the Treasury? That, surely, would be fiendishly difficult. I should like to know—I should be satisfied with a letter—how the figures have been arrived at, and how we can measure the success of the agency.
Given my experience as a country solicitor involved in family law, I am very nervous about the relationship that will be established in the mind of an estranged parent between the legislation and the right of access. Let us suppose that I am an estranged father. An enforcement officer knocks at my door. I have not seen my children for five or 10 years—perhaps by mutual consent, following a substantial falling-out with my wife during traumatic divorce proceedings.
If I am being dinned for, say, £10 per week, the first thing that I will do is knock on my solicitor's door and ask for an order for access. The court has next to no discretion —and nor should it have: if I am a natural parent, no court in the land can reasonably deny me access to my natural children. That, however, is rarely in the child's best interests. The motivation for gaining access is entirely wrong: the aim is to get back at the mother—the estranged wife—who has fingered me, the estranged father, and set the child enforcement bureaucracy on me.
What, then, can I do? One option open to me is entirely malicious. I would not endorse such an action on anyone's part, but it is bound to happen: indeed, it happens already in the course of divorce proceedings. If the Government do not recognise that, they are storing up a good many problems for women who may have to endure knocks on the door from husbands to whom they happily waved goodbye 10 years earlier.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman of what he has just told us? He has said that his action would not be in the child's interest, because his motive would be wrong. Now that that has been repeated slowly, can he see what nonsense it is? People do many things with the wrong motives, but that does not necessarily mean that the outcome will be bad.
I am speaking from experience. I hayed acted in innumerable such cases, invariably representing women who want nothing whatever to do with their former husbands.
No, it is not. The mother becomes so upset that the child's interests are adversely affected. The mother is knocked right off balance. She has made her own life; she has got that man out of her hair, often after violence and cruelty. As soon as he comes back through the door, the relationship between the two of them will translate itself to the child in an inimical way. I have often seen that happen. I fear that the Bill will drive husbands to act for all the wrong reasons, and if it does it is not worth the candle: it will cause more trouble than it is worth.
I hope that the Government will heed the succinct and powerful arguments of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). Clause 22 is indeed a big mistake: if enacted, it would penalise parents. The Social Security Advisory Committee has argued the case as powerfully as anyone. I also hope that the exemptions, and extended scope for exemptions, that the Secretary of State has announced will indeed come to pass. Any wife who has been able to procure a divorce on the basis of unreasonable behaviour on the part of her husband should be exempted automatically: by definition, the court would not have given her a divorce on that ground unless it was satisfied that unreasonable behaviour had indeed been dished out to her.
I am nervous about the extension of the inspectors' powers. I know that, in some respects, they are equivalent to the powers available to national insurance fund officers, but I do not think that that in itself is a reason for the House to allow, willy-nilly, a further extension of fairly draconian powers without paying close attention to the implications.
I hope that I have persuaded the Government that there is a long way to go. If they are determined to take the administrative route, rather than favouring a family court with proper support and legal aid, they must be very careful. In my view, they can implement the Bill sensibly, with the backing of the House, only if they adopt voluntary arrangements.
As most people know, I come from a working-class background—a loving background. My parents were happily married; and as they became more successful, so did my sister and I. When I married and started to bring up a family I, too, was very fortunate in that I was married to someone who treated me with tolerance. Like my sister and me, my children benefited as our lives progressed.
It was not until I became a Member of Parliament that I realised the sadness of single-parent families and recognised that lone parents were almost in despair. It seemed to me that it was necessary for the Government to address that important problem. We have heard from other speakers how lone parents saw courts as places where criminals were found and we heard how those parents felt almost in despair about what would happen to them in the courts. In that process, the parents became frightened and the children sometimes became victims of that terror. When the Government were prepared to introduce the Bill, I felt that it should receive support from Conservative and Opposition Members. I am pleased that hon. Members of all parties agree in principle that the Bill is necessary.
As a Conservative, I naturally greatly welcome the Bill. At the heart of Conservatism is a belief in the need for a balance between rights and responsibilities. Without the exercise of responsibility, rights are ultimately rendered useless, as we all know. Today, we hear everything about rights to this and that—not least from the Labour party —but not enough about responsibilities. The Bill is an explicit recognition of the inter-relationship between the two. Accountability is at the heart of our political system and should be a guiding principle in our private lives.
Unfortunately, many individuals are only too happy to neglect their responsibilities. Benefit offices are full of people who look to the state not merely to help them out during hard times, but to provide a convenient exit from personal obligations and duties. The Bill is part of a wider Government strategy to redress the imbalance. Why should mothers and fathers in my constituency struggle to provide their own children with a decent home and yet be expected to subsidise lone parents indefinitely?
I have heard a lot about the Treasury putting pressure on the Department of Social Security. I am pleased that the Treasury does so. The Treasury has only taxpayers' money and it has a responsibility to taxpayers. I am pleased that the parent who has disappeared is about to take up some of the taxpayers' burden. It is not a case of the Government shirking their duties—far from it. The Bill is a statutory mechanism that will ensure that individuals face up to their responsibilities.
It is surely an appalling state of affairs that in 1989 only 30 per cent. of lone mothers and 3 per cent. of lone fathers received regular child maintenance. That must be a scandal. Ultimately, it is the children who suffer. The Bill has their welfare at its heart. The proposed Child Support Agency has an important role in acting as an intermediary between the parents. As I have said, parents fear the courts.
I find the Bill reassuring. It is crucial that contact between the caring parent and the absentee parent is kept to an absolute minimum. Can my hon. Friend the Minister reassure me that the addresses of mothers will be kept in confidence? I agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who made a poignant point. We must ensure that, through the Bill, fathers whom the mothers have at last got rid of and whom they never want to see again are not able to make contact with the mothers and terrorise them and the children. Even if the mother only believes that that is a possibility, the child will suffer at her hands because she is terrified that the father will have access, if not to her children, at least to her. I want my hon. Friend to consider the points that have been made on that subject.
In financial terms, the Bill is not a draconian measure. Absent parents will not be squeezed until the pips squeak. Maintenance payments will be reviewed regularly to ensure that they reflect changing circumstances, and that must be right. Furthermore, it is important to remember that maintenance awards represent only 11 per cent. of the total net income of absent parents on above average incomes. The Government are still the biggest surrogate parent.
Equally importantly, the Bill provides incentives to lone parents who want to work, which must be good. The introduction of maintenance will reduce reliance on income support and will, therefore, lead to greater employment opportunities. There is also the plan to ignore the first £15 of maintenance when calculating entitlement to family credit, to community charge benefit and to housing benefit. I also welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State which will reduce from 24 hours to 16 the number of hours worked per week required to qualify for family credit.
One of the most important elements of the Bill is its deterrent capacity. Today we have concentrated on fathers who have already deserted their children, but the measure also enables us to look to the future. The Bill sends a message to all prospective fathers, making it clear to them that they have a continuing responsibility. I hope that it will make them think long and hard about parental obligations.
The Bill is very important and the aims of the reforms are clear. The aims are that parents should honour their responsibilities to their children whenever they can afford to do so. A fair and reasonable balance will be struck with regard to the responsibilities of a parent for all the children whom he or she is liable to maintain. The system will produce fair and consistent results. Maintenance payments will be reviewed regularly to ensure that they reflect changes in circumstances. The incentive of parents to work will be maintained. The public will receive an efficient and effective service, and dependence on income support will be reduced. The Bill is an important measure concerning personal and social responsibilities. As such, it has my warmest support.
I will begin by dwelling on the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). There are occasions in the House on which people speak with knowledge and passion, and most of us who listen to them believe that it would be good to make similar speeches ourselves.
Although the emphasis of my speech may go against the tenor of both those speeches, I must say that they were impressive contributions.
I wanted to explain to the Secretary of State, who is not here for what I am sure are good reasons, that I did not spring to my feet when the announcement was made about where the regional offices are to be placed because I hoped to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to be able to say how pleased I was, as are other hon. Members who have new jobs coming into their area. The Secretary of State and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State know that a great deal of effort was made by all the hon. Members from the Wirral area in securing the jobs. Similar effort went into securing the Inland Revenue and Land Registry jobs. Those three moves by the civil service will make an appreciable difference to the riverside development between Wallasey and Birkenhead. I emphasise my thanks, as did other hon. Members. However, they will know from the tenor of what I have already said about the Bill that I do not have quite the same reservations as have hon. Members who said that they were "nevertheless" pleased to have 500 new jobs in their area. The Secretary of State is not here at the moment, but I expect him to return to the Chamber in sackcloth and ashes.
I move now from the consensus note sounded in previous speeches to emphasise what has happened over the past decade or more. For many people in this country there has been a collapse in the belief that they should, if they can, make a contribution towards the costs of their children. One has only to think about what would have happened had the Labour party been in power while that occurred. What would Conservative Members have said had they been in opposition? We would have been whacked all over the place as irresponsible, destroying the family and not caring about children.
Late in the day the Government have introduced a Bill, and, in a general sense, I welcome it. If we are right in thinking—and we have it on good authority—that there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and as the whole Treasury Bench must be in that mood to introduce the Bill, something quite bizarre must be going on upstairs today. I welcome the Government's change of heart, and their emphasis on the fact that this is an important area in which Governments can have some effect on people's behaviour. However, we do not want to overestimate the part that Government can play.
I intend to examine three aspects of the Bill in the hope that the Government will make concessions tonight—or, if not today, in Committee. First, I return to two questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor). She asked both about capital sums that had been paid over in the past and about what happens where a parent looks after the child or children for part of the week. How will those things be valued when the formula is applied? The Secretary of State, in his normal deft manner at the Dispatch Box, told my hon. Friend in a slightly condescending way that such matters were immensely complicated. He then went on to answer the easy part of the question, about capital, totally ignoring my hon. Friend's other example.
I make a plea to the Government to take seriously the Select Committee report about families who responded to what was Government policy and made a clean break on divorce; a capital settlement was made and all the parties thought that that was the end of the affair. Under the Bill, those who abided by the Government's wish for a clean break may find their settlements reopened, set aside and replaced by new responsibilities. I hope that the Government will make a clear declaration and commitment that they do not intend to open up the arrangements made by people who have made over capital sums which, when computed, are larger than what they would be expected to pay over the time that the child remains a responsibility of both parents. If the Government cannot do that out of good will, they ought to do it for the purely practical reason that setting up the agency will be difficult and there will be an enormous number of new cases. They would be well advised to look to the future rather than trying to rake up the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles made a real point, and the speeches of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton were important, too, because they brought the real world into the Chamber and into the debate. In the real world we do not all come in the neat little boxes in which the Government sometimes think we live. Many families will be in the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, where part of the payment of maintenance—if we want to call it that—is given in the form of time, effort, care and feeding over part of the week. That is a real-life situation. We do not want to find that, by insisting that the formula under the Bill be applied, we destroy the arrangement whereby both parents care for the child. When the Under-Secretary of State replies, I hope that he will give us an idea what the Government think about that.
There is one clause about which almost every other hon. Member has spoken—some with real caution and some with fear—and which lies at the heart of the Bill. If the Government do not convince the House and the country that they will be able to administer the measure with real sensitivity towards women who fear what their husbands, ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends might do to them, they will lose the debate in the country.
That issue is linked to the idea of incentives. I realise that the question of incentives arises on a separate part of the Bill, but the Government have a blinkered view of incentives. I sympathise with their emphasis on the importance of incentives to work, and their wanting people to see a real difference when they move from benefit into work. They want people to take with them the whole of their maintenance payments if at all possible. I sympathise with that, because I run the same argument over child benefit both with my hon. Friends and with friends on the Conservative Benches. The difference is very real.
We are dealing with a sensitive area. If we want the maximum harmony in running the arrangements under the Bill, for ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends and for women, we must answer the following question: should we not allow a benefit disregard for people on income support who claim maintenance? The Minister may say that my views on that subject have changed. When we started out, I thought that it was unfair to single out those who could get maintenance orders and allow them to claim some of the money in the form of a disregard. I was persuaded to change my mind by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), who said, "Hard luck—that's life: some people will have boyfriends or husbands whom they can pursue successfully. Why should they be penalised because not all mothers can be in that position?" I am persuaded by that argument, and also by the argument that, if we want to narrow the group down to the smallest possible number of mothers worried about giving the name of the father, we should get the largest possible number of mothers to give that information voluntarily at the first point of contact with the agency. More mothers will do that, and more fathers will understand why they do so, if, while they remain on benefit, mothers are allowed to keep part of the maintenance by partially offsetting it against benefit.
Like the Government, I see the issue in terms of incentives, but I broaden the meaning of the word "incentives". I thought that it was important, too, to have an incentive to help the measure to work well and smoothly, and to secure the maximum voluntary effect. Then, at the end of the day, we should be left only with those who have real worries about giving the father's name —that group has been mentioned already. It is unreasonable to expect the officers to go in to bat for the Government knowing that some of the mothers could have given the father's name if they had thought that they would be better off financially if they did so. If we are interested in making the measure work, we should extend our debate about incentives.
To make my last point, I shall ruffle slightly the calm waters that we have all been in until now by disagreeing with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. I start where the hon. Gentleman does by supporting the Government when they say that there is a clear divorce between paying maintenance and access and that the Bill and no other measure under consideration seeks to overrturn that status quo.
I do not have the experience that my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, who are solicitors, described effectively to the House. They said that they had seen customers who were frightened of their husbands or ex-boyfriends who were threatening them. I want to present another side of the truth, which I have seen, not in a solicitor's surgery but in my surgery or when I visit factories in Birkenhead. Some mothers have made it clear that they regard their husbands or ex-boyfriends as jerks and they want nothing to do with them. They have no intention of allowing them to see their children. As we get the measure working, I hope that a lot of the heat will go out of such cases where there is a dispute over access. Clearly the heat will never go out of some cases and we cannot expect it to do so where a husband or boyfriend has been cruel, violent or just plain stubborn and unreasonable about how people should live their daily lives.
Just as the Government wish to see greater responsibility taken, especially by males, for their children, I want to see a slow but sure change in the debate about access. I believe that that debate will be approached much more securely once the question of maintenance and payments is out of the way. An increasing number of children grow up without knowing both their parents. It would be foolish for anyone in the House to say that he knows the consequences of that on the next generation.
One of my great mates in Birkenhead was asked by his daughter not to come to school to pick her up because her friends at the school had asked who he was. They did not have what she called "Daddy" as part of their life. That is exceptional, thank goodness, but it happened at one school in Birkenhead. As I said, we do not know what will be the consequences of children not knowing both their parents as they grow up. We cannot legislate that grown-ups be happy, but we can legislate—and we can do so in this measure—to enable more children to grow up happily knowing both of their parents. That will be an important achievement if it results from this measure.
My last point has been emphasised before, so I can be brief. When my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) opened for the Opposition he said, in effect, that the Bill was a half measure. It is not unimportant for that, but it is still a half measure. We should move towards a position where if mothers are awarded maintenance payments, the state guarantees them whether she works or not, and has the responsibility for collecting the money. Then we can bring the Minister to the Dispatch Box if he fails to do so and the bill for us taxpayers is enormous. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West said that that was the direction in which the Bill should have moved. I hope that it will not be long before I am sitting behind him when he is the Secretary of State introducing such a measure.
I welcome the Bill. Earlier in the debate I was impressed when my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) quoted some statistics about the rising tide of family break-ups and of fathers, and occasionally mothers, who walk away from their responsibilities for their children and leave their family in difficulties or as a financial burden on the taxpayer. It has been said that there are now some 2 million families in that position. Only 12 years ago, of such families on income support, some 50 per cent. received maintenance payments from the absent parent. Today only 23 per cent. receive such payments. It is increasingly left to the state to pick up the bill or, to be more precise, to taxpayers, such as my constituents on low incomes, to foot the bill for the children of parents who do not face up to their responsibilities.
I welcome the steps that are being taken in the Bill to staunch that trend and to formalise and standardise the system of child maintenance in such cases. The present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective. It operates through several different courts and through the Department of Social Security. The effect on families is uncertainty.
Inconsistent decisions are made about how much maintenance should be paid. For example, recent research identified two fathers, each earning £150 per week and each with one child to maintain. One father was required to pay £5 per week in maintenance while the other was required to pay £50. That hardly seems consistent. The median time to produce a maintenance award varies from 48 days in a magistrates court to 131 days in the county court.
Under the current system there is no automatic way in which awards can be reviewed. Yet we all know that as children grow older they cost more to feed and clothe. The income of one or both parents may change from time to time and, of course, prices certainly go up. In some two fifths of cases payments of awards fall into arrears. The full amount of the arrears is recovered in only about 23 per cent. of cases where the Department of Social Security takes action. Enforcement can take six weeks or more.
A major and valuable part of the Bill is the establishment of the Child Support Agency. At last we shall have an agency which has responsibility for tracing absent parents and assessing, collecting and, where necessary, enforcing maintenance payments. It will need powers to make a legally binding assessment, to require information and to determine methods of payment. It will be required to review the maintenance payments every year. We must look forward to the day when the agency is fully operational and families do not have to go through the trauma of taking a case to the magistrates court.
Earlier in the debate I was surprised to hear from the Labour Front Bench the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) talk of zero rating fathers on income support. Surely it is appropriate that absent parents on income support should have the same basic responsibility to their children as others. Is it not right, therefore, to bring them within the system and, with appropriate exceptions, to expect from them a small maintenance contribution? The White Paper suggested that the contribution should be 5 per cent. of the adult personal allowance, in line with the standard deductions made for other purposes. Only in December 1989, the hon. Member for Oldham, West was reported in The Independent as saying:
My view is that fathers should always make some contribution towards their children, even if they are unemployed and it can only be a token amount. Men should recognise they have a responsibility".
Why the sudden change?
The Labour party has decided to tack yet another spending pledge on to its already ample list. There is a competition to father the top priorities and pledges. After all, the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) has told us that the top priority is child benefits and pensions, and nothing else. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has told us that the only top priority is the national health service. Last week, on the BBC, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) told us that Labour's top priority was education. Not to be outdone, the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) told us that it was overseas development. Now the hon. Member for Oldham, West has decided to trump the lot of them with his father of all pledges.
The Labour party proposes that lone parents on benefit should be able to keep part of the absent parent's maintenance, but it has not said how big that maintenance disregard on income support would be. It is worth bearing in mind that a £5 disregard would cost £70 million, a £10 disregard £130 million and a £15 disregard £180 million. The Labour party has not said when, if ever, such a commitment would be introduced. It is not one of its two unconditional "priority pledges", as defined by the hon. Member for Derby, South. Perhaps it falls within that category of pledges that the hon. Lady described as
desirable aims … something that we hope to do as resources allow".
I believe that the Bill is a disincentive to family break-up. It removes the advantages from parents who just walk away from their responsibilities. I share the objective of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that more and more of our children should know both of their parents. The Bill will act as an incentive to families to keep together.
The Bill will ensure that parents honour their responsibilities towards their children whenever they can afford to do so. It will ensure that the maintenance system produces fairer and more consistent results than at present. It will also ensure that parents' incentives to work are improved and that their dependence on income support is reduced. The Bill deserves the full support of the House.
All reasonable people agree that absent parents should make a reasonable contribution to the upbringing of their children and should not be allowed to turn their backs on their financial responsibilities. On that basis, I support the thinking behind the Bill as it ensures that parents should not be able to renege on their children.
Although I support the principles of the Bill, I have some major reservations about its details and its omissions. I also share the anxiety expressed by many other hon. Members about the vital issues to be left to regulation, which will not be addressed by primary legislation.
I am particularly concerned about the retrospective aspects of the Bill, about which other hon. Members have expressed anxiety, which mean that certain issues that have been resolved, are dormant and not subject to conflict will be resurrected. An amnesty for such cases would be highly desirable.
Apart from obliging absent parents to make a proper financial arrangement for their children, I also expect a child support Bill to help to raise the standard of living of those children now on the poverty line. It should also encourage lone parents to go out to work. Those issues have not been properly addressed by the Bill, although I acknowledge that the disregard for mothers who want to go out to work is a step in the right direction.
I deplore the fact that, for the poorest—those on income support—the collection of the maintenance payments will not benefit the child or children. The caring parent will not be one penny better off, as the maintenance payment will simply substitute income support. It is not clear whether those lone parents whose income support is replaced by maintenance payments will not be worse off as a result. If income support is replaced, parents may not then qualify for the benefits associated with it, such as the ability to borrow from the social fund and to obtain free school dinners. When the Minister replies, I hope that he can clarify this matter and assure me that, under the new proposed scheme, parents will be protected from such possible losses.
Considerable concern has been expressed about the obligation on the caring parent to co-operate with the Child Support Agency in naming and locating the absent parent. I do not condone the use of the threat of violence as a means of absolving an absent parent from his responsibilities to his children. I recognise, however, that relationships in some families become so embittered and so irrational, and in others that violence is so prevalent, that women are genuinely fearful of reprisals. It is also important to remember that there are other very good reasons why some women cannot bring themselves to name the father of their child—shame, for example.
A number of organisations that have studied the Bill and written to hon. Members about it agree that, in a number of instances, it might be in the best interests of the child to have no contact with the absent parent and for all ties, including financial ones, to be severed. The question of access is difficult to resolve if financial provision is being made. Some children may not benefit from the proposed changes, and parents, particularly mothers, may be reluctant to co-operate with the Child Support Agency. A solution to those problems has been advocated by the National Council for One Parent Families. It suggests that there should be a financial incentive for mothers to co-operate.
I strongly support the use of a small disregard to encourage women to co-operate. That would also mean that the children of the poorest families would be marginally better off. A financial incentive rather than threats and disincentives should be offered to encourage mothers to co-operate with the agency. The amounts involved could be modest, as relatively small sums are important to people on such low incomes. If the money runs out on Thursday and one does not get paid until Friday, £5 could make a lot of difference.
The financial incentive would mean that only those with genuine and pressing reasons would decline to co-operate with the agency. In those cases, I strongly believe that no financial penalty should be incurred. To allow the DSS to withhold £7·35 a week when a caring parent withholds information is punitive, harsh and wrong. That penalty would adversely affect the children that society has a duty to protect. Such children are already on the poverty line. The report published yesterday by the National Children's Home questioned whether those children were even living at a subsistence level. Its report made it clear that it was lack of money, not ignorance, that led to an unhealthy diet.
To withhold £7-plus from extremely poor families would damage children who are unable to defend themselves. That would lead to hunger and untold misery. The financial hardship imposed on their mothers would add to the existing strains and tensions of their difficult lives. I accept that the onus should be on the mother to co-operate with the Child Support Agency, but I advocate the carrot rather than the stick approach in getting her to do so. Where there is a real threat or fear, the mother should not be punished for declining to co-operate.
The financial situation of lone-parent families will not be improved without the stability of guaranteed maintenance payments. Under the Bill, where an absent parent fails to pay maintenance—which may often be the case when the absent parent is self-employed—there is no mechanism to ensure that the lone parent receives guaranteed regular payments. That lack can result in hardship, disruption and uncertainty. The Child Support Agency could make a guaranteed maintenance payment to the lone parent and then proceed to chase the defaulter. That would take the lone parent and child out of the system and make the agency a genuine, not a token, buffer.
I am also concerned about the effect of the Bill on low-paid absent parents. While acknowledging that they must have responsibility, if their only income is income support—that is on the basis of them having no dependent relatives because they live alone—they are on subsistence level. To make a deduction of 5 per cent. from child support payments is, as the Children's Society says, petty and mean. It will not make a substantial difference, although it may adversely affect the person's standard of living. The Bill advocates what is clearly a regressive, not a progressive, system of collecting maintenance, and that aspect must be considered.
I reiterate my support for the principle of ensuring that absent parents do not avoid their responsibilities, but I have yet to be convinced that the provision for some children will not be eroded by the Bill. I also regret that the income of some one-parent families will not be improved by even a modest amount.
Without tackling the problem of child care, thereby enabling lone parents to get back to work, we shall be only skirting the complex social and economic problems that are increasing as a result of the change in family patterns and behaviour in society. I do not take that issue lightly, for during the time that I have been a Member my views on single parents have changed markedly. I do not take as readily as I did previously the liberal view that everything is all right and that we must go along with it. I see at first hand the unhappiness and misery that is created by the present state of affairs.
We have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the need to repair marriages and make sure that children remain in contact with both parents. I fear that I see too many cases in my constituency of young single parents who have never been married and have never had a long-term relationship with the father of the child. I also see many single parents who have several children by different fathers and who lean on my desk, look across at me and ask, "What are you going to do about it?" We must give them a sense of responsibility for the future for themselves and their children, but that will not happen by the adoption of punitive measures.
The headmaster of a school in my constituency that I visited a few months ago told me that he had been a pupil at the same school. He said, "In those days, we felt really sorry for any child who did not have a dad, and the head teacher would make sure that, if any spare clothes or other help was available, it was pointed in the direction of that child. Today, children with dads in my school are the exception rather than the rule."
The children and parents in such circumstances that I see in my surgery are depressed and unhappy. They see no way out of their poverty, and they are usually trapped in poor housing. Frequently, they get into arrears and are unable to move home. They receive housing benefit, but if an element of their rent is for hot water and heating, and if they fall into arrears on that element, that often prohibits their being moved. They are irritable and bad-tempered with their children, and that does nobody any good. Clearly the whole situation needs serious attention.
The only way forward in the long term is a combination of child care, training and employment. We must recognise that single-parent families represent a phenomenon that is here to stay. It is no good taking a moral stance one way or the other. It is a form of family life that we must make work, and the only way to do so is to enable single parents to have the best opportunity to support their children.
The objectives of the Bill are admirable. I support its emphasis on parental obligation and its stress on the duties that both parents owe their children. The Government are right to take steps to ensure that the financial burden of supporting a child is not shifted to the taxpayer, without first making sure that everything reasonable is done to see that its parents between them contribute as much as they properly can to the child's support.
The criticism that the present system of deciding maintenance and then collecting it is fragmented, uncertain and often ineffective carries great force. Today, in two fifths of cases in which maintenance payments are ordered to be made, those against whom the orders are made fall into arrears. That is an extremely alarming statistic, and it does not take into account cases in which maintenance orders are not even sought. The figures show clearly that reform is needed. They give strength to the Government's case. That is why I support the thrust of the Bill, although I have anxieties of substance about certain aspects of it.
The Secretary of State said that the Bill would provide a clear and consistent formula. The clarity of that formula is open to doubt. It starts promisingly at the commencement of schedule 1 by saying:
I share the anxiety of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) about so much being left to secondary legislation. For example, schedule 1(5) says that net and exempt income shall be
calculated or estimated in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State.
The same will apply to protected income. For the all-important element of housing costs, we read in schedule 1(8):
the amount of housing costs to be taken into account for prescribed purposes … is … not to exceed such amount (if any) as may be prescribed by, or determined in accordance with, the regulations.
Consistency is important, but so are clarity and flexibility. I agreed with much of what the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) said about the need for discretion. All manner of difficulties face my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in drawing up the regulations on how net income, exempt income, protected income and reasonable housing costs will be calculated.
For example, how will benefits in kind be dealt with? In the case of free accommodation, they could be significant. How will the cost of travelling to work be dealt with? Absent parents who have lumbered themselves with inescapable commitments for inessentials may be open to criticism. They may have frittered away money or entered into unwise commitments, but all too often those commitments are inescapable. To what extent, if at all, will the earnings or capital of new spouses or cohabitees of the custodial parents and absent parents be taken into account? In my experience, that is often a major emotional flashpoint.
Another important question is how the varying costs of access by the absent parent to the child will be taken into account. In some cases, the absent parent may live in the same town as the child, and those costs will be small. However, if the absent parent lives in London and the child and custodial parent live in, say, Cumbria or Dundee, those access costs will be significant. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must take full account of such difficulties when drawing up the regulations. If they are not taken into account, serious injustices will arise, and there is a risk that the measure will become unworkable.
How will differences in the cost of living in different parts of the country be dealt with? That is important generally, but particularly when it comes to housing costs. Imagine, for example, a child support officer in Falkirk assessing—as he or she may have to do—the reasonable amount of housing costs for someone living in Southampton, London, Inverness or Barnstaple. There will be huge variations, and it is important that they are taken properly into account. A formula that is too rigid could lead to injustice and a breakdown of the system. It must be realised that the problems which will face child support officers will be much more complex and difficult to deal with than the considerable problems currently faced by DSS officials.
Another major concern relates to the wisdom of setting up a Child Support Agency that will deal only with the maintenance of the child. The maintenance of a child is closely linked with—it is usually inescapable from—the maintenance of the mother, yet we seem to have a system in which maintenance of the child is dealt with by the Child Support Agency, whereas maintenance of the mother will continue to be dealt with by the court. That creates not only a wasteful system of duplication, but also gives rise to the difficulties inherent in a system in which two different agencies deal with basically the same problem.
One must also take into account the fact that, when a marriage breaks down, the maintenance of children is closely linked with the issue of what should be done with the matrimonial home. The courts will deal with the matrimonial home. A problem that must be faced fair and square is the fact that, in so many matrimonial settlements, one party—usually the father—must yield all or part of his interest in the former matrimonial home to provide a home for the mother and child.
I raise those anxieties not in a destructive manner—that would be wholly wrong because I support the thrust of the Bill—but because I am anxious to be as constructive as possible. However, there are difficulties, and I hope that the Government will monitor the Bill carefully. I see the Child Support Agency as only a first step in the highly necessary task of reforming the child and general family maintenance system. I hope and expect that, eventually, the Child Support Agency will be integrated into a new system of family courts.
Several hon. Members have said that the measure should have been introduced a decade ago. At the weekend, I spoke about the Bill to a woman in Glasgow who brought up three boys on her own, having been deserted by a callous, despicable husband. She said that if such a Bill had been introduced 30 years ago, much of the misery that she encountered in bringing up her three children alone with no help from her ex-husband might have been diminished by adequate maintenance payments from that scoundrel.
One may have reservations about the Bill and some people have serious reservations about it. I recently received a letter from the chairperson of Inverclyde Women's Aid who expressed serious concerns about the Bill, inter alia,
the proposal that lone mothers may lose benefit for refusing to name the father of their child. Women who feel unable to give these details refuse, in the majority of cases, in order to protect themselves and their children. Those who have suffered violence in the past have no wish to experience further misery, or harassment, by causing the wrath of an
absent parent. Moreover many lone parents feel that their treatment at the hands of the D.S.S. is often both unfeeling and intensive. The fear is that this situation will deteriorate further, if the new rules are introduced.
I certainly hope that in the fullness of time those fears prove groundless. That fine woman goes on to say:
What lone parents need are policies to enable them to make choices which are to the benefit of their children. To be able to stay at home and care for their children, if this is their priority. For those who wish to work, better training and educational opportunities, more flexible employment, freely available childcare, including after school care, and improvements to the Benefits System which prevents lone parents being able to work are desperately needed.
In fairness to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), I received from him a sympathetic response to my letter which was prompted by the letter that I received from the chairperson of Inverclyde Women's Aid. In that comprehensive and lengthy letter, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary said:
As you may know, we announced in the House of Lords in discussions of the Child Support Bill that where the child support officer is satisfied on the evidence available to him that there is a risk of violence to the parent or child this will be accepted as good cause for not helping to seek maintenance. You will no doubt be aware that our proposal to reduce benefit where a caring person refuses, without good cause, to co-operate in obtaining maintenance no longer forms part of the Child Support Bill following a vote at Committee stage in the Lords. The Government are giving careful thought to the views expressed in the debate and considering the right way forward on this important issue in light of the points made.
The women who so selfishly give up many hours of their free time to help those who are colloquially known in my constituency as battered women speak from years of experience. Their concerns must, in the first instance, be taken on board by the local Member of Parliament. Indirectly, those worries must be taken into serious consideration by the Minister and the members of the Committee. I suspect that I shall not be invited to serve on the Committee—perhaps I am expressing a hope. I suspect that I shall be invited, given the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes).
What about women and children in women's refuges? I hope that they will be treated with the sensitivity and compassion that they so manifestly deserve. I listened carefully to the remarks about women who live in terror of violent, estranged husbands, ex-husbands or former cohabitees. At a recent surgery, a young woman came to see me with evident bruises on her face. She was accompanied by two lovely little girls, "weans" as she called them. All three of them live in fear of the woman's violent, drunken ex-husband who arrived on the doorstep two weeks ago. The young woman rightly refused to give him access, but he simply kicked the front door down and punched my young constituent in front of her children. I naturally alerted the police and social workers. The young woman said that she did not want anything from her ex-husband, but that she was frightened and wanted to live in another town if she could. She had spent some time in a refuge.
The utmost compassion must be given to such fine decent constituents who deserve protection from their—I suppose that I use the term wrongly—psychopathic husbands. Their children, who do not have the power of the vote, should be given our spontaneous and instinctive protection.
I am mainly concerned with the Scottish part of the Bill. The utmost consideration must be given to those who fear physical retribution if they give certain information about their violent ex-spouses to the Department of Social Security. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary is listening with his customary courteous attentiveness and I shall ask him a few questions. Earlier, I asked about children in Scotland and the Secretary of State said that he could confirm that, by that curious process of osmosis, clause 7 was, to some extent, shaped by some clauses in the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Bill, which I understand is in the other place. If that is so, it is right and proper. I also asked the Secretary of State about the representation of young children in such cases vis-a-vis clause 7. I was promised a letter or perhaps a response from the Minister when he replies. Clause 7 is fairly lengthy and, I think I am right in saying, deals exclusively with children in Scotland. I shall be interested to see how it is developed.
Clause 12 deals with child support officers. What sort of training are such officers to receive, or are they already highly experienced? In cases that demand it, will they work closely with local social work departments or, south of the border, local social services departments?
Earlier, in relation to clauses 20, 21, 22 and 23, I asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes), who professed to be an ex-solicitor, about the position when someone sought legal aid. If someone appears in front of an appeals tribunal, will he be assisted by a local welfare rights officer, as is the case with social security appeals tribunals, or could such an appellant obtain the services of a lawyer? That is an important question, particularly in the light of clause 40. In asking it, I am not seeking to diminish the role of welfare rights officers in appeals tribunals. In my part of Strathclyde, the local welfare rights officers employed by the social work departments of the council are excellent advocates. In a number of recent cases they have taken decisions of appeals tribunals to a commissioner and won on appeal. However, it may well be that, in some instances it would be more fitting for a lawyer to represent someone in those circumstances.
The Bill has some fine qualities, but parts of it make me shudder. I am particularly concerned about clause 26 and I am glad that the Secretary of State has returned to the Chamber, despite his modest disclaimer about his lack of knowledge of Scots law and the social security system north of the border. He was being unduly modest. I think that I am right in saying that he has several times met members of the Association of Directors of Social Work in Scotland. I apprised the Secretary of State of certain procedures and practices in Strathclyde social work department in 1985 when he and I were members of the Committee that examined a social security Bill.
Clause 26 is peculiarly Scottish and deals with the power of the Secretary of State for Scotland to initiate or defend actions of declarity. It is an important clause and, although I am not a lawyer, it seems to be deficient. It states:
An action for declarator of parentage, non-parentage, legitimacy, legitimation of illegitimacy may be brought in the Court of Session of the sheriff court.
(2) Such an action may be brought in the Court of Session if and only if the child was born in Scotland or the alleged or presumed parent or the child—Clause 26 contains no reference to the preceding section of the Law Reform (Parent and Child) (Scotland) Act. Section 7 is pointless without section 6 which is headed:
- (a) is domiciled in Scotland on the date when the action is brought;".
Determination of parentage by blood sample.Section 6(1) states:
This section applies where, for the purpose of obtaining evidence relating to the determination of parentage in civil proceedings, a blood sample is sought by a party to the proceedings or by a curator ad litem.
I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, unless he is making it clear that I should finish. It seems that I will be appointed to the Committee by this honourable and old friend of mine.
This is an important matter, as I am sure the Secretary of State agrees. I remind him, as I did earlier, that section 6 of the 1986 Act has been changed by section 70 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990 which is headed:
Blood and other samples in civil proceedings.
If the Bill incorporates section 7 of that fine piece of Scottish legislation, why not incorporate section 6 which would allow for DNA testing? The Bill deals with blood samples. Why should it not deal with body tissue? If I am a member of the Committee examining the Bill, I shall table an amendment to that effect, because clause 26 is fatally flawed.
I hope that in his reply the Minister will deal with clause 35 which is about diligences. If it is to introduce poinding and warrant sales, why should it not introduce an arrestment of wages measure? There is no reason for distinguishing between the two. In Scotland they largely go together, for example, in relation to the poll tax.
Clause 40 gives the Lord Advocate the power to allow an appeal to be heard by the Court of Session or a sheriff court. Surely in such cases legal aid should be given to people on low incomes. What is the legal position of decisions of a sheriff court or the Court of Session where the absent parent is domiciled in England, Wales or elsewhere in the United Kingdom?
The Bill contains some good provisions, but in some respects it is woefully deficient. We are dealing with the protection of extremely vulnerable people, and I hope that Conservative Members will have the decency to support some of the amendments that will undoubtedly be tabled during an examination of the Bill.
I apologise for my rather intermittent attendance in this debate. I shall not follow the no doubt important arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). The only thought that forced itself upon me as I listened to the hon. Gentleman was that it must be rather complicated to have in Scotland a quite separate law governing such matters from the law in England, given the propensity of people to marry across the border. I know that it is sacrilege to suggest that we should in any way undermine the constitution or the Act of Union, but plainly there are complications.
I welcome the Bill, especially because it seems to be part of the growing concern within the Government and in the country about the many problems facing families bringing up children. As the years pass, I increasingly feel that that is about the most important issue facing politicians and the Government. It is perhaps one of the most intractable, and we are rather chary of grasping the nettle. The Government have shown increasing concern about these issues. That is clear from their sensible conversion on child benefit, or at least their maintenance of the status quo in that regard. The Bill is a serious attempt to deal with a very serious problem.
It is rather regrettable that the Opposition feel that they must divide the House this evening. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said that the Bill was useful. Admittedly, he then added that the Bill was seriously flawed, but the essential point is that hon. Members on both sides of the House accept that the Bill is useful. While important topics must be discussed in Standing Committee and there is the still unresolved question of what to do about the other place, the House could give the Bill a unanimous Second Reading.
We must progress from general principles to consider some of the particular problems. The Child Poverty Action Group has stated that there is general agreement that the principle enshrined in the Bill—that absent parents have a continuing financial responsibility towards their children—is entirely sound, and it is right that we should deal with it.
There is widespread acceptance of the notion of a Child Support Agency. People have commented on that and suggested ways in which it might be developed. That is a direct proposal by the Government which should receive the backing of the House.
The debate has shown that the concern is about the effect of the proposals on parents on low incomes, on children in second families and on lone parents. Much of our discussion today—as no doubt will be the case in Standing Committee—has been about such issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is serious and genuine, as we all know he invariably is when he talks about the safeguards that he has tried to build into the system if there is to be a benefit reduction for those who do not co-operate by naming other partners.
Listening to my right hon. Friend's opening comments confirmed that impression. Anyone who knows my right hon. Friend's approach to policy will know that, when he says that he is serious about ensuring that we have the right checks and balances, he means it. I am sure that we are capable of producing legislation that will embody that aim.
On the essential moral principle, it must be right to state that parents must take some responsibility for their actions. If we accept that, a total exemption from the principle of the least well-off is unwise. Of course it is easy to argue that those people who are on income support or who are by definition among the poorest in the country are going to be hard pressed by anything that affects them. We can understand that. It is also easy to argue that we are talking about children, and that they cannot be blamed for the aberrations and actions of their parents. I understand those arguments, but life is not as simple as that.
As I have said, basic family life is being almost cripplingly undermined, and we must think very hard about how to reverse that trend. Other hon. Members — certainly Conservative Members—have quoted some of the statistics provided in briefing material that was recently sent to hon. Members. Those terrifying statistics show the extent of divorce, single parenthood and the poverty and unhappiness induced by the collapse of family life.
I do not want to argue that all single parents are in some way guilty people; nor do I argue that all single parents are incapable of bringing up children perfectly. We know very well that not many single parents can help their position, and that many of them are very good parents. However, it is inescapably true that, as a generality, it is much better to raise children according to traditional family life if that is at all possible. It is right that the state should declare that as the centrepiece of its policy on family life.
There should be a moral bias in the Bill in favour of children and of the way of life which, over the centuries, has generally proved the most effective way of raising children. From that it follows that, when we legislate in that area, we should be prepared to translate that bias into the formulation of the Bill. We must find ways to check the misery, crime and instability thrown up by the present pattern of family life. It is important that the Bill should do that.
No doubt the Opposition will say, as they say about almost every social problem, that more resources are needed. It would be foolish to deny that more resources are often a vital part of social policies. However, the Opposition continually over-simplify matters when they constantly talk of more resources. They are not prepared to consider other aspects.
The measures in the Bill that are most criticised are not primarily related to public expenditure. I do not believe that the Treasury has been breathing all that heavily down the neck of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We must not delude ourselves that it never stops breathing heavily, but it is not simply a question of trying to save money. The Government believe that we must make people feel a sense of responsibility for their actions. That is the beginning and the end of the Bill, and I support that principle.
Certain aspects of the Bill may be tough, and it is important that the Standing Committee examines the details. The Committee must face up to the question of what to do about the other place and clause 22 as it was. The Committee stage will be particularly important.
The basic principle behind the Bill is correct—to make people, even poor people, recognise that, if they have children in a casual or irresponsible way, they must face up to the consequences and not palm them off on the Treasury, the DSS or anyone else. That is why I am sympathetic to the approach taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the Bill. I do not follow the Opposition's concept described by the hon. Member for Oldham, West as "zero-rating" the contribution of poor absentee parents. We do not want a swingeing, vindictive and punitive approach, but people should bear the consequences of their actions and a charge is reasonable.
I shall not say whether the original version of clause 22 was right. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken eloquently about that matter. It is quite clear from the time that it has taken my right hon. Friend to consider it that the matter is complicated. It is extremely important to get it right. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) talked about the case for an incentive as opposed to a reduction. That is at least worth considering. I shall not say whether I believe it to be right—I have not thought about it carefully enough—but that is a matter that the Government must carefully consider.
I remain of the view that it is crucial that it should be demonstrated that there is a responsibility. Because the Bill does that, I am happy to support it.
There is a chorus of approval for the areas where the extra employees will work, but none of those areas is in Wales. If there are to be an extra 2,000 employees, one would like some of them to be in Wales. As there is great unemployment and deprivation in Wales, I should have thought that at least one centre ought to be there.
This measure is another example of the Conservative Government pursuing the task that they have followed throughout their years in power—that is, the search for the scrounger. Often it is a mythical scrounger. This time yesterday we were talking about the £10 billion that the Government had thrown away on the poll tax legislation, and about £450 million to be spent on introducing the council tax. Enormous sums have been, thrown away.
We also know of the Government's lack of activity in pursuit of the real scroungers in our society—that is, those who evade and avoid income tax. As always, the Government behave with energy and speed—the speed of a striking cobra—in pursuit of those whom they believe are gaining very small sums, but when it comes to pursuing the large-scale scroungers in our society, the income tax evaders and avoiders, they move with the speed of an arthritic sloth.
We support much that is in the Bill. I am not certain of the moral basis to which the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir T. Raison) referred. The main argument is about clause 22. Worries both here and in the other place have centred on the hardship that it will certainly cause to families who are already under severe financial and emotional strain. It has other implications for DSS officials and the appeal tribunals who will have to administer it, and they are equally disturbing. The clause will apply to any parent on income support who failed, without good cause—I noticed that the Secretary of State hesitated and replaced "good cause" by "good reason", but I do not know whether that was significant—to provide whatever information the Secretary of State considers necessary to trace and extract maintenance from the absent parent.
Some cases would be referred to a child support officer, who would decide whether to issue a reduced benefit direction and, if so, by how much the benefit should be reduced and for how long. There would be a right of appeal to the social security tribunal. As justification, today and in the past the Government have drawn an analogy with the voluntary unemployment provisions under which similar penalties, such as disqualification from unemployment benefit and a reduction in income support for 26 weeks, are permitted if someone fails to provide good cause or has voluntarily left a job. That analogy is dangerous and should serve as a warning to us. The voluntary unemployment rules, as well as causing severe hardship, are a headache for all those concerned in their administration. Although adjudication officers have no discretion as to the amount of the penalty, they have discretion on the crucial question of its duration—that is, anything from one day to 26 weeks.
The regulations offer no guidance on how that discretion is to be exercised, nor is such guidance available from any other source. The Secretary of State cannot provide it. In principle, adjudication officers, and presumably child support officers, are independent of him. In practice, however, in the majority of cases, adjudication officers are floundering in a policy vacuum, and they impose the maximum period of 26 weeks. That leads to horrific problems for six months of the year when the person is deprived of benefit. Appeal tribunals often find themselves in similar difficulty in trying to interpret what the fixed period should be. In the absence of any rational criteria, wildly inconsistent decisions are made.
If the Government decide to restore the old clause 22, the problems will be even greater because the amount as well as the duration of the benefit reduction will be discretionary. The maximum is likely to be prescribed in the regulations. As was confirmed earlier, the Government have suggested that the maximum reduction would be 20 per cent. of the adult income support level or £7·95 per week. That is a huge and horrific sum to be taken from a family's disposable income, and there is no indication as to the maximum period forwhich the penalty will be imposed.
Within the limits, adjudication officers and tribunals will have complete discretion, without any guidance on how to exercise it. At one extreme, they might impose a maximum reduction for an indefinite period; at the other, they may refuse to make any reduction at all. Their discretion will not extend to deciding whether the Secretary of State's demands for information were necessary or reasonable, which they may not be, but officers will have to decide whether the claimant has failed to supply that information or has given false information and, if so, whether he or she had "good cause". That phrase is another celebrated area for confusion and debate and will be absolutely crucial. The Secretary of State will have to apply his own criteria. A body of case law on "good cause" would emerge from the cases which go to the social security commissioners on appeal but would not extend to decisions on the amount and duration of benefit reductions.
The Government may be tempted to circumvent those difficulties by reintroducing the old clause 22, without the discretionary element, and to lay down a fixed penalty regardless of the circumstances. The Secretary of State talked about experience and about seeing how things work out in the multiplicity of cases that will arise. A fixed penalty would, however, be even more objectionable. The wise counsel would be to leave out the old clause 22 and to let experience show whether the penal provisions that are envisaged are really necessary to protect the taxpayer.
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, especially as I was unable to be present for the early part of the debate and did not hear the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, when the Bill began its very early stages in the House, I was sitting behind my right hon. Friend as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, so I am not unaware of the provisions that we are discussing.
Yesterday, as I celebrated 24 years of very happy marriage, I was aware of how lucky I am, when one remembers that between one in three and one in two marriages now breaks down to end in divorce, sadness and unhappiness. Those breakdowns have resulted in a large population of children for whom maintenance is an issue. I gather that maintenance is now an issue for 2 million families. That is sad and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir T. Raison) said, a reflection on easy marriage, easy divorce, the easy begetting of children and the easy shedding of responsibility on to the welfare state which, all too frequently and all too freely, has been prepared to pick up the pieces.
The Bill sets out to redress the balance between personal responsibility and providing for one's children out of one's own income whether or not the union is maintained, and the state acting as the provider of last resort for those for whom no maintenance is payable. Few cases are sadder than those that come to us, as Members of Parliament, involving constituents who have been deserted and are doing their best to bring up their families, who seek maintenance and who have maintenance orders awarded only to find that the courts are extremely lax in their efforts to enforce maintenance payments. I heard about such a case only last Friday at my surgery. A lady had been seeking to enforce a maintenance order, but just before the order was registered and the summons served, the absent parent moved on. The order from the local court had gone through no fewer than five courts in London before the summons was close to being served. The irony is that the man has access to his children and comes to the lady's house to collect them every week, but the court said that the summons could not be served on the man when he was collecting his children for his access period.
The courts have failed in the way in which they provide for maintenance. Some of the maintenance awards have been capricious and erratic. We are told of absent fathers with identical incomes paying anything from £5 to £50 per week in child maintenance. The setting up of the Child Support Agency promises to provide a fair and balanced system which will hold at arm's length partners for whom the bitterness of marriage break-up has proved more than they can cope with. If only because of that, I welcome the Bill and I hope that it will be given a fair wind in the House. I bitterly regret that the Opposition cannot bring themselves to give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading and send it to Committee where it would be subject to amendment. I give the Bill my support and I hope that the House will do likewise.
Everyone who has listened to the debate—it is a pity that there were not more here to do so—will agree that it has been conducted in a thoughtful fashion. Many hon. Members have expressed reservations about the Bill, some of them Conservative Members but mostly Opposition Members. Nobody has objected to the principle, which is, wherever possible, to make parents financially responsible for their children. The reservations and objections that have been expressed have dealt with the application of that principle and the way in which it is felt to inhibit and adversely affect certain sections of the people to whom it might be applied. I n addition to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), those who have expressed reservations include the hon. Members for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans), although he supported the Bill, and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) and my hon. Friends the Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) and for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes). All the agencies which have sent us briefings on the subject and which have been concerned with the matter have also expressed reservations about the application of the Bill.
One of the important features that we are discussing in the Bill is children and the effect that divorce, separation and poverty can have on them. Less than a year ago, the House passed the Children Act, which comes into force in October. That said that the interests of the children had to be paramount in any area where they had to be cared for, in any area applicable to them.
Now we are being asked to accept further legislation, which, in my view and I think in that of my hon. Friends, runs counter to that view. Whatever the Bill's intention may be, it is not putting children first—the view expressed by the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson); she got it wrong—it is putting the Treasury first and children second.
The Children Act was accepted unanimously and welcomed by the House. We were told that it was a step in the direction of family courts and a more integrated approach to dealing with issues relating to children and the welfare of their families.
The application of family life and its importance was a point made by the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir T. Raison), who supports the Bill, but I think that it runs counter to his support for and his interest in family life.
It seemed clear and logical during the passage of the Children Act that matters such as maintenance and access should be addressed within that wider context, because we were told that it was a move in the direction of family courts. But this Bill looks at the issue of lone parents and maintenance quite separately. That has been one of the main concerns of the various children's agencies and others who have been sending us briefing on that.
It is also important that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West was speaking, and as questions were asked of the Secretary of State, it became apparent that, after all this time, there is still no formula for applying the principles of the Bill. We are being asked to vote for something without knowing how it will work. We are told that it will come up later and that it will be taken into account.
Last February, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) described the Maintenance Enforcement Bill as the hors d'oeuvre before a good lunch—the good lunch being the Child Support Bill. We were debating then, as now, family poverty and the extreme emotional distress suffered by parents and their children following the break-up of a family. Set against that background, the remarks of the hon. Member for Chelmsford were inappropriate and downright insensitive. Although I am sure it was not intended by the Secretary of State, that lack of sensitivity and understanding of the lives of the people whom the Bill will affect is shared by certain members of the Government —although right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House have been at pains to point out what happens when families break up. Mention has been made of distressing court cases and relationships being torn apart.
Tonight, we are supposed to be addressing the primary needs of children and their upbringing by adults who should be able to provide emotional and material necessities. We are supposed to be specifically considering ways in which we can help parents who, for whatever reason, cannot share in the day-to-day responsibilities of child rearing. We are talking in the main of women, who often live in poverty, misery, and fear—all of which they share with their children.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West described our reservations about the Bill. We do not challenge the principle that non-residential parents should have a continuing financial responsibility for their children, where they can meet it: our concern is the priority given to that principle over all other considerations. The proposals do not go far enough in addressing the problems of family poverty. Three quarters of a million lone parent families in the United Kingdom rely on income support. The Bill will bring no improvement to the living standards of many of their children, because maintenance will be deducted pound for pound from their income support.
Much play has been made about incentives. Many lone parents living on income support stand to lose certain housing and other benefits that it brings if it is supplanted by maintenance. Some lone parents may continue to enjoy entitlement to some level of support, but maintenance will often represent no real gain, and could even result in a loss.
My understanding is that the Child Support Agency will be left to apply the formula, which will leave the door open to all kinds of abuses by men—and also some women —with considerable financial means. They may choose to pay less than they already do by going to the agency, and the child will consequently suffer.
Many separated or divorced women have negotiated with their former partners, without rancour, an arrangement whereby they forgo any maintenance but are allowed to keep the family home for themselves and their children. We must bear that in mind when we consider figures on the number of people who do not receive maintenance. The Bill could undermine that principle. If a dispute arises, or if the man or woman is pressurised to pay maintenance, he or she may decide to sell their property. Other considerations will come into play, which may serve to undermine a well-ordered and well-organised arrangement between the man and the woman. Does the Secretary of State really intend that such arrangements should be replaced by a scheme in which one of the partners is forced to pay maintenance?
Families Need Fathers is one of the many organisations that is concerned about the question of shared access arrangements, whereby a child lives with one partner—usually the mother—during the week, but with his or her father at weekends and during holidays. The father may not pay any maintenance—perhaps because he cannot afford to do so; he may have another family to support. The question of second families has not been raised very much tonight, but the right hon. Member for Aylesbury talked about the breakdown of family life, and its changing patterns. I fear that we are in danger of impoverishing the second family to provide for the first.
Often there is shared access. The child may spend weekends and school holidays with its father—it may be the mother, but it is normally the father. In such cases that is seen as the father's contribution to the child's maintenance, although no formal handing over of money is involved. Are we saying that that arrangement must change—that a formal maintenance order must be made, disrupting and undermining the understanding way in which the couple may have dealt with separation or divorce?
Questions about legal aid for appeal cases have not yet been answered. The Government have made much of people's ability to appeal, but unless legal aid is available, the parent with the most money will be able to afford legal representation, while the other parent will not.
We accept the principle that, whenever possible, men and women should share the financial arrangements for their children. Given the number of reservations that have been expressed today, however, cannot the Government produce another Bill that takes those reservations into account? I fear that that will not be done, and we shall therefore seek to amend the Bill in Committee. The Government, however, must surely recognise that our objections are far greater than they expected at the outset. Because they have not been able to think through the implications, much of the legislation is to be dealt with in statutory instruments and the like.
Family breakdown and divorce are distressing for all the parties concerned, particularly the women. The current interpretation of the Bill could result in unwelcome access. It has been pointed out that many men will have agreed not to see their children. I shall not comment on that: I am not God, and I do not sit in judgment. Men say, "Let us call it a day"; their wives say, "All right. I will not come to you for maintenance, as I know you have another family and other responsibilities." If the maintenance money is the one thing that the man will lose, however, he will say, "I want to see my children." I do not think that the complexities have been fully understood.
Whatever we do about access, we must not link it to maintenance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead pointed out, access to their parents can be very important to children. Many men pay maintenance without having access; others who do not pay maintenance will demand access out of spite. Many women live in fear of being forced to reawaken a relationship that they had thought was dead, along with the fears that accompanied it. I doubt the abilities and the sensitivities of those who will sit in judgment and who will ignore what has been said in deciding whether those fears are justified. If women feel such fears, that should be good enough for all of us, and we should decide against pursuing the matter further.
Much has been said—rightly—about the identification of fathers. Only a small number of mothers refuse to name the fathers of their children. According to the official figures, seven out of 10 already comply with the DSS requests for information about the absent parent. The few who do not name the fathers usually have good reasons. They may need to make a clean break; they may want to avoid contact with a violent partner; they may not know the father's whereabouts, or hope for an improvement in the relationship that might lead to a reconciliation. Financial penalties meted out to the mother for non-compliance in that respect would automatically punish the child at the same time. Such a move would be neither morally nor economically justifiable.
The Government must take into consideration the fact that, whatever the appeal procedures may be, I know that the Government have considered the matter again, because there are now more safeguards—if one penalises the woman because she refuses to name the father of her child and has good reasons for not naming him, one also punishes the child. The £7 a week that may be taken away from the woman is the cost of one shoe for a child of six or seven years of age, judging by what I recently paid for a pair of shoes for my grand-daughter. That is a lot of money and represents a tremendous proportion of such a mother's income. If a woman is prepared to lose such a sum because she will not name the father of her child, she must have good reason for refusing to do so. The Government must take that on board.
The valid point was made that some children will have to be taken into care because the woman will not be able to manage. We do not want that to happen. The Government have often been proud to say that there are now fewer children in the care of the local authorities than has been the case for many years. They will now force a return to the previous position, because women will not be able to manage.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) mentioned children with disabilities. Although the Secretary of State gave him a partial answer, it did not meet the problems and the difficulties, or the anxieties of organisations such as Mencap. It is important for us to remember that children with disabilities have special and additional needs which we cannot allow to be overlooked in the Bill. The Secretary of State has said that that omission will be looked at. We must establish adequate levels of maintenance for those children. The view of Mencap is that almost every lone parent whose child has a mental handicap will be forced to appeal against the maintenance bill if the proposed formula is applied, unless the extra costs are taken into consideration.
Children with disabilities, as we all know, have many more difficulties than children with none. A lone parent with a child who has a disability often has to bear far greater costs in bringing up that child. The children often require extra heating and extra laundry, and their parents often cannot go to work. They may require relief care and special adaptations to their homes. We must take those factors into consideration.
Mencap has made the point that it is unacceptable that parents of such children should have to troop through the courts to gain reasonable support. Although the Secretary of State gave some assurances on that, he must consider the matter in greater detail.
The United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which the Government have still to ratify, stresses:
In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
It seems abundantly clear that the interests of the Treasury and the need in public relations terms to be seen to be doing something about child poverty—which has doubled under this Government—are being given higher priority than the interests of children.
I commend to the House a recent report by the Family Policy Study Centre. It showed that 62 per cent. of all children living with one parent would not benefit from the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman says that 38 per cent. of children would benefit. That depends on how the Bill is applied. If only 38 per cent. of children will benefit, the hue and cry about what it would do for lone parents seems to be sadly misplaced. It seems that 62 per cent. of children will not benefit. If the guarantees about, for example, children with disabilities are not met, an even greater number will not benefit.
The whole issue of child support should be seen within the broader context of legislation to support and strengthen families. That point was made by the right hon. Member for Aylesbury and by other hon. Members. Against a background of poverty, family breakdown and lack of child care and decent employment opportunities, the Government's tinkering with maintenance seems an inadequate response. To some of us, the Government seem to be saying to the taxpayer, "We are going to ensure that you do not have to keep other people's children." That has been said by two or three hon. Members tonight. The provision is not an attack on family poverty—rather, it is a public relations exercise.
Being a responsible parent means much more than just footing the bill. Being a responsible Government means providing a supportive structure that will keep families out of poverty, minimise conflicts when families break down and, above all, protect children when their well-being is threatened. In that context, I look forward to proposals to reform the social fund, increase basic levels of income support and restore the value of child benefit, all of which could do so much to reduce family poverty.
The Government suddenly tell us how many lone parents are living off the state, saying that people with low incomes are forced to keep other men's children because those men do not face up to their financial responsibilities. Yet, as has already been pointed out, severe cuts at the DSS have affected the number of people employed in collecting money from liable parents. The numbers have gone down and down. Both resources and personnel were undermined, so that money that should have been collected was not collected—the Government's own reports say that. Now, suddenly, they say, "Oh, look—this is absolutely terrible. We must do something and go and catch those men." If the DSS had been properly funded, if it had had a proper level of personnel and a proper structure, much of that maintenance would have been collected already.
We have concentrated a great deal on lone parents, and it is right that we should do so. It is such people, mainly women, who will be trapped by the Bill. People often present lone parents either as women who will not name the father of their child or as women who have irresponsibly conceived a child, who do not know who the father is and who simply feel that the state should keep them.
But many women I know who are lone parents—whether they have been married or not, whether they are young girls or not, and whether they had a stable union or not—say over and over again that they would like to go to work. They would like not to be dependent on income support or on maintenance from the father, whom they may not want to see again and who may have been no good. "But," they ask, "how can I go to work when the cost of child care is so high? I would have to earn £80 or £90 a weeek more than my sisters who are not in this position, to be able to pay for child care and to make up for the fact that I would lose many benefits if I came off income support."
If only the Government would get Departments to talk to each other about that problem, and do something about the accessibility of child care—for everybody, preferably, but here we are talking about a special group of women who are lone parents, many of whom would like to go to work but find the cost of child care prohibitive—there would be a transformation not only in the well-being of those women and their children but in the financial burden that the Government seemed so concerned that the taxpayer has to bear.
The Government are talking about a disregard of £15 a week, but that would make almost no contribution towards meeeting the £60, £70 or £80 or more a week that full-time day care for children costs in many parts of the country. That is one of the real problems that the Bill does not consider, but it is important both in terms of money and in terms of the psychological well-being of the mother and the child.
Too much is left to regulations. We do not have enough detail in the Bill. We do not know what we are being asked to support. Throughout the debate, the Secretary of State has said, "We shall bring in regulations to deal with that," or, "We shall have to look at that again." We cannot support a Bill that is so deficient in terms of the detail that we are asked to endorse.
That is why I have suggested that the Secretary of State take on board our various criticisms. We have tabled a reasoned amendment and, if the Bill goes through, we shall seek to amend it in Committee. I ask my hon. Friends and the rest of the House to support our reasoned amendment and try to bring into the Bill more light and more real concern for lone parents and their children.
In summing up what has been a high quality debate, I first put on record my appreciation of the support that I have received from my hon. Friends the Members for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans), for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine), my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir T. Raison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman). The geographic spread of the constituencies of my hon. Friends who have spoken in the debate perhaps shows the wide appreciation and support for the measure in Britain.
I also thank the many Opposition Members who made considered, careful and, in many cases, thoughtful speeches. The Committee stage has been put into a useful perspective. No one would disagree that the debate has signalled the giving of life to the ideas contained in the White Paper, "Children Come First", now embodied in the Child Support Bill. I emphasise my appreciation of the wide public support for the Bill.
I took objection to the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) when she accused the Government of not dealing with the incomes of low-income families. I look at her across the Dispatch Box and wonder whether she has noted that since the social security changes came into operation in 1988 we increased by some £400 million in real terms up to 1 April 1991 the money which is paid to families on low incomes. I shall deal with some of the other measures that we shall take under the Bill to address the points that she made.
No, I should like to make progress. The hon. Gentleman had a fair opportunity earlier. It is now my turn to reply on behalf of the Government. I shall perhaps give way to him later when I have made progress.
The proposals, which command wide support, reflect the continuing responsibilities of those who bring a child into the world for its moral, physical and economic welfare. That was summed up for me in a succinct phrase from a pamphlet that I read recently called, "Happy Families". It said:
Whilst you can divorce your husband or wife you cannot divorce your children".
No one who saw the BBC2 television programme last week on divorce and listened to the interviews with children can be left in any doubt about the impact that divorce has on these young ones or the problems faced by members of a single-parent family.
While the Bill cannot reconstitute families, it can contribute to the economic well-being of those families. I suppose that it was naive of me to think that the Opposition would not try to find some way of undermining in the mind of the public the wholly honourable intentions of the Bill. The Opposition's so-called reasoned amendment is the type of political deceit that we have come to expect from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). The Opposition want the respectability of not directly opposing the principles of the Bill, but they could not care two hoots about the effect of airing their criticisms on the public perception of these measures. The Opposition's reasoned amendment is not accurate and I shall address later some of the points that have been made.
It is important to see the Bill as a package which seeks to create a legislative framework to ensure a proper line of financial support which reaches the children of a family. It seeks to achieve a proper sharing of the task between the parents and the taxpayer, who currently has to shoulder the financial burden by funding income support and family credit payments at a level which is higher than necessary because those with a responsibility to pay maintenance for their children do not honour their obligations.
The Bill looks to the future and signals further changes which will address some of the points made by the hon. Member for Eccles in her concluding comments. She chastised the Government on child care. It worries me that she may not have looked in the intense detail that it deserves at example 10 in the White Paper, which deals with the very point that she made. The Government have been criticised today for not providing the fine detail, but when it is put before the Opposition they choose not to look at it.
Example 10 relates to Linda, a lone parent with a daughter, Alison, who is six. Linda is receiving income support and is now ready to go to work—just like the example cited by the hon. Member for Eccles. On income support Linda would have a net income of just over £90 per week. Without the benefits of the proposals contained in the Bill, Linda would require to have a job paying £105 per week. As a result of the changes contained in the Bill relating to family credit, the reduction in the number of hours of work to qualify for benefit and the £15 disregard on maintenance, Linda would only have to accept a job paying as little as £54 a week to be in precisely the same financial position as she was on income support. The important proviso, however, is that she could go on to do better things.
One third of the people who receive an award through family credit do not renew their claim because their payment levels rise. Such are the benefits of the changes that we have introduced and, as a result, family credit will be more easily accessible to those single parent families.
I said earlier that I would give way to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and I believe that now is an appropriate time to do so.
I cannot recall the example of Linda, but so that the House can appreciate it, can the Under-Secretary tell us how much child care costs were in that example?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman reminded me of that because I forgot to say that in that example £45 per week of in-work costs were allowed for. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gave me a chance to put the record straight.
With respect, the hon. Gentleman has had enough time to put his views to the House, and many of my hon. Friends would like to hear the Government's side of the argument.
We believe that the changes to family credit will help a further 50,000 lone parent families to benefit from the new arrangements. It is important to draw that to the attention of the House as it illustrates the broad approach of the Bill.
I hope that hon. Members will agree that since the White Paper was published, and during the debate on the Bill in another place, the Government have listened carefully to the representations made on a number of the proposals. We have already acted on the requirement to co-operate. We have also taken into account the representations made about the powers of the inspectors, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred today.
I pledge to the House that we shall continue to listen carefully to sensible ideas for improving the Bill in Committee and its remaining stages. We shall honour our obligations to consult widely on the preparation and content of the regulations that will be occasioned by the Bill.
The Bill relates to complex areas of social relationships, and we recognise that it would not be an easy task to get the Bill entirely right at the first attempt. That is why many of its procedural details have been framed in the form of regulations. Should we need to change any of those regulations in the light of experience, that can be done in such a way that it will not affect the Bill's primary purpose of putting children first.
The Minister has said that he will listen to sensible suggestions. I have a sensible question on clause 40 and the right of the Lord Advocate to send such appeal cases to the sheriff court or the Court of Session. Will a person on low income be allowed legal aid and entitled to legal representation in either of those courts?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a detailed and important question relating to Scotland. The Bill contains a Scottish dimension and I shall do my best to answer tonight the long list of questions that the hon. Gentleman has posed. Otherwise, I shall do so by means of correspondence later. I undertake that his questions will not go unanswered.
An overriding issue in the debate has been the Government's policy and attitude to what was formerly known, when the Bill was originally published, as clause 22, dealing with the criteria for exemption from the requirement to co-operation and the sanction that we have said that we wish to introduce in our consideration of the measure.
I wish to share with the House some experiences that I have had in trying to understand the real world in which the Bill will operate. I travelled the length and breadth of Britain talking to our liable relative officers who, contrary to what Opposition Members have said, are actively pursuing the measure, and their excellent efforts will bring an additional £300 million of benefit saving this year.
In talking to those liable relative officers, I drew a number of conclusions. For example, I have had underlined the fact that about 75 per cent. of people under the present arrangements are content to name the father of the child. That is achieved by careful discussion and friendly persuasion by liable relative officers. That will not change under the proposed operation of the Child Support Agency. I assure the hon. Member for Oldham, West that the fact that we shall now have a dedicated agency, without some of the pressures to which he alluded in his opening remarks, will mean that this sensitive work can be pursued, initially by friendly discussion, argument and persuasion. It is important to emphasise that and to see the question of benefit sanction as very much a last resort.
In his evidence to the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State painted an important picture of the Child Support Agency acting as a buffer between the parent with care and the absent parent. The hon. Member for Birkenhead will note those words carefully, for he paid particular attention in the Select Committee to the remarks of my right hon. Friend. That, together with the work of the child support officers, will mean the addition of considerable distancing—the existence of a buffer state—between the parent with care, who may be reluctant initially to name the father, and the need to do something about that.
Is the Minister aware that at the surgery in my constituency I am receiving an increasing number of cases of young girls who are pregnant or have young children and who report that the young men in question have absconded? When I have asked if they would mind my writing to the young men pointing out that their girlfriends were expecting children by them, were homeless and were throwing themselves on the mercy of their fellow citizens in an effort to get a roof over their heads, they have been content that I should write.
The Government should press ahead with the Bill to make sure that those who wish to be in receipt of public funds are prepared to name the father. The Bill will send out an important signal to the rest of the world, particularly to feckless young men. That signal is that this country will no longer put up with people transferring their responsibilities to the rest of the taxpaying community.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and direct point which leads me to further matters that have been raised in the debate. In our consideration of the measure and in discussing the question of distancing the problem for some people of naming the father, we must examine what was said in another place. There, when we announced that in addition to rape, incest or fear of violence, we would seek to find words to insert in the Bill which would also admit the question of harm and distress in terms of the obligation put on the parent with care to name the father, we went a long way indeed towards dealing with an issue that had been the subject of a great deal of representation to us inside and outside the House.
In view of those provisions, the fear that some people may have about naming should be lessened, but we must have some ultimate sanction in the matter. That was put to me in graphic terms by a liable relative officer in Preston, who said, "Anything that affects their benefit money makes them change their minds." That is so. When people realise that there might be withdrawal of a sum of money, however small, they take a different view. As that officer put it to me, "When the measure was first announced, people came to the office in Preston and named the fathers."
Hon. Members should see the question of sanctions and naming as the end of a long and careful process in which proper weight will be given to all the evidence and information taken by child support officers in considering whether a woman has good cause not to name a missing father. I hope that that will reassure hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West spoke about evidence. Where corroborative evidence can be submitted by a parent, it will be welcome. Clearly, the more information that is provided, the better, because the absence of such information would make decision making harder. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are minded by the remarks that have been made on that sensitive subject.
The hon. Members for Oldham, West, for Birkenhead, and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said that those on income support will not be better off under those arrangements. That goes to the heart of whether there should be a form of maintenance disregard for parents in receipt of that benefit. Most women who want to provide a better standard of living for their children would far rather do so by going back to work than by staying on benefit. We do not intend to try to weld them permanently to income support. As I said, the changes in family credit will allow people to move much more easily towards that benefit once those arrangements are in place. We have asked lone parents what they want to do and they have communicated to us that they would like their opportunities to be improved by going back to work. If a disregard in income support were introduced, the step back into work would be so much greater for people to take. On that basis, I cannot see the logic of the proposals of the hon. Member for Oldham, West.
I shall conclude my remarks because the hon. Gentleman may be interested in responding to this point. He said that his party wished to have a form of disregard but, when pressed by my hon. Friends to say how much it would cost, he failed to answer. Perhaps he could select from this list. If he agrees to a £5 maintenance disregard, it will cost £85 million; if he advocates a £10 disregard, it will cost £170 million; a £15 disregard will cost £250 million. In picking one of those options, will he say what other amendments to his policies he would make if he wishes to pursue that line?
I wanted to ask about lone parents who have very young children and no opportunity to go back to work. Does the Minister suggest that only mothers who go back to work should be given an incentive? Why should not mothers with very young children have an incentive? Does not that mean that there should be some maintenance disregard?
From our research, the clear intention is that lone parents who seek to go back to work should do so when they so choose, which recognises the hon. Gentleman's point. In blunt terms, however, we do not believe that that is the best way to use those additional moneys. In my opening remarks, I told the hon. Member for Eccles that since 1988 we have spent £400 million in real terms on extra payments for families with children. We cannot afford to do that as well as have maintenance disregard. The hon. Member for Oldham, West is now on record as having dodged answering that question for the second time, so I hope that he will not mind if we impute a cost to his proposal.
With respect to the hon. Member for Birkenhead, he is doing a grave disservice to the hon. Member for Oldham, West, who posed a number of questions. It would be churlish and rude of me not to try to answer them.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West asked about guaranteed maintenance payments, a subject that is raised in his reasoned amendment. The Department of Social Security already has an arrangement whereby the caring parent on income support can choose to have her income support paid gross if maintenance payments are uncertain or irregular, and the Department will collect the maintenance. That avoids the problems of disrupted payments and ensures that the arrangements will continue. We have given that assurance on a number of occasions and I am happy to repeat it here. Maintenance is essentially a private arrangement between two individuals and we aim to promote a service that will enable those private arrangements to be met. There is no compulsion for someone to have his or her maintenance collected through the child support agency. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Oldham, West.
Another point touched on by hon. Members on both sides of the House related to property and is sometimes known as the so-called clean break. I shall spend a moment or two dealing with the concerns expressed. I do not believe that the fears are as real as some people have advanced, although I acknowledge that, in its interim report, the Select Committee on Social Security, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Birkenhead, put forward a quality, reasoned argument on the issue. Despite what I am about to say, I shall consider carefully the points put to us by the Select Committee.
When the courts consider what property settlements should be made, the welfare of children will come first. That is true now and will remain so in future. The formula can handle the consequences for the parties of any decision that the court consider to be in the best interests of children. If the family home goes to the caring parent and children, the absent parent's housing costs will be higher. Unless the housing costs are manifestly beyond reason, they will all go into the exempt income, which is therefore higher. In the formula, exempt income is the first charge on the available income of the absent parent who, in those circumstances, pays less maintenance.
A clearly demonstrable trade-off as regards property is built into the formula. Some three quarters of parents who leave the family home, subsequently re-establishing themselves as owner-occupiers, will be able to take advantage of that provision. We are doing nothing to prevent people leaving and re-establishing a home if a property settlement has been made through the courts—in fact, quite the reverse. The seventh example in the White Paper clearly illustrates that point.
I do not think that there can ever be a clean break between a parent and his children. It is perfectly feasible that adults may have made some form of clean-break property settlement in the past, but they have a continuing responsibility. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield rightly talked about rights and responsibilities. Parents have a continuing responsibility to look after children, whatever the circumstances. I assure hon. Members that the formula properly takes into account the property issue.
If the former marital home is transferred to the parent with care of the child, and if there is a mortgage involved and the parent is on income support, that income support can be used to take care of the financial burden. It is not always the case that such property settlements involve transfers of assets. If they involve transfers of assets invested for the purpose of providing income, the formula takes care of that in assessing the relative responsibilities for the provision of maintenance.
During our discussions hon. Members touched on the so-called regressive nature of the formula. The fact that the formula shares on a 50:50 basis the allocation of assessable income between the parent who has responsibility for maintenance and the child shows that it applies even-handedly to people on all levels of income. Once the maintenance bill has been paid, we seek to take—at a greater percentage than that shown in the White Paper—the excess of the additional assessable income. That attempts to meet the criticism put forward that the basic maintenance application is of a regressive nature. As we shall see in Committee, that is a way in which we give children access to those additional moneys.
I was asked whether the Inland Revenue should be the agency for collecting the maintenance payments. In his intense scrutiny of the detail of the Bill, it perhaps escaped the attention of the hon. Member for Oldham, West that, for example, people on income support do not pay any tax, so it would be difficult for the Inland Revenue to collect money from them.
Many questions were asked about legal aid. Advice and assistance for tribunals is currently available under the existing legal aid provisions to enable appellants to prepare for tribunal hearings. I shall write to hon. Members about the other issues that have been raised. I commend the measure to the House.
|Division No. 155]||[10 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Clelland, David|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley, N.)||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Allen, Graham||Cook, Robin (Livingston)|
|Alton, David||Corbett, Robin|
|Anderson, Donald||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Cousins, Jim|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Crowther, Stan|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Cryer, Bob|
|Ashton, Joe||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Dalyell, Tarn|
|Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)||Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)|
|Barron, Kevin||Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)|
|Battle, John||Dewar, Donald|
|Beckett, Margaret||Dixon, Don|
|Beith, A. J.||Dobson, Frank|
|Bellotti, David||Doran, Frank|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Duffy, A. E. P.|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Dunnachie, Jimmy|
|Benton, Joseph||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Eadie, Alexander|
|Boateng, Paul||Edwards, Huw|
|Boyes, Roland||Evans, John (St Helens N)|
|Bradley, Keith||Fearn, Ronald|
|Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)||Field, Frank (Birkenhead)|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Flannery, Martin|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Flynn, Paul|
|Buckley, George J.||Foot, Rt Hon Michael|
|Callaghan, Jim||Foster, Derek|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Foulkes, George|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||Fyfe, Maria|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Galloway, George|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Godman, Dr Norman A.|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Gordon, Mildred||Michael, Alun|
|Gould, Bryan||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Graham, Thomas||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Morley, Elliot|
|Grocott, Bruce||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Haynes, Frank||Mullin, Chris|
|Heal, Mrs Sylvia||Murphy, Paul|
|Hinchliffe, David||Nellist, Dave|
|Hood, Jimmy||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||O'Brien, William|
|Howells, Geraint||O'Hara, Edward|
|Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Hoyle, Doug||Pike, Peter L.|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Prescott, John|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Illsley, Eric||Randall, Stuart|
|Ingram, Adam||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Janner, Greville||Richardson, Jo|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Rooker, Jeff|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Rooney, Terence|
|Kennedy, Charles||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Rowlands, Ted|
|Lamond, James||Ruddock, Joan|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Salmond, Alex|
|Leighton, Ron||Skinner, Dennis|
|Lestor, Joan (Eccles)||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Lewis, Terry||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Livsey, Richard||Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)||Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Snape, Peter|
|Loyden, Eddie||Soley, Clive|
|McAllion, John||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Steinberg, Gerry|
|McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)||Strang, Gavin|
|McKelvey, William||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|McLeish, Henry||Turner, Dennis|
|Maclennan, Robert||Wallace, James|
|McMaster, Gordon||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|McNamara, Kevin||Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)|
|Madden, Max||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Wilson, Brian|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Worthington, Tony|
|Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)||Wray, Jimmy|
|Maxton, John||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Meacher, Michael||Mr. Ken Eastham and|
|Meale, Alan||Mr. Robert N. Wareing.|
|Adley, Robert||Bright, Graham|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)|
|Amos, Alan||Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick|
|Arbuthnot, James||Burt, Alistair|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Butler, Chris|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas||Butterfill, John|
|Ashby, David||Carrington, Matthew|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Cash, William|
|Atkins, Robert||Clark, Rt Hon Sir William|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Conway, Derek|
|Baldry, Tony||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)|
|Batiste, Spencer||Cope, Rt Hon John|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Couchman, James|
|Beggs, Roy||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Bellingham, Henry||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Day, Stephen|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Devlin, Tim|
|Benyon, W.||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Emery, Sir Peter|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)|
|Boswell, Tim||Evennett, David|
|Bottomley, Peter||Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Fallon, Michael|
|Bowis, John||Favell, Tony|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)|
|Brazier, Julian||Fookes, Dame Janet|
|Forman, Nigel||Mitchell, Sir David|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Morrison, Sir Charles|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Moss, Malcolm|
|Franks, Cecil||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Freeman, Roger||Neale, Sir Gerrard|
|Fry, Peter||Needham, Richard|
|Gale, Roger||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Gill, Christopher||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Glyn, Dr Sir Alan||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Norris, Steve|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Gorst, John||Page, Richard|
|Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)||Paice, James|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Patnick, Irvine|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath)|
|Gregory, Conal||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Pawsey, James|
|Grist, Ian||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Ground, Patrick||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Hague, William||Portillo, Michael|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Price, Sir David|
|Hannam, John||Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy|
|Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')||Redwood, John|
|Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Harris, David||Riddick, Graham|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Hawkins, Christopher||Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm|
|Hayward, Robert||Roberts, Sir Wyn (Conwy)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)||Rost, Peter|
|Hill, James||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|Hind, Kenneth||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)||Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)|
|Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Irvine, Michael||Shersby, Michael|
|Jack, Michael||Sims, Roger|
|Janman, Tim||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Jones, Robert B (Herts W)||Speller, Tony|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)|
|King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Knapman, Roger||Steen, Anthony|
|Knight, Greg (Derby North)||Stern, Michael|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)||Stevens, Lewis|
|Knox, David||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Lang, Rt Hon Ian||Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)|
|Latham, Michael||Stewart, Rt Hon Ian (Herts N)|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Sumberg, David|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Taylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)|
|Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|McCrindle, Sir Robert||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Macfarlane, Sir Neil||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Thurnham, Peter|
|MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Maclean, David||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Tredinnick, David|
|McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael||Trippier, David|
|McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Major, Rt Hon John||Walden, George|
|Malins, Humfrey||Waller, Gary|
|Maples, John||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Watts, John|
|Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)||Wells, Bowen|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Whitney, Ray|
|Mellor, Rt Hon David||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Wilkinson, John|
|Winterton, Mrs Ann||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Wood, Timothy||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Woodcock, Dr. Mike||Mr. David Lightbown and|
|Yeo, Tim||Mr. Sydney Chapman.|