As always, I promise to be brief, but I should like to ask the Minister a couple of questions. I have long supported child support legislation, but I was always critical of existing legislation, and, indeed, of this Bill. I support new clause 3 and the comments of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne).
I have a number of concerns about the legislation and the way in which it is implemented. What deeply concerns me is the apparent dilatoriness of officials in Falkirk Child Support Agency office, and the often off-hand way in which they treat my constituents.
On Friday evening, a young woman came to see me at my surgery. She is precisely caught up in the circumstances that the new clause seeks to deal with. She has had little or no help from the Falkirk office in more than a year. I intervened on her behalf more than a year ago.
That decent, honourable, poor woman—and she is a poor woman—is living in abject poverty. On Friday evening, she came back to my surgery to complain about what I have just called the apparent dilatoriness of the officials in Falkirk. I would happily bring the details of that case to the Minister's attention, because I know that he will pursue the matter with Miss Chant and her officials.
That young woman is seeking to bring up a child in a rough, tough part of Greenock. She is having an enormously difficult time of it, and she would be helped by better and more courteous assistance from the Falkirk office. She is in difficult circumstances, and, like many others, she would benefit from such support.
I have yet to meet a constituent who, under the extant legislation, is defined as an absent parent and seeks to avoid his obligations to his child or children. Some of them may avoid not only their obligations but my surgeries, knowing that I speak in a fairly straightforward manner on these issues. The overwhelming majority of those people—whose wives may be on income support, and hence would be helped by the acceptance of the new clause—readily acknowledge that they have a duty to protect their children.
Given that the Minister will reject the new clause, may I ask what guidelines are given to local officers in relation to applications made by such mothers for community care grants from the social fund? If they are not to be assisted through a maintenance disregard, why not assist them by way of another disregard: by telling them that they will not be given a crisis loan when they seek assistance to purchase essential resources for the house, but that they will always be considered sympathetically for a community care grant?
Why cannot women caught up in such circumstances be offered community care grants instead of crisis loans? The Minister will resist new clause 3, but if such emphasis were given in relation to parents with care seeking financial assistance from the local Benefits Agency, that would be of some help.
I know of a young person who made such an application to the Benefits Agency in Greenock. She wanted a community care grant, not a loan that she would have to pay back out of her social security income. The young woman concerned had no complaints against the staff of the agency at Greenock. Indeed, the agency is to receive an award in a fortnight's time from Renfrewshire Enterprise because of its business plan and the work that it carries out in the area. Nevertheless, the young woman did not receive a community care grant. My advice to local officials is that, in such circumstances, they should help claimants by offering a community care grant rather than a loan.
If it is custom and practice that a community care grant is usually made available rather than a crisis loan, has that principle been established in local offices? I hope that the Minister will respond positively to my question. For most women—in this instance, we are talking mainly about women—it would be of help to know that they can obtain a community care grant rather than being offered a loan. If it is not custom and practice that such preferential treatment is offered, will the Minister give serious consideration to issuing appropriate guidelines by amending the criteria on which grants and loans are assessed?
I do not want to drift off course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you will forgive that maritime metaphor, in anticipation of the Minister's rejection of the new clause. I wish only to make a plea of mitigation. If the new clause is rejected, my question should be given serious attention.
In Australia, disregard is an established practice. I was recently speaking to people who are concerned with child support legislation in South Australia. They assured me that it is working well. The Minister will say, "The hon. Gentleman is bound to say that." I accept that there have been difficulties in implementing that legislation in Australia, but I was told that, in the state of South Australia, it seems to be working well. I am told that, to some extent, it meets the needs of women who are caring for children while living in inadequate housing and being unable to provide their children with the resources that other children come to expect as the normal scheme of things.
In the new clause, we are not asking for a great deal. Surely a compassionate Government should accept it in its entirety. We are not talking about an enormous number of women or a huge amount of money. If the new clause were accepted, some compensation would be made available to those whose lives are at best sparse and at worst characterised by sheer misery.