CHILD MAINTENANCE DISREGARD (No. 2)

Part of Orders of the Day — Child Support Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 22nd May 1995.

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Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks , Croydon North West 4:35 pm, 22nd May 1995

I support the new clause. I shall start by reflecting on why child support legislation has become controversial, which has necessitated, among other things, the Bill that is before us. That controversy relates directly to the issue which the new clause seeks to take up. It is legislation designed to bring about a cultural change—some might say a cultural revolution—after many years during which fathers were often able to escape financial responsibilities for their children.

Governments worldwide, and certainly in the United Kingdom—rightly, in my view—are seeking to promote the principle of parental responsibility. After many years during which fathers escaped their responsibilities—when court orders were not enforced—our child support legislation perhaps constitutes a major cultural revolution.

5.15 pm

The Government are seeking to respond to two major trends that are affecting the family, both of which are extremely controversial. The first is large-scale separation and divorce, which means that more and more people—adults and children—are living in one-parent families.

Secondly, there is the increasing phenomenon of single-never-married women with children, something to which the House needs to return on another occasion. The phenomenon is to be found in other European nations, but I think that Britain is ahead—I do not use that word in an approving way—and at the top of the league table. Single-never-married women represent the fastest-rising category of single parents in the United Kingdom. They are the group most likely to be dependent on income support.

The divorce phenomenon and the phenomenon of never-married-single women are controversial and would tax any Government. These phenomena have often become controversial also because of maladministration. There is controversy also because a public wider than those immediately concerned are cynical in believing that the Bill is not a true child support measure. When we are presented with evidence that the vast majority of one-parent families—those on income support—are not receiving extra benefit from child support, we can understand the public's cynicism. That is why the new clause should be taken seriously by the House.

Although I have used the term, I am not an Exchequer supporter. I do not disregard the interests of the taxpayer generally. I am struck by the fact, as are my colleagues, I am sure, that many of the families who come to see us at our surgeries are intact families where the marriage has survived. They are two-parent families that are often struggling against the odds, often in difficult economic times and in a difficult job market, to maintain their own children.

One of the difficulties for the Government is that they are presiding over record levels of taxation and at the same time record levels of social security expenditure. They are doing so—this is the paradox that we need to unravel and understand—at a time when there is a record level of social insecurity, in my judgment.

We must not make the mistake of saying—this certainly applies to my right hon. and hon. Friends—that there is an association between social security spending—state benefit spending—and true social security in the community. We need to think through the implications of that. If they can be avoided, I do not want to impose greater burdens on taxpayers who are looking after their own children. At the same time, however, a balance must be struck. In my judgment, a disregard—in other words, enabling one-parent families on income support to receive some of the benefit of child maintenance—is a part of the balance that should be introduced into the system.

If child poverty, not the Treasury, had been at the centre of concern when framing child support legislation, we would have had better social policy. These are always controversial matters, as evidence from various societies shows. At the same time, I think that a wider concern would have produced better social policy.

We need to get to grips with the fact that the rise of one-parent families is perhaps now the major cause—it is certainly a major cause—of child poverty in this country. The Secretary of State will have seen the recent report on low income statistics from the Social Security Committee, which contains a table that shows the total number of children—our children, really—on income support in Great Britain. It is extraordinary in terms of the total number, but what strikes me as important about those data is that, increasingly, it is the one-parent family that is associated with poverty.

Opposition Members—perfectly rightly—say a great deal about unemployment, but in 1992, whereas 865,000 children of parents who were unemployed were on income support, the number of children on income support in lone-parent families was 1,750,000, a much larger number. That is the group that is growing most rapidly. When unemployment goes up and down—we can argue about how far it will go—at least it brings down the number of children in poverty for employment reasons.

As far as I can judge, the rise in the number of lone-parent families is somewhat impervious to changes in the economic cycle. It is certainly on the increase at the present time, even when official unemployment statistics point in the other direction. That major contributor to child poverty is of relevance to the new clause, because in a modest way it is saying, "If we can address the poverty of the children of families on income support, at least that will improve the welfare of those children." The welfare of those children must be at the heart of this measure.

I think that the Government will reply—we shall judge soon—that they do not consider a maintenance disregard as the way to tackle poverty, that evidence shows that we need to enable one-parent families to get into the labour market—to get jobs, in simple terms. I do not think that I and my hon. Friends would largely disagree with that broad analysis. Certainly, when one thinks about public expenditure priorities in the future, it is difficult to envisage any Government finding the resources to increase income support to such a level that one would seriously dent the poverty that those children face.

I would argue that the Government are now pushing that analysis too far. If one could devise a strategy to include employment, training, child care and the rest, that would be a good thing, and I would encourage it. In fact, I would encourage the Government to go rather further in that direction. By saying no to the disregard but yes to the child support bonus, which borrows heavily from the Jobseekers Bill—once one gets a job, one gets some benefit from the extra maintenance—the Government are in a curious position for the traditional "party of the family". There are lots of inverted commas in that phrase. They are now saying—not about all mothers—that a lone mother's place is in the job market.

I find that rather interesting, as I have been a student of Tory family politics for a number of years. Whereas, a decade and a half ago, the Tory party of the family was very much persuaded that a woman's place was in the home, and did not really like all the trendy new feminist stuff about careers and so on, there came a time when it came to recognise that perhaps women did have rights in the labour market, and a good thing too.

I had assumed, until I attended the recent Committee that considered the Bill, that the party of the family at least supported the idea of choice. I think that choice is important, and I commend the principle of choice to the Secretary of State. I should have thought that we should be saying to lone mothers on income support, particularly when there are young children, "Although we might give you certain incentives and programmes to get into the labour market, nevertheless, as a mother of a child of four or five, you have a choice: whether to stay at home to look after your own child or to get a job."

Is the Secretary of State an advocate of choice in that area? I hope he is. I am bound to say that the force of this social policy is to push lone mothers into the labour market. If one stays on income support, one does not get any net benefit from child support. That is a serious point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) made the point that very few lone mothers are coming off income support because of child benefit. A figure of 8,000 in one year has been cited, against 1 million families involved. I should like to ask the Secretary of State about choice, or whether indeed there is now no choice for lone mothers on income support except to stay in poverty. Is he really now saying that the mothers of England who are on income support have to get jobs, because the Government will not offer any more?

I support my hon. Friends' arguments for a disregard, because those of us who support child support and who did so before we knew that the Government were to introduce it are wrestling with the difficult task of trying to save decent principle from bad practice. That is what it is about.

We have rehearsed some of the likely history of this before. We know that a former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whom I read about in the public prints only today, announced the policy of child support and parental responsibility. My guess is that the official records one day will reveal that the Department of Social Security probably wanted a disregard, because there is some wisdom in that Department, or there certainly used to be, but, of course, the Treasury saw an opportunity.

The Treasury looked anew at public expenditure targets and projections, it won the battle with the Department of Social Security about the disregard, and it said, "You are not having it. We can't afford it." The original Child Support Bill was therefore a Bill deformed at birth.

That is the difficulty that we have had ever since. If only we could have had a disregard, we could have faced up to the critics of the Bill, including some, not all, of the nastier elements in British life who send obscene and dangerous communications to the staff of the Child Support Agency, and said, "No, this is child support not just in name. We can now point to evidence that children in the most impoverished circumstances are getting extra benefit."

One could point to data such as those in Australia, which show that children are getting more money. At least this is making an impression on child poverty, as caused by those circumstances. But I am afraid that the Treasury, which I have always regarded as a social policy literacy-free zone, got its claws into it and attempted to destroy it at birth. Therefore, some of us have been trying to help the Secretary of State and his colleagues to rescue it ever since by proposing changes and tabling amendments.

I repeat that the taxpayer has an interest—I know that from my advice surgeries, and how poor some of the families paying tax are—but the introduction of a disregard would have brought some social balance into the scheme. Although one or two of us have had this argument before, cross-party, and to some extent we have exhausted the arguments, I hope that Parliament might think again today. I hope that the Secretary of State will have listened carefully to the arguments and will recognise that, if we are to create social policy out of this child support measure, a disregard is a modest but essential step in that direction.