Orders of the Day — Child Support Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 22nd May 1995.

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  1. ' .—(1) There shall be a body to be called the Child Support Advisory Committee ("the Committee").
  2. (2) The Committee shall consist of not less than eight and not more than fifteen members appointed by the Secretary of State.
  3. (3) The Secretary of State shall appoint one member of the Committee to chair its proceedings.
  4. (4) In appointing the members of the committee, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of appointing persons with experience and knowledge of—
    1. (a) family proceedings and the work of family courts;
    2. (b) child support legislation; and
    3. (c) the welfare of children.
  5. (5) It shall be the duty of the Committee to advise the Secretary of State on the working of child support legislation, and to make recommendations, when it sees fit, for amending such legislation.
  6. (6) It shall be the duty of the Committee to prepare an annual report and to submit it to the Secretary of State.
  7. (7) The report prepared under subsection (6) above shall include—
    1. (a) details of the number of child maintenance assessments made in the year, and an analysis of their effect on child welfare;
    2. (b) details of the number of departure directions made in the year, and an analysis of their impact on the effectiveness of child maintenance;
    3. (c) details of the number of reviews undertaken by child support officers in the year, and an analysis of the results of these reviews;
    4. (d) details of the number of appeals made to child support appeal tribunals in the year together with an analysis of the grounds of appeals and the findings of the tribunals, and its assessment of any implications of that analysis for the reform of child support legislation; and
    5. (e) any other matters which the Committee considers appropriate.
  8. (8) The Secretary of State shall lay copies of each report made to him under subsection (6) above before both Houses of Parliament.
  9. (9) Any expenses incurred by the members of the Committee appointed under this section may be reimbursed by the Secretary of State out of moneys provided by Parliament.'.—[Mr. Dewar.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am delighted to move the new clause and I assure the Secretary of State that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I are as one on this matter, as we are on most matters.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

The right hon. Gentleman can put it that way if he wants, but we will let the nation judge.

During the last minute or two I have managed to obtain a copy of the press release referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. I will not go into the detail because others will no doubt wish to do so. However, it begins with what is positively the most offensive pun, in terms of taste, that I have seen for a long time. It is an extraordinary production.

However, I am glad to see that of the 20 major and decisive spending commitments that I am accused of making—which apparently will change the whole tide of fiscal history in the United Kingdom—the 20th is the new clause that we are about to discuss. That puts the matter into some sort of perspective. Apparently, the appointment of an advisory body is evidence of the fiscal irresponsibility upon which the right hon. Gentleman founds his case. I need hardly tell him that we will be looking carefully at the list and will want to comment on it in due course. I find it a remarkably unconvincing indictment and it is not one that could be taken to a higher court, never mind the high court of Parliament, by a politician with any sense of perspective.

I suppose that, in a way, I am flattered, but it seems lunatic for the Secretary of State to assume, for example, that because one tables a question seeking information, in which one asks for the costing of a development at varying levels, one is making a spending commitment at the level of the highest variable. That does not do the Secretary of State's credibility much good.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Secretary of State for Social Security

It would be simple for the hon. Gentleman to tell us how much he would give in a maintenance disregard, or any of the other items to which he referred. Since he is always prepared to bandy numbers about but not to commit himself, he cannot complain if others put an obvious construction on the numbers that he uses.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

It is not an obvious construction. To put it as charitably as possible, the right hon. Gentleman has been in Government too long. When he arrives on the Opposition Benches I wonder whether he will hesitate, saying, "I would like that information, but my goodness if I ask for it, the Government are entitled to say that that is a spending commitment." No sensible person would take that approach. I suggest that he should reconsider his position.

I do not want to proceed too far down that line, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will confine myself to saying that I would be genuinely surprised to discover that I am as generous a Santa Claus figure as the Secretary of State imagines. It would come as an even greater surprise to the many lobbying groups that have come to me looking for promises and discovered that they are not easy to obtain, for good hard-headed and practical reasons—that is, the problems that the Labour Government are likely to inherit. If the Secretary of State wants something to worry about today, he might consider one sentence in the White Paper on competitiveness.

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. Does the one sentence refer to the child support advisory committee?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

The answer is either yes or no.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

Even for someone in your impartial position, Mr. Deputy Speaker, answers of yes or no are dangerous. I will merely suggest that the Secretary of State might worry about the Government's inability to help raise living standards in old age, which is mentioned in the White Paper, and the more interesting suggestion that taxation policy is totally out of the Government's control because of global movements of capital across national frontiers.

Item 20 on the Secretary of State's list is the interesting and important new clause that we are discussing. The new clause has been tabled because the child support advisory committee is a genuine subject for discussion and debate. I have no doubt that the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, who is replying to the debate, will say that the committee is unnecessary because we already have the Select Committees on Social Security and on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—the ombudsman—the Social Security Advisory Committee and the chief child support officer.

I accept that a range of people deal, on an ad hoc or occasional basis, with the facts, figures and development of the Child Support Agency. The trouble is that even they should be redundant if the agency were producing the sort of overall and comprehensive figure in its annual reports that would allow one to take a clear view of what is happening, but I am afraid that that is not the case. The agency has become a special case in many ways, but especially in view of its daunting and, at times, depressing record—a fact that Ministers have conceded. After every allowance is made for special circumstances, every alibi weighed in the balance and every explanation explored, the deplorable fact remains that, in many ways, the agency has been an administrative nightmare. Arguably, it has missed many of its social targets—I say arguably because the figures are obscure.

I must make it clear that the Opposition recognise that the task of the agency, and no doubt of the Department, has been greatly hampered by people who have not co-operated. On occasions, non co-operation has been taken to lengths that I condemn and from which I would distance my party. Having said that, many people have commented on the failure to learn by past mistakes, such as the introduction of the disability living allowance. We are in the sad situation that many people who are in touch with the agency see its administrative record and the policy framework within which it operates as adding insult to perceived injury.

I will give one or two brief examples, as I do not want to delay the House. I referred to the chief child support officer who has a remit under section 13 of the Child Support Act 1991. According to the foreword of his recent report the remit includes the making, review or cancellation of maintenance assessments … by Child Support Officers…within the Child Support Agency". The figures that he produced, which will be familiar to many hon. Members—certainly to the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security—were remarkable. Of the 1,188 maintenance assessments examined and taken for analysis, 157 were found to be correct, 545 to be incorrect and there was insufficient evidence to tell whether the other 486 were correct or incorrect. I rehearse those as an aide-memoire to hon. Members about the scale of the problems that we have been facing. Only 157 assessments out of 1,188 could possibly be said—on the face of the file—to be accurate and as they should have been.

Of course, a series of reports from the Select Committees on Social Security and on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration have commented harshly on what has been happening and it is important to remember that great efforts are being made to improve the position. There have been changes at the top in the Child Support Agency and there is no doubt about that. I talked to the new chief executive, Ann Chant, and I appreciate that the agency is trying to make some sort of order out of what appears to have been a good deal of chaos.

I hope that this is not evidence of individual human frailty on my part, but as far as I am concerned it is still extremely difficult to discover with any accuracy what the position is. I am thinking, for example, of the amount of money that the agency takes in maintenance and in other ways as a result of maintenance assessments, the benefit savings and their definition, the liable relative carry-over and what percentage it is of the total, the amount going to children who live in families and the amount going in benefit savings to the Treasury, the number of parents with care who have been floated off—the term that has become jargon—benefit and the number of good cause cases that have not been accepted when there is some dispute as to whether information is being withheld, either properly or improperly, by parents with care at the start of the process.

In March, I made determined efforts to establish some of those things, on the basis that we were about to have the Second Reading of the Bill. I looked—with advice and some help—at the Child Support Agency's annual report and the various parliamentary questions available to us. It was due only to the fact that the chief executive of the agency readily conceded a meeting that I subsequently got a memorandum that tried to deal with some of those fundamental statistics and I pay tribute to her for that. I think that it was agreed, by implication, that the statistics could not have been collected in any other way because they were not generally available. I have before me the three-page memorandum that I received in March. Even then, it threw up a good number of questions when I tried to move the debate on and satisfy myself that I had good grounds for making various points.

6.30 pm

It is easy to say, "That is a simple, basic list of questions. You should be able to get that information easily out of a parliamentary question." It is not so. May I take a simple example and ask for the comments of the Under-Secretary of State, whom we have in our line of sight? It is not a case of trying to shoot the poor man down. He has enough troubles without our adding to them, but this is a good opportunity to get him to elucidate a recent parliamentary question. I recently asked for the average maintenance assessment, excluding those who were on income support, and the answer was £43.46.

That is an interesting figure because it is the average weekly maintenance payable by absent parents who receive income from employment, but it excludes people who may also be on income support. I think that it includes an average of families with one, two or three children, so it is not per capita but per family unit. I presume that that average figure will fall further as a result of the administrative changes that went through in April. I believe that a drop of £5 to £10 is expected, as there was a parliamentary answer to that effect. Unlike the Secretary of State, I do not immediately assume that it will be a £10 drop. I am prepared to accept that the drop may be of only £5, but it will greatly reduce the figure of £43.46.

This is relevant to the new clause, as I am trying to establish why, exceptionally, there is a case for a review body and an outside assessment. I draw the attention of the House to a parliamentary answer obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) on 18 May. This may be a moment of curiosity on my part. It may not raise a major issue of principle, but I should have expected that the answer to my hon. Friend would have been in the form of a letter from Miss Ann Chant. Although it clearly deals with agency statistics, it has apparently been answered by the Under-Secretary and the Ministry and I am puzzled as to why that has happened. I hasten to say that I do not object. If it is a trend, I am prepared to endorse and welcome it. This will be another area for common ground for an all-party alliance, which is what the Secretary of State is always striving to achieve. Will he say a word or two in explanation?

I hurry over the first table in the parliamentary answer, which deals with Benefit Status of Parent with Care and Absent Parent at 11 March 1995"—[Official Report, 18 May 1995; Vol. 260, c. 331.]— because, with the best will in the world, I cannot understand it. I have asked several people more versed in statistics than me to explain it. I intimated that I was concerned and puzzled about the figures, so perhaps the Under-Secretary has been taking advice and we shall have the benefit of it in a moment.

Will the Under-Secretary look at some of the other figures in the parliamentary answer, which I understand but cannot easily explain? The table at the top of column 332 shows that the average maintenance assessment, which is a full assessment excluding interim maintenance assessments, for absent parents not on income support—what I prefer to call "liable parents not on income support"—is £37.22. That is significantly lower than the £43.46 but the explanation, which I accept, is that the higher figure refers to liable parents who are not in receipt of income support but who have income from employment, whereas the lower figure refers to all absent parents who are not in receipt of income support but who may receive another state benefit or have no income. I see that that might slightly reduce the average figure.

However, as the Minister will see from the maintenance assessments, which fall between £0 and £2.30, that sum is paid by 24.4 per cent. of the total number of people who pay maintenance or are assessed for maintenance purposes. I do not doubt the accuracy of the figure because it is in a parliamentary answer but I should like a comment on it because, as the House will remember, those people are not on income support. Most of them are in employment, so it seems remarkable that 24.4 per cent. of them should pay below the minimum figure expected from someone on income support. I simply do not understand how that figure can be so high. It is not a case of what they pay but what they are being asked to pay. For one in four people who are not on income support, most of whom are in employment, to pay less than £2.30 is astonishing and I do not understand how it happens.

The table also shows the full maintenance assessment for liable parents on income support, which is very clear. My understanding always was—clearly, I have got it wrong and should perhaps appear in sackcloth and ashes—that people on income support paid a minimum of £2.30, which has just been uprated to £2.34. The average maintenance assessment—not what is paid—for people on income support is £0.93, which is an awful lot short of £2.34. We also see that 58.9 per cent. of people on income support who have been assessed have a nil assessment. I do not understand that. I do not necessarily object to it because, if there is a good explanation—

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

The second table to which the hon. Gentleman refers relates to people with second families. Those on income support but with a second family have a nil assessment.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

Is the Minister saying that as many as 60 per cent. of those on income support fall into that category?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

Right. I shall think about that, but it seems to be a remarkable statistic.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

The Under-Secretary may want to comment later. I hope that the House does not think that I am making too much of this matter. I merely use this as an illustration, as it is the most recent information to reach me, because it throws up an enormous number of questions which are not easily answered and which suggest that something is out of sync and out of balance in the results that are being produced.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

May I help the hon. Gentleman on that table? We were asked for a snapshot of current figures, which is what the table represents. Many of the cases that have already been cleared were the simplest to deal with. Where information comes back and someone is on benefit, it is often simple and straightforward to deal with the administration. A number of cases pending are those where there is a dispute about earnings, where the agency is seeking verification of earnings, or where the person is self-employed. If we were to take all the cases currently on the books, whether or not an assessment has been made, we would expect those figures to change. The proportion of those who are on income support is therefore greater in the assessments that have been cleared than would be expected once all the work has been done. That is why there is now an imbalance. If the hon. Gentleman were to ask for the same figures in 12 or 24 months' time, we suspect that the answers and proportions would be different.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

That makes the case for monitoring closely, and in a way that is more constructive than exchanges across the Floor of the House or the somewhat one-sided process of parliamentary questioning.

I have to say to the Under-Secretary of State that it is an eloquent comment on what has been happening that, two and a quarter years into the agency system, he is able to advance, as an explanation for what are obviously very skewed results, the fact that it has been difficult to deal with difficult cases.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

It may be true, but it is an unfortunate comment. It appears to me to make the case that I am trying—perhaps rather laboriously—to establish for a review body of the type suggested in the new clause.

After all, at the moment the number of maintenance assessments that show no employment income is 43.8 per cent.—a very large percentage indeed—and, if 60 per cent. of those parents make a nil contribution, it says something interesting about the way in which the scheme is proceeding. I do not know whether the Minister wants to comment further, but we can, and doubtless will, pursue those matters by letter.

In any event, I contend that the figures show how difficult it has been to establish the administration of the agency on a proper basis. I hope—as I quite often do—that I am wrong, but I suspect that there may be difficult passages ahead of us. I do not want to be ungracious for a moment about change that we demanded, and which is now on the way. It is not what we wanted; it is certainly not all that we wanted. However, we were keen to have a procedure whereby one could apply for a departure from the usual financial formula, and now it is important that that works well, that it responds quickly in cases where it is needed and that it is seen to be injecting a measure of fairness into a system that is perceived as unfair. Monitoring and adjusting will be key, and in that respect I envisage the child support advisory committee having a useful role.

That is also true of clean break settlements, which, as you will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, apply only to agreements made before April 1993, and which are based on what was reasonably directly called "a broad brush approach" in the White Paper. There is also the vexed question of travel costs. Those will throw up many difficulties. I hope that they will throw up, in the longer term, solutions to some of our problems, but in the teething period there will be frustrations and perhaps mysteries about the way in which the system works. Therefore the need for monitoring is repeatedly proved by experience, and will be proved again.

There are unexpected aspects in which policy advice from an outside source that perhaps was seen as not being contaminated by contact with the Opposition Benches might, one hopes, bring about some improvement.

I received a parliamentary answer—perhaps I should have updated it, and I apologise to the House. It is for 1994–95, but it runs from April 1994 to the end of January 1995. It produced what, to me, was another astonishing figure—that special payments for financial redress have been made only 34 times in that period.

I know the experience of Conservative Members because it has been voiced in the past. There is a very thin turn-out today, but in the past Conservative Members have expressed many complaints and anxieties about the number of angry scenes, confrontations, complaints and anxieties and the amount of stress and strain that the system has caused. It is remarkable that the compensation system is so hedged and circumscribed that it produced only 34 payments for financial redress.

Select Committees have made many other criticisms of the way in which matters have developed, as has the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Administration, who, as my colleagues will remember, reached the conclusion that he could not take on any more cases unless they produced some new point of principle because of the flood of complaints that he was receiving. He made it clear, as did the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, that he saw much of the seed of that discontent in mistakes by Ministers. I quote the Committee: We are in no doubt that maladministration in the CSA cannot be divorced from the responsibility of Ministers for the framework within which it operated and that any policy deficiency was cruelly exacerbated by administrative incompetence". That is from paragraphs 27 and 35 of House of Commons paper 199.

I hope that I have established that there is anxiety that the system needs a great deal of monitoring. It should receive that monitoring. Co-ordinated scrutiny is needed—we do not want the "dipstick" approach—and it should be carried out by a group of the type that we recommend, which will involve individuals of experience with a wide background and knowledge of the area.

6.45 pm

I am not trying to land the Secretary of State with professional critics; I seek tough, realistic assessors. I do not seek a hanging party, a lynch party—unless the circumstances justify that. There is every advantage in a committee that can examine things impartially, to lend some perspective to what I think everyone will see from the record has become the rather blinkered approach of those in command politically.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East

In supporting the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) for a child support advisory committee, I wish to concentrate on one aspect of the system that has been created—the formula by which maintenance assessments from absent parents are calculated, and especially the protected income provisions.

I am grateful for work that has been carried out by Christopher Allen of the London Business School, which he has shown me. He has considered the maintenance formula system as part of the taxation system and drawn some conclusions about it, many of which are striking. I wish to draw them to the attention of the House.

The protected income provisions in the formula are intended to ensure that an absent parent is better off working than on income support. The formula assessment compares the maintenance demand with that protected income figure and, if necessary, the maintenance assessment is reduced to allow the absent parent to retain their protected income level.

The protected income provisions were made considerably more generous in February 1994, the last time that the attempt was made to repair that system. Since then, the arrangements have allowed for £30 earned income in excess of income support levels, plus 15 per cent. of a new partner's income. The provisions have undoubtedly had some impact because, as the figures provided in the parliamentary answer to which my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden referred show, about 10 and a half per cent. of full maintenance assessments for non-benefit cases are now assessed at a zero contribution. That is considerably more than was the case when the social security statistics were published, the date to which those apply being June 1994.

Paradoxically, that increased generosity has considerably worsened the poverty trap for those people who earn slightly more than the protected income threshold, because the post-maintenance income of people earning between £30 and £60 above the exempt income level will be reduced to the protected income level. That represents a 100 per cent. marginal tax rate on their income. Remarkably, the figures in the written answer show that about one third—32.8 per cent.—of the non-benefit cases with which the agency is dealing fall in that category.

I can explain how that system works. The research paper 94/20, which the House of Commons Library produced last year before the changes were made last February, states: If paying the proposed maintenance would reduce the absent parent and any new family to a level of income below the protected income, the child maintenance payable is decreased so that the absent parent is left with the protected level of income. Conversely, if the absent parent's income increases because of additional overtime payments or other such factors, the child maintenance payable is increased. The marginal increase in income—all 100 per cent.—is taken away by the formula. That is an extraordinary system, and, taken together with the benefit system, it means that absent parents are no better off, and may be worse off, if they take a better job or work additional overtime.

I wonder how that position has arisen. It was suggested earlier that the Treasury had intervened in some aspects of the system. The Treasury certainly has not intervened in the formula. The arrangements that have been reached appear to be entirely contrary to the Government's normal taxation policies.

A large proportion of maintenance assessments—one third of them—fall within the range. If we take 100 per cent. of the marginal income increases of people on relatively low and modest incomes, the system becomes insupportable. I have no confidence that we will not be here in a year's time trying to do yet another desperate repair job on a system that is breaking down. For that reason I strongly believe that we need the monitoring arrangements described by my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden. We need a committee that can investigate what is going on and that can propose changes to create a sustainable and supportable system. We have not yet achieved such a system.

I shall say a few words about those who fall beyond the £30 to £60 band. The effect of the protected income system are clearly the most aggressive aspects of the maintenance system, but even without those provisions the system is extremely regressive. Up to the payment in full of the maintenance allowance, the marginal rate on take-home income is 50 per cent. If we take into account national insurance contributions and the 25 per cent. income tax level, the overall marginal tax plus maintenance rate over that range is 77 per cent. The absent parent will keep only 23 per cent. of additional earnings. The position might be acceptable if the money represented a transfer of money to improve the children's welfare, but, as we have heard, it does not. That is one specific example, but it is by no means the only one.

The system towards which we are moving still contains severe anomalies and insupportable elements that will require further attention. The changes that are proposed in the Bill are helpful, but as I understand it, they increase the scope of protected and exempt income and push the problems that I have been describing up the income scale. There will still be a large proportion of agency cases who suffer 100 per cent. marginal payment rates in maintenance plus tax. That problem and others like it require the monitoring arrangements proposed by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) introduced the new clause in an entertaining manner and tried to divert the attention of the House away from the excellent press release that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published today. On this occasion, as on all others, I wholly subscribe to the views of my right hon. Friend. The easiest way for the hon. Member for Garscadden to clear up any confusion about what his party intends to do and how it intends to finance it is for him to come clean now about my right hon. Friend's statements and deal with the matter once and for all. I suspect that we will be unable to deal with that matter simply today, as we have been asking for a long time for evidence of what the Labour party intends to do should it come to office, and the answers are always fudged.

I remember the celebrated exchange in Committee when the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) asked the Government to provide more substantial child care support through family credit—a subject to which he might return today. I asked him how much and he gave an extremely evasive answer. I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's efforts to get answers on the subject will have limited success. However, that subject is not the substance of our discussions today and I shall hurry on to deal with the new clause.

The hon. Member for Garscadden also described some of the advice groups that give information to all of us about the effects of the Child Support Agency. He was right to draw a distinction between some of the groups that give us reasonable and straightforward advice and some that appear to have gone slightly too far in some of their activities and the way in which they object to the CSA.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman dissociated himself and his party from some of the more extreme activities that we have seen. I am afraid that those activities still continue. The group, Network Against the Child Support Act, in its current periodical clearly suggests to its members that they should lie to the agency to get information and that they should seek to make life difficult for the officers of the CSA simply in order to disrupt the system. They then wonder why we feel aggrieved at such action and suggest that it does not help anyone. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for dissociating himself from such groups and hope that he continues to do so.

As the hon. Gentleman has explained, the new clause provides for an advisory committee to advise the Secretary of State on the workings of the child support scheme. We value consultation; there was a wide-ranging consultation exercise before regulations were made under the 1991 Act. We have always taken careful note of the advice of the Select Committee on Social Security and the views of other interested parties in developing the improvements to the child support scheme of which the Bill's provisions form a key part.

We have also had a constructive dialogue with many representatives of absent parents, parents with care and those with experience of family law issues. In developing the changes that we announced in January, we consulted eminent family lawyers and we correspond frequently about the child support scheme with many organisations, including the National Council for One Parent Families, Child Poverty Action Group, citizens advice bureaux and the Law Society. Whatever problems we may have had with child support, they have not been for lack of consultation and it is not clear how the new clause can assist. The Government's main concern is not so much that the new clause and its implications will add to consultation, but that it will obscure existing responsibilities—the hon. Gentleman acknowledged at the beginning of his remarks that that was the main flaw in his argument.

In addition to the function of overseeing legislation—analogous to that of the Social Security Advisory Committee—the proposed child support advisory committee would be required to monitor operational aspects of child support. It is on that subject that the committee's proposed annual reports would focus. In that respect, the committee would duplicate the role, not only of the Select Committee on Social Security, but of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the National Audit Office and the chief child support officer.

Both the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the National Audit Office have reported on the operation of the child support scheme. They have drawn attention to problems with those operations and, in response, Ministers have indicated the steps that are being taken to address those problems—in particular, by improved methods within the agency for measuring accuracy, additional checking and enhanced training for staff.

The hon. Gentleman concentrated briefly on the report of the chief child support officer and he was correct to deal with the shortcomings of the agency which the chief child support officer found. However, I remind all hon. Members that, although comments were raised in 86 per cent. of the sample, that does not mean that the assessment was incorrect in every case. We agree that the accuracy rate has been poor and inadequate and we are exerting a great deal of effort to put it right. The agency aims to reduce that comment rate, which was previously 86 per cent of the sample, to 40 per cent. of the sample as soon as possible. That is a particularly demanding target which has been chosen to reflect the importance that the agency attaches to the judgment of its performance by independent bodies.

There is great determination to reach that target in 1995–96 and to deal with the problems that have caused that high figure. Action taken to date includes remedial action on accuracy and quality initiatives. The agency's second-year plan has dealt with many problems. There has been a reorganisation of reviews and appeal work and we have developed staff training further. We have taken serious notice of the reports by the chief child support officer. He is part of the vital monitoring equipment that is built into the work of the Child Support Agency. That is his job, and it is another reason why we do not believe that the superfluous committee that has been mentioned this evening is necessary.

Many of the changes announced in the White Paper entitled "Improving Child Support" are also aimed at improving the operation of the child support scheme. I have no doubt that both the Parliamentary Commissioner and the National Audit Office will continue to provide valuable information about areas where we can improve the scheme and that Ministers will continue to respond positively to that feedback.

Hon. Members will be aware that the post of the chief child support officer was set up under the Child Support Act 1991 to advise child support officers on the performance of their duties. His functions, which he discharges independently of Ministers or the Department of Social Security, include monitoring child support adjudication and reporting annually on performance. His annual reports contain much that is of use in identifying areas where further work is needed and I know that he and agency managers are committed to working together to improve performance.

7 pm

The Department and the agency are involved in an on-going process of evaluating the effectiveness of child support policy and operations. That goes beyond responding to external comment and advice; the agency is seeking the views of key stakeholders by means of regular meetings and it has set challenging charter standards that will be monitored carefully. Officials will continue to monitor the policy, particularly the changes introduced in April and those introduced in the Bill. In addition, the departure system will be piloted before its full introduction in order to identify and solve any unforeseen complications.

There is already considerable overlap between the functions of those who advise about child support and the tasks of a proposed child support advisory committee. In my view, the inevitable overlap would seriously hamper the effectiveness of an advisory committee in the child support field. There is simply no distinct role for a new quango such as the child support advisory committee, either in advising about areas where legislation could be improved or in monitoring the performance of the Child Support Agency.

There was an exchange across the Floor of the House in relation to a question raised by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms). He referred to a table that he had particular difficulty following. It would be a cheap shot if I were to say that I cannot see where his difficulty lies. I will not say that, because the table requires quite careful interpretation. Once the hon. Gentleman spots the key, he will find it easy to understand; but one needs to spot the key first. I shall try to assist the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who may wish to examine the table in more detail.

The table seeks to illustrate the total number of parents with care—488,000—and to show how many of them are in receipt of benefit. That figure comprises the 391,000 parents with care who are on income support, 63,600 on family credit and 33,400 who receive no benefit. The table then relates each of those figures to the absent parents and their benefit status. For example, of the 391,000 parents with care who are on income support, 77,800 absent parents receive income support, 18,200 are on invalidity benefit, 138,900 are not on benefit and for 156,100 the benefit status is unknown. That is how the table works: it seeks to relate parents with care to the benefit status of absent parents. The benefit status of absent parents is the column on the right and the parent-with-care column is on the left. I must admit that I can see where the hon. Gentleman's confusion lies at first glance. However, I hope that I have made the situation a little clearer. If he wishes to take up the matter with me later, I shall explain it further.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East raised some questions in relation to protected income and the like. He did not give me previous notice of the figures, which I shall examine. I make it clear that protected income is designed to ensure that there is adequate support for the absent parent and his family. That is not the element that ensures that he is better off in work; the element that ensures that the absent parent is better off in work is the amount over and above that element which is built into the formula to make sure that the parent is not simply existing on benefit. The marginal deduction rate is not as high as 100 per cent. when one adds in that figure—it is something like 85 per cent. That is a high figure, but it is not the 100 per cent. figure that the hon. Gentleman cited. I will examine the figures that he has cited tonight and give him a full answer.

The fact that those questions can be asked and answered by the agency and by Department of Social Security Ministers together with the other equipment that is already built into the system to monitor and control the operations of the Child Support Agency demonstrate that there are enough mechanisms to deal with any queries. The House seeks to ensure that the system works. After two and a half years of live running, we know much more than we knew at the start of the process. Hon. Members have said many times that those who have established agencies similar to ours in other countries have faced similar difficulties. One cannot know a great deal until one gets started.

We are now determined to make sure that the system works better and more efficiently in order to deal with the problems that our constituents raise. I take each problem extremely seriously and the monitoring process to which hon. Members contribute is extremely important to the future of the agency. I ask hon. Members to recognise the monitoring equipment that is already in place and to accept my assurances that an extra committee is not necessary. I ask the House to reject new clause 4.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

I am grateful to the Minister for his courtesy in trying to deal with the various points that I raised. Even when offered the key, I still find the table somewhat complex. The Minister will be glad to know that he has helped me; he will be able to enter the field of education after the next election if he does not wish to return to his solicitor's office—we dream dreams. I now understand that parents with care are in the first column of the table and that that column is then broken down across the other four columns. I am glad that I now understand the table.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

I am sure that there is no charge. I pay taxes which help to pay the wages of the civil servants who instruct the Minister. I do not need to feel at all guilty. I will not continue this rather informal conversation as I am sure that it would test your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am still unclear as to where in the table we find those parents with care who work. The Minister says sotto voce that there are "very few". The benefit status of 203,000 absent parents is not known. Does that figure include parents who work? Presumably, quite a number of absent parents are in employment. That seems to be of interest.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

The whole point of the statistics relating to the parents with care is to emphasise that more than 90 per cent. of parents with care who are in the system are in receipt of benefit. That is a measure of the extent of the burden being carried by the community at large, and of why a contribution from absent parents to improve the position of those parents with care is so desperately needed. It was one of the major reasons why the agency was set up in the first place.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden

I am tempted to say that that sounds like a good argument for a disregard, but that would relate to the previous amendment and I must not stray into that.

I assume that there must be a number of absent parents in work. Presumably, they appear in the "benefit status not known" column, which seems a little odd as the figure is so high.

The mysteries can be pursued at another level and on another basis. I remain unconvinced by the Minister's arguments. I recognise, however, that quangos are not popular and that Governments introduce quangos, advisory bodies, non-departmental public bodies and so on only when there is a clear case and a clear need for them. I began by saying that I thought that it was a special case and the somewhat arcane discussion about parliamentary answers was an attempt to establish that. It could probably be more effectively established by the cries of pain from the many people who feel ill-used by the system. Some of them may have a special point of view, but there is no doubt that there is still a perception of injustice about, and that alone would have merited at least consideration of the committee proposed in the new clause.

The Minister, however, possibly because he wishes to be at one with his senior colleague, has hardened his heart. I was touched by his assurance that he supported everything that the Secretary of State did. I believe that politicians ought to have two personae. Inevitably, one has to support loyalties and collective decisions, but one should not commit oneself heart and soul laminated to one's senior colleague, however admirable one may consider him to be. I shall not inquire into quite how admirable the Minister thinks the Secretary of State is, but it seemed that a moral absolute was being proclaimed that will do the Minister's reputation no good.

The Under-Secretary of State has always been seen as a little wet and well intentioned. Although it may be an embarrassment within the Department, it stands him in good stead, at least with public opinion, and he should not sacrifice it too easily.

In any event, I have listened to the arguments and I do not wish to divide the House. We can return to the matter on another occasion, and no doubt we shall do so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) said, I do not believe for a moment that this is the last time that we shall debate the Child Support Act. I am certain that we shall return to it many more times and I look forward to that pleasure. No doubt the Minister, having noted we are not taking the matter to a vote will note that amendment No. 20 on the Secretary of State's list had better be deleted.

Question put and negatived.