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

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 5:30 pm, 22nd May 1995

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—