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

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.