Child Support (Appeal)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 23 January 1996.

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Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Liberal Democrat Chief Whip 3:31, 23 January 1996

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable liabilities of absent parents assessed by the Child Support Agency to be reduced on appeal where those assessments can be shown to cause exceptional hardship; and for connected purposes. My Bill seeks to introduce a much more effective and far-reaching system of review of the assessments that are raised by the CSA against absent parents for the maintenance of children from previous relationships. I am pleased to see that the Minister responsible has kindly waited to listen to the debate.

I should make it clear at the outset that nothing in the proposal seeks to disturb the concept that parents have—rightly—a moral and legal duty to make reasonable provision for their offspring. Maintenance payments have always been—and should always be—enforced against a parent who leaves the matrimonial home and can afford to pay, but, despite that, refuses or delays to pay a realistic contribution towards the upkeep of the children. It is important that every effort should be made to encourage prospective parents, particularly prospective fathers, to understand that, in having children, they are taking on a responsibility that lasts for life.

I should also make it clear that nothing in the Bill would detract from my support for the position taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne), who, as social security spokesman for my party, has led a crusade against that unhappy measure, the Child Support Act 1991, having regard, as she has rightly said, to the perverse and pernicious effect of the practice, implementation and enforcement of the Act. I believe that she is absolutely right to seek its abolition.

Sadly, however, I am realistic enough to expect that there is next to no chance of that happening under this Government. If this Parliament runs for another 15 or 16 months, as it may, that is too long to wait for the necessary change. Therefore, this amending Bill seeks to mitigate further the worst effects of the legislation in the short term, pending a new legislative framework which I hope will be introduced in the next Parliament.

I suspect that my case work is far from unique, but I despair every time a constituent consults me about the Child Support Agency. Since I was elected in 1983, I have tried to maintain an active interest in social security and related matters. I accept that it is an area that often involves difficult decisions and the implementation of a complex and technical system that often leaves constituents dissatisfied, but I can usually obtain some measure of reconsideration, reconciliation or redress from the rest of the social security system. However, in my experience, there is no such redress under the Child Support Act system.

In particular, there is no redress for parents separated from their children who are willing to pay but simply cannot afford the level of liability assessed. It is that particular group of people about whom I am particularly perturbed and whose situation the Bill specifically addresses.

I took part in the legislative proposals which brought the 1991 Act into being. I do not believe that it was Parliament's intention to devise a set of circumstances in which there is no possibility of any real discretion being applied to the facts and circumstances of individuals who are willing to pay but who are being forced into what is effectively perpetual penury without any effective right of appeal on the level of maintenance levied by the agency.

That contrasts vividly with my experience in a previous incarnation in the criminal courts in Scotland, where even people found guilty of criminal offences had the consideration of the sheriff or the judge in the High Court of Justiciary, who, by law, has a duty to consider the facts and circumstances of each individual case before a fine is levied. If that is good enough for criminals, it is good enough for the people being dealt with by the CSA.

I have literally dozens—I have counted—of constituents who are willing to pay but who are caught in exactly the situation that I have described. The latest example that I came across was in Hawick last Friday. The men there are not hothouse flowers—they are usually tough independent characters—but one man was in tears in front of me because his wages had just been arrested. It was obvious from an earlier interview that he was completely riddled with guilt because he could not pay more for his child despite wanting to, but now he had the additional ignominy—in a small community such news gets round town, into the pubs and everywhere—of being known to his mates as someone who could not pay what was required of him by the CSA. That wage arrestment added to his shame.

That man has given up work because he is not much worse off. Of course, arrears accrue in perpetuity, but they are already at a level that he cannot possibly afford, so it is no skin off his nose. What sort of outcome is that? Who wins in such a situation? Certainly he does not win, and certainly the child does not win because this interferes with the relationship between father and child. Certainly the state does not win, because he will end up initially on unemployment benefit and probably on long-term unemployment benefit through the income support system. That is a typically unhappy outcome of a not unusual set of circumstances.

The original Act has existed for long enough for us to judge whether it is doing the job that it was designed to do. Alas, I have concluded that the difficulties that it has produced, and continues to produce, are chronic, complex, endemic and impossible to handle without a radical overhaul.

I accept that the Government have proposed amendments, but they fall considerably short of what is needed to deal with cases such as the constituency case that I described. The so-called departure system that is to be introduced shortly is by no means a deliberative review of individual circumstances. Of course it helps; it introduces the idea that hardship cases can be examined. It does not go nearly far enough, however, and for that reason we voted against the relevant legislation last year—rightly, in my view.

We still maintain that the amendments constitute an inadequate response to problems which we expect to continue after the introduction of the new system in May, affecting in particular absent parents who are still willing to pay some amount of maintenance.

Even more pressure will be put on second families. There is evidence that second families are being badly disrupted by the continuing pressure that they already experience. Who does that help? How does it help the children? Where, in such circumstances, are the paramount interests of the child? Where is the interest of the absent parent, and where is the interest of the state? In the long run, we must pick up the cost in oneway or another.

For that and other reasons, I consider the current legislation—including the amendments that we anticipate—counter-productive. I believe that this flawed legislation should be scrapped altogether, but if we cannot achieve that until the next Parliament my amending Bill will, I trust, go some small way towards further mitigating its worst effects.

If Conservative Members, and the Government in particular, support the Bill and it becomes law, they will be able to offer constituents who come to their surgeries some hope of an effective opportunity to argue their cases before an independent tribunal that would have power to vary the liabilities assessed by the CSA. If the Government do not support the Bill, it will not succeed; but at least I shall be able to tell my constituents in Hawick that I tried.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Alan Beith, Mrs. Ray Michie, Mr. Paul Tyler, Mrs. Diana Maddock, Mr. Menzies Campbell, Mr. Chris Davies, Mr. David Rendel, Mr. Don Foster and Mr. Simon Hughes.