Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 4th July 2007.

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Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Secretary of State (Cabinet Office) and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 3:09 pm, 4th July 2007

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but my wife is not yet on her way to hospital. He can rest assured that if she were I should certainly not be here—important though the debate is.

As the Secretary of State said earlier, the interests of children must be at the forefront of our minds. Whatever disadvantages they may face because of their circumstances, it is important that financial disadvantage is not added to the list. That is the context for our debate on the Bill.

The Liberal Democrats have some deep concerns about the Bill, but we welcome some of its core principles—certainly, the idea of encouraging more private arrangements in all classes of case where that is appropriate and where it can be ensured that the arrangements can be carried out consistently, especially where benefit payments are involved. The Bill frees people to make private arrangements and that is welcome. The increased focus on tackling child poverty is an important aspect—the measures are no longer simply about reducing public expenditure on claims for child maintenance.

The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have signed up to the Government's aspiration to abolish child poverty by 2020 and it is good that the presentation of the Bill took that aim into account. The provisions on greater effectiveness in the collection of maintenance and the enforcement of maintenance orders are important, but that approach should also apply to the Government's attitude to the £3.5 billion of outstanding arrears. That point has not yet been made today, so I hope that when the Minister winds up he will make clear the Government's plans for recovering that huge amount of historical debt. The Government's figures suggest that they regard £1.9 billion as possibly uncollectable, which is a worrying statistic. We have not yet heard from Ministers what they anticipate the CMEC's attitude will be to that debt.

The debate is not just about principles; it is, importantly, about practice. As we have seen, since the CSA was established the devil is in the detail, in particular the administration. Perhaps unlike the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, I approach the Bill with a certain pessimism, which is shared by at least some outside organisations. The citizens advice bureau briefing for the debate said that

"there must be major doubts about whether the Bill's proposals will in practice resolve the seemingly intransigent problems afflicting child support, which mean that only one in three children who should be benefiting from some child support are actually receiving anything".

The CAB also pointed out that the pace of reform was "disappointingly slow". As has been said, we need to consider the proposed reforms against the background of administrative failure and the huge backlog of uncleared cases in two systems—shortly to become three. The backlog is getting longer and the average time for an assessment is now 500 days.