Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

deferred division – in the House of Commons at 3:38 pm on 4th July 2007.

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Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:52 pm, 4th July 2007

I begin, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Plaskitt, re-enters the Chamber, by welcoming him to his old job this afternoon. He has been involved with the preliminary reforms of the CSA, and I am pleased that he will be able to carry forward further reform. I also want to join in the consensus that there has been across the House in agreeing that that reform was absolutely necessary, and that we could not simply proceed with the situation that we were in, with a failing agency that was not doing the job that it needed to do for a variety of families and children in our society.

I welcome the Bill's general thrust towards encouraging more voluntary maintenance agreements. Other hon. Members have spoken on this, and it is important to say that this is the way in which we should wish to encourage parents to resolve child maintenance issues. If the state does not have to be involved, it should not be.

It is important also that we encourage those voluntary maintenance agreements in whatever context we can. It is worth remembering that a number of parents who are separating will be in the process of forming their arrangements at or near courts. Not every separating couple find themselves at court, but many do, so it is sensible to encourage parents who are at court in any event, resolving a number of other aspects in their lives and for the future of their children, if possible to resolve also the financial aspects of child maintenance while they are in a frame of mind to discuss the future, and if possible, being represented. That is not to say that I advocate going back to the old days where all these matters were resolved by the courts; I do not advocate that, but it would be helpful for those parents already involved with the courts system to be encouraged to engage with a voluntary procedure while they are in that context.

As Mr. Field said, the reality is, whether we like it or not, that in the minds of many parents the issues of access and contact are inextricably bound up with those of financial support. Although it would be wrong for anyone to advocate that we should have a system in which it appeared that access or contact was being bought by financial support, it is also important to recognise that the two issues are connected in the minds of many parents. It is crucial to have a system in which we avoid a situation whereby financial support and contact are put in place in such a way that one can be used in a weapon in the battle over the other. I hope that if we move towards voluntary maintenance agreements, with flexibility in terms of how they can be implemented, we can avoid that situation in as many cases as possible.

We in this House may say that voluntary maintenance agreements are the way forward and tell parents to get on and make them, but even with a broad measure of cross-party support, it is not as simple as that. We must recognise that in many cases there is a significant imbalance between the two parents in terms of how able they feel to negotiate, to argue their case, and to ensure that at the end of a voluntary negotiation process a fair settlement is reached which benefits the children. I entirely agree that that is our foremost priority. However, because of that potential imbalance in power, it does not necessarily follow that without some assistance parents will end up in a situation whereby the children benefit from such an agreement.

We have heard about the need for advice and support, which is vital. With that advice and support, we can have confidence, in the vast majority of cases, that a voluntary maintenance agreement is the way forward. I very much support the thrust of the Bill in that sense. However, that advice and support should almost certainly not come, at least directly, from the new agency, CMEC. We must have a system in which even if, as the Bill suggests, CMEC will have the responsibility of commissioning advice and support, there is some distance between it and those delivering advice and support to families. Mediation is always a better way of resolving such situations than resorting to the state through the CSA, CMEC or any other agency, or through the courts. If it can be done by voluntary agreement, it should be. It is vital that parents who are considering an agreement are not deterred from engaging in that process because they think—they may well be wrong—that if they were to go to CMEC, engage in an open discussion of their situation, and volunteer information as to their circumstances, CMEC would use that information against one party or another, in a more enforcement-related process, if the agreement broke down at a later date.

That is not the same as saying that CMEC should not be there in cases where voluntary maintenance agreements broke down. However, it is vital that advice and support come not directly from CMEC but from other agencies that are more trusted in environments where they are relied upon to give impartial advice. That requires far greater involvement of the voluntary sector and many more organisations being involved in the process. Of course, they will require adequate financial support to do that job; I recognise that there will be financial implications. However, if we are to avoid the longer-term expenditure involved in agreements breaking down and CMEC becoming involved in a way that we would not wish it to, it is worth that initial expenditure.

Let me return to the point about encouraging voluntary agreements and what CMEC can do in that regard. It is important that it should be able to support those arrangements by standing behind them. Several hon. Members—initially my hon. Friend John Penrose—made the point that there is a big difference between CMEC being enabled to enforce a voluntary agreement and enabled to take an application from square one from a family whose voluntary maintenance agreement has broken down.

There is little incentive to engage in the voluntary maintenance agreement process for someone who thinks that all the hard work will come to nothing if the agreement breaks down. We should have a system that allows CMEC to take on part of the process whereby the agreement was reached, and provides for enforcement at least partly on that basis. Although the agreement would not remain voluntary, such a system would not only reduce CMEC's work load, and therefore its expense—an eminently desirable aim—but make families more likely to engage in the voluntary agreement process.

Voluntary agreements are not only good for the families, although that is the most important consideration, but if more separating couples reach a such an agreement, it will leave CMEC much freer to spend more time on the difficult, complex and irreconcilable cases, which require a great deal of time and effort to resolve the situation or, if necessary, to pursue errant partners who are not prepared to fulfil their financial responsibilities.

When we consider the rest of the Bill and all the powers that CMEC can exercise, it is important to acknowledge that, as I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend Chris Grayling, providing the powers is only half the story. The other half is ensuring that the commission can exercise them. It needs the time, personnel and resources to exercise them, or having them in the Bill will do no family any good.

I should be grateful for clarification of a specific point, which the Secretary of State may have covered but about which I was not clear. The Bill grants four specific powers to CMEC when a partner does not provide financial assistance and the commission cannot persuade that person to do so. At the top of the scale is imprisonment, followed by a curfew, deprivation of a driving licence and deprivation of a passport. The Bill appears to say that CMEC can make the order directly for deprivation of a passport. In the case of the other three, CMEC must go to court to obtain an order. It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary explained the logic behind that discrepancy.

As I said, I may have heard the Secretary of State confirm that the court should be the deciding agency for all four powers. However, if that is not the case, I should be grateful for an explanation. It gives me some cause for concern, because all four appear to be fairly significant punitive powers for the court and, in one case, the commission. I believe that they should all be exercised through a court-related process rather than directly on the commission's application and decision.

It is entirely sensible that the new commission should have the power, when appropriate, to examine the financial circumstances of cases that have been outstanding for some time and decide that it would make sense to accept a lesser figure than the total outstanding arrears. However, I would like reassurance that, if the commission is prepared to make that sort of decision, it will not do so without involving the parent with care. It would be wrong of the commission to appear to make decisions for administrative convenience without the agreement of the parent with care, who will suffer the financial burden of the full amount not being collected. Although I acknowledge the good sense of having such a power available, I would be grateful for reassurance that, when it is used, the parent with care will be fully involved and invited to give consent to the action before it is taken.

For all of us who have experienced many constituency cases in which the CSA has not done the job that we would wish it to do—and that its staff wish that they could have done—the reason is often that, despite detailed, accurate and extensive information from the parent with care about the non-resident parent who is absent and has either disappeared off the face of the earth or been found, the latter's income is not accurately reassessed to ensure that the appropriate amounts are being paid.

If we are all to assure our constituents that CMEC will do a better job than the CSA, we need not only to demonstrate to them that the Bill provides the new commission with more powers to do the things that they want it to, but to ensure that when they call CMEC—hopefully, they will be able to get through on the phone—to communicate information, which is often verified independently rather than simply on their say-so, action will be taken in response to it. The powers in the Bill must be used when constituents have provided the requisite information.

In common with other hon. Members, I give the Bill a qualified welcome. Some matters within it need clarification. It is regrettable when, as so often, a great deal of the important nuts and bolts of legislation are dealt with through regulation after the fact. It would be helpful if we heard further detail from the Minister in Committee about how the regulations can be expected to operate. Be that as it may, and even if we can resolve all the issues relating to the wording and associated regulations, we will still want some reassurance that the mechanisms and set-up at CMEC will allow it to be rather more effective than its predecessor.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health) 4:07 pm, 4th July 2007

May I begin by welcoming the Front-Bench speakers to their respective posts? I have to say that because, as my hon. Friend Mr. Weir reminded me, we are old lags in this matter, having laboured in pensions and benefits since we were elected in 2001. We have the scars on our backs to prove it.

I welcome the Government's intention to put the Child Support Agency out of its misery—or possibly reform it yet again. That has been long expected and long hoped for. As many others have observed, the agency that was set up long ago in the 1990s had the fundamental flaw of appearing to be a benefit-recovery agency rather than a means of ensuring that parents with care had adequate incomes or, of equal importance, that non-resident parents made a proper contribution. It is right that the responsibility is shouldered by the people who should shoulder it. Unfortunately, there is still a pressing need to improve the incomes of parents with care, particularly single parents.

Child poverty has come down, which is greatly to be welcomed. The latest figures for Wales, relating to 2004-05, show that progress has been stalled—momentarily, one hopes. According to Save the Children, about 28 per cent. of children in Wales—180,000 children—are still living in poverty. Many of those children live in single parent households or those where there has been a divorce. If we want to achieve or even better the Government's target of halving child poverty by 2010 or of eradicating it by 2020, we need to take great strides. I hope that the Bill will go some way in that direction. In that respect, I certainly wish it well.

Every hon. Member will have their own tales of woe arising from the current arrangements. Many of mine are due to the nature of the local economy. As has already been pointed out, problems often arise when people are self-employed. The private economy of my constituency is overwhelmingly made up of self-employed sole traders or partnerships where the financial arrangements are not always very clear. To be frank, they are easily hidden.

Some cases are very straightforward—I shall not go into the detail of all my constituency cases—and some inexplicable in small communities. In one recent case, a mother asked me how it was that the father—he is a builder—was able to build a new house with his new partner and drive around in a new 4x4, while paying nothing off his arrears. Without the proper information, the CSA was apparently powerless to help. In another case, a father wants to migrate to the new mark 2 system, but the CSA says that he cannot. He fears that he might have to default, although in the past he has always fully co-operated with the CSA.

One danger that must be guarded against is the new agency simply reaching for the low-hanging fruit. In the past, there has been a danger that the obvious cases—the people who co-operate and who are prepared to provide financial information—are addressed, while the classic example of the man who has run away to work on the rigs is never pursued, because it is a good deal easier to tick the box and meet the target by reaching for the low-hanging fruit instead.

Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Angus and I were quietly discussing whether all the old cases would eventually migrate to the new system, or whether we would have three systems running at the same time. The latter could be a recipe not only for great difficulty but for strong feelings among those who felt disadvantaged by not being able to move to the new system.

We have all seen extremely complicated cases, and I am slightly reluctant to go into this one, but I want to give the House an idea of the measure of complexity that can be involved. A disabled father, a constituent of mine, is unable to take his disabled son overnight because of the son's disruptive behaviour. The parents have therefore agreed that that should not happen, but the mother is on benefit, so the CSA has said that the father has to make payments. They have no choice; that is the administrative law. The father claims that he cannot afford to pay, because of a loss of income arising from his disability, and he says that he will have to give up his work. There is an element of tragedy in this case, because the parents are co-operating to the best of their ability, but this man, who has a disability but is managing to struggle on, will have to give up work.

I do not want to go into too many cases, but another pertinent one involves the growing trend towards 50:50 shared care. How will the agency deal with such situations? Some parents will be able to organise such arrangements in an amicable way, and that is all well and good. However, there have also been a great many disputes, and they are often expressed in terms of money. We must be careful when addressing the point made by Mr. Field, when he appeared to suggest that access might be linked to payments. That would be a dangerous route to travel, and we must think carefully before we head in that direction.

I have referred to some of the problems relating to the CSA, but I do not blame the staff in any way. They have always been courteous and done their best, as far as I am concerned. I want to pay tribute to them and, in particular, to the Welsh language unit, which is based in Birkenhead. On a lighter note, I suggest that hon. Members take on Welsh-speaking case workers, because it is very easy to get through to the Welsh language unit, which provides a Rolls-Royce service. I commend that course of action to the House. On a serious note, the position of the staff in the new agency must be protected and safeguarded, because I know that the CSA has had some concerns in that regard.

Members of the Scottish National party and I welcome the principles of the Bill, including the new responsibilities for both parents—I emphasise both. I have always been uneasy with the present arrangement in which the father's responsibility is almost always expressed in monetary terms, as though all that the father needed to do was pay the money. That has not led to good parenting in many cases, and we need to move towards encouraging good parenting by the system and by the state.

If Mr. Allen were here now, I am sure that he would be on his feet extolling the virtues of working with parents to improve the quality of their parenting. Unfortunately, I fear that because of the way in which the system has worked we have produced a generation of children who have seen parental relationships and responsibilities reduced to vicious squabbles over money, and who might now believe that that is all it was about. I fear that some of that process of degeneration has been fuelled by the present system, and I certainly hope that the new arrangements will be part of the solution.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Australian CSA practice of helping long-distance parenting, whereby the non-resident parent can maintain their tremendously important bond with their child while paying maintenance? Does he think that it might be useful for CMEC to go down that route?

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, and I certainly hope that CMEC will provide an active and creative advice service, rather than one that is simply concerned with the nuts and bolts of money. Many parents live at opposite ends of the country, but there are many ways in which that can be addressed. For example, long-distance computer communication via e-mail should be considered as a means of ensuring that the relationship between the parent who does not have care and the child is maintained.

Like other Members who have spoken, I am very much in favour of parents reaching voluntary agreements without going through CMEC. Citizens advice bureaux, Cymorth I Fenywod—Women's Aid in Wales—and End Child Poverty Network Cymru point out that we must take seriously the danger of non-resident fathers in particular taking the opportunity to pressure their former partners not to resort to advice and guidance from the new agency and to steer clear of CMEC. Some women may have been in abusive relationships and still be under physical and emotional pressure from their former partners. We must guard against that possible unintended consequence.

I want advice and guidance to be available as locally as possible. Parents going through a divorce might not be in a position to travel tens or even hundreds of miles to seek advice from the agency. I represent a rural area and I am unconvinced that the matter is being taken seriously enough. Government offices have been closed in my area, and services have been moved 70 or 80 miles to towns such as Wrexham. A long-distance computer camera system is being installed in the west of my constituency to deal with the new passport system. I do not want to pursue that point, but I hope that the advice service will be provided as locally as possible.

I am also concerned that the intention to use gross earnings for one year might not enable CMEC to take into account variations in earnings throughout the year, which can have disastrous effects on parents' incomes. Many of my constituents work in the holiday industry and make little money in the winter and quite a lot in the summer. In the past, that affected the dates when people applied for disability living allowance or attendance allowance. Ice-cream salesmen would apply for attendance allowance in February, when their incomes were low. There are also huge variations in the incomes of others who are self-employed.

Let me briefly return to my concern about split care—the 50:50 situation that I alluded to earlier—which can complicate otherwise straightforward arrangements. I came across one case in which people literally counted the days: they worked out how many nights the child had stayed for, and when the total came to half of 365—my arithmetic does not extend that far—the parent with care changed. I do not want us to go down that route, where parents look not at the quality of care but whether distortions might cost them hundreds or thousands of pounds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Angus is anxious that I raise a point about fee charging. The Law Society in Scotland has suggested that the ability to charge fees might be postponed until the standard of service reaches a certain level. It is saying that, if we take the view that the CSA's service has not been acceptable, let us wait and see how the new body performs before we start charging for a service that might not be fully up to standard.

The Bill is not a perfect solution by any means—there will never be a perfect solution in cases where parents are splitting up; there will always be problems—and I hope that it will be improved in Committee. Perhaps the arrangements already available in Scotland, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, can be built on. Of course, our overriding aim must be to make sure that this time the money goes to the children.

I want to refer briefly to the mesothelioma proposals. I have some experience in this regard. Some Members might recall that the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 was introduced because of the difficulties experienced by some of my constituents and others in the north Wales slate industry, and in the jute industry in Dundee. The previous employers had gone bankrupt or out of business, and there was literally nobody to sue. People could not sue for the compensation that they were due, and the then Government eventually stepped in and introduced the 1979 Act. I am therefore very pleased that this Government are addressing the mesothelioma issue through this Bill.

Many of the slate workers in my constituency who were exposed to the danger of slate dust went to work in the very large Ferodo factory that opened outside Caernarvon. It was part of the Turner and Newall group, and it made brake linings out of asbestos. So some of the workers who had been exposed to slate dust went to work in a factory where asbestos was being used. I am very pleased that particular arrangements have been made in respect of Turner and Newall workers—or Federal-Mogul workers, as they now are. If Tom Levitt were here, he would doubtless want to contribute, and I pay generous tribute to his efforts on behalf of workers in his constituency and in mine. The Bill's proposals on mesothelioma are therefore very welcome.

To end on a chilling note, mesothelioma is a dreadful disease. It is very quick—people live for months only. Before I was elected, I went to a coroner's court with a widow for the results of a post mortem on her husband, which eventually proved that he did have slate dust. She eventually got compensation—but that, of course, was after he had died. I welcome the possibility that, under the new mesothelioma proposals, such people will very quickly get the compensation that they deserve.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, Scotland, Shadow Minister, International Development 4:23 pm, 4th July 2007

This is a very serious debate. Many people have waited far too long to discover what is to replace the Child Support Agency. We have heard today about individual and more general cases involving the CSA from every Member who has spoken today—from Members in all parts of the House. We all agree that the reduction of child poverty is a key issue, but even in relatively affluent constituencies such as mine, where child poverty certainly exists in pockets, we need to provide a fair deal for those whose ex-partners have decided not to deliver on their responsibility to look after their children. Often, it is the wife who is the carer, and we must ensure that such people get a fair deal in bringing up their children.

Tackling evasive non-resident parents, particularly self-employed non-resident parents, in respect of whom there are specific problems, is also a key aspect of the Bill. The resident parent—often, it is the mother—may have worked in their ex-partner's business, particularly if it is a small business, and knows exactly what the income of her ex-partner is. When that ex-partner says that he now lives on £100 a week, receiving a very low assessment from the CSA, the resident parent will frequently say that he has bought a new car, built a new house or has a new partner, and is living fairly high on the hog. In many cases, the problem is not that the regulations are not in place, but that no action has been taking using the existing powers.

Voluntary arrangements are to be encouraged, and communication with other Government Departments is vital. I dealt with a case of a father who was telling the CSA that he had a very low income and could not possibly pay a reasonable amount to look after his children, while he was telling the Home Office how well-off he was because he wanted to sponsor a potential new wife who was coming into the country.

I agree with my hon. Friend Danny Alexander, who asked, "Why not use Revenue and Customs to collect the money through the taxation system?" HMRC is ruthless in the way in which it collects income tax, and it is collecting the money, not distributing it, that is usually the problem. If that could be covered using an existing department, it would be one way forward.

It is easy to forget that most parents are interested in the welfare of their children, whether or not their relationship survives—but sadly there are some who are not. People must be allowed to put a voluntary agreement in place if they can. Before I was a Member, there was a case in my constituency where a young father of two had come to a voluntary agreement with his ex-partner. He was being hounded by the CSA, and in the end, the CSA letters were found along with his documents after he had committed suicide. It is not just a question of sorting out the financial needs of families. These are often families whose entire lives are falling apart; the marriage has fallen apart, and there are financial problems and concerns about the welfare of the children.

If the new Secretary of State can deliver a solution to the victims of the CSA, he will find agreement on both sides of the House. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new position, as well as Opposition spokesmen including my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.

I intervened on Mr. Clapham to point out that the CSA spends approximately £1 for every £1.85 it collects. If ever we needed evidence of why it is time for a change, that is it. That is one of the worst ratios of any country in the world. The CSA long ago abandoned the new scheme's original targets of clearing applications within six weeks. The average clearance time now for new cases is close to six months.

The bottom line for any system of child support is whether the money is getting to the children. In this respect the current system has an unenviable record. In 1990, under the old court system, the typical maintenance award was in the region of £20. Fifteen years later, it is £21 per week, despite a considerable rise in the costs of bringing up children.

One issue that I shall touch on is the use of the IT system within the CSA. Some time ago, it came to my attention that the existing IT system—much maligned, with IT operators accepting the blame for being unable to transfer enough cases to the new system—was being blamed as the bottleneck holding up cases. But I was informed that the IT system was not the cause of the problem, but that those dealing with it were prepared to accept the blame because they had a number of other IT contracts with the Government.

One task for the new Secretary of State is to find out whether the IT system is really a problem, or whether EDS is well able to deliver corrections to the IT system but cannot because it has been told that the work that a smoothly running IT system would produce would require more staff. We have heard about staff cuts in the CSA. I have visited hard-working CSA staff in their offices and seen them do their best, often while being the victims of verbal abuse on the telephone. I am not blaming the staff, and I hope that in the new system, the staff get the back-up and the IT system that they deserve, and that the mothers get the money they deserve to spend on the children, whose welfare is all-important.

There has been much talk of change and a new approach to politics this week. However, I doubt that many hon. Members will disagree with me when I say that if ever there was a policy area in which change is most urgently needed, it is the system of child support. Ten years of this Government have been accompanied by 10 years of child support chaos. We have said goodbye to a Prime Minister, but the problem of the CSA and its replacement will prove more enduring, unless the new Government take the bold steps necessary.

In my six years in this place, I have taken part in half a dozen debates on the CSA and I have needed to trigger such debates in Westminster Hall on more than one occasion. When I looked back through Hansard I was disappointed to see that I had to make the same arguments and raise the same concerns year after year. I would like to believe that that says less about those debates and more about the lack of action by the Government. It is a scandal that some of my constituents have had to wait for so long for the Government to take meaningful action in that area. I am also disconsolate at the thought that even if the new system that the Bill will introduce works as the Secretary of State claims it will, it will not be up and running until 2010.

I was not in this place in 1991, but I know that there was cross-party support for the Child Support Act 1991. I would love to say that today's Bill will be given the same warm welcome across the Chamber, but I for one have several real concerns about the proposals. Other hon. Members have outlined the scale of the failure in the CSA, but it is difficult to overstate how serious the challenge is for any new system. Some 38,000 Scots are waiting for payments and some £3.5 billion in maintenance remains uncollected, with £2 billion written off as uncollectable. That is not the Government's debt to write off. Parents are due that money, and should be able to take action to recover what they can through the courts if it is written off by the Government. Less than half of the non-resident parents who made a payment in the last quarter are paying the full amount they owe and, in spite of the ongoing problems at the CSA, staff numbers have been cut.

Until recently, Ministers were still talking about dealing with the problems in the agency and saying that they could get it "on a stable footing". I am pleased that the Government have recognised that there is no use in steadying a sinking ship. While I welcome the belated decision to scrap the old agency, we must ensure that the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is not merely a rehash of the CSA. We need real root-and-branch reform at every level, and I would contend that the jury is still out on whether that is what the Bill will provide. I echo the concerns of the National Association for Child Support Action, which rightly pointed out that if CMEC is to manage existing cases, and operate with existing CSA staff and IT systems, it is difficult to understand how it can be considered a "radical" departure from the old system.

Perhaps the biggest immediate hurdle that the CSA has to overcome is the perception that it is a toothless and failing agency that is not taken seriously by parents—the very parents who often owe substantial arrears towards the welfare of their children. The recent report by the Work and Pensions Committee stated that it was

"difficult to exaggerate the CSA's low reputation"— although some hon. Members have tried their best this afternoon. I am sure that every Member's weekly surgery appointments will demonstrate the scale of the mistrust and underline the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of parents wronged by the current system. To restore that shattered reputation, we will need far more than tinkering change. We need wholesale replacement of one of the most disastrous organisations in modern British political history.

Other hon. Members have dealt with the fine detail of many aspects of the Bill already, so I will keep my own comments brief and focus on several areas of particular concern to my constituents. A key reason why the agency is seen as toothless is that it has placed far too little emphasis on compliance and too rarely uses middle-order steps to ensure regular payments. Currently, there is little confidence that the CSA will pursue non-compliant parents, and if maintenance is not being paid, the parent with care has to make numerous complaints. Even then, the agency may not deliver effective enforcement action. Many of us will have heard at first hand from mothers about why they have had to act as detectives to prove that their ex-partners have higher incomes than have been declared. At the same time, however, the agency will often take the word of the non-paying father as gospel.

In that regard, I am pleased that some new measures to increase collection are being introduced, such as the use of deductions from earnings. However, I caution that the problem with enforcement has had less to do with the CSA's lack of powers than with its failure to use them. I hope that the new structure will change that, but I am not convinced that the measures in the Bill will fix the problem. As I said, the jury is still out.

The principles guiding the changes look good, but I share the concerns of those who feel that we have been given insufficient detail about how the changes will be achieved. With the best will in the world, measures such as removal of passports and driving licences will do nothing to deal with the fundamental problems that dogged the previous organisation from the start.

We all agree that a truly child-centred policy must look beyond merely enforcing the financial obligations of non-resident parents and do much more to encourage the involvement of both parents in their children's upbringing. In that regard, I welcome the Government's recognition that there should be no barriers preventing parents from coming to their own, mutually agreeable, arrangements for child support. However, if such agreements could be reached in every case, the Government would not need to get involved in child support at all. As that is clearly not the case, I seek assurances from the Minister today that parents with care must have a clear choice to go to CMEC if that is what they want to do, without being pushed into making voluntary arrangements that are unsatisfactory—to them, or in respect of the child. In particular, I hope that the Minister will say what help and advice will be given to parents before a decision about whether to adopt a private arrangement is made. Also, if the agreement breaks down, CMEC must be ready, able and accessible, so that it can help sort the problem out.

Various Scottish Members have mentioned the key problems that exist in Scotland. However, I think that I am the only Scottish Member here today who has not been briefed by the Law Society of Scotland on that topic, so I shall not try to repeat the details that have been given already.

Another major problem is that the current system is clearly unable to cope with the volume and complexity of its work load, while the communication with the Inland Revenue that is crucial for accurate assessments has been very poor in the past. I am pleased that there is to be a greater role for the Revenue in that respect, but I am concerned that the workload will remain unmanageable unless the system is simplified.. Simplicity is vital if maintenance calculations are to be made quickly and reliably.

I am pleased that the Bill recognises the problem of calculating income when the non-resident parent is self-employed, but I have yet to be convinced that the new measures will close the loopholes currently being exploited. There has been a particular problem where the ex-partner is self-employed, and it is difficult to verify profits and income independently. A case that I took up last year involved an ex-husband who said that his income was around £100 a week. The CSA calculated maintenance on that basis, but anyone who looked closely at that man's lifestyle would see that it simply could not be supported on £100 a week.

Any basic investigation by the CSA would have discovered that, but none took place. I remain unconvinced that the measures outlined in this Bill will put a stop to fathers avoiding supporting their children by using clever accounting techniques. It is therefore vital that information-gathering powers for the new organisation be improved, so that access to information held by other arms of Government and other organisations, such as banks and credit agencies, can be made easier.

Like other hon. Members, I am concerned about the problems that any new handover will bring. We are still waiting for some old cases to transfer to the current system, which presents us with the ridiculous prospect that when the new system is launched, three entirely different child support systems could be in operation at the same time. Like other Members, I seek assurances from the Minister that that will not happen.

The 2006 National Audit Office report said:

"The Child Support Reforms have failed to deliver the improvements in customer service and administrative efficiency, which might have been expected from the much-needed new rules".

There is much still to be done to ensure that we shall not be saying precisely the same thing about this Bill in the years to come.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 4:39 pm, 4th July 2007

We have, I fear, heard from Members on both sides of the House a catalogue of concern caused by the Government's failure after 10 years in power to put in place a child maintenance system that works. A total of 1.4 million families are caught in the current failing system; it costs £465 million a year to run the Child Support Agency, yet fewer than one in three eligible families receive any payment at all. Outstanding debt of £3.5 billion continues to mount by £20 million every month. Some of the comments we have heard this afternoon highlighted the results of those failures.

Mr. Clapham identified a number of points, especially the cost of recovery of child support, on which he talked in some detail. He also noted the aspects of the Bill about which he hopes to hear more in Committee; for example, the importance of private agreements in driving the culture of change that the Government have talked about. He shares my hope that more detail about that element will be forthcoming in Committee.

I want to touch on some of the hon. Gentleman's points about mesothelioma, although I shall refer to the subject later in my speech. He spoke with great passion about the tragic situation faced by mesothelioma sufferers and the magnitude of the problems of exposure to asbestos and the resulting illnesses. He stressed the importance of the Bill's provisions on changes to payments and of the need to ensure that they are made quickly in such cases. The House should pay tribute to the tremendous work he does in the all-party group on the issue.

Other contributions picked up on elements that we shall debate with the Minister in more detail in Committee. I welcome Danny Alexander to his new post, and hope that I pronounced the name of his constituency correctly. On behalf of my party, I send our best wishes to him and his wife on their impending new arrival.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the importance of collecting arrears and noted the lack of any mention in the Secretary of State's speech of the priority it will be given under the new system. We, too, are concerned about the subject, because collecting arrears is of great import to parents already trapped in the system, so we hope that we can call on the hon. Gentleman's support in Committee for amendments to ensure that parents with care are fully involved in any write-off and that no unilateral decisions on those issues are taken by the Government. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's support.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the differences between the Scottish and English systems. He and his colleagues will obviously have much to add on that subject and I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts in Committee. He made a rather more controversial point when he expressed his party's view that the collection and passing on of maintenance might be carried out not by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, but by Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue. That may be a somewhat ambitious role for HMRC, given some of its current problems, but we look forward to hearing more about how the hon. Gentleman would make that proposal work in an amendment.

My hon. Friend Mr. Evennett talked eloquently about the problems faced by his constituents, particularly as a result of the increase of non-compliance, which has caused him much concern. He works hard on behalf of his constituents to help to alleviate those problems. He also expressed concern about the continuing failure of the existing system and pointed out that assessments do not reflect the reality of people's individual arrangements. That is an important point, given the fact that the Government intend to push forward changes in enforcement before they make changes in the assessment procedure. When the Minister winds up, will he allay my concerns and explain how the two issues could be better linked? By making changes in enforcement before there are changes in assessment, he could cause further problems for people who may not have received an accurate assessment in the first place. Perhaps he could allay our fears by talking about the current system's level of accuracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said that the devil is in the detail and he was absolutely right; all of us should have that attitude in Committee.

My hon. Friend Jeremy Wright, who also made a good contribution, talked about the role of courts and mediation, which no other Member touched on. He mentioned the importance of ensuring that financial support is not used as a weapon to stop contact between parents and their children. My hon. Friend Chris Grayling discussed the importance of ongoing contact and the enduring responsibilities of parenthood. Again, I hope that we can discuss such issues in more detail.

Hywel Williams spoke well about the importance of the Bill in reducing poverty and the problems of assessing the self-employed; I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts in Committee. John Barrett also mentioned assessment problems for the self-employed; perhaps the Minister will pick the issue up in his closing remarks. Under the current system, the self-employed could be reassessed if their income varied by plus or minus 25 per cent.; there could regularly be such changes in the incomes of the self-employed, particularly for those in seasonal occupations in the holiday industry, which has been mentioned.

In opening the debate, the Secretary of State said that the Bill would provide a more effective and efficient system. I am sorry, but hon. Members could be forgiven for feeling that they had heard such promises before. Almost exactly eight years ago, the then Secretary of State for Social Security, now Chancellor, introduced the 1999 Child Support Agency White Paper. He said:

"We are putting the confidence back into child support, replacing complexity with simplicity, replacing delay with quick and accurate decisions, and replacing bureaucracy with a high-quality customer service...We are delivering for children and putting their needs first."—[ Hansard, 1 July 1999; Vol. 334, c. 435.]

Those are fine words, but we are here today because of the failure of that set of Government reforms. The system was so flawed that at the moment more than one in three non-resident parents simply do not bother to pay their maintenance. The computer system that was developed still does not work properly; indeed, in the past 12 months, there has been a doubling in the number of maintenance cases that have to be dealt with manually, because the computer system simply cannot cope. Eight years on, 750,000 cases are still on the Child Support Agency system. There are more cases on the old system than on the new scheme.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the National Audit Office's damning indictment of the Government and the fact that despite £539 million of investment, nothing has improved the Child Support Agency's performance. The Secretary of State's predecessor, Mr. Hutton, said that the new proposals before the House today were a fundamental redesign; the Secretary of State himself said that the new proposals were driving a change in culture. The reform has certainly been presented as radical, but when we read the Bill, we see that the similarities are greater than the differences. If there is a fundamental redesign, it is not in the Bill. Sir David Henshaw, commissioned by the Government to put forward a vision for the future of child support, said that

"the Child Support Agency as it stands is not capable of the radical shift in business model, culture and efficiency...A new organisation should be set up".

He went on to say that a redesign of the system

"must not be contaminated with previous failings."

Why are the Government not listening to what Sir David Henshaw talked about in his recommendations? Henshaw raised many issues that the Government have failed to cover in any detail in the Bill.

The Government's position on reform has been somewhat uncertain in recent years and perhaps that is why we feel that the lack of detail in the Bill is so concerning. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Plaskitt, as recently as January 2006, rejected the idea of simply shutting the Child Support Agency down. He said:

"Simply scrapping it or closing it down might look attractive in terms of dealing with some of its problems, but it would only create another heap of problems that someone else would have to pick up. It is, in fact, a simplistic solution to suggest that the only thing to do is shut it down."—[ Hansard, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 10.]

Mr. Blunkett—the Secretary of State before last—requested a plan for the wholesale redesign of the present system, which was put forward by the chief executive. That was then scrapped by the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness—the next Secretary of State—and Sir David Henshaw was brought in. Now the Government are advocating a move towards more voluntary agreements, although there is precious little detail in the Bill. That idea was roundly rejected by Mr. Field—who made some excellent contributions to the debate earlier—when he was Minister for Welfare Reform. So a lot of contrary views have been expressed.

We want to see more detail in the Bill so that the culture change that has been talked about will be driven through and have results for families and children in all our constituencies. We fear that the Bill is too simplistic. Far more detail needs to be woven in in Committee to ensure that parents are supported to take responsibility for their child's maintenance. It is clear from the debate today that the Government cannot let this be yet another missed opportunity to establish a maintenance system that works, and we will work with them to ensure that that does not happen.

Child maintenance is a critical factor in supporting child welfare and we have no option but to get our child maintenance system right. Each and every year, between 150,000 and 200,000 couples with children separate. Indeed, 15 per cent. of children never live with both their parents and more than 1 million children in lone parent households live in poverty. Effective maintenance is crucial and we will do all we can to support the Bill to be better at providing an effective maintenance structure.

Members have already talked about the importance of the Bill in terms of alleviating child poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford cited Lisa Harker's report, which pointed out that 42 per cent. of children in poverty are living in lone parent families and that maintenance ought to play a much greater role in reducing child poverty. However, as I am sure the Minister is aware, under the present system just one in five lone parents receives maintenance payments. The Secretary of State himself pointed out that child maintenance makes a paltry contribution to reducing child poverty in this country. That is in contrast to other countries—not just countries in northern Europe, but Austria and Switzerland as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said that this is not a time to sit back and bask in consensus. Although we welcome the Government's proposals to put in place some more building blocks to improve the current system, we believe that we need to move further. We support parents taking responsibility. We welcome the decision to scrap the CSA, but we need to make sure that the new organisation is not contaminated by previous failure. We welcome the innovative idea of CMEC being a commissioner of services, but we need to see the flesh on the bones of that idea and that detail is not currently in the Bill.

We welcome the move to a more robust form of assessment, based on previous years' income and using HMRC data, but the transition to the new system for those suffering as a result of the current chaos is just too slow. Why cannot we fast-track the change in assessment, as my hon. Friend suggested? We also agree that effective enforcement is an important part of creating a new culture, but if faith is truly to be restored in the child maintenance system, we need to make sure that enforcement goes hand in hand with a more reliable and accurate assessment system.

The Bill contains precious little detail on many of the areas that hon. Members have raised today. In Committee, we will press for more detail from the Government. It is important that we do not just wait for regulations to come through. For example, we need more detail about how we will support private agreements to be more effective, rather than just one-week wonders. Such concern has been raised by not only Conservative Members, but the Work and Pensions Committee, the National Council for One Parent Families and the Child Poverty Action Group. I hope that the Minister will take the point seriously and give us his considered and detailed views in Committee on how such agreements will work.

The repeal of section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991 will mean that it will no longer be mandatory for those on benefits to apply to the CSA. As other hon. Members have asked, is there a need to link the repeal of the section to ensuring that additional information and support will be available for families so that they can make their own private agreements? Without such a link and a change to the level of disregard prior to the repeal, some families might fall through the child maintenance net, so will the Minister reassure us on that matter?

At the heart of the Bill is the Government's desire for parents to take more responsibility. Will that principle extend to the recovery of arrears? The Government are sidestepping in the Bill the question of charging fees for making agreements. In Committee, we will need to hear about how that will be handled.

All these matters cannot be left to regulations, so we will need a full debate on them in Committee. I hope that the Government will come forward with draft regulations or amendments to the Bill before that stage.

The provisions that will change the way in which mesothelioma will be dealt with are the other important element of the Bill. There is no cure for that cruel and distressing disease, about which the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone spoke in depth. We will be pressing the Government for more details on their intentions because, as is the case for so much of the Bill, a great deal will be laid down in regulations. Again, we hope that the Government will publish draft regulations so that we can discuss them in detail in Committee.

There is much work to be done in Committee to take the Bill forward so that it brings about the culture change that is needed to ensure that children in this country receive the support that they need from their parents throughout childhood. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, the family is created when the child is born. Whatever happens to the relationship between parents, their family responsibilities persist. The Bill needs to support families to take responsibility for giving children the support that they need throughout their childhood to help to ensure that they get the start in life that they deserve.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions 4:58 pm, 4th July 2007

We have had a thoughtful debate—I am inclined to say that it was something of a specialist debate—during which the Bill has received broad general support from hon. Members on both sides of the House, which I welcome. The Government accept that we have come to the end of a road on which we all embarked in 1990 with the White Paper that heralded the introduction of the Child Support Agency. The agency was brought into being because of the failures of the previous court-based arrangements. It is worth remembering that the White Paper referred to that court system as

"fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective".

It continued:

"In a great many instances, the maintenance awarded is not paid or the payments fall into arrears".

Since then, successive Governments have tried to tackle the issue of securing child maintenance via the CSA. As we all know, there were valid reasons for embarking on such a route in the first place. There have been valiant attempts to try to make the system work. However, we have come to the view that the system is fundamentally flawed. Despite the fact that billions of pounds in maintenance have been collected by the CSA, and despite the fact that more than 650,000 children are currently being supported with maintenance payments as a result of the CSA, confidence in the agency has been lost. That is why we came to the conclusion that a new approach was necessary.

The main lesson learned by all of us is that the CSA approach was just too complex. The agency was being asked to do too much: it was asked to be the calculator, the adjudicator, the administrator and the enforcer. Indeed, as the National Audit Office concluded in 2006:

"With hindsight, the Agency was never structured in a way that would enable the policy to be delivered cost effectively."

Since taking the decision in 2006 to make a fresh start, we have moved quickly. We have been strongly supported by the staff in the existing agency who, above all else, want to be part of a successful child support system.

The new start envisaged by the Bill has today been widely welcomed by Members across the House, and by virtually all the stakeholders who have commented on the proposals so far. I cannot improve on the observations of the Child Poverty Action Group, which said:

"the Bill provides an important opportunity to improve the lives of children and families."

That is exactly so.

I turn to the main points raised in this afternoon's debate. To begin with the issues raised by the Opposition Front Benchers, Chris Grayling rightly spoke of the frustration felt by many parents with care, and indeed by some non-resident parents, as a result of the problems with the agency. I was pleased that he moved on to say that the Conservatives share our aspirations for the Bill. He said that, at the moment, it is too easy for too many parents to evade their responsibilities, but that is why the Bill envisages significant new enforcement powers. Mrs. Miller asked about those powers, which are very important. There are new powers to give us means of accessing accounts, powers relating to financial institutions, powers to notify credit reference agencies—that can have a significant impact, particularly on self-employed people—and, of course, powers giving access to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs income records. All those measures will help us to prevent people from evading their responsibilities.

It was disappointing when the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell tried to suggest that there had been 10 years of neglect, and that disappointment was made obvious by other Members who spoke. There was, of course, a programme of improvements in 2000, which was implemented in 2003, and which the Conservative Front Benchers of the time supported. More recently, we introduced the operational improvement plan, which, again, was welcomed by the Opposition Front Benchers. It has been in operation for only a year, but already 58,000 more children receive maintenance payments, and the backlog of uncleared cases is down by 80,000 since we got going with the plan. It is not the case that there has been 10 years of no effort to try to make the agency work better.

The hon. Gentleman asked what was different about the envisaged reform. He said that the transfer of the same staff implied that there would not be any difference. That is unreasonable to the staff, who cannot be blamed for the systemic failures in the agency's design and who want to be part of a successful operation. Indeed, it is important to retain their expertise so that they can help us as we go forward with the new operation. He wanted to know about the IT system. A number of fixes are being rolled out right now, and it is important to get that right before the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission assumes all its responsibilities. He wondered why the process was taking some time, but of course we are taking time to ensure that we get it right this time.

The hon. Gentleman overlooked other measures included in the proposal that show just how different the new system is. I have already spoken about the new powers; we are also introducing new support for voluntary agreements and repealing section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991, which has forced so many people who did not need to use the agency into contact with it. There is a new information platform that we can work from, which includes data-sharing with HMRC, and there will be a wider use of disregard. Those are all fundamental changes.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the role of the voluntary sector, which indeed has an extremely important part to play in helping us deliver the reforms. We are in discussion with the voluntary sector about the evolution of the support and advice services, which will be an important part of the new arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman complained about the lack of detail at this stage, but if we have learned anything from the experience of the CSA, surely it is the importance of getting the detail right. He will understand that the Bill puts in place the basic architecture. It is crucial in many respects that the commission be allowed to evolve particular ways of doing things in the light of the duties with which it will be charged under the Bill. That is the right way to go, as opposed to the more micro-managed and over-complex approach which bedevilled the agency. We must learn the lessons from the agency. Regulations will be rolled out over 2008 to 2010 before the CMEC becomes fully operational.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

The Minister speaks about the importance of developing an architecture for the commission. I understand that, but one of the basic parts of that architecture is the income disregard. We had a lengthy debate across the House about that because we are all concerned about it. Can the Minister shed a little more light on the work that has been done on that and when the Government will be more forthcoming?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

There are two main parts to that. The extension of the £10 disregard will come in quite quickly. As is clear from the Bill and everything that we have said, it will be extended to those on old cases. In respect of a higher amount applied across the board, as we said early in the debate it is essential to determine the correct level. That is not a back-of-the-envelope calculation. There are important assessments to be made. There are many dimensions—the cost of it, the impact on parents with care, the interaction between different levels of disregard, and work incentives. It is a significant change and it is important to get it right. There will be opportunities to discuss that further in Committee.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Secretary of State (Cabinet Office) and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Before the Minister leaves the subject of detail that will be in regulations, can he set out for the record which regulations the Government intend to publish in draft form before the Committee stage?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

As I have indicated, given that the CMEC comes into being only in 2008 and steadily increases its duties up to 2010 and the transfer process rolls on thereafter, it is important to take time and get the details right. I will not give the hon. Gentleman a precise timetable for the emergence of regulations. It would not be appropriate to do so. I stress that we have all learned the importance of getting the system right. There will be plenty of opportunity in Committee to debate all the aspects that will be subject to regulation.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke began by talking about enforcement and pleaded that we should defer those measures, although she seems to be asking us to go faster in other respects. The enforcement measures are needed now. There are opportunities right now for parents to evade their responsibilities. We all share a concern about that and wish to see effective enforcement measures brought into being as quickly as possible.

The hon. Lady mentioned the increased number of clerical cases and attributed that to IT failures. They are not all down to IT failures—there are other reasons why some cases become clerical. They are being separately dealt with and we are trying to clear them. In many instances those are the toughest and most complex cases. We have set up a specialist unit to deal with them and we hope that they will be resolved quickly.

The hon. Lady seemed to suggest that we were not doing what David Henshaw recommended, but we are doing precisely what he recommended. I think that she misinterpreted what I said about not shutting down the CSA. Of course I would not advocate that. It is important always to bear in mind the interests of the children who are being supported by maintenance. I was arguing that simply to close down the CSA and then later introduce something different would leave a yawning gap in the middle, in which children would not be supported. It is important that we move seamlessly from existing systems to new ones without dropping the ball in terms of getting maintenance payments through to children, which is the essence of what we are about.

I am sorry that Danny Alexander is pessimistic. I hope that when he and his wife have had their happy event he will become optimistic, and I congratulate him on that impending news. I am pleased that he supports the principles. He raised concerns about the debt issue, and that is very much a legacy problem. The debt started to accumulate from day one of the CSA and has grown immensely throughout. The Bill deals with what can be done to handle debt better, and there will be an opportunity to negotiate reasonable settlements where there is consent between the parties involved. We are introducing the power to have lump sum deduction orders, which is a means of collecting arrears that we have not had before. The Bill introduces the option of selling debt to private purchasers and we are already beginning to use private debt collectors. However, as he knows, there is no general power of write-off, and nor should there be.

I appreciate the positive comments that the hon. Gentleman made about the staff who work for the agency. There is a programmed reduction in numbers from the present level, but it simply takes the numbers back to the kind of level that they were at before the operational improvement plan came into being. Once that plan has tidied up many of the legacy problems that it was designed for, the agency should be able to operate on the numbers that it had before. As we move into the new commission-based arrangement we anticipate fewer numbers coming through, and it will be reasonable to expect the opportunity to take staff numbers down further. Precise decisions on that will be for the new commission.

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster Labour, Hastings and Rye

I apologise for not being present for much of the debate, but on the question of staff numbers, in my constituency people have been offered assurances that there will be no reduction in total staff. How can the Government follow that assurance if they have delegated responsibility to a non-departmental Government body?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

As my hon. Friend knows, we have already published staff numbers through to 2008 as part of the Department's existing commitments. Staff will transfer to the new commission with protection under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981. Neither we nor they can at this point make firm commitments about staffing levels beyond that.

I was disappointed to see that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey is still clinging to his party's proposal that we hand the whole operation over to HMRC. I welcome him to his post—he has had two years as the understudy, and he now has the opportunity to revise the policy. He does not have to be committed to it any longer. I hope that he will think again about handing the whole operation over to HMRC. There are important reasons why that would not be the appropriate route and he knows that that is my and the Government's view. He should bear in mind that in those systems where the child maintenance collection arrangements are operated by the equivalent of HMRC, the system is underwritten at the same time. I have never heard him propose that. I hope that he will have the opportunity now that he is top man on this to have another think about that aspect of Liberal Democrat policy.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomed powers of increased enforcement, because that is something of a contrast with what some of his Liberal Democrat predecessors have said. They expressed concerns about human rights in respect of previously existing enforcement powers.

We have also had five very thoughtful speeches from Back-Benchers. My hon. Friend Mr. Clapham welcomed the Bill and he spoke extremely forcefully and effectively and from great knowledge of the mesothelioma clauses in the Bill, and I pay tribute to his work and the campaign that he has mounted on the issue, which is in part why the Government are having to respond and make these welcome changes in respect of sufferers from that terrible disease.

I am pleased to note that Mr. Evennett welcomed the improvements. He rightly acknowledged that there are still too many failures in the existing system from which many of our constituents are suffering. He welcomed the income disregards and the greater emphasis that will be placed on private arrangements. I appreciate his comments.

We heard a thoughtful contribution from my neighbour, Jeremy Wright, who wanted more voluntary agreements and rightly pointed out that at the same time we have to safeguard children's interests. He said that separating parents need advice and support—as he knows, we are taking measures in the Bill to ensure that that happens—and rightly observed that that advice and support needs to be held at arm's length from the state. He will see, as these services evolve, that that is very much in accordance with our thinking.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the apparent difference between our approach to orders in respect of passports and to those in respect of driving licences, and suggested that there was an inconsistency. In fact, there are good reasons for doing it in different ways. Removing a driving licence, which we already have powers to do via the courts, has a direct impact on the livelihood of the person concerned, potentially on their employment and certainly on their mobility. Those significant consequences, bearing heavily on day-to-day life, make it legitimate to seek that power through the courts. The removal of travel documents relates rather more to discretionary activity—the drive to go on holiday, for example—and it is appropriate that such powers can be handled administratively.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Opposition Whip (Commons)

No doubt this is a matter to which we can return in Committee, but will the Minister at least accept at this stage that it is worth considering it again, given that for some individuals the ability to travel abroad is integral to their working lives as well as their recreation?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

We have already given that matter careful consideration and I have tried to explain to the hon. Gentleman why the differences are there, but we can certainly discuss it again in Committee.

Hywel Williams also made a thoughtful speech and I appreciate his comments. He asked about the advice service in rural areas. That is an important point. We envisage that the advice service might be largely phone-based or available via internet sites, and therefore accessible from wherever. He mentioned constituents of his whose income fluctuates dramatically during the course of the year because of the nature of their employment in such an area. The assessments will now be based on annual income, so anyone will know what their assessment will be throughout the subsequent year and can plan and budget accordingly. That should smooth out the fluctuations in income that he described.

I am grateful to John Barrett for his contribution. He rightly drew attention to the IT system. As I have tried to explain, we are already introducing phased releases of improvements to ensure that the IT platform that is in place by the time that the CMEC assumes its powers is up to the job. Or course, that is very important.

The establishment of the new commission will mark a clear break with the past. Lessons from the systemic failures of the CSA have been learned and applied. The Bill introduces a radical new approach to delivering child maintenance that is based on three core values. First, it is integral to our ambition to eradicate child poverty and central to our support for families. Secondly, it enshrines a clear set of rights and responsibilities—the right of parents to choose how best to support their children and responsibilities that make it clear that if people fail to fulfil their duties as parents they will be held to account. Thirdly, it creates a simpler, more transparent system to the advantage of parents and of our hard-working staff. The Bill represents a radical change in our approach to securing support for children when relationships between their parents have broken down. This reform is built centrally around the needs of children, but it also approaches the adults involved, supporting those who are trying to do the right thing by their children but pursuing with relentless determination those who would try to evade their responsibilities. For all those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.