Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 4th July 2007.

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Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2:22 pm, 4th July 2007

There cannot be a Member of this House who has not witnessed the harsh financial consequences of relationship break-ups for all involved, particularly children. During the six years I have been in the House—and I am sure that other Members share my experience—many women have visited my surgery who were frustrated, and often desperate, about being unable to secure a proper financial settlement for themselves and their children. More often than not, their frustration has been directed at the Child Support Agency's inability to get things right—sometimes to answer the most basic inquiries and deal with the most basic issues.

It is not only women who have visited my surgery: men have also come to seek my advice on the clumsy way in which the agency has dealt with them. The agency has too often been utterly incompetent. I am sure that I am not alone in having read multiple letters that the agency sent to constituents on the same day saying entirely different things. I have had endless conversations with constituents about their experiences of the agency, such as long, fruitless telephone calls and being passed from person to person, none of whom seemed to know anything about the case in question. However, we should also remember that although not all the agency's staff have passed muster, the vast majority have done their best despite being facing with a deeply flawed system.

Every Member should share the Bill's aspirations of sorting out the problems and putting in place a better and more workable system. There has been a complete failure of public confidence in the CSA and there must be a fundamental culture change towards the entire process of child maintenance. We welcome elements of the Bill and the new direction. We want parents to take greater responsibility and children clearly to be at the heart of the process. We welcome some of the Bill's proposals, and the principles that underlie it.

Effective enforcement will play an important part in the change, but there must be a simpler and more efficient system of assessment and case management. Over the past few years, constituents have experienced problems in that regard. That is why we support the move to use income tax data as the basis of future assessment. I have come across numerous cases of women in my constituency who are frustrated because their financial fortunes have been diminished by the absence of a proper process for determining their former husband's or partner's income. I have been told time and again, "His income has been set too low," and, "He has undeclared sources of income," yet the agency's response to the complaint has been, "Well, we have to take his word for it." We understand the frustrations of the women concerned. I am glad that the Government accept that in too many cases that can lead to injustice.

It is also right to change the focus of how we handle child maintenance. I have always felt that the rules on participation are too tight. It is clearly in everybody's interests if parents can come to a voluntary agreement. Why enmesh the workings of the agency in cases where it is not needed? We support the change in that regard.

It is right to end compulsory participation in the CSA scheme by all parents with care who are on benefits. That amounts to a vital change from the previous benefit recovery focus to a much clearer focus as part of a wider child poverty strategy—again, putting children at the heart of the process. We welcome many aspects of the Bill, and its principles.

My party is clearly focused on the importance of the family as the basic building block of a healthy society and on the maintenance of the family structure. We believe that every child has a right to support, both material and emotional, from both parents, and that both parents have an obligation to deliver that support to the child. The family is created when a child is born, and that family responsibility persists regardless of what happens to the relationship between the parents. Our goal as a future Government will be to strengthen the family and to place great importance on early interventions that can help prevent family breakdown. However, relationships and families do break down. Where parents separate we should focus on supporting those separated families to ensure that they continue to provide not only material but emotional support to children.

The Bill specifically deals with financial support, but I also strongly believe that we must not allow the mechanisms for financial support to undermine other public policy objectives in respect of supporting separated families and supporting families. The comments of Mr. Field on that are apposite, and I will return to the issues he raised.

We need a change in culture so that the continued obligations of parents in separated families are understood and accepted as the norm, and so that the interests of the child are put at the heart of the process. As the Secretary of State says, the provision of good child maintenance arrangements when the family structure breaks down is one of the keys to establishing an effective child poverty strategy. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have said that that is close to their hearts.

However, this cannot and should not be just one of those days when Ministers simply sit back and bask in consensus. I am glad that they are putting in place some of the building blocks for improvement, but after 10 years in government, Ministers cannot divorce themselves from the failings of those years. Although the Secretary of State is new to his job and is therefore grappling with the joys of trying to deal with complicated questions on the Floor of the House after only a few days of getting up to speed on his brief, the fact is that his boss, the new Prime Minister, has for the entire past decade micro-managed domestic policy from No. 11 Downing street. In that time, he has sat back and watched the CSA go from bad to worse, thereby failing many families and children under his watch.

It is no defence simply to say that the CSA was established under a Conservative Government—I am surprised that I have not been intervened on yet to make that point. It is a matter of fact that that was the case, and it was established with the best of intentions—to support those in separated families and to protect the welfare of children. I am not ashamed of that. As we have learned since, however, the best intentions do not always work out in the detail of practice, and never has that been clearer than in the case of the CSA.