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

My hon. Friend makes a number of important points, and we will look forward with interest to seeing what information the Government give us in Committee on that subject. This is another example of an area in which we have precious little detail about what the Government envisage for an important part of the Bill.

At the top of that list is the question of the benefits disregard. We understand the theory of what the Government are trying to do but we will need to discuss in Committee with Ministers the potential consequences of their plans—if they are prepared to provide details by then.

I know that some see the income disregard as an essential tool to motivate parents on benefits to participate in the system and to make sure that money actually gets to the child rather than the state. It has also been seen as a way of targeting funding on children to ensure that we can lift them out of poverty. But as the Secretary of State rightly said, there is a counter-argument, which is that the disregard could end up providing a perverse incentive to separate. Although I do not for a moment believe that money is the prime motivator for people to stay together or to separate, the harsh reality is that in some cases it does make a difference, and we should not use either our tax or our benefits system in a way that encourages family break-up.

I am disappointed that the new Secretary of State does not have more information for the House today, and that he was not able to offer to provide the information sought by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and myself. I appreciate that it is early days, but will he look at the issue again and come back with information as quickly as possible, as it is central to the viability, the cost and the working of the scheme? The Government are asking the House to debate the fundamentals of the Bill—in the Chamber today, and in Committee—without that information. That suggests that the Government are not being as full, open and collaborative with Members as they should be, given the supposed change of tone in the Government.

It is also important that the Committee examine in detail the issue of self-employment. We think that the previous-year assessment basis and the disregard of income changes of up to 25 per cent. are logical for people in normal PAYE employment. But we need to understand how the Government intend to handle self-employment. I have lost count of the number of times that women have come to see me with the complaint that their former husband or partner is declaring a very low income to the CSA, but is self-employed and clearly hiding a much higher income; he may have a big house and a big car. The frustration of those women is clear; they say, "I know he's better off than he says. He's telling the CSA that he's only earning £17,000, and the CSA says it will take his word for it." That is obviously wrong and unfair.

The Secretary of State will know that while it is difficult to dodge factual information within the conventional PAYE system, there is greater flexibility for self-employed individuals to avoid the full force of the system. Will the Government explain in Committee in more detail how they intend to address the issue and tackle the potential problems that self-employment can create?

The one part of the Bill that is long on detail is the section about enforcement. I am all in favour of strong enforcement. Too many men have been able to get away without meeting payments, knowing that there is little prospect of real enforcement. The message that this sends beyond the families is potentially damaging as well. Fatherhood is, and should always be, a big personal obligation. One of the reasons for the original establishment of the Child Support Agency was to ensure that fathers lived up to their obligations, and that they understood that there was an organisation that would ensure that they could not walk away from those obligations, leaving mothers and children dependent on benefits.

That was not just for fathers at the end of a relationship, but for those who never really got into the relationship in the first place and regarded fatherhood as something transitory. Sadly, that does happen in our society. We still get high-profile cases that undermine confidence. Last year the Metro newspaper reported the case of a 21-year-old, Keith Macdonald, who had already fathered seven children with seven different women, running up a benefit cost of an estimated million pounds a year. Cases like that make the need for a range of sanctions to deal with the issues contained in the Bill desirable and necessary, and we support that principle.

There are issues about enforcement and the curfews. How does one enforce a curfew? The idea of withdrawing passports is a good one, but it worries me that the one bit of the Bill about which we have detail—by contrast with the other areas that we have addressed today, where there is precious little detail—is enforcement. This comes from a Government who have dined out on spin for the last decade. It is noticeable that the detail is all about things that might make a headline in the newspapers, while the important detail remains unresolved. Too many questions remain unanswered—which would of course be in no way typical of what we have experienced for the past decade under the Government. I hope that the new Secretary of State will be able to do things a little better.

I have no doubt that change is necessary. Too many women in my own constituency, and millions around the country, have been left stranded by the incompetence of the CSA in the past few years and by the Government's failure to get to grips with the problem. It is not just the women. Men, too, have found themselves caught up in the failings of the agency; not knowing quite where they stand or what they have to pay. When Ministers spend £500 million of taxpayers' money and the NAO says that things have got no better, they really have cause to be ashamed.