HC Deb 15 December 1994 vol 251 cc1083-124

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Social Security Committee of Session 1993–94, on The Operation of the Child Support Act: Proposals for Change (House of Commons Paper No. 470), and the Social Security Departmental Report on the Government's Expenditure Plans 1994–95 to 1996–97 (Cm 2513.)]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a supplementary sum not exceeding £45,825,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1995 for expenditure by the Department of Social Security on administration, for agency payments, the promotion of Government policy on disability issues, and for certain other services, including grants to local authorities and voluntary organisations.—[Mr. Burt.]

4.15 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

The debate on the supplementary estimates gives the House an opportunity to discuss the current report on the Child Support Agency laid before the House by the Select Committee on Social Security. I should like to make some general observations about the CSA and then to discuss some of the specific proposals that we made in our report, which we issued recently.

The nature of the debate allows me to begin by thanking the members of staff of the Select Committee for the work that they do. Given that our proceedings are now televised, it may surprise many taxpayers to know that Select Committees run their own establishments on a tight reign. Our own Select Committee has just four staff to cover all its functions. Although we may not live up to the expectations of American committees, we certainly give extremely good value to taxpayers in the way in which we attempt to monitor what is happening in government. I am grateful for the opportunity to put my thanks to those staff on the record.

The first and most important general observation about the CSA is that the whole atmosphere of the debate on its future has changed in the few months since we previously debated it. At one time, I seriously thought that the agency would collapse; that the difficulties of establishing it and the weight of its work load were such that before the end of this year the Secretary of State would have to come before the House, draw stumps and say that the Government were beginning again. I no longer believe that that is so. Although the Select Committee has some criticisms to make, to which I hope the Government will respond constructively, anyone who believes that the agency will collapse is either misleading himself or misleading others.

The nature of the debate now is how we reform the CSA to make it more effective and to fulfil the goals that the House thought it was voting for when it established the agency, rather than a mere moonshine debate about what will happen when the agency is replaced. It will not collapse, so the politics surrounding the CSA relate to how we should reform it. Certain reforms have been made and I hope that the House is clear about the significance of the change that it has made to that area of policy.

Since the welfare state was established, with the first reforms that Lloyd George put on the statute book in this Chamber, we have been about redrawing the boundaries of duties between state and individuals. Each of those changes has redrawn the boundary in favour of collective action as against individual responsibility. The importance of the Child Support Agency is that, in that most sensitive of areas, we have for the first time redrawn that boundary restoring duties to individuals and withdrawing state support. If any hon. Members thought that that would be a popular move, they were clearly foolish to hold such a view. Given that we have decided to redraw the boundary, it is doubly important that we listen carefully to the criticisms that have been made about the running of the agency and that Governments respond sensitively, quickly and regularly to concerns that hon. Members express on behalf of their constituents.

The most serious concern that we should all have is the fact that those of us who voted the passing of that measure, with widespread support, made it retrospective. The normal rules of the House have been hostile to passing retrospective legislation and that was not seriously considered when we debated the measure. Although we deplored the number of fathers—generally speaking—who had deserted their families and left taxpayers to pick up the bill, for a considerable period there was very little activity by the Treasury to reduce the increasing number of families who were deserted and whose household bills were met by taxpayers.

Over the past 20 or so years, but particularly the past 10 years, we have witnessed fathers disappearing from the scene and taxpayers taking on the responsibility of surrogate parents. This measure was intended to draw a line and, we hoped, to prevent that trend from continuing.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I follow what my hon. Friend says, but am concerned that in my constituency the agency is failing to do what he wants. The agency is placing in most difficulty people who have been conscientiously paying, while it seems incapable of getting a grip on those who have washed their hands of all their responsibility and disappeared. I accept the fact that the courts have failed to do anything about those people, but so has the agency. The agency is therefore causing a massive upset to people who were meeting their responsibilities in the past and is failing to do the job that I and many others wanted it to do: to get a grip on those who were genuinely dodging their responsibilities.

Mr. Field

I hoped that the agency would get a grip on everybody, not just on one group or another. If parliamentary answers are to be believed—I see no reason why they should not be—the position has changed of late, given the groups of absent parents that the agency is now targeting. If I remember the answer correctly, some 70 per cent. of those now being contacted are parents who previously had not paid their contributions.

While the House must be aware of the value of representing single-Member seats and holding surgeries in those seats, which teaches us a great deal, it must also recognise that a selective group of people comes to see us. People do not come to our surgeries to tell us that everything is going well—thank goodness. Our lives would be made impossible. By the very nature of such surgeries, people come to complain. No one has come to my surgery to say, "This is a wretched agency. I dumped my wife and disappeared. Thanks to you lot in the House of Commons, I have now been not only chased but traced and am being presented with bills." I do not expect people to come to my surgery and say that, although it is clear from the figures that people are being traced and money is being collected.

The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) makes is valuable, in that, if we were starting again, obviously we would not have started with those parents—not always, but generally, fathers—who were doing their level best to meet their commitments to their first families. They read about all the parents who were presented in an unfavourable light in the media and somehow felt that they were guilty by association and then, to add insult to injury, they were the ones who were on the learning curve of the agency as it tried to set up a new operation from scratch.

The balance has changed, but by the nature of our surgeries, we do not expect people to come to them and say, "I have been a heel for several years and the agency has stopped that." That does not excuse some of the behaviour that affected some of our constituents who played the game, who felt strongly about their commitments to their first families, who have never thought of themselves as absent parents in that sense, and who felt that they were being tried, not only by the agency, but by the media.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

The hon. Gentleman, having said that about his advice centres, may be surprised if I thank him for doing something right. He and the Committee deserve the praise of the House. We have managed—and I am a big enough fellow to say it—to hide behind him in some respects. We have been able to tell our constituents that there was constructive debate, and that it was being listened to on the Conservative Benches. I shall hold an advice centre tomorrow, where I am sure that the administration of the Child Support Act 1991, not its politics, will be discussed in great detail by people who attend. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has put the politics behind him and is now considering, as are hon. Members on both sides of the House, the complicated matter of administration. I thank him very much.

Mr. Field

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. However, before I finish, I may mention a few strains of criticism about the nature of our report and about what happened to some of the recommendations in it. I am sure that, on that subject, the hon. Gentleman will be with me and perhaps against some of his Conservative colleagues.

Given the nature of the agency, given what it was trying to do in redrawing the boundary of responsibility between the state and the individual, given that it was a complete innovation and given that it was trying to obtain a more adequate contribution to first families from second families, our debate obviously centres on how those second families—and especially the fathers in those second families—have fared. Indeed, most of the recommendations that we made, and most of the recommendations that were voted down by the Conservative majority on our Committee, were in favour of the absent father.

I do not want the debate to pass without recording on the Floor of the House that the group that is often left out of our debates is that of the mother and the children. To listen to some of our contributions, one would think that they did not exist. Although it is true that some women have behaved badly to their husbands or previous husbands or partners, who are very much the injured parties, the overall statistics demonstrate what one mother in my constituency said to me: "We feel that we have been dumped by our husbands. We had no wish to be on benefit—that is an existence that we have had to endure. Although we can understand you, as a member of the Committee, making proposals for change that ensure the effective running of the agency, we sometimes feel that we are left out of the entire debate." That mother described to me the experience of being the dumped mother in the arrangement. I hope that that thought will not be lost. I shall return to that theme later.

Hon. Members will know, from the part of the report that was agreed unanimously, that there is a raft of proposals that we hope that the Government will consider seriously, but at the end of the report there are other proposals, which are more basic in their approach to reforming the agency. I wish to discuss those proposals at the end of the report, but first I make one comment about my reported remarks about the new head of the agency.

I felt that the Secretary of State was getting away—if I may say so—with murder, always appointing a woman to run the agency. Many fathers used that person as the lightning conductor for their anger about the agency. That anger should be directed at the Secretary of State and at us—the people who passed the legislation—rather than all that anger, criticism, hatred and so on being directed at the agency.

My comments were clearly unfair to the new head of the agency, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting on a number of occasions. I have rarely been so struck by a public official's ability to use common sense and elevate it to an intellectual level in discussing policy. That is a model which I hope we shall see reflected elsewhere in the civil service. After making her acquaintance, I am pleased to note that there are two people in the agency who could well take hold of the most senior position.

I come now to the reforms in the report that did not gain the approval of the majority of my colleagues. Again, I underline that the House must exercise its judgment. At one time it seemed that we might be debating the report against the background of a crisis arising from whether the agency could survive. We all know that, as Dr. Johnson said, to be hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully. If the Secretary of State thought that the agency would collapse, the agenda for reform would be much wider than it is today.

I make a different plea, not in an attempt to stampede people into reform, but for us to consider whether we have made the right judgment about how the agency should operate. The 41 proposals are all worth while, but they are not major reforms. We need to strike a new balance in how the agency will operate and we need to do that in three ways.

First, it is difficult to claim that, in the immediate future, the agency has the needs of children central to its operation. We all know why the agency is in existence. It is an attempt to limit the cost that taxpayers are at present meeting on behalf of absent parents. As income support is being paid, why on earth, logically, should any money go to the first family? But as so often in political activity, logic is not the key thing in determining what we should do.

One of the ingredients that we lack for the success of the reform is a few million cheer leaders out there in the country. If the Government could accept the proposal for a disregard, we would have some important recruiting sergeants out there actively supporting the agency. There is clearly a mass of voters out there—millions of them—who support the agency unreformed. I would hope that they would want it to be reformed in the radical way that we are debating today, but we need some active supporters, which we do not have at present.

The disregard would not only recruit such supporters but play an important part in lessening the attempts that some absent parents are planning to frustrate the agency's operation by coming to an unwritten agreement with the first partner or wife and saying, "If you say that I am threatening to beat you up, I will slip you £10 or £20, you will be better off, you will still be getting your income support and I shall certainly be better off because I will be paying less."

If the penalties in the Act for those whose story in such circumstances is not believed—those penalties should clearly operate in such circumstances—were double-banked with a disregard, it would be difficult for individuals to try to put that pressure on their ex-wives or partners. The disregard should be seen not only in terms of winning supporters out there in the country, but as an effective way of preventing the increase in the number of those—generally speaking, fathers—who are trying to get their ex-wives or partners to say that it is unsafe for them to disclose the name, let alone the address of the father of their children.

Secondly, the House must accept that there is no right of appeal in relation to this executive agency. Is there any other body that makes decisions, let alone decisions as important as those taken by the agency, to which individuals have no right of independent appeal? I do not know of one. Of course, any appeal system would have to be carefully thought out and the basis on which appeals could be made must be carefully defined, otherwise large numbers of people would use an appeal system to try to wreck the CSA. An appeal system is an important matter of principle.

It is immensely important that individuals who feel so aggrieved that they cannot accept the agency's decision can appear before a group of their peers, eyeball to eyeball, and argue their case. That happens in our court system. We all know that sometimes we win in the courts and sometimes we lose, but we at least know that we have been able to put our case personally. This is an important and sensitive issue in people's lives and one cannot expect to run a service only by post or by telephone, however efficient the post or telephone system is. There needs to be that personal right of appeal.

The third reform, to which I attach the most importance, was not supported by a majority of Committee members. It involves having a new simple tax-take formula. The formula is important. Hon. Members who pass legislation should be able to understand it. I know that one Committee member understands how the formula works. Committee members had the advantage of a tutorial from the Department for a couple of hours. When it was over, it appeared that we all understood the formula, until we were each invited to explain the simple examples that we had been given. We could not do it. That was not because Committee members lack intelligence—far from it. If we cannot understand the formula, how can we expect people out there to understand it?

It seems a extraordinary dereliction of duty for a party that believes in incentives not to understand the importance of individuals knowing what the effects on their maintenance payments will be of getting a new job or new qualification, working overtime and so on. The formula needs to be understandable to Members of Parliament, let alone our constituents. It needs to take into account—this is the more substantive point—the retrospective nature of the agency that has been established.

We may all agree that we should never have reached the position where large numbers of families gained no maintenance support, but the Government allowed that to happen. We all know how word spreads through the grapevine from this place. People believed that it was all right to begin a second family and they did not expect to make any major contribution to their first family. In those circumstances, large numbers of individuals began a second family.

Having happily established a second family, those people now find that the Child Support Agency that we established is retrospective. Natural justice demands that the group of people to which we apply the legislation retrospectively should pay a lower contribution than people operating in the world who know not only that there is a CSA but that the CSA is working, will stay and will become more effective.

I underline the point that I believe that we are debating reform of the agency rather than its collapse or abolition. Neither of the two major parties is interested in taking this piece of legislation off the statute book. However, the fact that the Secretary of State is not likely to find egg on his face from having to announce the agency's imminent collapse does not mean that we should not look carefully at the necessary reforms. It requires basic structural reform if we are to do justice to our individual constituents. I do not believe that we are doing that currently and, however useful the majority recommendations of the report may be, I do not believe that they achieve that either. Some of the recommendations that were voted down by the majority go some way towards doing that.

From this debate we need to send out a message to a large number of people who are incredibly angry at the way in which the agency operates and what it has done to their lives. We must let them know that, although we are committed to the agency, we are sensitive to what they say and will try to draw lessons from it. Fiddling about with minor reforms on the edges of the agency does little justice to the social revolution that we began when passing the Act. We were redrawing the line between the role of the state and the responsibilities of the individual. For the first time in 90 years, we have drawn back the line towards the individual. In those circumstances it is crucial that we listen carefully to what our constituents say is still wrong with the agency and that we act on what they say.

4.41 pm
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

The Christmas spirit seems to be breaking out. I enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), particularly when he said that he thought that our lives would become impossible, with people coming to tell us that things were going well. I take that as a fulsome compliment on the way in which the Government are running the country.

I join the hon. Gentleman in complimenting the staff of the Select Committee on Social Security on the help that they provide and, in the spirit of Christmas, I compliment the hon. Member for Birkenhead on the way in which he conducts himself as the Committee's Chairman. He has long experience and, having come to the Committee relatively recently, I feel that I benefit from that and from the fine way in which he conducts proceedings.

The hon. Gentleman was a little disingenuous in his criticisms of some of the items that do not appear in the full report. I listened carefully to what he said about maintenance disregard but I did not hear him provide a figure that he felt would be appropriate. He knows that substantial costs are involved. For example, he knows that a disregard of £15, which was one of the figures considered during the Committee's work, would cost anything up to £500 million. A £10 disregard could cost anything up to £350 million, depending on the take-up.

There are other disadvantages, because a disregard could be considered a disincentive to people wanting to go back to work. It could also be considered as unfair to parents who stay together, who would not receive the disregard if they were dependent on income support. Parents with care who were not able to have maintenance paid would be at a disadvantage compared to those who could. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that introduces another element of unfairness. There is no easy answer.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

The recommendation for a disregard, which I also opposed as a member of the Committee, fails to acknowledge the proper role of family credit. As maintenance is received by a parent with care, not all the benefit that he or she may be receiving is taken away. The family credit system leaves them better off than they would have been. If the parent with care moves into part-time employment, the maintenance being received is not taken away like other benefits or the disregard would be.

Mr. Thurnham

My hon. Friend is right. Family credit is one of the best ways of helping people back into work. The parent with care can receive all the benefits not only of an additional income but of the social contact that can arise from going back to work.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead was let off the hook by the Committee. He was on record as saying that our formula should be changed to that which applies in Australia and New Zealand. The more evidence we received about the way in which the formula works, or rather does not work, in Australia and New Zealand, the more he realised that adopting that method would be a mistake. In fact, our report made the right recommendations and the hon. Member for Birkenhead realised that the Australian and New Zealand methods were not the most appropriate.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Does my hon. Friend recall that as we looked at the Australian child support system we realised that it was still being questioned some six years after its establishment? We found that one of the principal questions was whether Australia could adopt a more complex formula along the British lines rather than its own simple formula.

Mr. Thurnham

If the Committee report was lacking in anything, perhaps it was sufficient comments about exactly what was happening in Australia. A Select Committee in Australia had reported on the difficulties. Mr. David Butler, the assistant commissioner for the Australian child support agency, said that the agency has been operating for six years and that meeting all expectations is proving most difficult. Mr. Frank Bosch, the director of child support in New Zealand, said: Persuading people that parents should pay for their own children is a slow process.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that a previous interim report from the Select Committee made the point that has been made several times by the Australians: that they cannot understand why we went for retrospection, which is the fundamental problem and the one that is causing the greatest difficulty? That problem was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).

Mr. Thurnham

I was coming to that. That was the other point made by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, although his view on that contradicted his opening remarks, in which he said that he wanted to stress the importance of the mother with care—it is usually the mother—and the importance of looking after those children. If we do not apply the system retrospectively, we will leave all those mothers with children out of the reckoning. We would have to say, "I am sorry, we cannot help you because we have decided not to look at it retrospectively."

There has always been a retrospective element. The courts have always had the power to look at current circumstances. If the father's circumstances are improving—it is usually the father—it is only right that there should be greater payments to help with the children. I do not think that we can say glibly that we can forget about retrospection. In any case, the scheme has been in operation in Australia for more than six years and there are considerable difficulties. Just saying that we will not bother with retrospective cases will not make life any easier.

Mr. Spellar


Mr. Thurnham

We have already had an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. I must press on.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

In past settlements was there not, by and large, a division of assets rather than a provision for maintenance in the future? When one understands the distinction between the division of stocks and the provision for future flows of money for the maintenance of children, one realises that the old arrangements under the courts were usually deficient. None the less, the Committee has recommended in its report that some consideration should be given to the retrospective element of past settlements.

Mr. Thurnham

My hon. Friend is right to point that out. We look forward to the Government's response in the latter half of January.

I was sorry that the hon. Member for Birkenhead did not refer to one of the other items left out of the Committee's report. He may recall that he used his casting vote to rule out an amendment that I had tabled, which suggested that the Government might look more closely into the benefits that could be gained from contracting out. Those who have the report will find the details on page 31. We had an equal vote and the Chairman used his casting vote. I was sorry about that because I would have liked to have seen that appear properly in the report. I hope that the Committee will have time to look into contracting out. It was rightly pointed out that it had not had time to take more evidence on how contracting out should be applied more fully.

I shall direct my remarks a little more to the contracting out of the activities of the CSA and to the way in which the scheme would work. The private sector could have been used much more. The fact that the CSA was a new operation was no reason for not considering contracting out its services. I am sure that had the agency's services been contracted out, it would have worked better because firms that undertook to work for the agency, or perhaps directly for the Department of Social Security, would have been very careful about how they did it. They would not have landed themselves with the difficulties with which the Child Support Agency landed itself. Although Ros Hepplewhite has paid the price for those difficulties, they should not have occurred in the first place. I am rather sorry that we are meeting this evening to vote an extra £30 million pounds for the Child Support Agency because, had it been run more efficiently in the first place, I am sure that that money would not have been needed.

We have much experience of the benefits gained from contracting out by local authorities and by central Government. There is evidence that savings achieved in central Government by contracting out may amount to more than 20 per cent. and there is a great deal of evidence about savings in local authorities. The Audit Commission has achieved savings averaging 7 per cent., and in some cases higher. Savings range from those in refuse collection of 12 per cent., to those in building cleaning of 20 per cent. and so on through other local authority activities, saving many hundreds of millions of pounds. More than 40 local authorities are now reckoned to be setting a good example—Berkshire, Croydon, Brent and Wandsworth to mention a few. Indeed, the other day my own local authority in Bolton was able to save £250,000 per annum solely by outsourcing its computer services.

Those are examples of the savings that can be made and many firms can achieve them. At one time, the number of such firms was limited but, with the market building up, companies such as Touche Ross, and through it CSL, provide services. The American firm, EDS, has signed a £1 billion contract with the Inland Revenue to provide many of its computing services. The Cadbury-Schweppes firm IT Net, a French company P Sec, Anderson Consulting and IBM, ICL and many other companies now provide services.

I am sure that private firms of solicitors could play a part in the work of the Child Support Agency. I understand that some 160,000 people are employed in solicitors' firms. The workload of 5,000 civil servants—and it is rapidly expanding to 6,000 plus—in the Child Support Agency could be taken over by private solicitors' firms and perhaps co-ordinated by one of the companies that I have mentioned.

I was able to enjoy a meeting with the Secretary of State to let him know exactly how strongly I felt about contracting out. It was an opportunity for me to meet Ann Chant who, of course, was previously employed in the Contributions Agency. I am not exactly sure of the track record of the various people involved with the DSS. The DSS has perhaps been a little less successful than other Government Departments in contracting out. I do not know why that should be or whether there is some resistance in the Department to contracting out. Instinctively, I feel that the Government should contract out at every available opportunity. Indeed, there are examples of successful contracting out in the DSS, such as the Information Technology Services Agency, under which savings have been made. I do not see why the DSS cannot place greater emphasis on contracting out.

Other Departments have set remarkably good examples. The Ministry of Defence has made a 47 per cent. improvement in the time spent overhauling Challenger main battle tanks by outsourcing that work, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made savings of 34 per cent. from market testing the work of the intervention board. It is a question not only of reducing costs but of improving quality. I am sure that the two can work hand in hand. There must be plenty of opportunities in the DSS to open its work to competition and I am disturbed that it appears to have done much less compared with other Government Departments.

The Child Support Agency could gain more than any other agency from working in partnership with the private sector. It does not seem to be right to resort to old-style solutions of recruiting hundreds and thousands more civil servants for the task when those already employed have failed to do it so abysmally. Those civil servants were recruited at a substantially higher cost than they would have incurred if they were working in the private sector. If the CSA's work is put out to the private sector at a later date, heavy redundancy costs will be incurred in trying to replace civil servants with people who are on less attractive remunerative packages.

When the Committee considered other areas of the DSS, such as tackling benefit fraud, it was told—at an earlier stage of its work before I joined the Committee—that there was difficulty in tackling it sufficiently well because of a lack of civil servants to do the work. There does not seem to be any lack of civil servants to do the work of the CSA, so why were they not available to work at the benefit fraud office? All sorts of excuses were made to explain why the work of the benefit fraud office should not be outsourced.

I was a little disappointed that the hon. Member for Birkenhead did not comment on those issues. We all look forward to the Government's response to the Select Committee report and perhaps an opportunity for the Select Committee to look into matters further, including, no doubt, outsourcing in the DSS. I was pleased to hear during my meeting with the Secretary of State that there was every possibility of certain work being outsourced, such as the collection of debts. I should like to stress that I wish to monitor the progress made by the Secretary of State in outsourcing that work at least.

4.56 pm
Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

The recommendations in the report of the Select Committee on Social Security are welcome, but there is a belief that they do not go far enough, as the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said. More needs to be done to address what people see as a lack of balance in the operation of the Child Support Act 1991. Recognition in the report that the performance targets should be based on operational factors of the agency and not on Treasury demands is a major step forward, especially as hon. Members will know that in 1993–94, only some 6 per cent. of those who received maintenance awards were not on benefit. Because of the policy of back-to-back withdrawal of benefit on receipt of maintenance, the CSA is being seen by many as not so much a Child Support Agency as a Chancellor support agency, which is clearly not what was intended.

The report highlights the need for the CSA to meet performance targets for customer service. That is vital. We need to establish performance targets to construct minimum acceptable periods of delay in response to people's queries. We need to set targets for customer satisfaction, and, most important of all, targets must be set for the management of agency resources. I agree entirely with those comments in the report, especially as recent revelations have shown that in 86 per cent. of the cases handled by the CSA, it has either miscalculated the maintenance liability or misinterpreted the legal application of the Act. That is an appalling record for whatever reason and no organisation should continue on that basis.

There must be a major restructuring programme for the CSA so that it can start to deliver an acceptable level of service. I am sure that many hon. Members will know from their advice centres of the effect of the current inefficiency on their constituents. We have already heard in the debate about the sort of problems with which constituents are faced. Let us lay that out. Attempts to clarify CSA demands are often met with engaged telephone lines or recorded messages. For those on low incomes who do not have access to their own telephone and have to use public payphones, making such phone calls is a costly and difficult burden. Letters to the agency meet inordinately long delays before they receive a reply and sometimes they receive no reply at all.

Because of inadequate liaison between the maintenance assessment and the debt collecting sections, parents receive differing and often contradictory figures and demands. To make matters worse, the CSA does not store historic computer-generated detailed assessment letters; only the latest assessments are kept on the computer files. That makes it almost impossible for a parent to pursue a query or to challenge a decision while an assessment is being developed.

In my discussions with CSA staff—I am sure that many other hon. Members have engaged in similar discussions—I have been given to understand that when the agency was established it was assumed that staff would be able to assess maintenance payments, and collect them from non-custodial parents, purely by means of paper communication. Naturally, the first reaction of a parent faced with a large and often unexpected assessment is to want to question and to verify it. It is beyond belief that a state agency should be expected to demand major slices of citizens' income—deducted at source if necessary—without providing a facility for those citizens to meet the staff or at least talk to them on the telephone. If the CSA wants to improve its performance, it must restructure its organisation to allow parents to discuss, query and in some cases challenge decisions in person. The Select Committee missed an opportunity in that regard.

Many of the changes that the report recommends are no more than trifling. If more is not done, the Act will have difficulty surviving in its present form. For example, the report fails to address the pressures placed on non-custodial parents to give up work because of the financial burden of maintenance payments. The refusal to consider travel-to-work costs is one of the factors that force many fathers to give up work and live on benefits. No one welcomes that development, but I hear of it from my constituents week after week. Those costs must be allowed: if a person cannot work, that person cannot pay maintenance for his or her children.

The Select Committee's recommended concession is no more than an exercise in pedantry. The costs of a car will not be allowed if the car is to be used privately as well. Again, if a non-custodial parent can travel to work only by car, because—as is the case in so many parts of the country—the public transport system is inadequate, that parent will need to buy a car, and such a purchase will invariably be made by means of a loan. That loan should be recognised in the maintenance assessment.

In many instances, divorcing fathers have taken out loans and mortgages to provide funds as part of a settlement. They have a legal obligation to pay their debts.

Mr. Duncan

Recommendation (xx) in the Select Committee report is simple and explicit. It states: We recommend that travel to work costs are included in the calculation of exempt income. Where the hon. Gentleman gets his notions about which costs may or may not be included is beyond me.

Mr. Chidgey

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his information, but I am content with the accuracy of the information that I possess. It is not acceptable for such obligations to be ignored; legally incurred and entirely necessary expenses such as mortgages need to be considered at the outset when the maintenance level is devised. That does not happen at present.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chidgey

No. I have given way already, and we are short of time.

The report makes no recommendations about disregarding any part of a CSA maintenance settlement against loss of income support. Instead, it suggests that income support should be made up to those whose maintenance is held up for any reason if it was reduced after the initial maintenance award.

Although that is welcome, it does not go far enough. It means that the poorest children will continue to be hit by the pound-for-pound rule. Their parents gain nothing from maintenance awards, and their non-custodial parents are those least likely to be able to afford to keep up visits, pay for holidays and so on, having paid maintenance awards which, as we know, go straight to the Treasury.

In many instances, as was verified by a recent report from the five main children's charities, those children could be worse off. Their fathers will no longer be able to afford the informal financial help—clothing, presents and outings—from which they previously benefited. Women on income support should be able to keep the first £15 of a maintenance award under the Act—as they are in the case of family credit or disability working allowance—so that they would be better off co-operating with the CSA.

As has already been said, that incentive to co-operate would reduce the application of the 20 per cent. benefit penalty for women who refuse to name the fathers of their children. The refusal to change that part of the Act will benefit only the Treasury, while increasing hardship for children.

Those who negotiated a clean-break settlement are hardest hit. Fathers who gave up their houses at the time of separation as part of the settlement and took out a mortgage on a new home are now being asked to start paying additional maintenance. Inevitably, that is hitting second marriages hard. Some second spouses are being forced to contribute part of their income to first spouses, even when the first spouse enjoys a significantly higher standard of living.

The agency's action in overriding those court settlements is having a devastating effect on children. When otherwise stabilised relationships deteriorate because of financial pressures, the children find themselves at the centre of post-divorce acrimony. Recognition of clean-break settlements is an absolute necessity for any Government who are seriously committed to children's welfare.

I agree with the hon. Member for Birkenhead that a major fault ignored in the report is the lack of an appeals process. When a parent does manage to contact the CSA to complain about what he or she considers to be an unreasonable assessment, and once an appeal comes to be heard—a process that takes an average of six months—the chances of a fair hearing are still minimal, because the agency continues to act as both judge and jury. It is absurd that an agency such as the CSA, which in the event is answerable only to the Secretary of State, can overturn court orders with which all parties agree and comply. That is why an independent appeals procedure is so urgently required for cases in which severe hardship is clearly being suffered.

In short, the Act needs to be fundamentally overhauled, not tinkered with by a Select Committee that is eager to avoid the U-turn chaos that was described earlier. Clean-break settlements need to be recognised, accountability in the CSA needs to be improved and an independent appeals procedure is required. The Government cannot assume that all-party support for the Act will continue indefinitely: I think that they know that unless some action is taken to deal with the criticisms that have been made of the agency and the Act that it was created to uphold, they may find that support beginning to slip away.

5.7 pm

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

In some 25 years as a Member of Parliament, I do not think that I have ever before ventured into a debate on social affairs. I hope that my hon. Friends and members of the Select Committee will forgive me if I am wrong about some of the technicalities. If perchance I make a recommendation that is already included in the long list of recommendations, I hope that my hon. Friends will accept that as support for their views.

Let me make a serious point. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) will know, we have limited time in which to debate Select Committee reports. In a way, I am happy to speak as someone who is not a member of his Committee: as it is often all too easy to have a debate on the Floor of the House that has already taken place upstairs in the Select Committee. We have not yet received the Government's reply to the Committee's report, and although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will seek to enlighten us as far as is possible, he will be somewhat constrained from making the Government's position clear until the more formal answer has been delivered. None the less, as we are having this debate and as I have dealt with more than the average number of cases, I feel obliged to speak.

I had the misfortune to be divorced some years ago, and I can only say that I know of no more traumatic personal experience. I would not wish on my worst enemy the misery of an unwanted divorce. Some people claim that there is such a thing as an amicable separation but that is rubbish or, at least, I do not believe that it happens very often.

Furthermore, no two divorces are quite the same. It is not a question only of the personalities involved and why two people are splitting up but of their wealth, jobs, circumstances and children. Despite that, and with the best intention—seeking to find irresponsible fathers who have disappeared—we have created a monstrous bureaucracy which pours misery on misery and the many unfortunate people who have already gone through the mental, physical and financial trauma of divorce now have to deal with this ghastly organisation as well. As a supporter of the Government, I have never been so ashamed as when I have had to defend the CSA and what it has got up to in the past two years.

My immediate reaction is that the assessment formula is wrong and unfair. Until, with the wisdom of experience and other countries and the two inquiries by the Select Committee, a more reasonable and equitable and less complex formula can be devised, there will be no substantive improvement in the management or operations of the CSA or its handling of cases.

No benefit will accrue to the children of a first family and/or the children of a second family if, as a result of the CSA's assessment, both families are left with a sum of money only marginally above the income support limit, bearing in mind the fact that the income support limit is far less than the money on which many of the people who come to my surgery are living. Of course, such people are not unwilling to pay; they have been to court and agreed a settlement and are open to a revision of that settlement. They feel bitter and unjustly treated.

The Government claim that the assessment should leave the non-custodial parent and the new family, if any, with approximately 70 per cent. of net income after the payment of maintenance. That is not only wholly inaccurate in the case of nearly all my constituents but, because several essential non-elective expenses are disallowed, the reality is wholly different. Some people have even received assessments that leave them with negative income while many others are left with income only slightly above the income support limit.

Any new assessment formula must take into consideration the size and nature of clean-break settlements, something that the Select Committee recognised. It must be possible to overcome the difficulties; courts have been doing so for years. I know that there are legal problems, but they must be sorted out. A new assessment formula must also take into account the voluntary and informal agreements which have been willingly entered into to pour oil on troubled waters and to deal with matters amicably.

Allowable expenses must be extended to allow a number of non-elective expenses to be verified. Council tax payments, heat, electricity and water bills and travel-to-work expenses are easily verifiable. The costs involved in travelling to be with one's children is a crucial expense. One of my constituents is a service man who has been posted hundreds of miles away from his children. He is allowed to see them but cannot afford to do so. Such travel costs are not allowed in the calculation although they should be and would be, at least by anyone who has a heart.

Private pensions should be protected. Periodic overtime is a source of constant aggravation—why should it be included and used as a reason to raise the assessment? An incentive to improve one's financial situation must be allowed. In many cases, overtime constitutes the only way in which the non-custodial parent and his second family can survive economically. It seems fair that children should be maintained on the basis of a standard, regular income but it does not seem fair that maintenance should be an ever-floating item and that any extra money immediately increases maintenance payments. By comparison, many items of essential expenditure are allowed under legal aid so there is a perfectly good precedent.

The financial position of the new partner of a custodial parent is not taken into account. When my office made inquiries about that, it was told that the new partner of a custodial parent has no legal or financial responsibility for the children of the parent whom he or she is marrying. That statement has been included in several ministerial responses to my constituents' complaints.

Conversely, the new partner of a non-custodial parent is automatically liable for 25 per cent. of the household expenses. Letters from Ministers and the CSA have informed my constituents that the new partner's mandatory 25 per cent. contribution to the running of the household may result in the non-custodial parent contributing more in maintenance. Although some recent ministerial letters state that the income of the new partner of the non-custodial parent must be considered—it may result in a lowering of maintenance payments—the inequity remains. Let us keep it simple: when determining the right to, or responsibility for, maintenance we should either take both or neither new partners' income into account.

The CSA assessment must include identical allowances for natural children, stepchildren and the children of second families. Anything less will continue to cause significant psychological and emotional harm to all of the families involved. It strikes me as strange that, despite having such a high grade civil service, we have managed to include in the legislation—through the orders attached to the original Act—so many draconian and irrationally inhumane provisions.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I have the advantage of not having been a member of the Select Committee and I do not want to get involved in detail, but it seems to me that there were three fundamental things wrong with the original legislation. The element of retrospection was and is wrong; the overriding of court settlements was and is wrong; and one needs a double first in mathematics to understand the formula. Does my hon. Friend think that we need a fundamental reappraisal not only of the work of the agency but of the legislation itself? I do not see any other way out.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

As I said in my opening remarks, I do not claim to be an expert so I cannot answer my hon. Friend, but I am sure that his remarks will have been noted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) sought to excuse to some extent the CSA's bureaucratic, mechanical performance, but there can be no excuse. In all my 25 years in Parliament, I have never known a Government agency perform so badly, incompetently and outrageously unfeelingly. Many of its staff are inexperienced at working in the highly emotionally charged atmosphere that the CSA has created. They complain of abusive treatment by non-custodial parents, but how would they be inclined to respond if, after hearing nothing from the agency for months and months, they received notice, with a threat of court action attached, that they were immediately responsible for paying arrears which, in some cases, could be as high as £3,000 or £4,000?

From the outset, the CSA adopted an adversarial style with all non-custodial parents and has treated them as though they were guilty of trying to avoid maintenance. The constituents who have written to me were paying maintenance all along, years before the CSA became involved. Other flaws in administration have included breach of confidentiality in matters relating to the non-custodial parent; the use of threatening language in correspondence; anonymous correspondence; and the staff's refusal to identify themselves on the telephone or the purpose of the call when initial contact was first made with non-custodial parents.

I do not intend to be wholly critical. I have sought to give the Minister a constructive brief and a solution to some of the problems. The adversarial style must be replaced by one of assistance and information. If necessary, let there be two forms—one for irresponsible non-custodial parents and one for those who have kept up payments. There must be proper and adequate training of staff, preferably in the operations and style of a service organisation, with training in communicating with people suffering stress. Cases should be assigned to two trained staff who will be accountable for those cases and conversant with the details. Only then will they be able to be effective in managing it, handling appeals in a timely manner and using responsibly whatever powers of discretion they have. At the moment, no one knows anything specific about cases and no one is accountable. I hope that such suggestions will improve people's relationship with the CSA.

The appeals procedure must be simplified. Non-custodial parents should be able to speak directly to the case officer, especially in connection with corrections and clarification. An information hotline/public assistance number should be available and published in local papers. The agency should be staffed with qualified personnel during extended hours, to help people who cannot telephone or do anything about such matters while they are at work.

The date of the commencement of arrears causes much misery. Arrears have become very expensive and greatly upset the budget of individual households. Assuming that interim assessments are discontinued, and provided that a non-custodial parent returns information in a timely fashion, arrears should begin no more than 30 days out from the date that a completed accurate final assessment is posted by the CSA.

Parents should not be liable for CSA administrative faults and problems, which have in the past caused months of delay, certainly in many of my cases. A system of retrospective financial compensation must be created for those who, through no fault of their own, have accrued arrears during the time taken by CSA deliberations, and new cases must be protected from such overcharging. If the CSA fails to fulfil its obligations to assess and post charges during a certain period, it should absorb the costs, rather than passing them on to the person being charged arrears. The agency must conform to standard business practice.

We keep hearing that the matter is to be reviewed. Indeed, the Government have reviewed it once already, yet the same people come into my surgery saying, "Why did they bother? It didn't help my case." Now we understand that it is all to be reviewed again, but why the delay? Month after month those wretched people are suffering. I find it difficult to bear that any longer, and I press my hon. Friends in Government to produce an early solution to many of the problems that I have described.

5.21 pm
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

I have served on the Select Committee since the House set it up, and we have dealt with many subjects that have caused much heartache to the people who have come before us to give evidence. One of those was the affair of the Maxwell pensioners. But I think that the Child Support Agency has caused the greatest heartache of all.

I have been privileged and proud to be a member of that Committee, but this time I was rather concerned because when we finalised the report we could not reach agreement on many aspects. That was unfortunate because all the members of the Committee work hard, listen to one another and find out what other people's views are, but we still could not produce a report agreed by us all. I am a little concerned about that, and I feel that perhaps we could have done better.

I was once talking to a policeman about people breaking the law and the trouble that he had had at various times, and he said to me, "I'll give you a little bit of advice, Clifford. Don't ever interfere between a man and wife." Apparently, if a couple are having an argument in the middle of the street or in a house and someone goes to interfere they both turn on him and blame him for all the things that have happened, no matter what the row was about.

I believe that when the House passed the Child Support Act 1991 we failed to realise that truth. We did not realise how sensitive an area we were entering, even leaving aside the question of children. When one interferes between those who have loved one another but who for various reasons no longer do so, one is in difficulty—and that is precisely what the Act does. It attempts to make a judgment between a husband and wife as to what allowances should be paid for the children.

We all know that, sadly, children can be used as blackmail in divorce cases by either partner or both. When we consider the legislation we should bear that fact in mind. Even when people have been divorced and everything has gone well, if they come into the constituency office we tend to find that they do not even refer to each other by name, but talk about "him" or "her". Then we realise that we must be very careful in everything we say and do.

In view of that, one could think that there might be a dispute between the former partners over the children, but when the people who gave evidence before the Select Committee were asked, "Do you think parents should be responsible for looking after their children and supporting them?" the answer was always, "Yes, we believe that they should." So far as I can remember, no one was against the idea. So the task is to devise legislation that will allow that to happen.

Retrospective legislation always causes trouble; any retrospective arrangement does. People are going back over old ground and opening old sores—doing all the things that we would wish not to do in such a situation. I know that some of my fellow members of the Select Committee have said that we should not legislate retrospectively. But why is it not within the realms of possibility for the courts that have already made decisions on cases—they can work retrospectively—to reconsider those cases in the light of the legislation and of the assessments made under it?

There is no reason why a court could not look at such cases if they were brought back, even if they were not retrospective from the CSA's point of view. Indeed, I understand that it is the right of someone receiving maintenance to take the case back to court. So there is no reason why the courts should not consider such cases and say, "In the light of the changed situation let us see if we can make alterations." The advantage would be that those representing the non-custodial parent could have made their own case. Some members of the Select Committee thought that in retrospect the arrangements were unfortunate.

I am not talking about the financial side of things or many of the other things that have been expressed in the debate. I am speaking from the point of view of the child. The object of the legislation was to look after the child; that is why it was called the Child Support Act. If we cannot devise an arrangement that looks after the child we must reconsider the legislation. If we are aggravating the two parents of the child something is wrong with that legislation and it must be re-examined.

Some hon. Members would say that it would be better to allow at least legitimate expenses to the non-custodial parent—expenses that would have an adverse effect on that parent's ability to pay maintenance for the child. It is a great mistake to ask someone to maintain a child if, at the same time, we remove the ability of that non-custodial parent to have enough money to do it. We should consider the legitimate expenses.

I support the idea of a simpler assessment. It would be much simpler if one could say that it will cost £X if there is one child or two if a parent is divorced. That would be a simpler system and people would at least know what they are up against. Such a system would be helpful. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) about the assessment forms. We found it very difficult to use the forms, even after instruction.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I have an example of the complexity involved in making an assessment. Four assessments were sent to a constituent of mine on 4 November, each in a separate envelope. Although the amount of income is the same, the assessment in the first letter is for £65.29, in the second it is for £68.86, the third is for £70.27 and the fourth is for £71.12. I have the same difficulty as members of the Select Committee did. I cannot work out which is the correct assessment.

Mr. Forsythe

That intervention reveals the extent of the problem. If one could assess the situation for oneself, the system would be much easier.

If someone disagrees with an assessment, it may be looked at again, but at the end of the day that person will be told, "We are sorry, but that is what the assessment is. If you don't like it, you will unfortunately go into arrears." That will happen regardless of whether that person believes that the assessment is right or wrong.

Someone may come into a constituency office and say that he has applied for disability living allowance, but has been turned down. He may say that he has had a review, but has been turned down again. When that person asks what he can do next, we say that he can appeal. With regard to many cases that hon. Members deal with, we can say, "Well, why don't you appeal? I will attempt to assist you with it." However, we cannot tell our constituents that the best thing to do is to appeal with regard to the CSA because there is no appeal mechanism. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead said, everyone would expect the right to an appeal. For example, even though many people break the speed limit and are not caught, if they are caught, they can appeal.

One of the Select Committee's greatest problems related to property settlements. A non-custodial parent may have wished the parent with care to have the matrimonial home so that the children could live there, attend school and keep their friends. As such a settlement was reached, people tend to believe that it is part of the arrangement. The Department of Social Security believes that such settlements are a matter between adults. However, I contend that if they are in the interests of the child, they should be taken into consideration.

The disregard is a very good idea. It provides an incentive. Without an incentive, many other problems flow. I fully support the idea of a disregard and I am not being disloyal to my colleagues on the Select Committee because that was my view then and it is my view now. However, I do not wish to repeat that argument.

I remind the House that the Child Support Act 1991 was passed by Members of this place. By doing that, they set up the Child Support Agency and they asked it to administer legislation which the House decreed it should administer. While I realise that mistakes can occur in all walks of life and in all jobs, and that they are very unfortunate in the delicate situation between a former husband and wife, I must place on record the fact that all the staff of the offices that we visited were dedicated, sincere, sympathetic and, above all, worked within legislation set up by the House. Hon. Members should remember that.

It is unfortunate that, at times, individual members of the agency are castigated as things are happening over which they perhaps have no control. While we would encourage the agency to make improvements, we must make it clear that we recognise that there are people in the agency who are doing their very best to work the legislation for which we are responsible.

5.36 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

The House owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and his Select Committee for producing the second report. Some of the earlier comments about the report were slightly churlish. It will not satisfy everyone. No report produced by hon. Members ever does. However, the Select Committee has managed to focus attention again—and, as the Committee said, it is unusual for a Select Committee to do it twice—on a matter which, for a relatively small number of people, is of absolute and paramount importance.

We got this wrong. Hon. Members on both sides of the House got it horribly wrong. I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) that, while there have clearly been occasions when individual members of the Child Support Agency staff have not acted like paragons of virtue, it is we who have caused the problems that have created the anguish with which they are confronted. We must remember that.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I was tempted to intervene on the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), but he sat down at a crucial moment. Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten me. He was right to say that we passed the legislation in this House. However, I understand that we passed a very simple Act. Many of the mechanics of the CSA were introduced by orders, none of which was debated in the House. It is a lesson for us all that delegated legislation is not always entirely correct.

Mr. Gale

I concur with what my hon. Friend has just said, as, apart from his comments about CSA staff, I would concur with virtually everything that he said in his extremely excellent speech. The fact remains that we—nobody else—are responsible for legislation, and we got it wrong. We must now get it right.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

I hesitate to intervene, but, so that the House and the country are fully aware of the history of the Act, on Second Reading the Opposition tabled a reasoned amendment and highlighted many criticisms that have now been made. That matter should also be on the record.

Mr. Gale

I am prepared to concede that the Opposition, like some Conservatives, are blessed, not infrequently, with 20:20 hindsight.

The Act has shattered agreements that were freely entered into. It has caused untold hardship and misery. It has brought about friction where there was none. It has actually harmed some of the children whom it was designed to assist. The House sought rightly to ensure that parents took responsibility for their children.

It has been suggested that the Treasury is clawing back the money. The money belongs to the taxpayer. It is not the job of the taxpayer or of my elderly constituents in Thanet, North, having worked hard all their lives and now living on modest incomes, to support other people's children. That was the thesis behind the Act of Parliament. As has been said, bits have been bolted on to it and have made it unworkable.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security for the unfailingly courteous manner in which he has responded to some occasionally unfailingly less-than-courteous letters from me. In my correspondence with the Department, I have sought to reflect the genuine anger of honest working constituents who have sought to meet the obligations into which they believed that they had entered. They bitterly resent the fact that those agreements, which were freely entered into, are now being overturned by others and by us.

I am certain that, in seeking to ensure that parents take responsibility for their children, we have reopened maintenance settlements by the back door. Some of my constituents do not regard the Act as a child support Act, and they do not regard the agency as a child support agency. They regard them as an ex-spouse support Act and an ex-spouse support agency.

It would be naive beyond belief to accept that, when there is an improvement in payment that is not simply swallowed up by the taxpayer, money goes to the child. It does not. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) made the very correct point that we place a burden to contribute upon a new partner of an absent parent, but we take no account whatever of, often, an extremely comfortable life style enjoyed by the partner with custody, with a new partner. It is not fish or fowl. We cannot have it both ways, and we should not try to have it both ways. My hon. Friend the Minister will have to determine either that the full incomes of both households are taken into account or that neither of the new partners' incomes is taken into account.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

Does my hon. Friend agree that that could have an extremely damaging effect on a second marriage, and, in some cases, could contribute to its break-up? We have two problems instead of one. Change is absolutely essential to stop that problem and many others that have been mentioned.

Mr. Gale

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We have made a mistake, and the sensible, honourable way forward is to make a change, and as soon as possible. I see no shame whatever, and never have done, in acknowledging that legislation—I can think of one or two other pieces of legislation that are as close to your heart, Madam Deputy Speaker, as to mine—needs to be changed. When something is wrong and is not working as intended in the light of experience, the sensible course is for the House to acknowledge that and change it. That is not a U-turn; it is simply to say, "We have looked at this as it is working, and we need to amend it." My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary are engaged in what seems to have been an interminable review. Nevertheless, that is why the review is taking place, and I hope that changes will be brought forward.

I agree entirely that the worst aspect of the legislation has been its retrospective nature and the fact that, having entered into agreements in court, people now find them overturned. I concur with the view of the hon. Member for Antrim, South that, when the courts made the original disposition, there is absolutely no reason why they should not be asked to review cases. That is the proper way to address a grievance in law. It is extremely dangerous for the House ever to embark on retrospective legislation. I hope that we shall learn lessons from this mess.

I also believe strongly that payments should be needs-related, not means-related. I know that that issue is contentious. There is a strong view that, if an absent parent's circumstances improve, the child should benefit. I do not accept that. Separated families have different and differently developing life styles. If we are to help the child—and let us determine the needs of the child and base the payment on them—and if we are serious about allowing the child in some way to benefit from the improved circumstances, be they so, of the absent parent, anything above the needs-related payment to which I referred should be placed in trust for the child, so that the child will benefit from it when he or she reaches maturity, for example when that kid might be going to university. Otherwise, all that we are doing is rejigging an agreed settlement and giving a former spouse more money to spend on beer and skittles, or whatever. That is not the intention of the Act. The Act is intended to help the child. We must address that matter.

The formula that is used to assess payments does not take into account absent parents' previous debts. That is nonsense. We cannot say that, at the moment a couple separates, all legally binding contracts which have been entered into and which do not form part of a straightforward mortgage repayment must not be taken into account. I refer, for example, to the extension of a house, for which a loan has been taken out—payments still have to be made if a roof is to be kept over the children's heads—a hire purchase agreement for a car that is probably used for work, or any such commitment that was made before the legislation came into being. If previous debts are not taken into account, we cannot possibly claim that we are reflecting true costs out of the income of the absent parent.

Mr. Jenkin

Of course, that matter was in our in-trays when we considered it in Committee, but we did not regard it seriously, because we were confronted constantly with how people were likely to respond to changes such as the one that my hon. Friend suggested. In the case of debts accumulated before separation, the danger is that, by allowing the cost of those debts, we would encourage the accumulation of debts before separation. With the best will in the world, we did not want to create further loopholes, expense and complication in respect of a formula that many right hon. and hon. Members have described as too complicated.

Mr. Gale

I understand my hon. Friend's argument, but I do not accept it. In one or two cases malevolent people might run up debts knowing that they will leave their wife or husband in three months' time and that the debts will be taken into account in the calculation. But my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare said that he had been through the trauma of a divorce, and so have I. In the main, divorces are not pre-planned; they are desperately tragic domestic events of the most traumatic and harrowing kind.

I doubt that the sort of thing to which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) referred would happen in the overwhelming majority of cases. Of course it is possible, but I do not think that it is likely that people will stack up debts. I believe that debts should be taken into account in calculating amounts to be paid.

Travel-to-work costs should also be recognised. My constituents in Margate and Herne Bay can, and do, pay up to £2,000 per year in rail fares to commute to work in London. It is crazy that that contribution to absent parents' earning power—without which they would have no earning power because they would not have a job—should not be taken into account. We cannot simply write off £2,000. People will still have to get to work in order to make money to pay their ex-spouse. It is daft.

I have always believed that travel-to-work costs should be tax deductible—it is a straightforward business expense. But that is an argument for another place and time. Perhaps travel-to-work costs exceeding a minimum level could be taken into account. People do not buy rail season tickets to travel from Thanet to London for fun; they buy them so that they can get to work. It seems to me that that cost is fundamental to the formula. I am delighted that the Social Security Committee has made a recommendation to that effect and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State will take it on board.

All hon. Members have constituents who are faced with demands for sums which, unless they win the national lottery, they will not be able to pay. We cannot expect someone who is already in straitened circumstances, possibly as a result of a separation or marriage breakdown, to spirit £500, £900, £1,500, £2,000 or £3,000 out of thin air. It is all very well for someone in the CSA to say, "That is your calculated arrears and you must pay it." People have not made provision to pay those sums. In some cases, the calculation of assessments takes months from when the forms are first filled in.

That is no fault of my constituents: they provide the required information. My constituents have come to me with five or six letters— all posted within days of each other— containing different assessments. That is not my constituents' fault; it is the fault of the CSA.

I have constituents who pay sums of money— perhaps £50— which they recognise are probably on the low side; but they have paid them regularly. They agreed to pay those sums and they have kept their part of the contract. They then fill in a form, 11 months go by and an assessment arrives. It is perhaps more than they would like to pay, but it is not always unfair. However, there is also a huge bill for payments in arrears that they are simply not able to meet.

If there is a court order, the arrears payments do not exist. If people with court orders do not have to meet arrears payments, why do people who have been paying money methodically but who do not have court orders face huge bills? What is the difference? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary must address that aspect of the Act because it is causing misery.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that some of the delay in reforming this dreadful Act results from a disagreement as to whether the correct route for change is through primary or secondary legislation. The changes to the Act must be implemented by whatever measures are necessary in order to get it right. If we work out what those measures are, it will become blindingly obvious whether they must be implemented through primary or secondary legislation— or, as I suspect, through both primary and secondary legislation.

I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to implement the Committee's recommendations immediately through secondary legislation. He can then pursue the other necessary changes through primary legislation as quickly as possible. In short, I want my right hon. and hon. Friends to act with some urgency; we have delayed for far too long.

5.55 pm
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

We are debating a most important estimate, which will become increasingly important for reasons that I will outline, and it is vital that we make the right decisions. I was struck by the fact that two Conservative Members said that Parliament had got it wrong. I hope that we shall consider the implications of that statement for the parliamentary process.

Why did the Parliament get it wrong? I have attended meetings of the Select Committee which is considering the incapacity for work legislation, and I am not convinced that we are getting it right. Committees allow objective scrutiny of the Executive and its decisions, but I have seen Committee members simply voting the way their Whips tell them to vote. I have seen them doing their correspondence, not listening to the evidence or the arguments, and voting the most complex pieces of legislation through on the nod.

I can envisage hon. Members coming to the Chamber in a year or two saying, "We do not know what we did, but the legislation is not working—it is hurting people and we must think again". Although the incapacity for work legislation is not the subject of this debate, I hope that we shall think through the implications of what has been said today and use the Child Support Act 1991 as an important case study. We must consider the need for pre-legislative hearings and we must take our role as scrutineers of legislation seriously.

However, I think that we knew more about the potential effect of the Act than some Conservative Members have admitted. I recall that there was a White Paper which grappled with the complexities of reform in this area. Anyone who read that White Paper, let alone much of the evidence submitted by research and voluntary organisations, would have appreciated that Parliament was grappling with extremely complex matters.

We are considering an important issue, but it is not only our Parliament and our society that are grappling with those problems. Communities around the world—in the Antipodes, Europe and North America—face the same kind of problems. We have heard a lot about divorce in the debate, but almost a third of children born in this country today are born outside marriage—half of them to unmarried lone mothers and the other half to cohabiting parents.

Accumulating evidence suggests that children in both categories are more at risk, both socially and materially, than those born to married couples. There is a stable group of cohabiting parents whose children will do as well or as badly as any other children in this country, but many children born to cohabiting parents live in circumstances which give us cause to worry about their future. We also know that unmarried lone mothers—the group whose number is increasing most rapidly of all one-parent families—are particularly vulnerable.

Regarding marriage itself, we know that the parents of about 25 per cent. of the children born this year and of children born subsequently will divorce before those children reach the age of 16. That involves a high proportion of children, and one which I fear will grow in the future. At the family policies study centre we once calculated that by the year 2000 only 50 per cent. of children in Britain would be born to married parents and remain living with them until the age of 16.

We are not talking about a small minority: a large proportion of adults and children will be affected by legislation of this kind. The issue of parental responsibility and what that means in increasingly diverse family circumstances therefore becomes a crucial moral question, but also a social and financial question. The demographics are complicated by the phenomena of remarriage, the co-habitation of divorced people and, sadly, re-divorce.

The House of Commons, which is still predominately made up of male hon. Members, speaks most lucidly on the issue with a male voice and in the male interest. However, the present principal victims—certainly the principal financial victims—of the social revolution in family change have been women and children. There is no doubt about that. Research shows clearly something which ought to be a matter of common sense. Following a divorce, the man usually gets richer, as he does not have to provide for his children any more. The women and children get poorer. It is a case of women and children last.

Those are the facts. We do not always hear the facts, and the case studies presented to the House on this most controversial of matters are not those case studies. Nevertheless, I put it to the House that those are predominantly the facts. We should therefore be in no doubt at all that reform was needed and that some kind of child maintenance or support Act was also needed. I have no doubt at all about that.

We must treat with much cynicism, and certainly much caution, any suggestion that before the Child Support Act the system was working smoothly; it was not. I am not saying that that suggestion has been made today, although it was nearly made. The system was a social and financial disaster.

Work was commissioned by the Government and carried out by York university on one-parent families. In a sample survey—a respectable piece of statistical work—it found that only 39 per cent. of one-parent families ever received maintenance at all, and that only 29 per cent. received maintenance regularly. I accept that of the 29 per cent. who were making regular maintenance payments some may have been paying at a decent level to safeguard the interests of their children. I put it to the House, however, that most were not paying adequate amounts, and the research shows that to be the case.

Although hon. Members' advice surgery encounters are among the most difficult, we should have the honesty and courage to say sometimes to a father, "You are paying maintenance. How much? You have two or three children. How much are you paying per week? What do you think the costs of a child are a week?" Before the Act, the system was a disaster.

I am interested in the arguments that the legislation should have been retrospective, although I am not sure what my judgment is on that. If those who are putting the argument that it should not have been retrospective do not go on to say that we should have sorted out the court system so that maintenance was collected adequately, they are not addressing the real problem.

One of the important issues, and one of the reasons why the matter is so controversial, is that the Act and its administration raise the question of what the costs of children are in Britain today. The short answer is that children are very expensive, as any parent knows. I do not make this suggestion flippantly, but I sometimes think that if all parents who are paying vast amounts for shoes, clothing, a university education and all the other things involved, suddenly had a Government agency—I do not mind whether it is a privatised agency or not—presenting a child support bill every week with all that we are paying added up, some of us might run to our Member of Parliament to complain. Some of us might even desert our children temporarily, so shocked would we be at their cost. The Child Support Agency makes it all too explicit to fathers what the costs of children are in Britain today.

For most parents, paying for their children and recognising their financial obligations should be among the first calls on their resources, and not among the last. I am not attacking the idea that some legitimate expenses should be in the formula, and the report and the Government must address those wisely. We hear of the various expenses which are put forward, and the argument that only if one has a few pounds left should one have to pay that for one's children. That should not be the case. Looking after one's children financially is among the most important obligations of parenthood. It should not be a matter of small change.

We cannot get away from the fact that someone has to pay the bill, given the expense of bringing up children. We should be spending and investing more money in children, rather than less. Who is to pay? The parents together can pay, the taxpayer can pick up some of the bill—many taxpayers on low incomes are parents themselves—or the costs must be paid for negatively through the poverty of one-parent families and children. Those are the choices that we have. We cannot do away with the cost: someone has to pay in one way or another.

I heard some hon. Members today talking about ex-wives, and how women spend money. The implication—I hope that I have got this wrong—was that wives spend money on luxuries and it never gets to the children. Unless it was intended as a rather dryly delivered lampoon of saloon bar rhetoric, that sort of remark represents a grave insult to the majority of one-parent families made up of mothers and children. Most one-parent families—I do not know whether it is the case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale)—are poor, with 70 per cent. on income support. Among single mothers, the figure is 85 per cent. That may not be the case in certain constituencies, but that is the picture across the country.

I believe firmly that if mothers—sometimes it is fathers, of course—were to receive more money, they would spend it on their children because they need to and because they would take on that responsibility.

That is not to deny that the implementation of the Act has sometimes bordered on the catastrophic. I accept that the injustices which have affected some families and some fathers have been grave. If one is faced with such injustice, that is what counts rather than the more broad brush issues. I accept that unfairness has occurred and that the Act has become an administrative nightmare. We need Government and Parliament to make wise and intelligent decisions about how the system can be reformed.

The theme of my remarks is that a wise Parliament, a wise Government and—dare I say it—a wise press would sometimes listen hard for the silent voices of mothers and children, and not just to the loud, shrill voices which command the most attention on the issue.

If we want child support reform to become a strategy for fairness, we need to introduce a disregard. I regret that that has become a matter of party political controversy, because it should not have done. The issue is clear. A one-parent family on income support has its child maintenance deducted pound for pound, penny for penny from that income support. That means that the vast majority of children who should have been helped by a support measure get no extra money. That is a grave mistake and it is a pity that it has become the subject of political controversy.

I believe that I understand the political history behind the controversy. The former Prime Minister, the then Mrs. Thatcher, on the famous occasion of her lecture to the National Children's Home, said that no father would be able to escape his responsibilities in the future. I think that that promise took Ministers and civil servants at the Department of Social Security by surprise. It was the equivalent of a political hand grenade, with the pin half out, rolling towards the door of the then Secretary of State for Social Security, now the Leader of the House. I am sure that no one will want to confirm or deny my theory, but it is my guess that that is what happened.

In the next chapter, the Treasury, always a bad judge of social policy, saw the opportunity for a new taxation measure to recoup taxpayers' money, which would thus help public expenditure estimates. In the crucial discussions between the Department and the Treasury, the Treasury won. I suspect that the Department argued for a disregard, but we shall never know—or at least not for 30 years or until the memoirs of the Leader of the House are serialised in—

Mr. Bennett

The Sun.

Mr. Wicks

No, the right hon. Gentleman is a man of judgment: he would choose The Observer. We shall then learn the truth.

The Treasury saw the then Prime Minister's commitment as the chance to introduce an Exchequer support Act. That is when things went badly wrong, because the disregard option is now the subject of a political slanging match. The Labour party rightly believes that such a disregard should be introduced, but Tory Back Benchers immediately ask whether that is a Labour party commitment and how much it would cost.

If we had introduced a disregard, we could have presented the Child Support Act 1991 as a policy of fairness—a true child support policy. We could have demonstrated that children were supported. Child support would then have become more accepted as a part of our welfare state and more accepted as a moral responsibility. Savings would have been generated for the Exchequer. That illustrates the fact that the Treasury is a poor judge not just of social policy but of financial policy in anything but the short term.

The Australian example has often been cited. I had the opportunity to speak to child support officials and officials of the Australian tax office, which collects the child support money, when I visited that country in 1989 and 1990. The message I got from Ministers, civil servants and tax officials was that the disregard—in Australia most of the disregard money goes to the mothers and the children—had oiled the wheels of difficult social legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has said, the Australians said that there was army out there on the side of a disregard. In Australia, mothers rang up the tax office to see how much money had been collected each week and what their share would be. The disregard became part of social policy. It has not been possible to achieve that in Britain.

The issue at stake is how we try to save a decent principle of parental responsibility from poor practice. Some people do not want to save it. It is easy now to win votes in constituencies and to appear the populist by saying that the 1991 Act should be abandoned. I merely want it to be reformed. It would be irresponsible to abandon it now. How do we save that decent principle from poor practice? If we do not get it right, we shall perpetuate new forms of poverty and new inequalities in the future, which will affect many of our children.

If we were wise, we would want to reform the 1991 Act within the context of a wider family policy agenda. One cannot reform the Act on its own. That policy should include reform of the divorce law to put children first. I know that the Lord Chancellor is grappling with that in his planned White Paper. That policy should also include projects on preparation for parenthood to ensure that people take parenthood more seriously, and also family and sex education because there is no reason why 100,000 teenage women should have unplanned conceptions every year. If we pursued a wider family policy agenda and reformed the 1991 Act, Parliament would truly put children first.

6.15 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) made a helpful speech. He has just been appointed to our Select Committee, but judging from many of his remarks, one might think that he had taken part in many of our deliberations. I think that he will be a valuable addition to the Committee.

I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman about the disregard, which has been consistently raised in the debate so far. It may be superficially attractive for taxpayers to provide perhaps an extra £350 million or £500 million to oil the wheels and to encourage the system to work, but that would introduce a major element of unfairness. Why should children who happen to depend on maintenance from a non-custodial parent enjoy the benefits of a household that is significantly better off than that in which couples have happily remained married? That was one of the main considerations that led a number of us to oppose the disregard proposal.

The disregard also adds significantly to the poverty trap. One of the benefits of the current system is that the parent with care receives the maintenance. To begin with, one of the big problems was that so few of those parents were receiving the full maintenance that the Child Support Act 1991 intended that they should receive. Once they receive that maintenance, however, in addition to the benefit that tops up their income to the income support level, plus family credit, that money is a permanent building block of income for their household, which they do not lose if they move into work. That extra incentive to work would be discouraged if, by moving off income support level and out of family credit, those parents were then to lose the £15 disregard, as recommended by other members of the Select Committee. That problem convinced certain of us that the disregard was not practical and was not worth the additional resources that would have to be devoted to it.

If we can make the 1991 Act work, that would be the best prize that we can deliver to single parents. I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West about the importance of the unsung multitude—the people who do not get sufficient attention—those parents with care on income support levels. We are talking about more than 1 million households in which single parents, on or below benefit levels, look after children. We have received relatively few complaints in our constituency surgeries about the 1991 Act compared with the vast number of people whom the Act is intended to help.

The other points raised by—may I say my hon. Friend—the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) were matters that the Committee considered in great detail. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) in paying tribute to him. It is a privilege to serve on his Committee, where we have such an open and frank exchange of views. I look forward to working on further reports with him.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned two main features. One that has not been widely discussed in the debate so far is the appeal system. We spent a long time discussing how an appeal system could be made effective without returning to the failed courts system that we were seeking to replace. The argument concerns gateways: should we create an appeal system with narrow gateways through which people must pass—or narrow conditions for which they must qualify—before they are eligible to appeal; or should we have much wider gateways so that vast numbers of people can appeal? If we choose narrow gateways, the result will be an appeal system that will contribute to widespread disappointment because few people will benefit from the appeal system. If we choose wide gateways, the system will return to extensive discretion and the failed courts system that we sought to replace.

In its purest sense, the Act is not retrospective because the definition of a retrospective Act of Parliament is one that would create a punishment for something that was not a crime when it was committed. This Act does riot do that because it does nothing that the courts could not have achieved, had they been so minded. The question is: why did not the courts enforce higher amounts of maintenance to be paid by non-custodial parents? The answer is that the courts made the most amicable settlements that they could arrange in the light of benefits available through the benefits system. Had we returned to a system in which there were no welfare benefits, the courts may have been much more active because the survival of single-parent families would have depended entirely on the courts system.

Mr. Bennett

The hon. Gentleman is not quite correct about retrospection. Many of my constituents are upset by the question of travel costs. The courts could always take travel costs into account, whereas I understand that the new agency cannot. It is hard on someone who lives in Stockport but who works in Merseyside, for example, not to have those considerable costs taken into account.

Mr. Jenkin

Indeed, and that point is reflected in the formula. I accept the distinction that the hon. Gentleman seeks to draw because an element of discretion was allowed to the courts but was not reflected in the formula, and we have sought to amend that.

Mr. Frank Field

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I, too, had great pleasure working with him on the Committee. I chided him there, and do so now in the Chamber, for not being Conservative enough. He has an extraordinary view of how society operates. What actually happened was that this place took little or no interest in whether people on benefit were receiving maintenance payments. All too many of our constituents felt that we would never take an interest in that subject and, by winks and nods, the word went round that it was perfectly proper to start another family because people were not chased for maintenance. Because of the escalating bill, we then decided that we would be interested in collecting maintenance.

In that sense, the Act is retrospective, which is why many of our constituents feel that it is unjust. They started a second family assuming that the House of Commons would never discuss the issue and we suddenly not only took an interest but passed an Act that affected them.

Mr. Jenkin

Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, as I find myself doing so often. The point that I was seeking to make is that the Act is not technically retroactive but, like any change in the law, it affects people's past assumptions and the position that they now confront. I shared with the hon. Gentleman for much our discussions a desire to ameliorate those retrospective effects. Indeed, we concluded in our report—it was one area where we created a consensus rather than having instant unanimity—that the Government should look at aspects of the effect of retrospection on the agreements.

It is important to emphasise and re-emphasise the fact that the courts have never recognised what one or two hon. Members call "clean-break settlements" with regard to the maintenance of children. Courts have always had the power to alter agreements, even when assets were transferred to try to remove the need for maintenance payments to be made. They have always had the power to review settlements and enforce higher maintenance payments.

The most interesting issue that the Committee studied was the introduction of an alternative type of formula. Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birkenhead. As we investigated the matter, we were disappointed to find that it did not solve the problems. We took evidence from Mr. Frank Bosch and Mr. David Butler on the respective New Zealand and Australian systems. Mr. David Butler said: Even after six years, Australian Members of Parliament are receiving more complaints about Child Support than any other issues. We are currently under Parliamentary scrutiny which attracted more submissions than any other review in Australia's history". We decided not to go for a major change in the formula because it would not have satisfied the expectations that it would have raised, given that we were determined to introduce some kind of system to enforce better maintenance.

This has been an extremely important debate and the contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) highlighted the extremely sensitive nature of the social reform that the Act seeks to achieve. In that respect, the Act was and is an enormously ambitious project. The benefits system created an environment in which parents, for whatever reason, found it too easy an option to abandon, at least partly, their responsibilities to their children. There is a growing realisation on both sides of the House, evidenced by the contributions of the hon. Members for Birkenhead and for Croydon, North-West, that the Government can no longer ignore the adverse consequences and side-effects of their policies, however benevolent and well intentioned they may be. The evidence is that the benefits system in this case was worsening a social problem.

The costs of those adverse side-effects should not rest solely on the taxpayer. I make no apology for the fact that the measure is designed to recoup money for the taxpayer. That is an important element of the reform. Some 70 per cent. of single parents—1 million households—are on income support and we should reduce that number. Against the background of increasing family breakdowns and the disintegration of traditional society, we all have anecdotal evidence that the Act may already be having a beneficial effect on people's attitudes towards the responsibilities of producing children. What greater responsibility can there be?

6.29 pm
Sir Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam)

When I took my vow of silence, on 25 July 1989, little did I think that my first speech thereafter from the Front Bench—albeit below the Gangway—would be late on a Thursday evening, having spent most of the afternoon in the Chamber, listening to many experts.

I speak as a constituency Member of Parliament, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson). I am exceedingly grateful to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and other Committee members for their work in producing the report.

I speak as a constituency Member of Parliament because of some of the constituents who have visited my advice bureaux or sent me letters. The decisions in those letters simply do not appear fair—although I understand that life sometimes can be unfair. As a Member of Parliament, I have to sort the corn from the chaff very quickly, and some of the people who write are very persistent.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, with whom I worked as a Back Bencher in years long past. He considers sympathetically most questions that he is asked. I watch him when he is buttonholed by other colleagues in the House, and he can almost anticipate the words that will be said.

I am aware that the Minister's workload is heavy, and I know the number of letters about the Child Support Act 1991 to which he must reply. None the less, delays occur in the mail and I still expect some replies from him that I would have anticipated receiving by now. [Interruption.] I am always tactful, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) knows. Even when I sat on the Treasury Bench, I was always tactful.

The Secretary of State was very helpful because, during the European election campaign, he met the chairman and the secretary of the south Yorkshire campaign against the Child Support Agency. They had an opportunity to speak to him "at length"—for a ministerial visit.

I have noticed the changes that have taken place in the Child Support Agency. Letters are being answered far more quickly than ever before. In the past, letters have been delayed because the CSA needed a reference number or wanted further information. If there was ever a reason for the introduction of a national identity card, it is to ensure that a person has one number that is used at all times, so that the agency does not look for other people with a similar, or the same, name.

Once, subject to what must have been a momentary change of opinion, I telephoned the Child Support Agency. One cannot judge everyone at the end of a telephone, but when I got through I did not find the person to whom I spoke conducive to clear exchange of thoughts and ideas. The worst thing that one can do is to put down the telephone, so I endured that telephone call, which, if I had been. someone other than myself, would have caused me great annoyance. I remember saying, "If this is the way in which they behave towards a Member of Parliament, who, as everyone tells me, has some clout, it is sad for other people who telephone the CSA."

The CSA has improved, but one continues to receive lengthy letters from the agency, and I still have to read them several times to understand what they are talking about.

I referred to the south Yorkshire campaign against the Child Support Agency. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birkenhead for meeting its members. The hon. Gentleman and I had a private conversation in which we discussed how well they had presented their information. They gave evidence to the Select Committee on 28 June 1994. They have sent me all their reports, which I passed to the Chairman of the Select Committee and also to the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. Frank Field

It was their submissions that governed my thinking, which appeared in the draft report but was voted down.

Sir Irvine Patnick

It is always fatal to give way, as I learnt when I sat on the Treasury Bench, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's words.

It always happens in life that, if one does not receive a reply or the reply is not prompt, annoyance results. It makes one frustrated and causes aggravation. The major result is friction, which can be taken out on many people, such as friends, relatives and other Members of Parliament. Steps must be taken to ensure that cases are processed promptly by the CSA and by the Minister to ensure that people are not, as they would put it, annoyed by the system. I know that, once one becomes annoyed by the system, the system wins.

We must look to the future. I welcome the report. The 1991 Act is on the statute book. I am aware that the Government have altered parts of it and will reconsider it. The agency requires more work—a proper appeal procedure is obviously needed. I await the Government's response to the Select Committee's report. Above all, I await the Under-Secretary of State's reply to the debate.

6.36 pm
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), in a notably lucid and heartfelt speech, advanced an important argument, which is increasing as the months pass—that the arrears of back maintenance are accumulating on a huge scale, and very substantial sums are involved.

For example, one of my constituents recently received a letter requesting £4,960.78 in back maintenance, and was required to pay £95.40 per week from 12 December 1994. He accepts that what he paid in the past was probably insufficient, and that he should be paying more. He would have paid more in the past year if he had been asked to do so. What is intolerable, however, is the no-man's land of uncertainty in which he cannot make any estimate of his liabilities. That is not the result of my constituent's position or his previous wife's position; it is simply the result of the length of time that the CSA has taken to reach its decision.

When my constituent received that letter, he asked the CSA what he should do, and he summarised to me the conversation that he had with CSA personnel. They told him that the letter was a computer-generated letter, sent out as a matter of course and that he should ignore it because no full assessment had been made. We have had the extraordinary phenomenon of computer-generated letters being sent out, untouched by human hand, which apparently we must ignore.

Not only was my constituent to ignore that letter, but he was to ignore further letters that he might receive, which were also likely to be computer generated, because the staff could not prevent the computer from generating further letters. He should therefore ignore them until such time as another assessment was made. Not only that, but the staff could give him no idea of the time that the agency would take, in 1995, to reach a proper assessment.

The way in which the CSA operates—even now, with the extra resources that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has allocated to it—causes considerable concern.

I have always felt that retrospection was a fundamental flaw in the CSA approach. As we know, the Australian system is not retrospective, and the criticism of that, which my hon. Friends have made, is that in effect it creates a two-tier system. I would rather have a two-tier system than the injustices that result from people being placed in a situation that they could not have envisaged when they or the courts made their original decisions about their children. I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) that the system is strictly speaking not retrospective, but that is semantics. We are talking about what, in common-sense terms, is a totally new situation that was not envisaged by people when they originally made their decisions.

I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) although, unfortunately, I did not hear all of his speech. One point that he made that was new to me is that people who have been caught retrospectively should have a discount on the amount that they would otherwise have to pay. That is one way out of the problem. It does not meet the whole situation, but it does represent an element of justice and may not require primary legislation which, I understand, is a problem.

The real villain here is not the CSA, whose problems I understand, or even my hon. Friend the Minister, who, with his cheerful, cherubic face and gentlemanly manner, could not possibly be the villain, but the Treasury. It saw this as a taxation measure and a means of restraining public expenditure. Once again, it is exerting a baleful force on what my hon. Friend is able to do.

That is shortsighted because, in the final analysis, under the pressure of events, we shall have to take a longer view and take into account the human justice of the matter and the individual nature of cases rather than have some fixed formula linked to targets determined by the Treasury. My appeal is not only to the Minister, but to the absent force—the Treasury.

6.41 pm
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). I shall address in a moment his last point about the Treasury effectively driving the CSA according to Treasury objectives.

First, I acknowledge the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who pretty well said it all, as one has come to expect of him. There is little with which I could disagree in what he said, expect perhaps for matters of detail about how we may or may not amend the formula. It is clear to all hon. Members that his chairmanship of the Select Committee has steered it to some constructive work. It is a Select Committee which does not indulge in political stunts, but gets down to business. It has a great cross-party spirit of co-operation, which I hope is evident in the two reports that the Committee has laid before the House.

I do not accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington. It is perfectly acceptable for the Treasury to say that money should be retrieved from parents if they can afford to pay because the Treasury should never have been required to part with that money in the first place.

There are a number of administrative points that I would like to make, but as time is short I shall mention just two. First, the Act is changing behaviour. I do not fully subscribe to what the late Sir Keith Joseph said in his speech in 1973, but he did point to an issue that is of great concern for social patterns and behaviour in Britain. This Act is changing behaviour and it is doing so in a way that will assist rather than undermine Britain's social fabric.

Finally, I ask the Minister to consider once again what is likely to happen to the workings of the Act once it moves to those parents or absent parents who are not on any form of state benefit. If we can justify the state's being involved in the movement of money within a family where a partner is on state benefit, it can also be argued that the state has no justification for being involved in the way in which people spend their money when no member of that family is on state benefit. My alarm bells are ringing about what will happen when the state takes on such people. Those are the three points to which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will respond this evening.

6.44 pm
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

This has been an interesting debate. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Chairman of the Select Committee, my other hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) who served on the Committee, on their genuine attempt to produce a report which dealt seriously with the many criticisms levied at the Child Support Act and the agency charged with its implementation.

I agree with all the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, but particularly with his opening remarks in which he set out his analysis of where we are in terms of the legislation. It is right to say that there is no going back. We can only now go forward. That is the view of the vast majority of hon. Members. That view was echoed most eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) in a solid and worthwhile contribution to the debate which raised many serious and worthy issues, not just in relation to the Act and related matters but wider areas as well.

Unfortunately, the tragedy of the debate and the report is that the main recommendations, which would have provided a proper framework for changing the legislation were, as anyone can see from reading the report, taken out by the Conservative majority on the Committee. I hesitate to say that those hon. Members were acting in line with the Minister's wishes. I would probably exonerate the Minister. If he disagrees and tells me that he was dictating the pace and direction of Conservative Members on the Committee, I would have to change my opinion.

However, to those who follow such matters closely, it was clear that something like this would happen. In an article in The Observer on the Sunday preceding the final decision of the Committee, it was clearly stated that a private meeting had taken place between a senior Treasury Minister and Conservative Members of the Committee in which they were specifically told not to deal with the matter of the disregard contained in the draft report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead.

That matter has been raised on a number of occasions in the House and has never been discounted or denied. I do not always believe what I read in newspapers, but it is clear—

Mr. Duncan

One does not need to deny something that never took place.

Mr. Ingram

That is one hon. Member who has said that he was not at a meeting with the Chief Secretary.

Mr. Jenkin

I also deny having any meetings with Treasury Ministers to discuss that particular issue. The only meetings that I had with Ministers was to ensure that they would provide the additional resources to fund the necessary changes, which might have some support from the hon. Gentleman. I should add that one sentence on which we all agreed appears in paragraph 52: Finally, any changes we recommend must not only ensure that the system upholds the basic principles of parental responsibility and are fair, but also will be administratively practicable. That important sentence was included in the report and guided many of the decisions that we took.

Mr. Ingram

We shall have to read carefully the Official Report tomorrow to see exactly what the hon. Gentleman has said. Clearly, a meeting did take place. Therefore, the article in The Observer was not that misplaced. Perhaps we should have a report on exactly what happened. If such a meeting did take place, that would undermine the very principles and sanctity of Select Committees. That is an issue that will obviously be debated elsewhere.

The Select Committee's report has been strongly and rightly criticised by the many thousands of non-custodial parents and parents with care who had hoped to see a much more radical report. In defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and of my other hon. Friends who served on the Committee, I say to the critics, as I have said before, that their anger should be directed towards the Conservative Committee members, perhaps the Minister with responsibility for Treasury matters who advised them and the Treasury for its interference. That is borne out by reading the report and by finding out how members voted on the report. The report's main recommendations are a very much watered-down version of what should have been presented to the House.

I make no apology for making those opening remarks. Every time that he was pressed on what the Government would do about the legislation—in debate after debate and question after question—the Minister said, "Wait for the Select Committee report and then we will act." That is the line that has been taken. He built up an atmosphere of great expectation about what the report would entail. However, more hard times have been visited on people affected by the legislation.

It is important to remember that no mention of any change to the legislation appeared in the Queen's Speech. That was an ominous omission for many people who were hoping that the Government would make a commitment that change would take place. The report is before the House, but that does not mean that the Government have to act on it. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that, of the 12 recommendations in the previous report that was presented to the House, only four were accepted in part or in total by the Government. People should not, therefore, hold out too much hope that the report's recommendations will form the framework of any changes.

I must deal with some of the report's recommendations because they are important and should be responded to positively. On Tuesday this week, I attended a mass lobby of Parliament that was organised by the national Anti-Child Support Act group, which was arranged through the offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). Anyone who thought that the anger and frustration of people involved in groups campaigning against the Act had abated would have been strongly disabused of that view by the meeting. February's amendments of the Act have not won many or any converts to the cause.

Hon. Members' attendance at such events does not mean that they support the principles behind those organised meetings or the views of the groups. The meeting was especially hot tempered, as so many of them are. Although a majority of the people present simply wanted the Act to be abolished—not a view to which I and, I think, the majority of my hon. Friends subscribe—many interesting and valid points of criticism were raised and they must be dealt with if the Act is ever to be accepted by the wider community.

The issue of parents with care who fraudulently obtain benefits was one of the issues that was thrown up at the meeting. Usually, when an assessment charge is levelled against a non-custodial parent, he or she says, "What is happening to my ex-partner?" If the parent with care is making a fraudulent claim, the non-custodial parent reports that person to the Child Support Agency, which reports that person to the Benefits Agency. Of course, if fraud is proven, the parent with care is taken off benefit.

People who report parents with care feel aggrieved that they still have to pay maintenance for which a claim has been made. They have saved taxpayers' money, yet they are still expected to pay more and they feel a great sense of unfairness. I have sought answers from the agency and the Minister on this matter and none of their explanations is clear. If the Minister has time, it would be useful if he dealt with that point. I raise it because an individual at that hot-tempered meeting made a reasonable request for an explanation of the matter.

Obviously, I do not have time to deal with all the aspects and recommendations of the report. It would have been impossible to set out the Opposition's view on all 22 of the report's recommendations in the time available. I want to deal, however, with one or two issues and to highlight where we stand on them.

Recommendations xii and xiii seem to be eminently sensible. It cannot be right that parents with care are placed in severe financial difficulties because assessed maintenance is not paid or is paid irregularly. That point came home to me during my weekly surgery last Friday when I dealt with a case of a parent with care whose ex-husband was a compulsive gambler. During the setting up of the maintenance arrangements, she informed the agency that weekly payments were the only means by which she could guarantee to receive regular payments. She feared that, if he did not pay weekly, her ex-husband would fritter the money away because he was a compulsive gambler.

Weekly payments were set up. She received £87 per week. Her family credit was consequently reduced to £9 per week on the basis of the assumed income that 'would arise from the assessment. Shortly after that, however, her ex-husband changed the arrangements and asked the Child Support Agency to make a direct debit system available to him. It did so without consulting the recipient of the assessment. Lo and behold, he immediately cancelled the direct debit.

That case is not unique—many hundreds, if not thousands, of other people have suffered similar problems. My constituent receives only £9 family credit. She received the last payment from her ex-husband on 28 October and she will not receive another payment until the end of January when the deductions from earnings order takes effect. For three months, including the Christmas period, she will receive very much reduced income. Clearly, the system is inflexible. That is why recommendations xii and xiii, if they were implemented, would go a long way towards helping people in those circumstances.

Clearly, we must deal with the underlying principle of the Child Support Act: what is in the best interests of children affected by it. It is regrettable that the majority of Committee members rejected the principle of the maintenance disregard. I have heard the arguments. Time is tight so I cannot deal with all the arguments. In pages 28 and 29 of the report, a strong case is made to counter the arguments against the maintenance disregard. Pages 28 and 29 set out the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead in relation to that matter. Sadly, the recommendations on pages 28 and 29 were voted down by the Conservative majority.

I should like to deal with the clean-break arrangements and the extension of exempt income elements. We welcome the fact that the report gives some recognition to the need to consider past property and capital settlements, which were agreed before the Act came into force. That case is well made in paragraphs 45 to 50 of the report. There can be no doubt that this aspect involves retrospective application of the Act. Whether it does or not, that is how it is perceived, accepted and understood by people who have been conditioned by it. Those non-custodial parents feel that, as a consequence, they are in a difficult position.

A similar strong argument can be advanced in relation to necessary expenditure, including travel-to-work and access-to-children costs, which are not mentioned in the report. It seems that the report contains an inherent contradiction. It rejects the principle of an independent appeal system that could deal with extra, exceptional costs, yet it goes on to say that travel-to-work costs should be included.

Anyone dealing with individual cases knows that the matter involves not only travel-to-work costs, important though they are. There are many examples of access-to-children costs where non-custodial parents spend a lot of money ensuring that they continue to maintain contact with their children. That is denied to them because of the high assessment level. An independent review system would allow that sort of argument to be advanced and considered. If children's interests are at stake in those circumstances, a change could be made to the assessment to ensure that children do not suffer as a consequence of the assessment that has been levelled against parents.

I must finish my speech and let the Minister respond to the debate.

I have touched on only some of the main aspects of the legislation. My assessment of the report is that the real issues have been ducked or have been extracted from it by the voting pattern of the Conservative majority on the Committee. The Labour party has argued consistently for four fundamental safeguards to be written into the legislation and they are worth repeating. We have asked for a more flexible financial formula, recognition of clean-break settlements, an independent appeals procedure which would allow departure from the standard formula in exceptional circumstances and a disregard for families on income support.

The Chairman's draft report generally sought to achieve those objectives. It is a great pity that those objectives could not become recommendations with which the Government would then have to deal. Our view is that the report does not go far enough and the Government have not acted fast enough. We need fundamental reform of the Act. We do not need more uncertainty, indecision and inaction from the Government. Inertia and delay are no substitute for policy. The Government need to act now.

7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt)

Sometimes, people wonder what satisfaction I get from doing my job. This afternoon, we have experienced two of the reasons why I get satisfaction from doing what I do. First, I am involved with extremely good people and some of them have participated in the debate. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has been praised from many quarters and I add my own tribute. The addition of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) to the Select Committee will certainly strengthen it. My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) are also members of the Select Committee. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton is soon to become the hon. Member for Rutland. I am pleased with that change in local government.

I also work with good people who are not seen by hon. Members—those who work for the Child Support Agency. They are able and caring people who provide advice to the Department of Social Security.

Another reason for my satisfaction is that this is such an important issue. Some of the speeches have touched on the philosophy behind the Child Support Act 1991. The hon. Member for Birkenhead set the tone when he discussed the important move of a crucial item of responsibility away from the state and towards the individual. He said that that social change was almost unique in the post-war era, and he was right. He also said that it was highly unlikely that it could be done without pain. Perhaps that was one thing that the House missed two or three years ago in the general support for the Child Support Agency. The hon. Gentleman rightly brought us back to that point.

The reasons why the Act was needed were best set out by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West. Sometimes, the House forgets those who have been most silent in this argument—the parents with care, the single parents, most of whom live in poverty. The hon. Gentleman set out the difficulties that they have experienced.

Most hon. Members who participated in the debate did not miss the crucial role of the Treasury. The CSA is not a Treasury support agency. We all knew, because it was in the Bill, that a burden had been placed on the state—for "state" substitute "taxpayer". As the hon. Member for Birkenhead said, one of the purposes of the Act was to move that burden back to the individual. We cannot avoid the fact that if that responsibility is moved, it will land on the shoulders of individuals, who are bound to make a noise.

The exception to those comments is the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey). He criticised the Select Committee and talked about a Treasury support agency. The Liberal Democrats were around when the Bill was considered and they knew what was going on. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were not around during the deliberations of the Select Committee because there was no representative from the Liberal Democrats on the Committee. There could have been and there should have been. It ill behoves them now to pop up out of the blue and make criticisms.

Although today may not be full of enormous joy for all quarters of the House, at least we will be spared a Liberal Democrat by-election victor appearing on our screens later this evening, with all the difficulties that that would cause. I look forward to welcoming a new hon. Friend here next week—[interruption] The evening may unfold in another way.

Having set the background and recognised how we got here, I want to talk about the Select Committee report and the agency. Time is short, but I must make it clear that this is not the Government's definitive response to the Select Committee report. I hope that that will be made before the end of January. We have about two months from the publication of the report. We want to get it right.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) talked about inaction. I fully appreciate that this process has taken time, but I know that he is aware of the genuine thought that has gone into this and of the consultation that is taking place with interested parties to try to get this right. We all have a responsibility to see that that occurs.

Mr. Bennett

Many of my constituents are waiting for the Government's response. Can the Minister assure us that he will not just reply to the Select Committee's report but set out a timetable for making some changes so that people see some benefit at the end of January, rather than just proposals that will take another six or 12 months to implement?

Mr. Burt

I am sorry, but I cannot anticipate what I may say in January. The hon. Gentleman knows that making changes takes time because of the procedures of the House. Some things can be done administratively and the agency has already been engaged in some changes to improve its efficiency. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if the changes require any legislation, either secondary or primary, they will inevitably take time. If it is his wish to improve things quickly for his constituents, it is likely that he will support any measures that would do that.

I have listened with interest to the various points raised about the Committee's proposals for change. We have heard a number of times the arguments for a disregard on income support. I understand the point about the desire for cheerleaders. My hon. Friends the Members for Colchester, North and for Bolton, North-East explained to the House that difficulties are associated with the income disregard, particularly its potentially adverse impact on incentives to work. A disregard may be welcomed by some parents with care, but it is important to look at the effect of any changes that that would produce. Such a measure would be expensive.

As my colleagues have mentioned, to date we have felt it best to concentrate available resources on in-work benefits, where that helps by increasing work incentives. Although that approach was rejected by the Select Committee, it is an idea and I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Birkenhead that it is important to achieve balance and to consider the interests of parents with care. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that has struck a chord with me.

Another consideration has been the pressure for an appeals system over and above the one that is already in place—we must not forget that one already exists. The current system is based on the way in which appeals work in our benefit system. The pressure is to allow discretion to vary what we have already provided for in the maintenance formula. Hon. Members clearly had in mind an objective system for considering appeals. However, if there is discretion, how is it controlled?

There was wide discretion in the systems we replaced. Hon. Members will be aware of the wide variations that were found during the research for the White Paper. The House will know that I am concerned with the low priority that child maintenance received under the old arrangements. Australia does have a discretionary appeals system, albeit tightly defined. It is necessary there because Australia does not have such a detailed formula as ours.

Although the Select Committee did not recommend an appeals system, I am aware of the strong feelings on the issue. In previous remarks to the House, I have made it clear that the principle of discretion is not the only issue; serious consideration of the gateways to such discretion is essential and, despite many months of debate, no potentially workable solution has been offered by Opposition Members. Therefore, we are carefully considering, as we always have, whether it is possible for any form of discretionary appeals system to be grafted on to an objective system without losing the point of the previous system. I am keeping an open mind and so is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I also know that hon. Members are especially concerned about maintenance assessments where the parties have existing arrangements through the courts based on the so-called clean-break principle. Before the Child Support Act was introduced, it remained open for the parent with care to seek an increase in child maintenance in such cases. It was also part of income support law that the Secretary of State could seek child maintenance in those benefit cases. The clean break was between the spouses and could not exclude provision for periodical child maintenance payments.

The Select Committee requested that illustrative examples be provided for the House demonstrating the effects of varying the basic maintenance calculation to take account of previous arrangements. Those have been provided. We have been carefully considering the issues involved, which, for all its deliberations, the Committee was not able to resolve. But we keep an open mind on that, too.

We are well aware of the strength of feeling about taking into account various expenses in the maintenance formula. There is an argument about changing to a very simple formula, as advocated by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, and taking the advice of the Australians, with their experience. Frankly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North reminded us, the advice of the Australians now is that we should not go for that option. We are still strongly influenced by the experience of the Australians which shows that that may not be the right road for us to go down.

We welcome the Committee's endorsement of not only the basic principles of the agency but the idea that child maintenance should take priority over other expenditure. Our approach has been to make sufficient allowance within the basic formula and protected income provisions to enable absent parents to make choices. But again, we have heard many comments; we will consider more carefully over the next few weeks what has been said about expenses, and we will respond in due course.

I shall briefly comment on the agency's performance as I know that time is tight. I listened very carefully to the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggiin), for Orpington (Mr. Gale) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Sir I. Patnick). I know the strength of feeling among my hon. Friends about the agency's performance. I accept that the agency has not always got things right and apologise for when that has happened. We must improve. There are signs of improvement and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam for having mentioned them.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) for his comments. Anyone good enough to win an Irish cup winners medal has a ready ear as far as I am concerned. His kind comments about the staff were appreciated, as were a number of comments on the new chief executive of the agency and what she is trying to do in picking up from the task embarked on by Miss Ros Hepplewhite.

There are examples of improvement in the agency's procedures. A new telephone system enables calls to be dealt with by the business teams more quickly. There are improvements in output. More cases have been cleared already this year than in the whole of the previous year. More money is being collected through the child support arrangements that are being set up. All round, effort is being made through computer improvements and administrative enhancements to improve the flow of work through the agency. There is great determination from me, my right hon. Friend, the chief executive and all in the agency to produce a better all-round performance.

I am grateful for this brief time in the House this evening to respond a little to the debate. I hope that the House is in no doubt about our good intentions. It is not a great party issue; it is an issue for the House. We set about a social change and we are determined to make it work; we know that it has not worked as we had wished and we are sorry for the hurt that it has caused to some genuine people. The reasons for the agency and the principles behind it were right and we are determined to make it work.

Mr. Frank Field

With the leave of the House, I would like to make one observation. Wherever possible, we politicians should not put our sticky fingers into people's private lives. When we have to, where children are concerned, we have a paramount duty to listen carefully to those who are affected by those measures. Please do not let the House think that even if we make sweeping reforms this time, we will have solved the problem. Life is far too complicated to fit into the simple models that we pass in this Chamber.

The debate was concluded, and the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings was deferred.