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Volume 175: debated on Monday 2 July 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he expects to announce proposals resulting from his review of the maintenance system; and if he will make a statement.

We are pressing ahead with the review of maintenance, which is wide ranging, and are examining all areas of the current system to see where reform is required. We hope to make proposals later this year. Meanwhile, there are measures in the present Social Security Bill which address some of the problems that lone parents have experienced with the current system. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, has recently announced proposals to reinforce payment arrangements.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I wish him well with the proposals that he is bringing forward. They are long overdue.

I shall ask a real question. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government's first effort in that direction—the enforcement of payment through attachment of earnings—is merely a pathetic re-statement of existing law? Why is there nothing about the real issues such as the level of awards, which in general is far too low? What incentive is there for mothers to claim maintenance if the Department of Social Security simply claws it back in reduced income support? Do not the proposals have all the makings of yet another Tory ramp of reducing public expenditure instead of giving extra help to those in real need?

I really think that the hon. Gentleman might tone down some of the overheated language that he so persistently uses. First, the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, involve legislation and thus can scarcely be simply a re-statement of existing law—[Interruption.] Having asked three questions, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to answer them.

Secondly, as we announced to the House earlier this year, we have already taken action to strengthen the way in which maintenance is assessed and the amount that is expected under the current DSS rules.

Thirdly, the advantage to lone parents is that their position is much better if they are getting maintenance, especially when they enter work, than if they are wholly dependent on DSS benefits.

Will my right hon. Friend consider the position of single mothers bringing up children on their own without any assistance from the fathers, particularly when the fathers are known? Does he agree that it would be appropriate to ask those mothers to make applications to the courts for maintenance so that the fathers face up to their duty to support their children rather than leaving the whole burden to the taxpayer?

Yes, and indeed we do. Lone mothers in those circumstances can face a number of practical problems. We are seeking to address those problems in the Social Security Bill—for example, by legislating to make it possible for the Department's own maintenance orders to be transferred to claimants when they leave income support, and by taking powers to enforce a claimant's own maintenance order if it falls into arrears.