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Commons Chamber

Volume 468: debated on Monday 3 December 2007

House of Commons

Monday 3 December 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What he expects UK troop levels to be in Iraq in each of the next three years; and if he will make a statement. (169645)

We have set out our plans for Iraq to spring 2008, when we plan to reduce UK troop numbers in southern Iraq to around 2,500. Decisions on the next phase will be made at that time, guided always by the assessments of our military commanders and the actual conditions on the ground.

As this is probably the last Defence questions before Christmas, I should like to send our best wishes and condolences to the families and loved ones of the servicemen who have lost their lives, and our wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured, who are still returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

If we are to reduce our troops in the Iraq field of operations to approximately 2,500, can the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be enough force protection should the current situation deteriorate?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial words, which spoke for everyone in the House, and I associate all on the Government side—and, if I may presume to, everyone else in the House—with them; I am sure that they will be noted. I take this opportunity to commend the hon. Gentleman and thank him on behalf of the whole House for his arrangement of the very welcome welcoming party for 12 Mechanised Brigade in the House. That gave us all an opportunity to say thank you to those brave young men and women for what they have achieved in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which has also been considered in detail in the welcome Defence Committee report published today. I assure the hon. Gentleman and everyone in the House that all our decisions on troop numbers are taken on the best and most detailed military advice. At the top of all our considerations is force protection. Under no circumstances would we take decisions that meant that we did not have sufficient force protection for those whom we deployed into the theatre in Iraq or anywhere else.

Last week, seven members of the all-party group on Iraq returned from a successful visit to Baghdad. We found that refugees are returning from Syria and Jordan to Iraq because the security situation has improved. May I say that we talked to four American generals and the British general as well as the leading figures in Iraq, and that the mood is one of cautious optimism?

I thank my right hon. Friend for two things: first, for her consistent support for the Iraqi people, which stretches well beyond the current circumstances of the operations in Iraq. She consistently supported them through the days of Saddam’s despotism and she deserves to have that recorded in the House on as many occasions as possible. Secondly, I thank her for arranging for a cross-section of the House to go to Iraq with her.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend reports back from Iraq what many of us who have recently been there have seen, namely that there is a significant degree of progress. However, that progress is fragile and, as my right hon. Friend well knows, whether it is sustained depends on the Iraqi Government and Iraqi security forces being able to take advantage of the opportunity that the surge and other developments have created.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for what he said about the Defence Committee’s report, which is out today. Is he aware of my dismay, and the dismay that I am sure will be felt by all members of the Select Committee, at the headline in the Daily Mirror today—“UK’s Iraq mission a ‘failure’”? That is not what the Defence Committee said; it said precisely the reverse. Clearly, there are real problems in Basra, not least with the police, but some of the things that our armed forces have been doing there—training the 10th division of the Iraqi army, for example—have been an outstanding success, and deserve congratulations.

I thank all the members of the Defence Committee and the right hon. Gentleman, who chairs it, for what, I repeat, is a welcome report. It is a balanced report; I read it over the weekend, having had an advance copy of it, and I welcomed it in the press release that I issued this morning.

To a degree, I share the dismay of the right hon. Gentleman—and, I am sure, that of other members of his Committee—at how the report has been represented in some quarters of the media. However, I have to say that I am getting used to only one side of the Iraq story ever being told. The report is compulsory reading for those who want to know, in a balanced way, what is happening in Iraq.

Significant progress has been made, and our troops there deserve enormous credit for what they have achieved. I will not go through the list of achievements over the past nine months or thereabouts, in particular, but it is significant. It is a fragile opportunity, however, and the Select Committee has identified the questions that we need to ask and the continuing challenges. In our response to its report, we will endeavour, in so far as we can, to give a comprehensive response to those questions.

The House will surely welcome my right hon. Friend’s reaffirmation of our plans for troop numbers in Iraq, but can he confirm that, beyond the spring of 2008, it is still the intention further to reduce the number of Army personnel in Iraq?

All the responses that I have received to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s statement to the House about troop numbers have welcomed the reduction, but as against a serious consideration of the conditions on the ground and always qualified by the fact that we need to keep matters under review. It is our plan to reduce troop numbers to 2,500, and over the past 18 months we have consistently been able to meet the plans that we have laid out in advance. Our eventual plan, of course, is that when the Iraqi security forces are able to take over total responsibility for security in the south-eastern part of Iraq, we will hand over to them. However, I believe that we will need to continue to support them beyond that point with some degree of training or mentoring, although that will not need to be done with the numbers that we currently have in theatre. Exactly when we are able to get to that point will depend on developments. We have not yet got to the stage of provincial Iraqi control, although that is planned to happen before the end of the year, and we will need to assess the position then. We will need to carry on as we have over the past months and assess the position as we go along, taking careful steps so that we do not regress.

The Defence Secretary says that the goalposts have moved and we can now have 2,500 British troops in Iraq—whereas the Minister for the Armed Forces previously said that we would need 5,000 to ensure their security—because we now know more about the tasks that those 2,500 troops will be undertaking. But how many will be involved in training the Iraqi forces—for example, in operations on the Iran-Iraq border—and what proportion will be reliant on Iraqi security forces for their security?

That issue was raised in some detail in my evidence session before the Select Committee, which may well be the source of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The reason for the difference between myself and the Minister is simply that he was talking at a different time, and the situation has moved on. I accept that the precise figures that the hon. Gentleman looks for will have to be given to the House in the broadest possible sense—consistent with force security, of course—but we are not yet at that stage because we do not yet have provincial Iraqi control. This is all conditions based and based on military advice. As we go along, we will move towards our planned figure of about 2,500 troops. However, the precise figure, as well as exactly which of them will be training and mentoring, which will be involved in operations including protection of routes or operations around the border, and which will be there for force protection and/or to stand ready to support the Iraqi security forces if necessary will be a matter for judgment and military advice at that time. I am not yet in a position to give those precise figures.

I thank the Secretary of State for his comments about the Defence Committee’s report. We look forward to receiving his reply. With the space that has been created by our troops for the Iraqis to take increasing responsibility for themselves, what is happening about the economic initiatives planned for Basra province, which the Prime Minister told the House about on 8 October?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am, however, Secretary of State for Defence, not for development, and I do not want to anticipate announcements that will be made after the time when there is provincial Iraqi control. That will be the appropriate time to make those announcements, because that is when those complementary economic initiatives can be launched. It is no secret that the Government intend to support an economic initiative that is based on Basra, in particular, and is designed to exploit the resources of the Iraqi Government, who have sufficient resources from their oil revenues to be able to invest there. Apart from that, support is available from other countries in the international community to make the best of the oil exploration opportunities, especially given that Basra is a very important city for Iraq because of the port at Umm Qasr and Basra airport, which has been subject to significant development and is now increasingly handling commercial traffic. Such opportunities will be taken forward with the staff of the construction agencies, some of whom are volunteers from the international business community.

Since the Government are maintaining an intention to reintervene in Iraq, what would be the criteria for such reintervention, and where would the men come from, given that the Army is 3,600 men short? According to the Government’s most senior military adviser for the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, our reserves to meet the unexpected are almost non-existent. Is it not time that the Secretary of State told the Prime Minister to stop betraying our armed forces and gave the nation’s finest the tools to do the job?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that the support this Government have given the armed forces has been second to none in terms of investment. He comes at this issue with the same disability as all of those in his Front-Bench team, which is that he always fails to make a spending commitment—oh no, of course, he did. On “Newsnight”, he made a commitment to spend more on the armed forces, but that was a personal commitment, not one for his Government, as I understand it—sorry, I meant his party in Government.

As for reintervention, the most important point about the process of provincial Iraqi control is that a judgment is taken as to whether Iraqi security forces are able to look after the security of the province that is handed over to them. We in Government, with the Iraqi Government and our allies, have done that successfully three times now, and on each occasion we have handed over provinces where we have not had to go back and intervene. That has been achieved because part of the calculation involves the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle problems that may arise. There will be of the order of 50,000 trained Iraqi security forces in the Basra area and surrounding areas by the time we move to provincial Iraqi control. Our judgment is that the responsibility for an area lies first with them; we will have sufficient forces in theatre to support them should the need arise, but it has not, and that is part of the judgment governing the decision to hand over control in the first place.

Ministerial Responsibilities

2. What proportion of his working time he spent on his responsibilities as Secretary of State for Defence in the last month. (169646)

I am always conscious of my responsibilities as Secretary of State for Defence and I am constantly ready to exercise them. It is not possible accurately to determine what proportion of my time is spent on defence issues or Scotland Office issues, however.

I know that the Secretary of State is an extremely conscientious and thoroughly decent man, but last Wednesday he was answering questions from me and others on Scottish affairs, and back in the summer I recall an occasion when one of his deputies had to make a statement on defence because he was still up in Scotland. Does he understand why people on duty 24 hours a day in Afghanistan, facing the most difficult fighting since Korea, or those risking their lives in Iraq, question the commitment of this Government, and does he understand why they say that it is inappropriate and insulting that his job should be a part-time one?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks at the outset of his question. Factually, his account of events was, to a degree, inaccurate. There has been no occasion when I have not been able to answer a question or make a statement at the Dispatch Box while I have been both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is thinking of something that happened about 18 months ago, when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), had to make a statement because I could not get back from my constituency. That was before I had both sets of responsibilities. What he said is accurate in fact, but not in time.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, but my constituency is in Scotland—I cannot help that. I cannot move it.

I simply do not accept that the morale of our deployed personnel is lowered by my working patterns. I say that advisedly because I regularly visit members of our armed forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have many issues on their mind, which they are not shy about raising with me, ranging from issues involving their families, their colleagues and the task in hand to their equipment, but they have never, once, raised the issue that the hon. Gentleman asked about. I remind him that, the other day, thanks to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), I spent some considerable time with members of the 12 Mech Brigade who had returned from Afghanistan. I spoke to quite a number of them and not one of them raised that issue.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he need take no notice whatsoever of the pathetic jibes from the military wing of the Tory party? Talking of which, was he as surprised as I was at the antics of the former top brass from their comfortable billets in another place considering that only three days earlier, General Sir Richard Dannatt and Colonel Richard Westley came to the House and, in front of a briefing attended by some 50 Members of this House and the other place, acknowledged the significant new investment in equipment and facilities for our armed forces?

My position, which is supported by those who have seen the operational theatre, by those who are deployed there and by their equipment, is that our forces have never been better equipped. I accept that the challenge is now to maintain that level of equipment for our troops when we deploy them in the future. It is unfortunate, at best, that people constantly refer to our troops’ not being properly equipped to do the job when that is not the case. It is also potentially dangerous because the enemy listens to every single thing that is said in this House or reported in our media. Our troops’ force protection is, in my view, undermined by people who misdescribe the level of protection that they have.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether, while juggling the time between his responsibilities in Scotland and at the Ministry, he has found time to visit Headley Court to see the work that is being done there for wounded soldiers? Will he pay tribute to The Sunday Times’s fundraising campaign to make the facilities there more appropriate to recuperation and to the estimable Jeremy Clarkson, who is leading the campaign? Is it not rather sad that a charitable campaign is doing that rather than a grateful nation?

I have visited Headley Court. It is appropriate that such visits are done privately and not publicised. I have no intention in the future of publicising any such visits. I know that hon. Members from all parties visit our troops in hospital and in rehabilitation centres. They do so quietly; that is entirely appropriate, and I am pleased that they are prepared to do that. I have seen the miracle of rehabilitation—it is nothing short of that—that takes place at Headley Court. Some of the prosthetic limbs that I have seen people working on are miraculous. They are wonders of modern science, and give people a degree of freedom of movement that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. I welcome the public support for Headley Court, but there is no lack of Government support for the facility and we only recently paid for a significant new annexe. The Government support Headley Court just as much as anyone else.

At a time when many Members have perfectly legitimate but very well-paid jobs outside the House and earn tens of thousands of pounds while presumably being part-time Members of the House, should we not be thanking the Secretary of State for doing two jobs for the price of one?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. I will merely say what I have said every time that I have been questioned about the subject: if people have an issue of substance to raise about the way in which I carry out my job as Secretary of State for Defence, they ought to raise that issue rather than the issue of perceived principle, wrongly calling in aid support from troops on the front line. I do not believe that that support for the argument exists, and I have certainly seen no evidence of it. Although I accept what the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said from a sedentary position earlier, I have no doubt that that sort of discontent might now be stamped out.

The Secretary of State will have spent much time preparing for the imminent publication of the board of inquiry into the Nimrod tragedy in Afghanistan. Will he assure the House that all lessons learned from that board of inquiry will be implemented as a matter of priority across the ageing Nimrod fleet?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I intend to make a full statement to the House and he will have an opportunity then to ask me questions—in an informed way, I trust—about the recommendations? It would be inappropriate and disrespectful to the families for me to discuss anything that comes out of the board of inquiry before they have an opportunity to consider its report’s findings.

The Secretary of State evidently did not read the comments of five former chiefs of the defence staff if he genuinely thinks that it is not believed that his having two jobs sends out a terrible signal to members of the armed forces. He will recall that, earlier this month, I asked whether his ministerial salary was paid to him entirely for his duties as Secretary of State for Defence, and he failed to give me a direct reply. However, the Library has spoken to the Cabinet Office and a note to me states that a second official at the Cabinet Office informed the Library that

“following the recent cabinet reshuffle, the Ministry of Defence was instructed to pay Des Browne a ministerial salary and the Scotland Office was instructed not to.”

There may not be enough money in the defence budget for helicopters, but there is enough for the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I shall endeavour, Mr. Speaker, to answer in relation to the original question, which was about the time that I spend on my respective duties. I ask the hon. Gentleman, as I have asked all his colleagues, to judge me by my actions rather than the criticisms that he can manufacture. Our record in the Ministry in the past six months, when I have held both responsibilities, is, in my view, impressive. We have improved the operational welfare package, with council tax relief and free post; offered financial and practical support to assist inquests and improved compensation for those with multiple injuries; sustained outstanding operational medical capability; improved commitments and funding for accommodation, especially single-living accommodation; settled the comprehensive spending review, meaning an additional £7.7 billion for defence spending in the next three years, and—a matter that is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart— ordered two new aircraft carriers, which are the largest vessels ever to be commissioned for the Royal Navy.

Sustainable Procurement

3. What account his Department takes of the Government’s code for sustainable procurement in contracting for procuring food and drink for the armed forces. (169647)

The Ministry of Defence is committed to developing sustainable procurement for food and drink, and we are working with our contractors to identify opportunities. However, we need to ensure that value for money and transparency are maintained in our contracting.

At a time when British livestock farmers are recovering from a foot and mouth disease outbreak, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Ministry buying British meat is not only sustainable but good sense? Will he refuse to listen to Ministry buyers who say that price is the obstacle? When the Ministry has worked with the Red Meat Industry Forum to change out-of-date specifications from the Ministry, everybody benefits—from the Ministry to the individual farmer who supplies.

I am more than happy to listen to the points that my hon. Friend or the industry wish to make. Some progress has been made, but price is a barrier in some cases. More than half the beef that we procure is from British sources. That applies to all the pork and all the turkeys, but to only 13 per cent. of the lamb because there are problems with both the product that is provided and its price. If there are ways in which we can work around that, we will examine them and try to move in that direction.

Given the sheer scale of the new project to build a military training academy in St. Athan in my constituency, will the code of the practice be part of the main-gate contract to be signed next year? Will sustainable procurement apply to food and drink at the new tri-service academy?

We will try to implement the code in every aspect of our procurement policy, including applying it to the new facilities at St. Athan, as my hon. Friend requests.

Is my right hon. Friend aware—I am sure that he is—that the NAAFI in Cyprus is now being operated by the French? The first thing that they will do to try to make savings is stop British products being sold in the NAAFI shop. Does he agree that that is unacceptable for our troops?

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I am not aware of that specific instance. I shall look into it afterwards and talk to him further.

Joint Pay Award Allowances

4. What recent assessment he has made of the operation of the joint pay award allowances system; and if he will make a statement. (169648)

The introduction of the joint personnel administration system has been a significant achievement. It is one of the most complex business change projects in the private or public sector ever introduced. There are no known systemic problems with JPA affecting the payment of allowances to armed forces personnel. Although errors have occurred, much has been achieved to ensure the quality of the service being provided to address problems, including additional training and guidance.

My interest is in the register.

The Minister says that there are no systemic problems, but let me tell him of one. The system is not paying Army cadet force personnel or Territorial Army officers on the unposted list. I spoke to an officer a weekend ago who told me that he had arrears of £5,000. He was articulate and was able to persuade someone to pay him out of an imprest account, but there are hundreds of much less articulate personnel out there who are not being paid. Will the Minister do something about that?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course errors have occurred and would occur in any payroll of that size and complexity, in terms of allowances and the number of people who have to be paid. I am aware that the issue that he has raised has been looked into and I understand that a solution has been found on which work is progressing.

Departmental Policy

5. What steps his Department is taking to work with other Government Departments to ensure that the needs of armed forces personnel and their families are taken into account in the formation and implementation of policy; and if he will make a statement. (169649)

The Government recently announced work to develop the first ever cross-Government strategy for supporting our armed forces personnel, their families and veterans. The Command Paper will outline future initiatives and report on those steps that have already been taken in areas such as medical care, welfare and accommodation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that the best interests of members of our armed forces at every rank and their families would be served not by a trade union, but by an armed forces federation similar to those in other countries? That would be better than the current system of having to wait until the generals retire and find a safe place in the other place.

I am not sure whether retired generals would be elected in such a federation. Establishing such a body would change the ethos of our armed forces, so we should not go in that direction without considerable thought. The issue of receiving complaints from our armed forces is very important, and my hon. Friend will be aware of our recent appointment of a service complaints commissioner, a post designed to improve exactly that area of work and ensure that all the complaints that our service personnel raise are dealt with appropriately and thoroughly.

Can the Minister confirm that service wives and families will be talked to when the gap between operational tours is fixed? There is not enough time for men and women to return to their spouses, because there are not enough troops and because disastrous decisions have been made about recruiting and the disbandment of three battalions. Unless the Minister gets the issue right, force levels will drop even further and service families’ morale will be further dented.

I am talking to service families, as the hon. Gentleman does. I know that people are pushed. Their lives can be made difficult in those circumstances, but harmony guidelines are being adhered to in the majority of cases. The hon. Gentleman talks about the need for three further battalions, but he needs to talk not only to the Government, but to those on his own Front Bench, because I understand that although they support that proposal, they do so at no additional cost to the MOD, which would therefore result in cuts elsewhere. The Opposition cannot go on about the Navy, the Air Force and the Army without saying whether they would be prepared to spend additional money on defence. The silence from the Conservative Benches on that issue is deafening.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that advice from the former chiefs of defence staff would be of greater value if it were not couched in personalised and politicised terms, as it was a week or two ago? Does he think that the recent efforts of General Guthrie, the new Tory party adviser, have helped or hindered the efforts of the current chiefs of staff?

My hon. Friend makes a point. We welcome any contribution to the debate about the future funding and development of our armed forces. However, we would not want it to be couched in personal or political terms, because that would only detract from the weight of the points made.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the cross-departmental strategy, as no matter where in the UK armed forces personnel and their families or veterans are based, it is vital to ensure that they receive the same quality of service. Will the Minister ensure that that quality of service is assured in Scotland and Wales as well? When we took evidence from the Scottish Parliament last month on this very issue of health services, we were appalled by the quality of service provided in Scotland.

During the process of drawing up the Command Paper, we need to consult veterans’ organisations, family associations, local government and devolved Administrations as well as the whole of Government in order to get it right. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made a similar point last month in the Chamber and it applies equally to Scotland as to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Does the Minister realise that the most devout hope of the families of any serviceman on operations is that he or she should have the right equipment to undertake their jobs? Although much of the personal equipment is very good on operations, what steps are the Government and all their Departments taking to ensure that more helicopters are got to our forces on operations as soon as possible?

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that we have six new Merlins coming into service and that the first will arrive in spring next year. We are also converting eight Chinooks. Together, those will considerably increase our helicopter capability. We have also done some modifications on Sea Kings to enable them to be capable in the Afghan theatre and they will provide us with greater flexibility. Yes, we understand the need for helicopter capability and we are taking steps to improve it.

Armed Forces

The Ministry of Defence records the number of UK nationals in the armed forces. Specifying national identity within the UK is not mandated, so it is not possible to provide accurate figures for the total number who are Welsh.

May I suggest that, notwithstanding the Ministry’s not knowing the figures, we are pretty sure in Wales that we produce a higher proportion of members of the armed forces than any other of the constituent parts of the UK? Is it not clear that Wales has a strong and proud military tradition? If we are to continue it, do we not need to ensure that when Welsh regiments return from operations tours—as have members of the 1st and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh—a proper welcome is given to them in Wales? Should we not pay tribute to their work and, in this particular case, pay tribute to those who died in Iraq, including Private Craig Barber, Lance Corporal Ryan Francis and Corporal Paul Joszko?

Let me say to my hon. Friend that we are very proud of the work that the UK armed forces do and that the Welsh play a very important part in that. I pay tribute to their contribution to the armed forces and to their magnificent and outstanding achievements in Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the 1st and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, and there are also the Welsh Guards, who returned from Bosnia. It is very important to recognise what our armed forces do throughout the UK and that they are given a proper welcome home. We have seen examples of that recently and I am delighted to support them.

I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). When my father served in the British Army, he often acted as an unofficial interpreter for those of his compatriots who did not have fluency in English. Given the number of Welsh speakers who join the armed forces every year, will the Minister consider allowing those who wish it the facility to receive at least some of their basic training through the medium of Welsh?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the way we do the training. Of course, I will look further into issues surrounding the Welsh language and decide whether there is anything more we can do to help.

Veterans' Badges

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that veterans’ badges have been a tremendous success, but they are only one part of the covenant that exists between the Government, the British people and members of the armed forces. What further action does he intend to take in recognising the unique nature of military service?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the recognition of veterans. More than half a million veterans’ badges have now been presented, but the awarding of badges is just one of a number of things that we are doing to support veterans. Veterans day itself is an important aspect of what we are doing, and I am sure that next year even more Members will support it than did so this year. We now have a Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, and the Government have appointed a veterans Minister.

Recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made an announcement about priority treatment and I announced new mental health pilots for veterans. The Ministry of Defence will work with the national health service to provide even better support for veterans’ mental health.

The Minister has sensibly led me to my question. Veterans who receive their badges will be interested by Ministers’ announcement of the expansion of NHS priority treatment to all veterans whose injuries or ill health are suspected of being due to service. A veteran hearing that announcement could have been forgiven for thinking that it represented a policy change, but, as the Minister knows, he said exactly the same in a letter to me earlier this year.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should simply ask the Minister whether it represents a policy change.

In his statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made it clear that he was reiterating the policy on veterans and the priority given to their health. Hull primary care trust has also made veterans’ treatment a priority when their GPs consider that they may have a condition resulting from their service. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, because it is important for us to convey the message about veterans’ priority treatment, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend was able to make that announcement.

Army Recruitment

The Army as a whole uses a range of methods to attract individuals to a career in the Army. They include the use of targeted advertising campaigns, the latest of which is aimed at potential infantry soldiers among others. A further education bursary scheme is being piloted in recognition of the fact that more youngsters are staying in further education. A dedicated careers website was relaunched earlier this year featuring an online recruiting office where individuals can chat to a recruiter. There are also 39 armed forces careers offices and 84 army careers information offices in towns and cities across the United Kingdom.

I thank my friend for all that information, but am I right in thinking that 7.5 per cent. of the British Army is drawn from Commonwealth countries? Is that number too high, and should a cap be placed on it to reduce our dependence on our friends in the Commonwealth?

We have always recruited from Commonwealth countries, and we think that the balance is about right. It is important that we continue to recruit from the Commonwealth, and we welcome and value the contribution of our armed forces personnel from those countries.

Although he did not mention them, I am sure the Minister will agree that student presentation teams do a very good job in boosting recruitment. Indeed, on 7 February he said:

“These presentations are extremely well received”,

adding that they offered

“significant benefits for future recruiting.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 922W.]

Why, then, at a time when our armed forces are so grossly under-recruited, is the Minister scrapping those formidable recruiting sergeants? Is it to save the blushes of the Secretary of State for Defence in his other part-time job, given left-wing opposition to the teams’ entering Scottish and Welsh schools?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is slightly confused. As his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) will know, the purpose of the presentation teams was not to recruit but to get the defence message across in schools. However, he is right in saying that they did a very good and important job.

We wanted to discover how we could deal with communications better with the resources that we had. That is why we introduced Defence Dynamics, a web-based system. The hon. Gentleman may wish to have a look at it. Only a week ago I visited a school where it has been launched, and found that it was very popular and being used to good effect in lessons. It plays an important role in conveying defence issues to young people in the classroom.

My hon. Friend will know that the Army is putting together a people programme, which will look at the facilities offered to our service personnel when they are not on operations. He knows that peer-group pressure is one method we can use—when people return home, they can explain to their friends what a great life it is being in the forces. Will he, however, look into our traditional recruiting areas and whether they were damaged by the mergers of the battalions and regiments, and will he present a review of that to the House?

My hon. Friend will see that recruitment to the Army has increased: there was a 25 per cent. rise in the last financial year, and we continue to work hard to ensure that that is the case. He is right in one respect, however: the best ambassadors are our armed forces personnel themselves when they go back to their communities; another is people seeing the outstanding job being doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the important role the forces continue to play elsewhere in the world and in the UK. It is also important that we link in our veterans, as they are great ambassadors for the armed forces, too. I believe that we continue to do well in terms of recruitment in what is currently a very buoyant economy where there are many different opportunities for young people.

Topical Questions

As Secretary of State for Defence, my departmental responsibilities are to make and execute defence policy, to provide the armed forces with the capabilities they need to achieve success in the military tasks in which they are engaged at home and abroad, and to ensure that they are ready to respond to the tasks that might arise in the future. I have today made written ministerial statements on the signing of a contract for the purchase of a sixth C-17 Globemaster aircraft to be delivered in 2008, and on the letting of a contract for the future provision of marine services to the Royal Navy.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the representations that have been made in relation to MOD Beith in my constituency and the continuation of an apprenticeship scheme there. Will he hear further representations on the business case for such an apprenticeship scheme, and will he meet the relevant trade unions?

I commend my hon. Friend for her support for the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency in Beith. I have a personal interest in this matter as my older brother served his apprenticeship there many years ago when it was another institution. I recently wrote to my hon. Friend about the decision taken in 2004 to close the apprenticeship training scheme at Beith. I know that that disappointed her, but the decision was based on the analysis of the business requirement over the next 10 years. There is a declining market for the complex weapons that are processed at Beith, and there was not a sustainable opportunity for apprenticeships in the context of such a business case. However, my hon. Friend is, of course, entitled to make representations on behalf of her constituents and businesses in her constituency, including this one, and I will be happy to meet her at an early opportunity, when we can also discuss whether I need to meet others who wish to make representations.

T2. Given that our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made an immense effort to build relations between the UK and India, what is the Ministry of Defence doing to strengthen relations between ourselves and India on defence issues? (169636)

We see India as an increasingly important strategic partner across a wide range of issues. India is increasingly engaged globally, including as a supplier of troops to the United Nations. We expect the current high level of defence engagement to continue. We see India as an important strategic partner and we continue to engage with it very strongly on defence.

The Chief of the General Staff says that the Army has

“almost no capability to react to the unexpected”,

and the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff says that

“the current material state of the fleet is not good; the Royal Navy would be challenged to mount a medium-scale operation in accordance with current policy against a technologically capable adversary”.

Which of those statements should the country be more worried about?

The Army is stretched—I have accepted that. I have been saying for some time that if we continue to ask it to operate at this tempo in the long term, that will be unsustainable. Over that period, we have been reducing the pressure on the Army. It is recognised that with the conclusion of Operation Banner in Northern Ireland and of the operation in Bosnia, and the planned reduction in the number of troops in Iraq, a significant amount of that pressure will be reduced.

The hon. Gentleman’s speech to the Conservative party conference suggested that the Army needed three further battalions. I do not believe that the Army needs that or that it thinks that it needs that. I accept that we need a balanced force structure in the Army, but that debate will not be helped by people seeking soundbites, particularly the sort that do not bring with them the commitment to invest the £700 million that would be necessary to make them reality.

On the Navy, the process of reducing the fleet was started by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported at the end of the cold war, and has continued in line with the White Paper of 2004 in respect of numbers. The most important thing about our Navy is that with fewer ships it can deliver precisely the same tactical effect as before. I recognise that that does not mean that it can deliver the same strategic effect—that is a function of numbers rather than one of capability—but the ships that the Navy has have significantly greater capability.

But it is not just about manning where there is a gap. There are real gaps at the moment—we have a real shortage of battlefield helicopters, as I saw in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago. That came as a direct result of this Government’s decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004. We may be getting more helicopters now, but people in the field are asking what sort of idiots cut the helicopter budget in the middle of two wars. We have ended up with not enough helicopters, soldiers or ships, we are not even paying all our troops and the Prime Minister gives us a part-time Defence Secretary to boot. Do Ministers understand that it is not only former defence chiefs who are angry about this, but increasing numbers inside and outside the armed forces?

The hon. Gentleman knows two things about helicopters from his trip to Afghanistan. The first is that operational helicopter hours in Afghanistan have increased significantly over the past months and that there are plans to increase the number of helicopters quite significantly. He also knows that that investment has been made and that one cannot just buy helicopters off the shelf—one must get them from the production line and make them deployable, and that takes some time.

T4. Has my right hon. Friend seen the opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan, commissioned by the BBC and published today, which shows massive public support for the NATO military presence in Afghanistan and only 4 per cent. of respondents supporting the Taliban? Is that not an encouraging vindication of the great efforts and sacrifice of our troops on the ground, whose courage and professionalism we all so much admire in this House? (169638)

My hon. Friend is right about what we have achieved in Afghanistan. Those who had the pleasure of speaking to the representatives of 12 Mech Brigade when they were in this House last Thursday would know why. Those troops and others who have been on the ground in Afghanistan know fine well what they have been achieving over the past six months, building on the work of the taskforce that was there before them. Those who say that we face strategic defeat in Afghanistan do not understand what our troops have achieved there. Every time we have faced the Taliban, we have defeated them. That is why 60 to 70 per cent. of the people of Afghanistan support the presence of the international security assistance force troops.

T3. On 19 November, the Secretary of State skilfully avoided the question of whether Lord Drayson “approved in advance” the closure of the Defence Export Services Organisation. The reply given was: “The decision…was taken by the Prime Minister. The Defence Secretary was consulted.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 475W.]Will the Secretary of State give a one-word answer to the question whether Lord Drayson knew? (169637)

The hon. Gentleman knows fine well that the structure of Government is a matter for the Prime Minister. It has been so for every Government who have ever governed this country, and it will continue to be so.

T5. A written answer earlier this year showed that the Government have spent more than £2.3 billion on external consultants. Does the Secretary of State think that that was good value for money and could it not have been better spent on, for example, our ageing helicopter fleet? (169639)

Significant money has been spent on our helicopter fleet, as we have already discussed. The value of consultants is in whether they genuinely add value to a process and bring skills into government that government does not have. One cannot answer that question in the general sense without examining every contract involved. I am certain that every contract was let on the basis that the consultants coming in would add value.

Last Thursday and Friday, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I had the privilege of attending the defence ethics seminar at Shrivenham. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that seminar is given the support it needs to continue in the future? It is a valuable asset for our services. In addition, will he ensure that other Members of Parliament also enjoy the privilege of attending?

T6. There is real concern among some troops training to go on operations that they do not have access to some of the equipment that they will use on those operations. Will the Secretary of State assure members of 16 Air Assault Brigade, for example, that they will have full access to some of the excellent equipment that is being made available, especially night-vision goggles for drivers, which is of great concern to all ranks? (169640)

So far as it is possible to do so, yes. The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an issue that is raised tangentially, if not directly, in the Select Committee report that was published this morning. The success of urgent operational requirements—UORs—has generated another challenge. Our ability to get good equipment into theatre generates another challenge of providing enough of it to enable people to train with it in anticipation of deployment. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that we meet that demand.

T7. The Minister will be aware of errors that have occurred in the salaries of members of the armed forces. Will he undertake to review the joint personnel administration system, and perhaps to introduce a 24-hour hotline for members of armed forces to query such errors? (169641)

This is one of the biggest systems ever introduced, as I said earlier. If we consider where we were last year, with the problems that we had with the RAF, compared with where we are today, following the introduction of the system to the Army, we can see that we have taken a tremendous step forward. Improving the training, guidance and instructions has been an important aspect of improving the overall efficiency of the system. We are always seeking to improve access for service personnel who have queries about their pay and allowances, including those on operations, and we continue to make improvements.

In my constituency, which is the home of the Royal Navy, we greatly welcomed the announcement of the order for two new aircraft carriers. Can my hon. Friend give me any indication of the progress of the joint venture that will help to deliver them?

Progress on the joint venture is going well and there is no truth in any of the stories in the press about problems in that regard. The two aircraft carriers will be welcomed by my hon. Friend’s constituents, as they will be by the Royal Navy and the nation as a whole.

T8. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with his NATO counterparts about additional combat troops for Afghanistan if, as seems likely, Canada pulls its troops out next year? (169643)

The answer is yes, I have such conversations regularly. I do not accept that it is likely that Canada will pull its troops out. It is of course for the Canadian Government and Parliament to make a decision, but by no stretch of the imagination is the situation as pessimistic as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

T9. Why does the Secretary of State think Lord Guthrie described the Government’s attitude to the armed forces as “mystifying”? (169644)

I am happy to speak for myself, but I am not content to stand at the Dispatch Box and speak for Lord Guthrie. Just as I ask people to judge me by my actions, so people should perhaps judge Lord Guthrie by his actions and then they can come to their own conclusions about why he did what he did.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments of Field Marshal Lord Inge who in a debate in the other place on 22 November cautioned the people who were arguing for the immediate need to resuscitate the three battalions? Is not the onus on individuals who argue for the three battalions, including the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), to say where they will find the money to pay for them?

I welcome debate about our armed forces—about their size, their deployment and our support for them. However, I am mystified about the three battalions, which appear to have support from Conservative Front-Bench Members. They will cost £700 million if they are added to the Army, yet Tory Front Benchers want to be able to tell the country that they do not intend to spend any additional money on the armed forces. That does not make sense to me, but perhaps they will explain it to the country at some stage.

I thank Defence Ministers for working with their colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to provide more financial resources for Her Majesty’s coroner for Wiltshire, which has been of great comfort to the bereaved. What progress is the Secretary of State making with the Scottish Executive on a seamless approach to the problem of the repatriation of the bodies of those who have fallen? What progress can we expect to see in the near future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of what has been achieved between our Department and, principally, the Ministry of Justice in challenging and difficult circumstances. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the support and co-operation we have all received from all coroners, whether in Wiltshire, Oxford or elsewhere in the country, in dealing with those issues. There is a challenge for the Scottish jurisdiction, because it does not enjoy the power to hold inquiries into deaths that take place abroad. Discussions have been ongoing for some time and they will continue. There is willingness on the part of Scottish Ministers to try to resolve the issue, against the challenges it might generate for their jurisdiction more broadly, which I understand. There is willingness to resolve the issue, but it should not be resolved to the detriment of the families, so we have to be careful how we do it.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 7 June, I raised in the House concerns about the conduct of the chief executive of Warrington borough council. An e-mail from the council has been disclosed to me making it clear that officers considered an action against me for defamation following those remarks. It was accompanied by a letter from the borough solicitor reserving the right to take legal action in the future. As the guardian of the privileges of the House, what advice can you offer anyone in local government who seeks to challenge those privileges? As the contemplation of legal action appears to arise from a question I put to the Leader of the House, can you confirm that remarks made in the House are privileged and that no legal action can be founded on them?

As a Member of Parliament in my own right, it is usually the case—at least it is in Glasgow—that I take advice from local government officers. I do not give them advice; it is the other way around. I can confirm to the hon. Lady that words spoken in the House are protected by parliamentary privilege; outside the House the same protection does not apply.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you yet received a request from the Prime Minister for permission to come to the House to make a statement to clarify his on-the-record assertion that the Leader of the House of Commons first knew about illegal donations to the Labour party on—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you advise me on the convention of the House that Members should at least inform the local MP if they seek to raise an issue concerning that MP’s constituency? All Members—none more so than myself—want to ensure that matters relating to the Durham Green development in my constituency are properly investigated. Had the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) informed me of his intentions, I could have told him that it was a Liberal Democrat council that gave planning permission and that the lifting of article 14s in the region was the subject of a campaign organised by The Journal, and backed by the chamber of commerce and all political parties in the region, to support job growth in the area.

It looks as though the hon. Lady can handle the affairs of her constituency very well, and I will not be drawn into that matter either.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I tabled a closed question under Defence questions, and I would like your advice about the transfer of questions from one Department to another. The relevant question was to do with defence, but for some reason it was passed to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Can Departments pass questions to each other in order to invalidate or ignore them, and how can such loss of a question be compensated for?

I do not always know the reasoning behind the decisions, but Departments and Ministers can move questions from one Department to another. It has happened to us all as Back Benchers and we have to live with it.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a serious issue at stake. The Defence Export Services Organisation was charged with responsibility for facilitating defence exports from the United Kingdom. If we cannot question Ministers in the Ministry of Defence about the issue, the defence industry of the United Kingdom should be told that that is not on. This is a serious matter for the UK defence industry.

I am not going to allow a debate on the issue to be opened up. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for a considerable time and knows that this has happened to every Back Bencher, including me when I was Back Bencher. That does not mean that a future question cannot be posed to any Department. If you go into the Table Office, you can submit whatever questions you wish, to whichever Department.

Orders of the Day

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

[Relevant documents: The letter from the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions dated 12th July and the Secretary of State’s letter of reply dated 10th August.]

As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

New Clause 2

Registered Maintenance Agreements: Scotland

‘(1) In section 4(10) of the Child Support Act 1991 (c. 48) (exclusion of application for maintenance calculation), after paragraph (aa) insert—

“(ab) a maintenance agreement—

(i) made on or after the date prescribed for the purposes of paragraph (a); and

(ii) registered for execution in the Books of Council and Session or the sheriff court books,

is in force in respect of them, but has been so for less than the period of one year beginning with the date on which it was made; or”.

(2) In section 7(10) of that Act (exclusion of application by child in Scotland for maintenance calculation), at the end of paragraph (b) insert “; or

(c) a maintenance agreement—

(i) made on or after the date prescribed for the purposes of paragraph (a); and

(ii) registered for execution in the Books of Council and Session or the sheriff court books,

is in force in respect of them, but has been so for less than the period of one year beginning with the date on which it was made.”

(3) In section 9(3) of that Act (agreements about maintenance), after “4(10)(a)” insert “and (ab)”.’.—[Mr. Plaskitt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 5—Responsibilities of non-resident parent—

‘In section 1 of the Child Support Act 1991 (c. 48) (the duty to maintain), for subsection (2) substitute—

“(2) For the purposes of this Act, a non-resident parent shall be taken to have met his responsibility to maintain any qualifying child of his—

(a) by paying a calculation in accordance with the provisions of this Act; or

(b) by making payments in accordance with an order set out in subsection (2A) in the circumstances set out in subsection (2B).

(2A) The order referred to in subsection (2)(b) shall be an order (“the Order”) for periodical payments to the child made under section 23(1)(d) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (c. 18) or paragraph 1(2)(a) or (b) of Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41).

(2B) The circumstances referred to in paragraph 2(b) are—

(a) that simultaneously with the Order the court makes an order under—

(i) section 23(1)(a),(b),(c), or section 24 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, or

(ii) paragraph 1(2)(c),(d) or (e) of Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 (lump sum payments or transfer of property orders etc); or

(b) the order is a variation of an order originally made when one or more such orders were made.

(2C) Where the court makes an order of the type listed at subsection (2A) and the conditions of subsection (2B) are met, any calculation under this Act shall be discharged and, during the currency of the Order, the Secretary of State shall not exercise his powers to make a calculation under section 4 of this Act.”’.

Amendment No. 1, in clause 15, page 7, line 26, at end add—

‘(2) In section 4 of the Child Support Act 1991 (child support maintenance) for subsection (10) substitute—

“In the event that the parent with care and the non-resident parent have entered into a binding Minute of Agreement and—

(a) each party has received independent legal advice prior to signing the said Minute of Agreement;

(b) the agreement contains within it provisions for the maintenance of any children whether by regular payments, transfers of capital or a combination of the two;

(c) there is provision to reconsider any regular payments in the event of a material change of circumstances; and

(d) there is provision within the agreement for enforcement in the event that either party fails to adhere to the provisions of the agreement,

no application may be made to the commission with respect to a qualifying child or qualifying children specified in the agreement.”’.

Amendment No. 13, in page 7, line 26, at end add—

‘(2) In section 4 of the Child Support Act 1991 (child support maintenance), for subsection (10) substitute—

“No application may be made at any time under this section with respect to a qualifying child or any qualifying children if there is in force a maintenance order in respect of that child or those children and the person who is, at that time, the non-resident parent.”’.

Government amendment No. 5

I wish to discuss these amendments and new clauses in two groups. I shall begin with new clause 2 and Government amendment No. 5, as I believe that setting out their purpose will shed light on why we are unable to accept the proposal by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir).

New clause 2 clarifies how the provisions of sections 4(10) and 7(10) of the Child Support Act 1991 work in relation to registered minutes of agreement made on or after 3 March 2003. It gives registered minutes of agreement for periodical child maintenance the same status as court orders for the purposes of those sections. It ensures that those registered agreements, like court orders, have a 12-month period to bed in and work before any application may be made to the statutory scheme.

For all practical purposes, that is what sections 4(10) and 7(10) of the 1991 Act currently provide. However, their interpretation in relation to registered minutes of agreement relies on the decision of a child support commissioner, which may be challenged and overturned by a higher court. If that happened, it would mean that making and registering a minute of agreement would not prevent either party from immediately applying to the commission for maintenance calculation.

The Government believe that registered minutes of agreement, like court orders made on or after 3 March 2003, should be allowed a settling period of 12 months in which to bed in and work. However, if it becomes clear that, for whatever reason, those agreements are not working, parents should have access to the statutory maintenance scheme to put things right. New clause 2 clarifies the position in primary legislation and puts the matter beyond doubt.

In short, we believe that it is right to make it clear that for the purposes of sections 4 and 7 of the 1991 Act, registered minutes of agreement have the same status and effect as court orders and are subject to the same treatment. In order for that to happen as soon as possible, Government amendment No. 5 will commence new clause 2 on the day after the Act is passed.

Surely the proposal does not change the position that minutes of agreement are guaranteed for only one year. After that, either party may apply to the commission, irrespective of the provisions in a minute of agreement, for enforcement in the same way as a court action. If that happens, we are back to square one, with an application to the commission, rather than immediate enforcement.

These measures give the agreements the same status as court orders. They do not address the more substantive issue of the 12-month rule that the hon. Gentleman wants to debate. We will come to that.

I turn to amendments Nos. 1 and 13 and new clause 5, which would all, by differing means, prevent parents who had entered into certain minutes of agreement or court orders from ever making an application to the commission for a maintenance calculation. Under the measures, parents who decided not to use the statutory service initially for their maintenance arrangements would be locked into registered minutes of agreement or court orders for ever.

The Government recognise the value of minutes of agreement and court orders, which have a positive role to play in giving parents an opportunity to agree maintenance arrangements that suit their particular circumstances and providing for regular ongoing payments of maintenance to children. However, we feel that they should be given a 12-month period in which to bed in and work, with either parent having the opportunity to come to the commission after that time if they do not work.

Of course, if both parties agree that the arrangements are not working and on how they need to be changed, the parties will have the option of returning to the court for a variation. However, those provisos will not apply in most cases.

The 12-month rule is still the problem, however. The Minister is saying that if, after 12 months and one day, one party decided to go to the commission, they could do so, irrespective of whether there had been any change in circumstances from 12 months and one day prior to that. The whole concept of minutes of agreement lasting more than 12 months is undermined, because neither party has a guarantee that the other party will not unilaterally take the matter to the commission.

We think that the right has to be in place, because if the terms of the agreement arrived at in court are not working, there needs to be a means—

It does, because the arrangements will break down in some circumstances. If things break down, we would all agree that there needs to be a way of overcoming that breakdown, because that is in the interests of children. As I said, if both parties agree that the arrangements are not working, and on how that should be resolved, they can go back to the court to seek a variation. However, what would happen if the breakdown between the two was irreconcilable? We cannot leave children in a situation in which there is no flow of maintenance. There needs to be a way of one of the parents—generally the parent with care—to seek a means of securing maintenance. That will be achieved by allowing them access to the commission.

I still do not follow what the Minister is saying. When I said, “It does not matter,” I was making the point that both parents do not have to agree that things have broken down. One parent could decide unilaterally that they no longer like the terms of the agreement, whether or not those terms had been adhered to fully, and then go to the commission. The other parent would have no option. In such circumstances, no one will enter into minutes of agreement lasting more than a year because they could be overturned by the other party in a year and one day. It would not matter whether the terms of the agreement had been fully adhered to, the agreement was working or the payments were being made, or whether there had been capital payments, because a parent could still go to the commission.

I do not agree that there is a disincentive. Some 20,000 such orders or minutes of agreement are made every year, and there is no indication that the existence of the provision in any way undermines them. They remain a choice; if parents want, they can exercise that choice, and they can settle their separation and child support issues by those means. The vast majority do not opt for that process, but go through the Child Support Agency or reach a voluntary agreement. For those who do take the order route, there has to be a way of resolving things if the agreement breaks down.

Does the Minister not accept that Sir David Henshaw argued against the 12-month rule in his review of the system? He said:

“The ability to move between systems after a year can in itself create instability and reduce the incentive to make an initial agreement.”

Those are his words, on page 27 of his review.

I know that they are Sir David’s words, and as he would expect, we debated that recommendation thoroughly and considered it carefully, but in light of all the evidence that we looked at, we did not agree with his recommendation.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he agree that it is possible that a court can be more thorough in its initial investigation, particularly of the financial circumstances surrounding the break-up of a relationship? As a result, the court order—a minute of agreement in Scotland—that is created may result in a fairer and better division of assets, or provision of maintenance. Providing whoever feels hard done by with the opportunity to undo that arrangement may result in a less just conclusion.

The order may be more thorough, and that is why some parents who separate choose to go down that route. They may feel that the court order is more relevant to their circumstances than any of the other means. However, I do not accept that the existence of the other means undermines court orders or minutes of agreement. So far, we cannot see any evidence that they have that effect. I should like now to make a little more progress; there will be an opportunity to come back to those issues in respect of the other amendments in the group.

The amendments proposed by Opposition Members would prevent choice; they would remove the bedding-in period and could leave parents irrevocably locked into arrangements that may no longer work further down the line or meet the needs of the children concerned. Minutes of agreement and court orders have their proper place in the provision of child maintenance, but there needs to be a safety net for when those arrangements go wrong. Children must not be left for considerable periods with no maintenance or inadequate arrangements, and parents should not be tied to agreements that no longer work for them or, more importantly, their children.

By encouraging agreements between parents that lead to effective and sustainable maintenance arrangements, we hope that parents will not need to turn to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission for a calculation under the statutory scheme. We do not wish to overturn any effective or agreed maintenance arrangements, whatever form they take. Repealing section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991 will mean that only when one or both parents make an application to the commission can written maintenance agreements, including minutes of agreement and consent orders, be overturned. Working agreements will continue for as long as both parents want them to.

The 12-month rule is intended to encourage settlements that contain fair levels of child maintenance, calculated broadly along the lines of the statutory scheme, so that we can ensure that children have regular, ongoing maintenance payments. The rule achieves that, because that is what lawyers invariably advise. As I said earlier, it also enables parents to apply to the statutory service if the arrangements fail. Those principles would not be served by the amendments. If parents are happy with their arrangements, we want those arrangements to continue, but we do not think it right that a specific group of parents should be excluded from the opportunity to use the statutory service if that is what they feel is right for them and their children, so I urge hon. Members not to press their amendments.

This group of new clauses and amendments brings us back to an issue on which we spent a considerable time in Committee. The Minister may remember that every single member of the three Opposition parties present asked him to go away and look at this issue. He made a commitment to do so, for which we are grateful.

The Minister has spoken a great deal about choice and its denial, but there is another way of looking at the issue. Many Conservative Members are saying that in some circumstances, albeit for a minority of separating parents, a family court judge should be trusted to put in place an agreement that will last, reflecting the individual circumstances of that family. Only about 4 per cent. of separating families receive those court orders, although they account for 9 per cent. of families to whom maintenance is paid. We accept that it is a minority who are affected, but I hope that the Government take seriously the position of minorities. Those families have the right to fair treatment, and we contend that many more families would avail themselves of the greater flexibilities offered by the courts if any agreement they entered into lasted more than 12 months.

Families should not be discouraged from going to court by virtue of the fact that a rigid, inflexible formula can be summarily imposed after 12 months, thus ripping up any agreement entered into voluntarily by both parties in good faith. In particular, fewer family homes are likely to be made over to parents with care if the 12-month rule and the rules reflecting capital transfers continue under the Bill, even though that might be the one wish above all others that a mother has for her children if her marriage breaks down or her relationship with the father of her children comes to an end. No judge would leave a parent with care with only a capital sum—the family home—and no other income. New clause 5 states that there must be ongoing maintenance payments to the parent with care in addition to any capital transfer that has been made.

Under the Bill, it makes no sense for a non-resident parent to transfer the family home to the mother of his children or vice versa in a minority of cases, even though that might be the one thing that the mother wants above all else from the settlement. The Minister talked about not restricting choice, but he must realise that by maintaining the same position, he is restricting it. No divorce lawyer in their right mind would advise a non-resident parent to transfer the family home to a parent with care, because they would be acting in the certain knowledge that any agreement about maintenance accompanying that capital transfer could be ripped up at a later date. We contend that the Minister is restricting choice.

Is not the position worse than that, because the Minister could be standing in the way of people coming to an agreement on the transfer of capital assets? He could be forcing them into a situation where they fight about that, so we are not looking merely at the question of revenue payments in respect of children.

I agree. The hon. Gentleman is right, and I pay tribute to him for the tenacity with which he has pursued the issue. Perhaps his was a bit of a lone voice in earlier years, but he certainly received widespread support in Committee when he raised such issues. It is a sadness for me that the Government position does not appear to have changed.

One parent or both can apply to the court to have laid aside any court order with which they are unhappy. We know, as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) said, that Sir David Henshaw, who can claim to be the architect of the Bill, thought that the continuation of the 12-month rule and the rules on capital transfers should not be part of the new system.

It is significant that the Minister managed to unite every Opposition member of the Committee against him. I serve notice on him that at an appropriate point I shall press new clause 5 to the vote. It applies only to England and Wales. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) will seek to press his amendment No. 1 to a Division. No doubt he, like me, is awaiting the Minister’s response.

As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, the clause was discussed at length in Committee. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) has tabled a new amendment that addresses the serious concerns that were raised about the 12-month rule, but allows some reconsideration within the scope of the minutes of agreement. I ask the Minister to examine amendment No. 1 carefully. It allows the minute to be amended if circumstances change. I find it strange that the Bill tries to get parents at the beginning of a divorce, once a separation has taken place, to enter into a voluntary agreement. It would be better if such an agreement were given force by being recognised by the court.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that contrary to the Government’s stated objective of trying to reduce the number of parents who refer their case to the commission in future, the clause is likely to have the effect of increasing the number coming to the commission because they may well go to a court first, and then have to start all over again with the commission after a year and a day? It will have the reverse effect from the Government’s stated ambition.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We want to reduce the number of cases that go to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. We already know from the Child Support Agency that it is not working. Having listened to the Minister in Committee, I assumed that by providing advice and support to both parents at the beginning of a separation, it would be possible to reach an agreement that would stick. We have yet to hear how much the Government will commit to making sure that that support and advice are available.

However, at the end of 12 months, no matter what process they have gone through, a parent can go direct to CMEC. The Bill does not stipulate that they can go to CMEC only in certain circumstances. With all the advice and support that the commission will provide, they can enter into an agreement and, at the end of 12 months, tear it up. That goes against the spirit of the Bill.

I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that we are dealing with only a small number of case—9 per cent. of cases have maintenance agreements covered by minutes of agreement. Research in Scotland found that 93 per cent. of those agreements are made by owner-occupiers and only 4 per cent. by tenants in rented housing. The research concluded that the agreements were property-driven. Again, I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, whose new clause 5 seeks to address some of the issues in respect of property agreements. That is important. One of the problems with the Bill has been the fact that so many of the things that will happen will appear in regulations later. We should try to fix a far more detailed arrangement.

I accept what the Minister said earlier. There has to be a clear principle that children should be able to benefit from any prosperity that both parents have. The Minister takes the view that we are putting forward tablets of stone that cannot be changed, but neither of the amendments being pressed are like that. I should like to read a little more from what Sir David Henshaw said in his report, because it comes to the crux of whether voluntary agreements will be worth the effort put into them. Sir David said:

“I recommend that consent orders obtained through the courts should not be able to be overturned by the administrative system. This would remove the current 12-month break-point which enables parents to move between consent orders and the administrative system. The order from the court would be given primacy and the courts would become responsible for varying and enforcing consent orders, in effect tying such cases into the legal system.”

I know that when the CSA was created, no standard assessment was made of what should be paid for maintenance. If the CSA has done one good thing, it is to have set in place a fairly well accepted system of what payments should be made.

The hon. Gentleman has quoted Sir David Henshaw. Does he also recall the very first recommendation of Sir David’s report? I shall remind him of it. Sir David said that although we should

“Create a system that allows parents to make their own arrangements”,

there should also be

“quick and effective involvement from the state where such arrangements are not possible.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an agreement that can be enforced in the same way as a court order is likely to be much quicker than starting from square one and making an application to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission?

If some of our concerns about the staffing of CMEC and how it deals with the historic cases are not addressed, we will find that the new commission will not be able to deal with cases. I come back to the point that we are trying to encourage a voluntary agreement and that parents should be able to get advice from the various agencies. Minutes of agreement should have some force of law for the small minority that go into them, but the 12-month rule does not provide that.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that new clause 5 and amendments Nos. 1 and 13 try to support the Government’s objective of making voluntary arrangements popular and of making them stick and be an encouragement? In fact, those measures from the Opposition parties try to support the Government’s objectives in the Bill.

I agree entirely. We need to ensure that the minutes of agreement have some strength and last longer than 12 months. Family lawyers have said that the 12-month rule has acted as a deterrent to couples in making consent orders or minutes of agreement because both parents know that they are free to break the agreement after the 12 months by going to the Child Support Agency.

The amendments are sensible; the numbers involved are small and the amendments would ensure that sufficient safeguards were in place to ensure that any order made proper provision for future maintenance. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire has said, the amendments support the Government in their main objectives. I hope that the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), as well as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, is in favour of putting the amendments to the vote, because we need to place the important issues on the record. We have tried to be constructive and ensure that the Bill delivers its stated purposes.

I should like to speak to amendment No. 1, which stands in my name and those of the hon. Members for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). As has been mentioned once or twice, I have raised this matter on a few occasions previously; Members who served on the Public Bill Committee may find that they have a sense of déjà vu. In Committee, I told the Minister that I had made the last throw of the dice, but I have thought about it again and come back for one last try in the hope of persuading him to see sense.

New clause 2 also refers to Scottish minutes of agreement. I do not understand why the Government tabled it, as it seems somewhat superfluous. It does not change the existing law as regards minutes of agreement, which would fall under the definition in clause 10, but it still means that they cannot last for more than one year. That is the fundamental difficulty with the whole matter. The Conservative amendments also relate to this. If I understand them correctly, two cover England and Wales only and one covers Scotland separately. The same issues apply in England as those that I have raised in respect of Scotland. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats supported me during my previous attempts to address this in Committee, for which I thank them. Depending on what the Minister says, I hope that they will support me again today.

The system of minutes of agreement in Scotland means that an agreement entered into and registered has the same legal standing as a court decree and can be enforced without going back to court. That is a fundamental point. As Members will be aware, the introduction of the prospect of separating couples entering into a voluntary minute of agreement under the new system was widely welcomed when the Bill was published.

The Minister said that in the absence of this proposal children are likely to be left without any maintenance because the existing arrangements have broken down. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that cannot happen because the court order or minute of agreement is enforceable via the courts?

It is enforceable in the same way as a court decree. The situation is slightly worse than the hon. Gentleman suggests. If there is an effective court decree that can be enforced by the use of sheriff officers, bailiffs or whoever is used in England for such matters, with arrestment of bank accounts and all the paraphernalia of enforcing decrees, the process can be relatively quick. If that option is not available and it is necessary to go back to CMEC, the process has to start from the beginning again. CMEC might be super-efficient and get things done quickly, but the history of the CSA does not bode well, given that many cases have lain with it for months, if not years, during which time no maintenance has been paid and arrears have escalated, which becomes a serious problem because when enforcement is attempted the arrears are astronomical and the absent parent will go to any lengths to avoid paying them.

As I said, the innovation was widely welcomed, and rightly so. I stress, as did the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), that the number of people wanting to enter into a minute of agreement that goes beyond the statutory scheme will probably be low, but it is an important group and it is important to provide choice. However, as things stand under the current legislation, this will have little impact because the minute continues to be restricted to one year. Sir David Henshaw recommended that that rule be abolished. One of the hopes as regards the reform of the CSA was that many more people would enter into minutes of agreement, but retaining the 12-month rule puts a restriction on the number who can do so. I think that the Minister will be disappointed by the number who go on to use minutes of agreement. The Public and Commercial Services union has raised concerns as to whether the numbers that he has projected, which underpin future reductions in staffing, will be met. There is an historical perspective to this in that the original 1991 Act envisaged the Child Support Agency taking over all cases of child support from the outset, which proved well beyond its capabilities. The present one-year rule was introduced to give it a breathing space, and that has now been in existence for seven years because the agency was never able to catch up.

If we are to move forward, we all agree that it is important to get maintenance for children and to get an agreement that is in the best interests of children. The Minister seems to have tunnel vision on the matter; he is looking at only one item. It was the same in the old CSA, which overturned agreements that worked quite well because it was obsessed by the revenue stream, rather than considering the whole circumstances of the family. If we are to allow separated couples to reach agreement, we must allow them some freedom to reach an agreement that suits their circumstance.

If we proceed with the Bill as drafted, no one in their right mind is likely to enter into an agreement that deviates from the child maintenance levels set out in it, despite the fact that we were clearly told in evidence sessions that many parents wish to consider alternatives. I quote Hilary Reynolds, who I think is the civil servant in charge of the Bill:

“It is worth noting that when we have talked to some clients about what they find important in a voluntary agreement, sometimes it is not regular payments, but lump sums, mortgage or school uniform payments, or whatever. What suits the parents of the child or children will be a variety of things, not just the standard x amount per period.”––[Official Report, Child Maintenance and Other Payments Public Bill Committee, 17 July 2007; c. 29.]

We also have to remember that when couples with children separate, the agreement comes at a very traumatic period. They are often very wounded, and we are asking them to negotiate an agreement. We need to give them the confidence that the agreement negotiated will be adhered to. I reiterate the point that I made in an intervention on the Minister. As things stand, even under new clause 2—I do not oppose it, but I do not think that it changes the law—parties can still enter into an agreement, and a year and a day later, one of those parties can say unilaterally, “It doesn’t matter. This has all worked fine, but I’ve decided I don’t like it any more. I’m going to the commission and asking them to overturn it.” The history of the CSA is that many minutes of agreement were overturned because it just looked at the application of the payment for child maintenance. It did not take into account any transfers of capital, transfers of the matrimonial home, transfers of business or anything else, which led to a great deal of problems.

The hon. Member for Rochdale made the point that research has shown that many agreements were property-driven, which is probably correct because they were bound by capital payments. Sometimes, however, the property is the only large asset there is, and in many cases where a couple are separating, the other party disappears off the face of the Earth as soon as the separation is through. A house is an asset—that is why we have mortgages. It is sitting there, immovable. In many cases one party would very much like to get the house before the other party disappears. The Minister’s objection in Committee, which is coming through again today, seems to be the fear that such agreements will be used to get around obligations for child maintenance. None of us wants to see that happen. We all want both parents to adhere to their obligations. We are all trying to get to the same thing, but the Minister is transfixed by that fear. I do not believe that his fear would be realised. Such minutes of agreement, in my experience in my previous life, are not set in stone. They contain provisions for amendment through passage of time or change of circumstances.

We all recognise that child support is a long-term matter. It is not for one year or five, but for 15, 16 or 17 years. There are some parents who will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying for their children. Frankly, however, it does not matter what rules are in place; those who are prepared to do that will still be prepared to do it. The new agency should be concentrating its fire on those cases. Those parents who accept responsibility and are prepared to enter into a sensible agreement should be allowed to do so, and to do so in terms that fit their circumstances. I mentioned the problems with the old agency overturning such agreements and if the rule remains in the current form, the problem will continue. CMEC could do exactly the same and the same problems will arise. No one will enter into a minute of agreement on other than the standard terms.

After Committee, I tried to think about the Minister’s objections to the amendments that I tabled. That is why amendment No. 1 takes its present form. I tried to incorporate some terms that would alleviate the Minister’s concerns. I made it clear that there must be independent legal advice before the agreement is signed. The husband cannot say to the wife, “Sign the document, or else,” or put pressure on her. They have to receive proper legal advice. I have also made it clear that the agreement must contain

“provisions for the maintenance of any children whether by regular payments, transfers of capital or a combination of the two”.

It must address the point of maintenance for children.

The agreement must also contain provision

“to reconsider any regular payments in the event of a material change of circumstances”.

If circumstances change, as they do over a large number of years, the parties can reconsider the minute of agreement. They can do so through the courts or, if trust has built up over the years, they can adjust it themselves with appropriate legal advice. The provisions should be enforceable in the court. As I said at the beginning, a minute of agreement, if registered in the books of council and session, can have the same impact as a court decree.

I do not argue that such agreements will be for everyone. Nor do I believe that they are likely to be the norm. They will be for a minority, but it could be a significant minority. They offer a realistic and effective way of dealing with child maintenance without involving the agency. They would take people out of the system and allow them, between themselves, to come to a reasonable agreement. That is behind the idea of allowing minutes of agreement in the first instance rather than involving the agency and all the bureaucracy and problems that there have been. That is why I drafted the amendment to lay down strict conditions that deal with the problems foreseen by the Minister. I hope that he will think again. We should be prepared to allow parents who can do so to enter into such agreements and not insist on the state dictating terms because of the fear that some feckless fathers will use it to get round their responsibilities. Let us try to get that right now; otherwise the problem will continue under CMEC as it did under the CSA.

It is all right, Mr. Speaker. I am prettier than my hon. Friend.

I rise to agree with all the points that have been made in opposition to the Minister’s points, particularly the points of principle, and to add two small points to those that have already been made by fellow Opposition Members.

First, I am concerned that the Minister tried to justify his position by saying that he believes that it is important to allow people recourse to CMEC if a minute of agreement or court order is no longer working—I paraphrase. As has been ably pointed out, there are plenty of recourses and remedies, if that situation should arise, that do not require people to go back to CMEC. There are plenty of courses that people can use via the courts to vary an agreement that do not require them to go back to CMEC. There does not have to be a mandatory solution for people to go off to CMEC just because court orders or minutes of agreement are likely to fall over and leave people with no maintenance—I think that that was the phrase that he used. That situation is not likely to arise, because the courts will ensure that it cannot. I am stuck when it comes to understanding what mischief the Minister is trying to avoid. I suspect—I fear—that he is trying to avoid allowing any sort of agreement that diverges from the Government’s preferred set of purely revenue-based solutions. Why is not he willing to trust the people who are best placed to work out what is right for them—the two separating parents, who have the blood connection with the child—on the assumption that they are being properly legally advised, through court proceedings, on both sides? It is not a big thing to ask. I believe hon. Members should trust the people who put us here, and trust that they are being carefully advised. I fear that the Under-Secretary is worrying about people disagreeing with the Government’s preferred Revenue-based solution rather than trying to provide them with a genuine choice.

Even if the Under-Secretary does not agree with that basic point of principle, may I at least ask him to tackle two technical points, which may be about to hit him on the back of the head if he does not accept some of the more broad-based points that the Opposition are making? If, as he has enunciated in the past, he genuinely wants to reduce the number of cases going to CMEC compared with the number that the CSA handled, does not it make sense to try to allow as many people as possible to choose the route of minutes of agreement or court orders rather than providing a method of undermining those and therefore driving people back to CMEC after a year and a day? Does not he accept that the number of cases coming to CMEC is likely to be higher in future than it would otherwise have been?

It would also be helpful if—either in the Bill or through regulations—the Under-Secretary tried to explain and define in a bit more detail what he means by a minute of agreement or a court order that is not working. Can he put boundaries around that? For example, the Government have already accepted that they do not wish people to be able to vary their maintenance agreements if their income has changed by less than 25 per cent. up or down. Yet, a year and a day after a court order or a minute of agreement was made, if the income of the parent who pays the maintenance had increased by, for example, 15 or 20 per cent., and would not, under the Government’s existing scheme, be eligible for a CMEC-based change to maintenance, the parent with care could request a new order under CMEC because they would get more money under the new regime through the increase in the income of the parent without care, which had nevertheless not increased by as much as the Government determined in the Bill was an appropriate amount to allow for a variation in the payments. Surely that would be a breach of the Government’s attempts to limit the number of changes of circumstances and times that people have to go back to CMEC.

If the Government are willing to accept the principle of variation of income for CMEC cases, should not they also be willing to define the circumstances in which a court order or a letter of agreement can be varied before people can return to CMEC? Will not the Government at least put some boundaries around that, so that it is not simply a question of the parent with care being able to go back to CMEC under any circumstances? Surely the Government should be willing to place limits on that, even if they are not willing to accept the broader principles that the Opposition have expressed.

We have largely rehearsed a debate that we held in Committee. Indeed, we are almost a reunion of Committee members at the moment. As some hon. Members have said, I indeed listened carefully to their points about the 12 months and I undertook to think about them again. I did so and I have to tell them that none of the arguments that they presented in Committee or this afternoon has convinced us to change our position. Listening again to the arguments, I think that the Opposition misunderstand the Government’s view of court-based settlements. It was implied that we do not like parents to go down that route and that we do not want them to take that option. My views are confirmed by hon. Members nodding their heads. They believe that we are trying to impose a 12-month arbitrary rule, saying, “You can have it for 12 months; then you must come to us”, as if we are seeking to beckon people into CMEC. I am encouraged by the nodding heads because it confirms my view of Opposition Members’ approach.

However, those views are not correct. The Government have no problem with people going to the courts for an agreement or a minute of agreement in Scotland, if that is the route that they choose, nor are we saying that such agreements should expire after 12 months and then come to CMEC. As hon. Members have said, it may be perfectly possible within the terms of some court-based agreements or minutes of agreement to return to the court to deal with any problem that has arisen, to get variation in them or to have them considered again. That is of course still an option. Where the parents want to do that and where it is appropriate, that is what they will do.

The point about the 12-month rule is to cover the eventuality where there is a breakdown—I shall come to the point that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) raised about what a breakdown constitutes—and where going back to the court is not an option because it will take far too long or be too expensive for the parents involved, for instance. Where there is a breakdown and no option of returning to the court, there must be provision to secure some kind of settlement, in the interests of ensuring a flow of maintenance to the children. I repeat: that does not mean that we are against court-based agreements or minutes of agreement, nor does it mean that some of them cannot have the flexibility to be adapted as they go along. Some may last for a long time and be perfectly successful. However, where there is a breakdown and recourse to the courts is not going to work, provision must be made to get maintenance flowing to the children. In those circumstances, one of the parties to a previous agreement now has the option to come to CMEC after 12 months, if that is the only way to get the flow of maintenance for the children.

I am puzzled by the Minister’s comment about it not being possible to go back to the court. Amendment No. 1 sets out a clear framework within which either party can go back to court if circumstances change. I just do not see what his objection to that is.

I think that either the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood or I did not express myself clearly enough. In many circumstances it will indeed be possible to go back to court. It is implicit in a court-based agreement or minute of agreement that either party can go back to the court if they wish. I am saying that where there is a complete breakdown and one party decides not to go back to the court, there must be a mechanism to ensure a flow of maintenance for the children. In those circumstances it may in future be more appropriate to come to the commission.

I promised that I would deal with the point that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare raised about what constitutes an arrangement not working. It is not for me to define that, nor is it for the agency now or the commission in the future. Parents will know if the arrangement is not working. The hon. Gentleman says that we should trust the people who are most closely involved. It may well be that circumstances will change for one or both of the parties after an initial agreement has been struck, but that there is no longer provision within the court-based agreement or minute of agreement to deal with those changed circumstances. The parties will know that, because they will no longer be able to support the children, for example. Those are the circumstances in which they will want to take another route to secure a flow of maintenance. It will be their judgment and understanding that an agreement has broken down, not ours.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but if the parties enter into a minute of agreement that deals with capital, houses or whatever, as well as with maintenance, and one of the parties decides that it has broken down, whether the other party agrees or not, and goes to CMEC, what will CMEC look at? All CMEC will look at is the percentages of income that need to be paid for a child. There is no way, under its own rules, that CMEC can look at a minute of agreement on anything other than a straightforward division of maintenance, so nobody in their right mind will enter into an agreement that covers anything other than that if the rule stays in place.

CMEC is not a separation agency. It is there to ensure maintenance for children. That is the whole point. Again—I am struggling to see what problem the hon. Gentleman has with the provisions—we are saying that where an agreement breaks down and there is no provision for a regular flow of maintenance to a child or children, there must be a way of securing it. It is right to give the parent or parents the choice of accessing the commission in those circumstances.

I agree that we need to make progress shortly, but let me have one more try with the Minister. Does he not accept that in some circumstances, this could seriously be the only means whereby the mother is able to afford a fairly decent roof over her head? The 12-month rule and the current rules on capital transfer mean that there will be fewer non-resident parents willing to make the offer, which could be the one thing, above all else, that the mother wants.

It would be a powerful point if there were any evidence of that effect—[Interruption.] Well, the 12-month rule has been in force since 2003 and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is absolutely no evidence to date that this is operating on property settlements in the way that he suggests. I do not think that it is correct to make that argument.

Let me return to the Minister’s point about parents defining when something has broken down. The burden of his response seemed to be that he is reluctant for the Government to set a definition, so may I encourage him to be a bit braver? I say that because the Government have already set some boundaries around what they regard as an acceptable degree of change in income for any arrangements made directly through CMEC in the first place. The Government said that income has to vary by 25 per cent. or more before parents can go back to CMEC for a change in maintenance arrangements. If the Government are willing to set that 25 per cent. boundary as a minimum level of change before people can go back, why are they not willing to apply the same principle to people wanting to start a new claim through CMEC because they want to vary something decided on by the courts? Surely the same principle should apply.

I think that the two are entirely different. The point about the 25 per cent. boundary is that we are trying to move away from the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman knows were experienced by agencies in having to deal with an infinite number of reported changes of circumstances and changes of income levels, which made administering the system virtually impossible—or at least difficult to do smoothly and quickly. That is why we opted for the model of annual settlements and the 25 per cent. variation to regulate the extent to which we are doing recalculations and to give the commission a firm administrative basis to work from. That is not the same as trying to second-guess or anticipate the causes of a breakdown in a hitherto established agreement, which is not a parallel situation. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman’s argument runs from the 25 per cent. arrangement over to this arrangement.

I am, of course, disappointed in not having been able to dissuade Opposition Members from persisting with their amendments. I reiterate that, despite what they have said—sometimes explicitly, but certainly implicitly—the Government are not opposed to court-based agreements. We entirely accept that some may well last for the duration, which is fine. We are aware of no evidence that the 12-month rule is undermining court settlements or discouraging people from going for them; neither is it having the effect on property that has been suggested. I reiterate that there must be a mechanism for dealing with instances of these court-based agreements breaking down in the interests of ensuring a flow of maintenance to children. If Opposition Members press their amendments to the vote, I will ask my hon. Friends to oppose them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 1

Offence of failing to notify change of address

‘(1) In section 14A of the Child Support Act 1991 (Information — offences), after subsection (3) insert—

“(3A) In the case of regulations under section 14 which require a person liable to make payments of child support maintenance to notify a change of address, a person who fails to comply with the requirement is guilty of an offence.”

(2) In that section, in subsection (4), after “subsection (3)” insert “or (3A)”.’.—[Mr. Plaskitt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6—Contact addresses—

‘Non-resident parents who are required to make maintenance payments under the Child Support Act 1991 or this Act must take reasonable steps to provide an address at which they can be contacted by the Commission.’.

New clause 1 will make it a criminal offence for a non-resident parent not to report a change in his or her address to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. We will amend secondary legislation to introduce the specific requirement to report such a change.

Although existing legislation requires both parents to report certain changes in some circumstances, that does not cover routine changes of address. The Child Support Agency must still ask the non-resident parent to supply details of his or her new address. Only if he or she refuses, or fails to comply with a specific request, can the agency take action. As a result of the new clause and consequential changes to secondary legislation, as long as the non-resident parent is made aware of the new requirement the commission will not need to make any specific request, and will be able to consider criminal prosecution when an unreported change occurs.

Maintaining up-to-date address details for non-resident parents will allow the commission to take swifter enforcement action, and will help to ensure that annual reviews are completed without delay. It will also help to prevent the non-resident parent from manipulating the system, for example by claiming that he or she did not receive a warning that a deduction from earnings order would be imposed. Introducing such a requirement, with an associated criminal penalty for failure to comply with it, is not unprecedented—for instance, it is an offence not to notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of a change of address—and I believe that this is a sensible and necessary requirement for the commission to adopt.

New clause 6, tabled by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), would place non-resident parents under a legal obligation to supply the commission with addresses at which they could be contacted. While I agree with the sentiment behind the new clause, I hope the hon. Gentleman appreciates that new clause 1 would achieve much the same effect, and that the Government’s approach, unlike his, is backed by sanctions. On that basis, I hope he will agree not to press new clause 6 to a vote.

I expect there to be much more agreement on these new clauses than there was on the last group of new clauses and amendments. I can tell the Minister at the outset that I shall be happy not to press new clause 6, as new clause 1 is slightly better drafted and, unlike mine, contains an offence category. Nevertheless, I feel that I can claim a small amount of credit, because I told the Minister in Committee that I felt that this measure should be in the Bill. When I was a member of the Select Committee during the last Parliament, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) raised the matter with the then chief executive of the Child Support Agency.

It is a fact that many non-resident parents simply disappear from the radar screen and cannot be traced, and it should be a basic requirement for them to inform CMEC of their permanent addresses. However, I should like to know what information the Government intend to publish about prosecutions for this offence. It is one thing for the Bill to specify an offence, and another thing for action to be taken. In the past, CSA powers have not always been used so extensively.

I should also be interested to know whether the Government intend to contact the utility companies, and perhaps mobile phone companies, when trying to obtain addresses. Hon. Members have raised constituency cases in which mobile phone companies have clearly known the addresses of non-resident parents. Will mobile phone and utility companies be under any obligation to give the Government the information? Given the inclusion of new clause 1 in the Bill, it seems to me an odd state of affairs that companies might not pass on information that the Government require.

My ears did prick up somewhat when the Minister mentioned the DVLA requirement that all motorists must provide their address to it. Is he aware of the serious problem of drivers who provide what are effectively post office addresses, or addresses at which the police have absolutely no hope of making contact with them? I have called an Adjournment debate on that subject, as it happens to be a particular problem in my constituency for reasons I am happy to tell the Minister about afterwards. It is a widespread problem; it is a problem for at least 13 police forces across the country. The Minister might need to look into this matter more carefully, perhaps in another place, and he might also need to reword his new clause because I have worries that it might not be as well worded as it should be—although I accept that it is better worded than mine. I am happy to speak to him about the experiences I have had with the DVLA.

If we are to include such a provision in the Bill, we should ensure that it works. We had a history of the CSA not having the powers it needed, and it will be a travesty if we bring forward a measure that we think will work and then find that it is defective.

I welcome these new clauses, as a serious issue highlighted in the Select Committee report is that there is an arrangement in only 51 per cent. of current cases; the other 49 per cent. do not have an arrangement. The reasons for that include the reclaim of benefit proceedings in respect of the CSA, and non-resident parents going missing and it being difficult to track them.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talks a lot of sense, however, when he highlights some of the problems that will be encountered in enforcing this new regulation. While I welcome it, it might need to be fleshed out more in the other place, because it is important that the relevant agencies and utility companies understand that if a parent does not provide the necessary information CMEC will have the wherewithal to require various bodies to provide it. That is what is missing from the new clause. I welcome what it does, but we should amend it a little further to ensure that CMEC has the legal powers to require agencies to provide information about a non-resident parent when that person is clearly breaking the law and is not providing CMEC with a change of address. If CMEC is to be effective—if the mere 51 per cent. of cases with arrangements is to increase—we need stronger powers even than those that are currently included in the new clause.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is entirely right that he raised this matter in Committee, and because we had been listening we thought about it and agreed that this aspect needed strengthening—hence the new clause. As the Government are better at drafting them, our new clause is stronger than his. I welcome his decision not to press his new clause, as we want to achieve the same result and this debate is merely about how to get right the mechanism for doing it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about publishing information on prosecutions. They will, of course, become a matter of record, but I point out to him that at the end of October 2007 the CSA had prosecuted 198 cases for failing to supply information in this financial year, and over the same period the agency has prosecuted seven cases for supplying false information. All of them have been successful. I do not know what the scale of prosecutions will be in respect of the new offence, but once it is in force and is applied the figures will be public information.

The hon. Gentleman asked, as he did in Committee, about access to mobile phone records. Mobile phone billing addresses are classified as low-level communications data under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, but the CSA is not a registered public body under that legislation, which is why it does not have access to the records. It will be up to the commission, once it is established, to decide for itself whether it wants to register and therefore fall under that legislation.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the use of post office addresses and non-traceable addresses. I shall look into that issue, and I am grateful to him for raising it. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) also welcomes our proposal. He rightly says that it needs effective sanctions behind it—it has them. The offence will be very clear and the necessary sanction will be in place to enforce it. I am pleased that new clause 6 will not be pressed to a Division and that there is support for Government new clause 1.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 3

Objectives of the Commission

‘(1) The Commission shall have the following objectives—

(a) to seek to ensure that every child who is living apart from one or both parents continues to share in the income and prosperity of both parents throughout their childhood, through the establishment of effective maintenance arrangements;

(b) to enforce liabilities incurred pursuant to the Child Support Act 1991 (c. 48), whether or not a current liability for a child exists.

(2) In promoting the establishment of effective maintenance arrangements for a child under subsection (1)(a) the Commission shall—

(a) encourage and support the making and keeping by parents of appropriate voluntary arrangements for their children;

(b) support the making of applications for child support under the Child Support Act 1991 and secure continuing compliance, when appropriate, with parental obligations under that Act.

(3) The Commission shall aim to pursue, and to have regard to, its objectives when exercising a function that is relevant to them.’.—[Andrew Selous.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 7—Approval of Operational Plan

‘(1) The Commission must—

(a) prepare an Operational Plan to establish how it will meet its objectives under section 2 of this Act and;

(b) publish the Plan in such manner as the Commission considers appropriate.

(2) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a copy of the Operational Plan published under this section.

(3) The Operational Plan shall not have effect unless, within three months of the date on which it is laid before Parliament, a motion has been made in each House considering the Plan.

(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations determine the categories of information to be included in the Operational Plan.

(5) Regulations made under subsection (4) may include details of staffing levels the Commission considers it appropriate to maintain in order for it to fulfil its functions.’.

Amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 7, leave out Clause 2.

Amendment No. 17, in clause 2, page 1, line 10, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

‘(1) The Commission’s main objectives are—

(a) to maximise the number of those children who live apart from one or both of those parents for whom effective maintenance arrangements are in place;

(b) to secure the payment of any arrears of child support maintenance including sums owed pursuant to the Child Support Act 1991 (c. 48) prior to the establishment of the Commission.’.

I am sure that the Government will agree with the objectives of the new clause, which are primarily to ensure that CMEC is reminded of its specific and important obligation to chase up and secure the historical arrears of child support liability. The arrears able to be collected and paid are reckoned to be £1.4 billion. That massive sum should have been paid through to the children of this country but has not, and we are determined that it will not be forgotten or pushed under the carpet.

I accept the Government’s genuine commitment to this area of debt, and I do not doubt either the veracity of what the Minister said in Committee or his intention. CMEC will be a non-departmental public body and it is vital that this matter of debt is included in the Bill. That is why we have adopted the draconian approach of proposing to remove clause 2 and drafting new clause 3. The Minister will recognise much of clause 2 in new clause 3. He will be pleased that we have not really proposed removing anything—we have merely proposed adding the highly important requirement that the historical debt should be recorded in the Bill.

We have also proposed that “every child” should have a right to continue

“to share in the income and prosperity of both parents throughout their childhood”.

Clause 2 has a slightly different wording. It aims

“to maximise the number of those children…for whom effective maintenance arrangements are in place.”

The Minister may think that we are merely proposing a small change of words, but the phrase “every child matters” is significant—he will recognise it from elsewhere within his Government.

It is important to focus on the issue of debt. In June, 881,300 non-resident parents were in arrears, 91,470 of whom owed £10,000 or more. Some of my constituents have debts of £30,000 to £40,000 owed to them, which they want paid over to their children. We welcome the CSA’s operational improvement plan target to collect an additional £213 million of debt by March 2009, but we want CMEC’s instructions in this regard to be clear in the Bill.

The CSA’s 2006-07 annual report has not yet been published, so we do not know the current level of debt. The report is overdue, and we hope that it will be published soon.

In Committee, Ministers described effective maintenance arrangements as those that are working, where money is flowing and in which parents meet their financial responsibilities. That is right as far as it goes, but it contains no reference to the historical debt. Indeed, it refers to cases with a continuing maintenance obligation, and in many cases of debt there may be no current maintenance liability, perhaps because the child has left secondary education or is living with the former non-resident parent.

A generation of children have lost out on the vital financial support that Parliament said they should have because of the failure of the non-resident parent to pay child support and the failure of the CSA to enforce those liabilities. Those debts must not be forgotten. Non-resident parents must not be allowed to escape their obligations. The legacy of failure cannot be simply brushed aside as many families are still owed large amounts of money.

The CSA already has an enormous armoury of enforcement weapons at its disposal and it has not always used it with sufficient rigour in the past. The problem has not been a lack of tools, but the fact that debt collection and enforcement has not been as high a priority as it should have been in the CSA. The processing and collecting of current maintenance was given higher priority. New clause 3 would ensure that past debt has equal priority, and that would be laid down in primary legislation.

When the new commission configures its business model, it should do so around two equal objectives—the responsibility to establish and actively support continuing child maintenance, and the responsibility to collect past debts. On that basis, I hope that the Minister will look favourably on new clause 3.

I shall speak to new clause 7 and amendment No. 17. The latter would do what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) seeks to achieve with new clause 3, and we will support him if he chooses to press that to a Division. We made the point in Committee that the new commission must make a commitment to the collection of historical debt.

On the basis of figures from March 2006, £3.5 billion has not been collected by the CSA, and the total rises by £20 million a month. That is according to last year’s CSA report, and the 2006-07 report will probably show a further increase. We all have examples of non-resident parents who have gone missing and owe the parent with care tens of thousands of pounds. A lady who came to see me last year is owed £24,000, which has placed a huge burden on her. It means that her children are not getting the support that they deserve and the non-resident parent has got away with evading his responsibilities.

We have all signed up to the main aim that CMEC should be a fresh start—a clean break from the CSA and the failures of the past. Some of us argued that it might be better if the past debt were dealt with by a residuary rump, which could concentrate solely on that. The Government did not come to that decision, but it is important that CMEC’s objectives should state clearly that it has a major commitment to clearing that historical debt.

A generation of children has already grown up without the benefit of the support that the CSA was supposed to provide for them. They have gone through the system, but in establishing CMEC we need to ensure that the actual collection of the historical debt has equal priority with the new arrangements for a new generation of children. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, almost 100,000 of the 881,300 non-resident parents with arrears owe more than £10,000. That is a huge amount, so it is important that we make that debt a major priority.

New clause 7, which we shall press to a vote, would make provision for Parliament to approve the operational plan. The plan would have to be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State and considered by both Houses within three months. Regulations under the operational plan would have to give detail about the staffing levels the commission considers appropriate.

A major concern about the Bill—expressed by Janet Allbeson of One Parent Families, who gave evidence to the Select Committee—is that it is very much a skeleton, and much of its detail will be in regulations, which, of course, are impossible for us to amend. It is true that CMEC will have to provide an annual report to the Secretary of State, which can be laid before Parliament. With great respect, however, I suggest that an annual report is just that; it looks back at the year that has just finished. It does not give Parliament the wherewithal to hold that new arm’s length agency accountable for what it plans to do in the coming 12 months. Insisting that the operational plan be laid before Parliament would deal with many of the issues that we raised in Committee, such as the IT systems, the staffing levels or the giving of information and advice, provision for all of which is to be made later. Some of the regulations have been produced for us, as the Minister promised in Committee, but they are still only in draft and we do not have all the information.

One of our major concerns is about staffing. The regulatory impact assessment is that CMEC’s caseload will be reduced from the current figure of 130,000 for the CSA to 100,000. That may be the case. The staffing cuts already programmed envisage a 15 per cent. reduction for CMEC, taking the head-count down to 9,500 by March 2008, which in a perfect world might be okay. However, the problem that we have, and the concern that we raised in Committee, is that we have no evidence yet as to whether the case load will reduce as quickly and as drastically as is envisaged in the plan.

We argued in Committee that there should be no reduction in staffing levels until CMEC has proved that it is functioning at the required standard. One of our concerns is that a new series of arrangements will have to be put in place, a new series of advice and information will have to be set in train, and new cases operating under the third type of child maintenance system will have to dealt with—at the same time as dealing with the huge historical debt and the nearly 900,000 non-resident parents who are in arrears. If that happens, and the staffing reductions continue, Parliament will have no recourse to hold CMEC to account.

It is unfortunate that so much of the detail of how CMEC will operate has not been included in the Bill, although both Opposition parties moved amendments to try to change that. The new clause would make CMEC more accountable to Parliament. The new commissioner has already been appointed, despite the Prime Minister’s statement about appointments being approved by Parliament. That has not happened in this case. The rest of the board, however, has not been appointed, and the House should have some say in how CMEC is going to be run. Giving it a statutory duty to present to Parliament an annual operational plan that looks forward not back—which is what we believe that the annual report will do—will give the House a proper opportunity to make sure that, at the third attempt, following the setting up of the Child Support Agency, CMEC delivers on its objectives.

Although we have signed up to the broad brush of what the Government are trying to do, we believe that a lot of the detail has still not been filled in—detail that is vital to the success of CMEC. I am talking about staffing levels, IT support, and the provision of information and advice. None of those things are decided yet. If the operational plan were laid before Parliament, there would be an opportunity for Members on both sides to contribute positively to ensuring that CMEC gets the start that we all want. I hope that the Minister will support the new clause, which is not controversial. Implementing it would involve no additional costs. However, it would ensure that hon. Members could play a full part in ensuring that CMEC delivers on its objectives.

In principle, I support what hon. Members are trying to do. Like other hon. Members, I have many constituents—mostly, but not exclusively, women—who are owed huge debts by absent parents. Those absent parents have been chased for many years, but, to date, there has been little success in obtaining the money. However, there is one point that gives me some concern. The question of how the historical debt arose was raised during the evidence session in the first sitting of the Public Bill Committee. In particular, in the early days, if the CSA could not get in touch with somebody or somebody did not respond, it would often put in an assessment on the basis of an assumed income, which was much higher than the person’s real income. As a result there is a large historical debt, going back many years, based on an income that the person who owes the debt never had. One could argue that that is the person’s own fault for not dealing with the CSA in the first instance. However, it raises the question of what we are going to do about setting out the true level of historical debt.

When we asked Lord McKenzie about that point in the evidence session, he said:

“We would like as many of those old debts to be cleared as possible. Obviously, that is quite resource-intensive…One of the things that it is proposed we do is, rather than write off debt, create a provision for reflecting the effect of inflated or uncollectible debt in the account. However, those debts would remain in being and would not be written off until there is consent from the parent with care.”

The difficulty with that approach is that there could be a large debt that was not actively chased on behalf of the parent with care. In fact, nothing would be done with it—it would simply sit on the accounts of the CSA or CMEC. When Stephen Geraghty was asked about this, he said:

“There comes a point in any debt collection exercise where it is a question of how much we can get. I think that we are a long way from that, but presumably the commission and Parliament will, at some point, want to consider whether they want to keep the debts going.”––[Official Report, Child Maintenance and Other Payments Public Bill Committee, 17 July 2007; c. 34-35, Q83-84.]

There could be two types of debt: debt due to the Treasury; and debt due to parents with care. While I fully support what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is trying to do—I do not want real debt to be written off either; I want it to be pursued—I am a little worried about how we set the level of the debt. Will we take any account of what was, presumably, inflated debt in the first instance?

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that our experience of the poll tax was that local councils dealt with high levels of non-compliance and non-payment? The bulk of that debt has now been collected through continued enforcement action, and very little has been written off. How much of the £3.5 billion does he think should be written off?

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I am not suggesting that the debt should be written off. However, there is a fundamental difference between debt involving the poll tax and that involving the CSA. The poll tax debt was known to be correct—people simply did not pay—and there is still a fair amount outstanding in many local authorities. I would like to know what is proposed to address the problem that there might be a lot of ancient debt that does not reflect the true liability.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Bill, he will see that clauses 29 to 32 address debt management powers. There is universal agreement on both sides of the House that the figure of £3.5 billion is artificial. It was created along the way when some extra liabilities were imposed, almost to try to get the attention of non-resident parents. I am focusing on the £1.4 billion figure. If addressing that amount was one of CMEC’s objectives, I would be happy.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, which has put my mind at rest to some extent. However, his proposal does not say that; it refers only to the debt. There is a danger that if we are saying to parents with care, “We will pursue your debt,” we may well be thinking about different figures. They might be thinking that they are due a sum of £30,000 or £40,000, but the true figure might be less than that. I would not like to raise false expectations of the amount that they might get.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Angus (Mr. Weir) for their contributions to the debate. Reference was made to the agency’s 2006-07 accounts, and I am happy to confirm that they have been laid today.

We believe that the existing objectives are right, and remain the best way to achieve the outcomes that we want for children. The amendments would give the commission two main objectives rather than a single overarching one. They would give the commission a second objective, of equal standing, requiring it to secure payment of arrears accumulated under the Child Support Act 1991. However, the objectives, as drafted, already set the collection of debt as a priority for the commission. The last part of the second subsidiary objective is to secure parental compliance under the Child Support Act. As I explained in Committee, that sets the commission a clear objective of securing compliance with all liabilities under the Act, including the collection of arrears, regardless of when they arose.

We believe that it is right that that is a subsidiary objective. The overriding priority of the commission must be to get effective maintenance arrangements in place for as many children as possible. By focusing on that, the commission will be helping to eradicate child poverty, and it is difficult to envisage a more important objective. However, I stress again that the arrangements do not allow the commission to ignore existing debt in any way. I hope that I have sufficiently emphasised the fact that the subsidiary objective prevents that. In addition, we expect the commission to have clear targets underpinning each of the objectives, including those on debt. The collection of arrears is vital to the successful delivery of the main objective. The system will not work unless the commission is seen as an effective collector of the money owed to parents with care.

We have concerns about the wording of the first main objective in new clause 3. First, we do not believe that it is feasible to require the commission to ensure that there is a maintenance arrangement in place for every child; indeed in some cases—for example, where the non-resident parent is violent—it may not even be appropriate. Requiring the commission to maximise the number of effective maintenance arrangements in place achieves the same clear goal, but without the difficulties. Secondly, although we wholeheartedly agree in principle with children sharing in the income and prosperity of both parents, we do not believe that the wording of the new clause is necessary; in fact, it may present problems.

The current objectives have broadly the same effect as those proposed in the new clause. The commission must maximise two types of arrangements: arrangements established through the statutory maintenance service, which are, of course, based on the income of the non-resident parent, and appropriate voluntary arrangements. “Appropriate” means arrangements that are suitable given the particular circumstances of the parents in question, and arrived at in full view of all the available information. That information includes the amount that would be received through the statutory maintenance service, and we expect most voluntary arrangements to be broadly in line with the formula. That will ensure that children share in the income of both parents.

However, the whole point of voluntary arrangements is that they are flexible and can be tailored to the specific needs of parents. We want the commission to support parents in reaching the arrangements that are best for them. We do not want the commission to interfere in an attempt to ensure that arrangements are closely linked to the non-resident parent’s income. The final part of the proposed first objective refers to

“the establishment of effective maintenance arrangements”.

We deliberately want the focus to be on arrangements being “in place”, as the Bill says, rather than just being “established”, so as to emphasise the importance of arrangements being sustained, not just set up.

New clause 7 proposes that we legislate to require the commission to prepare, publish and lay before Parliament an operational plan detailing how it will meet its objectives. Let me see whether I can dissuade the hon. Member for Rochdale from pressing that new clause to a Division. It is clearly essential that the commission produce robust plans and shows how it will meet its objectives. However, we do not need to legislate for that, as Treasury guidelines already make such actions a requirement of the commission’s funding.

The framework document that must exist between the sponsor Department and an arm’s length body requires that a number of financial and management documents be in place. They include a corporate plan looking three years ahead, which the body must submit annually to its sponsor Department. Treasury guidance sets out the key matters that should be included in the plan. Those matters include: the key objectives and performance targets for the future years, and the strategy for achieving those objectives; alternative scenarios and an assessment of the risk factors that could affect the plan but which cannot be accurately forecast; and other matters that can be agreed between the Department and the body.

The first year of the commission’s corporate plan will form the commission’s business plan and must include key targets and milestones for the year immediately ahead. It must also include budgeting information to enable the Department to identify the resources that will be allocated for specific objectives. Of course, we expect that to cover staffing levels—an issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Treasury guidance also requires the corporate and business plans of all non-departmental public bodies to be published on their websites, and to be made available to staff separately.

We believe that that is sufficient to allow scrutiny of the proposals, and that it would be inappropriate for arm’s length bodies’ business plans to be subject to approval by Parliament. It is worth noting that the commission is already accountable to Parliament through its annual report and accounts, which must be laid before Parliament. The Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament for the commission’s overall performance.

Does the Minister not accept that there is a fundamental difference? Treasury guidance advises that business plans be put on the website. The Bill is a skeleton measure, and we want to make sure that working arrangements are subject to scrutiny by Parliament, which is a fundamental difference.

With respect, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has made the case for making the detailed operational plans of a non-departmental public body subject to approval by the House of Commons. There is no precedent or argument for doing so. I entirely accept his desire to subject the commission’s activity to adequate parliamentary scrutiny—of course, that is right—but as I tried to explain, the commission is obliged to publish its accounts and annual report, and it remains answerable to Parliament via the Secretary of State, who must appear before the House. I believe that those provisions are adequate, and it is not appropriate to go further and try to micro-manage the department’s operational plan on the Floor of the House. I hope that, with those reassurances, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will agree to withdraw the new clause.

I listened carefully, as always, to the Minister. I welcome the fact that the CSA’s accounts have been laid before Parliament, but if they had come out on Friday we would have had a little more time to look through them.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about new clause 3. May I reiterate what I said to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) and others? I have no problem at all with authorities using the powers in the Bill, with the permission of the parents with care, to write off debt that is uncollectable and should probably never have been accumulated in the first place. That is common ground, but I remind the Minister that we have a long history of getting this wrong, and the failure to collect debt has undermined the CSA’s work in the past, and will undermine CMEC’s work in future. It will not help that fundamental change of culture that we want—the willingness to pay child support—which will be a key component of CMEC’s success.

Turning to new clause 7, the CSA had a troubled history, and this is Parliament’s third attempt to get that incredibly important area of law right. Hon. Members play an important role, and they should be forced to take an interest in what CMEC does. Many of us were not entirely happy with the decision to set up CMEC as a non-departmental body, and we failed to see why it should not become an executive agency of the Department for Work and Pensions. It is even more important, given that it is to become a non-departmental body, that Parliament should have the role of scrutinising its plans in future. Should the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) wish to press new clause 7 to a vote at the appropriate time we would support him, and I shall now press new clause 3 to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

New Clause 4

Pleural plaques

‘A claim for a payment under Part 4 may be made by—

(a) a person with asbestos-induced pleural plaques, or

(b) a dependent of a person who immediately before death was aware that they had asbestos-induced pleural plaques.’.—[Mr. Clapham.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 4 relates to part 4 and seeks to import into it payments for pleural plaques. On 17 October, a decision was made in the House of Lords that pleural plaques should no longer attract compensation. The judgment suggested that pleural plaques were symptomless —[Interruption.]

Order. If hon. Members are not staying to take part in this debate or to listen to it, perhaps they would like to leave the Chamber quietly.

The judgment argued that there should be no compensation for pleural plaques, a condition caused by exposure to asbestos. It occurs as the asbestos is passed through the lung to the back of the lung and the pleura that protect it, and it causes a hardening of those pleura. The judgment suggested that the condition was symptomless and therefore not compensatable. It went on to suggest that if a man suffers anxiety as a result of pleural plaques, it is caused not so much by the condition as by the fact that he has been told that he has it.

I find that judgment quite bizarre and quite appalling. It belittles claimants and it causes great anxiety for them, because they know that there is no chance whatsoever of redress. An amount of evidence is available to suggest that they are not as symptomless as the judges in that case thought. I accept that the five judges gave their judgment unanimously, which makes it a difficult one to overturn. As the Minister will be aware, we saw his hon. Friends at the Ministry of Justice, and there was some concern that we will not be able to overturn that judgment. The only means of seeking some redress now is to consider whether we might be able to include provision for payments to be made in Bill. I know that there are difficulties with that.

My hon. Friend received legal advice from two senior Ministers, who assured him and me that the Law Lords’ outrageous decision was UK-wide and therefore could not be overturned. He may be aware that the Scottish Parliament is making an effort to have the decision overturned, and the best of luck to it; I hope that it manages to do so. It has the political will to do it, and if the same political will existed in this House, perhaps we could cover the rest of the UK and get compensation for those who thoroughly deserve it.

I am grateful for that intervention. I know that my hon. Friend has dealt closely with this complaint because there are people in his constituency who suffer from pleural plaques. He has sought some form of statement that might help the House deal with the situation arising from the pleural plaque decision on 17 October.

My hon. Friend said that our hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) has constituents who might be affected. Is it not true that practically every Member in the House will have such constituents? If my hon. Friend wishes to use his new clause to probe the Government today, perhaps he might add that many of us want this place to rectify the position so that our constituents who are affected will get compensation.

I have no doubt that the Minister heard what my right hon. Friend said, and will take his point on board.

We may need to discuss the matter with the Ministry of Justice to decide how to take things forward. If we were able to get the provisions in question into the Bill, we would have to look at how we might pay compensation to people with pleural plaques. It has to be recognised that the Bill deals with mesothelioma, and I accept that mesothelioma—cancer caused by asbestos—is much more unremitting and aggressive, and it is terminal. Pleural plaques are not in that category, but they do indicate that a person’s situation may worsen. They could develop into asbestosis, which is fibrosis of the lung, or indeed into mesothelioma.

In preparation for this debate, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, I met a branch of the GMB union in London—the “London laggers”. The two officials whom we met, Jim Parish, chairman of the laggers, and Tony Kent, their secretary, told us that they have kept a record of their members from 1989 to the present day. On average, there have been 12 diagnoses of pleural plaques each year since 1989. They say that a number of deaths have occurred as a result of mesothelioma cancer and other cancers, but they could not refer us to a record of those deaths, because many occur when the men have retired and lost contact with the union branch, so they are noted only when someone mentions that one of their colleagues has died or is being buried. There was no correct record of the number who had developed mesothelioma, but the officials were convinced that pleural plaques led directly to a worsening of the situation.

The Minister may be aware that some people say that pleural plaques are general throughout the population, but that is untrue. Others will say that pleural plaques are not altogether concerned with exposure to asbestos.

My hon. Friend is aware, of course, that pleural plaques can be detected only via an X-ray, but he is also aware that the condition constitutes an irreversible damage to the tissue of the lung. Does he agree that it is hard to believe that, if such damage were caused to visible tissues on any human being, compensation would be denied?

I agree with my hon. Friend. If there is a physiological change, and the court judgment accepts that, in my estimation that amounts to a loss of faculty, which should be compensatable.

As I said earlier, people say that pleural plaques are widespread in the general population. Others say that they are not altogether related to exposure to asbestos. Hugh Robertson, the director of social insurance for the TUC, sent me a copy of an e-mail, which I shall read out to the Minister. It states:

“I have today spoken to both Professor Mark Britton, and Professor Tony Newman Taylor. They are probably the most pre-eminent chest physicians in the UK and world renowned experts on asbestos-related diseases. Both confirmed that Pleural Plaques were not prevalent in the general male population and were an indicator of asbestos exposure (either occupational or environmental).

Mark said that his estimate would be that around 3-4 per cent. of X-Rays might show Pleural Plaques, although in areas of high exposure, such as East London, the figures would be higher.

Tony confirmed the strong link between asbestos exposure and Pleural Plaques, although he indicated that it was impossible to say absolutely that asbestos was the only cause, although there is no evidence of any other cause. It is widely held that asbestos exposure is the cause of Pleural Plaques. I have never heard this doubted before, although there is speculation that smoking may make Plaques more likely.”

That was the view of Professor Tony Newman Taylor who, at one point, was chair of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. The e-mail continues:

“You may be interested to know that about a third to one half of those occupationally exposed to asbestos will have calcified pleural plaques thirty years after first exposure. After twenty years, 5 to 15 per cent. will have uncalcified pleural plaques”.

In other words, there is clear medical evidence that pleural plaques are the result of exposure to asbestos.

Is my hon. Friend as astounded and disgusted as I am to hear that, during a meeting in this place about pleural plaque, a civil servant compared it with freckles? If people are dismissive and do not understand the issue and what it could lead to physiologically and mentally, we are in dire straits. Surely the new clause is the sort of proposal we should accept to help our people out.

There was exaggeration, but we now have evidence to show that such exaggeration is wrong and that pleural plaques generally result from exposure to asbestos rather than simply emerge among the general population.

Pleural plaques are clearly caused by asbestos, and the decision of the Law Lords is causing a great deal of concern. The Bill appeared to provide an avenue for introducing a payment for pleural plaques. As I said, the laggers that we met were clear that pleural plaques caused breathlessness. I received a letter from Mr. Terence Hook, who lives in Sheffield and has just been diagnosed with pleural plaques. He makes it clear that he suffers from breathlessness, which he attributes to pleural plaques. There is much anecdotal evidence of people with pleural plaques suffering from breathlessness.

The decision, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North referred, of the Scottish Assembly—

The Scottish Parliament’s decision to try to overturn the House of Lords decision is brave. As my hon. Friend said, we were told that the House of Lords decision was one of rigour and would apply in Scotland in the same circumstances as it applied in England and Wales, and could not easily be overturned. If the Scottish Parliament moves to overturn the decision—all power to its elbow—we need to consider seriously how we proceed. I hope that, if the Minister cannot accept the new clause—I appreciate that there are problems with it, and we may need to take up the matter with the Ministry of Justice—he will refer his colleagues in the Ministry to the fact that overturning the decision is being considered in Scotland.

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter in the way in which he has done. Those of us who have fought for victims of asbestos for 20 years or more are regularly defeated in the courts, not by companies that refuse to pay out but by insurance companies, which fight tooth and nail to avoid paying out. In the course of 20 or more years, our constituents die and their families get nothing, so we must look to the Government to bridge the gap while we try to find a long-term solution to what is medically proven to be a just and legitimate case.

My right hon. Friend is correct. If we consider the number of cases that have come to court in the past few years, we can see that the insurance companies behave almost like jackals. They have gone to court again and again until they have got the decision that they wanted. That throws up another question. We are considering a working class disease; it is not a middle class disease. Is it appropriate for middle class judges to make decisions about a disease that affects the working class? It is clear that those taking the decisions have been rather indifferent to the way in which people explain their suffering. When we met the London laggers, we were told that they gave the House of Lords all their evidence from the records that they had kept on the development of pleural plaques among their members. However, the House of Lords came forth with its decision that pleural plaques is a symptomless condition.