House of Commons
Tuesday 3 June 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Dartford River Crossing
The estimated delay affecting vehicles travelling the five miles between the A13 north of the river and the A2 to the south using the Dartford river crossing is about three minutes northbound and two minutes southbound. That is the average for the period between 6am and 8pm; delays at peak times are longer.
I think my constituents would agree with the Minister that delays at peak times are considerably longer. That marvellous, comfortable picture does not reflect what is a daily reality for thousands of them. I wonder when the Minister will do something to alleviate the daily misery and cost incurred by millions of people who spend, I would guess, hundreds of thousands of hours each year sitting in traffic jams because of the tolls.
Obviously, congestion at peak times is an issue, but all the evidence suggests that without the tolls it would be even worse. The Dartford crossing is a vital part of the national road network, and is used by about 150,000 vehicles every day. In the longer term the answer may be a new crossing, which is why we have commissioned a study.
My constituents, and those living opposite us in Dartford, look forward to the long-promised concessions for our communities to which the Government have committed themselves in respect of the toll, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to act on the second crossing? United Kingdom Ltd demands—needs—an opportunity to gain access to the channel ports and the north of our country, not just via the Dartford crossing but via a crossing on the Thames estuary east of Dartford. The sooner the Government address that need, the better it will be for the commerce of the United Kingdom as well as the minimisation of congestion and pollution in Dartford and Thurrock.
I am probably more aware than most of the strength of my hon. Friend’s feeling about discounts for local residents. He has certainly pressed his case very effectively. As for the options for a new crossing, as I have said, a study is being conducted, and we expect a report at about the end of the year.
I noted the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), but does she consider that the proposed local discount scheme is fair to my constituents and the other residents of east Bexley who are not to be included in it, given that they live closer to the Dartford crossing than some Dartford and Thurrock residents? Or is this just another example of Bexley being let down by Labour?
We set out the reasons for our proposals in our consultation document. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, we propose to base the scheme on the boundaries of the two local authority areas on either side of the crossing, as they include the most affected locations. Our aim is to adopt an approach that is proportionate and provides clarity on eligibility. I shall announce our conclusions shortly, following the consultation.
Is it not a strange coincidence that both councils nearest to the bridge where residents will travel free happen to be in marginal Labour constituencies? Other commuters in Kent who live just as close to the bridge will now have to pay higher tolls.
The Minister is referring to county councils, whereas my hon. Friend was referring to marginal parliamentary constituencies. There is an obvious distinction.
The study that the Minister has announced is welcome, but will it include the Thames Gateway expansion plans and, more specifically, the slightly confusingly named Thames Gateway port expansion plans? When the port is redeveloped—as I assume it will be—it will generate a large amount of HGV traffic.
We are working closely with regional partners and local authorities to deliver improvements to the whole of the north-west transport network, including the road infrastructure.
Does the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, accept that my constituency of Macclesfield in north-east Cheshire does not receive a fair allocation of resources for road infrastructure improvement? Does he agree that improved road infrastructure can lead to increased economic development and activity and can reduce carbon emissions in the community? Will he look at the situation in south Manchester and north-east Cheshire to see whether a fairer allocation of resources can be provided?
Obviously I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree that good road infrastructure is essential to the health of the economy and of the environment, but, as he will probably know, road spending in the north-west has more than doubled since 2000. The south-east Manchester multimodal study, commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), has come up with possible solutions for the south-east Manchester relief road. That is a very expensive project—costing possibly between £700 million and £1 billion—and it cannot go ahead as a single scheme. We are looking at progressing parts of that scheme in phases. He will know that a crucial part of that is the Poynton bypass in his constituency. We are working very hard with all representatives in the local area to come up with an affordable proposition. But to claim that the Government have not spent enough money on road infrastructure in his constituency, or anywhere else in the country, would be false.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and I are the parliamentary shareholders in the road scheme to which the Minister refers, which would complete the road network in my constituency in particular. Is he now in a position to take up the offer that his predecessor made to visit the site and to see what is needed to relieve congestion and pollution in my constituency?
I am always happy to visit the constituency of any hon. Member. If he wishes to make a formal invitation to my private office, I shall be more than happy to consider it. I hope that, during such a visit, he will find that the resources invested in transport infrastructure in the north-west and other parts of the country have well exceeded those of all our predecessor Governments.
Does the Minister understand the very real frustration of residents in my constituency who are concerned about the apparent lack of progress on the completion of the A555 relief road? Does he further understand that the unique factor in the completion of the scheme is that the middle section was built many years ago and simply needs connecting at each end? Without that completion, it will be a permanent testimony to the folly of short-term transport planning.
Of course I understand the frustration felt by constituents and MPs on both sides of the House when a particularly important road scheme is not progressed according to the time scale that we originally expected. As the Government, we have to make sure that whenever a road scheme is progressed, it delivers best value for money. Regardless of the record amounts of money that the Government are investing in road infrastructure, we have to make sure that every pound is well spent. I notice that the transport plans issued by the hon. Gentleman’s party today do not offer much extra money on top of what we have already offered.
Integrated Transport Authorities
The Local Transport Bill allows local authorities to devise proposals on the membership of integrated transport authorities in their areas. However, a majority of each ITA’s members must be elected councillors. Authorities would also be able to propose whether non-elected ITA members have voting rights.
I do not think that that is the way forward. Under the Bill, ITAs determine locally whether they want to have people other than elected members on the authorities and, if so, whether they have voting rights. We believe that that is the right approach to enable, for example, passenger or other representation on ITAs. I have discussed that with passenger transport executives, and the hon. Gentleman should take a slightly broader approach.
I thank my hon. Friend for that encouragement. I know that he, unlike the Opposition, has been a great supporter of what we are trying to do in the Local Transport Bill, particularly to enable greater improvements to our bus services. I thank him for his support.
We need to move from a fuel-intensive economy to one that is low carbon. That is why climate change is now one of the five overarching goals of transport policy. It is also why we take account of the cost of carbon when making policy decisions, and why we are looking at many further options for reducing transport emissions.
I welcome what the Secretary of State has to say, but is that commitment not somewhat undermined by the Government’s commitment to airport expansion? Given that their own Sustainable Development Commission has recently called for a fundamental review of the air transport White Paper and for decisions on Stansted and Heathrow to be put on hold until that happens, would it not make sense for them to rethink their position? After all, the current trend in fuel prices may well do more to restrain air travel than anything that we do in our legislation. Should we not have a rethink along the lines called for by the commission?
I know how committed my hon. Friend is to the idea that the UK should play a full role in combating climate change, and I agree. The question for the House is: is combating climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions overall, across all sectors of the economy, compatible with the growing aviation sector? I and the Government believe that it is, and we are championing in Europe a European emissions trading scheme whereby any increase in aviation emissions above the 2004-06 base level would have to be matched one for one by a reduction in carbon emissions elsewhere in the European economy, paid for by the aviation sector. In that way, not only do we help to push forward with our climate change objectives; we do so in a way that is compatible with future economic growth.
When the Secretary of State formulates transport policy, will she also take into account the report by Professor David Newbury of Cambridge university, which said that if motorists were obliged to pay the true cost of the effect that vehicles have on the environment, they would be paying taxes at less than half the rate they are currently paying? In the light of this information, will the Secretary of State therefore now abandon her unpopular and misguided plan to introduce local charging schemes in the interest not only of fairness, but—because we care about her—of saving her own seat?
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman cares so much about my electoral prospects in Bolton, West. I have to think about how we combat climate change in a way that, yes, is compatible with economic growth but that also helps us to cut congestion. He points to the rate of fuel tax and puts that in the context of the carbon cost, but we also have to think about the impact of traffic on the roads, which undermines economic growth, too. All our growing cities across the country have grown very strongly in the past 10 years, and they have to ask themselves how they can continue to support that economic growth over the next 10. To do that, they will have to think of innovative ways of dealing with congestion. We have said to cities and towns across the country that if they come forward with innovative plans, we are prepared to back that with hard cash.
We should certainly take our share of the credit for the Kyoto treaty, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that we must address the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation remain unregulated? I note what she said about a European carbon emissions trading scheme. Can she indicate what other steps the Government are taking to change this state of affairs?
Yes, it is right that not only do we push ahead with the European trading scheme—it will set an absolute cap on aviation emissions across Europe, counting not only emissions created within the eurozone, but all planes leaving from Europe and arriving in Europe, and will make a substantive contribution to climate change—but, importantly, that, within that, we think about how to create efficiency in aviation. That means encouraging future investment in technology and creating incentives to use airspace better, which is why we are working towards a single European sky and working with traffic control services to ensure the most efficient air traffic control in each country.
Some 70 per cent. of the Scottish Government’s transport budget is spent on sustainable public transport, and the Welsh Assembly’s Sustainability Committee has urged the adoption of a similar target for Wales. How well is the Secretary of State’s Department doing on the breakdown of expenditure between public transport and roads?
Rail usage has increased by almost 50 per cent. since 1997, whereas traffic has increased by 12 per cent, and those figures speak for themselves. We are making unprecedented levels of investment in rail, and we intend to continue that with up to £15 billion of investment over the next five-year period. As a result, we have the fastest growing railway in Europe. Looking beyond that, we can see very exciting opportunities for reopening or making more use of lines and for encouraging more people to abandon their cars and think about alternative ways of moving around.
The Secretary of State will know that rail freight accounts for only 2 per cent. of all freight transport emissions and that every tonne of freight carried by rail is estimated to produce at least 80 per cent. less carbon dioxide emissions than if road were used. Why then was there no high-level output specification—HLOS—for rail freight? Why have the Government failed to announce any funding for their strategic freight network?
The hon. Gentleman has simply not read the rail White Paper, which allocated £200 million towards a strategic rail freight network across this country. He has also not noticed that I announced plans this morning to reject larger, so-called super-lorries on British roads. I did that—I know that his party has supported that policy in the past—not only because of the impact on the environment, but because such lorries might attract traffic from railways on to roads. We need to examine these things in the round and make sensible investment decisions, judging the impact on safety, but also considering the impact on carbon emissions and congestion.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the contribution that traffic congestion makes to emissions and climate change. May I draw her attention to the fact that we face a problem in south-east London at the Blackwall tunnel every day, and that a three-bridge scheme proposes to deal with it? I understand that the Mayor of London is not going to build the Thames Gateway bridge. Some of us have been saying that the Silvertown link should be prioritised, and this situation gives the opportunity for that to take place. Will she examine the matter and discuss it with the Mayor of London? Will she also take the opportunity to bring the Docklands Light Railway to North Greenwich, as it could then be moved on to Eltham, thus reducing the traffic congestion on this major arterial route?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point; we need to think about how we can encourage mobility from the south of the river to the north of the river and vice versa. We need to make it easier for people to be able to work on one side of the river and live on the other. I know that the Mayor of London has suggested innovative proposals, such as swinging cable cars across the river, and it is right that we examine all proposals on their merits. I shall take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion to discuss this matter in greater detail with the Mayor of London in due course.
The Government are committed to cutting unnecessary regulatory burdens on business wherever possible, including on the bus industry. However, that must be balanced with the passenger’s right to a safe and reliable service.
But can the Minister do nothing about the daily occurrence of what can only be described as a sketch from a “Carry on” movie taking place across rural areas? Passengers are forced to get off buses and get back on buses and repurchase tickets every 30 miles because the Government failed to secure a common-sense derogation from EU regulation 561/2006, which sets maximum targets in respect of bus drivers. Does this not simply play into the hands of certifiable ranters in other political parties, who—rightly, on this occasion—decry the rather bizarre micro-management that such regulations present?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the new EU rules do not limit the length of a bus route, but introduce improved safety requirements to do with the length of a driver’s working week, to ensure proper weekly rest periods. We should support that, because of the huge safety implications. However, I know that concerns have been expressed about some of the ways in which that has been operated, and that is why the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), met representatives of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the trade association for the bus and coach industry, to explore the industry’s concerns and consider possible solutions within the constraints of the EU drivers’ hours regulations. This is a safety issue, but we are considering the problems with interpreting the practical application of the regulations.
Is not there at least one respect in which the regulatory framework for bus companies should be tighter? I refer to the lack of an obligation to retrofit older buses to enable disabled access. In rural parts of Leicestershire, where traffic on buses is low, the economic pressure on the company to provide disabled access is much lower. Should we not aim for an earlier implementation date of these important regulations?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the accessibility of buses for disabled people. As he says, there is a programme of improvement. I am heartened when I see the many new buses that are being introduced with proper disabled access. The requirements will change, and another important factor will be the Local Transport Bill, which is making progress through Parliament at the moment. The Bill will enable local authorities to work with bus operators much more closely on such issues, and it is very disappointing that Conservative Front Benchers oppose it and all the improvements that it will bring.
Does the Minister agree that the driving times and rest periods directive, which sets out the so-called 50 km rule, is completely unsuitable for and irrelevant to rural areas? Is she aware that a young dynamic company in my constituency, Norfolk Green, has told me that if the directive is implemented as it stands, the company will have to axe various new rural services? Will she not stand up for rural bus routes and companies?
It was this Government who introduced the rural bus subsidy—now some £55 million a year—so we will not take any lectures from the Opposition about supporting rural bus services. As I have said, the EU rules are about safety and drivers’ rest periods, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has met representatives of the industry to discuss their concerns and will look at possible solutions.
Active Traffic Management
Last year, I announced the extension of hard shoulder running to parts of the M6 around Birmingham. This scheme is due to be open to traffic in summer 2011. The Department and the Highways Agency are examining in detail where hard shoulder running should be implemented more widely on the motorway network. This work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
May I partially thank the Minister for that reply? Does she agree that the active traffic management on the M42 in the west midlands has brought lower congestion, lower carbon emissions, lower pollution and fewer accidents? Therefore, does she regret that the deadbeats in the Highways Agency and her Department should have ensured that those considerable benefits for motorists were delayed? Is not she appalled that those same useless officials are still delaying the roll-out to 2011 and beyond? When will Ministers get a grip on that lot?
I commend my right hon. Friend for his great advocacy of active traffic management, even though I cannot condone the expressions he used in relation to officials in the Highways Agency and the Department. When he was a Transport Minister, he was a great champion of active traffic management. Indeed, it was under his leadership that the first trial of active traffic management and hard shoulder running was initiated around the M6 in Birmingham. I commend him for that.
It is right that we should press on and try to secure as quickly as possible the huge benefits that can be secured, not necessarily by widening our motorways, although they might have to be widened in some cases—as with the recent announcement about the M25—but by using active traffic management and hard shoulder running wherever they can be used across the entire network. That is why I have asked officials to examine in detail where it might be applicable and where we might have the earliest openings. The Birmingham box will lead through to the next phases by the summer of 2011, and I hope to make further progress quickly thereafter.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the biggest traffic management problem on our motorways is the delay in clearing up after often quite minor shunts? That causes terrific frustration, and is much worse here than anywhere on the continent. She has promised in the past to do something about it, but frankly no one thinks that anything has been done to date. Can she give me some reassurance this afternoon?
I certainly can. The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that it was the Government who introduced traffic officers to our motorway network in recent years. Traffics officers have had measurable success in restoring moving traffic after accidents have occurred—
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman shakes his head—they are extremely popular among those who come across them on their daily motorway journeys.
It is right, too, that we should make faster progress. Collision accident equipment, for instance, which is now being routinely used by the Highways Agency, will also have an impact, as will the information that is now routinely given to drivers on overhead gantries. We give them information about what routes are best to use and where congestion is likely to occur. The point is that the motorway system ought to be seen as a system. We ought to think about how to manage it and how to manage traffic flows as best we can. That is why active traffic management, which regulates speed as well as opening up the hard shoulder, is the right way forward.
We welcome the extension of hard shoulder running following the successful M42 trial. It will be rolled out, we have been told, in conjunction with toll lanes or high occupancy vehicle lanes. In the case of the M1, the M6 and the M62, will that be introduced on new tarmac created by widening the motorways, or will it be done on the cheap, using the road freed up by the hard shoulder running?
I am glad that Opposition Front Benchers have come to see the merits of hard shoulder running and active traffic management. They have been dithering over it for quite a while, but at least, at last, they have seen sense. It is true, in many cases, that it is possible to deliver 95 per cent. of the benefits of widening at a fraction of the cost through hard shoulder running. However, when we are introducing new capacity—and only in those cases, such as when we are bringing the hard shoulder on stream and allowing motorists to use it for the first time—we might want to think about how to lock in that capacity so that it is not just taken up by more traffic. We should think about the most efficient way to use that extra capacity, perhaps by introducing a toll on the lane or car share lanes.
Fulfilling a commitment made in last year’s rail White Paper, a new system of simplified fares was announced in April this year. I have also asked Passenger Focus to carry out a study to see how well the current system meets passenger expectations and to make recommendations to me about further improvements.
I am sure that my constituents will welcome that answer, as the complex system of ticket pricing has been a source of some grievance to them and, they tell me, a disincentive to using rail services. Will my right hon. Friend also look again at a national railcard system for frequent users, which has been successful in mainland Europe in getting people on to the trains, and such a benefit should be given to our own people?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her remarks about rail fares. The simplified rail structure—the biggest shake-up in fares for a generation—will bring profound benefits to passengers. One of the benefits of the new system is not just that the same type of ticket will be available from each train operating company, but that railcards will be equally valid across the network. That is one of the real prizes that is secured by these reforms.
The simplified rail fare structure that we have introduced is indeed the biggest shake-up in fares for a generation, but I am clear that it is only part of the solution. One of the things that we must do for the passenger is to ensure that it is possible to buy a through ticket from any point in the United Kingdom to any other at the cheapest price. I have asked Passenger Focus to consider these issues and to work out from the passenger’s point of view what would restore confidence in the railway fare structure, and I am sure that it will consider the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the current fragmented rail system can respond adequately to passengers’ concerns? That includes ensuring that the simpler fares do not price people out of being able to book and travel on the same day.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her elevation to Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport. I have worked with her over the past year, and her elevation is extremely well deserved. I look forward to hearing more from her not just in Transport questions but in Select Committee hearings. She is right to say that we always ought to keep the structure of the railways under review, but the last thing the rail industry needs now is huge upheaval. In fact, this is the first time for a generation we have a stable structure for the industry, based on a secure financial footing, in which we are investing in increased capacity. From the passengers’ point of view, that is what they want; they want more capacity, more seats on the railways, more reliable railways and, of course, a railway with fares that they can understand, and we are making progress on all fronts.
The Oyster card has been an enormous success since its introduction on the London underground network, yet the train operating companies are dragging their feet on the extension of the scheme to parts of outer London. As a result, my constituents have to purchase a ticket and then get on the underground and use the Oyster card. Some companies have reached agreement on when the cards will be introduced, but we need to put more pressure on them to introduce them sooner. Can my right hon. Friend help?
I have raised this issue with the chair and chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, which is in negotiations with Transport for London to find out how quickly Oyster cards can be introduced across the network. That is something that passengers would value. It would not only make a real difference to the network, but might mean that fares needed to be adjusted in response. There are clearly commercial issues to work through, and I will do whatever I can to help to broker an agreement.
The Department has made no estimate of the number of traffic collisions staged for insurance fraud purposes in the last 12 months.
“Crash for cash” is a particularly nasty crime in which elderly, vulnerable and, in particular, female drivers are targeted by fraudsters who try to crash into their cars to get money. Apparently, £28 million has gone to the City of London police, but the majority of such crimes take place in the north of England. What will the Minister do at least to make sure that best practice is spread across the country, as 40 per cent. of people would not even know if they were a victim of this crime?
The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. It is difficult to detect whether a crash has been staged for insurance and fraud purposes. The Association of British Insurers estimates that the number of road accidents caused by fraud gangs will rise to 2,500 by 2010, up from 1,000 in 2005. That is very much a matter for the insurance industry and its Insurance Fraud Bureau, and it is for the police to try to detect the crime, but obviously it is a matter of concern that has to be monitored closely.
As announced in Budget 2008, following the freight data feasibility study the Government will not progress a vignette scheme at this stage. Our view is that enforcement is a better option to protect road users in the UK.
That is a disappointing response. The UK taxpayer will continue to have to pay for wear and tear on our infrastructure caused by foreign hauliers. Is it not a fact that a recent European Union regulation will allow unlimited access to UK markets by 2014? Whereas European hauliers have the benefit of cheaper fuel and unregulated, and therefore cheaper, labour, British hauliers will face yet further unfair competition. Many may go out of business. There is no enforcement to ensure that our good road safety standards can be maintained in future under those conditions.
As I said, the Government are determined to deal with the issue through enforcement. In the past two years, we have more than doubled enforcement targeted at heavy goods vehicles on international journeys. Alongside publication of the feasibility study conclusions, we announced a £24 million package that will fund two new enforcement sites at locations with a high volume of heavy goods vehicles traffic, a 50 per cent. increase in the number of checks carried out, a near doubling of prohibitions, 97 additional staff and a move to 24/7 enforcement checking. We believe that enforcement will protect the road haulage industry. The matter to which the hon. Lady refers will come under discussion in Europe in due course; it has not been decided so far.
I wonder whether the House is aware that 1.7 million heavy goods vehicles have come into Britain over the past 10 years. They were all full of dirty fuel—full of sulphur that they are belching out into our countryside. How does that square with the Government’s policy on CO2 emissions and green fuel, with which all our heavy goods vehicles have to fill up their tanks? It makes a nonsense of the Government’s policy.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. We do not want UK hauliers disadvantaged by those coming from outside, whether the issue is dirty or cheaper fuel, hauliers not observing the regulations on tiredness or overloading their vehicles, or any other regulation being abused. We have reinforced the amount of money available to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, the enforcement agency, to make sure that it can police vehicles far more effectively than they have ever been policed before. I assure him that it is determined to do that, and is doing that.
The Minister says that he does not want the UK haulage industry disadvantaged, but it is being disadvantaged. Faced with intense competition from foreign hauliers who pay no British taxes, the UK haulage industry is on its knees. Some 87 per cent. of lorries travelling through British ports to the continent are now foreign-owned. Family-run haulage businesses are going out of business every day because of rocketing fuel prices, and now they face more fuel tax hikes because the Prime Minister needs to fill a gap in his public finances. The Government’s complacency on the issue is astounding.
No, we certainly do not want to see the British road haulage industry damaged, which is why we have put in place measures that we believe will protect it. In respect of the accusation that rising fuel costs in Britain are harming our industry, rising fuel costs are affecting the whole of Europe. Every industry is being affected, as we have seen on our television screens over the past few weeks.
But more than seven years ago the Government promised to introduce measures to ensure that foreign hauliers pay towards the cost of the damage that they cause to Britain’s roads. When will they keep the promise that they made, or will they just continue to dither while hard-working UK haulage firms go to the wall?
As I explained to the hon. Lady only a moment ago, the Government carried out the freight data feasibility study to try to identify the best way of protecting the British road haulage industry. It was determined through that study, in which, as I understand it, the Road Haulage Association co-operated and participated, that a vignette scheme of the order that would be allowed would not be appropriate, and that the best way to protect the RHA and British industry was to beef up enforcement on our roads to make sure that foreign hauliers would not be able to take any further advantage. That is what we said we would do. That is what we have done with the extra £24 million that we have allocated to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, and that extra enforcement will have an impact.
On 7 May I announced new proposals to strengthen the way people learn to drive and are tested, to make newly qualified drivers safer and create a culture of extended learning. On 16 May I announced full approval and funding of £244 million for an extension to the Manchester Metrolink. These new routes are expected to attract an additional 10 million passengers a year. The new simpler structure for rail fares announced in the rail White Paper was introduced for advance fares in May, and on 22 May the Department began a public consultation on the terms of a new South Central franchise. A report commissioned by my Department on longer and heavier goods vehicles has been published today. I have decided not to allow super-lorries on UK roads for the foreseeable future.
Yesterday, the head of the International Air Transport Association commented that the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is the “world’s worst regulator” and criticised the UK as BAA’s “Monopoly-land”. For years I have called for an end to the ludicrous situation whereby Scotland’s two major airports in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are only 40 miles apart, are owned by the same people. It is time to solve the problem, much the same as in London—
The point that my hon. Friend was rightly making is that it is important to have good service from all British airports, including those in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He is right, too, to point to the Competition Commission report, which is examining ownership of British airports and argued that the issue was not only ownership but aviation capacity in the United Kingdom. Clearly, I cannot pre-empt the report’s final conclusions, but when the major hub airport in England is operating at virtually 99 per cent. capacity, it is perhaps not surprising that there are knock-on implications, first and foremost for other British airports. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents who use Glasgow and Edinburgh airports will feel the result of that.
The Secretary of State talks about her commitment to climate change, but the Office for National Statistics report published today shows that emissions from air transport are up 9 per cent. in the past year alone and emissions from road transport are up as well. Does she think that building more and more roads and more and more airport capacity is the right way to reduce emissions? Is she committed to the 60 per cent. cut that the Government say they want to achieve in carbon dioxide emissions? What if they delivered 60 per cent. from the transport sector?
I am certainly committed to the overall position of the UK Government that we should aim for at least 60 per cent. domestic reductions in CO2 emissions, if not go further. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked the Committee on Climate Change to see whether 60 per cent. is the right number or whether it should perhaps be 80 per cent. However, I do not accept for a moment that every single sector of the UK or the European economy should contribute precisely the same amount. What matters is that overall we not only reach our climate change objectives but deal with the issues of international aviation and road transport, and all the other sectors of the economy. Within that, it is perfectly possible to have an aviation sector that meets passengers’ expectations for increased mobility and cheap holidays. However, we have to ensure that it is within a framework—
I know that my hon. Friend would not expect me to pre-empt any announcement that the Office of Rail Regulation will make later this week, tempting though it is. I pay tribute to him for the resilient and dedicated campaign that he has run for the redoubling of that line, but I, like him, will have to wait for a further announcement from the ORR.
I express my deepest sympathy for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent—the young man he spoke about. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that there have been occasional calls for making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory. It is an option that we look at from time to time. There are no plans at the moment to make it compulsory, but I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that we are going to conduct research into the effectiveness of wearing cycle helmets. We hope to have an interim report in the summer, and I hope that that will be able to inform us particularly on the points that he raises.
The Government take into account a range of scenarios when considering future demand for different forms of transport, drawing up their long-term transport plans and appraising individual schemes. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, on behalf of the Government, keeps our assumptions under review in response to changing circumstances.
I have to say that the hon. Gentleman’s proposal for a week without tolls is completely unintelligent. The idea that one could somehow, for one week, remove the barriers and have vehicles going through at speed is so dangerous that it is ridiculous. The other idea—that we should take the whole tolls compartment away—is just ridiculous. The hon. Gentleman needs to come up with slightly more sensible suggestions if he is to be taken seriously.
My hon. Friend has run an enthusiastic campaign on this scheme. It is not my job as rail Minister to interpret the engineering benefits of the scheme; it is up to Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation, as he knows. I am sure that in the next few days we will get an assessment from the ORR of whether the scheme is deliverable and represents best value for money.
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on his last point. On his substantive point about the conflict between the different tracks after Crossrail services begin, he will know that Crossrail is essentially a metro service and will not use the fast lines between Reading and Paddington. A great deal of work has gone into making sure that there is no conflict between Crossrail services and existing fast services between Reading and Paddington. I am not aware that anything has changed in that respect, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with more details I will be more than happy to respond in detail.
I echo my hon. Friend’s welcome of the £5.5 billion the Government have committed to making progress with Thameslink. The work we have done in preparation for both phases of Thameslink, the first phase of which is due to be completed in 2011, gives me enough confidence to believe that work will be completed on time. Phase 2 will not be completed until 2015, after the Olympics have finished, but phase 1, which will provide a major step change in increased frequency on the north-south route, will be completed on time and to budget.
As the Minister will be aware, traffic along the A120 leading to Braintree gets worse and worse every day. An announcement on the extension of the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey is long overdue. When can my constituents expect an announcement?
The hon. Gentleman and I have had a number of discussions on this scheme, I seem to remember, and of course he is keen to know what progress has been made since our last meeting. I will be able to make an announcement in due course. It will not be an early announcement, but I am happy to give the commitment that he will be kept up to date with any decisions taken. The major problem is the steep increase in the cost of the scheme, but working with my officials we will try to find some way forward, and I will keep him fully informed.
My hon. Friend rightly champions the cause of his constituents. It is important that we continue to invest in rail services. He talks about faster, more frequent trains. Yes, we must have faster and more frequent trains, but not at any price. I welcome proposals for high-speed lines and for conventional lines running at greater frequency, and proposals to upgrade the network. I have already invited Network Rail to consider all the options that we might look at for funding—not in the next period, but in the period beyond—so that if demand materialises for rail travel and more and more people continue to use rail services, we will be in a position to make the right long-term choices.
Further to the earlier question about BAA, and given that Britain needs an effective and efficient airport network, does the Secretary of State agree that Britain’s competitiveness is being negatively affected by the monopoly of BAA?
I certainly agree that Britain’s airports are not highly regarded across the world, and that is having a negative impact on perceptions of Britain abroad. That is a situation that we must sort out. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Competition Commission is looking into the situation. I am not going to pre-empt its final conclusions, which will be published later this year, but I would say that the issue is not just about ownership of airports; it is about the regulatory system, too. I recently announced that we were setting up a review to look into the economic regulation of airports across the piece, so that we put passengers right at the centre of our proposal. The issues are the passenger experience, capacity in the aviation sector and, potentially, ownership, although the ownership questions are ones for the Competition Commission.
This is a subject on which my hon. Friend and I have corresponded. I have committed to meeting her and a delegation of her constituents to discuss the issues. She is right to say that connectivity of through railway journeys is vital if the growth in the railways that we have seen over the past 10 years is to continue.
This week, Mr. Bill Emery of the Office of Rail Regulation severely criticised Network Rail’s punctuality, delivery and overruns. Will the Secretary of State bear Network Rail’s poor performance in mind in the rail freight application process, given its blithe assurances in my constituency that it would not cause delays, and not take its evidence as seriously as it would like her to?
It is absolutely true that Network Rail has not performed as well as it should have over the past six months or so. However, it is also true that Network Rail has developed a world-class engineering organisation. I have absolute faith that whatever difficulties Network Rail has to overcome—and there are difficulties—it will manage to produce the excellent railway service that we all want. Network Rail has already committed to a 31 per cent. improvement in efficiencies over the current control period. We will find out exactly what the performance demand will be from the Office of Rail Regulation by the end of this week. However, I am confident that, in contrast with the awfulness of Railtrack, which was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, Network Rail will deliver for the passengers of this country.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My constituents are concerned about the Government’s proposals to introduce polyclinics, which will possibly see the closure of GP services throughout Shropshire and the borough of Telford and Wrekin. Given the anxiety of my constituents and those of other hon. Members, in all parts of the House, may I ask you what guidance, if any, you have been given by the Government business managers about an early oral statement on this important issue?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether I may make a pre-emptive strike. I understand that the Home Secretary and her Ministers will be available for the press and media after 4 o’clock to reveal the so-called concessions on the 42-day controversy. I have asked the Vote Office whether it has received any indication about the availability of those amendments and the answer is no—the expectation is tomorrow. Surely it is wrong that the press will be spun the line on those amendments before Members of Parliament have had a chance not only to examine them, but to comment and to rebut the arguments of that absurd policy.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be possible for you to issue instructions to Government Departments and Ministers to the effect that if they produce a press briefing or press release, it should, at the very least, be put in the Vote Office at the same time as it is provided to journalists?
Members of Parliament (Pay and Responsibilities)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Senior Salaries Review Body to take account of transfers of powers between Parliament and European Union institutions when making recommendations on the pay of Members of Parliament; and for connected purposes.
In virtually every occupation, it is recognised that pay should reflect responsibilities. If people receive more responsibilities, they get higher pay. If they move to a post with fewer responsibilities, they expect to receive lower pay. The same should be true of Parliament. If, as is contemplated under the Bill that deals with the European constitutional treaty, this House hands over more of its powers to European institutions, MPs’ remuneration should reflect that diminution of their responsibilities. If, on the other hand, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has promised, Parliament regains some powers, such as those over social and employment policies that were conceded in the Amsterdam treaty, that should be reflected positively when MPs’ pay is assessed.
This issue is important because Parliament is considering transferring a significant slice of its powers on energy, foreign policy, immigration and several other areas to European institutions under the Lisbon treaty. A substantial transfer of powers has already occurred under previous treaties, and this House has ceded powers on a lesser scale to devolved Parliaments and to the judiciary under the Human Rights Act 1998. The German Government estimate that more than 80 per cent. of German laws are now decided at a European level. Our own Trade Minister has admitted that
“around half of all UK legislation with an impact on business, charities and the voluntary sector stems from legislation agreed by Ministers in Brussels.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. WA184.]
I have heard hon. Members claim that only 10 per cent. of our laws are made in Brussels—a figure that they attribute to a Library paper, but that paper says no such thing. It remarks that the number of statutory instruments laid under the European Communities Act 1972 amounts to about 10 per cent. of all the statutory instruments passed by the House, but points out that EU statutory instruments typically enact a whole directive, which is often the equivalent of an Act of primary legislation, whereas domestic statutory instruments implement regulations. To compare the two is like comparing apples and pears, or rather pumpkins and pears given the disparity in their size. It also ignores the most plentiful fruit that comes from the European orchard—regulations, most of which are never considered by this House and which hon. Members find difficult even to obtain.
The total scale of EU legislation is enormous. Last year, the EU passed 177 directives, which are more or less equivalent to our Acts of Parliament, and 2,033 regulations, which become directly enforceable in this place, not to mention 1,045 decisions. Even that huge tally ignores the extent to which our powers are diminished by our inability to do things that we would like to do because they would conflict with European law. When I was a Minister, officials would frequently say, “No, Minister, you can’t do that”, because something was within the exclusive competence of the European Union.
If the Lisbon treaty goes through, a further salami slice of powers will be transferred to the European institutions. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who served with distinction on the European constitutional convention and who knows more about the implications of the Lisbon treaty than almost anyone else in the House, except for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), recently told the Fabian Society:
“If the Treaty of Lisbon is ratified and devolution...continues apace, in fifteen to twenty years this House of Commons will have only two functions...to raise taxes and...to authorise war”.
She went on to say that we are making
“fewer and fewer decisions that matter”
to people’s daily lives, and that she could not tell her constituents that the buck stops here.
Admittedly, declaring wars kept Parliament pretty busy under the previous Prime Minister, as does raising taxes under the current incumbent of No. 10. However, our constituents want us to wage fewer wars, raise fewer taxes and focus on the huge range of issues that affect their daily lives, over which they assume and hope that we retain the powers that they pay us to exercise on their behalf.
Few voters, or even Members of this House, fully realise how many powers have been, or are about to be, transferred elsewhere. There are three reasons for this. The first is that Governments of all persuasions deny that any significant powers are being transferred. The second is that, once powers have been transferred, Ministers engage in a charade of pretence that they still retain those powers. Even when introducing measures that they are obliged to bring in as a result of an EU directive, they behave as though the initiative were their own.
Indeed, Ministers often end up nobly accepting responsibility for laws that they actually opposed when they were being negotiated in Brussels. They took the rap for costly and troublesome home improvement packs—which have added to the woes of the housing market—even though they were actually mandated by a Brussels directive. Similarly, they took the rap for fortnightly bin collections, hospital reconfiguration and a number of other measures, even though they had all been triggered by directives from Brussels. At first sight, it is odd that Ministers—who, in this Government, are not normally slow to blame others—should nobly defend and accept responsibility for Brussels’ legislative progeny, in whose conception they have often played little part. They prefer to claim paternity rather than admit impotence—the fate of the cuckold across the ages.
The third reason is that the transfer of power occurs not all in one go but by a process of salami-slicing, and it is easy to close our eyes to what is happening. As a result, there is a danger of Parliament sleepwalking into becoming little more than a provincial assembly. If that is what is happening, we should be paid accordingly—just as district councillors get less than county councillors, and county councillors get less than Members of the devolved Assemblies.
I do not have a masochistic desire to see MPs’ pay cut, but I want still less to see our powers diminish. The best way to prevent the latter might be to link pay to responsibilities. I do not know any Member of Parliament who entered Parliament to become financially better off. None the less, just as the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully, so the prospect of finding our pockets a bit emptier at the end of the month—and having to justify that to our spouses—might wake up those who have shut their eyes to what is happening. If we do not face up to what is happening, we will find ourselves being progressively relegated to what Bagehot called the dignified part of the constitution. As Tony Benn once rhetorically asked:
“I wonder how long it took for the yeomen of the guard to realise that they were no longer part of the regular army.”
My Bill is designed to provide a wake-up call whenever we risk going further down that route, although I accept that it has little chance of becoming law in this Parliament. Those who support the transfer of power from here to supranational institutions should logically accept that our pay should reflect the diminution of our responsibilities. But, strangely, all the Euro-enthusiasts whom I asked to sponsor the Bill declined to do so without explaining why. Too many Members are happy to avert their eyes from what is happening, so long as they retain the prestige and emoluments that were appropriate to a fully sovereign Parliament. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.
If any Labour Members oppose the Bill, I hope that they will come out and object to it here and now, rather than trying to dispose of it by subterfuge one Friday morning. I look forward to hearing them argue for having their cake and eating it. I doubt that they would convince many of their constituents that, unlike any in other occupation, MPs’ pay should be divorced from their responsibilities.
We have just heard a witty and amusing speech. I was not aware that this issue was going to be raised today, but I was sitting in the Chamber listening to Transport questions and suddenly the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) rose to his feet and made this proposal. He said that he had asked a number of Euro-enthusiasts to back his Bill; I regard myself as a Euro-enthusiast, but he did not ask me. Had he done so, he would have given me notice that he was going to make this nonsensical proposal, and I would have been able to prepare a better speech. However, I shall certainly try to rise to the challenge that he has thrown across the Chamber.
The right hon. Gentleman argues that the volume of legislation to be considered by the House will decline as more and more powers are passed across to the European Parliament, but he knows as well as any other Member that the volume of legislation considered by this House continues to increase year by year. We have never suggested that that is an argument for increasing Members’ pay pro rata—
I note what my hon. Friend says.
Nor should the passing of some legislative powers from this House to Europe be an argument for moving in the opposite direction.
I must say seriously to Members of the House that I do not think that the European Union provides a good model for the remuneration of Members of Parliament. I have just checked with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who is a sponsor of the Bill and well versed in EU matters, and she tells me that EU spend is about 0.5 per cent. of EU wealth. The spend of our national Government is probably about 40 per cent. of our national wealth, which is 50 or 60 times as much as the EU spend.
If the right hon. Gentleman is arguing that there is a serious transfer of financial responsibility from the House to Europe, that is just not based on fact. The Lisbon treaty not only does not change that fact, but it delegates some powers back to national Parliaments. The public want to see more information about MPs’ pay and allowances, but they would get less information if our pay was tied into and buried under bureaucracy from Europe. Surprisingly to my way of thinking, the Bill is proposed by a staunch opponent of Europe whom I would have thought could see that point himself.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a political point about Europe, not a serious proposal for greater transparency in the pay of Members of Parliament and greater accountability to the public for Members of this Parliament. I hope that the Bill does not receive its First Reading.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Lilley, Mr. Michael Ancram, Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. James Gray, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. John Redwood, Ms Gisela Stuart and Mr. Charles Walker.
Members of Parliament (pay and Responsibilities)
Mr. Peter Lilley accordingly presented a Bill to require the Senior Salaries Review Body to take account of transfers of powers between Parliament and European Union institutions when making recommendations on the pay of Members of Parliament; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 113].
Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 4th July 2007 in the last Session of Parliament (Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Mark Tami.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill
Lords amendments considered.
Annual report to Secretary of State
Lords amendment: No. 1
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
We come to what are almost the final stages of Parliament’s consideration of the Bill. Indeed, we are just short of the first anniversary of my introducing it to the House on 5 June 2007. Over almost a year of consideration, we have found much cross-party agreement and consensus as the Bill has proceeded on its way.
Before I dive into consideration of the first batch of amendments, I want to place on record my appreciation of the way that hon. Members dealt with the Bill in Committee, in which where we had detailed, co-operative and constructive deliberations, which have helped to improve it. As I speak to the amendments, hon. Members representing the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrat party will spot ideas that they brought up in Committee, which I promised on behalf of the Government to take away and consider. I have done that. Those with merit found favour, and are therefore to be incorporated in the Bill in a way that will improve it.
The Bill was considered extensively in the other place, where, of course, some of those amendments originated. The process has been constructive, and we now have before us a batch of amendments that are, I think, not too controversial—we shall find out soon—and should add the final polish to a well-considered Bill.
The first group of amendments relates to the status of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and to its reporting requirements. The amendments make the necessary provision for the new body to have Crown status to provide stability for the Child Support Agency’s greatest resource, its staff.
Obviously it is sensible for the commission’s staff to retain their status as civil servants, but why on earth were the Government ever thinking of taking it away from them? And why is the commission to be a Crown body rather than an executive agency, which is what it was in the first place? The Government seem to have gone around in a circle.
There is no great mystery. The most important thing that the Bill introduces is the commission, which will be a non-departmental public body. We opted for NDPB status because we think it important to put the operation of the commission, and therefore the delivery of child maintenance, at arm’s length from ministerial involvement. That argument has been rehearsed exhaustively throughout all stages of the Bill’s consideration, and I thought that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had accepted that this was the right way to proceed.
Normally when a body takes on non-departmental status the civil servants who work in that body also take on a different status, but when Ministers discussed the issue with staff, they made clear their concern about it. Having listened, we reached an understanding—as I have already announced—allowing the commission to be a non-departmental public body but allowing its staff to enjoy Crown status. That is not a unique solution; there are precedents.
Is this not just another example of dithering? The Government began by saying “Let us have an arm’s length body that is not run by civil servants”, and then changed their minds. Suddenly we are back with a half-baked arrangement that is nothing like either of the options.
The body will remain at arm’s length. It is a non-departmental public body. The idea was to put it at arm’s length from Ministers, and it remains at arm’s length from Ministers. Nothing has changed, and the hon. Gentleman’s accusation that there has been some dithering is completely erroneous.
I will give way when I have finished replying to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague.
The fundamental status of the organisation has not changed—it remains a non-departmental public body—but its staff, who are very important to us in helping to deliver all this, raised with us concerns about their status as civil servants, of which they are proud and which they would normally lose when the organisation became a non-departmental public body. They asked whether we would consider giving it Crown status while retaining it as a non-departmental public body. As I have said, there are precedents for that. A great many civil servants are involved—10,000—and we were able to accede to their wishes. They welcomed the fact that, at least initially—I am about to come to that—the organisation will retain its Crown status, and they will retain their status as civil servants.
It might prompt the Minister, although I suspect that the answer is now being provided to him, if I tell him that his noble Friend in the other place promised that it would be subject to the affirmative procedure, which, for the benefit of those listening to our proceedings, means that there would be an element of parliamentary scrutiny. He is not going to renege on that, is he?
Even now, the Minister has not finally made up his mind about whether it should be a Crown body. The point about amendment No. 2 is that he will review the matter again. We started off with an arm’s length body without civil servants. Then we had the halfway house of having civil servants, but with it still being an arm’s length body. Now the Government are agreeing to have another look at it in three years. Not only have they dithered, they propose to continue dithering for another three years.
This is getting a bit repetitive. Let me say again that there is no dithering. The fundamental objective, namely the non-departmental public status and all the advantages that flow from that, is in place, unaltered and unamended by anything that we have done, save for the difference we have made in respect of the staff who work for the existing agency, who were concerned about their loss of civil service status. We have been able to retain that. That is the only thing that has changed; it is not fundamental in terms of the purpose of the Bill and has been accommodated within the Bill’s essential objectives. It is subject to review and I will come on to explain why that is.
There has been no dithering. Let me do this again. We introduced the NDPB proposal, which was welcomed by the staff of the agency who support the Bill, approve of the direction we are going in and are looking forward to working for the new organisation. The one thing they said was, “This means that we will lose our civil service status.” Initially, it did, but we considered what they said and have been able to restore their civil service status. That has enhanced the staff’s morale, and if the hon. Lady cares to go to one of the CSA offices and asks for herself, she will find that that is the case.
Staff to whom I have spoken—I have spoken to many hundreds—support the Bill and the proposed change. They are very pleased at the decision we were able to make on the retention of their civil service status, so I can tell the House that the effect of the Bill and the subsequent change we made on status have substantially enhanced staff morale.
As I made clear during earlier stages of the Bill’s passage—I am pleased to note that Opposition Members have echoed me on this—the difficulties experienced by the agency in the past have resulted from the failure of current policy and structure, not as a result of any action or inaction by the agency’s staff, who remain its most important resource. Throughout the history of the agency, staff have time and again proved to be dedicated to providing the best service to all clients, both parents with care and non-resident parents. The staff of the agency are absolutely essential to the success of these reforms and, like all of us, what they really want is to be given the right tools to enable them simply to get on with the job of collecting the maintenance and seeing it flow to children.
As we developed our proposals for reform and as I have said before, it became increasingly clear that the agency’s staff did have concerns about the loss of civil service status. Perceptions are important, and it was in no one’s interests for us to put our reforms at risk through unnecessarily destabilising those at the front end of delivering those important reforms. This change to a Crown body will therefore enable staff to remain civil servants, and it allows them to look forward to, rather than have concerns about, the commission’s launch.
There are a number of amendments consequential to this change. For example, as staff will now remain civil servants, there is no need to apply the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 and 2006, and as a result, the clause in question can now be removed. Additionally, we recognise that over time, the advantages of Crown status in general might recede, so we intend to review the commission’s status after three years. If the review concludes that Crown status is no longer necessary or advantageous, the amendments provide an order-making power to make the necessary changes, subject to affirmative procedure. However, at that point, as now, the views of the staff will be important in determining for us whether we decide to remove Crown status.
I would be grateful if the Minister explained what it is that he sees diminishing with time. A similar statement was made in the other place by the noble Lord McKenzie of Luton, and it was not adequately explained. Many of the same staff are still going to be employed, and if they lose Crown status, they will lose all the benefits that go with that. What safeguards is the Minister going to put in place to ensure that they do not lose out?
The key point is that this is an issue specific to the commission. The reason it makes sense to review, and why I chose my words carefully regarding Crown status, is that there may well be reconsideration across government as a whole of the position of the Crown status of the bodies concerned. It is important that we recognise that a wider review is taking place that might change some of the current conditions regarding Crown status, whereby the specific arrangement made for this commission may no longer have its current advantages. It is therefore simply logical to accept that there will be a review, not specifically of this body but in the context of a wider review of Crown status. However, and as I said, just as we have listened to the staff at this point and been able to agree to their request to retain Crown status, their views on this matter will be critical to the commission and to us in future, at the point of review. I am happy to underline that point.
I have also taken on board the point made in Committee and in the other place that the Bill explicitly requires the commission to include in its annual report its use of outsourcing to private and voluntary social bodies, but not to public bodies. An amendment has therefore been made to put the latter requirement in the Bill. That picks up on a very sensible proposal made by the Opposition in Committee.
I believe that this group of amendments improves the Bill, and I commend it to the House.
Let me start by thanking the Minister for his thanks to Opposition Members for our co-operation and scrutiny during the Bill’s passage. He is absolutely right—Members in all parts of the House are absolutely united in trying to get our system of child support right. We all recognise that it has not been right for many years, and the fault for that really lies with Members of this House present and past, and absolutely not with the staff—I agree with the Minister on that—who have done their best in difficult circumstances. Frankly, they have not had the tools to do the job, as he said. The Bill contains a pretty powerful toolkit that we on the Conservative Benches agree with in very large part.
On Lords amendment No. 1, we welcome the extra transparency provided by the inclusion in the commission’s annual report of the provision of services to CMEC by Ministers of the Crown, Government Departments or public bodies specified by the Secretary of State. Co-operation, in particular with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, will be fundamental to the commission’s future success. I give the Minister notice that when we discuss the next group of amendments, I shall raise some specific issues about the current level of co-operation—or non co-operation, as sadly is the case—with HMRC, given existing legislation. I shall not expect him to have immediate answers, but I should be grateful if he got back to me.
Clearly, HMRC and the Treasury will assist CMEC, but it is not clear to me precisely what CMEC will be doing for other Departments and public bodies. Lords amendment No. 1 cuts both ways; it is about services supplied both to and by CMEC. I can clearly see that there is a case for CMEC to help HMRC should it find out details about information that is perhaps not being declared to the Revenue; that would be an entirely sensible use of CMEC staff time. However, will the Minister elaborate on whether there are any other areas in which CMEC staff will be expected to help other Departments and public bodies? After all, it is not as if CMEC’s staff will not already have enough to do and will not already have their work cut out significantly.
The Minister began by discussing Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5, and 106 to 117. As he said, they will change the status of CMEC to that of a Crown body, and will ensure that the commission’s staff will remain as civil servants and will not have to change their employer. Lords amendment No. 2 introduces a new clause requiring the Secretary of State to review the status of the commission after three years, with the possibility of further reviews. I agree with the Minister that if we do not get staff morale right, we will not make a success of the commission. He rightly says that ensuring that the staff are happy and on board is essential. Given that Crown status is so important to the staff, will not reviewing it after three years, with the promise of further reviews, be unsettling to them? The Minister’s objective might have been to reassure the staff—the 10,000 individuals of whom he spoke—but having constant ongoing reviews hanging over them is a funny way of doing that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that on the basis of what the Minister has been saying, it seems that the review in three years’ time will be undertaken against a background of a Government-wide review of Crown status and perhaps the terms and conditions of employment of a great many civil servants? Surely that might poison the atmosphere and make the maintenance of staff morale between now and then, as that review starts to grind through, even harder than it might otherwise have been.
I agree with my hon. Friend, because certainty is important in employment; people want to know that their terms and conditions will not be unexpectedly changed or fundamentally reviewed. Those people joined the agency on a certain set of terms and conditions, with which they were happy, and they should have a reasonable expectation that their terms and conditions will be broadly similar in future.
At the very least, the Government’s manoeuvrings have not been perhaps as elegant as they could have been, given where the Government started from and where they have ended up. Will the Minister tell us how many other NDPBs are Crown bodies whose staff are civil servants? Is such an arrangement usual for NDPBs, or will CMEC be an isolated case? It would help the House if he let us know the answer to that.
The Minister’s colleague in another place, Lord McKenzie of Luton, who is virtually a parliamentary neighbour of mine, has said:
“It is very important that the body is more at arm’s length…Having a non-departmental public body with separate governance arrangements and with greater operational flexibility is a key part of the reforms. It is needed to distance the future from the legacy of current and past failure and the culture of non-compliance.”––[Official Report, Child Maintenance and Other Payments Public Bill Committee, 17 July 2007; c. 4, Q2.]
My next question to the Minister was what stops an executive agency from having operational flexibility, to which I do not feel that I received a full and adequate answer at the time.
Indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have questioned the need to set up a new body, given that the same staff in the same buildings will carry out essentially the same tasks—or at least with the same purpose. The Minister’s argument about the need for this arm’s length body has been undone, given that it will now have Crown status and that the staff will be civil servants. Would it not have saved taxpayers’ money to leave CMEC as an executive agency of the Department for Work and Pensions and been much less unsettling for the staff, who have been worried by the proposed change in their status? The staff also have an ongoing worry, given that a review will take place in three years, with a promise of further reviews in the future. I hope that the Minister will address those points.
I welcome the Minister’s introductory remarks. We made several suggestions and amendments in Committee and on Report, and I am delighted that many of those proposals have found acceptance and are presented for our consideration today. Like other hon. Members, I welcome the passage of the Bill. As the Minister said, it is 12 months since we started to consider it, and the eradication of child poverty remains one of the biggest single issues that we have to tackle. Anything that ensures that parents with care get the money to which they are entitled to enable children to be brought up properly is to be welcomed. We have to accept that the House has failed singularly in the past to tackle this issue through the many guises of the CSA and various payment methods. Last year, we all welcomed what seemed to be a new start with CMEC and, we hoped, a sea change in the way in which such issues are addressed.
I welcome amendment No. 1. It is important that CMEC is transparent about its arrangements with other suppliers. We need to know if it is using debt collection agencies or if it makes arrangements with computer suppliers. In the past, the CSA’s arrangements were not as transparent as they should have been, and expectations were raised—for example, about how much debt collection agencies would collect—and then not met. I hope that with greater scrutiny—which CMEC will receive—we will be able to question suppliers and ensure the accountability to this House to which we are entitled.
On Report, the Minister said that amendments would be tabled in the other place to give CMEC Crown status. We know, because this was one of the first Bills to receive public scrutiny, that the staff want that, and it is a sensible move. However, I am not clear—other than from the Minister’s claim that there will be a general review of Crown status—why he has added the provision about a review after three years. It is quite clear that if there is a change of Government policy, not only in the Department for Work and Pensions but across the piece, that change should be made through a statement in this House that cites the reasons for it. Having gone through quite a sea change in terms of the way in which payments are collected, it is clearly unsettling for staff to face the prospect in three years’ time of the possibility of being subject yet again to a review. I am still not clear about how the proposal will affect the status and conditions of the civil servants—I understand that they will remain civil servants while they work for the Crown. I do not think that the review is helpful. The Minister needs to give a clear statement that the current status will continue.
Yes, the Government might announce a change in the future. If, in three years’ time, the Minister were to announce a review of the operation of CMEC, that would be totally different. However, it is unhelpful to the staff to talk at this stage about merely reviewing that status after three years, because that does not help them with their task of tackling child poverty.
One subject that has not been mentioned, which was raised by my noble Friend Lord Kirkwood in the other place, is VAT. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that another factor in the Department’s consideration of the amendment was that VAT would be payable if the commission were a non-departmental public body, but that if it were a Crown body the £140 million would not be payable. If it seems that someone had not budgeted for that, perhaps the Minister could confirm whether it was a factor in the changes that have now been proposed?
In conclusion, I welcome the changes, but the Minister needs to reassure us about why the review in three years’ time is necessary without an overall change in Government policy, and I have not seen an announcement that that will take place. The prospect of such a review is clearly unsettling to staff and it will not help them in their difficult job of collecting the outstanding old debt as well as getting a new system up and running.
The history of the status of the commission in the Bill says a great deal about leadership, or the lack of it. We have seen a history of attempts to shirk responsibility and of dithering.
First, on the point about shirking responsibility, it was not by chance that Lord McKenzie talked about distancing from failure. The change is not an attempt to distance the new commission from failure, but an attempt by the Government to distance themselves from the work of child support bodies in this country. We know that over the years there has been a litany of failure in the Child Support Agency, which was not the fault of the staff but was, if anything, the fault of the House. The Bills that have been passed have not succeeded and the computers that have been purchased have not worked. We all know, looking at the work of the CSA, that nobody could be proud of it. There have been some improvements over time, but the fact remains that it has a sad history.
I am convinced that the Government originally set up the commission as a non-departmental public body—it was not part of the state and did not have civil servants working for it—as an attempt to distance the Government from a body that had failed in the past and from a new body that risked failure in the future. The history of child support in this country has shown that it has proved extremely difficult to get parents to pay for their children, particularly parents who do not have very high incomes.
This measure is therefore an example of an attempt to shirk responsibility. I do not think that it is right that the Government should do that. If they are performing an executive function, which is what this is all about, it should be carried out by an executive body. The staff employed by the executive body should be civil servants, as they are now. Such an attempt to pretend that the body is nothing to do with the Government is part of the “Not me, guv” culture and it is wrong. Governments should not do such things. Ministers should take responsibility for the functions that their Departments and their civil servants deal with, and they should not try to shirk them in the way that the Bill attempts to do.
My hon. Friend makes his case with his characteristic understatement. The Minister has been very courteous, but the reasoning behind any prospective change in three years’ time remains distinctly opaque. Given that any change would be announced—under the affirmative procedure, admittedly—only to a small Committee sitting upstairs, of which most Members of Parliament, let alone most members of the public, would be entirely oblivious, does my hon. Friend not think that the Government ought to state this afternoon on the Floor of the House what criteria would trigger a change?
My hon. Friend has come to a very important point—it is the third point that I want to make, but I will deal with it now—about Lords amendment No. 2, which states:
“If, on a review under this section, it appears to the Secretary of State appropriate to do so, the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument provide that the Commission is to cease to be a Crown body… An order under subsection (6) may…make any amendment to Schedule 1 that appears to…be necessary or expedient”,
and it may apply the transfer of undertakings regulations, and so on. So if the Minister decides in three years’ time that he wants to change great chunks of the Bill, he can do so in a little Committee upstairs, as my hon. Friend says, without the full and proper scrutiny that the staff would expect, that we expect and that the British public are entitled to expect. That is a hole-in-the-corner way of doing things.
My hon. Friend thinks that I am slightly overstating my case—I got the mood of his comments—but Parliament should feel passionate about the annoying fact that such important decisions, which affect millions of people in the way that the child support arrangements do and which affect important civil service staff who are entitled to expect Ministers to stick up for them and to treat them decently, should be dealt with unconstitutionally. That is my view.
I certainly would not accuse my hon. Friend of overstatement at any stage. We in the Opposition may be right or we may be wrong on this point—naturally, it is in the nature of holding an opinion that we think that we are right—but does he not accept that, whatever may be said of our position on this matter, it is not motivated by party political considerations? We all entertain the very highest regard for my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who may well occupy an important post, wielding immense power with great discretion and judgment, but we do not want him to exercise this sort of Henry VIII power, and I rather doubt whether he would want to exercise it.
That is exactly the point, and my hon. Friend is right to use the expression “Henry VIII power”. Historically, the House has been very jealous not to give away Henry VIII powers that change great parts of primary legislation simply by regulation. The Government have been very careless about that. One remembers the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, which a number of us were involved with. Luckily, we managed to persuade the Government not to introduce something so draconian. The fact is that the Government are well prepared to entertain such powers, which Parliament has traditionally assumed. Let us consider the proposals that we will get next week. I will not go into them in detail, but this is all part of a pattern of removing ancient liberties without enough thought or consideration.
My other point about leadership is that dithering is a decision in itself. Not making a decision is a decision if someone is in government and in a position of leadership. The Government have got form under this Prime Minister for dithering badly. There was the election and Northern Rock, and now we see in the Bill another example of dithering. What does that say to the civil servants, who are expected to work for the Government—that their position is uncertain for a year during the consideration of the Bill and that Ministers are prepared to throw away civil servants’ pensions, pay and rations on a whim? When the Government finally come to their senses and decide that they will keep the civil servants doing the job, they do not even make a definite decision; they say, “Oh well, we’ll have another look at it in three years’ time,” and if they want to take away the Crown status, all the civil servants can just lose their status and all the important aspects of their role can be lost in a Committee upstairs. Thank goodness the affirmative procedure will apply, but it does not say much for the Government that such important decisions should be taken in that way.
I hope that, as my hon. Friend asked, the Minister will now explain—this is my final point—the criteria for the review. Will he set them out now? What is really going on? Will he come clean with the House?
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) said that we started on the Bill a year ago; somehow it seems a lot longer than that, although we had an enjoyable and informative Committee stage, in which we got through a lot. When I saw the Lords amendments, I was slightly disappointed that their lordships had not given me the opportunity to dust down my old arguments about the Scottish minutes of agreement and had not given me one last chance to persuade the Minister how wrong he is on that issue. The Bill misses an opportunity. I still have some of the reservations that I expressed in Committee, sometimes at fair length.
I did get some support, and I was very grateful for it at the time. I am sorry that this is one of the issues on which the Government have not seen sense. Having said that, I am pleased to see some of the amendments on the amendment paper, and that the combined arguments of the Opposition in Committee carried some weight and had results at later stages; some of the issues that we addressed have been returned to.
On clause 2, I am pleased that the Government have gone a considerable way towards addressing the concerns raised regarding the status of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, but I share many of the concerns already expressed on that point, particularly regarding the three-year period. I have considerable experience of dealing with the Child Support Agency, both as a solicitor and latterly as a Member of Parliament. I have always found the staff to be as helpful as they can be but, over the years, they have put up with horrendous problems with the computer system and, frankly, with some incompetent management. That is reflected in many ways, including in the morale of staff in many offices, and in staff turnover. I remember visiting one centre where there was very high staff turnover—I cannot remember the exact figure—because of the pressure that staff were under, both in the job and because of the reaction of the public with whom they had to deal. The public had to deal only with the person on the coal face, and not with the computer system or the management behind the organisation.
I am pleased that the Government have accepted that the staff should remain civil servants. I note what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) says about making changes in a Committee Room upstairs, but he cannot have been subject to the campaign waged by the unions on the position of their members in the CSA. I am sure that debate on such a subject would not slip past unnoticed in a Committee Room upstairs without mass lobbying of the House by members of the unions, who are deeply concerned about the status of their members in the CSA. They perhaps saw the proposal as a bridgehead showing things to come. They, and many other organisations, will be watching closely any changes that are proposed.
But does not the hon. Gentleman agree that public service is important, and that the ethos of civil servants, and the way in which they work, particularly when they are in a difficult role, as they are in the case of the Child Support Agency, is important and something for which we should stand up? I do not criticise the unions for what they are doing; I think that they are right.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I was not criticising the unions. I was just pointing out that they have been assiduous in protecting the interests of their members in the CSA and, I am sure, in other Government Departments. They will watch like hawks for any attempt to change the status of the commission or of any other Department.
I agree that the provision for a three-year review raises great suspicions that the move is merely an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass for a wee while and to get around the problem. The Minister shakes his head, but if that is not the case, why put in the provision at all? The Government could at any time bring forward legislation to change the status of the commission or any other civil service body. Why provide for a three-year review unless there is a deliberate intention to revisit the issue at the end of the initial period, and perhaps to attempt to make the change in a manner that will not be brought to public notice? I think that such an attempt would fail.
Staff morale has been bad in many parts of the CSA. The proposal will leave staff in a difficult position. It will create continuing uncertainty about the future, although there might be relief that the original plan is not being implemented. The issue may not be resolved in three years, with an ongoing review further down the line. The CSA was undermined by uncertainty, low staff morale and the failure of the computer system. We need the commission to be grounded, to have proper resources and to make sure that the work is done, without the distraction of the many failings that the CSA had. I accept that the Government have moved considerably to meet the objections to their original proposal, but the continuing uncertainty is regrettable.
I shall try to respond to the points that have been raised in the debate on the first group of amendments.
In respect of HMRC data, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) asked about the commission helping other Government Departments. The commission has a stake in any Department looking after the interests of children, especially where family separation has occurred. It will probably be highly relevant for the commission to exchange information with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which will help with programmes in which the Department is involved, such as Sure Start, children’s centres and so on. Wherever there is a shared interest in services for children, especially for those from a fractured family background, I would expect the commission to co-operate with other bodies.
The hon. Gentleman asked me how many other non-departmental public bodies had Crown status. There are three others—the Health and Safety Commission, the Health and Safety Executive and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. The commission will join them, forming a small group out of 200 NDPBs. The commission is by far the largest of those bodies; the others that I mentioned are considerably smaller.
It makes the point that I was making as well—that there is a small number of such NDPBs. We are adding the commission to them for reasons that I have set out. It will join a couple of others in that position.
I shall return to the three-year review, but first I shall deal with some of the other points. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) asked whether the position on value added tax was the reason for the decision. It was part of the reason, but by no means the dominant or sole reason. Yes, he was right to point out that it was one of the consequences attendant upon the proposal. The amount of VAT liability that he mentioned was considerably higher than I believe it is. Nevertheless, it was one of the factors that weighed in the balance. The views of the staff of the agency were dominant in that decision.
The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) tried to tempt me back into the realm of the 12-month rule. I have discovered that the rule is that we must spend 12 months discussing the matter. We have done that for 12 months, and that is enough, so I will not go back into it, interesting and enjoyable though our long debates on the subject were. I hope that he will forgive me, but I think that I would be out of order in any case because the amendment on that has not been selected.
I am afraid that I was disappointed by the contribution from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). [Interruption.] He may well be a fine man, but I found that he was trying to hang rather wider political points on to the amendments. He said that going for non-departmental public body status was all about Ministers shirking responsibility. It is not. I urge him to look again at the rules that relate to NDPBs. In the case of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, as in the case of similar bodies, Ministers will still be ultimately responsible for what goes on. The NDPB is set up by statute law. It is ultimately answerable to the relevant Minister in the Department, who in turn is answerable to the House of Commons. The idea that there is a shirking of responsibility is therefore not appropriate at all.
I will rehearse for the hon. Gentleman a couple of the primary reasons that we felt it was right to move to this status. First, the Bill breaks the statutory link that ties the CSA to the benefits system, whereby at the moment any parent with care going on to benefit automatically gets referred to it because of the interaction between the rules on benefit and the rules on child maintenance. The repeal of section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991 breaks that link, which is a fundamental reason why an agency is no longer necessary. Moreover, once established as an NDBP, the commissioners can focus exclusively and entirely on the task that they are set by the Bill—namely, the collection of maintenance money for children. They no longer have to be concerned, as senior officials running an Executive agency have to be concerned, with other objectives of the Department. There are clear structural advantages in placing the commission in this position.
What slightly puzzles me about this debate is that my clear recollection is that in Committee the switch to NDPB status was fully supported by the Conservatives, but I am beginning to detect that there may be some rowing back from that. I am not sure why that is. It seems to be something of a change in position from the one that I understood them to have when we debated this in Committee.
I think that the Bill may have begun its course when some of my other hon. Friends were occupying shadow DWP positions. If I may refer the Minister back to columns 3 and 4 of the Public Bill Committee debate of 17 July 2007, he will find that my second and third questions were about why there was a need to change CMEC’s role from being an Executive agency of the DWP. It is an issue that we have raised throughout the Bill’s passage.
Absolutely; I do not deny that for a moment. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues certainly raised questions about it, and we had a prolonged discussion, but I do not recall them raising any objections—which is a different matter—or suggesting that it was an inappropriate decision or the wrong direction to take. Of course he raised questions, as he should, but he did not object to it.
I am sorry to have disappointed the Minister earlier. Nevertheless, does he not agree that the effect of the arrangements that he proposed, at least initially, was to distance the new body from Ministers relative to the situation that we have at the moment? There is no doubt that an executive agency is much closer to Ministers, as part of the Department, than what he proposed originally or proposes now. It is a more distant arrangement, as Lord McKenzie said.
It is distant, but that does not mean, as the hon. Gentleman previously implied, that Ministers have shirked responsibility. Yes, a greater distance is involved and the commissioners running the NDPB have greater autonomy than senior officials running an agency, but the ultimate link of accountability, which is established by the legislation, is not broken.
The Minister is being generous, and I am happy to make this my last intervention.
If the Minister accepts that the relationship is more distant for Ministers than the one that went before, is he not also saying that Ministers are taking less responsibility? If that is the case—as it must be, logically—is he not distancing himself from failure, as Lord McKenzie said?
That is not the way I was taught logic. It does not mean that at all. The relationship can be more distant in terms of the taking of day-to-day operational decisions. There may be a greater distance from Ministers in that they will not have to sign off such decisions, but that does not water down in any sense the ultimate ministerial responsibility for what happens. The commission is given by statute—by Parliament—the core objectives that it has to achieve. Ministers will then set targets to turn those objectives into deliverable realities. Whether that happens or not remains ultimately the responsibility of a Minister who is accountable to Parliament. There is no shirking of responsibility; I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman on that point.
I want to wrap up by returning to the three-year review, which seems to have concerned hon. Members. I shall try to resolve this matter, as well. The three-year review is not a new idea that we came up with in the later stages of the passage of the Bill. The argument that some Members used to underline their concern is that the review will somehow unsettle the staff of the agency. Let me make it clear that I have had meetings with hundreds of the agency’s staff. They know that the process is subject to a review, and they have always been clear about that. They have welcomed our decision to give Crown status, and they have always known that it is a renewable decision. The review has not in any way diminished their welcome of what we have done; they understand the way we are proceeding.
As I said when introducing this group of amendments, in any subsequent review, the issue that will dominate will be the position of the staff. It is sensible to suggest that there might be a review because there might be a wider cross-government review of Crown status, but there are also issues specific to the commission. After three years, the new body will have had time to settle down: staff will be more familiar with the way in which it operates; issues about terms and conditions will have become much clearer; the size of the staffing that the commission wants will be clearer; its business plan will be apparent; and its performance will have settled down. In that sense, some of the issues that have given staff concern with regard to the disappearance of civil staff status may no longer concern them, in the light of three years’ worth of experience of operating in the commission. That is another reason it makes sense to review the process.
The review will not be done furtively or secretively. The provisions are in the Bill, and everyone knows that a review will take place. Any change has to come through affirmative resolutions, as we have already established. We are being completely transparent on the matter, and it is understood why that has to be the case. It has not been a difficulty for the staff as some hon. Members have suggested. I am satisfied—I genuinely want to reassure hon. Members about this—that staff are pleased with the decision we have made, and support it, given all the conditions that I have just outlined. If Members care to check for themselves, they will find confirmation of that view.
I hope that I have responded to the points raised in the debate and that the amendments will be approved.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5 agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 6
This group of amendments relates to the assessment and collection of child maintenance, and the commission’s responsibilities in dealing with concerns raised about the parent with care’s ability to obtain the right level of child maintenance.
Lords amendment No. 6 places a duty on the commission to make investigations into any application from the parent with care for a variation to the maintenance assessment, if it is clear that further evidence would help the commission to decide whether a variation should be made. Currently, few applications for variations from parents with care are successful. Often, that is because the parent with care simply does not have the information necessary to show the agency why the variation should be made.
The amendment requires the commission to consider further information or evidence that is or could be available to it, including by reference to information that it is already in possession of, where it appears to the commission that to do so may affect its decision in respect of the variation. That will become particularly relevant once the data-sharing provisions with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are in place, as the commission may well have better access to information that would support the variation than the parent with care. The commission will be able to conduct investigations using information already held, for example by HMRC, or to seek fresh information from other sources, such as accountants, employers or credit reference agencies. This adjustment to policy was made in response to representations from groups representing parents with care, who find the current system inflexible and open to manipulation by unscrupulous non-resident parents who seek to conceal their real income from both the parent with care and the Child Support Agency.
A further amendment enables the disclosure to the commission of information provided in the context of family proceedings in court that is likely to be relevant to the commission’s child maintenance functions. Currently, such disclosure brings with it a risk of contempt of court. That risk is removed by the amendment. This proposal was welcomed on both sides during the Committee stage in another place. To give a practical example of how it can help, there are cases—for example, in ancillary relief proceedings on divorce cases—where a non-resident parent discloses information on court documents about his or her income, or where the court makes a finding regarding the non-resident parent’s financial circumstances, property or assets that were not previously known. Currently, that information cannot be passed to the Child Support Agency, which has to seek it again from scratch. The commission, by contrast, will be able to receive and use that information without risk of contempt of court.
The final amendment is a drafting correction and ensures that the commission has access to information on contributions held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That is to ensure consistency with arrangements already in place for the Child Support Agency. I commend the amendments to the House.
The official Opposition welcome the amendments in the second group, which, as the Minister said, cover three areas. Getting the assessments right is vital to the success of the commission. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the problems of the past were largely to do with the fact that the assessments were so ropey that they were disputed and delayed, and the parents who should have received the money did not receive it when they should have. The failure to get that right in the past has been at the heart of much of the CSA’s difficulties.
Lords amendment No. 6 is clearly sensible in ensuring that the commission will be able to consider additional information or evidence where that appears appropriate, before deciding applications for variations made by a parent with care or, in Scotland, by a child over the age of 12. That prompts one to ask why the amendment is needed. One would have thought and hoped that the Child Support Agency would always have available to it the latest relevant data when determining variations of maintenance, but, as we said in our discussions on the first group of amendments, perhaps some of us in this place did not do our job properly in relation to previous legislation. We should have made sure that such information was available to the CSA.
The second sub-group of amendments in this group relates to the passage of information between the family courts and the commission. The amendments will allow parties to specified family proceedings to disclose relevant information to the commission, which is clearly sensible. I am sure that the absence of those provisions from current legislation has hindered the CSA’s work in the past. The general issue is about ensuring that the commission and the family courts work hand in hand and do not work against each other to undo their good work.
This is not the occasion on which to revisit the thorny issue of the 12-month rule—indeed, you would not allow it, Mr. Deputy Speaker—so I shall not go down that route. I hope that the Minister agrees that it is important to ensure that the family courts and the commission are not at war. They are basically in the same business: dealing with the tragic circumstances and trauma that occur when families split up, such as the need for specific care for children and, crucially, the need to ensure that the right amount of money gets through to the right parents. We support that.
The Minister was quite brief on amendments Nos. 118 and 119, which are, as he said, crucial to making sure that there is the fullest possible co-operation between HMRC and the commission. I have looked into the legislation that affects the information gateway between the tax authorities and the current CSA, and I believe that one of the most useful things that we can do this afternoon is to tease out why it has not worked in the past. We are not expecting any Divisions, so I ask the Minister to give maximum co-operation regarding my concerns on this issue.
It worries me—I say this to hon. Members on both sides of the House—that we are in the habit in this place of passing legislation, not using it fully and then passing more laws when things do not work. I have uncovered information that is directly relevant to amendments Nos. 118 and 119. I do not know whether the Minister is familiar with section 80 of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999, which Labour passed two years after it came to power. He is not nodding, so I shall give him a gentle introduction to it. [Interruption.] Perhaps he is familiar with it; I am delighted to hear that, but for the benefit of the House, I shall point out that section 80 places a requirement on the tax authorities and the CSA to pass information to each other about the earnings of self-employed earners. The explanatory notes to the Act state:
“This provision allows the Inland Revenue, on a discretionary basis, to supply tax information it holds in respect of self-employed non-resident parents to the Child Support Agency (CSA). This is intended to enable the CSA to build up a financial picture of non-resident parents whose earnings either are not known or need to be verified.”
That sounds excellent and sensible, but the information that I have, from talking to HMRC staff who have been seconded to the CSA and who deal with my constituents’ CSA matters, is that that is not working. It worries me that Lords amendments Nos. 118 and 119 refer to this very area of co-operation between HMRC and the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, despite the fact that we have passed measures on precisely the same subject not so long ago, and that those measures are not working as they should do.
I should like to illustrate this argument with three points. First, HMRC has its own construction industry system of record keeping, to which the CSA should be entitled to have access in regard to self-employed parents. However, I have received information that that is not the case, and that when form 721—which could provide the relevant construction industry information—is filled in electronically, those data are denied to CSA staff, who cannot therefore make a correct assessment and make the child support system work properly. What is the point of having legislation on the statute book if there is imperfect co-operation—or none at all—between HMRC and the CSA?
I did not give the Minister prior warning that I was going to raise this matter today, but it is a serious issue and I ask him perhaps to meet me afterwards and to look into the matter. The premise of the Bill is largely based on having better and fuller co-operation between HMRC and the CSA. In a recent parliamentary question, I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer
“what access HM Revenue and Customs staff seconded to the Child Support Agency have to HM Revenue and Customs data systems while on secondment”.—[Official Report, 18 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1849W.]
The answer was that they have none, which was surprising.
Secondly, I have discovered that HMRC charges the CSA for information supplied on referrals—the charge is £3.79 per referral—whereas banks and other financial institutions have to supply that information for free. It seems pointless to have money going from one Government Department to another—that money has to be audited, and there are costs involved with that—when both the Departments involved should be co-operating fully with each other to ensure that the right money gets through to the right parents for the benefit of the children concerned.
Thirdly, will the Minister confirm with his colleagues in the Treasury that, when an IDG 43000 form is signed by a non-resident parent, it will trigger full co-operation between HMRC and the CSA? My information is that staff involved in the central policy information strategy at HMRC are not co-operative on this issue. There is no hope of Lords amendments Nos. 118 and 119 being successful if we do not get these co-operation issues sorted out. There is no point in passing more legislation when the present legislation is not being properly used. That does not fill me with confidence that the co-operation between HMRC and the staff at CMEC will be more effective in the future.
As I said earlier, I do not expect the Minister to have at his fingertips any detailed information on relations between his Department and the Treasury, or between the staff at HMRC and the CSA, but when he replies to this debate, I would be most grateful if he assured me that he takes the issue seriously and recognises that it is of the greatest importance that we get this right if we are going to make the CMEC work successfully. We both want the same thing—namely, to get the system to work—and, as I have said, I have current information from HMRC staff seconded to the CSA and who are dealing with my constituents that the system is not working satisfactorily at the moment.
I, too, welcome the amendments. I am sure the Minister recalls that in Committee we also raised concerns about ensuring that all income is taken account of when an assessment is being made, and we provided examples of cases.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked in particular about the construction industry and examples involving self-employed people in which it was quite clear that not all the information was being made available to the CSA. Therefore, the parent with care was not getting their full entitlement. Any steps that the Minister can take to ensure that when further information is made available it is not just accepted but properly investigated will be pertinent to the success of CMEC.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire made some relevant points about the operation of the CSA and the arrangement with HMRC. In Committee, we strongly laboured the point about the lack of consistency between the two Government agencies in ensuring that such information is made available. The Minister assured us that that would take place. I hope that the amendment and the new arrangements achieve proper follow-through on that. He knows as well as I do the figures on the amounts of money that are not being collected and the effect that that has on child poverty.
It is clearly important to all of us in the House that we have proper arrangements in place, so I welcome the amendment, which recognises that a parent with care can put forward more information and that the commission will properly investigate it. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, we need assurances on how the gateway between departments is working, because clearly it is not working at the moment and there is no point putting new legislation in place if we are not going to get it working.
On amendment No. 90, I again welcome the way the proposals are going with regard to disclosure of information through the family courts. As has been said, it is important that the family courts and the commission work closely together. Those are often difficult times for families, particularly the parent with care. Emotions are running high and lots of things are going on, so it is clearly important that the commission has access to information that will be revealed during any divorce settlement and that could materially affect the assessment that CMEC makes.
I want to question the Minister further on a matter that my noble Friend Lord Kirkwood raised in the other place. It relates to amendment No. 90, proposed new section 49AA(2)(c) and the use of the word “reasonably”. The amendment says:
“This section applies if…the party reasonably considers that the information is relevant to the exercise of the Commission’s functions relating to child support in relation to the child.”
If the commission was seeking information from the court, I could understand that it ought to act “reasonably” and not go on a wild goose chase, but we are talking about “the party”—that is, the person who may well want the commission to look at information revealed during family court proceedings. I do not want a clause in the Bill being used as a loophole for the parent without care to get out of supplying information that could lead to a better settlement being provided for the parent with care.
I would have thought that the parent with care, acting as the guardian of the child, would clearly be acting reasonably because they would want to put before the commission all information that would enable them to get a proper settlement, which would enable them to bring up the child properly. Conversely, the parent without care may not want to act reasonably, because he or she will not want to provide such information.
While the word “reasonably” may itself sound reasonable, it rings alarm bells for me. I can imagine the parent without care going to the court and saying, “It is unreasonable for that information to be provided.” It should be for the commission to decide what is reasonable. The Bill states what information it can and cannot seek. We are not talking about debt collections, or information that could allow third parties to gain access to people’s financial affairs. I agree with my noble Friend that the amendment is unnecessary, and sets alarm bells ringing in relation to why it is there in the first place. I hope that the Minister can clarify the issue, because I do not think that it was dealt with satisfactorily in the other place.
How will the data-matching proposed in Lords amendments Nos. 118 and 119 take place? Will it be possible to match records on the Inland Revenue and national insurance computers electronically with the commission’s records on a “class” basis? Would the records of a class of absent parents who had not been making payments be run against the records on the national insurance recording computer?
How will this power be used? Have any contracts yet been let to computer companies or similar organisations? What will be the scale of the matching, in terms of numbers? Does the Minister envisage thousands of cases being matched each year, or will only a small number of individual cases be involved? Will he tell us a little more about the Government’s thinking? What has been agreed with the Revenue, and what contracts are in prospect?
I did not serve on the Committee, but I was interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous).
Obviously, when a divorce and separation take place the situation is extremely traumatic and emotional for all parties, but too often the need of the child is lost in the feuding between the two adults. I am especially concerned about the under-declaration of income by the self-employed. Divorced constituents have come to see me, women—usually—whose husbands were in well-paid jobs earning upwards of £50,000 a year, but whose annual income has suddenly and miraculously dropped to £10,000. Clearly their payments towards the upkeep of their child or children do not reflect either their earning potential or their actual earnings.
I am horrified that people can simply walk away from their responsibilities to their children. I know of one case in which two sets of lawyers are going at each other hammer and tongs trying to ascertain an individual’s genuine earnings. The Child Support Agency cannot take any further action to recover meaningful amounts of money for the child’s mother because it cannot prove that this gentleman’s earnings are in excess of £10,000, although only weeks before the divorce they were £50,000 per annum.
I hope that, when income levels are in dispute, it will be possible for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to produce tax records so that a realistic amount can be paid towards children’s upkeep after a separation.
We have had a useful debate. I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the importance of co-ordination between the courts and the commission. As he said, they are ultimately in the same business, and we shall seek to ensure that there is sufficient co-operation between them.
We have had a fair amount of discussion on the exchange of information between HMRC and the CSA, or the commission in the future. I hear the concerns that have been raised about the way in which the exchange operates currently. The collaboration and exchange of information is critical and the links have to work. HMRC data are important to enable the agency now and the commission in the future to deliver the kind of effective maintenance agreements that we all want to see in place. Already HMRC data are being deployed and, in many cases, are helping the agency to establish the whereabouts of the non-resident parent.
The information is also helping the agency to establish the real income levels of a non-resident parent because, as the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) has indicated, many non-resident parents sadly will resort to all sorts of tactics and subterfuge to try to conceal income and, let us be blunt, will tell barefaced lies to the agency about what they earn. HMRC may have more robust information on income that is much harder for the individual to conceal. The exchange of that information will clearly be crucial to help us ensure in future that we have robust maintenance agreements in place that deliver.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) asked about the extent of data matching and the exchange of information that will be required. This will be a matter for the commission, once it is established as a proper legal entity, to discuss with HMRC. They will want to draw up a protocol about how they will achieve the exchange of information. He asked on what scale the exchange will be. I anticipate that it will be on quite a large scale because we are looking for a robust system that ensures that we have accurate information about non-resident parents’ true levels of income. There will be hundreds of thousands of people in the system, so I imagine the exchange will be on a significant scale, but the technicalities as to how that will be done will be caught in any protocol agreed between the commission and HMRC once the commission is in a position to initiate these negotiations.
There is also the issue of expenses. Section 80 of the Child Support Act 1991 did not mention charging. My information is that HMRC charges £3.79 per referral. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, the Minister said that the exchange could be extensive. Has CMEC in its preliminary budgets put in a couple of million pounds to pay HMRC? Is that sensible? Do we really want money going from one Department to another in this way?
Interestingly we are now going back to the discussion from the first group of amendments on the extent of ministerial involvement. One of the reasons for going for a NDPB was that negotiations of that sort no longer require ministerial approval. The commission will be anticipating the need to have a provision in place to meet that requirement. The extent of it and the terms of any negotiation between the commission and HMRC will be for the commission. I cannot anticipate what it will say about that. It is very much an issue that the commission will have to sort out with HMRC, but it is aware of the context in which that exchange will operate.
I am delighted to hear that the cross-referencing of data will be robust, but one way of using that information less would be for the Government to get the message out to absent parents that it will be difficult in future to avoid providing information or making payments. Many of my cases are fathers who do not feel that they should be paying at all for their children and feel they are being unfairly charged. As well as putting these systems in place, should there not be some method of providing a wider message to the general public to let them know that the system will become much more robust and tougher?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. One thing that has bedevilled the agency’s performance in this respect is what I sometimes refer to as reputational harm. Unfortunately, too many non-resident parents who do not have—shall we say—a high inclination to pay have come to believe that if they duck and weave for long enough and are canny enough about what they do, the agency will not get them. There has been a certain culture in that regard among a minority of non-resident parents who refuse to own up to their obligations; it has been the talk in the bar room, as it were. That has been damaging and harmful and has served only to encourage non-resident parents who do not want to face up to their responsibility. She is right: they need to understand that that is not an option. Yes, the relationship may have ended, but the responsibility does not. The agency—in future, the commission—is going to ensure that the culture changes and that there is not an option of walking away from that responsibility.
I think that that is already starting to happen. We do not have to wait for the commission to come into existence for there to be new and tougher enforcement powers or more effective action. That is already happening in respect of the agency, which, as the hon. Lady may well know, is taking a record number of actions against non-resident parents. In the last year, some 114,000 individual sanction-type actions were taken against non-payers. She will also know that, armed with the additional powers that we have already given it, the agency is collecting a record amount of maintenance. The maintenance collected has just passed £1 billion a year for the first time in the agency’s history. She will also know that it is collecting record levels of arrears—£120 million in the past year—and that arrears are now growing at the slowest rate ever.
Some of the new powers that we have already given the agency are quite simple ones, such as the ability to collect outstanding arrears over the phone. While the agency official is in conversation with the non-resident parent, they can say, “By the way, the arrears are such and such. We now have powers to come after you and get this. If you want to pay us now using your debit card, you can do so.” It is amazing how successful that has been. That simple measure has brought in more than £20 million in arrears already. Also, the fact that the agency can now inform non-resident parents who have not been paying that that power exists and could be used has encouraged them simply to pay up, in recognition of the fact that if they try to delay any longer, the situation will get worse for them. The mere arrival of a letter saying, “We might have to refer your debt to a private collection agency”, has caused them collectively to hand over £6 million, because they do not want the debt collection agency on them.
The hon. Lady is therefore right, in that the message has to be very strong to non-resident parents that non-payment is not an option. What makes that a strong message is their understanding and awareness that the agency—the commission to be—has very strong powers and they cannot escape its establishing their true income position. Moreover, once it has that knowledge, it has behind it painful enforcement powers, should the non-resident parent think that they can go on ducking. So the switch in credibility, backed with stronger enforcement powers, is already delivering far higher levels of compliance and payment, and the new commission will acquire even more powers on top of those already given to the agency. The message is therefore changing and will continue to change. Her point is well made.
Is it part of the thinking on amendments Nos. 118 and 119 that if national insurance records can be checked, the commission will be aware much more quickly that somebody has started work? Is that the reason regarding national insurance contributions, or is it locating people, or a bit of both?
It is a mixture of both. Of course, one of the tricks that the unwilling non-resident parent sometimes gets up to is constantly moving employment, but also literally constantly moving. I see nods around the Chamber, and I have had such cases in my constituency. Such movement makes it incredibly difficult for the agency to catch up with people who are pulling every stunt available to avoid payment. The more the information is at the commission’s disposal to keep tabs on those individuals, the harder it will be for them to evade their responsibility.
I have been listening carefully to the Minister. Perhaps I missed it, but I have not heard him say that he will examine the three specific cases I mentioned where non co-operation is taking place. He praised co-operation where it takes place and he expressed the reasons for it, but I cited three specific ways in which it is not working. I was told about them just this morning by an HMRC member who has been seconded to the CSA. I am greatly worried and would like to hear that the Minister will take some action and perhaps meet me to discuss the issues.
I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon, because I meant to cover that point. The information that I have been given is that six HMRC tax inspectors have been seconded to the agency and they are in six different locations. I understand that they are helping agency staff to deal with the particularly vexed issue of working out how to assess the income of self-employed non-resident parents, which has been mentioned. He has raised specific concerns about areas where he thinks that that might not be working, and I shall examine those. I should have given him that reassurance, and I am happy to do so now.
Let us consider a situation in which a self-employed individual is declaring an income of £10,000, which is considerably less than they are probably earning, and they then realise a capital asset of £1 million but that cannot be included in the settlement. That asset has a notional income—if it is invested in the stock market or in a high-yielding savings account—of about £50,000 a year. Is there any way of taking such income into consideration when coming up with settlements?
Yes. If the hon. Gentleman is able to stay for further considerations this afternoon, he will see that we are coming to that very point. I am grateful to him for raising it, but I offer him that little tempter to follow the proceedings even further.
I do not think that there is the loophole that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) fears, and I want to reassure him on that. The reason we think it important to include the word “reasonably” in respect of information from the parent with care is, as he might realise if he were to think about some of the cases that he has seen, that it is still an important safeguard to have in place. We are often dealing with individuals who have resentments against the former partner, for one reason or another, following the break up of the relationship. It is possible even for the parent with care sometimes to continue taking perhaps vindictive or vexatious action against the person who has become the non-resident parent.
If any submission could be made by the parent with care to the commission to further a dispute about a real level of income without there being any grounds to sustain it, there is a risk that the commission would be swamped with all sorts of initiatives to go after establishing true income levels when there is no robust evidence to suggest that the non-resident parent is trying to mislead the commission. It is sensible for us to require that the commission initiates investigative action of that sort, and we are strengthening its duty to do so, as I think the hon. Gentleman realises, but it is reasonable that we should in turn require the parent with care to put up reasonable grounds for suggesting that the commission should do that. That means that we will keep the commission efficient and its efforts concentrated on where they are likely to produce results.
I would accept that point if the word “reasonably” were in Lords amendment No. 6, but it is in Lords amendment No. 90, which amends information about proceedings available in family courts. They are a matter of record; the information will have been put before the family courts. We cannot introduce any more information, and I honestly do not see why there is a need to include the word “reasonably”. The information is either there or not there; it can be put before the commission, which can consider it or not. The word “reasonably” makes no difference other than to the other side if it wants to avoid that information being made available.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the inclusion of that word does not in any way water down the obligation on the parties for full and free disclosure of information during the court proceedings. Failure to do so would be a contempt of court.
I think that I have covered all the points raised and I hope that the amendments will secure the approval of the House.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Current account deduction orders
Lords amendment: No. 7.
This group of amendments relates to the powers available to the commission to tackle non-resident parents who continually fail to meet their financial responsibilities to their children. A particularly important suite of measures in the Bill allows the commission to target non-payers directly through their bank accounts, using deduction orders. The powers were discussed at some length in Committee, and I agreed then with hon. Members that it would be desirable to make the commission’s options in this respect as wide as possible.
The Bill as we debated it in Committee limited the powers to the use of periodic and lump sum deductions from personal current accounts, and to lump sum deductions from personal savings accounts. It therefore excluded deductions from business accounts, and from joint personal accounts. The amendments widen the primary provisions so that no type of account will be excluded on the face of the Bill. The details of accounts which will be excluded, if necessary, will be set out in regulations. That sends the right message to those thinking about trying to evade their responsibilities, and allows the powers to be exercised flexibly by the commission in the years ahead by making proposals to Ministers on the content of regulations. It also gives us the necessary flexibility to consult and co-operate with the financial services industry, to ensure that we take due account of its concerns about, for example, cost of administration, and to allow us to keep abreast of changes in the provision of financial services. Regulations under these powers will be subject to the affirmative procedure.
The Bill has also been amended to allow the commission to apply for a freezing order in relation to property or assets held by a non-resident parent where it becomes apparent that he or she is about to dissipate those assets. We have also added an additional power to allow the commission to make an application to the court to set aside a disposition made by a non-resident parent where it was made with the intention of defeating a claim for child maintenance. These are powers that were supported and, in some cases, proposed by Opposition Members, and I am pleased that there is so much common ground between us on the need to provide the commission with the powers necessary to bear down on non-resident parents who are not meeting their obligations.
Furthermore, following concerns raised about the recovery of historic debt, the Bill has been amended to ensure that all new and existing powers to collect child maintenance can be used on debt of any age. We have already amended regulations so that there is no longer a six-year time limitation for an application for a liability order on debt that accrued on or after 13 July 2000. However, there is some debt that had already reached six years of age before then and the amendment ensures that when the new administrative liability order comes into force, the same enforcement mechanisms can be used on all debt regardless of age.
Finally, the Bill will be amended to provide for a court-based mechanism for the removal of travel authorisation—passports and, in due course, the equivalent provision in identity cards—from non-resident parents who wilfully neglect or culpably refuse to pay their child maintenance. It is an equivalent procedure to that which applies already for driving licences.
As my colleague Lord McKenzie of Luton pointed out when the amendment was tabled on Report in the other place, we proposed it in response to legitimate questions from the Select Committee on the Constitution of that House concerning the importance to the individual of holding a passport and the fact that decisions to withhold such documents are usually made by judicial determination.
The amendment means that the commission will have to apply to the court for an order to disqualify the non-resident parent from holding or obtaining travel authorisation, rather than being able to take the action administratively. However, I hope that we can all continue to reflect on which decisions need to be made by the courts and which could be made more effectively by administrative action. To that end, we reserve the right to come back to the House to reconsider which decisions should fall within the commission’s remit. However, this arrangement is appropriate for this Bill.
I hope that when we return to the matter, Opposition Members will approach it in the same spirit of consensus that we have seen with other tough enforcement measures, such as the powers to enter bank accounts that I described. The amendments are in many cases a welcome strengthening of the powers that we originally proposed for the commission, and many of them pick up suggestions from Opposition Members. I commend them to the House.
The third group of amendments that we find before us, which relate to deduction orders and preventing avoidance—the issue that was rightly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker)—and travel restrictions, are all amendments with which those on the Conservative Front Bench find favour, not least because some of them are our very own.
Amendments Nos. 7 to 23 are clearly sensible. They relate to the setting up of regular deduction orders. It is important to note that there is a right of appeal to the court should there be a problem with CMEC taking money from someone’s account. If that is wrong or unreasonable in any regard, people have a right to go to court. It is important to mention that. The amendments are an additional useful part of the toolkit that we are giving CMEC. We welcome them because they are necessary.
In particular, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who served with me on the Conservative Front Bench during our scrutiny of the Bill. In relation to clause 10, I think that it was my hon. Friend who spotted in Committee that current and deposit accounts needed to be specified on the face of the Bill to cover every type of bank account to ensure that those parents who owed maintenance did not set up accounts that were not touched by the regulations. It is good to see that specification.
Amendments Nos. 24 to 49 relate to lump sum deduction orders. The Minister has already spoken a little about people paying by credit card and paying off arrears that they owe. The orders will be another means by which those arrears can be paid. The Conservatives continue to take the issue of debt very seriously. It weighs heavily on those parents to whom child maintenance is due. They feel that the money is owed to them, that they have been cheated of it and that their children have not had the benefit of it. We will certainly be vigilant in ensuring that the commission is fearsome in collecting that money, which is owed to many children up and down our country.
Amendments Nos. 50 to 52, 96 and 98 are very important and deal with the precise point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne. They can both prevent and then set aside afterwards the disposal or transfer of assets in order to avoid legitimate child support maintenance payments. That is important. All too often, money is transferred into different accounts—perhaps into a new girlfriend’s account—so that it cannot be touched, and someone then says, “Look at me. I’m penniless. I’ve got a couple of pounds in my bank account and no income.” Such things happen. As the Minister said, people are pretty savvy and have worked out ways to avoid their obligations in the past. The important message that needs to go out is that the net is closing, as was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who is another of my parliamentary neighbours.
Lords amendments Nos. 53 to 82, 99, 102 and 122 will put the removal of passports or identity cards on to the same basis as the removal of driving licences and the imposition of curfews. The commission will be required to go the courts in the first case to take away someone’s driving licence or to impose a curfew on them. It was therefore pretty surprising to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean and my noble Friend in another place, Lord Skelmersdale, that the Government intended to remove passports purely by administrative order and, moreover, not just by the commission’s staff. Let us remember that, as we heard earlier, many of CMEC’s functions could be contracted out, properly, to private businesses. So an individual, perhaps relatively lowly, employed by a private business somewhere could have the power to take away someone’s passport.
We understand the need to have the threat of taking away passports. Indeed, I was conscious of the fact that the Australian Child Support Agency was doing that some time ago, when the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited Australia in the last Parliament to look at how its CSA seemed to work rather better than ours. I welcome that power—it is important—but I hope that it never has to be used. No one takes any joy in the fact that someone’s passport or ID card is taken away, but the threat of doing so is important to bear down on those people who try to avoid their responsibilities.
The Minister is right in that he and his parliamentary colleague the Minister in the Lords, Lord McKenzie of Luton, were rapped over the knuckles by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. The Committee’s report states that the Minister in this place was trivialising the removal of passports. He said that the holding of a passport
“relates to discretionary activity—the drive to go on holiday, for example”.
Many of us thought that that did not take into account the fact that we are a trading nation and have been for hundreds of years. Many people need to earn their living by going outside these shores to provide an income to their families and to the children of their former families. I am pleased that, after some persuasion by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, the Government changed their mind. However, I have a couple of questions about the removal of ID cards, which the Minister referred to earlier.
The Government want to introduce identity cards. That is a source of political dispute among various hon. Members on both sides of the House. Assuming that identity cards are introduced at some point in the future—not a prospect that I personally welcome—I wonder whether the Minister will explain the position of someone whose identity card is removed. Will people perhaps be unable to gain access to benefits in any shape or form? Will they be unable to gain access to the health service in any shape or form if their identity cards are removed? If they are stopped by the police and the police have the right to inspect our identity cards, will they just get a white pass because their ID cards have been taken off them by CMEC? I hope that there are some fairly clear answers to those questions. If not, there will be considerable problems.
I listened very happily to everything that the Minister said, until about the last three sentences of his remarks, when he rather alarmed me by saying that the Government reserve the right to return to the issue of removing passports by administrative order. That seems a bit strange.
We have before us a hard fought for, much argued over amendment that we finally got right in the House of Lords, which says that a court should be approached when someone’s passport is to be removed, but the Minister now says that that is all subject to review and that there may be a return to administrative orders at some unspecified point. That is a bit like the situation regarding the reviews that will be held on whether CMEC will continue to have Crown status. That worries me, because it seems a little different from the spirit of the agreement struck on the issue in another place by my noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale and Lord McKenzie of Luton. I seek reassurance from the Minister that the part of the Bill in question will not be changed by some regulation or other in future.
I, too, welcome this string of amendments. As the Minister knows, during proceedings on the Bill we raised a number of concerns about ensuring that collection and enforcement were as wide as possible. We gave examples of people who were transferring income and selling off assets without any collection taking place under the current CSA regime, so I welcome the fact that the amendments widen the scope of the bank deposits that can be dealt with. They will now include business deposits in cases where it is clear that money has been transferred from personal accounts into them to avoid payment—we have heard examples of such cases—and joint accounts, where there has been a hiding of income. The Bill will also allow lump sump payments and deduction orders to be paid. All that is to be welcomed.
I particularly welcome the Minister’s commitment that the six-year rule will no longer apply. Throughout proceedings on the Bill, we expressed concerns on the issue. When we come to the next string of amendments, we will consider debts and arrangements for dealing with historical debts. It is important that we send a clear message to people, particularly parents without care who may seek to avoid paying their dues. I am sure that, like me, the Minister has many constituents who have suffered under the current arrangements with non-collection and non-payment. I am grateful for the fact that the stringent regulations will be subject to regulation by the court, so if the parent without care feels that CMEC is being unreasonable, they can go to court to seek redress; that is an important safeguard. Notwithstanding that, the measures send a clear message that we will make sure that dues are paid, and that all accounts and assets will be considered when an assessment is made.
With regard to travel arrangements, I welcome the fact that the Government accepted a point raised by my noble Friend Lord Oakeshott. It was wrong of the Government to think that they could put a travel restriction on someone by administrative order. The fact that that was admitted is to be welcomed; travel restrictions have to be dealt with by the proper authorities, with reference to the courts.
In conclusion, I welcome the amendments. In due course, the orders that put the provisions into operation will be introduced. The Bill will be much better as a result of the amendments. What was in place before would have restricted CMEC’s ability to go about its duty.
I support the idea that a passport can be taken away from someone who wilfully does not pay. There may often be a poetic justice in that. A number of cases have been brought to my attention in which the complaint has been that the absent parent was away overseas on holiday. Often, they had taken the children on holiday, although they were not paying for the absolute basics of life for them. The parent with care may be grinding away, trying to survive, while the other party flaunts their money by going on holiday. Taking away a passport is a strong incentive to perform for the parent who is supposed to be paying.
I agree with the other sentiment that has been expressed—that that should not be done by administrative order, particularly in circumstances where the responsibilities can be outsourced to a company. It is a dangerous road to give a judicial function to a body that is nothing to do with the Government or the judicial system. I am glad that the Minister has thought again about that. He might want to reflect on other similar disposals—the football hooligan who is told that as a consequence of offending, he may not go abroad to watch England play and that his passport will be confiscated for the period when the match takes place, or the driver who has too many points on his licence or commits a road traffic offence and has his licence taken away. That is always done by a court.
The Minister should give the House the assurance sought by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), that he will not review the provision and come back with the idea of an administrative order. The measure should stay in the judicial area and should be subject to the decision of a court.
I realise that I am probably the Minister’s worst nightmare—some sort of idle Back Bencher pottering in from one of the Commons Corridors and taking part in a debate on a Bill although he did not serve on the Committee—but I am interested in the matter.
I welcome what the Minister said about pursuing people who have cash assets that lie outside income. I would be interested to know what will happen in instances where someone takes a cash asset and transfers it into a fixed asset—for example, they have £10,000 in cash in an account and buy a new car for £10,000, or they have a larger sum, say £150,000, and buy a house to hide it from the clutches of the CSA or the courts.
Where such circumstances are identified, will there be powers to require such a person to borrow against that asset to pay the money that they owe, or to sell the asset so that the cash can be liberated and paid back to their partner? Alternatively, a notional income can be attached to those assets. If a person buys a house for £200,000, owns £150,000 of that and has a £50,000 mortgage, the income that can be derived from the £150,000 can be part of the calculation. I should be interested to know what the position would be in all those circumstances.
On travel restrictions, I am always concerned when the state talks about taking away people’s passports. It sounds a little like Big Brother. Conversely, I am attracted to the idea of stopping parents pleading poverty, as both the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) rightly identified. Some parents plead poverty, yet travel on a two-week vacation to Disneyland Florida. As my hon. Friend pointed out, one parent may be living almost entirely on benefits and bringing up the children day to day, while the former husband or partner is travelling north America at great expense. That does not seem fair.
Finally, what are the logistics of the process? If the intention is to go after cash in bank accounts or cash in fixed assets, how will that be done smoothly, seamlessly and quickly, without loads of lawyers becoming involved and loads of appeals lodged? The process could take years. I have seen at my surgery people’s absolute reluctance to face up to their responsibilities. I shall be interested to know how we will ensure that the process is speedy. With those concluding remarks, I can reassure the Minister that that will be my last contribution to the debate, as I have some constituents coming in this evening, whom I will be looking after later.
In that case, perhaps I had better begin by responding to the points raised by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) so that I can release him from these duties as quickly as possible. Let me begin by telling him that he is no nightmare; in fact, I would go so far as to say that those were dream questions, and I will give him the answers.
There is already in place a significant array of powers that the existing agency can use to deal with assets that can be seized in certain circumstances. Indeed, if the non-payment and non-co-operation have gone so far that the agency has set bailiffs on, the assets can be taken in that way. Far from that process taking years, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, it can sometimes move quite swiftly. For example, a charging order can be placed on a property. Obviously, it will not be realised until that property is disposed of at some point, and that will take time, but in the end the money is collected. As he and his colleagues have said, this is about getting a message out there. Non-resident parents need to understand that whatever wheeze they come up with, it will not work, and that the agency—now to be the commission—has such an array of powers of seizure and sequestration that the assets cannot be hidden for ever. From now on, in addition to being able to go into bank accounts and take money out directly, make deductions from earnings and so on, we will have a suite of measures targeted at financial and physical assets, so that resources cannot be parked in those areas in order to escape the responsibility of paying child maintenance. The hon. Gentleman raised the right points—that is why I called them dream questions—and I hope that the answers will not cause him any loss of sleep.
Let me turn to the points raised by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the withdrawal of passports. Everyone who has spoken in the debate has reiterated their support for this measure in principle. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) welcomed it for the reasons that he outlined—that it is galling for the parent with care to see a non-resident parent who is pleading poverty taking sometimes quite exotic overseas holidays. That rubs what is happening in the face of the parent with care. It is therefore appropriate that there should be a power to remove passports to cut out that option. Often, it is not the act of removing the passport that is necessary to do the trick, but the threat that that can happen: the mere knowledge that that might well happen if things get to a certain state is enough to make the non-resident parents cough up at some point. The test is not how often passports are withdrawn but the effectiveness of having the sanction in place.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked how this might work in respect of identity cards, once they are in place.