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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 9 October 2000


Assembly Committees: Questions of Order/Procedure

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill: Second Stage

First Minister

Oral Answers to Questions

Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Department of Social Development

First Minister

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Committees: Questions of Order/Procedure


Mr Speaker:

At the sitting of the Assembly on 2 October Mr Dallat asked for a ruling on matters which he described as having taken place during the meeting of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development on Friday 29 September. I have looked into these matters and have no reason to believe that any breach of Standing Orders took place. However, I report this as a matter of fact and not as a ruling from the Chair. Indeed, my only ruling on the matter raised by Mr Dallat is that it would not be proper for the Speaker to rule on matters which take place in Committees. At a number of points in Standing Orders mention is made of a Chairperson’s role in exercising the same powers as the Speaker with regard to managing business before the Committee. Ordinarily, I would expect that this also extends to exercising judgement on upholding Standing Orders.

Members may, of course, refer matters of order to me at any time — not just in the Chamber. I will endeavour to advise them as best I can. Members may also feel free to raise matters by way of motions, refer matters to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, or take whatever is the proper course in any particular dispute. However, in some situations the problem is simply that Members do not like the outcome rather than how it was arrived at. That, of course, is not a matter of order. That is a matter of politics, and Members have to take responsibility for such matters.

I hope that this helps to clarify the situation.

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill: Second Stage


The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill (NIA 1/00) be agreed.

The Bill will make provision for Northern Ireland corresponding to that made for Great Britain by the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, which received Royal Assent on 28 July 2000. It is therefore a parity measure. There has always been parity in social security legislation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; that is how it should be. People in Northern Ireland pay the same national insurance contributions and taxes as people in Great Britain and should receive the same benefits. Parity also enables us in Northern Ireland to use the computer system in Great Britain for both child support and social security. That is more cost-effective than setting up separate computer systems here. This is a parity measure not only in the content of the legislation but also in the timing of its implementation. New provisions have always been introduced here at the same time as they have been introduced in Great Britain, and that arrangement should continue.

Part I of the Bill deals with the reform of the child support system. I am determined that my Department will do everything that it can to ensure that children get the best possible start in life. The primary responsibility for the support of children lies with parents — and that means both parents, whether they live together or apart. My Department is responsible for ensuring that, if parents live apart, there is an effective system of child support.

The failings of the current system, with its complex formula, are well documented, and I will mention them only briefly. It can be months before a decision is made and, as a consequence, the Child Support Agency (CSA) spends too much of its time on chasing information and not enough on chasing up missing payments. The result, not surprisingly, is a system that fails children. The Child Support Agency faces formidable problems. It is required to administer a hugely complex formula that parents do not understand. Parents with care go for months without seeing any maintenance, and, because of the delays, non-resident parents, usually fathers, begin with large unanticipated maintenance debts. Faced with such a cliff to climb, some of them choose not to pay up at all. The income support for parents with care was reduced pound for pound, so parents see the main purpose of the Child Support Agency as being to reduce benefits rather than to ensure meaningful support for their children. Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Going back to the courts is not the answer. The failure of the courts to deliver a fair system led to the introduction of the child support scheme in the first place. The measures in the Bill are designed to remove the obstacles in the current scheme and to give the Child Support Agency the powers it needs to deal with parents who seek to avoid their responsibilities. Under the new system, mothers and their children — and it is usually mothers, though not exclusively — will get what they are due and get it quickly.

The present system is also failing those parents who live apart from their children but want to support them. The agency often needs so much information to work out what payment is due that it can be months before a decision is made. As a result, parents can face huge debts, through no fault of their own. The reforms will change all that, and as a result, many children who miss out today will receive help.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

The first objective is to address the complexity inherent in the current scheme. In my opinion setting a fixed amount would be grossly unfair. Children are entitled to a share in their parents’ income, and it would be wrong to allow those who are earning a good deal of money to pay a flat rate when they could well afford to pay more. The Bill introduces a simpler system, which will be easy for parents to understand and for the Child Support Agency to administer. Under the new arrangements, non-resident parents will pay a flat rate percentage of their net income — after tax, national insurance and pension contributions —15% for one child, 20% for two children and 25% for three or more children. Ready reckoner, easy-to-read booklets containing that information will be widely available in post offices and libraries. So, even in the case of a couple who have broken up, a parent will know what maintenance he or she may be expected to pay and can make arrangements for it. This approach will mean that decisions can be made in days rather than months, getting the money flowing faster.

The second objective is to ensure that children see the benefit of the maintenance paid. Currently, families on income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance get no benefit from the payment of maintenance. As part of the new arrangement, if both parents are on benefit, £5 will be deducted from the non-resident parent’s benefit and paid to the parent with care towards the support of the child. If the non-resident parent is in work and the parent with care is on benefit, there will be no reduction of benefit for the first £10 of maintenance. I am sure Members will agree that it is right for people to have an incentive to co- operate with the CSA and that they should receive some benefit from their co-operation.

The third objective is to provide the CSA with the means to ensure that parents cannot avoid their responsibilities. The Bill will simplify the present bureaucracy so that the CSA will need to know only who the absent parent is and how much that person earns; it will do the calculation. The amount will be 15%, 20% or 25% of income depending on the number of children and whether those children are in a second family. The CSA can say that this is the amount that the non-resident parent is due to pay. That parent should enter into the agreement immediately, and if he does not, or does not stick to it, the money will be deducted from his wages. There will be new powers to tackle those who continue to try to avoid those responsibilities. Parents who misrepresent or withhold information from the CSA will face fines of up to £1,000.

The agency will also have new powers to appoint specialist inspectors, allowing it to gather information more quickly and effectively than now. Parents who deliberately delay paying money for their children will face a penalty of up to 25% of the money due. The amount of child support maintenance arrears will remain due, and a financial penalty will be imposed. The penalty will not be maintenance and will not be passed on to the parent with care. Persistent non-payers will still face jail, but in addition the courts will have the power to take away their driving licences.

There will also be powers to get access to the Inland Revenue’s records of a self-employed person who refuses to tell the CSA how much he or she is earning. Clearly the agency will not want to do that routinely, but it needs to be able to take action to stop self-employed, non-resident parents living an opulent life and making no contribution towards the upkeep of their children. That will stop under the new system.

At the same time the Bill will allow maintenance payments made by a non-resident parent before which the assessment of child support maintenance to be offset against arrears in respect of the period before the non-resident parent was notified of the maintenance calculation. This means that a non-resident parent who has been paying towards the upkeep of his or her children will not be faced with a mountain of debt by the time his or her maintenance has been worked out.

The Bill will also close a loophole that allows some fathers to delay an assessment of their liability by denying paternity. In future, if the father is married to the mother at any time between the conception and the birth of the child, and if he is named on the birth certificate or refuses to take a DNA test, the burden will be on him to prove that he is not the father.

These reforms pave the way for an improved service from the CSA. Nevertheless, it is essential to avoid the failures of the current system by introducing reforms too quickly. The new scheme requires significant changes in the way that the agency works, including new computer systems. It is crucial that the reforms are right from day one in order to build parents’ confidence. To ensure that the new system beds in properly, it will be introduced for new cases first, so that it can be up and running with a manageable caseload. I expect this stage of the reform to be introduced by April 2002. Existing cases will be transferred at a later date, once my Department is sure that the new system is working well. Although all existing cases will be transferred to the new system at a single date, the change to the new rates will be implemented in stages so that no parent will suffer a significant drop in income overnight.

10.45 am

All these changes will bring about an easily understood system for child support — one that is fair to parents with care, to non-resident parents and, most important of all, to the children.

Part II of the Bill deals with pensions reform. Projections show that by the year 2050 one in three pensioners will be dependent on means-tested benefits if nothing is done now. Many older people are reluctant to claim such benefits, and it is essential therefore to put pensions on a sound, sustainable and affordable footing for the future. Of course, everyone who can save for retirement ought to do so, but many people, through no fault of their own, are not able to do that.

The Welfare Reform and Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 provided for the introduction of stakeholder pension schemes. Due to be introduced in April 2001, these are designed to give moderate earners who do not have access to an occupational pension scheme, or for whom a personal pension scheme is unsuitable, the chance to get a funded pension. The reforms in this Bill go further. It contains provisions that will help low-paid earners, carers and long-term disabled people with broken work records. These groups have the least opportunity to save for retirement. Generally speaking, even if they are working they do not have sufficient earnings to make worthwhile savings through a personal pension.

The state earnings related pension scheme (SERPS) does not do much for them, simply because it is earnings related. A person on low earnings does not receive much on retirement and is forced to rely on income-related benefits, such as income support. Too many people are headed for a life on low income in old age because they are unable to build up a decent second pension. Women, on whom the role of carer falls most often, are especially disadvantaged. The reform of SERPS by way of the state second pension will, in some cases, triple the amount of additional pensions to which low earners will be entitled. For example, under SERPS someone earning £6,000 per year after a lifetime of employment gets £14 per week on top of the basic state pension.

Under the state second pension that sum will rise to £54 per week — £40 per week extra for that low earner. No one can say that this is not a substantial improvement on the present position. It is right to say that the state second pension will take a long time to mature as pensions, by their very nature, take some years to build up. However, because of the way in which the state second pension is structured, people will begin to see improvements very shortly after it is introduced — probably in 2002. Many will see a substantial difference in the amount of pension that they will receive as a result of these changes. For example, by 2025 a couple, one of whom is on low earnings while the other spends half of his or her time caring, will get £30 more because of the operation of the state second pension.

While the introduction of the state second pension will have the greatest benefit for low earners — someone on £6,000 per year will be £40 per week better off — even someone on £15,000 a year will be £17 per week better off. It will take 14 years for that person’s income to fall to the level of the minimum income guarantee. Any fair-minded person looking at the system will see that the state second pension is infinitely better than the present system because it will allow people on low earnings, carers and disabled people to build up substantial pensions. That would not otherwise be the case.

This system is not complex. It recognises that people earning less than about £9,500 per year will never earn enough to go into a funded pension of their own. The state second pension also gives disabled people and carers a pension that they would not otherwise get. This is a substantial improvement.

The extra help which these groups need will be provided by reforming SERPS through the introduction of the state second pension. The extra help will be provided by changing the way in which the additional pension is calculated.

First, everyone earning above the lower earning limit but less than £9,500 in any year will be treated, for the purpose of calculating their additional pension, as if they had earned £9,500 in that year. Secondly, the rate at which the additional pension accrues on this figure of £9,500 will double to 40%. This higher accrual rate will apply to earnings of up to £9,500 for all earners. To ensure that the extra help is targeted towards those on lower earnings, the extra benefits of the state second pension will taper away on earnings between £9,500 and £21,600. Those earning more than £21,600 will receive exactly what they do now under SERPS. Low earners — those earning under £9,500 — gain the most. Someone earning £6,000 will see his additional pension go up by 400%. Moderate earners gain on a sliding scale. The position of high earners is unchanged.

For the first time, carers and the long-term disabled with broken work records will receive help to build an additional pension. The state second pension will treat them as if they had earned £9,500 in each relevant year, giving about £1 per week in extra pension for each qualifying year.

The second stage of the state second pension will be a flat-rate scheme. It will be introduced once stakeholder pensions have become established, and it will only apply to those who have a significant part of their working life remaining. In stage two, everyone will be treated as if they had earned £9,500. This will provide a strong incentive for moderate and higher earners to contract out, as rebates will remain earnings-related. This is a further step in encouraging those able to do so to provide for their retirement.

The Bill also reforms the rules governing occupational and personal pensions to encourage employers to provide access to pension schemes for their employees. It extends the jurisdiction of the Pensions Ombudsman to allow him to investigate disputes between trustees of schemes. It also extends the role of the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority in relation to the winding-up of schemes and allows it to make its register of disqualified trustees available to the public for scrutiny. It provides for combined pension forecasts, to allow everyone the opportunity to get a better idea of the pension rights they have earned from both the state scheme and their private pensions.

The Bill makes a number of technical pension amendments — for example, to facilitate the calculation of transfer values for sharing SERPS on divorce. Part III deals with a number of social security matters, including sanctions for people who fail to comply with the terms of a community sentence imposed by a court (a probation order, a community service order or a combination order); the alignment of inspectors’ powers across the benefit system and child support; and the extension of the decision- making and appeals arrangements introduced last year for other social security benefits and child support to housing benefit and discretionary housing payments.

I shall deal first with the sanctions for those who fail to comply with the terms of a community sentence. Failure to comply with these terms demonstrates an offender’s unwillingness to make reparation for the offences committed, yet many of these offenders continue to claim benefits from the state as a right. The rest of society has to pick up the bill for those benefits. The provisions in the Bill will change the conditions for receiving benefits by linking benefit payment to compliance with community sentences. The courts and the probation service will warn offenders at the outset that they will lose benefit if they do not comply. Offenders will be warned after one unacceptable failure to attend. This will send a clear message to offenders that rights have to be matched by responsibilities. There will be no sanction imposed if those responsibilities are taken seriously and offenders comply with the terms of their sentence.

The corresponding provisions of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 will be piloted in several areas in England and Wales. These pilots will be fully evaluated before they are implemented in Great Britain. Although I do not intend to run a similar pilot exercise in Northern Ireland, I can assure Members that the Northern Ireland provisions will only be implemented at the same time as the corresponding provisions are applied fully throughout Great Britain.

At the moment there are piecemeal provisions to deal with the appointment of inspectors and their powers. The provisions in the Bill set out clearly the purposes for which the powers can be used and contain safeguards to prevent their abuse. The categories of people from whom information can be obtained are extended to take account of modern commercial practices, such as people who are self-employed or employed on a franchise basis. This extension allows for closer working between the Social Security Agency and the Housing Executive.

The measures in the Bill which relate to decision- making and appeals for housing benefit will bring procedures for that benefit into line with the procedures introduced last year in relation to child support and all other social security benefits. Clearly defined procedures are provided for changing decisions on housing benefit entitlement, and they place greater emphasis on claimants’ responsibilities for exercising their rights promptly and ensuring that information held about their claims is correct.

These provisions will also bring housing benefit into the mainstream appeals system. There will be a right of appeal to an appeals tribunal, administered by the Appeals Service, against the decision of a relevant authority and a further right of appeal on a point of law to a social security commissioner. Housing benefits review boards, whose decisions can only be challenged by judicial review, will be abolished.

The Bill also provides a power for the Housing Executive to make discretionary housing payments to provide people who are entitled to housing benefit with additional financial assistance with housing costs. These payments are designed to help alleviate exceptional hardship when housing costs are above those met by housing benefit. They will not be part of housing benefit and will be paid in addition to any housing benefit entitlement. However, they will be cash limited so the overall financial constraint must be a factor in the decision of the Housing Executive in any individual case. The conditions and circumstances in which these payments may be considered will be set out in regulations.

The Bill is an important step in the ongoing process of welfare reform, which has as its guiding principle "work for those who can, security for those who cannot". Child support will be reformed so that it will deal fairly with parents and, above all, with children. The pensions reforms will be aimed at the low-paid, carers and long-term disabled people with broken work records, and the provisions dealing with benefit sanctions will be fair to people who meet their responsibilities and equally tough on those who are not prepared to do so. The Bill provides an opportunity to build a fair society.

The Chairperson of the Social Development Committee (Mr Cobain):

As Chairperson of the Social Development Committee I welcome this Bill and the long-overdue reforms it brings to the child support system. I also welcome the Bill’s introduction of the second stage of pension reforms, which will help low-paid earners, carers and long-term disabled people with broken work records. For the first time these people will receive help to build an additional pension. I welcome the Bill’s strengthening of the link between the benefits people get and their responsibilities to society.

The first part of this Bill brings in much needed reform of the current child support system. The failure of the present system, with its ludicrously complex formulae, is well known and has been very widely reported. In June of this year I visited the Child Support Agency to see the problems it faces in trying to cope with the current system. Because of the complexities, it can take months before a decision is made on someone’s child support.

11.00 am

This is a scandalous situation, particularly in this day and age when we are dealing with people who are already on the margins of society. It is a totally unacceptable position. Clearly there are problems with a system that operates in such a fashion, and there is a need to sort this out once and for all. We are dealing with a situation in which a Government agency is trying to administer a formula so complex that many of its own staff have difficulty in getting to grips with its mechanics. What chance have ordinary people to understand the complexities of such a system?

Parents with care needs go for months without receiving any maintenance. Non-resident parents are often faced with large unanticipated debt. Not surprisingly, the result is that we have a system that is totally and utterly failing one of the most vulnerable groups in society — our children.

While I fully agree that it is the responsibility of both parents to support children whether they live together or not, nonetheless there is a responsibility on each of us in the Assembly to make sure that an efficient, practical system of child support exists. We must therefore use every means at our disposal and make every effort to provide a more secure, stable future for our children. For that reason I support this Bill.

I welcome the Bill’s introduction of a much simpler assessment system, making it easier for parents to understand and for the Child Support Agency to administer. I also welcome the introduction of a flat rate percentage liability as a means of simplifying an otherwise complex, scandalous and laborious assessment procedure. I have no doubt that this new system will make it easier for parents to understand and know precisely the amount of maintenance they can expect to pay or receive. I am looking forward to seeing assessments being made in a matter of days rather than the ludicrous number of months they take now.

Another aspect of the current child support system, which greatly concerns the Committee and me, is that families on benefit get absolutely no help from the payment of maintenance. This is a scarcely unbelievable and totally unacceptable. It is my understanding that almost 70% of the Northern Ireland live load are income support cases. This is directly hitting the people who are most in need of help. People who are already facing difficulties do not need to be further burdened by a system that promises to deliver a fair and more efficient means of child maintenance. The reality is that it delivers no such practical help, and it is these people we must try to help. If the system is to be changed it must be changed to provide as much assistance as possible to these people. The Committee and I therefore welcome the introduction of a child maintenance premium, which will mean that parents with care needs on income support will see real and practical benefits from this new system.

While I welcome this Child Support, Pensions and Society Security Bill, I am also concerned that the Social Development Committee will not be given its due place and the opportunity to scrutinise in depth the mechanics of the Bill. I do accept that this legislation will simplify the benefits system in relation to pensions and social security as well as child support, but I still have grave concerns about its accelerated passage. I fully understand the need to maintain parity between social security systems in Northern Ireland and Great Britain — not only in legislation, but also in timing and implementation — and I strongly advocate that this be an exception rather than the rule. I also advocate that the Social Development Committee — and any other Statutory Committee of the Assembly for that matter — be given its rightful place in scrutinising in detail legislation that will have a direct impact on the people whom we represent.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of this Bill. The main issue for me concerns pensioners. Because of the annual increase in prices and because pensions are not kept in line with the annual wage increases, many pensioners find themselves caught in the poverty trap with their incomes being continuously eroded. They are, in fact, experiencing a reduction in the real buying power of their pensions.

Many pensioners lose out on the minimum income guarantee because they receive an occupational pension, which is a disincentive to save — those who have saved for their old age find they gain nothing from extra pension income. The Government’s publicity campaign for the minimum income guarantee resulted in 5,000 claims being initiated this year. Of that number, 4,000 claim forms were returned of which 50% were successful, with the average payment awarded being £23·50 per week. This campaign was successful in some respects, but it should be ongoing. There should be a mechanism in place whereby when people are contacted prior to retirement with a pension forecast, all aspects of their circumstances are taken into account including the minimum income guarantee, so that they can get an overall picture of their personal needs. An accurate assessment could then be made and advice given on all the benefits to which they may be entitled. This should be done automatically.

The Social Security Agency should look at ways of improving its service to pensioners at a local level. There should be an earnings disregard for those on occupational pensions similar to the disregard for people on income support where the first £15 of earnings is disregarded before the benefit entitlement is affected. There should be an increase in tax allowance for pensioners with occupational pensions. The pensioner credit is due to be in place by 2003. This means that when people apply for their retirement pension assessment, the minimum income guarantee will be assessed at the same time, but this will not alleviate many of the problems with which pensioners are faced and the poverty that they find themselves in now.

I commend the proposal for a state second pension in the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, which will make provision for an additional pension for carers, the long-term disabled and people on a low income. This legislation makes pension provision for a section of the community which has been ignored for a very long time. There will be particular benefits for women as these are the people who have given up their employment prospects to care for an elderly or disabled relative. For a long time they were disenfranchised because they did not have the necessary national insurance contributions to enable them to claim a pension and had to apply for social security benefit as their source of income.

There is an initiative in Britain called Better Government for Older People in which there is a cross- agency approach to retirement, to which pensioners have some input. There are eight pilot areas in England at present, and I ask the Minister to consider a similar approach here as it would be of benefit to pensioners in Northern Ireland.

I turn to the proposed changes to child support which mean that there will be a similar method of assessing an absent parent’s income. It will be a percentage of the net income, and the amount will depend on the number of dependent children and whether the absent parent has a second family. This should help to reduce the unacceptable delays, which have already been mentioned, in assessing claims for maintenance. I know of parents with care who have had to wait up to a year before their cases were properly assessed, and in that time these families have had to rely on benefits to make ends meet. This is totally unacceptable. Children have to be fed and clothed, and they cannot wait for six or 12 months. None of us can. The parent with care should not have to wait for a long period before the maintenance payments start. The Bill states that more resources for the Child Support Agency will be devoted to ensuring that maintenance is paid and is paid on time. I would like to see a proper level of enforcement to make sure that absent parents make their payments on time. This would reduce the hardship for their families.

For those families dependent on benefits such as income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance who previously did not benefit from contributions from the absent parents, the introduction of child maintenance payments will mean that they will gain an extra £10 per week on top of their benefit. I commend this support. It is long overdue and will alleviate some of the hardship caused, in particular, to single parent families.

Finally, I ask the Minister to review the delivery and management of all benefits for which his Department is responsible to ensure that those who have not been claiming benefits to which they are entitled have better access to those benefits in the future. This will help take them out of the poverty trap that many of them find themselves in.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I welcome the speech made by my hon Friend and also the legislation before the House. I congratulate the Minister on escaping the wrath of Mr Cobain, who was ordered by his party Leader to "have a go" at Mr Morrow during the party conference. If this is what was meant by "having a go" at someone, it is, to quote a prominent politician, "like being savaged by a dead sheep".

I particularly welcome the reconsideration of how the Child Support Agency operates. Those of us who have been in politics for many years have never found an agency more inclined to act like the Gestapo than to help people.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not know if your wife opens your letters or you hers, but one of my constituents was opening her husband’s letters one day, as was usual, when she was met with an accusation from the Child Support Agency that her spouse was responsible for a child. You can guess how this affected the woman — it almost caused her to have a terrible nervous breakdown. When her husband contacted me I spoke to the agency bosses, from whom I had a terrible time extracting an apology. It was only after the man was able to prove that the child had nothing to do with him, that he was the wrong man altogether, that they got an apology. But this happened over the course of a month, during which time the woman and her family went through a veritable hell.

I am therefore glad that, at long last, it will be possible to have these matters resolved in an amicable way and without the high-handed tactics employed by the agency, and I could give the House more illustrations of this problem.

We would all like to see more done for those in need, and particularly for the senior citizens, in support of whom I hope action will soon be taken. This particular legislation is a definite step forward. I sympathise with Ms Lewsley who called earlier for an inquiry into how benefits are paid. There is room for an overhaul of pension payment methods and for more effort to be made to contact those entitled to payment. Some people in Northern Ireland still do not want support from the state and they need to have the benefits system explained. Money is set aside for those in need, and claimants are therefore merely receiving the benefits they deserve. I would welcome an investigation into this matter by the Minister. This may require a very expensive inquiry which will diminish the amount of money that he has in his pocket, but this is an issue to which we must pay attention and apply ourselves.

I welcome the proposals. I hope that they will be put into effect as quickly as possible, and I hope that the priority will be to make money available to people with maximum speed. If we do this, the proposed legislation that we are discussing today will be very beneficial.

11.15 am

Ms Ramsey:

Go raibh maith agat, Mr Deputy Speaker. Ms Lewsley and Dr Paisley have pointed out that the Bill is a complex piece of legislation. I want to touch on something that the Chairperson of the Social Development Committee mentioned earlier: we need to recognise that, because of its accelerated passage, the Committee will not get a chance to consider the Bill in detail. The Minister dealt with that last week during the accelerated passage motion. Though I want to give the Bill a guarded welcome as well, this point needs to be noted.

I also welcome the Minister’s statement about the child support section of the Bill. I agree that the present system is not only failing children, but failing parents too. We have all seen and read of cases where the Child Support Agency has hounded people to the extent that severe stress has been experienced and lives have been taken.

This is a complex and very confusing formula. People feel very intimidated when they are going down the road of child support. As the Minister pointed out, it takes months for applications to be processed. I welcome his commitment to cutting down the waiting time.

I have concerns about DNA testing when a father has to disprove parenthood. Will the Minister give an assurance, mainly to fathers, that any DNA sample taken will be destroyed? We are all aware that people are concerned about DNA testing and about the retention of samples. I want to be able to assure fathers that the DNA sample will be destroyed at that point.

Another concern is that the Child Support Agency has tried to change its system a number of times, and this has not worked. I shall be paying close attention to the outcome of this Bill and look forward to seeing the system simplified.

The Bill provides that non-resident parents will pay less. That will mean a loss of income for a parent who is caring for a child. We are told that the level of payments is expected to rise. Is that simply an expectation, or will the level definitely rise?

While I give a guarded welcome to the Bill, I hope that we will not find later on that the Committee should have looked more closely at its provisions. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Ford:

The Minister went through the Bill in some detail, but he more or less told us that this was the Second Stage of a parity Bill on social security and that there was not much for us to talk about. That is something which we need to be very careful about given what we mean by devolution in the Chamber. A number of Members have spoken about Part I (child support) and Part II (pensions). While I have some doubt about how a Bill of 133 pages is going to simplify the system, we have to accept the maintenance of direct parity in social security matter across the UK.

There do seem to be some improvements, although I suspect not as many as other Members have suggested this morning. Can the Minister explain how Part IV — specifically clauses 65 and 66 dealing with paternity tests — relates to the Family Reform Bill which will come before the Assembly shortly?

There is a major issue in Part III which means that we need to start to consider what parity means for us. There is no point in our having an Assembly with legislative powers if all we do is slavishly ape everything that is done in Westminster. We have to consider what the most appropriate system is for the people of Northern Ireland. It is not true that we have the same tax regime and the same social benefits across the UK. Look at local taxation. We still pay rates. Scotland, and subsequently England and Wales, had the poll tax and now they have the council tax. It is not true that we pay the same rate of VAT; we may pay the same rate, but, given the higher energy costs, our constituents pay significantly more than people across the water do. Let us not think that we are all paying the same taxes, because we are paying different taxes.

In the wider field of social benefits, major changes are already being implemented across the UK. English university students have a system of loans and tuition fees. Scotland is already seeing the benefits of the Cubie report. The Welsh partnership programme, announced last week, suggests changes similar to those included in Cubie. What do we have? We have student loans and tuition fees and possibly some change, and what do we do? We waste time in this Chamber on endless votes of confidence instead of discussing the issues that ought to concern us.

The issue of parity is a very simple one. Parity means that we pay the same income tax, corporation tax, national insurance and excise duties and receive the same mainstream social benefits. The wider fields of social benefits and taxation are different, and for that reason we should consider this Bill in detail and examine its provisions.

I particularly want to look at clauses 53 to 57, which introduce a fairly squalid set of changes to benefit regulations. These are the provisions for what is elegantly termed the "loss of benefit for breach of a community order". There is no evidence that these provisions would benefit anyone. Offenders who are on a minimum living income would have that income reduced. This is an attack on claimants in general. If people are going to breach community orders, probation orders, community service orders and so forth, we need sanctions, but the provisions here are illiberal. For some Members the word "illiberal" does not necessarily mean that something is bad. These provisions are totally counter- productive. What happens to the young lad who is on probation because he broke into a house down the street and stole an old lady’s handbag? He loses his benefits, so he goes into the next street and steals another old lady’s handbag. We need to give this issue serious consideration.

The Minister said, and the notes say, that these provisions will not be introduced until the results of pilot schemes in England and Wales are known. They should not stand part of our legislation until the Minister can give Members evidence that they will work. We should not simply ape Westminster.

It is a pity that there will be no formal Committee Stage. It is also a pity that Mr Cobain is not in his place to hear what I am about to say. There is a case for the Committee to examine these clauses, whether or not there is a formal Committee Stage. It would be good to hear the views of the Probation Board, the National Association of Probation Officers and others. I would be happy to give my views to the Committee: latitude is available, and we should take advantage of it.

I have not read the entire Westminster proceedings on this Bill but I have seen the part of the House of Lords Hansard where Earl Russell and Helena, Baroness Kennedy led a major attack on these provisions. It ended in compromise, which is the best we can expect from an unelected Chamber. The compromise is, I think, that in clause 53(1)(a) the words "without reasonable excuse" were inserted in the Bill. That may be the best we can get from the House of Lords, but it is totally inadequate. If Conrad Russell and Helena Kennedy are in one corner on a human-rights issue, and Jack Straw is in the other, I know where I stand, and it is certainly not with Jack Straw.

Devolution does not mean that we have to ape Westminster in every respect. We are here to work for the benefit of our constituents, to consider what is best for society in Northern Ireland and not to follow automatically things we do not need to follow automatically. We have moved on from the days when integrated Ulster Unionists could steer us all in that direction.

This a grubby and offensive change in legislation. It is an example of New Labour in its worst Poujadist mood, playing to the gallery of the cheap popular press in London. Having accepted accelerated passage, we have no choice at Second Stage but to accept the principle of this Bill. However, my Colleagues and I will seek to amend it at Consideration Stage.

Ms McWilliams:

I am also alarmed that the Committee allowed this accelerated passage. There are major issues in this Bill, and, while I welcome some of its provisions, David Ford is correct in raising concerns at this stage. It would have taken only one Member to stop accelerated passage, and it was indeed unfortunate that those of us who are concerned were not in the Chamber to raise our voices at the time. However, the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee should have demanded that the Bill go through their Committee, for there are huge concerns about the human rights implications of the current proposals.

Clause 16, which suggests the removal of driving licences for failure to comply with child support maintenance, is extremely prohibitive. I note that the Minister suggests that this may take some time to process. I should, however, like to tell Members of my experience of what happens with child support.

Women in Northern Ireland do not separate from their partners lightly. However, often as a result of extensive abuse and violence against them and their children, they may finally come to the conclusion that it is time to leave their partners. In doing so in the past they would automatically have been entitled to income support. However, it is now the case that they must name their partners and, when pressed to do so, women become very frightened. When they have named those people some of them have had even more violence visited upon them.

I welcome the fact that the onus will be on the Department to track down the parent who should be maintaining a child or children but refuses to do so. If the Department will be taking on that responsibility — as it is increasingly recognised it should — we should welcome that, for it will lessen the other parent’s fear. However, if this individual’s driving licence is removed, I have no doubt that he will blame the partner — most likely the person with whom he cohabited— for having sought support for the children. I am extremely concerned that women may be placed in even greater danger as a result of this.

My second concern is that removing an individual’s driving licence is extremely punitive; there must be other ways in which an absent parent can be made to take responsibility. He may lose his job as a consequence of having lost his driving licence, and if that happens, he will be less likely to be able to pay the support and more likely to end up on state benefits. I cannot for the life of me believe that no one thought that through in the first place. To lose one’s job has human rights’ implications, for the ability to work must be such a right. Many of us would not be able to work if we did not have our driving licences.

This is a huge concern, and I never thought that I would see the day when new Labour would introduce such a proposal. Indeed, this sounds more like a proposal that the most right-wing element of the Conservative Party would introduce to emulate the methods used to seek absent parents in the United States. The fact that this is part of draft legislation and that Members allowed it accelerated passage is of huge concern to me.

I welcome clause 21, which extends our jurisdiction in respect of those from whom we seek support. We know from the statistics that over 10% of those pursued are women, but the vast majority are male. In cases where the father leaves the country, it is very difficult to pursue him, and I am glad that the authorities will be able to do so if he is employed by a company registered under the Companies (Northern Ireland) Order 1986.

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I also welcome the variation orders, but I am not convinced that that will make the system simpler. I remember a cartoon where Andy Capp was saying something to Flo — actually, given the distribution of income within that household, it was probably poor old Flo who was saying it to Andy Capp: "First of all they told me I was deprived, then they told me I was underprivileged, then they told me I was disadvantaged. Now they tell me I am in need of income support and child support. I still do not have a dime, but I have one great vocabulary." That is exactly what we have done. We have simply addressed the language, the terminology, and, perhaps, a little bit of the complexity. It is still an extremely complex and time-consuming system. Having helped constituents pursue this, I know that from experience.

A better way to go about getting child support is through the clause that speaks of a child maintenance premium. The disadvantage in the past was that those who were entitled to support did not get it, because if they were originally on benefits it made no difference to them. As Patricia Lewsley pointed out, the fact that they now are entitled to a premium of £10 is a much better way of introducing proposals that increase incentives rather than threatening huge penalties.

I also welcome the pension reform proposals. For many years, we have campaigned for the low paid, the carers — predominantly women — and the long-term disabled, who were extremely disadvantaged by our pension system. The sharing of benefits under the state earnings related pension scheme (SERPS) is also to be welcomed. I note that that will be introduced in December 2000, while some of the other proposals will not be implemented for four to five years. This one will be introduced rather rapidly and will allow for the pension sharing of SERPS, in particular after divorce or annulment. That is something that women, who have suffered greatly through divorce, will be pleased to see.

I also welcome some of the proposals in Part III on social security, but I am extremely concerned about clauses 53 and 54, which remove benefits from those who breach orders, particularly community service orders and probation orders. I cannot believe that we are suggesting putting an increased onus on the very stressed and predominantly under-staffed probation service. We are asking it now to tell clients on probation who breach orders that they will no longer be entitled to benefits.

I see in the explanatory notes that it may not be all of their benefits — it may be part of their benefits, and it may be time-limited. Nonetheless, what advantage is this, as David Ford rightly pointed out? You take someone who is on benefits who has breached an order and make him destitute and homeless. I predict that undoubtedly anti-social behaviour will be the only outcome of that proposal. It is not sensible to suggest that someone who is on benefits should have those benefits partly removed.

I note that they are arguing that the jobseeker’s allowance and the joint claims can be addressed. I have enormous concerns, and I hope they are addressed. I ask the Minister to reassure me that if a person who breaks or breaches an order is married and has children, those children and his partner will not be made worse off as a consequence of his being denied part or all of his benefits.

Mr Ervine:

Does the Member see any potentially divisive issues between parents when liabilities are reduced on the basis of increased access?

Ms McWilliams:

Can the Member explain that?

Mr Ervine:

My understanding is that if a parent accepts children for a large number of overnight stays, his liability is decreased. That suggests to me that there is a financial measurement of access.

Ms Mc Williams:

This is a difficult issue at the moment. I am currently dealing with a case in respect of one of my constituents who is in receipt of child benefit. There are, however, enormous difficulties between the two parents, because the partner has access to the child and may have a residence order. One of the parents — the one who gets the child benefit — is arguing that she is the main custodial parent. There are huge disputes over that. This legislation will undoubtedly increase that type of dispute. I hope it does not. I would like to think that it will make matters simpler.

Undoubtedly the Member is referring to the child support part of those provisions as opposed to the social security part. I was commenting on the fact that a criminal offence — which a breach of an order is — will automatically lead to social security benefits being stopped, yet people have rights in terms of income. There are enormous difficulties with that.

The Minister tells us that this scheme will be piloted in seven areas of England and Wales. I suggest to him that it might have been better to carry out the pilot exercises first, and once these had been completed, monitored and evaluated, proposals for legislation could have been introduced. The Minister has no idea whether this will work. This is the first time I have come across a situation where it has been suggested that something be piloted, after it is included in legislation. My experience of social policy tells me that you normally carry out a study, do the research based on the findings and recommendations of the study and then introduce proposals for policy or law.

The Government have jumped the gun. They say they will wait until the evaluation comes out, but why are they saying that on the one hand, while on the other making the proposals here before the pilot exercises have been completed? Baroness Hollis at Westminster hopes that after those pilot exercises are completed, Northern Ireland will simply follow suit. I simply hope that Northern Ireland will do no such thing.

Finally, had this gone to the Committee stage we might have heard from the Northern Ireland Social Security Advisory Committee, one of whose members sits on the UK Social Security Advisory Committee. I have no doubt that Prof Eithne McLaughlin would have had something very serious to say about the consequences of this scheme for Northern Ireland.

Mr ONeill:

So far as child support is concerned, the Minister is quite right to describe the present system as being made up of a set of hugely complex formulas. It has created great difficulties for all involved, and not least for the staff of the Department, who have had to spend their time working in areas which were obscure and difficult to follow, and which led to a great degree of job dissatisfaction and resentment. There is no one keener than the Department to see improvements and reforms in the system. I have no doubt that what is being suggested will help. However, I am not certain, just like Ms McWilliams, whether it will make the impact that we would all like to see. A number of areas remain cause for concern. We will watch the situation and monitor it as it develops.

There is the issue of assessment, in particular. We need to ask the Minister for an assurance that the Department will take a sympathetic and sensible approach to the areas of assessment where difficulties arise as well as others that have already been so ably pointed out about driving licence removal, et cetera.

I urge the Minister and his Department to be cautious in respect of people who are on irregular or seasonal incomes and whose net income is assessed. During those periods when they are at their lowest income level, they may be unable to meet their hire purchase or mortgage obligations. Because the outworkings of the system are done on a net basis, these people may be disadvantaged and could be in grave difficulty. I ask the Minister, particularly on this issue, to assure us that some sympathy and sense will be employed in the outworkings of the system to ensure that such people are not disadvantaged. I am unclear about how this could be done, but there needs to be a sympathetic approach. I have some experience in this area, particularly with parents who are willing to pay and work with the system but who, because of their income irregularities, cannot do so at certain times without impinging on their established commitments.

Many comments were made about accelerated passage. All of us, including myself — a member of the Committee — share the concerns that were voiced. There are many different aspects to this package; some parts of it are very good and some are urgent and need to be implemented immediately. We are torn, however, between the need to implement changes for the benefit of those affected and the need to be cautious and to examine the details that have caused concern here today.

Can the Minister give us an assurance that the Department, at least here in Northern Ireland, will ensure that any information that goes out to the public — to the people on the ground — is presented in an understandable manner. That could be applied to all his Department’s activities, but it is particularly important in respect of information on this topic. Plain English is a major requirement here. Even the explanatory notes outlining these changes are difficult to read; I guarantee that any Member would have to read some sections three or four times just to begin to make sense of them. What about the people on the ground? What are they going to think of such convoluted language? Please let there be some common sense here; please produce information that people can understand.

I also welcome the proposals in the Bill for the creation of an appeals system for housing benefit. This is to be greatly welcomed, because the previous system was totally inappropriate and unacceptable. One issue that we have been concerned about for some time is to do with instances where a magistrate is appointed as chairmen of an appeal board. This goes across the Department. Is there not a conflict of interest between being a chairman of an appeal board and later serving in a court of law when the same applicant may appear before him? The Department should ensure that this does not occur in order to protect all concerned — including the magistrate.

I also welcome the reforms to the structure of the pension scheme. I hope that when the outworkings for these are produced, people will find them easy to follow, easy to understand and of benefit.

Mr M Robinson:

This most detailed and comprehensive statement in respect of future child support in the Province is very welcome. The assessment of child support, according to the Prime Minister, is

"one of the most complicated operations within the broad field of social security."

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That assessment could have involved over 100 pieces of information, leading to long, wearisome and often non-productive lines of inquiry. We are very quickly into one of the most feared, indeed hated, monsters of the 1990s that signally fails to provide maintenance for, or on behalf of, many children. A simplified method of calculation to replace this sprawling monster is to be welcomed.

The lack of enthusiasm for the machinations of the CSA can be traced back to its first year of operation. Fifteen million pounds was paid for children via the CSA in 1993/94, but £200 million had been paid through the previous system in 1992/93. The introduction of the CSA produced frightened, apprehensive mothers and angry, fearful fathers and caused 70% of lone mothers to strive to avoid making child support applications. The result was ever increasing child poverty - with over three million children in the United Kingdom living in poverty and with over 50% living in one-parent families.

It is incumbent upon the Assembly to give this matter the priority it deserves. It is reasonable to expect that this new Bill will create a fairer system. It will certainly be simpler to understand, but will it deliver? Can the CSA be revolutionised, and can the position of 90% assessment, 10% collection be changed? Will we have a situation in which there is fair, simple, reliable child support for all and not just for 40%, as at present?

Will the remodelled CSA have the means at its disposal to ensure that parents face their responsibilities for the complete care of their children? We do not just want a re-shake of the moneys involved. Will the red tape and bureaucracy be reduced when we contemplate the recalculation that has to be done? Any such reduction has to be welcomed.

Finally, there is perhaps a question concerning the feasibility of collecting the £5 payment from non-resident parents on low incomes.

Mr Shannon:

This issue has previously been before the Assembly. It is quite timely to reconsider this issue given the amount of correspondence I have received in my constituency office. We have to find a balance between parental accountability and making the system simpler so that people do not feel crucified by it. Many of my constituents wish to contribute to their partners and children but are being crucified by the CSA. It is vital and, indeed, right that a father should support his children, and I have found great frustration within the system when there has not been enough power to make fathers more accountable. Is it simpler to make a parent pay towards his children's upbringing if he continually moves address, or if his job is of a nature that makes it hard to find him?

I disagree with Ms McWilliams's comment about disqualifying people from driving because that is one of the areas where the system has fallen down. I agree with and welcome the commitment because having that driving licence option at least will ensure that a parent is more accountable. I have seen cases where people have been taxi drivers and the CSA could not locate them. We have to have a system to make such people accountable.

Ms McWilliams:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Shannon:

I will give way in a second. The Bill provides that if, but only if, a court is of the opinion that there has been wilful refusal or culpable negligence on the part of the liable person, then, and only then, will he lose his licence.

Ms McWilliams:

If the taxi driver to whom the Member referred loses his licence how will he earn an incomeWill he not just go from being self-employed to being dependent on the state?


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