Welfare Reform Bill: 1st February 2012

Mr Byrne
As I have rehearsed this afternoon, we simply think that a “one cap fits all” approach is not going to work. The Minister has had to put his hand in his pocket and spend a fortune to fix the problem. He tells us that the Work programme is working well, but the rate at which people are flowing off benefits and into work speaks for itself. It is at its lowest point since 1998. That tells us, I am afraid, that the back-to-work programmes are simply not going to work.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
The right hon. Gentleman says that some people will have to move home. Why does he think that that is unacceptable for the long-term unemployed? Every day, people’s circumstances change. They might lose their job, their marriage or their relationship, and those circumstances mean that they have to move home. Why should the long-term—often third generation—unemployed be exempt from the real world that so many people live in?

Mr Byrne
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point with such force. No one is against people having to move home or to lower-cost areas of accommodation. What people are worried about is 21,000 families being made homeless, local councils having to pick up the bill for that, and that bill having to be paid for by council tax payers such as hers. What conversations has she had with her constituents about how much their council tax bill is going to go up because there is a new bill for homelessness to pay?

Anna Soubry
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, following conversations with my constituents in Broxtowe, that hard-working people overwhelmingly take the view that the long-term unemployed should no longer be better off on benefit than in work. That is not only for the sake of the public purse; it is a result of the compassion that we feel—[Laughter.] Hon. Members should not laugh; they should know better. In the real world, some of the people I used to represent as a criminal barrister were third-generation unemployed. It is for their sake and that of their children that they should be back in work, and that is what these measures have at their heart.
 
Mr Byrne
They should be back in work, which is why we are so angry that unemployment is set to rise, rise and rise again over the course of this year.

Anna Soubry
Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs McGuire
No, I do not want to take up as much time as the Minister. I shall move on to the Child Support Agency—

Anna Soubry
Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs McGuire
I have made it perfectly clear that I am not giving way: I am moving on to the subject of the CSA.

The Government should never have brought forward this proposal, although I welcome the Minister’s statement today that they have reduced the fee. Why they put everybody through the anxiety of putting a fee—

Anna Soubry
Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs McGuire
I have not really said anything about the CSA yet, so if the hon. Lady could just be patient—
 
Anna Soubry
rose—

Mr Speaker
Order. Let me just make it clear. It is obvious that the shadow Minister is not giving way at the moment. On the Government side, during my time in the Chair since 5.30, there was a preference—on the whole—not to give way to Opposition Members and that is now being replicated by the right hon. Lady. ​Members may make what they like of that, but there is nothing disorderly about it. It is no good people yelling from a sedentary position to express their frustrations. They must try to contain those frustrations, which I notice the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) is now successfully doing.
 
Mrs McGuire
Thank you for your wise words, Mr Speaker.

We welcome the reduction that the Minister announced today, and for the record, we welcomed in the other place the additional funding of £20 million that was going to be put in to encourage—

Anna Soubry
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you help me? If a Member asks a question of the whole House, how does one respond to that question other than by asking that Member to give way?
 
Mr Speaker
The hon. Lady is asking me to speculate about a hypothetical. We could probably have a seminar about the matter, and it might be instructive. There could be a time for that, but it is not now. I feel sure that the hon. Lady has raised not a point of order, but a point of disappointment.

Mrs McGuire
I always hate to disappoint Tories, Mr Speaker.

The Minister mentioned some concessions, but it remains an unfair imposition on parents with caring responsibilities to make them pay a fee to obtain, in her words, a calculation of what they may be entitled to. The Government are always keen to say that people should do the right thing, but what happens when they try to do the right thing and adopt a collaborative approach? Frankly, all the evidence shows that a collaborative approach is often the last thing that people can get when a marriage breaks down—all sorts of issues to do with personalities, emotions and children being part of the bartering process between two parents make that almost impossible.

The Minister was a bit dismissive of some of her colleagues in the House of Lords. I want to come back to them in a moment. If the Minister gets the opportunity to wind up, will she tell the House where the Government got the figure of £25,000 from? That, apparently, is the cost to the taxpayer of each case. I cannot find the source for that figure. If we divide 1,142,600 cases into £450 million, which is how much it costs to run the CSA, we get an annual cost of £393.90. So where on earth does the £25,000 figure come from? I would be interested to know.

Members of the House of Lords did not just object to the amount of money to be paid; they objected on the basis of the principle that if a parent with caring responsibilities was entitled to maintenance for the children or child whom they looked after, they should get that support. An array of Conservative Members of the House of Lords have asked the Government to change their mind: Lord Carrington, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, Lord Howe of Aberavon, Lord Jenkin, Lord Lawson of Blaby, Lord MacGregor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, ​Lord Mawhinney, Lord Mayhew, Lord Newton and Lord Wakeham. I remember the ’80s, and I do not think that any of these people were fully paid up members of the liberal tendency. Yet they have all asked the Government to change their mind on the point of principle. I hope, then, that we get something more than what we heard from the Minister tonight. This is a ridiculous provision that, frankly, should not have been in the Bill in the first place.

Now we come to disabled children. This is the cut that even the Prime Minister did not want to admit to. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) again asked about it today, and again the Prime Minister refused to recognise the reality. I particularly congratulate the Lords on dealing with this issue and not running away from it, because it would have been easy for them to put this matter to one side after they were defeated by two votes on 12 December. But they did not. They returned to it last night and voted to challenge the Government on the cuts to the disabled children allowance.

The Minister has been clever with her statistics but according to Every Disabled Child Matters, the loss under the new system could amount to as much as £22,000 during the childhood of a disabled child and will cost the parents of a disabled child nearly £1,400 a year, and approximately 170,000 families will have this benefit frozen from 2013. I admit that there are transitional arrangements, but I have never come across a piece of legislation with so much sticking tape—there are reviews here and transitional arrangements there. This is not a strategy; it is a dog’s mess.

Every Disabled Child Matters estimates that approximately 63% of all future disabled children will lose out as a result of this policy. The Minister is an honourable woman and has tried to be gentle with the House today by using fine words about how this will not mean one thing to children and will mean another thing, but the reality is that in order to pay the most severely disabled children an extra £1.75 a week, children who are not as disabled—I use those words advisedly—will lose their benefit. We are talking about children who, for the most part, do not have night-time care needs. Typically, they include children with Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy, and children who are profoundly deaf. In future, disabled children will not receive any benefit from the transitional arrangements; indeed, any disabled child born after 2013 will access significantly less support.

I appeal to Members, particularly Liberal Democrat Members. I hope that they will look at what their colleagues supported in the Lords. In fact, I even appeal—although not very much—to some Conservative Members to look at what their colleagues in the Lords did. This is an amendment to be supported. It is about decency, about disabled children and about the support that families who are at the hard end of looking after disabled children deserve to receive. I hope that this House supports the amendment.

I said that I would not speak as long as the Minister, but I want briefly to draw the House’s attention to Lords amendment 77. At the end of the last day on Report, the Government secured an amendment to the Bill that, on closer examination, significantly weakened obligations that had been placed on them by the previous Government’s Child Poverty Act 2010. That amendment replaces references to “progress” in the 2010 Act with ​much weaker language about “measures”. Child Poverty Action Group, among others, points out that that is, in effect, removing the duty to achieve any progress towards meeting the targets before 2020. I hope that we do not lose sight of that.

I have tried—in a shorter time than the Minister—to set out some of the issues that have been raised in recent weeks. Labour Members feel very strongly about those issues because they impact on the poorest, those who are most disadvantaged and those who have been demonised because they live in socially rented housing, and because they do not take into account the fact that children at the age of 14 or 15 might require a bit of extra room and do not all need to be decanted into a tiny box of a flat. I appeal to the Government to consider seriously what is being proposed today, and to support the Lords amendments rather than disagreeing with them.

Andrew Percy
I notice that the shadow Minister commented on how she felt the Minister had performed. I would describe her own performance as a little bit chippy, but that is not to say that she did not make a few good points. Many of us on this side of the House have had similar experiences to those on her side. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I like her a great deal, but for her to talk about Conservative Members in the way she did—to intimate that they are in some way detached from humanity—not only does her a great disservice, but does the debate in this House a great disservice. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That is not to say that the right hon. Lady did not make a good few points, which I will come on to in a moment—I notice that the “Hear, hears” have stopped on this side of the House.

I want to speak about Lords amendment 73 and then say a little something about under-occupancy. I think all of us who have dealt with the Child Support Agency know that it is a body that is not fit for purpose. The example I gave to the Minister the other day—a close family member of mine is going through this at the moment—concerns an errant partner who is being chased more aggressively, and successfully, for his parking fine than for the maintenance of his own children. It seems that the system is currently based entirely on conflict. We need to do something to address that. I agree with everything that the Minister said—and with her intention—about encouraging people to come to their own arrangements. However, I am a little concerned in that I do not necessarily think that, for a lot of people, levying a £20 charge—or any charge—against what will normally be the mother is likely to effect that change.

We have all seen cases where communication has completely broken down and where the errant parent—normally the father—is doing everything they can to avoid having to pay, particularly if they are self-employed, because the system seems to assist self-employed parents in avoiding their responsibilities. I am not sure that imposing a charge on—normally—the mother is likely to change that situation greatly or effect the cultural change that I think we all want.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Minister was unable to give us any indication of the cost of collecting the £20 charge? Is it not clear that the cost of collecting and banking it will far outweigh the moneys received? The proposal is therefore vindictive, rather than anything else.

Andrew Percy
I am quite relieved that the Minister did not give us an estimate of the costs, because most Government estimates of costs tend not to be correct anyway. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, however, and it has also been made by Members on this side of the House. I welcome what the Minister has said about the £20 charge; it proves that he has listened.

Yvonne Fovargue
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s welcome of the reduction in the charge, but does he agree that the proposed collection charges do not seem logical? It is difficult to see the logic in making a family in need of child maintenance pay the cost incurred by the non-resident parent’s resistance to paying that maintenance.

Andrew Percy
That is exactly where I am coming from on this issue; I agree with the hon. Lady.

In closing my comments on this amendment, I will quote Lord Mackay, who said in the other place:

“The motivation of the Government for these charges is said to be trying to bring people to voluntary arrangement. I am entirely in favour of that.”

I would be, too. He continued:

“But if that proves impossible, when the woman is at the stage of having nothing more that she can do, she has to pay. What does that do? If anything, it might make her not go to the Child Support Agency”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 January 2012; Vol. 734, c. 1092.]

Several hon. Members
rose—

Andrew Percy
I will not give way at the moment—

Anna Soubry
rose—

Andrew Percy
I will give way to my hon. Friend, as she was denied earlier.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is as gracious as ever. There is much merit in what he says about a woman who is on benefit chasing a father who is, frankly, not up to scratch. Although £20 is a lot of money for someone in those circumstances who is on benefit, does hon. Friend agree that, if the woman is guaranteed a system that is fit for purpose, there is merit in that small charge being excised on her because eventually she and, most importantly, her children will get what they deserve?