Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr Lilley:  I support my hon. Friend the Minister on the issue of the Child Support Agency, but I want to make a brief observation on the housing benefit issue. My constituency might be wholly different from those of the Members who have spoke so far, but the overwhelming majority of the cases I deal with at my surgery involve people who want additional rooms because they have growing families or families who are becoming older. If this charge causes some people to want to downsize, that will help to strike a balance, but at present I do not encounter people who want to downsize.

    Several hon. Members

    Mr Lilley: Members will have an opportunity to make their points later in the debate. I am merely saying that in my constituency-

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    Mr Watts: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

    Mr Lilley: I will.

    Mr Watts: I am grateful.

    How are people supposed to downsize when such properties do not exist? Is it not a disgrace that the House is legislating to ask people to do something that they cannot do?

    Mr Lilley: What I am saying is that in my constituency I encounter people who have no spare room but want one, not people who have a spare room and want to give it up. The situation may be different in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

    Let me now move on the point that I really want to make, which relates to the Lords amendment dealing with Child Support Agency charges. I am reluctant to discuss the Child Support Agency, as I was the hapless Secretary of State who had to introduce it after it was legislated for by my predecessor. Discretion being the better part of valour, I always delegated the matter to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), whose emollient manner proved the text in Proverbs that a soft answer turneth away wrath. I kept as distant from it as I could.

    Mr Nuttall: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

    Mr Lilley: I will not, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

    I am also reluctant to take issue with the Lords unnecessarily. When I was Secretary of State for Social Security, I found that from time to time the Lords would propose amendments to legislation that I had introduced. At first I was shocked that anyone could think that my legislation could be improved in any way, but when I listened to what was said by the Lords in general and the bishops in particular, I usually found that it contained an element of truth. There was something worth listening to, even if I could not take on board everything that they proposed. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to them, has modified the charging structure, and has taken their points on board. However, she is probably right not to adopt the whole principle of what the other place suggests.

    I am not entirely persuaded of the Lords’ case, because I think that it is right in principle to charge for a costly service, and it is right that the people who principally benefit from it should pay an element of it in the form of a charge, rather than our leaving the entire cost to the other party or the taxpayer. It is right in principle, too, that wherever possible we encourage voluntary agreements, rather than reliance on state-funded bureaucracy, because voluntary agreements, where possible, are better, and because that reduces the load on an over-extended bureaucracy that has never been able to cope with the load that it has; it is better that it focuses on the most obdurate cases.

    It is right in principle to charge both parents, as it is not possible, even though their lordships’ amendment implies that it is, to distinguish who is the goody and who the baddy.

    Kate Green: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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    Mr Lilley: I will let the hon. Lady make her own points in due course. We may reach our own judgments on who is right and who is wrong, but we cannot make the agency decide that. Both parents will benefit from an arrangement reached by the CSA, and it is right that it should make that arrangement.

    I noticed that there were an awful lot of lawyers on the voting lists in the House of Lords. Lawyers do not say, “We won’t charge you if you’re right; we’ll only charge you if you’re wrong. We won’t charge you if you’re the aggrieved party; we’ll only charge the other party.” They should accept that similar rules apply to charging by the CSA.

    Finally, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said, now that child support is an addition to a family’s income, rather than it simply being about getting back the taxpayers’ money-I am not sure that it was right to make that move-it is sensible that there should be a charge to the beneficiaries. On balance, I think that my hon. Friend the Minister was right to make the modest concession that she did to her lordships, but to stick to the principle; I am glad that she has done so.