Tuesday, December 4, 2007

When a boring-as-dust debate conceals vital matters

"Child Maintenance and other payments Bill Report"

That was the title of the debate when I entered the public gallery of the House of Commons yesterday. Boring or what?

Except hold on a cotton picking moment. Isn't this parliament's third attempt to get right an area which has possibly involved one of the greatest volumes of personal heartache across the country - Child Maintenance?

Yes, it is indeed.

So I listened intently. You have to. You can sit there with all the bemused foreign students and visitors. It is easy for the whole lot (the debate) to fly right over the top of your head at 30,000 feet.

The debate was about rather detailed matters. Making it a crime for those providing maintenance payments to move without telling CMEC (Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission - the new body being created) their new address. Actually, fairly blinking crucial, then. Giving equal priority to debt collection in comparison to collecting routine current payments. Again, crucial.

I made a note of the names of the main speakers while I was listening: Mr Plaskitt, the minister (Warwick and Leamington). Andrew Selhous, the Tory spokesman (South West Bedfordshire).
Paul Rowen the LibDem (Rochdale). Michael Weir (Angus) (or was it Angus Weir the MP for Michael? - no, it wasn't).

Some of them talked of debts (owed to parents looking after children) of the order of £20,000-30,000 - owed for many years!

Paul Rowen talked about the need to ensure strong information and advice provision, avoid IT failings and get the staffing levels right. He said the House should have some say over CMEC's operation, hence the Liberal Democrat amendment proposed - to ensure that the operational plan of CMEC is laid before parliament and approved or not.

This amendment was defeated by 263 votes to 168 votes.

Ho hum. But I actually think that, given the extraordinary volume of anguish caused by the Child Maintenance management structures in the past, such unusual parliamentary involvement is necessary. I think a lot of people will rue the day that this measure wasn't passed.

After all, we don't want a third balls up, do we?

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