Friday, July 28, 2006

Fragile as a whole and stable nowhere

This the last House Points - my Liberal Democrat News column - until October. Already dancing in the streets has been reported as far away as Cropwell Bishop.

Fragile Times

Two subjects dominated the Commons on Monday: bringing peace to the world's trouble spots and, harder, sorting out the Child Support Agency. "The security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is stable, but fragile in places, according to Des Browne, who should have been a curate. But the CSA is fragile as a whole and stable nowhere.

The figures are shocking. Fewer than half the children whose interests the CSA looked after got any payments. Some £3bn is owed but will never be recovered. There is a backlog of 300,000 cases. Half a billion pounds has been wasted on attempts to reform the agency.

Why did it go so wrong? A clue came in the contribution of Alistair Burt, the minister in charge of the CSA back in the 1990s: "One of the reasons we are in the mess we are in is that the House was far too consensual during the passage of the legislation.

Exactly right. One of the few certainties in politics is that if people of goodwill in all parties unite to support a piece of legislation... it will turn out to be a disaster. And what John Hutton, the present minister, proposed sounded dangerously like son of CSA.

Is there a better way? We live in a society where it takes two full-time incomes to run a comfortable household. In such circumstances it is hard to see how divorce can be anything other than financially ruinous for all concerned.

Back to defence. Because it takes time to get a question accepted and answered, Monday was one of those days when the order paper does not reflect what is on everyone's mind. MPs asked about Iraq and Afghanistan, but their thoughts were with the Lebanon.

The past fortnight has been a humiliation for Britain, making it clear that under Labour we no longer have a foreign policy of our own. As John Hemming has said, essentially there is not a Rizla paper between the policy of the US government, the UK government and the Israeli government.

All the polls show that the Liberal Democrats speak for the majority of the British people in opposing this shameful state of affairs. We must go on doing so.

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