HC Deb 18 July 1991 vol 195 cc531-7

`.—(1) Her Majesty may appoint inspectors, to be called child support inspectors, to monitor the exercise of the powers and duties conferred and imposed by this Act.

(2) The child support inspectors shall provide an annual report to the Secretary of State giving an account of the exercise and performance of the powers and duties conferred and imposed by this Act.

(3) The Secretary of State shall cause a copy of that report to be laid before each House of Parliament .' .—[Miss Emma Nicholson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is in three parts. First, it proposes that Her Majesty appoint child support inspectors to play a careful monitoring role over the Child Support Agency as it carries out its important tasks. Secondly, the new clause suggests that the child support inspectors should present an annual report to the Secretary of State, giving an account of the exercise and performance of the powers and duties conferred. Thirdly, it suggests that the Secretary of State, in turn, should inform Parliament by placing a copy of that report before the House.

The Government have already listened sympathetically to the point because I discussed it on an earlier amendment in Committee. I was unable to do so fully because, owing to an over-run—an eloquency on the part of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—on the last day or the Committee proceedings, we seemed to run into injury time. I therefore sought leave to withdraw my amendment so that it could be debated more fully on the Floor of the House as I believe that it deals with an important point.

In this new era of agencies, which I heartily support, we need to look carefully at how Parliament monitors those agencies. In questions to the Leader of the House earlier today, hon. Members on both sides asked for old-fashioned mechanisms to be put in place. They are already in place to monitor departmental expenditure and activities. I call them old-fashioned because, although they are dear to the heart of Parliament, they are not the most effective way to deal with the new agency world, which calls for newer monitoring mechanisms such as the one suggested in new clause 8.

Although my hon. Friend the Minister may at first respond by saying that sufficient monitoring bodies already exist, there is nothing specific to guide and monitor the work of agencies, or to report to Parliament. I remind my hon. Friend that the ombudsman can take up only individual cases of maladministration and cannot monitor the whole operation of an agency. Although parliamentary Select Committees have many duties and responsibilities under their current tasks, by their very nature they could not carry out the necessary detailed scrutiny of everyday operations. I listened carefully to the debate on new clause 1 and, in many respects, I am suggesting a larger reflection of the meaning behind that new clause.

Both sides of the House have recognised the Government's determination to put children first. There is broad agreement behind the principle of the Bill, which is that both parents should continue to be financially responsible for their children. None the less, as many of us have said and as the Minister has been at the forefront in saying, the relationships with which the Bill deals are among the most intimate, sensitive and difficult that families and friends experience—those between the child and the parent.

I support the principle behind the Bill so strongly because a former staff member of mine was a child of a single parent—his father ran away when he was only 11—and he told me on several occasions that his very identity had felt threatened throughout his childhood because his father never gave his mother a halfpenny. He believed that that simple transaction—providing financial support, however modest—would have strengthened his identity. He is a fine young man, well on the way to receiving his degree, and it was astonishing to see how strongly and powerfully he held that view.

As a result of that experience, I asked other youngsters with whom I have worked, and many of those on youth initiative schemes, how they felt—and their view was just the same. Such sensitive relationships may be buttressed by what appears to be a mercenary transaction. It may seem odd to think of money being linked with family relationships. It is not relevant in happy families, but in unhappy families money acts as a sort of link and should not be discarded as one medium to identify personal need in terms of personality and practical support.

5.30 pm

On 13 June, the Minister said that he would be monitoring the operation of the Child Support Agency, the agent's chief executive would monitor actions taken and the chief child support officer would be required to produce a report. As I said then, that surely means merely that someone in charge is taking a careful and professional look at what he or she is carrying out. That is self-monitoring—a good professional discipline, presumably done on good, professional guidelines, with the individual doing his or her best to reach the standards that Parliament has laid down in the Bill. It is what one can only describe as vertical monitoring by those who will hold responsibility for the work that they are carrying out, rather than external monitoring by an organisation which is not responsible for the initial actions.

My new clause provides for what I can only describe as real monitoring which, if there were no agency, might be carried out by individual Members of Parliament tabling parliamentary questions to Ministers. I do not believe that such a method would be relevant under the new scheme, but my proposal would be relevant. I know that my proposal is something of an innovation, but that should surely not rule it out of court. My proposal is a departure from normal practice in maintenance law and social security matters, but that should commend it to the House. I have been appalled at the slack standards of some social services departments which have hit the headlines recently. The actions of some departmental staff have been to the detriment of the children in their care and I sincerely believe that we should look at new ways of ensuring that best practice is carried out throughout the United Kingdom.

We have a social services inspectorate and Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools. It is surely even more necessary to have an inspectorate in a sphere where there are difficult interactions between different authorities. We know how difficult it is in the modern world for different authorities and departments to mesh well for the good of the client within reasonable time constraints. In this instance the authorities involved are the courts, the Department of Social Security and the Child Support Agency—a tripartite possibility for chaos, slackness and slowness. Although it offers great potential for rapid interaction and rapid movement, it has built-in potential weaknesses.

On 11 June, the Minister referred to the concern expressed in another place, when the Bill was debated, about the number of regulations in the Bill. He said that the Lord Chancellor had counselled the other place that we would require flexibility. By devising the powers of the Bill in the form of regulations, we should have the opportunity to make changes in the future, if that became necessary in the light of experience." —[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 11 June 1990; c. 15.] If the Minister cannot accept the new clause, perhaps he will reassure me that he will continue to look carefully at the issue and possibly introduce a regulatory change if my worries later prove justified. In another place, the Lord Chancellor himself said that the controlled use of regulations allows a valuable flexibility within the scheme…and most importantly, any unfairness which is uncovered in the operation of the system can be rectified."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 1991, Vol. 526, c. 778.] The existence of an external and independent monitoring body would provide an excellent mechanism for bringing to light any unfairness in the practical operation of the regulation. We would be setting up a permanent watchdog to safeguard the interests of children and parents in vulnerable positions. A substantial proportion of those served by the Child Support Agency will also be benefit claimants. Their needs are critical and sensitive, and sometimes difficult to look after. An external monitoring organisation would solve all the difficulties that I have identified, and I commend the new clause to the Minister.

Mr. Allen

As the Bill comes from Committee back to the Chamber and then goes to the Lords, it is incumbent on us to make one or two proposals. While reluctantly accepting the Bill, we must try to make the best of a bad job. I hope that the Government will accept that it is important that when the Bill moves on from Report we should make some progress on the issue of monitoring.

The Government have been free with the use of the phrase "monitoring developments" and I believe that the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) has done the House a great service in introducing the new clause, which the Opposition certainly support. As it stands, the Bill has no proposals for effective monitoring by this place, either through an annual report or, as the hon. Lady said, through independent monitoring of the agency. Many of us are concerned about the way in which the new Benefits Agency has worked.

Today I received a letter—it had taken six weeks for the Benefit Agency to answer an initial inquiry. The letter was not answered by the chief executive, but someone in the department. Whatever faults the old system of questions may have had, at least one received a response from the Secretary of State, nominal or not. We should be careful not to slip into a system in which there is no accountability and no monitoring of the new agency. The new clause provides an ideal opportunity for doing so.

I should like the Minister to comment on a possible precedent. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Public Accounts Committee. We considered the issue of monitoring the liable relative office's work. We produced a report which recommended ensuring that the pressure on offices to achieve a substantial increase in maintenance recoveries does not lead to undue pressure being put on lone parents to co-operate". The Committee's underlying recommendation was that it did not want liable relative officers to feel that they were on the front line, and had to knock work pressures across the counter to their clients.

As the Public Accounts Committee made such a recommendation to the Department and the Treasury, it would be helpful to know whether such monitoring is taking place. If there has been a serious response to that recommendation, we have a base for what the hon. Lady has suggested in terms of effective monitoring when we move from liable relative work to child support work.

There are a number of other specific issues that the Minister may wish to comment on so that we can answer some of the key questions as the Child Support Bill unfolds, and ensure that it is monitored and kept up to standard. How effective is the agency in delivering maintenance to caring parents? We need a sort of mission statement. What is the take-up of the scheme? We need to be able to move quickly to correct problems in sectors where we feel that the take-up is not of an appropriate rate. Is the agency cost effective? A recent oral answer suggested that the agency was expected to reduce the taxpayer's expenditure on benefit by an additional £400 million".—[Official Report, 20 May 1991 Vol. 191, c. 628.] What information will exist as to whether those savings have been made? How will such savings be redeployed to improve provision for lone parents? Will we have information on the percentage of expenditure on administration compared with how much is recovered from absent parents? We should not end up with the same problems that we have discovered with the social fund. Whatever the arguments about its merits, let us ensure that the administrative costs of the agency are kept within reasonable bounds.

Will we have information on how confidentiality is protected for the caring parent? What monitoring will there be on the effect of the obligation to co-operate? My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) will also refer to that issue later.

Invariably, the work of the liable relative officer—and, in future, that of the child support officer—is of a high standard. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are free in their compliments on the work of those officers. However, in Committee we referred at great length to the fact that there are one or two rotten apples in the barrel. Those officers give clients a hard time—perhaps because they are under pressure, stressed by conditions or lack of pay or case hardened. The training of such officers will therefore be absolutely essential. I hope that the Minister can tell us how that training will be conducted and, above all, how the work of officers will be monitored.

The hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West has advocated either independent monitoring outside the House or full accountability to the House via a report from the Child Support Agency. If the latter option is adopted we will be able to raise cases directly with the Minister and assist him, however reluctantly, to make the legislation work better.

Mr. Jack

There has been an interesting debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) on her proper persistence in asking us to reconsider this matter. I hope that my hon. Friend will not think me churlish if I refer first to some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).

The hon. Gentleman said that the Opposition reluctantly accepted the Bill. I hope that that does not suggest that his warm and friendly attitude to the Bill, as demonstrated on Second Reading and in Committee, has been diminished. On previous occasions he has told us that he welcomes the broad principles of the Bill and I hope that that still stands because that general support has been greatly welcomed by the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West demonstrated, with her usual eloquence, the importance that she attaches to the accountability and monitoring of, and the reporting on, the activities of the Child Support Agency. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State shares her views about the effective operation of the agency. He agrees with my hon. Friend that the agency must be constructed in such a way that it can do the job that the Bill empowers and, more important, requires it to do.

I have thought hard about the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West, but we have what can be termed a mechanical problem. Some of the people that my hon. Friend might seek to question would not be able to come to the House in the way in which my hon. Friend envisaged. My hon. Friend will be aware that Select Committees and the Public Accounts Committee could summon those people for examination, which might be the proper way to provide such monitoring. The one person who can be examined in this Chamber, however, is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is through him that the system of accountability will be principally operated. My hon. Friend does not need to be reminded of the number of parliamentary ways in which that could be done.

Miss Emma Nicholson

It is not my contention that the House should grill specialists and professionals. I do not believe that Parliament is the appropriate mechanism by which to manage the affairs of outside agencies, departments or elected services. The Government should be at arms length from practical management. All I am seeking is that a report from an external monitoring agency should be put before the House. I am not suggesting we should grill the professionals—that is more in line with the Opposition's philosophy of hands-on management, which leads to a degradation of standards. I want the Government to set those standards and to give us an effective way in which to monitor them.

5.45 pm
Mr. Jack

I am grateful for that clarification. I am sure that the chief executive of the Child Support Agency and the chief child support officer will breathe a sigh of relief that they will not be so grilled. The Select Committees and the Public Accounts Committee have the right to invite such persons to be examined, but it is for those Committees to decide whether to act accordingly.

The chief child support officer will be accountable to the Secretary of State and the chief executive of the Child Support Agency for his work. He will also have to produce an annual report for the Secretary of State. In answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, that report will deal with some of the adjudicatory functions of that agency. The chief child support officer's report will be placed in the public purview in the Library of the House, if in no other place.

Mr. McCartney

I believe that the proposals of the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) do not differ greatly from those operated by the Audit Commission in terms of internal audits which are independent of local authority departments. Local authorities are required to appoint a permanent audit commission, independent of themselves, within the confines of their authorities. That independent authority puts forward proposals on behalf of the users of authority services and it promotes good management practice, value for money and provides an assessment of whether the proper functions of an authority are operating.

Given that the Government have introduced such a concept in local government, they should accept something similar in terms of the Child Support Agency. The Government have already said that they intend to spend a great deal of money on monitoring that agency. Why not have independent monitoring so that assessments can be made similar to those provided successfully by the independent auditors for local authorities?

Mr. Jack

I am bound to say that one of the best monitors of the performance of the Child Support Agency will be the parents with care. Some of them will receive maintenance for the first time and if there are any problems they will be the first ones to comment on them.

It is important to appreciate that the Child Support Agency, in common with the Benefits Agency and Contributions Agency, will have to publish a business plan. That public document will make their performance targets abundantly clear. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) should study that business plan because it will reveal the type of information against which the performance of the Child Support Agency and that of the others can be compared. Those business plans can be the subject of scrutiny by Select Committees and the Public Accounts Committee.

The business plan will be the responsibility of the chief executive of the Child Support Agency. Anyone with certain responsibilities is bound to want to carry them out properly. However, some of today's comments may undermine the absolute integrity of the people who will be responsible for running the agencies. That will be their best defence. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West will see that the accountability of the chief child support officer and the chief executive —through the production of their reports—to this House will lead to a great deal of monitoring, interaction and control to ensure that the agency delivers that which it is supposed to do.

Ministers who are responsible for policy will take seriously the points that my hon. Friend has put to us. They will watch how the agency evolves. The agency will be able to benefit from what has been learnt by other agencies that already are improving the delivery of social security to those who need it.

Miss Emma Nicholson

I have listened with care to the Minister's speech and I am grateful to him for his thoughtful response. He thinks deeply about the points that we put to him and takes his responsibilities seriously. Nevertheless, I am not sure that the purpose of the new clause has been fully understood.

The hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) referred to local government audits. It was an excellent and apposite point. In our excellent and commendable reforms of the national health service we have stressed the importance of the Government-inspired medical audits. However, whatever the professionals may do to improve the standards that we in Parliament, on behalf of the public, demand of them, they are only human and can fall below their own high standards. The best way to maintain those standards is for other professionals to monitor them.

I accept that I have lost the argument today. Perhaps I am too far ahead in time in suggesting that provision should be made for monitoring the professionals. At some time, however, we shall have to address the external monitoring of agencies by professional monitoring bodies. That would relieve Secretaries of State of the onerous and difficult task of creating a professional monitoring body within their own Departments. That is not, I believe, a duty that they should have to perform. It is for the Government to set standards and to ask professionals to monitor them and report back.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 8, in page 1, line 16, leave out clause 2–[Mr. Jack.]

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