HC Deb 16 May 1994 vol 243 cc540-4
7. Mr. Spellar

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he expects to announce further changes to the operations of the Child Support Agency.

Mr. Burt

A number of changes were put in place in February and these must be given time to take effect. We have no plans for further changes at present, but the operation of the Child Support Agency will continue to be kept under review.

Mr. Spellar

Does the Minister accept that that is an entirely unacceptable answer for the thousands of families throughout the country who are facing ruin as a result of the operations of the agency? When will he understand that what is needed is not further tinkering or analysis but a fundamental change to the basis of the agency and its operations? Will he convey to the agency that the public expect it to spend less money on holding courses in expensive hotels when its staff should be back at their offices dealing with correspondence from Members and their constituents?

Mr. Burt

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise. The agency is getting on with doing its job of producing assessments and higher rates of maintenance for parents with care of their children. That is its job and those are the principles that guide it—the hon. Gentleman is well aware that those principles are endorsed by a variety of people. The reforms that we made in February were not cosmetic and resulted in a reduction in the number of assessments made at that time. It is right that they should be given time to have effect. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are continuing to keep the agency under review, which is right and proper.

Mr. Harris

Does my hon. Friend accept that it was an eye-opener to many of us to discover the extent to which some people ripped off the state in the past by expecting the system to look after their children? Having said that, the CSA scheme is clearly littered with anomalies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and I ask him to have a word with our right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State, and ask him kindly not to embark on any more general reforms of the social security system until the Government have sorted out the scheme, all its anomalies and all the other things that have gone wrong with it.

Mr. Burt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he put his question. He is right to draw the attention of the House to the terrible anomalies in the previous system, which left parents with care without adequate maintenance and depended far too much on the benefits system to support separating couples. It should be known that 96 per cent. of all the cases with which the CSA is currently dealing involve those who are on benefit.

My hon. Friend also drew attention to the concerns that have been expressed by a number of parties about the operation of the scheme. He will know that different voices have expressed different views; only last week, the National Council for One Parent Families issued a statement in association with Gingerbread calling on us not to forget the interests of lone parents when considering the operation of the CSA.

Any further consideration that we give to the matter would have to balance interests, because it is important that the House supports a proper system of maintenance for all in the United Kingdom. That is why we think it right to keep the affairs of the CSA under careful review.

Mr. Kirkwood

Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that interests must be balanced. Does the Minister accept, however, that anomalies in the system have created overwhelming pressure, in particular financial pressure on second families, which is quite intolerable? The Minister has been quite right to wait to see how the February changes have bedded down, but the key question is at what stage he will feel able to make a move. That moment must be close and some changes must be made.

Mr. Burt

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He referred to the February changes, the bulk of which were designed to provide some form of assistance for those who had been complaining about the agency, particularly because of the second family problem and similar issues. The support that we gave in February to protected income, which improved matters beyond the recommendations made on that particular point by the Select Committee on Social Security, was designed to help those second families. Our desire to ensure that the agency is properly reviewed is governed by our wish to see how those changes are working. Those changes were only introduced in February, just three months ago, and it is important to give them time. As my right hon. Friends, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said from the Dispatch Box, if the need for further change is proved, it will be made.

Mr. Congdon

May I welcome the changes that were introduced in February, in particular in respect of phasing? I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that one of the biggest difficulties facing absent parents is when the costs that they incur increase greatly as a result of a maintenance assessment replacing a court order. Does he agree that it is important that we keep that under review to ensure that the system works fairly? In so doing, we must not only ensure that it works fairly, for the absent parent, but must bear strongly in mind the needs of the lone parent and the parent with care.

Mr. Burt

Yes. My hon. Friend puts the case correctly. In relation to the amount of money left after the maintenance requirement has been made, the intention behind the formula was that some 70 per cent. of net income, as calculated in that formula, should be left available to absent parents to meet their other needs and obligations. My hon. Friend is right to say that the House must balance carefully the interests of all parties—parents with care, children, absent parents and the taxpayer.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Minister accept that a policy of wait and see is not heroic, but it is just plain stupid given the crisis now facing the agency? Can he give me one reason why there should not be an independent appeal procedure to deal with cases where there are genuine hard circumstances and where the maintenance demands have lost touch with the ability to pay, as has happened in some cases? Has he noted the repeated press reports that the Government have decided to legislate soon to ensure, for example, that financial and property settlements that were intended to effect maintenance payments could be taken into account by the agency? Given the Minister's main reply to the question, is he telling us that that is not true? If so, does he recognise that that is totally unacceptable to the Labour party and to many people in the country?

Mr. Burt

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was long enough in the tooth to know to take with a pinch of salt what is in the newspapers. We stand by the answer that we have continually given in relation to this matter: as I said to the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), we have made the changes and we want to find out their effect. We have been through the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about appeals before. The danger is that a completely open system of appeal would return us to the totally discretionary system that the House and many other people have said on many occasions they do not desire.

Mr. Waterson

Does my hon. Friend agree that much of the media comment since the CSA began to operate has tended to ignore the plight of single deserted mothers and, even more, the plight of millions of working couples who have set up stable traditional family units and who, as we heard earlier, contribute £15 a day on average towards the costs of the social security system?

Mr. Burt

My hon. Friend draws attention to the other side of the coin, which is important. It is true that, in the early days of the CSA, by far the greatest running in terms of press comment was made by absent parents and in relation to the issues that concerned them. Only in the past few weeks have the representatives of lone parents said that they want their voice to be heard and got their side of the case across. No one necessarily represents taxpayers in these matters except Her Majesty's Government; it is right that we should take into account taxpayers' interests for the very reasons mentioned by my hon. Friend, which were accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House when the legislation was originally passed.

8. Mr. Norman Hogg

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what response he has made to the recent report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux on the first year of operation of the Child Support Agency, a copy of which has been sent to him; and what measures he proposes to introduce as a consequence.

Mr. Lilley

I am giving NACAB's recent report careful consideration, as we do any representations about the scheme.

Mr. Hogg

Does the Minister recognise that the citizens advice bureau is an organisation that enjoys a very special respect among the British people, and that he should pay a great deal of attention to what NACAB has to say about this contentious matter? Does he agree that a more positive attitude by him and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) would be welcome?

Mr. Lilley

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about NACAB. I will as I said, give full consideration to its report. I always respect reports coming from that organisation. I am sure that most people concerned with citizens advice bureaux share the view of most hon. Members that parents are responsible for their children; that that responsibility persists even if, sadly, they split up; and that the taxpayer should be involved only to the extent that parents do not have the means to support their children. It is therefore appropriate that we have a system for assessing parents' means. We tried to get that system right originally, then to reform it in February. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, it is important to see how those changes work out.

Dr. Spink

In the light of NACAB's representations on the CSA, will my right hon. Friend take all possible steps to ensure that errant fathers are made to pay and to co-operate with the CSA—including, where necessary, the immediate attachment of earnings at source?

Mr. Lilley

I take my hon. Friend's point. The NACAB report called for more stringent enforcement measures and we are working in that direction. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we have been more successful in pursuing those so-called feckless fathers who had left with the mother looking after the child not a trace of their whereabouts. More than 85 per cent.—about 29,000 of such cases—have been tracked down so far. That is a greater level of success than we perhaps expected when we established the agency. and is an important aspect of its work.

Mr. Frank Field

Further to the NACAB report, can the Secretary of State confirm that the system that the Child Support Agency replaced gained maintenance payments for those on benefits for less than 60 per cent. of eligible mothers, but that in its first year of operation the CSA is raising less money for taxpayers than the liable relative system that it replaced? What conclusions does he draw from that?

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman is right. Under the old system there were some 1.3 million lone parents, 1 million of whom were dependent on income support and more than three out of four of whom were not receiving a penny of regular maintenance from the absent parent. As yet, we have no final figures for the first year of the new system's operation. We are conscious that, given that it is in its first year, it will fall short of the targets set for it, but its performance will build up over time.

Mr. Nicholls

Is not it thoroughly dishonest of Opposition Members to criticise the principle of the CSA, given that it had all-party support? That should not obscure the fact that a number of anomalies in the system will have to be dealt with. The fact that so much evidence is becoming available should mean that we can at least set a date by which we are prepared to assess that evidence. If my right hon. Friend would agree to look in a year's time at the evidence of the previous year, would not that go a considerable way towards answering the justified concerns of those of us who accept the principles on which the CSA was set up?

Mr. Lilley

We have demonstrated by our speedy response to the Social Security Select Committee report, which we implemented rapidly in February, our willingness to respond where changes are required. The fact that we implemented the bulk of the Committee's recommendations and, in some respects, went further than those recommendations, shows that, as we keep the agency under review, if and when we find that changes are necessary, we shall introduce them. A specific date is not helpful, however. It is important that the agency be allowed to continue to get on with its work and improve its performance, and that those who have been contacted by it respond and pay the money to the parents who, by and large, have been bringing up children on income support.

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