HC Deb 17 July 1995 vol 263 cc1295-6
2. Mr. Sutcliffe

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how much child maintenance was paid as a result of assessments by the Child Support Agency, excluding maintenance paid as a result of orders under the liable relative system, in the latest period for which figures are available. [32764]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Andrew Mitchell)

The amount of maintenance paid direct to the Child Support Agency as a result of assessments by the agency for the period April 1993 to the end of May 1995 was nearly £105 million. In addition, the agency assesses maintenance which is then paid direct between the absent parent and the parent with care. In 1994–95 such assessments amounted to £111 million and from April 1995 to the end of May 1995 the amount paid directly between parents was £21,160,000.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Does the Minister realise that that figure is well below the forecast target of £525 million and that the CSA has lost the confidence and trust of those involved? About 40 to 50 per cent. of applications are not dealt with properly or are dealt with incorrectly. Is it not time that the Minister did something about that? We heard in January what the Government intended to do, but the reality is that the CSA is falling further and further behind in its work. The impact that it is having on people's lives is dramatic.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman's question relates specifically to comparisons with the liable relative system. Such comparisons are not especially relevant as that system was inconsistent, haphazard and often very unfair to the parent with care. It tended to cherry-pick and to do individual deals. On the hon. Gentleman's general point, I hope that he will recognise the considerably improved performance of the agency over the past year, although I accept that there is still a long way to go before the service can be regarded as satisfactory.

Mr. Evennett

First, I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved promotion.

How many parents were traced by the CSA last year in circumstances in which their whereabouts were unknown by the parent with care of the child? Will my hon. Friend confirm that although the CSA has had some problems it has done much good work for parents with care, who can now discover where the absent and feckless parent is?

Mr. Mitchell

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Last year, in 77 per cent. of all cases taken on by the CSA the absent parent was paying nothing. Every week 1,000 absent parents are found, and 50,000 were found during the whole of last year. Their whereabouts were unknown before the agency tried to find them. There is still a long way to go, but the CSA's performance is improving.

Mr. Ingram

I welcome the Minister to his new portfolio—only time will tell whether it constitutes a punishment or a promotion, as I am sure his hon. Friend the Minister of State will inform him on the basis of his own experience in the Department.

We have heard much from the Government in recent weeks about the need to tackle benefit fraud, but are not the Government guilty of fraud on a grand scale by having continued to peddle the myth that the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency are providing long-overdue help for children and parents with care? Who does the Minister think is to blame for the fact that by the end of March 1995 some £87 million was owed to parents with care and to children? Is that the fault of absent parents, civil servants or the Ministers who introduced the whole shambolic system?

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the kind remarks with which he opened his question.

The debt accumulated by the agency is not classic bank debt in the normally understood sense; it relates significantly to interim maintenance settlements, which account for some 70 per cent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will wish to continue the bipartisan approach which ensures that the principles behind the policy are fully accepted, while emphasising the importance of continuing to make the improvements that have already been made—which, I hope, will be evident tomorrow from the CSA's annual report.