HC Deb 17 July 1995 vol 263 cc1300-2
8. Mr. Gunnell

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many payments of compensation on the grounds of error, maladministration or delay have been made by the Child Support Agency at the latest date for which figures are available. [32770]

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

A special payment may be considered where, for example, a clear and unambiguous error or unreasonable delay by the Child Support Agency has resulted in a measurable financial loss. To date, 44 special payments have been made as a result of error or delay on the part of the agency.

Mr. Gunnell

Does that reply not indicate that the criteria for giving special payments are extremely narrow? Every hon. Member must have written to the Minister's predecessor about cases of delay in administration. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has commented on a number of those cases. What exactly are the criteria for making special payments? Is it not time that the criteria were widened? Is it not time that the £44—or whatever the exact sum is—that people pay for the administration of the Child Support Agency was remitted to those who find that the administration causes them endless grief?

Mr. Mitchell

The compensation is made for measurable financial loss. It is clear, however, that the Department's scheme needs to be reassessed in the light of the unique nature of the Child Support Agency's business. I have therefore asked officials to speed up the process and to report to me urgently on the options available.

On the two specific cases that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman with my Department, the administrative improvements will help his constituents greatly, in terms of both better information systems and better help lines. The Child Support Agency can make special payments so long as a clear and unambiguous error by the agency, resulting in actual financial loss, has been made.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. Does he agree that if anything proves the necessity to have the Child Support Agency, it is precisely the fact that 77 per cent. of lone parents contacted by the Child Support Agency last year were receiving no help whatever from the absent parents? Does he also agree that hon. Members are receiving more and more correspondence from parents with responsibility, who now want the agency to act on their behalf? Will he do all that he can to ensure that it acts much more competently and professionally than it has hitherto?

Mr. Mitchell

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Correspondence with Members of Parliament is much improved. Work on hand today is 60 per cent. down on last year and I am determined that there should be further improvements. On my hon. Friend's general comment, the administration is clearly improving. There are now much better information systems and a welcome emphasis on accuracy. Staff training has improved and there are better links with outside bodies. I shall visit all six of the Child Support Agency centres in the next few weeks to see for myself what is happening on the ground.

Ms Lynne

Is the Minister aware that my constituents and many others throughout the country still have horrendous problems with the Child Support Agency? It is not just a question of bad administration; the Child Support Act 1991 is flawed and should be scrapped. Does he agree that, had it not been for the shameful collusion of Labour Front-Bench Members, we might have had a fair and workable maintenance system in place?

Mr. Mitchell

Far be it from me to defend Labour Front-Bench Members on this issue, but it is a great pity that at a time when those difficult principles were widely supported both within and outside the House, while the Labour and Conservative parties have stood firm by those principles and the changes announced this year, the Liberal party turned turtle and fled the field.

Mr. Tredinnick

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion. Although I accept that the administration of the Child Support Agency has improved, does my hon. Friend agree that problems exist when it comes to reassessing people's claims of changed circumstances? Will he keep a critical eye on that aspect?

Mr. Mitchell

Yes, my hon. Friend is right to flag up that aspect of the Child Support Agency's work. Clearly, the second tier of appeals and appeal tribunals has been sharply speeded up, and a centralised unit is being set up. I am conscious of the importance of what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Dewar

I, too, add my congratulations to the new Minister and I am impressed that he got all his friends in the parliamentary Conservative party here to cheer his first appearance at the Dispatch Box.

May I remind the Minister that, although we stand by the principle that parents should contribute to the upkeep of their children, we are not satisfied with the present system and will press for further change? I genuinely welcome his announcement that the compensation system is to be reviewed as 44 payments is a shaming total in view of the widespread public concern about how the agency has been operating and the scarifying criticism that has come, for example, from the National Audit Office and from Select Committees.

May I ask the Minister about one other aspect? Does he remember that the White Paper "Improving Child Support" contained a pledge that, from last April, in cases where delay was clearly the fault of the agency, consideration would be given to waiving all but six months of accrued arrears? Has that power been used and what sort of guidance has been given to define the situations in which consideration could lead to payment?

Mr. Mitchell

On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, I understand that that is now in process and, following what he has said, I shall follow developments all the more closely. This year's changes are of immense importance.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who took them through the House of Commons, has shown that, by listening carefully to what hon. Members on both sides of House say, improvements to the formula could be made. We have managed to knock off some of the rough edges from the formula, which all hon. Members agreed was necessary, and in some cases we have gone further than the Select Committee on Social Security urged us to go.

We have also ensured that, for the rump of hard cases, the departure system will be introduced as soon as is practical. All that makes the Child Support Agency's work and the targets that we all want it to attain, that much more readily attainable.