HC Deb 23 April 1996 vol 276 cc186-7
6. Mr. Sutcliffe

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what further plans he has to reform the Child Support Agency; and if he will make a statement. [24674]

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

I have recently announced a new independent complaints adjudicator, improvements in the agency's compensation scheme, and interest on maintenance payments not passed promptly to parents with care. All those measures build on major legislative changes introduced over the past year.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Is not the Child Support Agency still a discredited agency that has lost public confidence? We want people to be treated sensibly. What proposals has the Minister for ensuring that CSA personnel treat people sensibly? I have several constituents who, when they ring up to try to find out what is going on, are treated appallingly. Will he ensure that the CSA improves?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there has been a considerable increase in the training that all child support officers undergo. I hope that he will also have seen today's announcement of the Child Support Agency's results for the past year, which show that it has made a massive, clear and significant improvement in virtually all aspects of its work. I hope that he would wish to join the whole House in paying tribute to its chief executive and all its staff. In the light of the figures, they deserve a pat on the back, not least in view of the vile abuse—and worse—that they have had to put up with from organised resisters.

Mrs. Roe

Can my hon. Friend spell out how much extra maintenance would be required if Labour's plans to deprive parents of pupils aged 16 or over of £500 a year in child benefit were implemented? Would that not mean that children from broken homes would be the least likely to stay on at school to gain essential qualifications?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend makes her point most eloquently. Last year, the Child Support Agency was set a target to arrange or collect £300 million and get it through to the children. It has exceeded that target. In the past month alone, it collected more money than in the whole of its first year of operation. That is a sign of the huge improvement in the performance of the CSA.

Mr. Hain

Despite the attentive replies that the Minister gives me on many of the cases that I put to him, does he agree that the CSA still acts very oppressively to many ordinary couples who have been become the victims of a monster that was designed to chase errant fathers? It is still not chasing them, let alone catching them. Instead, it leaves many honest couples at their wit's end as they grapple with the enormous maintenance payments that are forced on them by the agency.

Mr. Mitchell

I have examined several of the cases that the hon. Gentleman has brought to me. Much of what he says is no longer accurate. In some 77 per cent. of the cases that are taken on by the Child Support Agency, the parent with care is receiving nothing—not a penny. The tremendous strides that have been made by the agency in the past year are getting the funds through to the children. Since the agency began, it has traced 133,000 absent parents, principally fathers. In the past year alone, it managed to trace 55,000 of them. In the key areas where the agency has been required to improve, last year's figures show that it certainly has.

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