HC Deb 24 April 1996 vol 276 cc368-90

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1994–95 on the Investigation of Complaints against the Child Support Agency (House of Commons Paper No. 135), the Third Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1994–95 on the Child Support Agency (House of Commons Paper No. 199), the Government Reply thereto (Cm. 2865), the Third Report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1995–96 on Investigation of Complaints against the Child Support Agency (House of Commons Paper No. 20), the Minutes of Evidence taken by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration on 27th March (House of Commons Paper No. 330-i), the Second Report from the Social Security Committee of Session 1995–96 on the Performance and Operation of the Child Support Agency (House of Commons Paper No. 50) and the Government Reply thereto (Cm. 3191).]

11 am

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I am pleased to introduce this short but important debate about the Child Support Agency. I am sorry that the Chairman of the Social Security Select Committee, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), is not in his place, but I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) is present and I am sure that he will be a more than adequate deputy. We look forward to hearing his comments in due course.

In 1991 I, like the overwhelming majority of hon. Members, supported the establishment of the Child Support Agency. We did so in the belief that it is wrong for men and women to walk away from their parental responsibilities. I remind the House that, somewhat unusually, there was no Division on Third Reading—a fact which underlined the perceived need for the legislation.

The Child Support Agency has had a difficult birth—indeed, it has been somewhat star-crossed. I acknowledge the great efforts made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, who will respond to the debate, and by the agency's chief executive to improve matters. My hon. Friend has introduced no fewer than 112 changes in the past 10 months that are designed to improve the work of the agency. He and the chief executive have grabbed the CSA by the scruff of its neck, and I have no doubt that, as the changes filter through, the instances of maladministration will decrease.

The ombudsman has identified certain serious failures in administration. He referred to confusion over jurisdiction; breaching of confidentiality of information; delays in dealing with applications for maintenance; problems with intra-maintenance assessments; delays in enforcement action leading to loss of maintenance; and delays in passing on maintenance collected from the absent parent to the parent with care of children. The work of the Child Support Agency touches upon some of the most difficult and sensitive aspects of people's lives. I suspect that an overwhelming majority of hon. Members have been alerted by their constituents to instances of maladministration within the Child Support Agency. This morning I shall concentrate on three specific areas: first, the current performance of the agency; secondly, the way in which complaints are handled; and, thirdly, the granting of redress.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary recently answered questions at the Dispatch Box about the performance of the Child Support Agency. In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West, he said: I noted that of the 20 cases the ombudsman looked at, some 14 involved problems which began in 1993. In that sense, his report is historic".—[Official Report, 19 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 165.] However, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the minutes of evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration on Wednesday 27 March. On that occasion, the ombudsman said: Miss Chant kindly admitted that old mistakes were still being made and she did not refute the fact that I included in my report cases which arose in 1995". The ombudsman continued: I did not want to give the impression that I was only looking at old matters. I included reference to types of case where I am investigating, but of which I had not concluded my investigation by the time I published my second special report. You will see on pages 11 and 12 of my report examples of that; you will see examples on pages 13 and 14; you will see examples on pages 15 and 16, on page 18, page 19 and page 20. These are all examples of complaints put to me about mistakes that were certainly not 1993 or 1994; these are all 1995 examples of maladministration". My hon. Friend referred also to the ombudsman's criticisms regarding delay in transferring money from the agency to the parent with care. He pointed out, quite properly, that 97 per cent. of payments—an extraordinary figure—are now sent out within 10 days. My hon. Friend also emphasised the fact that, while the ombudsman looked at just under 200 CSA cases, the agency deals with 1.25 million cases. Therefore, two lines of defence are being advanced in response to the ombudsman's report: first, the ombudsman's investigations deal with historic difficulties; and, secondly, the Child Support Agency handles a large number of cases.

In fairness to the House, I concede that 195 investigations are not many when viewed in the context of 1.25 million cases. It might, however, assist hon. Members if I were to adopt a more global perspective. In 1994, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration received 30 complaints about the Inland Revenue, which handles between 30 million and 35 million cases each year.

Miss Chant, the chief executive of the Child Support Agency, recently gave evidence to the Select Committee. She contended that, as a result of the nature of the ombudsman's work, the cases in his report were not of recent origin. She gave examples of the way in which the agency's performance had improved. She pointed out that 18 months ago the agency received 370 complaints each week from Members of Parliament and that that rate had now steadied at just under 200. I think that that is an interesting measurement of success and improvement. I appreciate that any reduction in the number of complaints is laudable, but 200 complaints from hon. Members is still a substantial number.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)


Mr. Pawsey

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, who is an indefatigable member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.

Mr. Nicholson

My hon. Friend is right to point out the large number of complaints that Members of Parliament continue to make to the Child Support Agency. Does he agree that the parliamentary ombudsman does not investigate every complaint that Members of Parliament make about the agency, because many of them fall into the category of generic orders which he is already investigating? My hon. Friend mentioned a figure of 195 investigations, and I must have referred a dozen complaints to the ombudsman. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in view of the importance that the House attaches to some of the agency's successes—for example, in chasing 120,000 absent parents—it is regrettable, and damages the legislation and the persons who promoted it, that such maladministration should be continuing?

Mr. Pawsey

My hon. Friend makes a genuinely important point, and as it may be of interest to other hon. Members, I shall refer to it later.

When I spoke to the ombudsman this morning, he told me that, since 1 January this year, he has received 205 complaints from Members of Parliament, and that 1,500 telephone inquiries have been received by his office—50 per cent. of which referred specifically to the Child Support Agency.

Having said that, let me stress the other side of the equation. There have been a substantial number of genuine improvements to the agency's performance over the past 12 months. I commend my hon. Friend the Minister and the CSA's chief executive on their work. Their task is clearly herculean. The agency's staff have to cope with couples who have broken up, often in the most acrimonious circumstances, and with a campaign of deliberate obstruction. Piled on top of all those difficulties have been the changes to the law designed to improve the agency's operations. Such changes are necessary and beneficial but in the short term, they place an added burden on CSA staff.

I make it clear that the problems highlighted by the ombudsman are not historical. In the interests of objectivity, I must inform the House that the ombudsman advised me today that there have been a lot of improvements made to the work of the Child Support Agency. I am sure that the ombudsman would want me to put that comment firmly on the record.

I will refer next to maladministration and the way in which complaints about the agency are dominating the ombudsman's case load.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

I am glad to interrupt my hon. Friend at the moment when he is saying that the ombudsman is pleased, as we all are, with the agency's improvements. I ask my hon. Friend to address the fundamental reason that the parliamentary ombudsman was established—to serve as a backstop for the individual citizen who feels that any area of the Administration has let him down. My understanding is that, as a result of the case load, the individual citizen is being deprived of that backup. I quote a specific example, because it may help everybody to address the problem. A constituent of mine, Mr. Jubin, made a complaint to me about maladministration by the CSA, which was looked at by the screening unit.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but interventions should be short. It sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman is making more of a speech.

Mr. Mates

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be as brief as I can. My hon. Friend was about to address the specific question of whether the ombudsman is able to carry out the duty that Parliament gave him. I want briefly to quote one example because—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long. I cannot allow him to continue.

Mr. Mates

Then I cannot make my point.

Madam Deputy Speaker

No, the hon. Gentleman cannot. That is precisely correct.

Mr. Pawsey

Despite the fact that my hon. Friend was cut off in mid-flow, I understand the essential thrust of his comments. The important point to which he referred was raised also by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson).

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) draws attention to the number of CSA cases that are reaching the ombudsman. The Select Committee will, as part of its continuing work, be taking evidence from the ombudsman about workload, the time taken to complete investigations, the number of staff and the resources available. I share my hon. Friend's concern. The ombudsman is the citizen's backstop. If the ombudsman is not seen to be performing the duties and responsibilities imposed on him by the House, that is a serious matter.

As the issue is so important, I sought advice from colleagues. The view has been taken that a number of representative cases should identify administrative shortcomings needing to be remedied, and that the resulting improvements to the system should bring general improvement—so that complaints should not have to be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner.

Mr. Mates


Madam Deputy Speaker

Make it snappy, Mr. Mates.

Mr. Mates

I will, Madam Deputy Speaker. Forgive me, but I am raising a fundamental point—and I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will allow me to make it. The ombudsman himself is saying, "I cannot do the job that Parliament gave me to do. I acknowledge that your constituent has a complaint, but I cannot look at it because there are so many of the same type." Where does that leave the ombudsman, in his duty to look after individual cases of maladministration? If he cannot examine a case because it has been raised before, that is denying the purpose for which Parliament established the ombudsman. I hope that my hon. Friend's Committee will address that aspect.

Mr. Pawsey

My hon. Friend made his point most succinctly. I give him the assurance that the Select Committee that I have the honour to chair will examine that specific matter. His comments emphasise the need for a complaints examiner to be established within the CSA, so that problems will not filter through to the ombudsman but can be resolved within the agency. I believe that I saw my hon. Friend, the Minister, nodding his head sagely in agreement.

As to maladministration and the agency's domination of the ombudsman's case load, complaints concerning the CSA accounted for one third of all those accepted for investigation in 1995. By the end of 1995, 195 cases were being investigated. The ombudsman has now decided to investigate only cases that appear to involve new issues or financial loss. Many other cases suggested maladministration but were not accepted for investigation. In parenthesis, I will observe that the ombudsman's office is not of the largest. It has 55 staff to deal with maladministration cases referred to the ombudsman by Departments, which is fewer than one member of staff for every 1 million of the population.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pawsey

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. who is a staunch member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner. I am not at all surprised to see the hon. Gentleman in his place, because he is always in attendance at meetings of the Committee.

Mr. Campbell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments.

Does not the Parliamentary Commissioner's report state that he is extremely concerned at further reductions in staffing levels? If further cuts are made in civil servants in Departments, complaints will become more frequent. If staff are cut in Departments, they will also be cut in the ombudsman's office.

Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. He is right and that issue is being closely observed by the Select Committee, of which he is an important member. Throughout my time on the Select Committee, which must go back for nine years or so, we have always pressed to ensure that adequate resources exist properly to service the ombudsman's committee. It is important that I put on record the fact that resources have never been denied, and I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

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

I hope that I can satisfy the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) on his point. In the ombudsman's report, he acknowledges the help given to the CSA, in the form of additional staffing, since his first special report. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the agency has got the staffing right.

Mr. Pawsey

I am enjoying the interventions, but I should make some progress in order to allow other hon. Members to speak.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton suggested, many complaints submitted by Members of Parliament suggest, at face value, maladministration. They were not accepted because they did not raise new issues and because the ombudsman's resources are finite. Therefore, those complaints do not feature in his report. The House will also understand that it takes time to recruit and train new staff.

The Select Committee was somewhat disconcerted last year to discover that the CSA did not mention the ombudsman in its complaints literature. We wonder how many additional complaints would have been made had the public been aware of the ombudsman's existence and his responsibilities. I believe, and I am sure that I am supported by other hon. Members, that complaints can be regarded as an audit of quality, but when an internal complaints system does not refer to the ombudsman, it is unwise to claim success from the smallness of the number of complaints that find their way to him.

I remind the House that the ombudsman is both impartial and independent. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said, the ombudsman is charged by Parliament itself to investigate complaints about maladministration. He is above party and departmental battles. He has no axe to grind and it is important that the House remembers that.

My second issue is complaints handling. In his recent report, the ombudsman stated: A particularly disturbing theme in the complaints put to me is the number of individuals who have taken up their grievances with the Child Support Agency in a constructive and reasoned way without getting satisfaction. In some cases, the CSA have had matters under consideration for a very long time without resolving them. In other cases, complaints have simply not been given proper consideration or have been ignored altogether. Mr. Reid—the ombudsman—added, in oral evidence to the Select Committee: Far too often in the cases I have investigated, they complain to me that they write, they get no reply and when they do get a reply it is generated by a computer that knows nothing about the up-to-date circumstances. The House will therefore not be surprised to learn that, when we took evidence from Miss Chant, we specifically asked about local complaints handling. She believed that the delegation of case responsibility to local offices would help with the efficient handling of complaints. I was, however, more than a little concerned at the lack of firm measures being advanced to improve complaints handling. Indeed, the failure to deal competently with complaints at an early stage suggests that there should be fresh initiatives within the agency. In my view, the agency should be given a maximum time after which complaints about maladministration will be considered. I look forward specifically to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's response on that point.

I remind the House that one third of all complaints last year to the Parliamentary Commissioner concerned the CSA. That means that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is carrying the burden of an ineffective internal complaints system. The Select Committee welcomes the recent announcement about a complaints examiner, similar to the revenue adjudicator. That is good news, and I am delighted by it. The agency, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and the chief executive must take a great deal of credit for establishing that post. We welcome it and we think it is good news.

We also have reason to believe that the creation of the post was a direct response to the recommendations both of the ombudsman and of the Select Committee, but whatever the reasons, we welcome it. It shows clearly that the agency is taking on board the recommendations that are made by the Select Committee and by the ombudsman.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the new system is to work properly, once individuals have complained they should not get letters and demands from another office in the agency? They would be furious about that, but one of the central problems of the CSA is that the left hand and the right hand do not know what the other is doing. When individuals' earnings change, the officer will order less to be paid in maintenance, but it takes too long to get the information across.

Mr. Pawsey

That is a valid point. I have sought to persuade the chief executive of the CSA to appoint a named official to deal with each person's case, so that there is a direct point of reference. Miss Chant believes that that cannot be done because of the complexity of the agency's operations and because of its geographical spread. However, I look forward to proposals that will further improve the work of the agency.

My third issue is that of redress. The Select Committee previously commented on the practice of the Department of Social Security and the CSA and the way in which redress is given to those who have been harmed by maladministration. That is an especial concern of the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency I cannot recall—

Mr. Ronnie Campbell

Blyth Valley.

Mr. Pawsey

Thank you. The specific concern is about those who have been wrongly identified as the absent parent. The hon. Member for Blyth Valley has brought that point to the notice of the Select Committee on several occasions. I shall bring matters up to date. In the ombudsman's second report on the CSA, he included three further misidentification cases and added that he was still investigating a further three. Mr. Reid says, with an element of Scottish understatement: I regard cases of this kind as being particularly serious and having the potential for ruining stable relationships. I suspect that no one in the House will disagree with that.

In all fairness, I must stress that the number of such cases is limited. At the time of the Select Committee's first inquiry into the agency, we were told that, out of the 203,000 maintenance inquiry forms sent out between 1 April 1994 and 2 December 1994, 70 had gone to the wrong person. From 1 April 1995 to 31 January 1996, the number of identifications made in error, in which the CSA was at fault, amounted to 28 out of 170,000 cases. That is a welcome improvement and the agency undoubtedly deserves credit.

Both the Select Committee and the ombudsman believe, however, that, when misidentification has occurred, there must be a prima facie case for compensation. Clearly, the person wrongly identified has been the victim of a wrong and scandalous allegation. In the Select Committee's report last year, we recommended that financial compensation be paid to those who have been falsely identified as the absent parent.

The Select Committee was pleased that the Government have recently accepted the recommendation and, from 1 April this year, those wrongly identified as absent parents, through the fault of the agency, will receive a consolatory payment of £100. The House may feel that that is a small enough sum when compared to the magnitude of the false allegation.

The consolatory payment does not, however, preclude a request for more generous compensation for worry and distress. Nor will it stop the ombudsman recommending greater generosity should he deem it appropriate. I deeply regret the fact that consolatory payments, small as they are, are to be paid only from 1 April this year. Payments will not be retrospective. The Select Committee—most of its members are present in the Chamber—asks the Government to reconsider the principle of consolatory payments. If it is admitted that payment is due, it is surely entirely indefensible to withhold payment from those who suffered before April. The numbers are small and the amount of cash involved is small.

The Government have changed their policy on interest being paid on delayed payments. That is another change that must be welcomed. The Select Committee certainly applauds it. The ombudsman, in welcoming such changes, makes it clear that there should be a more fundamental reassessment within the DSS of its attitude to compensation and redress. A review is taking place and we look forward to a speedy and helpful conclusion.

We were disappointed by the Department's attitude to making payments for worry and distress caused by maladministration. The Department has always insisted that such payments will be made only where medical evidence can be produced. The Select Committee has always criticised that approach as being far too inflexible. There must surely be occasions—erroneous identification of an absent parent would be one—where the mere facts of the case present ample grounds for assuming exceptional worry and distress. I was pleased when Miss Chant suggested that the agency is moving towards that position.

The Select Committee believes that the Department should move away from its rigid insistence on a medical certificate to prove distress. The Select Committee asks for humane consideration. It will pursue with vigour those cases where it believes that compensation is being denied unreasonably.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even modest compensation, where the ombudsman finds in favour of the complainant and accepts that there has been maladministration, would be acceptable and more tangible than a report finding in favour of complaint, and that the agency should be required to make some compensation when a recommendation is made?

Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I watched my hon. Friend the Minister noting carefully what the hon. Gentleman said. My hon. Friend may refer to the hon. Gentleman's intervention when he contributes to the debate. I have utmost sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's approach.

The Select Committee wishes to express appreciation to the ombudsman and his staff for their work in connection with the CSA. The members of the Committee welcome Miss Chant's assurance that the ombudsman's reports are disseminated throughout the agency and are used in the training of its staff. I hope that as a result the failures that the ombudsman has identified in the past will be avoided in the future. I commend my hon. Friend the Minister and the chief executive of the agency for the work that they have done to improve the standards of the agency's work.

11.33 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

This is an extremely important subject and the debate will be far too short. We are debating a subject that has probably been a significant feature of most hon. Members' constituency mailbags, certainly for the past two years since the agency came into operation. As the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration took half an hour to introduce his topics, only an hour is left before the debate must be brought to an end. I hope that, in future, we can have at least three hours on these matters, especially when two Select Committees are involved in a major issue.

The Select Committee on Social Security has produced three reports on the Child Support Agency, the third quite recently. Two features have characterised the taking of evidence and the preparation of reports. First, there have been many principled objections to the CSA and its operations in general. Secondly, there have been some serious criticisms of its administrative ability and its lack of sensitivity in dealing with the individual cases of a large number of people.

The break-up of a partnership is a difficult and traumatic experience. When children are involved, it is difficult for both parents. It is also difficult for the child or children. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) wishes to talk about the difficulties that ensue.

The Social Security Committee's second report drew attention to the descriptions of parents—the "parent with care" and the "absent parent". The parent who is not living with the children who are a product of the partnership is, of course, absent, but that does not mean that he or she does not care for them, is not interested in them and does not want to have a long-term relationship with them. Indeed, the opposite is the case. I hope that the Minister will recognise that that is not a minor point of political correctness. Descriptions are important because much flows from them. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Many of those who have objected to the CSA have done so on the ground that it collects money to meet targets set by the Secretary of State. It attempts to meet those targets. It has often gone for targets that are easy to deal with rather than the more difficult ones because that has been the way to meet short-term objectives. The amount of money collected and handed back to the Treasury is considerable, whereas the amount collected to benefit the children involved in break-ups is very much smaller.

There has been much discussion about the administrative procedures and principles that lie behind the CSA; little consideration has been given to what is happening to children, who have often gone through a traumatic experience, and who continue to do so. As the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said, the inefficiencies and lack of sensitivity of the CSA in dealing with many cases have led to further problems for children and exacerbated an already difficult situation in relationships.

There are many who strongly supported the approach of a court order system for settlements of marital break-up and dispute. They did so because there would be an element of discretion. The court would have been able to consider the situation in the round, take a sensible view of things and apply orders accordingly. In its initial stages, the CSA had no discretion to enable it to operate any half-sensible policy. That resulted in many difficulties.

The Secretary of State sets collection targets. The Government's obsession with targeting is not necessarily helpful. It leads to a culture of grabbing the fastest return possible, which permeates the agency. Those who work in the agency should be considering the needs and happiness of children of partnerships that, unfortunately, have broken up. Perhaps they should consider the parties and the children involved in a more caring way than they do at present.

I shall be brief, because I know that many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. It is important to say, however, that the Social Security Committee's role in these matters must be to try to reflect public opinion about the efficiency and administration of the CSA. The Committee must try to ensure that the public's opinions are taken up in debates—as we, its members, will try to do this morning.

Opposition to the Child Support Agency will not diminish or go away because of the high level of demand that it places on parents who are no longer in a partnership and who no longer live with their children—I do not want to use the title "absent parents" because many of them are not. They feel bitter and aggrieved at the way in which the CSA has treated them, and we must reflect that.

The main conclusion of the most recent report of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration states: It has not been our intention to investigate or question the policy decisions relating to the CSA. Recent changes introduced by the Government are an implicit acknowledgment that … not all such decisions were correct. There have been enormous changes—112 have already been made. The report continues: What is evident, however, both from a mass of circumstantial evidence and from the Ombudsman's report, is that any policy deficiency was cruelly exacerbated by administrative incompetence. Despite the recent experience of the DLA, basic measures to improve the handling of correspondence and complaints, the training of staff, replying to MPs, dealing with backlogs of work, were all delayed far too long. We trust that any review arising from the experience at the CSA will take much more seriously the need to learn permanent lessons about how to administer any major new project. Serious questions must be asked about an agency that was rushed in in such a way, which has resulted in massive public criticism and huge mailbags for Members of Parliament.

Initially, the CSA was not able to deal even with the criticisms of Members of Parliament. I am not asking for privileges for Members of Parliament—I do not think that anyone is asking that—but if a constituent cannot get anything done by a Government Department or Government agency, they properly go to their Member of Parliament, who rightly demands a rapid response and rapid treatment. What credibility do Members of Parliament or this place have if they, too, cannot get an answer from a Government Department? That matter must be considered thoroughly.

In 1994–95, only 44 per cent. of all assessments were accurate. I know that claims have been made of an improvement in accuracy, but only 44 per cent.—less than half—is a dismal performance by any stretch of the imagination. There has also been a failure to meet assessment targets, so arrears of payment have built up, which is a serious matter.

In 1995, unpaid maintenance reached a total of £701 million, which is a serious figure. I recall dealing with cases in which the failure to pay maintenance to the family or the caring parent with the child meant that they had to go back to the Department of Social Security to try to secure a crisis loan to get through a process that should have been resolved in the first place. That is bureaucratic inefficiency gone mad, and must be examined.

From the evidence that the Select Committee took, there were suggestions that self-employed people were treated much less rigorously than employed people, and that self-employed people could deflate their income by transferring legitimate personal expenditure to business expenditure, thus falsely lowering their income and the amount that they were liable to pay. That is easy to do and must be examined much more assiduously.

There are concerns about poor customer service, which we have referred to in our report. There are also extreme concerns about the poor quality of information and its comprehensibility.

We must consider other concerns. The level of assessment that is being made by the Child Support Agency often means that the parent who is no longer in direct care of the children—who is described as the absent parent in all the reports—is often left with insufficient money on which to survive. I think that, in our advice surgeries, we have all met people whose partnership has broken up, who are no longer in direct day-to-day charge of the children, but who want to have a good relationship with them.

Women and men have visited my surgery who are no longer in a direct day-to-day relationship and who have been told to pay such a huge amount of money to the CSA that they can barely live themselves, never mind find the fare to visit the children, buy presents for them or take them on holiday, which are all important for a proper caring relationship between parents and their children. The complete lack of discretion in the CSA formula has led to many of the problems.

Likewise, where parents on income support are in care of the children, the lack of a sufficient maintenance disregard means that they are no better off. The state is benefiting because it is taking money from the so-called absent parent, but the money is not going through to the parent to pass on to the children. There should be a sufficient maintenance disregard. The Select Committee has discussed that in previous reports.

The CSA has been targeting cases that are the easiest to deal with. More complex cases, where threats of violence are involved and where a parent feels extreme fear, seem to be shoved to one side as too difficult to deal with—and because the CSA must deal with the targets that the Government are always pushing it to meet as rapidly as possible.

The other general point is that, sometimes, on the break-up of a partnership, informal arrangements between the parents have been effective. Both parents are satisfied with the arrangements. The children are happy with them. They see that their estranged parents at least have a relaxed relationship. I have come across cases where such a satisfactory arrangement has been made, where a sum of money has been paid to the parent who is looking after the children and where, informally, the other parent is spending much more money on the children—presents, holidays and trips—as part of the relationship. The CSA, however, comes along and demands a doubling or trebling of the amount being paid, so the other parent has no money left to develop a normal relationship. There is a complete lack of flexibility in the arrangement.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

In the case that the hon. Gentleman has cited, the Child Support Agency would not be involved. Where a mother and father agree on the maintenance that should be paid and the taxpayer is not involved by paying benefit, that is an arrangement between them and there is no need for the agency to become involved.

Mr. Corbyn

I appreciate that, but where one of the parents is on benefit, the CSA does become involved. I was referring to that situation. I hope that the Minister understood my point.

Mr. Mitchell

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again but, in that situation, it must be right and proper for the CSA to hold the ring—that is what Parliament decided when the Child Support Act 1991 was passed—between the mother, the father and the taxpayer. It is wrong that the taxpayer should have to pay unnecessarily. Taxpayers often bring up children of their own on low incomes. We must have an eye to that in deciding the fair maintenance level that should be paid.

Mr. Corbyn

It is all very well for the Minister to say that, but there are two problems. First, the child is not any better off as a result of money being taken from the other parent—necessarily if the family is on benefit. Secondly, the Minister will be aware of the disruption that can be caused to other arrangements and other relationships, which is a serious consideration. There must be much greater flexibility.

The Social Security Committee has considered and visited Child Support Agency offices and centres. We remain concerned about the service's efficiency. The agency's apparent achievement of targets in 1995–96 is astounding. For example, the target of 90 per cent. of payments to be made to the parent with care within 10 working days of receipt from the absent parent has apparently been overshot by 7 percentage points—it is 97 per cent. I should like to know the basis on which that information was collected because, knowing just the cases that I deal with, I have some serious questions about it. I am sure that other hon. Members are in the same position. A little more detail, therefore, on how the scores have been achieved would be extremely welcome.

11.48 am
Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk)

I want to make just two points, but before making either of them, may I say how sad it is that we must have a Child Support Agency in the first place. It is a sad comment on the state of our country. Whatever financial arrangements are made for children when marriages or partnerships—as they are now sometimes called—break up, the children are almost always deeply damaged. We fool ourselves, as a House and as a nation, if we think that by making proper financial provision for them—at whatever level—we can compensate for the damage that has been done. We should not think that money, new arrangements and what is sometimes called quality time with children can put things right.

My first point relates to whether legislation passed by the House does what the House expects it to do. When we debated the Bill that became the Child Support Act 1991, we all thought that its purpose was to chase errant parents who were contributing nothing to their children's welfare; but once the Act was in operation, the priority seemed to be increasing existing payments, about which we already knew, because they were the easier targets. Meanwhile, the errant parents got away with it because it was harder to catch up with them.

The figures suggest that we are now getting those people into the net, and that they are contributing to their children's upbringing. Nevertheless, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not just to increase the payments of absent parents to a reasonable level—it should not be an unreasonable level, as hon. Members have pointed out—but, despite the complications, to pursue even more vigorously parents who are paying nothing. That, after all, was the driving force behind the Act.

Secondly, as a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, I must say that I am appalled that we could introduce a Bill that would have such far-reaching consequences, and affect so many people in relation to such sensitive issues, without having the faintest idea how we would cope once it was in operation. Our Select Committee has seen example after example of grotesque incompetence—and nothing is worse than the fact that, the day before the button was pressed to launch the system, it must have been clear to those involved that it simply would not work. On one occasion, in the Select Committee, I compared it to the charge of the Light Brigade. The idea that the administrative system could deal with the volume of problems and the deluge of correspondence was clearly nonsense, and it should have been recognised as such long before the legislation was initiated.

Every hon. Member can cite individual cases. I encountered a happily married man who was suddenly told that he would have to start paying for an eight-year-old son who did not exist. Despite his protestations—his letters telling the agency that it had the wrong initials and the wrong details, and my letters trying to put the matter right—the case dragged on for months, doing huge damage to the man and his family, until, finally, the agency admitted that it was wrong and relieved the family of their distress. There has been much talk of compensation this morning, and I agree with what has been said, but I think that all that my constituent and his wife want is to be left in peace. They wish that they had never been assaulted by the Child Support Agency in the first place.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

As a fellow member of the Select Committee, the hon. Gentleman will remember that that happened twice to a constituent of mine. Although he was assured that his experience would not be repeated, in the following year the same claim was made against my constituent in relation to a child whom he had not fathered. It turned out that the actual father lived 300 miles away. Should not the victims of such errors—especially double errors of that kind—be allowed compensation, even if their cases date from before April 1996?

Mr. Lord

I entirely agree, but my point is that there are some things that money cannot put right. Those responsible should bear that in mind, and think carefully before they act.

I believe that the system operated by the CSA is fundamentally wrong. It has now introduced an arrangement known as "total functionalisation". The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) will know that one of my big beefs in the Select Committee is about communication, and the way in which we get things wrong through the use of jargon. "Total functionalisation"—two words that no one can understand—is a prime example. I understand that it means that, when an organisation such as the CSA is being set up from scratch and there are misgivings about how it will work, instead of one member of staff being responsible for a particular client there is something resembling a car production line: different people have different inputs at different stages, whether the case relates to birth certificates, national insurance numbers or whatever.

If one person does not have individual responsibility, it is not surprising that there are problems. It may not be possible to remedy the situation in the short term—I acknowledge that there are huge pressures on the CSA—but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to think seriously about changing the system fundamentally, so that individual members of staff can have individual responsibility for individual cases and see those cases through. We should know who is responsible for a case, our constituents should know and, most important, the member of staff concerned should know that the buck stops with him or her.

The Select Committee constantly emphasises that, although there is a good deal of point in dealing with complaints as we do, if, when the Parliamentary Commissioner makes his reports, we do not learn from all the damage and distress that our constituents have experienced—if we do not put things right so that we do not keep receiving complaints—we shall have missed a golden opportunity.

11.56 am
Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

I realise that we have very little time, so I shall try to be as brief as possible.

We are debating some important reports, and I think that it would be wrong not to mention the report of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as well. It stated that lone mothers and children had obtained no net financial gain from the Child Support Agency and that there was no evidence that lone mothers were getting back into work, or being encouraged to do so. It also stated that emotional harm was being done to children. We know that that is true from what we are told by constituents in our surgeries; I know from a man who was sitting in my surgery in floods of tears.

The man in question had had a reasonable relationship with his ex-wife and an excellent relationship with his son, who lived some distance away. He used to visit his son regularly, take presents, and make masses of telephone calls. As soon as the Child Support Agency became involved, his ex-wife used it as a stick to beat him with. She started to say to his son, "Your father does not love you any more. He is not giving you presents; he is not coming to see you as much." The man—who was a tough man—sat in my surgery in floods of tears. He had just received a telephone call from his son, who had told him, "I don't want to see you any more. I don't love you any more," and then put down the receiver. That is the emotional harm. That is the cost of the CSA in human terms.

In his report, the Parliamentary Commissioner says that the same mistakes are being made as were being made at the time of his last report. There are cases of mistaken identity, inadequate procedures, delays and confusion, but now new faults have been identified, such as breaches of confidentiality. At long last, the Minister is to appoint an independent complaints examiner. I welcome that, but let us consider mistaken identity.

Is £100 any compensation for what might happen to a family when a letter accusing a man of fathering a child arrives on the doormat? Of course he will discuss the matter with his wife, but the untold damage that results from wrongly accusing a man of fathering a child—perhaps during the course of his relationship with his wife—cannot be compensated by £100. Those mistakes should not be occurring.

The DSS says that the CSA is getting better, but it still has a dismal record. In April 1995, 50 per cent. of cases were being cleared within 26 weeks. I gather that provisional figures show that, by the end of March, the rate was 48 per cent.—down, even, on April 1995.

In response to a parliamentary question about confidential information, I was told that, up to 31 October 1995, eight staff had been dismissed and that 10 had been disciplined. The CSA has a worse record than any other agency in the Department of Social Security.

What about telephone calls? A letter arrives—again—from the CSA, panic sets in because someone is being asked for more money than they can afford, and they try to make a telephone call to the CSA. In about 50 per cent. of cases, they do not get through—they either give up trying or calls are not answered. That cannot be right when people are supposed to try to have their queries answered as quickly as possible.

On the Social Security Committee report—

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Lynne

I have very little time, I am afraid.

The Select Committee used as a source the answer to one of my parliamentary questions. The answer to that question revealed that, of the 46,000 full assessments between April and August 1995, 20,700—45per cent. of the total—were for £2.35 or less. That really is small beer when we consider what the CSA was supposed to accomplish.

In evidence to the Select Committee, the Child Poverty Action Group spoke of the review backlog—it was one of the main aspects of its evidence. That problem has to be dealt with.

As for the computer system, why on earth was a system that was based on a Florida system—and used in a collection agency—chosen in the first place? The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) drew that matter to the attention of the Select Committee. The Department of Social Security must have realised, in view of the work that the CSA would have to do, that it was simply not adequate—and it was brought in far too quickly. I gather that the same company is being used by the Inland Revenue, and that that system, too, will be brought in far too quickly. If there have been problems with the CSA's system, imagine the problems that the Inland Revenue will have using it for self-assessment. The system is just not up to the job.

I do not believe that there is any evidence that the CSA is improving the lot of the parent with care. It is certainly not improving the lot of the liable parent, and it is damaging children. First and foremost, children should come first—as the Child Support Act 1991 stated.

The CSA is causing untold human misery, and it is less effective than the old liable relatives unit—although that operated in a pretty crazy way and certainly did not collect the maintenance that it should have done. The CSA is even worse than the liable relatives unit. It is a total, unmitigated failure, and it should be scrapped. A fair unified family court system should be introduced so that every case can be assessed individually. Children might then come first.

12.3 pm

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

I was struck by the coincidence that the House is this morning discussing child support and, this afternoon, the Family Law Bill. In broader terms, the timing is not a coincidence because Governments and Parliaments, not only in Europe but worldwide, have to grapple with the very difficult issues of family formation and family dissolution, and particularly with the issue of divorce. I was struck by those links.

I wonder whether the Under-Secretary of State has had any talks with the Lord Chancellor's Department about the relationship between child maintenance processes and the new divorce procedures—not least for mediation—that are being proposed in the Family Law Bill. I know that the issues are complex and that they differ from one another in many respects, but if this Parliament is to discuss and perhaps adopt a new process of mediation for divorce cases, the issue of child maintenance will not be irrelevant to those proceedings. I should like to feel that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Department of Social Security are at least in talks, and that any interface has been explored by the Government.

Much has been said—not only in this debate—about the sorry history of the Child Support Agency. I listened with great interest to the way in which the debate was introduced by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey). I also listened to the other speeches with great care.

We do not need to rehearse the arguments about the CSA because we all know that it has, in many respects, been an administrative failure on a very large scale. My concern is that we are in danger of missing a great opportunity of getting this policy right. One way or another, we have to establish—not only in principle but in practice—the fact that both parents have a financial responsibility for their children. If we fail to bring about, in some respects, a cultural change so that it is widely accepted that both parents have a financial responsibility for their children's maintenance—almost whatever the circumstances, although there will always be some exceptions—it will remain a recipe for new forms of family and child poverty, growing social disadvantage and new forms of social and economic inequality.

My anger about the CSA debacle is that it may have eroded public confidence in the Government's ability to introduce decent proposals for child maintenance. We need to rescue the policy. It started off in public debate as a recognition that fathers who had never paid a penny in support should be traced and made to face up to their responsibilities, but it has now led to a grave undermining of public confidence. There is much work to be done.

The Minister will no doubt talk about the Government's indicators and he will point to improvements. I recognise that there have been improvements, but I also recognise that we are starting from a very dire base. The word "dire" was, in fact, used by the Select Committee on Social Security to describe the history of the policy's first 18 months.

The agency's targets, such as procedures taking no more than 26 weeks, are fairly modest. If we were dealt with in 26 weeks by our bank or some other crucial institution in relation to our personal affairs, we would not be overly impressed.

I also argue that the targets do not include all the right objectives, and that other indicators are more important. At the broadest level, it is crucial for social policy and family law to enable more parents, whatever their situation, to be responsible for bringing up their children. One of the saddest statistics that I have seen in recent years was from the York survey—commissioned by the Department of Social Security a few years ago—which showed that, in 43 per cent. of one-parent families, there was no contact between the child and the so-called absent parent, who was usually the father. That is an extraordinarily sad statistic. We need to encourage in various ways—in very difficult demographic circumstances—both parents to have a responsibility. That responsibility includes financial maintenance, but it is hardly the only issue.

As mentioned earlier in the debate, one of the crucial indicators will be how the policy impacts on children's material circumstances and on the issue of child poverty. One of the reasons why we have consistently argued for a disregard is that we feel that people on income support should receive some net benefit and net income increase from what is, after all, meant to be a child support policy rather than a policy to support the Exchequer. Will the Minister tell the House what proportion of parents with care have a net benefit and net income increase from child support policy as the strategy is now operated?

Another important indicator is whether the child support policy can be made to ensure that more parents with care who are currently out of work can return to the labour market should they wish to do so. We need to examine the strategy in those circumstances, too. I am concerned that many parents with care who are in work and receiving family credit can find that, because of a rule that many of us regard as beneficial in general—the rule that states that family credit is reassessed only after six months—they are worse off when child maintenance stops. Will the Minister share his thoughts on that with the House? Can we improve the situation so that mothers who are doing their best to be independent, albeit with support from the state, are not penalised when child maintenance suddenly dries up and family credit appears to be pretty inflexible?

I am also concerned that there are still a large number of cases in which, sometimes literally, fathers have never paid a penny or a pound, but are still getting away with not doing so. I am impressed by the fact that, alongside cases of fathers complaining about the inequities of the CSA and how it affects them, I am receiving more correspondence from mothers—or the parents with care—saying that they thought that Parliament had passed an Act for them, that they have given the CSA all the details but that, two or three years later, the guy is still getting away with it. Often, those people have children from more than one relationship. How is Government policy working out in that instance?

The Select Committee had something to say about collusion and the "good cause" for the parent with care not to give information to the CSA. We are concerned to tackle the problem of collusion. We recognise that it exists and that it has to be targeted as part of a more comprehensive anti-fraud strategy, but the safety and welfare of the mother who is genuinely worried about violence and who may have been the victim of domestic violence is still absolutely paramount when it comes to trying to get a difficult policy right in practice.

The Select Committee also made some interesting noises about whether the Inland Revenue might be the best agency to collect child support. We are interested in what proposals the Committee will come up with and we are very open-minded about it. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's view at this stage.

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

I am grateful to the Chairmen of the two Select Committees for providing us with an opportunity to discuss the Child Support Agency's work. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, for his generous personal remarks and for what I thought was a balanced presentation of his Committee's work in respect of the CSA. I reiterate what the chief executive of the agency said in giving evidence to that Committee. She said that the agency was truly sorry for the enormous work load that it had imposed on the ombudsman and that it was determined to make considerable advances, to ensure that the work load in the future was dramatically reduced.

My remarks will be brief as I do not wish to detain the House for long. This is an opportunity for my colleagues and me to listen to the comments of the members of the two Committees, and I have certainly done just that. I shall respond in writing to any comments that they may have made which I cannot respond to now.

There is no doubt that the context of our debate on the CSA has changed, despite the views of the Liberal Democrats. Its targets, which were referred to rather dismissively by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), concern not only collection and arrangement but a range of the agency's other activities. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there are other aspects that we should try to target in terms of service standards, I hope that he will tell us, because we would certainly consider his views.

The funding arranged for children and for mothers, principally, over the past year has increased dramatically. It is not money for the Treasury, as the hon. Member for Islington, North suggested. In fact, 75 per cent. of the £301.5 million maintenance paid by absent parents has gone to parents with care, and 25 per cent. has been retained by the Secretary of State, but that, of course, is to offset social security benefits that have been paid for their children by the taxpayer. That is a remarkable improvement. In the last month alone, the agency collected more money than in the whole of its first year of operation. That reveals how dire the performance was in the early days, but it also shows how far the agency has come.

Accuracy has been mentioned. Accuracy to within 1p, which is the measure that we use, has increased from 50 per cent. to 79 per cent., exceeding the target of 75 per cent. Accuracy is a matter of great concern to both Select Committees, and I pay tribute to the agency for that dramatic increase. We have set the agency a harsh target for next year, and I am determined that it shall meet it.

Mention was made of the speed with which money is passed to the parent with care. The hon. Member for Islington, North said that he found the figure of 97 per cent. suspicious. The figure is all the more remarkable, in that the remaining 3 per cent. covers bouncing cheques and so on. That shows that the agency is getting the money through quickly, which I know has been a matter of great concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk (Mr. Lord) hit the nail on the head when he explained the circumstances in which the CSA operates. In relation to the CSA's performance and whether it aims at soft targets, I can say that about 77 per cent. of all clients of the agency were getting nothing at all when they first approached the agency. Therefore, it is not a case of the agency aiming at easy targets.

The agency has traced 133,000 absent parents and now traces about 1,000 a week. They are people who are trying to get away without meeting their commitments. The agency's performance in that respect has also improved significantly.

Of course, the CSA undertakes not only a child support assessment operation but enforcement, which has also been mentioned today. One thousand deduction from earnings orders are imposed each week, and there has been a massive increase in the number of liability orders that have been sought and obtained in the past year. The CSA will shortly be able to register debt on the register of county court judgments which, in other instances, have proved to be an effective way of ensuring that the self-employed meet their obligations.

As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth made a very balanced speech from the point of view of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. We shall shortly hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), the deputy Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security. The Chairman has an unbreakable appointment and is not able to be with us, but my hon. Friend will fill his shoes admirably.

The Government have replied to the report published by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, and we greatly welcome that issued by the Social Security Select Committee. Its robust approach to and support for the principles of our child support policies are greatly welcomed. I also welcome the comments made by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks), and agree with all of them except for that in relation to the disregard.

The agency is unique among Government operations in that it needs to balance the interests of a number of parties, including the mother, father and taxpayer, in every case that it handles. The process is inevitably complex and therefore at risk of error or deliberate obstruction. There is therefore the potential for any part of the processes involved to break down, and there is more likelihood that one or other of the parents in any case will complain. A good result for the parent with care may well be a bad result for an absent parent, or vice versa.

The changes that the Government introduced in—

Mr. Connarty


Mr. Mitchell

I apologise for not giving way, but time is short. I must make progress.

The changes that the Government introduced in 1995 addressed the main areas of concern. They were introduced to avoid undue hardship for the parents involved and to enable the CSA to operate more effectively. Some of the changes resulted from the considered and helpful Select Committee reports.

We introduced a cap on maintenance assessments, which restricts the amount that an absent parent can be assessed as having to pay to a maximum of 30 per cent. of his net income. I urge the House to judge some of the lurid hardship stories that we read about in that context.

There is now also an allowance in the formula for travel-to-work costs and provision to recognise existing property and capital settlements. Future changes, which are currently being piloted, will allow for a departure from the formula assessment in prescribed circumstances. We also plan to introduce a child maintenance bonus, which will provide a lump sum payment for parents with care moving off benefit into work, which will be introduced in April 1997.

In addition, we have introduced changes to improve the agency's administration, including some simplifications in the assessment of housing costs and earnings, and changes in the review procedures. The agency has introduced measures to improve the accuracy of its assessments through enhanced training and better targeted quality checks. It is making better use of local office staff, by extending the availability of the child support computer system to local offices. Those changes have led to the significant improvement in accuracy that I mentioned earlier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth referred to the CSA's functional approach to inquiries. What in CSA jargon is called the CAST—complete action service team—system, which means that cases will be handled virtually totally on one desk, will be introduced in the coming year and result in a much more user-friendly service being available to the agency's clients.

Those and other changes to the policies have been introduced speedily and efficiently by the agency, which has been acknowledged by the Select Committees on Social Security and on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in recent reports.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mitchell

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, because I shall not. I want to make a number of other points.

As I announced recently, an independent complaints examiner will be appointed later this year, which is in response to the ombudsman's suggestion in his report. I also recently announced improvements that we are introducing to the CSA's compensation scheme. Parents with care will now receive interest payments on any maintenance that is collected by the agency but not passed on quickly. In addition, we have reduced from three months to one month the period after which compensation will be considered for "culpable delay". A new type of conciliatory payment has been introduced for cases where a maintenance inquiry form is sent to the wrong person.

The Social Security Committee is critical of the fact that some violent or threatening absent parents are rewarded for their unacceptable behaviour by being exempt from paying maintenance". We share that concern. The extent of the problem has been highlighted by the report, "Good Cause", which we recently published. Its findings suggest that there is a high level of collusion among some parents with care and absent parents who use the alleged threat of harm and undue distress to avoid being assessed by the agency.

We have therefore made a number of recommendations to address those findings. In particular, we are considering doubling the amount of the reduced benefit direction. That penalty is imposed when the parent refuses to co-operate with the agency for no good reason. We are also proposing that the penalty should remain in force for as long as the relevant child qualifies for child support maintenance, rather than for 18 months as at present.

The Social Security Committee has said that it is considering a radical simplification of the formula method of assessment. The less complex the formula, the greater the level of rough justice. I should tell the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West that in Australia and New Zealand, where there is a simpler method of assessment, pressure groups claim that the approach is less fair than those in use elsewhere.

Last year there was major change in primary legislation. There have been many further administrative and legislative changes in the agency. The aim is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its work, and the figures that I was able to announce to the House yesterday demonstrate that a significant start has been made. The agency is getting maintenance through for children. Above all, it is increasingly doing what is absolutely key to its work—providing for fair maintenance levels.

There will still be difficulties. Both Select Committees are at pains to point out that the agency touches on the most difficult and sensitive aspects of many people's lives. There are still far too many complaints about its work, but the nature of them is changing. As the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West said, the balance of complaints often comes from women who know that they can receive the maintenance to which they are entitled because of examples of payments among their friends and neighbours. They write to the agency to ensure that they get what they deserve.

It is also true that, by and large, complaints from fathers are about the imposition of a deduction from earnings order. That is the nature of the vast majority of complaints that I receive from absent parents. It is right, however, and in the interests of children that a deduction from earnings order should be imposed, and we do so only when it is impossible to secure payments by any other means.

The Government are committed to doing whatever is necessary to continue the recent steep improvement in the CSA's work, and to ensure that it delivers the service that Parliament originally set for it, and which its clients have a right to expect.

12.24 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for creating the new position of deputy Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security and for appointing me to it. Doubtless I shall recover eventually.

Mr. Corbyn

I doubt it.

Mr. Hughes

I have been told that I shall not recover from it, and I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for saying so.

Debates on the CSA are too often more historical than contemporary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, said. That is in essence the apparent difference between the reports of the two Select Committees.

I do not want to put it too strongly, but I am impelled to question how seriously we should take the comments of the Parliamentary Commissioner, who does not have targets to meet on the time taken to consider cases, on how long the CSA takes to consider cases—

Mr. Connarty

That is not true.

Mr. Hughes

He takes rather longer than the CSA. I welcome what my hon. Friends the Chairman and the Minister said about the improvements in meeting those targets.

Mr. Connarty

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

No, I will not, because I have very little time.

The Social Security Committee's recent report marks quite a change. It says: The Agency has shown that it is able to implement significant changes … quickly and efficiently … the Government should be confident that the Agency will be able to efficiently implement further changes". It is important that people recognise that and that the CSA is here to stay. It will need to change and to continue to evolve. I echo the praise of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth for the changes that have been made by my hon. Friend the Minister and by the chief executive, Ann Chant, who has transformed the way in which the agency works.

Managers and staff at the agency have worked extremely hard and effectively in dealing with a backlog, a raft of substantial changes and abuse from people who do not like either the way in which they have been treated or—very often—the decisions that have been made. We should consider two things. First is the effect of our words on the staff. They need to understand that we recognise that improvements have been made. Of course there are problems, but we recognise that they have worked hard and made improvements.

Secondly, we need to recognise the effect on CSA customers. A rather rose-tinted view of absent parents has run through the debate. Yet many such people are absent. They connive and lie to exempt themselves from paying for the upkeep of their own children and simply think that the taxpayer should pick up the tab. Of course, many have been the victims of bad administration, but many others deserve—and will receive—the full weight and pressure of the CSA.

I should like to comment on the report "Good Cause", to which my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) referred. The Social Security Committee's recent report recommended that a review of the practice and procedure in this area should be undertaken by the agency, and that its findings should be made known and acted on. We wanted a simplified complaints procedure.

My hon. Friend the Minister has broken new ground. He has set an admirable precedent in asking the Select Committee to consider a number of issues such as the level of benefit deductions made because of non-co-operation, the duration and circumstances of those deductions, whether the cooling-off period should be abolished, whether benefit should be dependent on co-operation, and how procedures can best be applied to guard against collusion. This afternoon, we shall consider when and how we shall respond.

I agreed entirely with what the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West said about the protection of the woman who has been threatened with violence. However, apple pie is not policy and that is all that he gave us today.

Plainly, our Committee, like the other Select Committee, will return to the subject many times. However, we must accept that when changes are made, those very improvements and administrative successes will be used by people to criticise the work of the CSA. If one does not want to pay, an effective CSA is worse than an ineffective CSA.

There are three messages. We welcome the massive improvements, we look for more effective administration and better handling of customers—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)