HC Deb 19 March 1996 vol 274 cc165-6
11. Mr. Win Griffiths

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many parents with care have been waiting more than a year to receive money for their children under the Child Support Act 1991. [19709]

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

Currently there are 194,000 parents, out of 1.5 million so far taken on by the agency, who made a maintenance application more than a year ago and have yet to have a maintenance assessment.

I can announce to the House that the Child Support Agency will now be paying interest on maintenance that it has collected which is due for onward payment to the parent with care but has not been passed on within 28 days. That will apply to all payments received since 1 April 1995.

Mr. Griffiths

I welcome the Minister's announcement. Does that not show that the Government have at last recognised that the CSA has been a shambles from the beginning? Would it not have been better if the Minister had announced today either that more staff would be employed to run the system or that the system would be simplified so that parents with care could receive their money more quickly?

Mr. Mitchell

As the ombudsman found, there is no problem with staffing—the CSA has taken on additional staff—and the system is constantly being simplified.

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question related to a different matter. It is common knowledge across the House that the start of the CSA was "dire", as the Select Committee on Social Security put it. In its recent report, however, the Select Committee said: The CSA is now on a surer footing and a whole range of indicators suggest that improvements are being made. We are determined that those improvements should continue in the months ahead, just as they have been evident in the months gone by.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

Does my hon. Friend share my dismay that the ombudsman's report did not seem to take account of what is happening now in the CSA rather than historically? Can my hon. Friend tell the House the current figure for speed of payment to the parent with care? Will my hon. Friend also note that although the ombudsman criticised the average of 30 weeks taken by the CSA to clear up cases, perhaps we should judge that in the context of the average of 70 weeks that the ombudsman takes to clear up his own cases?

Mr. Mitchell

On the first point, 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. As for the length of time it takes to get money from the agency to the parent with care, I was surprised at the ombudsman's criticism. The agency has been set a target to get payments out within 10 days to 90 per cent. of parents with care; this year, it has exceeded that target and managed to reach 97 per cent. of parents. The remaining 3 per cent. includes cheques that bounced. In that respect, I do not consider that the ombudsman's criticisms of the CSA were valid.

Ms Lynne

In the light of the second critical report by the parliamentary ombudsman into the working of the Child Support Agency, in which he catalogues a series of errors such as the general mishandling of cases, mistaken identity and giving out confidential information, is it not about time that the Minister admitted defeat, scrapped the agency and brought in a fair and workable system?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Lady is wrong. First, on the cases which the ombudsman examined, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), some 14 of those 20 cases referred to events which took place in 1993 when the agency was in a very different condition. The hon. Lady is wrong to suggest scrapping the agency. It is here to stay. There is a wide consensus across Britain—if not among the Liberal Democrats—that the principles behind the CSA are right and proper in the interests of getting maintenance to the children who rightfully deserve it.

The House will have seen that regulations were laid last Monday for the piloting of the departure scheme. That is most important to the development of the CSA as it will enable us to deal with the small minority of cases which cannot be dealt with fairly under the formula.

Sir Donald Thompson

Does my hon. Friend agree that, proportionately, a year is a long time in the life of a child and that interest paid at the end of a year cannot do much to compensate for any deprivation that the child may have suffered? Will he continue with his efforts in nagging, cajoling and persuading the staff of the CSA to improve their performance and thus avoid further criticism?

Mr. Mitchell

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The CSA has been set demanding targets for next year to improve its accuracy to 85 per cent. and to increase the maintenance that it arranges and collects. There will be no resting by the CSA in its determination to ensure that there is a proper improvement in its service.

Mr. Wicks

Is the Minister not being complacent and dismissive of the ombudsman's important work and report? Is he not concerned that one third of complaints to the ombudsman involve the Child Support Agency? Why has he not appointed an independent complaints adjudicator, as recommended by the ombudsman a year ago? Why has that appointment not been made? Will he announce that appointment today to bring some much needed fairness into the system?

Mr. Mitchell

In respect of the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, we are looking at the ombudsman's report with great care. I was responding to a specific question on the time taken to get money through to the parent with care. The hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind that the ombudsman looked at 195 cases. The CSA deals with 1.25 million cases. We are determined—there is certainly no complacency in the agency or among Ministers—to make certain that the CSA's performance improves. The hon. Gentleman's second point about an independent examiner is interesting and helpful. We are nearing the conclusion of our discussions on it and I hope to be able to say something to the House shortly.