HC Deb 15 December 1997 vol 303 cc12-4
15. Mr. Blizzard

What progress has been made to improve the operation of the Child Support Agency. [19071]

Mr. Keith Bradley

We are determined to ensure that the Child Support Agency provides an effective and efficient service for all its customers. There are some signs that the agency's performance has improved since its early days. For example, more child support maintenance is now collected and passed on to lone mothers each month by the agency than was in the whole of its first year. However, we are certainly not complacent and we realise that there is still a very long way to go before the agency's customers receive an adequate level of service. We are therefore looking closely at all aspects of the agency' s work to ensure that it provides a consistent, fair and efficient service to all its clients. We aim to bring forward proposals in the first half of next year.

Mr. Blizzard

I fully realise the scale of the problem with the CSA: it is one that we inherited from the previous Government and it is why I have noticed no reduction in the number of constituents who come to my surgeries seeking my help to resolve problems. One of the worst problems relates to the difficulty of communicating with Belfast, especially by telephone. Will the Minister look into the recent announcement by the CSA about the withdrawal of local field officers from my constituency and, I think, from others? My office has found them useful in efforts to resolve problems. At the end of the review, will my hon. Friend ensure that the system gets for the resident parent the child support to which that parent is entitled and that the non-resident parent faces a bill, if I may call it that, that he—it is usually a man—can afford to pay? In my surgery it is not only women constituents who cry about the lack of support; men cry about the bill from the CSA and say that they cannot pay it.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I held an advice surgery this weekend and I fully appreciate the number of Child Support Agency cases that are still being brought to the attention of hon. Members. We must improve the situation and ensure that both parents—the one who is looking after the children and the one who is not—understand what the amount of money should be. There must be a proper communications system between Child Support Agency centres, whether they are in Belfast or anywhere else, so that people have an efficient and reliable service that they fully understand. I shall certainly consider as part of the review process the points that my hon. Friend has raised. I hope that, when our proposals are presented next year, those items will be properly addressed in the review.

Sir David Madel

Does the answer to the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) mean that the Government really will make it easier for people to have local interviews when they run into problems with the Child Support Agency—rather than the reverse, as the hon. Member for Waveney suggested? My constituents cannot get through to Dudley, Plymouth, Hastings or Belfast.

Madam Speaker

Hear, hear.

Sir David Madel

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Could the Government increase the number of people who can give a local interview—as one can see one's income tax man, VAT man or rent officer locally? I need go no further.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments and for your support, Madam Speaker. It is essential that our active modern service proposals produce a social security system—of which child support is a crucial part—that allows the best communication at the most appropriate time, whether through face-to-face interviews, better communication by telephone or through the use of other technology. We must examine all these means of communication and the way in which the agency operates—including its working hours and weekend working—so that people can communicate in the way that best suits them and their families.

Mr. Wicks

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the most extraordinary features of last week's controversy about lone parents was that all the talk was about mothers? It was as though children have only one parent and that it is up to mothers to look after their children, however young, and to find the wage for the family income. Does my hon. Friend agree that although there have been major problems concerning the CSA, the great scandal is that only 20 per cent. of mothers on income support currently receive any child maintenance from the CSA and that the Government must foster policies on access and maintenance so that those children—some of the poorest in Britain—are cared for and funded by both their mothers and their fathers?

Mr. Bradley

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned clearly in her speech to the House last week. We must ensure that maintenance is paid reliably, so that the parent with care knows that that income will be available. As part of the drive for efficiency and fairness in the CSA, that is one of the items at the top of the agenda.

Miss Mcintosh

Does the Minister accept that it is wrong for the Government to withhold the funds that have been overpaid by parents simply because those parents can be traced, as the Minister remarked at the previous Question Time on this subject? The fact that a parent can be traced does not give the CSA the right to withhold money. Where a genuine overpayment has been made, the money must be returned at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's comment. Efficiency in the agency must mean not only that the right money is paid over, but that if any overpayments have been made, the money is returned appropriately. We will look into the matter again and I shall write to the hon. Lady with further details.