HC Deb 15 December 1997 vol 303 cc16-8
20. Mr. Bill O'Brien

How many cases involving the Child Support Agency have been referred to the independent case examiner; and if she will make a statement. [19076]

Mr. Keith Bradley

The office of the independent case examiner started work on 7 April 1997. By 30 November, 634 complaints about the Child Support Agency had been received. Of those, 378 have been accepted for investigation, of which 97 have been resolved.

We acknowledge the important contribution that the independent case examiner can make to improving service standards for the agency's clients and we are determined to ensure that any shortcomings that she identifies will be addressed effectively.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which indicates that the Child Support Agency was established by the previous Tory Government in a totally inappropriate manner and that the agency lacks a proper and fair appeals system to help people understand its work. Will he assure me that the independent case examiner's work will be given sufficient backing so that there is a quick response to pending appeals and that there will not be a replication of the previous situation, in which the ombudsman was so overwhelmed by referrals from the CSA that an independent examiner had to be appointed? Will the independent case examiner receive sufficient support to ensure that cases are dealt with quickly?

Mr. Bradley

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Under proposals in the Social Security Bill, the appeals system has been streamlined to ensure that service on appeals is more efficient and effective. We also think that the independent case examiner is crucial in ensuring much better service, in identifying cases much more quickly and in resolving those cases as speedily as possible. That action is essential to restore confidence in the Child Support Agency, which I know every hon. Member will welcome.

Mr. Flight

Will the Minister assure the House that the CSA will give priority to the hard cases of parents who make no contribution towards their children and not to the soft cases in which all the data are easily available and which often seem to result in considerable injustice?

Mr. Bradley

It is essential that there is fairness and efficiency across the board at the Child Support Agency and that all parents who have a responsibility to their child through proper payment of child maintenance fulfil that responsibility. That is the Government's commitment. We want a fair and efficient service to ensure that our commitment is met as quickly as possible.

Mr. Drew

Does my hon. Friend agree that the basic problem with the Child Support Agency is that the formula is hideously complicated and that many questions on appeal are a consequence of the lack of clarity with which the agency uses that formula?

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said, I held an advice bureau this weekend at which someone produced their correspondence on the formula. Although it is alleged that I am meant to understand those matters, I found the correspondence incomprehensible. That incomprehensibility is why the formula is being considered in the child support review. Next year, we hope to introduce proposals to ensure not only that there is a proper and efficient formula that everyone will understand but that people who are responsible for making payments through the Child Support Agency do so—for the benefit of the parent who is caring for the child and, crucially, for the children.