§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coe.]
§ 6.1 pm
§ Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)
This debate is about the Child Support Agency and the manner in which it has provided its services, which inflict massive injustices on families throughout the United Kingdom. It is the last Adjournment debate of this Government and it is appropriate that it deals with an issue that is causing so much trouble for so many families. Hon. Members on both sides are constantly being charged by constituents to take action to help families who are caught up in the inefficient way in which cases are dealt with by the CSA.
My complaint about the CSA is not new, but it is not without good cause. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it was the Prime Minister who, in 1990, first suggested that an agency dealing with child support should be set up. In April 1993, the CSA began to operate. Many hon. Members have registered their complaints over the past four years about the way in which the CSA has treated many of their constituents. Since 1993, I have had cause to write to Ministers requesting investigations into many cases in my constituency, although assurances have been given that efficiency in dealing with cases will improve.
The CSA came into operation in April 1993 and there was then uproar throughout the country about its operation. Families were split up and it has been alleged that many people committed suicide because of the severity with which the CSA then operated.
In November 1993, I presented a petition to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), who was then the Minister responsible for the CSA, charging him to investigate certain issues that had been raised by constituents about the administration of the CSA. Assurances were given then that the CSA would be as efficient as Parliament intended it to be. During the debates that we had on the Child Support Bill, which introduced the CSA, we demanded efficiency. When I received the Minister's reply saying that the CSA would be as efficient as Parliament intended it to be, I took his words in good faith.
On 2 December 1993, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) secured an Adjournment debate in which he registered concerns about the work of the CSA. During that debate, assurances were given that the CSA would be more efficient. On 6 December 1993, the Minister told me that no changes were to be made to the powers of the CSA. There was a move away from trying to improve the CSA at that time.
On 15 December 1994, there was a debate on the CSA in which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) stated:In some 25 years as a Member of Parliament, I do not think that I have ever before ventured into a debate on social affairs … we have created a monstrous bureaucracy which pours misery on misery and the many unfortunate people who have already gone through the mental, physical and financial trauma of divorce now have to deal with this ghastly organisation as well. As a supporter of the Government, I have never been so ashamed as when I have had to defend the CSA and what it has got up to in the past two years.My immediate reaction is that the assessment formula is wrong and unfair. Until, with the wisdom of experience and other countries and the two inquiries by the Select Committee, a more reasonable 1107 and equitable and less complex formula can be devised, there will be no substantive improvement in the management or operations of the CSA or its handling of cases."—[Official Report, 15 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 1096.]There we have someone who has been a Member of the House for a considerable time outlining his concern about how the CSA, after two years in operation, was affecting his constituents. I am witnessing problems similar to those expressed by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare.
In July 1994, there was an Opposition debate calling for improvements in the work of the CSA and an end to the injustices brought about by it. During that debate, assurances were again given by the Minister that the CSA would improve its performance. On 23 December 1994, the Minister sent a letter to Members assuring us that there would be improvements to the CSA. He said:the CSA can and will resume taking on all eligible cases and give them prompt and efficient service.I shall demonstrate tonight that there is a lack of efficiency in the CSA.
On 20 March 1995, we debated on Second Reading the Child Support Bill, which was designed to make changes to the original CSA legislation. Again, the Secretary of State gave assurances that there would be prompt and efficient service. He said:the main purpose of the Bill is to improve the system of child support so that it has greater acceptability and works better, to streamline the operations and to encourage greater compliance. That means that the problems that we have seen which we all acknowledge and regret, will be less frequent in future than they were in the past and will gradually disappear as the situation improves."—[Official Report, 20 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 22.]There has been a history of assurances and promises, but I have not witnessed any change in the number of cases that I have had to pursue in my constituency.
Many written and oral questions have been tabled to Ministers, by hon. Members on both sides of the House, expressing serious concern about the way in which the CSA is operating. One such case is that of a constituent, Ms B, who has two daughters and whose husband left her in February 1996. She informed the CSA straight away, but has received no response to her application and no answers to her letters. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security for responding to my letter of 17 March, when I sent him details of that case. In his reply, he said:I regret that as yet, no assessment of child support has been made in this case. This is disappointing, in view of the fact that people inMs B'sposition are exactly those we introduced the arrangements to help.Also, a letter dated 5 March from the agency to me states:The Agency's Belfast Centre tell me that on 28 March 1996 an application for child support maintenance was received fromMs Band on 19 April a maintenance enquiry form was sent to"—her partner—Regrettably, no further action was taken on the case until 20 February 1997".That means that, for a full 12 months, no action was taken, and that is a recent case.
I also felt the need to write to the Minister about another constituent, Mr. B, who travels 24 miles per day to his employment. He applied for a travel allowance, 1108 but that was denied to him because the CSA claimed that he was travelling only 14 miles to and from work. When I inquired about that, I found that it was because the agency has a broad-brush approach. Any broad-brush approach that changes an actual mileage of 24 to 14 is unfair and is not in the best interests of the people we represent.
The Minister advised me that my constituent would be contacted, but in view of the exchange of correspondence between the CSA and myself, I should have thought that it would have been courteous of the officer dealing with the case to let me have a response to the point raised with the Minister. My file is not yet complete. I have received assurances from the Minister and been told that the CSA is dealing with the matter, but have received no response from the CSA. I hope that that sort of thing will not be allowed to continue and that I shall receive some notification of the action that has been taken on that case.
On 5 March, I wrote to the Minister about the case of Mrs. A, who has been pursuing her claim for maintenance through the CSA, which keeps requiring information that she has supplied on more than one occasion. The agency keeps sending the same form, which is frustrating for the claimant and demonstrates that it is either using delaying tactics and is delaying finding out why my constituent is not receiving maintenance, or is requesting the same information over and over again, because it is totally inefficient.
Those cases are current. I am talking about correspondence of 5 March this year. On 13 February, I had cause to write to the chief executive of the CSA, Miss Chant, requesting information on a constituent who had regularly been making maintenance payments through his bank—through a banker's order—but who received a letter early in February advising him that a deduction from earnings order had been issued to his employer. The payments were being made, but because of the way in which the various offices of the CSA operate, his employer received the order, which was embarrassing for my constituent. The fact that that letter was sent to him when he was making the payments merits investigation. The ombudsman investigates only cases involving compensation, but I think that my constituent should be considered for compensation.
Another constituent, Mr. F, ceased work because of ill health and is now on a pension. Although he notified the CSA, he is still being charged the same level of maintenance as when he was working. As the maintenance amounts to more than 50 per cent. of his pension, one can understand his concern. That matter has been referred to the ombudsman.
I could describe numerous cases. These matters should be investigated. I have here a letter dated 14 March—this week—from the CSA stating that Mr. His concerned that despite making regular payments of child maintenance a deduction-from-earnings order has been served on his employer … On 28 November 1996, the Centre askedMr. Hto contact them to make an agreement to pay regular child maintenance plus an amount towards the arrears which have accrued. This he did … on 4 December".On 3 February, Mr. H was advised that he had made no payments. On the following day, the agency wrote to tell him that it had received the payments, but that they had 1109 not been credited to his account. That is a recent case—these are not historic matters. I ask that the issue be investigated.
Finally, The Times today contains an article about the CSA and a report of the Select Committee on Social Security. It says that there has been a problem with the backlog of cases and thatthe figures in a report by the Social Security Select Committee showed that only about a third of lone parents on income support and family credit had received an assessment.It is not creditable if only one out of three people who are looking for assistance are getting it from the CSA. The article continues:The MPs praise the agency for a 'significant improvement' in performance since the agency started work in 1993. The committee has previously described its administrative performance in its first 18 months as 'dire'".That is the base from which the report comes—the Committee thought that the CSA would fold and that it was in a dire situation. Although the report may have been creditable at this stage, it shows that the agency has not fulfilled Parliament's expectations on efficiency.
I draw the attention of the Minister to another report, published on 19 March—48 hours ago—by the parliamentary ombudsman. It says:In his annual report published today the new Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman), Mr. Michael Buckley, said that the number of complaints referred by Members of Parliament in 1996 was 1,920, a rise of 12.5 per cent. from the previous year …Almost half of the 1,920 new complaints concerned the Department of Social Security and its agencies and over half of these referred to the Child Support Agency".A quarter of all complaints referred to the ombudsman concerned the CSA. The report continued:Despite the measures taken by CSA to improve performance there has been no reduction in the number of complaints against the Agency referred by Members of Parliament … The issue of financial compensation arose in a large number of cases, particularly CSA cases, on which reports were issued in 1996 … The Ombudsman obtained compensation for many of those whose cases he investigated. In his report he stresses the importance of fairness and consistency and says that the principle of redress should apply not only to those whose complaints he investigates but also to the 'vastly larger number of aggrieved who take up their concerns either direct or through their Members of Parliament.'In other words, the ombudsman is saying that when payments have been made, but an attachment of earnings order has been imposed, the persons to whom I referred should be compensated because of the problems generated and the unfairness applied by the CSA.
I therefore consider that, far from the CSA improving efficiency and bringing forward measures to support claimants, we are witnessing many people suffering because of the CSA's inefficiency. I am totally disillusioned with the CSA. It has had sufficient time to honour all the promises and assurances, but has failed to do so. If that is the CSA's record, I consider it a failure. I suggest that if the Minister—perhaps it is not for the present Under-Secretary, but for a Labour Minister—cannot improve the situation so that people get satisfaction, we should return to letting the courts decide maintenance.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) has given a vivid account of the problems that arise from the Child Support 1110 Agency. On this final day of Parliament, he has done a service to the House in securing this Adjournment debate to talk about the problem in general. Such matters arise in Question Time, but in this debate he has been able to refer to the CSA's basic inadequacies—and there are many.
It would be fair to say that in many constituencies, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, many surgeries concern this one subject. If we had been asked in 1991, when the Child Support Act was introduced, whether that would happen, we would have said that we had never heard such rubbish. We have always been used to dealing with housing and social security matters, which form a great proportion of our postbags—but then came the CSA. We were told that it would resolve the problem; it was better than having the matters dealt with in the courts; and, what is more, it would provide women in particular with money that they had not had before. The fact that stares us in the face—my hon. Friend referred to it happening in his area—is that we are being inundated with complaints.
It is true that, when Members of Parliament write to the CSA in Belfast, the case might be pushed to the top of the queue temporarily, but it is also true that a hell of a lot of cases never get anywhere near that when people do not approach their Member of Parliament. If, as my hon. Friend said, so many cases concerning the CSA are being referred to the ombudsman, it is time that we asked ourselves: is this Act working well? Initially, many people said that the problems were just teething troubles; there was a big backlog, but everything would be sorted out in two or perhaps three years. My hon. Friend is saying that, after five years, the system is not working.
I do not agree with the Social Security Committee either. I think that it has glossed over the matter. When the few Members of Parliament who serve on that Committee give the impression that somehow the matter is being resolved, I do not accept it, because I am still having to deal with the same number of cases in my constituency—probably more—as I did when the CSA was set up. We must look at the matter afresh.
I have never seen so many people lobbying Parliament on one issue over five years as I have on the CSA. A lobby on the CSA came to the House only a few weeks ago. Last year, there were several. I went outside the House of Commons one day and said to the lobbyists, "What are you lobbying for?" I always see whether anybody is lobbying and usually try to join them and help them along the way. Those people said, "We've come to lobby on the CSA." I said, "I met them last week." They said, "But we are 'Police against the CSA'." There were 250 people in a line.
The idea of the CSA might have sounded good at the beginning—and obviously did—but after five years, it is obviously not working. Over the past two or three years, some of us have called for it to be scrapped. The House has heard the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton. He approached the matter in a reasonable, moderate way, and has come to the conclusion, like me, that it is time to take a fresh look. I shall be with him when the next Labour Government get into power on 2 May, to try to find a better method. He says that we should return to the courts—that might be necessary. Somebody said that the CSA would save the Treasury 1111 a lot of money. I would like to know how much, because it has certainly cost a hell of a lot in administration over the past five years.
The question is not one of a few odd cases in a constituency up in Yorkshire. We are saying that the problem is widespread, that it is pretty clear that Belfast is not getting on top of it and that it is time to take a completely fresh look. We should not leave the Social Security Committee to make a few humdrum remarks. If after five years the Act is not working, it is time that we had a fresh one to replace it.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Andrew Mitchell)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) on securing the last Adjournment debate of the Parliament. It is a particular pleasure for me to make the final speech of the Parliament because on 6 May 1992 I had the somewhat dubious privilege of making the second speech of the new Parliament when I seconded the Loyal Address to Her Majesty. I recognise the concerns that were expressed by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), who has taken a great interest in improving the Child Support Agency on behalf of his constituents over the two years that I have been the Minister with responsibility for it, and has brought a number of cases to me which we have together been able to resolve.
I should like to deal with the three individual cases about which the hon. Member for Normanton expressed concern and on which he was kind enough to advise me before the debate. He also mentioned another case about which I do not have details, but if he would let me have further details, I shall undertake to give him additional information on it. My officials will get back to him tomorrow on any outstanding questions.
The hon. Member for Normanton has written to me about one of his constituents, Mr. H, who was concerned that the broad-brush allowance in the formula for travel-to-work costs would not meet his needs. We recognise that, although the formula is correct in the vast majority of cases, there will be a small number of cases where limited discretion should be allowed. For those reasons, we introduced the departure scheme, which can cover travel-to-work costs in certain limited circumstances. Mr. H has since made an application for a departure. His application is being dealt with. It is currently at contest stage, and the papers have gone to the parent with care. She has until 27 March to respond.
In the second case—that of Miss B, who is a parent with care—there has been an inexcusable delay of seven months in assessing her maintenance. That was in part due to the large volume of applications at the CSA centre. We have, as hon. Members will know, addressed problems of high workloads by simplifying the rules governing the scheme, and I intend those changes to ensure that the poor standard of service suffered by Miss B is a thing of the past. When the agency has obtained details of the absent parent's current circumstances, all action required to complete a maintenance settlement will proceed. I have specifically asked the agency to ensure that that, and all other action on Miss B's case, is treated as a priority.
1112 The third case that the hon. Member for Normanton raised was the case of Ms A, a parent with care and involving two absent parents. The problems in that case centre around the large amount of information that is required to ensure a fair outcome. One of the absent parents has not been co-operative. That has caused difficulties in enforcing maintenance which were compounded by mistakes made by the agency. The agency has now imposed an interim maintenance assessment on the unco-operative absent parent and enforcement action is being taken, but maintenance has yet to be paid. For the other child in the case, the next step in the application is for the relevant notification to be issued to the Inland Revenue to obtain the absent parent's employment details, if applicable. Following that, the case will be fully investigated with regard to the possible imposition of an interim maintenance assessment or completion of a full maintenance assessment.
I wish to apologise for the delays in the agency's handling of the cases. They are now being treated as urgent. Obviously, the agency's primary concern is for the children in each case. In the cases mentioned, the agency is working towards fair maintenance assessments and will continue to do so.
I shall move on from specific cases to the general comments that were made by the hon. Members for Normanton and for Bolsover. Many of their fears are now being addressed and resolved. It is a truism to say that the agency had a difficult start. The Social Security Select Committee described its introduction as the biggest social change for 40 years.The sheer scale of the change was not adequately appreciated on either side of the House.
At the end of the first year, work was outstanding on 550,000 cases. Only £15 million had been collected or arranged for direct payment in the first year. However, in 1994, the agency's second year, maintenance collected and arranged exceeded £187 million—a more than twelvefold increase. In 1995, that figure almost doubled to £301 million, and in the present year the figure has increased again and looks likely to be almost £400 million. The agency now collects and arranges as much each fortnight as it did in the whole of its first year of operations. Four child support agency centres each collected £4 million in January alone. Within three years, I estimate that the agency will be collecting £800 million a year, three quarters of which will go to the parents with care.
The House may wish to reflect on the scale of the improvement in the lives of children which will result from the huge increase in the flow of child maintenance, to which they are rightly and fully entitled. The improvements reflect a steadily increasing number of active cases with a maintenance assessment—up to 345,000 in March 1995, and to 460,000 in March 1996. By November 1996, the agency had more than 545,000 live cases.
As hon. Members will know, the agency has had to deal with a continual backlog. That backlog must be cleared by April 1999, when the new computer system will start operating. I have therefore given instructions that the situation should be closely monitored month by month, over the next 24 months, to ensure that the eradication of the backlog is accomplished. I and the senior management of the CSA have good reason to be confident that the full eradication of the backlog will be achieved in the next 24 months.
1113 There has been a similar improvement in the accuracy of assessments. By March 1996, 79 per cent. of assessments checked were correct to the last penny. This year, the agency expects to meet its target of 85 per cent. of assessments being correct. That level of accuracy compares well with benefit assessments—for example, for income support—which are generally less complex. The agency has been effective in combating fraud and containing social security expenditure. It has consistently saved the taxpayer nearly three times as much as it costs, which answers a specific question by the hon. Member for Bolsover. Between April 1993—when the agency was launched—and March 1996, the agency achieved nearly £1.4 billion in benefit savings. Net operating costs for the period were around £500 million. In the current year, through 31 December 1996, savings of more than £354 million have been recorded, against net operating costs of £146 million.
§ Mr. William O'Brien
I appreciate the information that the Minister has given. The ombudsman has awarded compensation in more than 80 cases. Will that compensation come out of the savings, or is there another fund from which compensation is paid?
§ Mr. Mitchell
I will come to the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised about the ombudsman. I overhauled the system of compensation at the end of last year, and we now have a clearly established new system that relates specifically to the CSA and the cases that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech.
As well as collecting maintenance that offsets benefit expenditure, the agency discourages abuse of the benefits system. In 1994–95, more than 60,000 parents with care withdrew their benefit claims once the agency began taking action. Overall since the agency started its operation, it is estimated that more than £644 million has been saved by that means alone.
Other tangible improvements in the performance of the CSA continue. The agency's increased emphasis on maintenance collection entails a strong and increasingly effective commitment to enforcement action when maintenance is not paid. As for payments of maintenance to parents with care, the improvements are clear. Some 98 per cent. of payments were passed on within 10 working days. In cases with difficulties in ensuring regular payments, deductions from earnings orders are now implemented quickly in all appropriate cases. More than 47,000 were issued between April 1996 and the end of January 1997.
I wish to record my appreciation, and that of all the Ministers in the Department of Social Security, to the Social Security Select Committee for the advice that it has offered on improvements to child support. The Committee has paid close attention to the policy and the operation of the scheme since its introduction, and has produced five helpful reports on the subject since April 1993. I am grateful to the Committee for its constant support for a properly functioning child support system and its determination to identify impediments to the effective operation of the agency. Both the hon. Gentlemen who contributed were somewhat grudging in their support for the Social Security Select Committee.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I was being generous. The Select Committee is an all-party Committee, and we value what it says. I fully agree with the Committee's report, which was published yesterday and which states:the Committee was very encouraged that after a poor start, the Child Support Agency was showing a much more acceptable level of service … The figures … indicate that in the past two years there has been a substantial improvement in the Agency's performance. Whereas the Agency was heading for disaster in 1993/94, there is now no danger that this could occur. We are pleased that the Child Support Agency is on a sure footing and expect that the gains in performance will continue.That was the judgment of the all-party Social Security Select Committee which underlines the bipartisan approach to child support that now exists between the Government and the official Opposition. I agree with the Select Committee's comments, and I pay tribute to its consistency.
Many Members of the House, from both sides, have shown great patience and support during the agency's most difficult periods, when inaccuracies and mistakes tried the patience of many hon. Members and their constituents. While inaccuracies have yet to be eliminated, the improvement is there for all to see, as is our commitment further to improve the service for the agency's clients until it is fully acceptable. The emphasis on the continuing need for further improvement in service is clear from the agency's targets for the next financial year, which we announced on Tuesday.
The agency will be required to collect and arrange £500 million in maintenance, to achieve an accuracy level of 85 per cent. over the whole year and to clear at least 525,000 maintenance assessments while bearing down on work outstanding.
For all those changes and improvements, the House owes a particular debt of gratitude to Ann Chant, the chief executive, who will depart shortly to work on Business in the Community. She has done a superb job in turning around the fortunes of the Child Support Agency. I am particularly grateful to her for agreeing to stay on as chief executive for longer than she intended originally. She is an outstanding civil servant, and deserves all the praise that has rightly been heaped upon her by the Social Security Select Committee, Ministers and many others who have worked with her during her time as chief executive.
I turn now to several policy considerations. I appreciate the concern that has been expressed about the complexity of the system: a great deal of information is required in order to assess child maintenance. I acknowledge the fact that simplification of the system has been a key factor in improving the process and getting maintenance flowing. Progress has been made in resolving the difficulties experienced in establishing housing costs and wages. If the agency can continue to simplify and streamline its procedures, and can get it right, the way forward will be easier. Policy changes have also played their part. To this end, we have always made it clear that we shall listen to—and, where possible, act upon—any constructive suggestions for change that come from both sides of the House.
While I have had the honour of being responsible for the agency, I have made some 140 changes to the way in which it operates. The Child Support Act 1995 and the 1115 regulations introduced in April 1995 added to the process of positive change. Those changes were based, in part, on suggestions by the Social Security Select Committee. However, they went further in some respects. The Act was supported by both sides of the House with good reason: it was a careful and prudent balancing act. The Government took into account the interests of the children, their parents and the taxpayer. The interests of the children were central to the proposals for change that were accepted by the House.
The Government's intention was simple: remain true to the key principles behind child support, but learn the lessons of experience. As a result, four main changes were introduced in 1995 which built upon earlier improvements. First, we introduced the 30 per cent. rule. That meant that no absent parent would be assessed under the formula to pay more than 30 per cent. of his or her net income in current maintenance payments. Even absent parents whose payments are in arrears would usually pay no more than 33 per cent. Secondly, we introduced a degree of flexibility into the formula, and I shall return to that point later.
Thirdly, the Government recognised that capital or property settlements made before child support was introduced might have been intended to offset regular child maintenance payments. That was not always properly reflected in the child support assessment. We introduced regulations to make allowance for a broad recognition of those property and capital settlements, and made provisions in the Act for more detailed allowances. On the same basis—I refer directly to the first case that the hon. Member for Normanton raised—we also recognised high travel-to-work costs of the minority of parents who travel long distances to work.
It had become clear that the agency experienced particular problems in collecting maintenance from self-employed absent parents. That is not a new problem: the courts experienced similar difficulties. Some absent parents have sought to exploit that difficulty in a bid to sidestep their legitimate responsibilities towards their children. I am pleased to say that we were able to make important changes that were designed specifically to address problems in that area. We introduced a new power that allows the agency to enter liability orders in the county court register of debt judgments. The threat of such an entry will be an incentive to secure absent parents' compliance—especially in the case of the self-employed, who generally rely on credit to conduct their business. I am pleased to tell the House that those powers are being used in appropriate cases. On Monday, I visited the Hastings Child Support Agency centre, and staff told me that results for the latest quarter show that a substantial proportion of those who are warned that they may face action subsequently comply.
As I said earlier, a crucial part of the 1995 improvements package was the introduction of a degree of flexibility into the maintenance assessment formula. The Government remain committed to using a formula to determine maintenance. A formula is successful and fair in the majority of cases, and it provides the best means of establishing a fair and consistent maintenance liability. However, experience has shown that a small proportion of cases were not being dealt with fairly by a formula. That is why I have introduced some discretion to "depart" 1116 from the basic formula in special circumstances. The change will allow flexibility where fairness demands it. It was successfully piloted in the summer of 1996, and introduced nationally in December. Through the introduction of the departures system, we have addressed one of the biggest criticisms of the child support system. In doing so, we have gone rather further than the changes suggested by the Social Security Select Committee in its report.
Parents with care and absent parents can apply for a departure from the formula assessment. For example, an absent parent may face genuine hardship if a maintenance assessment fails adequately to reflect special expenses. Such costs include those incurred in maintaining contact with children or in meeting the needs of step-children in a current family. The discretion to "depart" from the formula will help a small but important number of cases in which people might otherwise face hardship. Conversely, a parent with care may have grounds to consider the maintenance assessment to be unrealistically low. It may be that an absent parent appears to be living a life style that is simply not commensurate with his declared income. In that case, the parent with care can apply for a departure order.
More recently, we have tackled the problem of parents with care who claim benefits but who are unwilling to permit action to recover maintenance from the absent parent. In the light of clear evidence that such reluctance can mean that benefit is being claimed fraudulently, we have increased the level and duration of the benefit penalty that applies when the parent with care has no genuine reason for her failure to co-operate. As well as being an effective way of tackling fraud, this underpins the principle that both parents must honour responsibilities for their children whenever they can afford to do so.
Those improvements are reflected in a substantial fall in the amount of correspondence that I receive from hon. Members: down by one third in 1996 compared with 1995. While there has been a modest fall in correspondence about individual cases, complaints about the policy have fallen dramatically by more than 50 per cent: from 1,520 in 1995 to only 723 in 1996. Those absent parent groups who campaigned so loudly against the child support scheme can no longer claim legitimate grievance. It is time for the small minority of outside groups who oppose the agency to acknowledge that times have changed. I hope that all hon. Members will acknowledge and reinforce the message that absent parents have a responsibility to support their children when they can afford to do so.
I am afraid that a small number of men continue to believe that they should not be responsible for supporting their children and can shuffle off their liability on to their neighbour: the taxpayer. Such people cloak in moral indignation what is a simple disinclination to pay up for their kids. Increasingly, society rightly regards such behaviour with deep distaste and contempt. I am sure that the process will continue to grow. Children have a right to be supported by their own parents whenever and wherever that can occur. While the House cannot legislate for the affection and concern that all parents owe their children, it can legislate—and has done so—for proper and fair levels of child support.
1117 I thank the hon. Gentleman once again for the opportunity to review the operation of the Child Support Agency and the changes that we have made to improve the operation of the child support scheme. The current system has experienced problems, not all of which will disappear overnight. Recent changes address both the functioning and the fairness of the system. Not all the improvements that I have sought are in place yet, and it will take time for the effect of the changes to feed through.
Nevertheless, we are continuing to look for ways of making the system function more effectively. The hon. Member for Normanton referred to the ombudsman. Next month, the agency's independent case examiner will begin her work of handling the concerns of clients whose cases have not been handled as well as they expected. The child maintenance bonus scheme—an important back-to-work measure which provides cash help for parents with care returning to work—will begin operation.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
May anyone approach that officer, or can she be approached only via a Member of Parliament?
§ Mr. Mitchell
I reassure my hon. Friend that she may be approached by anyone. The Government are committed to seeing parents with care receiving levels of maintenance that adequately reflect both the children's needs and the absent parents' ability to pay. We are at last seeing more maintenance being paid to more parents with care than ever before. I am sure that many hon. Members will agree that that represents a considerable achievement for an agency that many were willing to write off less than two years ago.
I look forward to returning to this Dispatch Box after the Queen's Speech on 14 May, and after the Conservative party has won the general election. I look forward to continuing the important work in the area of child support when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister forms his next Government on 2 May.
As the last Minister to speak during this Parliament from the Treasury Bench and from the Dispatch Box, I will follow in the tradition established by the final speaker in the last Parliament in 1992—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory)—in quoting Suetonius, who accurately reflects the outstanding economic achievements secured by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He wrote: 1118Urbem excoluit adeo, ut iure sit gloriatus marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset.For those Opposition Members who may find it helpful, this translates as:He so improved the city that he justly asserted he had found it brick and left it marble.
§ Sitting suspended.
§ 8 pm
§ On resuming—
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier today I drew Madam Speaker's attention to the fact that there had been an announcement on the widening of the M25. She addressed that point of order. My point of order this evening—I apologise for troubling you—relates to the fact that the Cabinet Secretary has published some Cabinet rules on the conduct of Ministers after the general election has been announced.
I was bewildered as to how a decision could be announced in a parliamentary answer by the Minister for Railways and Roads, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). I spoke to the permanent secretary at the Department of Transport, who said, "Ah. The decision was taken on 13 March."
I appeal to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about this total abuse and flagrant disregard of the rules laid down by the Cabinet Secretary, who is the custodian of the independence of the civil service. The fact that that can be done is nonsense and an outrage. Can you help? The decision was taken today, not on 13 March. Somebody should be brought to account before the House for that abuse.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Thankfully, I am not responsible for anything that the Cabinet Secretary does.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eight o' clock.