HC Deb 17 November 1997 vol 301 cc17-8
15. Mr. Kidney

What changes she proposes to make to child maintenance assessments by the Child Support Agency; and over what time scale. [14644]

Mr. Keith Bradley

The Government believe that all children are entitled to the support of both parents, whether or not they live together. The Child Support Agency was established to ensure that absent parents meet and fulfil their responsibilities. Although there is some sign that the agency's performance may have improved since its early days, there is still a very long way to go before public confidence in it reaches an acceptable level. We are therefore examining all aspects of the agency's work, with a view to ensuring that it provides a consistent, fair and efficient service to all its clients. As I have already said, we aim to come forward with our proposals on the CSA in the first half of next year.

Mr. Kidney

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that, today, child assessments are much more realistic than some were in the early days of the CSA? Nevertheless, does he agree that disappointment among both parents with care and parents without care is still high, mainly because of the slow speed and inaccuracy of assessments, and that the feeling among parents is that their individual circumstances are not taken into account? I welcome the review, which I hope will result in changes, but they will clearly take some time. Cannot guidance be given now to try to iron out at least some of the major inconsistencies in terms of speed and inaccurate assessments?

Mr. Bradley

Clearly, the change in the form, which was introduced some time ago, is having an impact and is being welcomed by both parents with care and absent parents. I have noted carefully my hon. Friend's comments on the way forward for our review. In the meantime, we continue to work closely with CSA staff and the chief executive to ensure that delays, inaccuracies and inefficiencies are addressed. Work will continue to restore public confidence in the CSA.

Mr. Robathan

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems faced by the CSA is that incorrect information is given to it, particularly by absent parents? That information is often fraudulent to avoid proper payment. Three parents with care came to see me at the weekend about exactly that. When he is reviewing the agency, will the Minister consider creating some offence whereby avoiding payment by a fraudulent statement is prosecutable?

Mr. Bradley

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said. No one would condone misinformation being supplied to the Child Support Agency or the taking into account of fraudulent acts during the process. I shall look carefully at the way in which the process operates and shall ensure that, when we present our proposals for reform, the interests of the child, which are the most important part of the CSA's work, and the method of ensuring that maintenance is paid for the benefit of the child are properly taken into account.