HC Deb 16 November 1998 vol 319 cc597-9
9. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

How many outstanding cases are presently with the Child Support Agency waiting to be closed where the child concerned is of employable age.[58374]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

A parent with care is required to notify the Child Support Agency if a child stops receiving full-time education. Because those changes are recorded only when the assessment is reviewed, it is not possible to say how many cases are waiting to be closed.

Helen Jackson

I was always struck by the promptness and efficiency of the family allowance system, because the week my children left school and ceased to be dependent, my family allowance stopped. Why cannot the Child Support Agency be as efficient when dependants for whom people pay out of their earnings reach independence? People often find themselves paying deductions from earnings orders for six months or more after that threshold. Is that not another symptom of the gross inefficiency of the CSA, which has come to epitomise the muddle and incompetence of the former Administration that set it up?

Angela Eagle

I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. Believe it or not, as part of the Tory legacy that we inherited, the child benefit computer system cannot talk to the child support computer system and identify when the children whom it was set up to support have reached a certain age. We are doing all that we can to remedy that, and will be in a position to identify that fact manually by next year. As part of the ACCORD computer procurement project announced recently, we hope to put that right permanently.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Neither the previous question nor the answer were fair. Unlike family allowance, child support does not finish when a child reaches employable age. An absent parent has always provided support while a child is in full-time education or training, which is why child support will always be a much more complex benefit. There will always be circumstances in which teenagers will go on to full-time education or training, and they should be supported by the absent parent if he or she is in a position to support them.

Angela Eagle

Child support is bound to be more complex than child benefit, but the system should not have been as complex as the Conservative Government made it when they introduced it. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that child support does not automatically stop at the age of 16. However, there remains the issue of whether, once education is finished, whatever the child's age, child support is still payable. If those computer systems could talk to each other, at least a prompt would be given so that members of the CSA could check with the parent with care to see whether those circumstances had changed. At present, the parent with care has to notify the CSA to get changes made. Inevitably, that takes time and some people forget to do it.

10. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What action his Department has taken to improve the support for children provided by the benefits system. [58375]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

We have increased the premium for children under 11 on income-related benefits from this November and we are also increasing child benefit by a record amount from April next year.

Helen Jones

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I represent a constituency containing some of the most deprived wards of north Cheshire, which have a high proportion of lone parents. In one ward, nearly a quarter of children are in lone-parent families. Can he assure the House that they, too, will share in any increases in benefits and that we will set out to tackle the poverty which undoubtedly exists in such families?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend will know that the Chancellor took a deliberate decision in his previous Budget to ensure that not only child benefit, but the premiums paid for those in receipt of income-related benefits would be increased. The help that we are giving through the new deal for lone parents and the introduction of the working families tax credit—both of which are opposed by the Conservatives—will offer substantial assistance to the very people to whom my hon. Friend has referred. That is a far better use of public money than the proposal that the Conservative party has come up with today—to spend between £3 billion and £5 billion per annum on a transferable tax allowance. It would be far better to spend that money in a far more targeted way—to help people to get back into work as well as to help those on the lowest incomes.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

May I ask why a lone parent with the same income as a married couple with a single income will do considerably better under the working families tax credit? It cannot have been the Government's objective to discriminate deliberately against married couples and their children, but that is the way that the finances work out.

Mr. Darling

The Government's objective is to provide the maximum help that they can to all families—couples as well as lone parents. The working families tax credit is designed to make work pay for both types of family and to remove some of the barriers to work—the disincentives—under the scheme that we inherited. We believe that that is the best possible use of public money, because helping people into work and off benefit must and should be a central objective of any civilised Government.