HC Deb 19 October 1998 vol 317 cc949-50
13. Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

What steps he has taken to improve the operation of the CSA. [53486]

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

We want a child maintenance service that is simple and straightforward to use and that parents can trust, but that cannot be achieved overnight, so in the meantime, we need to improve the operation of the current scheme while we discuss the radical changes that are proposed in our Green Paper.

We want the Child Support Agency to reduce clearance times, eliminate backlogs of work and improve telephone contact with its clients. To that end, we have provided the agency with an extra £12 million to improve its performance in those areas.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I know that many people will benefit from those improvements. Will my hon. Friend consider the case of a family in my constituency in which both parents were absent and the grandparents took over the care of the children? The CSA, the local authority and the Benefits Agency were unable to help in that emotional situation. The CSA should try to improve its efforts to make absent parents pay. Will my hon. Friend include other agencies in the review? The grandparents in that case were told that, if the children had been taken into care and then fostered or adopted, the Benefits Agency and local authority could have helped. I find that unforgivable.

Angela Eagle

My hon. Friend has made a serious point about what happens when neither parent is able to look after children. If he will give me the details of that case, I shall consider what can be done to assist those involved. We shall consider that issue in our response to the Green Paper.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Minister act quickly to reply to the strong criticisms made in the first annual report by the CSA watchdog, particularly those concerning instructing staff to respond more swiftly to queries and, when assessments have been revised, to process the revision as quickly as possible?

Angela Eagle

I shall do that. The Government recognise that the system is complicated and difficult to administer. That is why we have published the Green Paper, which suggests radical reforms. I remind the hon. Lady that the previous Government asked the CSA to administer a system that is so complicated that staff must spend 90 per cent. of their time making assessments and can spend only 10 per cent. chasing up payments.