HC Deb 05 July 1999 vol 334 cc633-4
12. Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

What recent discussions he has had with the chief executive of the Child Support Agency on reform of the agency's procedures; and if he will make a statement. [88037]

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

I meet regularly with the chief executive of the Child Support Agency, and, of course, discuss the way in which the agency works. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, last week, I made a statement to the House in which I described a number of improvements that we propose to make.

Sir David Madel

When mistakes have been made by the Child Support Agency on money due for maintenance and a deduction of earnings order is imminent, whose job is it to get the mistake corrected quickly? If the job is to be ours as hon. Members, surely we should be given power to put a stop on deduction of earnings orders while the matter is being re-examined. That is a perfectly reasonable request, and a reasonable Government would grant us it.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to remember the time when all hon. Members had a power virtually to stop immigration cases, whereas—certainly in my experience—we were never in possession of sufficient information to be able to reach an informed judgment on those matters. I do not really think that giving Members of Parliament power to intervene in the administrative process—perhaps on limited evidence, and sometimes on the basis of limited partial evidence, from one view only—would be a particularly satisfactory way of doing things.

What I do think is necessary is the root-and-branch overhaul of administration of the CSA, which I announced last week, and to get away from the current situation, in which the very complexity of the formula makes it very likely that there will be mistakes. In future, under the new simpler formula that I announced last week—in which only three pieces of information will be needed to calculate how much is due; the tables showing how much will be due was published in the White Paper—the incidence of mistakes is likely to be much lower.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

May I tell the Secretary of State that I do not want the powers described by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel)?

We have had some negative press after the excellent statement made last week by my right hon. Friend on the White Paper proposals, as many people have been confused about interim administration arrangements until the legislation is changed. What can he do—perhaps working with agencies and local authorities—to get across the White Paper's message on how the changes will affect people in the intervening period, until new legislation has been introduced?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In the next three years, we shall be investing £28 million in the Child Support Agency. We are strengthening the agency's senior management, and bringing in, as agencies, people with far more experience from other branches of the Department of Social Security, to tighten up the CSA's middle management and to get decision-making right in the first place.

Additionally, we are placing far more attention on complaint resolution. More than 600 staff will be allocated to deal with interviews, face to face with those who have complaints or do not understand how a calculation has been made. Moreover, at the earliest possible opportunity, we shall introduce penalties for late payments, and make it an offence to lie to the agency or not to co-operate with it.

I believe that all those changes will mean that the improvement that has been made in the past year or so will get better and better. I am sorry to say that until we get legislative approval to make the formula simpler, the agency will always have difficulties. It will never be popular. We can make some valuable alterations in the mean time, but a new formula is vital to ensure the fundamental changes that we all want.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The right hon. Gentleman suggested last week that it would be helpful to have cross-party support for reform of the Child Support Agency. Does he realise that the undertakings given across the Dispatch Box will bear materially on whether there is such co-operation? In his statement last week he dismissed our worries about the confidentiality of Inland Revenue files but, on 27 April, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), assured me that the files would be used only as a last resort, repeating that assurance six times in a relatively short debate. Were the Opposition duped by those undertakings? Has the policy changed, or does the Secretary of State stand by those undertakings?

Mr. Darling

I find it interesting that when we announce reforms that will help 1 million children who do not get help now, the hon. Gentleman is bothered only about the minority of fathers who fiddle the system and conceal their true financial state from their children. Let me make the position clear. We shall ensure that people have every opportunity to tell us how much money they have so that we can calculate how much they should be paying their children. Of course it will be only as a last resort, if they insist on misleading us or lying to us, that we shall go to the Inland Revenue and ask what that individual has said in their tax returns. It is high time that the Conservatives started addressing the real problem of 1 million children losing out because of the mess that we inherited at the Child Support Agency, which they set up.

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