HC Deb 29 November 1999 vol 340 cc8-10
4. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

What plans he has to improve the confidence of the public in the handling of individual cases by the CSA; and if he will make a statement. [99062]

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

Our plans to reform the child support system were set out in a White Paper on 1 July. The new system will be effective and easily understood, ensuring that maintenance is paid regularly and reliably. The Child Support Agency is also being reformed to provide a service that is better focused on its customers.

Mr. Flight

May I have the Government's assurance that the computer system will be properly tested for the new system, simple though it is, because many of the problems with the existing system have reflected an inadequate and failing computer system? Secondly, will the approach be changed, because the absence of case officers has, in many of the cases I have dealt with, caused mistakes due to clerical error, with no apparent central responsibility for any one case? The new system may be simpler, but unless its software is efficient and it is administered well, it runs the risk of experiencing many of the same weaknesses as the present arrangements.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman is right on both counts. The present computer system operated by the CSA is not very good. It was purchased by the previous Government and it should have been a lot better. I can assure him that the new system will not be brought in until we are satisfied that the IT systems can cope and also that the culture in the CSA has changed, because we have to offer a radically different approach. In the meantime, the staff, who still have to cope with a complex system, are making changes.

We have made changes to the decision-making process, so that things can be put right as soon as a mistake is discovered and parents do not have to appeal. In addition, we have introduced more face-to-face interviews for people who want them and more discussion over the telephone, which can sometimes resolve problems. However, I have to tell the House that until the new system is introduced and becomes operational, we have to operate under the existing system. While we will do our best to ensure that it is improved week by week and month by month, some of the problems that we are all familiar with will continue until the new system, which I am determined will work far better, is introduced.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

No one doubts the Secretary of State's commitment to making the system work better, and indeed it would be difficult to make it work worse, but is not the hazard involved in the length of time the changeover is taking the fact that many people are in real trouble because they are not receiving assistance from the CSA? I had three cases on Saturday—each one was genuine—and unless some urgent action is taken, many people will not receive assistance. Some people feel that the agency does not investigate when they provide evidence and others are loth to get involved with the CSA because of its apparent incompetence.

Mr. Darling

I understand entirely the point that my hon. Friend makes. She will appreciate that, at the moment, before any calculation can be made, some 100 pieces of information have to be obtained from the non-resident parent. Sometimes that is difficult, and even when the agency gets the information the position can change before the application is processed and the amount due to be paid is calculated. I do not apologise for that; it is simply a matter of fact.

The present system is inherently complex and difficult to operate. As I said to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), we are making changes within the agency to improve performance. It was woeful in the past, but it is improving. Unfortunately, the increase in the case load of some 60 per cent in the past few years is putting additional strains on a system that was already creaking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that she wanted change as quickly as possible, and I understand that. Unfortunately, it will take primary legislation before we can make any of the changes, and that will be included in the legislation that will come before the House shortly. As the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said, the changes are dependent on a new IT system, which we are in the process of procuring. However, I repeat that it will help no one, least of all the 1 million children who will gain under the new arrangements, if we rush our fences again. By doing that, we should end up with exactly the same problem, with which we are all too familiar.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us the exact target time in which Child Support Agency staff should return telephone calls to members of the public? Furthermore, according to exactly what criteria will individuals under the new system be able to appeal against decisions under the flat-rate formula?

Mr. Darling

It is made clear to the staff that they should return calls as quickly as possible. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that performance is sometimes not as good as it should be. However, we have put some £28 million more into the agency this year to ensure that we retain some of our best qualified staff and to improve things.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that earlier this year we introduced a new decision-making and appeals process throughout the social security system, which is now being rolled out across all the agencies. Instead of individuals having to go through a full-scale appeals process, which is what happens at present, under the new arrangements, people on the front line will, for the first time, be able to put matters right when the facts are brought to their attention.