HC Deb 29 November 1999 vol 340 cc5-7
2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What representations he has received on reform of the CSA; and if he will make a statement. [99060]

7. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

If he will make a statement on his plans to reform the Child Support Agency. [99067]

14. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

What plans he has for reforming the Child Support Agency. [99076]

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

There is widespread support for radical changes to the current system. We have received a wide range of views on the detail of the proposals since the White Paper was published in July. New legislation on child support, announced in the Queen's Speech, will address the failures of the current system and put children's rights at the heart of the child support system.

Miss McIntosh

Page 7 of the Green Paper gave a written assurance that responses will normally be available to the general public unless you specifically ask us to keep your views confidential. We have now been told that all responses are to be treated as confidential apart from 110 from academic organisations. I gave a written submission, as did 34 Members of Parliament and more than 1,300 members of the public. Have these responses been deemed to be confidential to cover up the overwhelming opposition from the general public to the Green Paper proposals?

Angela Eagle

There was not overwhelming opposition to the basic restructuring of the CSA, although many comments were made on some aspects of it. Some responses have not been made public because they would disclose individual circumstances which it would be unfair to place in the public domain without the say-so of both parents involved.

Helen Jones

What steps will be taken under the new proposals to deal with absent parents who either refuse to co-operate with the CSA or give deliberately misleading information to the organisation, ensuring, in many cases, that parents with care have a long wait before they receive any money while others play the system to their own advantage?

Angela Eagle

One of the basic points about the new system is that in place of more than 100 different facts about the non-resident parent, three or four facts will be all that is needed to calculate maintenance. Non-resident parents can have a good idea of their liabilities if they have a calculator. We will have simpler assessments which will be made much faster. If the non-resident parent refuses to pay, deduction of earnings orders can be introduced. If the parent provides misleading or false information, that will be a criminal offence—for the first time—and subject to penalties of up to £1,000.

Helen Jackson

Has not the bungled way in which the CSA was introduced meant that, far from children being put first, there has been increased acrimony so that shared care arrangements have been jeopardised and sometimes have fallen down as a result of the CSA? Will the Minister assure me that shared care arrangements will be brought into the reckoning in the new reforms, and that a fair way will be found to balance financial obligations and care arrangements in the interests of children?

Angela Eagle

My hon. Friend and I could spend all day talking about the many things that have been wrong in the practice of the CSA and in the legislation that set it up. I believe sincerely that the reforms will do much to take away the acrimony. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the fact that we wish to encourage the sharing of care by increasing the allowance made in the maintenance assessment for time spent with the child by the non-resident parent. We hope that this will encourage estranged parents to work together, rather than using the agency as a further attempt to pursue their own vendettas against each other, and to put the child and his or her welfare at the centre of their thoughts.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

If the Minister is so keen to reduce acrimony between parents and to encourage shared care and shared financing, and as the Government are so keen to proclaim joined-up government, why are the Government delaying the implementation of part II of the Family Law Act 1996? What discussions is she having with the Lord Chancellor's Department on that matter?

Angela Eagle

The right hon. Lady has been in the House long enough to know that that is a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Could I invite the Minister to correct the Secretary of State, who seems to have got the wrong end of the stick? Will she confirm that about 350,000 parents with care, whose non-resident parent is in paid work, would have a lower maintenance assessment as a result of the new child support rates, and that the average reduction would be about £17 a week? Just to help her, that was in a written answer that she gave to the House only three weeks ago. Does not that reveal that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was correct? How is that fact compatible with the Government's rhetoric on child poverty?

Angela Eagle

I wish that the Opposition would stop trying to play one parent off against the other by talking about gainers and losers. The people who will gain from the proposals will be the children. The hon. Gentleman's analysis of my parliamentary answer would be absolutely accurate if 100 per cent. of people were paying maintenance. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, 1.5 million children are on the agency's books, but only 350,000 of those children receive any maintenance at all, and only 100,000 receive full maintenance payments. The reforms will get maintenance flowing and more children will be better off—everyone will gain.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Given the inept operations of the Child Support Agency, the continuing problems in the Benefits Agency and the difficulties that the Passport Agency has been through, have the Government considered that the problem may lie with the agency model? Perhaps we should consider getting back to a system in which civil servants and public service provisions are to the fore.

Angela Eagle

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on the Passport Agency. After all this time, only 20 per cent. of women on income support receive their maintenance. The figure was the same the day before the Child Support Agency was set up. We must consider why the agency's existence has made no difference to the flow of maintenance. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members will agree that the formula was too rigid and prescriptive and there was simply too much to do, which is why we have gone for a very basic, simple and easily calculated formula.