HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc698-702
10. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

What recent representations he has received about his proposals to reform the Child Support Agency. [93755]

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

We have received a wide range of views on the detail of our proposals since the White Paper was published. I am glad to say that there is widespread support for the radical changes to the current system.

Mr. Brady

To inform future contributions to the debate, will the Secretary of State tell the House how many parents will have their entitlement to maintenance reduced, and by how much?

Mr. Darling

We expect that about 1 million children will gain because of the changes. That contrasts with the fact that, at the moment, some 66 per cent. of children do not see all the benefit to which they are entitled under the present system.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing changes to the CSA regulations, and on offering the prospect of greater fairness in the making of maintenance assessments. Will he consider people who are working part time or in seasonal labour? The CSA often takes into consideration only the income based on periods when such people are in employment. Would not it be much fairer to take into account annual income when assessing maintenance, rather than three or four weeks when such people are in employment? The CSA has applied that principle in some cases, and it is difficult to understand how it can do so in some instances but not in others.

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend raises a difficult point which also concerns people whose income can change dramatically because of the availability of overtime. The difficulty is that, at the moment, it takes up to 100 pieces of information to make a basic calculation. Under the new system, we will be able to calculate the sum due in a matter of days, rather than months. That means that where someone's income fluctuates because of the circumstances described by my hon. Friend, it will be far easier to make a more accurate assessment of what is due. There is a balance to be struck in terms of what is fair to the parent without care, as well as to the parent with care. However, I am sure that if we simplify the system to ensure that the calculations are made more quickly, we will have a better chance of making sure that we do the right thing by both parents—but above all, by the children concerned.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

In the new proposals, what will deal with a parent without care who is self-employed and decides to ignore the CSA? I have constituents who have been waiting two and a half years for any payment, and some people are getting away with blue murder.

Mr. Darling

In the White Paper, we are considering what greater civil penalties can be imposed where parents will not co-operate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the CSA will be given powers, where appropriate, to get to the records held by the Inland Revenue to find out how much someone earns. Many of us have constituents who are not receiving a penny from, usually, the estranged husband, who can be seen driving around town in a BMW and leading a life style that is wholly inconsistent with his assertion that he has no money. I am sorry to say that, as I understand it, the Conservative party is against our proposal.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that more will be done to give the CSA power to investigate fathers who are not paying their children's maintenance, but will he ensure that the agency does not tackle only the soft targets: those who are already making a contribution and are being persistently pursued for more? Will he also ensure that bureaucracy is cut back so that my constituents can get a reply to their letters and telephone calls within a reasonable time?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend raises two points. One concerns the administration of the Child Support Agency, which we are overhauling. Part of the problem is that its case load has increased dramatically—by about 60 per cent.—in the past couple of years, and that is putting a strain on staff. The agency has a high staff turnover, a problem which we are seeking to tackle, and the complexity of the rules and regulations under which it has to operate leads to difficulties. I regard the situation as wholly unsatisfactory, which is why we are simplifying the rules and regulations so that instead of 100 pieces of information, three or four will be sufficient to get claims into payment.

I agree with my hon. Friend's other point, which was that equity demands that people believe that the CSA will pursue anybody who does not pay, and not only those who are more readily accessible. Currently, far too many staff are employed assessing claims and very few enforcing them. I believe that as a result of the changes that we are making far more attention will be given to enforcement, carried out in a fair way.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Will the Secretary of State answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) asked? How many parents with care will have their maintenance assessment reduced under the Government's proposals?

Mr. Darling

I understand the hon. Lady's point, but let me repeat that, as a result of the changes that we will make, 1 million more children will get the maintenance to which they are entitled. It is perfectly true that, as a result of the simplified formula, which was published in the White Paper—the ready reckoners are there—some parents will pay more, and some less, but the fundamental point that concerns Labour Members is the fact that those 1 million more children will receive their benefit. I wish that Conservative Members would pay more attention to those children rather than concentrating on those who seek to dodge their responsibility.

12. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

What responses he has received to the White Paper, "A New Contract for Welfare: Children's Rights and Parents' Responsibilities", (Cm 4349); and if he will make a statement. [93759]

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

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, responses to the White Paper show continuing support for radical reform of the child support system.

Helen Jackson

Have the responses reflected the total muddle, confusion and inefficiency that have dogged thousands of children and families because of the way in which the Child Support Agency was introduced in the previous Parliament? Thousands have been driven into our advice surgeries, desperate for some response from Government. Will my hon. Friend assure us that the Government will concentrate on prioritising the needs of children; offering wherever possible a face-to-face consultation as opposed to the thousands of telephone calls that people currently have to make; and, above all, ensuring that there is an efficient and fully prepared set-up to deal with the changes?

Angela Eagle

We are acutely aware that, because of the muddle that the agency got in when it was introduced and the extreme complexity of the formula that it has had to try to implement, what my hon. Friend describes has come to pass. As constituency Members, we have all seen a string of people who have been affected in various ways by the agency's inability to do its job effectively. That is why the move to a much simpler formula for calculating maintenance has been widely welcomed. Changes to child support regulations are at the centre of our fight against child poverty. It is essential to get maintenance into payment efficiently and effectively.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

In considering these responses, will the Minister consider offering congratulations to the chief executive of the Child Support Agency, Mrs. Faith Boardman, for her speedy, thorough and comprehensive replies to letters from Members, of which there are many? In so doing, will the Minister consider whether this splendid example of public service might not be taken up by Ministers, some of whom appear to treat Members' letters with contempt and delay replies for four months or more?

Angela Eagle

I am more than happy to pass on my congratulations to Faith Boardman on the job that she does in extremely difficult circumstances. As far as I am aware, delays in ministerial replies are not as long as the hon. Gentleman says, except in very occasional circumstances.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

May I pass on to my hon. Friend the support that I have received from my constituents for the changes that are proposed for the Child Support Agency? Their only concern is the length of time that it will take to bring in the new and simplified procedures. Has my hon. Friend received any assurances from the Conservative party that when the necessary legislation is introduced, Conservative Members will help to speed its passage through the House, so that we can implement the changes, which are much desired, as soon as possible?

Angela Eagle

I cannot tell my hon. Friend that we have received any assurances from the Conservative party. If I had been responsible for the mess that it introduced, I would be less happy about coming forward to criticise how things are going now.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

You voted for it.

Angela Eagle

We voted against the Second Reading of the Bill that introduced the CSA. Many of the things that we warned against during the passage of the Bill in 1991 came to pass.

I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that at the centre of our deliberations are the issues that her constituents bring to her, and my constituents bring to me, about the difficulties that have been caused. We must remember that we have an absolute duty to ensure that the 1.8 million children who are left without any support as a result of their parents having abandoned the family home are supported. The Government need to facilitate that in the most effective and efficient way.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In legislating for parents' responsibilities, would the Minister agree with me that it is essential in each case to be absolutely certain who the parents are? Further to that obvious point, and given the fact that one of my constituents has been instructed by the Child Support Agency to make payments of £111.92 per week, a sum which he cannot afford, to support a child who he insists to this day is not his, will the Minister agree that in any reform package for the CSA my constituent should have a right to demand a DNA test, which he has thus far unavailingly requested since February, to establish beyond doubt whether he is or is not the parent?

Angela Eagle

I never thought the day would come when I agreed with the hon. Gentleman—the week may even get better as it goes on. Clearly it undermines the whole system if parentage is not properly established. We want to do our best to establish DNA testing to solve the few instances where there is controversy over parentage.