HC Deb 10 January 2000 vol 342 cc10-2
8. Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

If he will make a statement on the work load of the independent case examiner of the CSA. [102934]

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

The case load of the independent case examiner rose from 1,087 cases in 1997–98 to 1,536 in 1998–99. The average clearance time for cases being dealt with by early resolution was 17.2 weeks, and 33.6 weeks for those that were accepted for full investigation.

Mrs. Spelman

In view of the volume of complaints, the independent case examiner warned the Social Security Committee in November that she may be turning complaints about the unfairness of the legislation back to parliamentarians. Is it right for her to do that?

Angela Eagle

The legislation governing child support is being changed. Indeed, the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill has its Second Reading tomorrow. It would seem odd for the independent case examiner to do other than examine how a case has gone through rather than taking complaints about the structure of a system that Parliament is right in the middle of changing.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Will my hon. Friend have regard to the pressure on the independent case examiner's department? Perhaps a little more co-operation from the Child Support Agency might help, but a substantial improvement would result if some of the Government's proposals to improve the agency's work were brought forward. With such an approach, it would be substantially easier for people to understand the system and there would be less reference to the independent case examiner.

Angela Eagle

The case examiner's case load has gone up, but it is still the same proportion of cases, because the case load of the Child Support Agency as a whole has gone up. The proportion was 0.015 per cent. of cases last year, and 0.016 per cent. this year.

My hon. Friend made a point about the difficulty of the legislation. The whole of Parliament recognises that, and we will take steps to put it right—not least through tomorrow's Second Reading—and change the entire system. We have already made available an additional £28 million to deliver improvements to the current system. Many right hon. and hon. Members know that the basic problem with the system that we inherited is that it is too complicated to be administered easily, and we all know the implications of that, which is why we are making the changes.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The case examiner will be rushed off her feet in October 2001 if the new computers that the Child Support Agency is paying for are not ready in time for the new formula. Given that the Department is incapable of paying pensions on time because of a computer bungle—despite a year of promising to sort out the problem—will the Minister guarantee on the record that the new system will not be put into place until the computers are ready?

Angela Eagle

I was astonished by the coverage that the hon. Gentleman provoked in the newspapers today about a reply I gave to him. He claimed that the computer system—which, by the way, does not yet exist, because Parliament has given us no money to buy it—is in chaos and delayed already. It is not delayed. It is on time to the extent—[Interruption.] We are in discussions with the providers of the computer system and we are drawing up the spec for it. The hon. Gentleman should—[Interruption.] We have been open about the fact that we will not introduce the new arrangements before we have a viable computer system in place. The previous Government did that when they bought an off-the-shelf system from Florida that was first made in 1975 and is now hopelessly out of date and useless at the job. We still have to use it and that is why the system is in such disarray.

We will get a new computer system, but the hon. Gentleman should stop scaremongering about things that do not exist yet. The reply that I gave him said that the child support project would be over in 2003, but he clearly does not realise that projects wind down only after computer systems have been turned on and the entire case load has been moved over. The hon. Gentleman should stop scaremongering and try to help us make the change.