HC Deb 20 May 2002 vol 386 cc6-8
3. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

What measures are taken against self-employed absent parents who accumulate excessive arrears to the Child Support Agency. [55489]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling)

Assessing liability will be simpler under the new scheme, so a higher proportion of the agency's time will be spent on enforcement. Changes to legislation since January 2001 have enhanced the CSA's powers to recover sums due. For example, non-resident parents now face a penalty of up to £1,000 for refusing to co-operate.

Mr. Edwards

I thank my right hon. Friend and congratulate the Government on certain changes that are being made. Does he agree, however, that it is disgraceful that certain self-employed fathers can escape their responsibilities to the Child Support Agency and to their children? I draw to his attention the case of Mr. Julian Barnes, who has made not one child maintenance payment to his former partner, Elaine Lanchbury, in seven years, and to that of Mr. Alan Shinton, who was recently assessed and ordered to pay the CSA £19,295.19. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people who are responsible for bringing children into this world must be responsible for their upbringing? Will every effort be made to make these parents maintain their responsibilities?

Mr. Darling

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Responsibility for maintaining children rests with the parents of those children. When we talk about the Child Support Agency, we should never forget that we are talking about making sure that money goes to support children. That is sometimes overlooked by some of the parties involved.

In relation to the self-employed, my hon. Friend is right to say that, in the past, too many such individuals have managed to escape an award being made and enforced, simply by refusing to hand over information. As a result of powers that we took in the child support legislation passed two years ago, it is now possible for the CSA to get information from the Inland Revenue so that individuals cannot play one part of the state off against another.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing both those cases to the attention of my noble Friend, Baroness Hollis—[Interruption.] Getting up at 5 am is starting to play tricks on me.

Under the new system, which I want to introduce as quickly as possible, the agency will be able to put the calculation of maintenance in place more quickly, and to get payments made without the delay that is unfortunately characteristic of the present system. The situation will improve and, once the new system is in place, it should do so quite dramatically.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I echo the words of the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), but will the Secretary of State's new assessment regulations cover the unacceptable situation, which I suspect all hon. Members have in their case files, of a self-employed man who deserts his wife or partner, leaving the children, and then claims that his income is a quarter of the actual amount? Although I agree that it is difficult for the CSA to find out the exact position, should not there be some system under which the burden of proof falls on the deserting father, rather than his wife having to prove that he is earning much more than he claims?

Mr. Darling

One reason why we took additional powers was to enable the CSA to access the records lodged with the Inland Revenue. It was very difficult to do so in the past. I am sorry that some Conservative Members opposed that measure when it went through the Commons. It is right that we should be able to access information held by the Inland Revenue. Very often, we found that people would not tell the CSA about their income, but that the Inland Revenue knew of it. We are keeping all those matters under review. The key must be to ensure that the money due to the child of that self-employed person—it is not for the benefit of the former spouse or partner—is paid, and as quickly as possible.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), but may I draw to the Secretary of State's attention a case that has led to arrears for one of my constituents of £30,000? A woman with three children has not received a penny from her ex-partner. She has been to an appeals tribunal twice and won twice. Her ex-partner has been found guilty of diverting his income, yet nothing has happened. Such situations are atrocious, and even something as simple as removing an individual's driving licence would clearly help. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should put more pressure on some of these absent parents?

Mr. Darling

The common theme of all three questions is that the agency should spend more time on enforcement. I wholeheartedly agree. The problem under the present system is that too much time goes into calculating what is due. The key is to make the calculation quickly and then to spend more time on enforcement. My hon. Friend will know that we took powers two years ago to ask courts to remove driving licences when people would not comply. Interestingly, when courts have been invited to do so, all bar one of those affected paid the money that was due. That shows that there is some value in ensuring that people's responsibilities are brought home to them.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

Can the Secretary of State give any comfort to the many mothers who are owed excessive amounts by announcing a time scale for change in the current system? In my constituency, one parent is owed in excess of £15,000 by a husband who is apparently living the high life.

Mr. Darling

As the agency improves its performance in calculation and compliance, more effort is going into recovering sums due. As I told the House in March, until I am satisfied that the new computer network that is necessary to operate the new system of child support is operating effectively and acceptably, I am not prepared to authorise my officials to commission it. I hope to be able to tell the House something in the not too distant future. I am pleased to say that testing has continued and that good progress is being made. As soon as I am satisfied that the system will operate in the way intended, I will let the House know and, as I undertook to hon. Members, I will give sufficient notice in advance of its introduction so that all concerned can prepare for it.

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