HC Deb 21 October 2002 vol 391 cc17-9
13. Bob Russell (Colchester)

What procedures are undertaken by the Child Support Agency to check the accuracy of declarations of income by absentee fathers who employ accountants or other financial advisers. [73072]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

All declarations of income are checked to verify their accuracy before child maintenance is calculated, where possible. The procedure does not differ if a non-resident parent employs an accountant or financial adviser. An accountant or financial adviser may be one of the third parties with whom information is verified.

Bob Russell

It does not take Sherlock Holmes to work out that if a rich father employs accountants or financial advisers to produce figures that indicate that he does not have the financial wherewithal to pay maintenance to his children, there is a possibility that some fiddles will be going on. Where financial advisers and accountants are employed to suggest that a father cannot afford to pay maintenance for his children, surely there should be another system to check whether something may be wrong?

Malcolm Wicks

All of us in our constituencies have come across cases of that kind, which have raised our suspicions. I recognise the importance of the question, but since 1999 the Child Support Agency has had powers that align with those of the Inland Revenue. That means that an inspector may call at any premises where he or she believes relevant information is held. The CSA and Inland Revenue can share information such as self-assessment returns. We may interview other people, such as accountants. We are determined that where someone parents a child, either as a mother or father, they support that child financially. We have new powers to do that and we are determined to implement those powers.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that only two thirds of the families who apply for maintenance through the Child Support Agency receive such benefit? Clearly, the point raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) can be a factor in that. What is his Department doing to ensure that the Child Support Agency meets its commitments? The aim is to keep children out of poverty, but clearly, with a third of families not receiving maintenance, more children are forced into poverty.

Malcolm Wicks

Family insecurity is now as important as economic insecurity as a force for poverty and disadvantage. We have new policies on child support, which we aim to implement as soon as possible. We are driving up the rate of payment—in terms of the cash that is now due, some 70 per cent. or more of maintenance is now paid. There remain some non-resident parents or absent fathers, however—perhaps 30 per cent.—who are not paying maintenance. The purpose of our new reforms is to spend less time on complicated assessment, in a move towards simplicity, and more time on enforcement. It is crucial that we undertake that as soon as possible.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

Is not the reality that, although the CSA is relatively good at recovering maintenance from PAYE people, as soon as a father submits any other kind of accounts or any other information that is in any way out of the ordinary, the CSA takes one look at it, gives up and goes home? If it cannot enforce payment in unusual circumstances, will the Minister consider subcontracting such work to professionals who might take a more determined, robust and forensic approach? At the moment, many women are being failed by the bureaucratic, inexperienced and toothless way in which the CSA operates.

Malcolm Wicks

I do not think that that is an appropriate comment on our hard-working officials who do a very difficult job in sometimes very difficult circumstances in the Child Support Agency. If I may say so, it was not a nice comment. Under the new reforms, which we hope to implement as soon as possible, we will put much more emphasis on enforcement, as I indicated. It is right and proper that everyone who fathers a child should maintain that child financially, regardless of their social position and of what sophisticated employees, including accountants, are working for them.