HC Deb 13 January 2003 vol 397 cc406-7
14. Bob Russell (Colchester)

What progress he has made to check the validity of financial returns to the Child Support Agency by absentee fathers who use the services of accountants or other financial advisers. [89713]

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

The agency applies the same level of verification to a case, irrespective of whether its client has used a financial adviser.

Bob Russell

May I ask the Minister to reflect on that answer? If an absentee father can afford the services of an accountant or financial adviser to show that he cannot afford to look after his children, there is a strong possibility that somewhere along the line somebody may not be telling the truth. May I suggest that inspections of the lifestyle of some of those absentee fathers, who can afford financial advisers but cannot afford to pay for their children, would be well worth pursuing?

Malcolm Wicks

Since October 1999, the Child Support Agency has been able to share information with the Inland Revenue and to base liability for maintenance on self-assessment returns. It would not make sense for the agency to duplicate the work of the Inland Revenue; if people think that fibs are being told to the Revenue, they should be reported. On the hon. Gentleman's final point, the system allows for what is technically known as a departure to be made where it is absolutely clear that the lifestyle of the non-resident parent, or the absent father, does not seem to be in kilter—if I may put it in that way—with their declared income. Those are difficult cases and depend very much on proving, one way or another, whether the income as reported is correct.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I concur with the sentiments behind the question put by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), but may I point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is another side to the equation? What does he think about a situation in which the agency determines that the profits of a self-employed business man, which are aimed for investment in his company, are in fact income that he can use weekly or monthly? Those profits thus count against him.

Malcolm Wicks

The problem—the rub—in cases of family breakdown is that there are two sides to the story. That is the difficulty. If my hon. Friend has a particular case in mind, I shall ask the agency to look into it, but there are clear rules about what does or does not count as income and we try to apply them. I shall be happy to look into the particular case raised by my hon. Friend.