HC Deb 17 March 2003 vol 401 cc612-3
3. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

If he will make a statement on the effectiveness of the Child Support Agency. [102947]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions(Mr. Andrew Smith)

The Child Support Agency has steadily increased its effectiveness since the mid-1990s. In 1995–96, the amount of money going to parents with care was only £300 million. By 2001–02, it was around £770 million. The new CSA system for new cases has got off to a smooth start.

Mr. Turner

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Were the new system applied to all cases simultaneously, how many parents with care would gain, and what proportion would that be?

Mr. Smith

Around 60 per cent.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that one of the biggest categories of complaints from people trying to get payments due to them under the CSA involves men who are self-employed, who can give the system the run-around and who avoid declaring the money and income that they have. Is my right hon. Friend sure that steps are being taken to ensure that the mother gets what she is entitled to in those cases?

Mr. Smith

Yes. That is a very important purpose of the reform and the introduction of the new system. Because the new system is much simpler, it will enable us to spend far fewer resources on assessing and perpetually reassessing cases. It will thereby enable us to put a lot more effort into ensuring compliance, and making sure that people pay the assessments that they are supposed to be paying. As I have told the House before, particular effort will be made in relation to the self-employed, whose compliance rates are significantly below the average.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The Government's intention was that, in cases where CSA assessment under the new system is very different from that under the old system, change can be phased in over a period of up to five years. A month ago, I drew the Secretary of State's attention to the fact that some people are circumventing that principle by opting out of the CSA and turning up three months later as brand new cases, thereby getting the entire five-year increase in one go. Has he done anything about that problem since I raised it, and given that, as my experience shows, such cases do exist, what will he do to prevent the Government's and Parliament's intention from being thwarted?

Mr. Smith

As I have explained to the hon. Gentleman before, rules have been put in place—in particular, the 13-week provision. We must have a practical way of operating that minimises the incentive for people to try to work the new system to get on to it, but which enables its operation without the addition of yet further bureaucracy and complexity—the very problems that brought the old system into such disrepute and made it so difficult to get the standards of effectiveness that are now being achieved. People on the new assessment are assessed on the much more simple, straightforward basis that we have set out: 15 per cent. for one child, 20 per cent. for two children, and 25 per cent. for additional children. That is accepted by hon. Members and by the country, on the basis of consultation, as a fair method of payment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will join us in supporting the principle that money that is due to children ought to be paid, and that they will support the new system, which will ensure that more children benefit.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

The Government originally promised the new system by October 2001, and then by April 2002, but we now have this half-baked arrangement whereby new and recycled cases are handled under the new system, while existing ones continue under the old one. When will existing cases move to the new system? Is the five-year transition that the Secretary of State has talked about actually going to happen, and how will it work? There are both winners and losers out there who face great uncertainty as a result of continuing delay.

Mr. Smith

It is rich for the hon. Gentleman to accuse us of implementing a half-baked system, given that we have had to work so very hard to put right the utter shambles of a system, for which everyone knows the Conservatives were responsible. On reflection, he will surely accept that it is very sensible indeed to ensure that the system works with new cases before switching over existing ones. I will announce the date for doing that when we know that it can sensibly be planned for, and not before. On the five-year transition, yes, it will operate.