HC Deb 17 March 2003 vol 401 cc615-6
6. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

How many Child Support Agency cases of arrears of maintenance payment were taken to court in each of the past five years; and if he will make a statement. [102950]

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

The total number of cases taken to court in the past five years has ranged from approximately 2,800 per annum to more than 4,600 per annum. I will send my hon. Friend the precise figures.


My question concerns the procedure that the Secretary of State has set out on deduction of earnings orders. We are advised that. before a case goes to court, the Child Support Agency, following the directions of the Secretary of State, should ask the absent parent if a deduction of earnings order would be applicable. How many cases have been taken to court without the deduction of earnings order having been applied in the first instance? if that is happening, what will the Minister do to ensure that the regulations that have been set out by Parliament, through the Secretary of State, will be adhered to, ensuring that attachment of earnings orders are applied before cases go to court?

Malcolm Wicks

Whenever possible, it is sensible to use methods such as deduction of earnings orders before resorting to going to court. Going to court is the last resort. We have used more than 100,000 deduction of earnings orders. I know that my hon. Friend has a constituency case in mind. Obviously, I will not comment on that case now. When someone changes employer, it can be difficult to use a deduction of earnings order. In such cases, on behalf of the parent with care, we have to go to court, but we do that only as the last resort. Outside the Chamber, I will be happy to discuss particular cases with my hon. Friend.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about a minority of parents who persistently and deliberately refuse to pay child support that they are able to pay. In extreme cases, the CSA has the power to remove driving licences, but it has done so in only two cases. Will the Minister seek to ensure that that happens more frequently?

Malcolm Wicks

The purpose of the new powers is to deter. Nine people have gone to prison as a result. Others, when threatened with the loss of their driving licence, have paid up. That is the whole purpose of the policy. It is one of the weapons in our armoury to ensure that absent parents recognise their responsibilities towards their children.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Is it not the case that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) mentioned a moment ago, there are serious flaws in the CSA's recovery process in relation to self-employed people? Would closer co-operation and co-ordination between the Department for Work and Pensions, the CSA, the Inland Revenue and others not lead to more certainty in the contacting of non-resident parents who are clever at avoiding paying what they should be paying?

Malcolm Wicks

I have considerable sympathy with that point. We all have cases in our constituencies where fathers—it is normally fathers—have not paid up. Many of those people are self-employed. We are doing what my hon. Friend suggests: we now have close working relations with the Inland Revenue. It is, after all, up to the Revenue to determine the income of a self-employed person. However, in cases where there are grounds for thinking that the lifestyle of the man—or, sometimes, the woman—is inconsistent with their reported earnings, we can pursue the matter using the new powers. We have to ensure that all parents, whatever their employment status, acknowledge their responsibilities to their children.