HC Deb 20 October 2003 vol 411 cc368-70
11. Bob Russell (Colchester)

How many prosecutions have been made in the past year against parents making false statements to the Child Support Agency. [132611]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond)

Fourteen people have been prosecuted under the Child Support Act 1991 for making false statements, and 163 have been prosecuted and convicted for failure to provide information, 16 in the past month alone.

Bob Russell

My main concern is that the Child Support Agency does not appear to be as diligent as it ought to be in pursuing people who are clearly lying in the information that they give it. Does the Minister agree that more prosecutions and greater publicity are needed so that people who make false declarations are made aware of what will happen and so that the parents, children and taxpayers who are being cheated get the right result?

Mr. Pond

We should, and we will, come down hard on those cheats who cheat their children, not just the Child Support Agency, by providing false information. It is a criminal offence, and is subject to a maximum penalty of £1,000. However, our main purpose is to make sure that non-resident parents provide information and make the appropriate payments. The reforms that we are making to the child support system ensure that by replacing a complex assessment with a much simpler formula the agency's resources can go into enforcement and compliance, not into it spending most of its time working out the assessment in the first place.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

May I put to the Minister a circumstance that is well known to virtually all Members who have dealt with a CSA case in their advice sessions? Communication links between the CSA, the Inland Revenue, the Department for Work and Pensions and others are often less than sound, and they are not always using the information available to them as effectively and efficiently as possible. Could a cross-Government departmental group be formed to try to integrate that flow of information so that we can pursue more vigorously as an example to others people who are lying, deceiving and cheating the taxpayer as well as their children and ex-partner?

Mr. Pond

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Child Support Agency works with the Inland Revenue and other agencies. [Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just remarked from a sedentary position, the same people may be lying to those agencies as well, but we are taking every measure possible to ensure that information is shared between Government Departments and agencies, so that the support that those children need goes to them, and so that parents who are lying and cheating to avoid their responsibilities to their own children are brought to account.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Why do the Government give themselves powers in this area that they then fail to use? The Minister will be aware that in nine of the 11 cases in which the CSA started moves to take away driving licences from non-resident parents who persistently failed to pay, payment started without the driving licences having to be taken away. Should we not see more of that? What does the Minister intend to do about it?

Mr. Pond

The hon. Gentleman makes precisely the point that the main purpose should be to ensure that the money needed to support those children goes to them. For the most part, prosecution must be the last resort. We want to make sure that non-resident parents understand that if they will not meet their responsibilities, we have the power to take action. The great majority of non-resident parents do meet those responsibilities, but we have made it clear that, where necessary, we will use those powers, and we are increasingly using them, as I said in my response to the main question.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we start to switch staff away from calculating the debts and into enforcement action. Could he say how many staff will be switched to enforcement action and over what period, so that we can get to grips with the huge unrecovered backlog of debt owed by absent parents towards the upkeep of their children?

Mr. Pond

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We are shifting resources, as he acknowledged, from the assessment of cases to compliance. The agency is reviewing the best way of transferring resources in that process as we move over to the new system through child support reform. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will report to the House once we have agreed the best way of transferring those resources across.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

Following the question from the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), the Minister will be aware that non-payers cannot be prosecuted if they are not identified, and that up to a million old cases are waiting to be transferred to the new scheme. On 2 July Doug Smith, the chief executive of the Child Support Agency, told the Select Committee on Work and Pensions: The software that we needed to do bulk conversions…was intended to be available to us around the autumn of this year. It is now clear that that will not be available…into the spring of next year. Can the Minister confirm that the software will indeed be available next spring? What date has he set for the transfer of old cases to the new scheme?

Mr. Pond

We have said that we will transfer the old cases to the new scheme as soon as we are sure that the software and the other parts of the mechanism are working properly. [Laughter.] Despite the giggles from the Opposition Front Bench, we want to make sure that parents with care and the children whom they are caring for get the resources that they need. It would be irresponsible of us to try and transfer all the old cases across until we are sure that that will happen. Thousands of cases each week are currently being dealt with under the new system. We are improving all the time in terms of the number of cases that are cleared, and when we are satisfied that the system is working properly and that the software is running properly, we will transfer the old cases across.