HC Deb 05 July 2004 vol 423 cc543-5
14. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the level of error in Child Support Agency decisions. [181901]

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

Last year, 85.7 per cent. of decisions on old scheme cases were correct to the nearest penny—the best ever level of accuracy, against the target of 82 per cent.—and 14.3 per cent. contained errors. From a sample of new scheme cases taken in February and March this year, 82 per cent. of decisions were correct to the nearest penny, against an agency target of 90 per cent. We will not be satisfied until we get accuracy to the highest levels that we target.

Miss McIntosh

Will the Minister undertake to take a personal interest in the individual cases of error found among constituents who live in the Vale of York? Such errors are deeply distressing and stressful for the individuals involved and cause a great deal of upset. Will he also look into a case that has just to come my attention where a father who is in receipt of incapacity benefit is, in fact, working for a family firm and not making any payment? That is clearly an error that has not yet been identified. Will he take a personal interest in that case?

Mr. Pond

We understand the hardship and heartache that can be caused when errors occur, both for parents with care and non-resident parents, which is why we are doing everything that we possibly can to ensure that there is as much accuracy as possible. I, or my noble Friend Baroness Hollis, would be happy to talk to the hon. Lady about specific cases to find whether there is anything further that we can do to help to resolve them.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

We all know of individual case examiners who have found CSA error, after which they often recommend a consolatory payment. I have a constituent whose life was put on hold for more than two years, during which he lost his driving licence, who was offered a consolatory payment of £250. What is the average amount paid to people who have suffered at the hands of an incompetent CSA, and what are the Government going to do about the problem?

Mr. Pond

My hon. Friend will understand that averages are not always terribly helpful in such circumstances because payments relate to the details of each individual case. He will not expect me to comment on those cases. However, we want to ensure that people who have suffered due to errors that the agency should not have made are properly compensated. I extend the offer that I made to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). If my hon. Friend would like to discuss individual cases, I am sure that my noble Friend Baroness Hollis or I would be happy to do so.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD)

The Minister will know that the independent case examiner deals with the most difficult cases from constituents who have had no satisfaction from the CSA. Last week, she produced her annual report, which showed a 50 per cent. increase in complaints during the first year of the Government's shiny new CSA system. I think that the Minister admitted to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that the new, simple "really-easy-to-do" system had more errors in it than the old system. When will he admit that the new system has failed?

Mr. Pond

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the report carefully, as have I. He will be aware that only 0.15 per cent. of CSA clients complained last year and that more than half the increased number of cases were not accepted for consideration by the independent case examiner. However, she pointed out: As the year started, the Child Support Reforms had just come into effect. It is not surprising that the major legislative, system and organisational changes faced by the Agency in implementing the Reforms have engendered a variety of problems and resulting complaints. There are reasons why there has been a substantial increase—it is actually a 31 per cent. increase—in the number of cases that could be referred to the independent case examiner, but we are not complacent. We have firm targets on improving accuracy, and we intend to do that.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Given the welcome news about the improvement in the accuracy of CSA cases, will my hon. Friend tell me when we will complete the transfer to the new scheme? People are getting agitated while waiting to move from the old system to the new one.

Mr. Pond

We understand the impatience of some clients of the CSA, although there is often a difference of opinion between parents with care and non-resident parents. I understand the impatience of hon. Members for the transfer to a system that we all think will be simpler and more effective. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said on several occasions that we will not transfer old cases to the new system until we are absolutely certain that the technology is working effectively. It would be irresponsible to do so before that time, so I cannot give my hon. Friend a date on which it will happen. We will make the transfer as soon as it is responsible to do so.