HL Deb 02 December 2004 vol 667 cc545-9

11.15 a.m.

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they intend to take to speed up payments from the Child Support Agency.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, there have been well documented problems with the new IT system. However, three-quarters of all CSA cases are on the old system and 99 per cent of payments are made within 10 days.

Under the new system, which is where the IT problems are, 90 per cent of private cases have had maintenance assessments and the money flows. Our problem, in other words, is not that payments are not being made—they are but that the new computer, for various reasons that we could explore, is not yet sufficiently robust to allow us safely to migrate the old system cases on to the new system. That is where the key problem lies.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, but, sadly, is it not clear that the CSA is in chaos? The chief executive has resigned: the National Audit Office reports that the situation has worsened since the 2003 reforms; of the 478,000 applications only 61,000 payments have actually been made; more than 25 per cent of payments have been wrong; and when the CSA seeks to enforce maintenance payments, it deals correctly with only 10 per cent.

The noble Baroness's reply makes it clear that the old system was working better than the new. Is this whole thing not a scandal? It is a desperate situation for the people in need of the money—lone parents—who are not being dealt with correctly by the CSA.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I would not in any sense wish to be complacent about the problems that we are having with the new computer system. That is not, I fear, unusual. We had, for example, to abandon the smart benefit card that we inherited from the previous administration—the £1 billion contract—because that was unworkable.

We have a problem with the computer, but I want to emphasise that at the core of the problem is the fact that too many non-resident parents, mostly fathers, do not wish to pay. We see fathers changing their jobs, homes, bank accounts and even changing their countries, rather than choosing to pay to support their children. If they were willing to pay, the CSA would be like a building society instead of a less than efficient debt-collection agency. The reason so much depends on the computer is that we have to chase mostly men who choose not to pay and prefer other fathers to support their children for them.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, one accepts the difficulties that the Minister rightly underlines, but will she confirm that a total of £750 million is owed to single parents, with waiting times going up from 12 to 15 weeks last year to 15 to 22 weeks now? Does she agree that, whatever reasons there may be for this, it would be right for some kind of compensation, be it only interest on the money owed, to be paid to parents who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in great personal distress and financial hardship?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not accept the figures given by the right reverend Prelate. As I say, in existing old-system cases, which are three-quarters of the cases, the money is flowing with something like 90 per cent accuracy targets to the nearest pound, and not 75 per cent as the right reverend Prelate said.

Under the new system, where lone parents are in work, 90 per cent of maintenance payments are being made. The difficulty for us is with lone parents on benefits where the new computer benefit does not interconnect with the existing IS benefit. In that case lone parents continue to receive their full benefits, which if they include housing benefit could be £200 per week. Under the new system they are losing—I agree that it is not satisfactory—only the £10 per week disregard. So the difference for lone parents is £10 per week on their benefits, which on average, if they have one or two children and housing benefits, are around £200. I do not want to sound complacent about the matter, but the problem has been, so to speak, over-talked. Some of the figures that the right reverend Prelate has suggested are, frankly, not robust.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay

My Lords, given the problems that there have been with EDS, the main computer contractor, would the noble Baroness, as the Minister responsible for the CSA, say that it has either the track record or the spare capacity to be involved in the national identity card?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I would not dream of commenting on the capacity of EDS to bid for other contracts. At present, the system has not been robust. It is getting better; it is improving steadily. More cases are coming through; they are not coming through as quickly as we would want. I must say that EDS has changed its senior management working with us and, as a result, we are seeking to overcome the problems. As I said, I do not want to be complacent about the new computer, but most people are getting their money accurately to the nearest pound on time.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, my question is tangential to that of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. The Minister says that she is not complacent; I am sure that she is not, but does not this raise the whole issue of IT within government departments and the inability to make joined-up expertise available throughout government? That is not purely a government problem, as all who are involved in industry know, but is it not time to flag up that someone should really get a grip on the matter, because we have example after example over a period of 10 or 12 years in which things have gone wrong? Will the Minister use her influence to get a proper supremo with proper expertise at the heart of government to deal with IT systems?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I agree with all that the noble Baroness said, apart, possibly, from her last sentence. She is absolutely right. I was reading some recent research from Oxford and Cambridge that found that only 15 per cent of major computer products are successfully delivered in both the private and public sectors. Obviously, we need to get a better grip on the matter. Part of the difficulty in this case is that it was originally a private finance initiative contract in which we bought a service, not a specified computer. What I have learnt from this is to buy last year's computer and then tweak it.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, was the CSA's new IT system subject to the full gateway review process, which is precisely what my noble friend Lady O'Cathain is asking for?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, it went through that gateway procedure and was given a clean bill of health.

Lord Christopher

My Lords, I warm to the Minister's earlier passion, but does she think that what she said indicates the necessity for a much closer relationship, whatever that may be, between the agency and the Inland Revenue, because all these people do not go overseas?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords, I am happy to consider that, but the basic issue is that if the CSA was transferred to the Inland Revenue, it would have the same computer and the same staff. Most CSA recipients, especially lone parents, are not taxpayers and therefore not within the Inland Revenue frame. Many of us would regard the Inland Revenue as having its hands full with tax credits at the moment. It has certainly shown no wish to perform that work. It is not inconceivable that, in years to come, that may be a perfectly sensible move to make. However, at present, whatever happens, whether it falls under the Inland Revenue or the Department for Work and Pensions, we have, first, to bottom out the computer problem and, secondly—I cannot emphasise this enough—we must continue to build a culture of compliance so that some non-resident parents do not walk away from their responsibility and dump the care of their children on other people.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, the Minister said that the system is coping well with 90 per cent of people on benefit from the CSA. How many families are being failed by the system currently? How quickly are they dealt with and how?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, forgive me, I said private cases. The CSA has 1.3 million cases, which involve 2.5 million adults. Three-quarters of those cases are on the old system and the money is flowing well and satisfactorily there—most Members of Parliament tell me how much better it is than even a few years ago. A quarter of the caseload, about 350,000, are on the new system. Of those, 25 per cent are what we call private cases in which she is in work and he is in work. In those cases, 90 per cent of the money is flowing. The rest are cases in which the lone parent is on benefit, and that is where we are getting only 50 or 60 per cent success rates because of the problem with the interface between the computers.

What I was trying to say in response to the right reverend Prelate was that those lone parents are being denied the £10 that they would gain from being under the new system compared to the old. Their benefit money, which can range from £150 to £200 a week, according to their housing circumstances, continues to flow. So the people who are losing out now are those lone parents who are on the new system, who are not getting a £10 premium.