HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc239-42W
Mr. Fearn

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security (1) what plans the Child Support Agency has to reduce the number of offices from which customers can be dealt with by(a) telephone, (b) personal interview and (c) visits to their home address; [29262]

(2) when hon. Members were informed of the planned changes in CSA offices in their constituencies; what representations she has received from them; and what plans she has to re-examine the proposed changes; [29264]

(3) what consultations there have been in respect of CSA office changes with (a) customers, (b) their representatives, (c) customer support and advice groups and (d) other local interested parties; [29263]

(4) what assessment she has made of the impact of the proposed closure of Child Support Agency offices on (a) customers' transport costs and (b) civil service administrative costs; [29268]

(5) what assessment she has made of the impact of the proposed closure of Child Support Agency offices on other agencies in local areas with particular reference to citizens advice bureaux. [29265]

Mr. Keith Bradley

We expect the Child Support Agency to provide a consistent, fair and efficient service to all its clients. We are looking closely at all aspects of the child support scheme to see where improvements can be made. We aim to bring forward a consultation document on our proposals by the Summer.

The administration of the Child Support Agency is a matter for the Chief Executive, Mrs. Faith Boardman. She will write to the hon. Member.

Letter from Faith Boardman to Mr. Ronnie Fearn, dated 10 March 1998: I am replying to your Parliamentary Questions to the Secretary of State for Social Security about the operational reorganisation of the Child Support Agency. Our plans for re-organising are fully in line with the Government strategy of modernising the delivery of public services and reinforce more effectively parental responsibility. We believe our plans will increase compliance and the regularity of payment of maintenance

The general levy covers the costs of bodies which exist either to safeguard the rights of, or to provide information to, pension scheme members. These bodies are the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, the Pensions Advisory Service, the Pensions Registry and the Pensions Ombudsman. Rates of general levy for the 1998–99 year are shown in the table.

and play an important part in helping lone parents return to work. It may help to explain some details of our current organisation to show how we can improve substantially the accessibility to the public.The Agency currently has approximately 2900 staff working in Field offices throughout the country. However, in excess of 95% of those staff concentrate on backroom paper processing work so they do not have any face to face contact at all and are no more accessible to the public than those in the major processing centres. The number of staff years which are devoted to face-to-face contact is only currently 120 and in many locations there is fewer than one interview per day. We fully accept that this is not sufficient and restructuring will allow us to offer significantly more face to face contact on a peripatetic basis in a greater range of locations and in conjunction with the Benefits Agency (with whom many of our clients are also concerned). At the same time, we need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of other forms of contact with customers, and to improve our overall cost-efficiency sufficiently to help keep pace with increases of 50% on our workloads over the next 3 years.We also know that many of our customers who are working prefer to deal with us by 'phone and do not need to be visited or interviewed but prefer to deal with us in the privacy of their own home outside normal working office hours. We are therefore currently developing proposals on how we might re-focus our resources to cope with an increasing workload which is responsive to our customers needs, while at the same time increase and improve significantly on face to face contact. Our current thinking is that we can move processing work into the Child Support Agency Centres and larger local centres which provide economies of scale and much better value for money for the taxpayer by allowing us to re-focus approximately £5 million on clearing the backlogs of work and rising workloads. Processing paper in small offices is significantly more expensive and the restructuring will allow us to both improve our overall range of customer contact and our overall processing.So while we may not retain a permanent presence at our 218 sites we will still provide interview facilities where appropriate. We know a proportion of our customers will need to have face to face contact for a number of reasons but not necessarily at a DSS office. We are therefore exploring other options which could include for example Citizens Advice Bureaux or other Government facilities to increase our accessibility to the public.As Ministers have announced, part of our strategy to improve face to face contact with our customers is by working more closely with our colleagues in the Benefits Agency. From April 1998, Benefit Agency staff will interview and assist new Income Support parents with care to complete their maintenance application form where appropriate. Pilot studies have shown this to be both very cost effective and welcomed by individual customers. 75% of our parents with care will be interviewed; customers will have to provide information only once, thus reducing overlap and repetition of work and it will reduce the incidence of fraud.We have also recently completed an evaluation on positive customer contact on the use of the 'phone. This has shown that early telephone contact with absent parents increases compliance and helps to speed up the assessment process which is a major concern to both individuals and their representative groups. Parents with care should therefore receive maintenance more quickly and it should help prevent arrears building-up for absent parents. We have also piloted a new approach in the way we deal with self employed cases which includes use of the 'phone and where appropriate or necessary, face to face contact, and this has been found to improve compliance significantly.With regard to consultation, we have presented our initial thoughts to the Agency's National stakeholder group which includes some 20 organisations such as National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Stepfamily Association and Families Need Fathers. The Agency also produces a quarterly newsletter "Open Door" which is issued to all of its registered stakeholders. The October 1997 and January 1998 editions contain articles about the Agency's four year modernisation programme which will involve transferring processing work from small local offices to its main centres and a number of other large processing sites. The Agency Trade Union Side have also had the opportunity to participate in our planning and will be consulted as our plans are developed.I am conscious, however that moving the backroom paper processing work which does not require face to face contact has to be done in conjunction with improvements to our telephone service and increase in staff resources in the Centres. This will allow us to open our 'phone lines for much longer and help to reduce the delays customers currently experience and is part of the review for the plans covering a four year period. I have asked for some further work to be done to examine how we can improve and increase face to face contact to deliver the Active Modern Service which our customers have every right to expect.Our objective in reorganising the way the Agency does its business is to provide an efficient accurate service which is more responsive to the variety of needs of our customers, and which offers them access and information in a range of customer-friendly forms to suit their variety of needs. This will increase the flow of maintenance and, where appropriate, enable parents with care to move from welfare to work.I hope this is helpful.
Mrs. Ann Cryer

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what was the average debt of an absent parent at the time when the first Child Support Agency maintenance assessment decision was issued in the last year for which figures are available. [29784]

Mr. Keith Bradley

Children are entitled to the financial and emotional support of both parents wherever they live. We are looking closely at all aspects of the child support scheme to see where improvements can be made. We will bring forward a consultation document on our proposals by the Summer.

The administration of the Child Support Agency is a matter for the Chief Executive, Mrs. Faith Boardman. She will write to my hon. Friend.

Letter from Faith Boardman to Mrs. Ann Cryer, dated 10 March 1998: I am replying to your Parliamentary Question to the Secretary of State for Social Security about Child Support Agency maintenance assessment debt. The child maintenance formula can require the Agency to enquire, look at and consider over 100 pieces of information before an assessment can be made and it is inevitable that some time will elapse before the maintenance assessment is made and the absent parent notified of his liability. The period between the date the child support maintenance liability begins and the date the maintenance assessment is made is referred to as the Initial Payment Period. Information on Initial Payment Periods is collected by the Agency's Financial Management System, and is only available at the current date and not for a retrospective period. The average amount of maintenance outstanding relating to the initial payment period, as at 16th February 1998, was £1,077.41. However, once maintenance liability has been established, there are several major factors which may quickly reduce this amount. The child maintenance enquiry pack advises absent parents to continue making court order payments in the usual way until a maintenance assessment has been made. It also states that other payments presently being made for the children may be offset against any maintenance the Agency calculates; when these are reported and verified as child support maintenance, the amount of arrears is reduced accordingly. Either or both parents may ask for the assessment to be reviewed at this stage, which can lead to an adjustment in the original amount. The Agency addresses the issue of debt accumulating in the initial pay period by establishing contact with the absent parent as early in the process as possible and has also a facility to defer the effective date of an application for 8 weeks if an absent parent quickly returns his or her maintenance enquiry form. Encouraging the absent parent to cooperate with the Agency shortens the time between application and assessment, thus minimising the build up of arrears. These policies have proved to be effective as, from April 1997 to the 31 January 1998, the Agency has recorded over £29m in voluntary payments made during the initial payment period in cases subsequently using the collection service. I hope this is helpful.

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