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Child Support Agency

Volume 403: debated on Monday 14 April 2003

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If he will make a statement on the speed with which assessments are made by the Child Support Agency. [108706]

If he will make a statement on the Child Support Agency reforms. [108717]

In 2001–02, about half the cases took less than 20 weeks to reach full assessment, but one in six took more than a year.

As the House is aware, the new scheme started on 3 March, and early indications are that both clients and staff are responding positively. By the end of the first year of operation of the new scheme, I expect the CSA to have arrangements for maintenance payment in place, on average, within six weeks from the first contact with the non-resident parent.

I thank the Secretary of State especially for that target. Is he aware that when his hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber, asked him when he last met the chief executive of the CSA

"to discuss progress on county court judgments, committal proceedings and the withdrawal of driving licences for nonpayment of maintenance",
the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), replied:
"Ministers have regular meetings with the Chief Executive."—[Official Report, 30 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 996W.]
Technically, that could be described as a non-answer. Can the Secretary of State give some targets for the difficult cases where non-resident parents disappear, refuse to provide information and generally play havoc with the system?

We are in the process of setting demanding targets for the future operation of the CSA. The House will be aware that cash compliance is already up to 68 per cent. and that case compliance is up to 71 per cent. In the new system, we are setting targets of 78 per cent. for case compliance and of 75 per cent. for cash compliance. In place of the chaos and the huge backlogs that built up when the first scheme started, we have been making progress, and we are more ambitious for the future.

Figures from the Library indicate that the delay in introducing reforms to the CSA will cost lone parents about £90 million. What plans do the Government have to compensate lone parents for those losses?

Compensation would not be payable for the delay in introducing the new system, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It would have served lone parents and other recipients of maintenance badly if we had introduced the system when the IT was not ready. That would have risked repeating the chaos that occurred when the CSA first came into operation. It is good that we have got things right and that we set up the system only when the IT was capable of delivering an effective service. As much as anyone in the House, I look forward to the recipients of benefit also receiving, under the reforms that we have introduced, the child maintenance premium of up to £10 a week, which they have not received previously.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his efforts to make the CSA more transparent, more fair and more accessible to people in need of child support. In addition to speeding up the claims, will he take into consideration the accuracy of the claims and reducing the amount of paperwork that parents with care and even absent parents receive from the CSA, as it is difficult to understand and follow? In making the issue transparent, will he take action to ensure that the assessments are clear and correct, and to try to reduce the amount of paperwork involved in making assessments?

Very much so, and I pay tribute to the long-standing and informed interest that my hon. Friend has taken in improving the CSA's performance. The new system is very much simpler; it cuts dramatically the amount of information that has to be collected and the number of calculations that have to be made. That should build confidence in its provisions among not only parents with care but non-resident parents as well. It is an opportunity to start a new era of much more effective child support and its payment, which is the critical thing.

I appreciate the opportunity to press the Minister and to welcome the improvements, but how long will it take to deal with the backlog of parents who have been wrongly assessed, as they have been told that that will not happen for some time until new applicants have been dealt with?

The introduction of the new system for new cases should make it much more straightforward and easier to get such things right first time. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, one of the great disadvantages of the old system was that it was so complicated, because of all the factors that had to be taken into account, that barely had the initial assessment been made before new information became available and the assessment had to be adjusted—in many cases to the point where neither the parent with care nor the non-resident parent ever really knew where they stood. That accounts for the extent to which the backlog has built up, and of course we will do everything that we can further to clear it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, of the 384,000 parents with care entitled to receive child maintenance, 193,000 receive less than their entitlement and 79,000 receive nothing at all—that is £250 million in unpaid child support? May I suggest to the Secretary of State that he enable every Member to suggest three child support cases in his or her constituency in which the sanction that the Secretary of State has to remove driving licences could be applied to those non-resident parents who deliberately and consistently evade their responsibilities, many of whom enjoy much higher standards of living than the parents to whom the money should go?

First, I acknowledge the close interest that the hon. Gentleman takes in such things and his contribution to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. It is perhaps unfortunate that we cannot allow a universal system to be dictated by whoever is top of an MP's list for action. We can use the sanctions that we have at our disposal, but the threat of those sanctions is more important. At the end of the day, what is important is not taking driving licences off people, but how many people pay because they fear that their driving licences would have been taken away. As I said, we have been improving both cash and case compliance, and our targets for the future are more ambitious, as I told the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I will certainly do all that I can to ensure that sanctions are used where appropriate.