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Child Support Agency

Volume 447: debated on Monday 12 June 2006

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, the overall performance of the agency is still not acceptable. However, there have been improvements in some areas. The agency’s operational improvement plan, published in February, set out the immediate priorities for improvements in client services and enforcement. Also, as we have already announced, Sir David Henshaw has been asked to report on his proposals for a redesign of child support policy and delivery before the summer recess.

Staff at the agency say that the current reorganisation will lead only to more backlog. When Sir David Henshaw concludes his report, that may lead to further disarray. This situation has been an absolute nightmare for many of my constituents and, I guess, those of Members on both sides of the House. When do the Government think that they are finally going to sort out this farce?

I know that many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are frustrated about the state of the CSA, and I think that that feeling is shared by our constituents across the country. However, the staff inside the agency, who work very hard to deliver its services in difficult circumstances, are right behind our drive to improve its performance. They want to be part of a successful Child Support Agency.

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the backlog. Although it is still considerable, at more than 300,000, it has fallen over the past year. The additional staff whom we are putting in should enable us to bring down that backlog even further as we move forward with the improvement programme.

Many of us have come to the reluctant conclusion from our constituency casework that the CSA is essentially broken. That being the case, and as we await the Henshaw review, can the Minister give us an absolute guarantee that Ministers will come to the House prior to the summer recess and give us a statement about exactly what the Government plan to do, bearing in mind that their previous statement promised only yet another review?

As I said in my initial answer, we have asked Sir David Henshaw to report before the summer recess, and we intend to make a statement to the House about that.

8. If he will make a statement on the length of time taken by the Child Support Agency to secure court hearings for non-resident parents who are not making the child support payments required of them. (76100)

The operational improvement plan sets out the immediate priorities, including improved enforcement. The agency has already established a working group with the Magistrates Association, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Justices’ Clerks Society, aiming to develop a faster and more effective court referral process. As a further step in speeding that process, we will pilot the centralisation of magistrates courts’ cases.

My constituent, Lorna Leech, has sought justice from the CSA for more than 10 years. She is owed more than £30,000 of child support, and now her children are nearly grown up. Does the Minister think it acceptable for the CSA to wait for more than eight years to take that case to court, and then to seek an adjournment of a subsequent hearing? Does he agree that children are only young once, and that justice delayed is justice denied?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman—that is an unacceptably long wait for action. I am aware of some of the details of Miss Leech’s case. I understand that the agency has brought four separate liability orders in respect of her case, over a considerable period, but there is still no action in the courts. That is an unacceptable delay. I hope that the process will be speeded up. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to go into the case in more detail, and I will offer any help to him and his constituent that I can.

Is it not the case the Sir David Henshaw’s brief has been restricted, and that he is therefore unable to undertake the root-and-branch review of the CSA that would allow him to consider the entire structure of child support in this country? He could, for example, look to other countries with a much more successful record in payment, such as Australia. Is that part of his brief, or not?