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Child Support Agency

Volume 450: debated on Monday 16 October 2006

In July, and in response to Sir David Henshaw’s report, I set out the broad direction of reform to the child support system. We intend to publish a White Paper with final, detailed proposals later this autumn.

The Secretary of State will be well aware that many of my constituents have been badly let down by the CSA through its sheer delay, incompetence and constant change of caseworkers, and that many constituents are still caught in the system, trying to seek justice. Given that the Government’s reforms plan to exclude the families at present in the old system, what assurance can the right hon. Gentleman give that those excluded families will not be abandoned or forgotten by the Government?

The hon. Gentleman might need to look at the White Paper again and refresh his memory. We will not exclude old scheme cases from the reforms. We will set out the detailed transitional arrangements in the White Paper, but I have already told the chief executive of the agency that he must prioritise enforcement and debt collection. We are making an additional investment in the CSA to make sure that we improve performance in all these areas, and it is an important part of our plans. I agree—this is why we have set out our plans to replace the Child Support Agency—that it is impossible to make the current system work in the way that we want it to, and to provide the hon. Gentleman’s constituents with the level of service that they are entitled to expect. When we publish our detailed proposals, I hope that he will be the first to support them.

Will my right hon. Friend look into the unfairness caused by a non-resident parent in receipt of child tax credit having that taken into account as income when calculating the maintenance requirement, thus returning that parent to low income, whereas the recipient may also be on child tax credit and therefore may effectively benefit twice?

One aspect of the reform of the agency was the introduction of a means whereby parents could agree maintenance between themselves. Under the pre-CSA arrangements, as the Minister may know, at least in Scotland, such an agreement, if registered, could be enforceable in the same way as a formal court decree. Can he say whether it is envisaged that the new arrangements will act in the same way, and if so, will he consider measures to enforce them in an overseas jurisdiction where there are reciprocal arrangements relating to court orders?

On the latter point, that is an important issue that we need to explore in relation to how we recover debt from people who are outside the jurisdiction, whether that is in Scotland or in England. That can often be a way round the legislation that the House has enacted, and we cannot tolerate such a situation. On the jurisdiction of a court, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the detailed proposals are set out in the White Paper. Sir David Henshaw highlighted that as an issue and we are giving careful consideration to it.

Is the Minister aware that many of us on the Labour Benches are pleased that he is taking steps to get rid of the Child Support Agency as it currently exists? Is he also aware that I am astonished that a Conservative Member of Parliament can voice opposition in the manner that he does, taking into account that in 1992 when the agency was introduced by John Major—the man responsible for the cones on the highways and all the rest of it—some of us voted to scrap it within 12 months of it being passed by the House? If only the Tories had joined us, we would never have had such a calamity.

May I ask the Secretary of State about information technology? He will be aware that many of my constituents, and no doubt many of his, who are parents with care wish to apply for a variation on absent parents who are in receipt of working tax credit. The Government believe that they should be able to do that, but I am told by one of his ministerial colleagues that they cannot do so at present because the computer system cannot be adapted to allow them to do so. That has now been the case for three years. How much longer will they have to wait?

It is not an ideal situation, as I would be the first to acknowledge. The Child Support Agency has a number of routes—not satisfactory in all cases, I agree—to try and find manual overrides and work-arounds for such problems. The difficulties with the IT system have been pretty well documented and I do not want to add to that. In relation to the new agency, the problem will have to be examined carefully because we do not want such problems to continue in the new agency. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is usually right on all these matters.

We frequently have discussions here about failings of the CSA. However, first, is it not right to emphasise that the starting point in child maintenance is personal responsibility, usually that of absent fathers; and secondly, that in any such discussion the focus must be towards the elimination of child poverty, as it is children who suffer when maintenance is not paid?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those two points, both of which have to be centre stage in the architecture of the new system. We have to promote personal responsibility, which we will be able to do by encouraging more parents to reach voluntary agreements. We also have to be able to say convincingly to the public that in cases where the absent parent does not discharge their financial responsibilities to the child, there will be a better—a more efficient and effective—system for recovering that maintenance. I am afraid that that has been sadly missing from the current arrangements, but Sir David Henshaw, the chief executive of the CSA, and the Department for Work and Pensions are determined to get it right.

Is the Secretary of State in a position to confirm that Sir David Henshaw has reported on the implications of his first report? Is he able to give us a date when he expects to publish his White Paper and when he expects to publish on the internet the responses to his consultation?

As regards applications under the new system by those already claiming child support, has the Secretary of State estimated what the cost to the state will be, as experts have told us that it will be considerable?

On the hon. Lady’s latter point, that would very much depend on the decisions that we make about the length of time over which that process will take place. We will set out all the details in the near future when we publish our White Paper. I am afraid that I do not have a date for its publication because, as she will know, that is not entirely in my hands—it is to do with the business managers and others—but it will certainly be before Christmas.