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Child Support Agency

Volume 453: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

7. What progress has been made on reforms to the Child Support Agency; and if he will make a statement. (102902)

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 will publish a White Paper with final proposals shortly.

What will happen to claimants who are owed thousands of pounds by non-paying ex-partners when the CSA is scrapped?

We must make sure that we crack down on people who are not paying up. We all know from examples in our constituencies that, sadly, relationships end but responsibilities must never be allowed to do so. We have invested more: we are investing more right now in the CSA to make sure that we increase the amount of historic debt that is recovered to parents with care. It is important that we do that. But the hon. Gentleman will have to wait a little longer to see our specific proposals, which will be set out in the White Paper shortly.

Looking back on the genesis of the existing CSA, there were three key reasons why it failed so abysmally: the inadequate number of staff; the focus on driving down benefit costs as a central objective; and an appallingly designed computer system, which was slow and unstable. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the CSA’s successor will focus on driving up income in the families concerned, that it will provide adequate numbers of people in the new CSA to manage the whole process, and that it will go nowhere near—not with a bargepole—the existing computer supplier?

We need to learn the lessons from previous attempts to get this right. We will not do our constituents or the country any favours unless we are prepared to be open and frank about where things have gone wrong. I think that we have done that, and that David Henshaw’s report gives us a proper blueprint on which we can plan for a much more successful system of child support in the future. We must make tackling child poverty its No. 1 objective; we have made that clear already. In relation to the point of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who asked me to reveal to the House the contents of the White Paper ahead of its publication, let me reassure him and his hon. Friends that we will propose a series of much stronger and tougher enforcement powers; but I am sure that the House will understand why I cannot go into the details of that today.

As agreements will be an important part of the new system, will the Secretary of State at least tell us whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Executive as to how they will work in the Scottish legal system, and in particular whether there will be provisions for implementation of these agreements and for variation on change of circumstance?

Yes, we have had full and proper consultations with the Scottish Executive.

Over £1 million of the money that the CSA has failed to collect is owed not to the Government but directly to thousands of parents, who have suffered extreme financial hardship. As a result of that, will the Secretary of State confirm today that he will continue to pursue those payments, and that he will not at some point in the future decide to write off any of that money?

I warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her new Front-Bench responsibilities. I know that it will sound unfair if I say this, but the amount of unclaimed debt is not £1 million; it is £1 billion. We are not prepared to see all of that debt just waved away. We will do everything possible to recover as much of that money as we reasonably can, to make sure that families—the parents who are looking after the children—benefit from that maintenance.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that a constituent of mine in Shetland calculates that it will take 15 years for the child maintenance arrears for her child to be paid, which means that her child will be 27 before all the arrears are paid? Will he ensure that the people who are in that situation will not be the victims of a mass write-off of debt? That is the real concern that she brings to me.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not know the details of that case, and rather than repeat the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), I would prefer to leave the matter there. There is a very significant amount of debt in the system that we have got to clear up as quickly as we can and, as I said, we will do whatever we can to recover as much of it as possible.

I welcome the plan in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a child support Bill. One problem with current system and the existing agency has been a lack of robustness in the assessment process. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the new Bill takes that point on board and improves the assessment phase?

Yes, we certainly will. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the White Paper, but we will set out in it some pretty radical, long overdue reforms of the assessment and collection process.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the problem of absent parents who own a business avoiding maintenance payments by paying themselves small salaries and using the business account to pay living expenses and give their partner a salary? Does he think that the current provisions on variations in, and diversion of, income are working well to tackle this problem, or do they need reform?

Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that one reform will be introduced? Where the parent with care has received no funds whatsoever through the Child Support Agency from the absent parent and the child then moves from one parent to the other, the parent who is owed thousands of pounds cannot set that off against the money that she then has to pay to the absent parent who defaulted. Should it not be possible for a debt to be set off against a future liability in those circumstances?

It should be possible for that to happen. The right hon. Gentleman has raised a very important issue, but I might need to refresh my memory as to what the White Paper says about it. However, he has made a very effective point.