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Child Maintenance

Volume 464: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

7. What representations he has received on his proposals for changing child maintenance arrangements over the past three months. (156109)

Following the formal consultation on the child maintenance White Paper, published in December last year, we published our response document in May. We have continued to meet stakeholders to discuss the reforms to child maintenance. In the past three months, for example, we have met the Child Poverty Action Group, Families Need Fathers and One Parent Families. We continue to work closely with all stakeholders.

What reassurances can the Minister give to the many thousands of families struggling with the current system that the IT used by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will work this time around?

Those people will not have to wait until CMEC is in operation because we are already engaged in a programme of improving the CSA’s IT system. A number of important releases are out already and the system is operating a lot better, which is why, since the operational improvement programme commenced in April 2006, we are getting child maintenance payments to 63,000 more children, and why we can report that the applications backlog is down by 36 per cent. We are clearing new applications faster, partly because of existing IT improvements.

As well as receiving representations from the various charities involved in this area, has my hon. Friend received representations from the Public and Commercial Services Union, on behalf of the staff who will administer the new system? When I talked to them in Blackpool, they said that they were becoming increasingly anxious about how they will manage the old calculation, the new calculation and the new-new calculation when CMEC is introduced.

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that point. We are closely engaged with our staff. I have had a number of meetings with staff representatives over the last year, and I know that other colleagues in the Department have done the same. The staff tell us, overwhelmingly, that they are right behind the Government’s reforms, and they welcome the improvements that the operational improvement plan is already achieving. They also welcome some new powers that we have given staff—for example, to collect child maintenance debts.

Although we are discussing with staff particular issues about transitional arrangements such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned, our staff want to work for an efficient system that delivers more child maintenance to more children; they recognise that the changes we are introducing are set to achieve just that.

Will the Minister please ask Sir Leigh Lewis to pass on to his staff Members’ thanks for the detailed work that they have put into the inquiries that we make on behalf of our constituents and our hope that the new systems will work better? Will the Minister also ask the Prime Minister to instruct permanent secretaries to say to Secretaries of State that they do not want to introduce systems that will not work first time around? We should not have to have a running experiment for two years, causing disaster to so many families.

I will certainly pass those comments on, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is not an area for experimentation. The CSA has been troubled almost since the day of its inception. We all accept that this is a difficult policy area, and we have taken through reforms that have achieved some improvement, but we all recognised—right across the House, I think—that there was a really tough problem with the agency.

We decided that, because of their problems, the agency and the system as they currently exist cannot go on. That is why we decided to introduce the new arrangement under the commission, why we are taking time to ensure that we get that right, why we are deliberately taking time over the transitional arrangements to ensure that they are right as well, and why, in the meantime, we are investing additional people and resources to improve the agency’s performance. On all counts, it is improving.