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Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission

Volume 467: debated on Monday 19 November 2007

3. When the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will commence its work; and if he will make a statement. (164993)

Subject to parliamentary approval, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will become operational in 2008. I have appointed Janet Paraskeva as its chair designate. She brings considerable skills and experience to the role and she will provide outstanding leadership.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. What would he say to my constituent, Martin Smith, who has been in correspondence with the Child Support Agency for the past four years? He has stated that he was the father of a child, and he then submitted his DNA report, which the CSA has lost. The CSA has been taking money out of his account every week, and he now risks losing his job. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the transitional arrangements that he brings into force will ensure that such cases will be dealt with swiftly before the new organisation takes over?

I would certainly like to examine the case of the constituent mentioned by my right hon. Friend, because his account makes it sound disturbing. There is no doubt that from its original inception in the early 1990s, the CSA has been a real problem in dealing with the problems that it was set up to resolve. It has improved its performance recently, but we are replacing it with the new commission precisely to start on an entirely new footing and to ensure that we provide child support in the way that it ought to have been provided all along.

The Secretary of State has just rightly said that since its inception the Child Support Agency has encountered many difficulties. I am sure that he will be aware, as are many hon. Members, that one of the principal difficulties has occurred when the absent parent—the parent without care—has been self-employed, and it has therefore been impossible to reach or place enforcement orders on their earnings. Can he tell the House whether the new agency will have any other, better methods of dealing with that intractable problem than has been the case in the past?

We will provide powers for direct collection from bank accounts, because the hon. Lady is right that there is a problem with self-employed people. We will also encourage mediation, especially for those on benefit. At present, they have to enter into a statutory relationship, via the CSA. If the issue could be voluntarily agreed, it could remove that obstacle to a proper relationship between the parents and support for the resident parent. The self-employed issue remains one that we need to resolve.

Will the new CMEC take a different approach to shared care, in which children spend 50 per cent. of their time with each parent, especially when both parents are working and have an income? Under the CSA, one parent always has to be identified as the parent with care.

Yes, I do think that CMEC will provide a more satisfactory outcome in such instances, to which my hon. Friend is right to draw attention. For a start, it will provide scope for greater voluntary arrangements and mediation, as well as an ability to offset in cases like the ones that she mentioned.

I am sure that we all have numerous cases of the insensitivity and inefficiency of the CSA that we could lay before the Secretary of State. What procedure will the Secretary of State adopt to monitor the work of the new body, so that we do not have a disaster followed by a fiasco?

I am confident that we will not have that—[Interruption.] Well, I remember the early days of the CSA, as a Back-Bench Labour Member, after it was set up by the previous Government, and it was an absolute disaster. Performance has improved, but the hon. Gentleman is right to demand of me that it improves further. It will be monitored, and I hope that the Work and Pensions Committee will also keep a beady eye focused on it. We want the new arrangement to ensure that the support gets to the child, so that the non-resident parent—usually the father—fulfils his responsibility, but it should be done in a fair way, which is often perceived not to be the case.