Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts .)
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate on the Child Support Agency. Let me start with a bit of history. As everyone knows, the CSA was established in 1993 under the Child Support Act 1991. I was not a Member of Parliament when the Act was passed—that was just before I became an MP—but I have talked to those who were here and took part in the examination of the Bill in Committee. The problem at that time, which remains a problem to this day, was that there was not the investigation and scrutiny that there should have been of the mechanics of the Act that was put on the statute book. There has not been sufficient scrutiny in this place of what was proposed or of all the alterations that have taken place over the years.
There is constant talk of simplifying the child support system. The Government have made more and more new proposals over the years, but that does not seem to have been reflected at the sharp end, where I work as a constituency MP. Every week, I have at least two new cases where there are major problems. As I make my speech, I will demonstrate through at least six examples that some of my constituents face a major problem.
Surprisingly, when it was explained to those constituents that I was taking part in this debate and that, if they wanted, I would use their names, they were more than happy for that to happen. I am surprised that that is the case, given that most people would want to hide away from the publicity that such a debate engenders. Yet the constituents concerned were adamant and insisted that I use their cases to demonstrate what is wrong with the system. Many of those cases are known to the Department, because I have written directly to the Secretary of State and had replies from the Minister who is here today.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. Christmas is a time when all families should be together and fathers and mothers should have access to children. However, the CSA is getting in the way of that. Although he talks about the action that the Government rightly have taken to try to simplify the Act, does he agree that that has led to inconsistencies, because different fathers, different people and absent parents are treated differently, particularly in relation to the financial calculations? That issue is leading to major difficulties and should be resolved.
I think I will show that in the six cases that I am about to put to the Minister in order to get some answers. There is absolutely no doubt that we live within a complicated state of affairs in the modern world. I had one case that hon. Members would not believe, where I could not understand why the calculations were coming out the way they were. A woman was getting an incredible amount of money and I found out that the reason for that was that she had five children to five different fathers. As a consequence, the calculations were done in that way, which bamboozled me. I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said in that sense.
I shall now turn to my constituents’ cases, and the first is that of Marian Morris from Prestwick. Marian has been coming to see me since January this year. She has been pursuing the CSA against her ex-husband and, to this date, is owed more than £44,000 by him. The man concerned is a charlatan. He has managed to disappear—to go offshore—and has run rings round all the agency’s staff. Later, I will come to some of the elements that concern me about how the agency does things.
Marian’s ex-husband deserted her and her two daughters back in November 1999, which is more than 10 years ago. The lady immediately put in a claim to the CSA, but to this day she has not received a single penny, either in child support payments or through any other support. Her ex-husband left suddenly, wiped out all the joint accounts and assets, and left her without a penny, yet he has not repaid a single thing to her.
During the past 10 years, Marian has worked and still does so. She has had three jobs in order to support and raise her daughters without assistance, and she feels extremely bitter that her daughters, now aged 16 and 14, have had to grow up so quickly and fend for themselves while she worked long hours—often 15 hours a day—because she had little money to pay for quality child care and has no family nearby to help.
As I say, Marian is owed more than £44,000 to date and the man concerned has run rings round the relevant agencies. I had a meeting with agency staff on Friday. The agency sent three officers down to see Marian and all they could do was constantly apologise for the current system. She has had a one-off consolatory payment of £150 from the agency itself in respect of ongoing delays, but I find such gestures derisory—in fact, it could be argued that they are a slap in the face to the individual.
Marian’s case keeps dragging on and no one seems to be able to do anything about it, so she keeps writing to me, and staff in my office have to be constantly on the phone to the CSA—I will come back to the problems associated with that.
More than anything else, the problem has been summed up in an e-mail sent to me by Marian, in which she writes:
“Once again, I feel that my case is being bounced from one incompetent team to another. I have yet to be assigned a case officer who sees any action through from start to finish.”
That is the nub of the problems I am seeing and those are the difficulties we face as far as Marian is concerned.
I also commend the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. I am listening with great interest to the case studies he is describing. Part of the nub of the problem in Northern Ireland—I do not know whether it is the same in Scotland—is that staff retention is low and turnover of staff in the CSA is inordinately high. That means that time is not given for good-quality training of staff to ensure that the problems he is outlining are dealt with at the coal face.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will cover that point, because something that was working some time ago was the geographical distinction. For example, staff in the agency in Falkirk had various parts of Scotland to deal with. As a result, not only the Member of Parliament, but the individual, had five or six members of staff dealing with, for example, Ayrshire. That meant there was a good chance that they knew what was going on in Ayrshire, whereas now staff deal with all areas. The geographical distinction was one part of the old set-up that worked to the advantage of my constituents.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems is that the CSA is not listening to Members of Parliament who make representations? I made representations for a constituent who was being taken to court after allegedly not paying for two years. That father was eventually taken to court, even though I asked for a stay of those proceedings because I had the evidence that he had been paying.
After the court proceedings and judgment, the CSA accepted that a mistake meant that his payments were put down as being made by someone with the same name. The agency had also used the new man’s national insurance number by mistake, and it now accepts that it was totally in error. The CSA failed to listen to common sense from the MP, proceeded with the court case and is still proceeding against the man concerned. Hon. Members can imagine what that has done to his relationship with his ex-wife and children—destroyed it. That is just not on.
I agree, and that is another example of the aspects of the CSA that, even after all the organisational and structural change, require a much closer look. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention gives me the opportunity to say more on that: clearly, were the same officers to deal with the same cases right through the procedures, at least there would be an opportunity to introduce an ounce of common sense to the scheme. That is what is wrong with it, and I do not think it will ever recover to the position that once existed, even though in the olden days there were court cases as a result, which was not a great idea either. I accept what he says and trust that the Minister will take it on board.
The second case I would like to mention is that of Euan Loutit, a police officer who was married to another police officer. He thought that he was to be taken from the old scheme to the new, with all that entails, but it transpired that the confusion involved did not allow that change to take place. He came to see me many years ago about the problem he faced and indicated that he had major concerns about the parent with care. The CSA has investigated his case over the intervening period and concluded that everything is in order, but Euan has indicated to me that he does not believe that the CSA, as it could and should have done, investigated his wife’s income. She had an accident while a police officer and was awarded £250,000 in compensation, and she earns money from tenants in her house that is not taken into account. As far as Euan is concerned, nothing with the case seems right.
In August 2009, the CSA wrote to me, stating that it would like to offer an assurance that the officer concerned in Mr. Loutit’s case had
“investigated the parent-with-care’s, Louise White, current circumstances and she was correctly treated as having no assessable income for the £107.34 assessment, completed on 11 June 2009.”
Perhaps I have not been listening hard enough, but is Mr. Loutit the parent with care or the non-resident parent?
Mr. Loutit is the non-resident parent. I raise that case because it demonstrates a universal problem. The CSA’s letter went on to state that
“we cannot negotiate the regular maintenance payments as this figure has been calculated in accordance with legislation.”
That ties the hands of the CSA and does not let it see a bit of common sense. It gives no flexibility at all. That is the difficulty as far as Mr. Loutit sees it. When there is such confusion in the system, the arrears build up, so Mr. Loutit has enormous arrears and, as a consequence, the CSA claims that it all must be paid back within two years. At the same time, there is a restriction on the amount of money that can be taken from an individual—I think it is 40 per cent. of take-home pay.
My final point about that case, which beggars belief, is that the CSA now claims:
“It is not possible for Mr Loutit’s case to be transferred to the new rules legislative system, which is calculated using a straight percentage of a parent’s take home pay. This is because we have no legislation in place at present to allow such a transfer.”
We need legislation in place, and that is what I ask the Minister to consider.
In November 2008 our transition to the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission commenced. It is anticipated that a single statutory maintenance calculation will be introduced from 2011, with the transition of all existing cases to that new system taking approximately three years. All parents involved will be kept abreast of how those changes will affect their situation. That, in itself, is something I would like the Minister to address as soon as is practical.
The third case is that of Andrew and Jacqui Jess. Andrew’s problem is that they have been to the CSA over the years, arguing on the basis of a system that they settled amicably between them, but Jacqui and the children now live in Australia. The CSA will not take that into account when making the calculation because, it claims, if they had gone through the court, or if the case had been through a court or a similar system in Australia, he would be fine and that would be taken into account, but because the children are in Australia and he settled things of his own volition, the CSA says, “Sorry, we are not taking that into account at all.”
Another problem that that case highlighted, and which was also mentioned at a meeting just last Friday with the CSA officers who came to my office, is that the CSA will not take the clear evidence individuals provide of their communication with the CSA. A parent might have telephone records showing clearly that there were conversations, and the CSA tells everyone who phones that their calls are likely to be monitored, so why is there no track and why are no records kept? There must be records that are kept, and they are just not telling the truth to my constituents; that must be looked at much more closely.
The other element of that case concerns the office of the independent case examiner, who is looking at the situation of Andrew and Jacqui Jess. The examiner apparently arbitrates, but the CSA can still revisit the situation later and overrule the examiner’s decision. There needs to be more consistency in the whole system.
No, the independent case examiner obviously will not be overruled on the conditions that are put to them, but it is possible that after the event situations will change so that we are back to square one. I have had such cases, and that is a problem. One would think that, once the independent case examiner had made what they thought was a ruling, that would stay for ever more; but the case can be revisited and altered, which does not seem particularly fair.
The fourth case is that of Tom Tait, who has worked diligently all his life. His company went into administration, and during the course of his employment his wages were arrested. He was paying and has proof of the fact—the wage slips are there for all to see. Money was taken from him, the company went into administration and the CSA told him that the employer had never written a cheque to it. He is being held responsible and has to pay the arrears, so we are told.
There is something absolutely, ridiculously wrong with the system if that is the case. The man is paying for one of his sons, who is 19 years old. He has shown his pay slips to the CSA. The son is an apprentice in a local factory, yet because he serves some of his apprenticeship in full-time education, the father has been told that he still has to pay for him. That individual’s case must be looked at much more closely. He feels aggrieved about his position, as he has every entitlement to do.
We move to the fifth case, that of Paul McKendrick. He is not in the highest-paid job. He has been paying £30 a week, but arrears have accumulated, which means that the calculation has been worked out at £33. However, he cannot afford to pay any more, so his arrears are running up and nobody seems to want to do anything. He has all kinds of pay slips to show what his salary is, but nobody is taking into account his real circumstances. He states:
“They constantly come back to us saying there is nothing more they can do because they ARE applying the rules set by the Government!”
The CSA is blaming the Government as an escape route. That means that when I am sitting with Mr. McKendrick, he is blaming me. If the Government cannot look at these cases as they should, set better parameters and apply a bit of common sense, the position will continue to be difficult.
The final case I have this morning is that of Steven Mallinson, who is also a policeman. The latest letter that I received from him is dated 11 November and is worth reading to give a flavour of his problem:
“To get straight to the point, yes I still remain unhappy and I would like you to continue with your efforts to contact somebody within the CSA who is in a position to do something about my problem. I believe this may be Janis Crook, Client Services Director? Failing that I believe there is still an option to involve an independent party to look at my case.
Unfortunately the people I have dealt with so far seem content to hide behind unfathomable formulae and appear to be using ‘new’ legislation to justify incompetency in instances when ‘old’ legislation applies. My main example of this would be that my travel to work costs were not considered when a re-assessment was carried out in February using the old legislation however when I queried this I was palmed off and told that under the new legislation (which my case is now on) travelling to work costs are not considered. This is unacceptable.
Once again I find I am repeating myself and nobody appears to be listening. The main issue is the re-assessment carried out in February using the old legislation. There does not seem to be alarm bells ringing anywhere that up until this date I was paying £52 per month on the old legislation and from June 2009 it was calculated I should pay £150 per month on the new legislation, yet in a short space in between, in February 2009 it has been calculated that I should have been paying £650 per month (effective from April 2009, so in reality only for two months) and the knock on effect this calculation has had is that I am now paying £500 per month in a “phasing period” for the next year at least. There needs to be some common sense applied here and I need somebody who is in a position to apply common sense, and not hide behind an obviously flawed calculation system, to look at my case.
Again I raise the point that this phasing period exists so as there is not a financial impact on the resident parent when changing from the old legislation to the new legislation. Again I highlight that I was paying £52 per month from May 2005 until March 2009. I paid £105 per month from April 2009 until June 2009. I paid £152 at the start of July 2009. Again I raise the question, how could”—
let us call her Miss X—
“possibly experience any financial impact given the trend of the aforementioned amounts that would result in her requiring £500 per month? There was no negative financial impact on her. There has, however, been a huge financial impact on myself going from the stated monthly sums to the now ridiculous £500 per month. When I raise this point nobody at the CSA seems to be able to apply common sense and realise how valid a point I have here and instead reply as they always do by spouting confusing figures and formulae in the hope I will just disappear and accept this nonsense. I am not an idiot and I will not accept this. If you contact the CSA they will confirm the above stated reason for the ‘phasing period’ and they will also confirm the payments I have made up until July 2009. I would ask that you do that and I would ask that you question how they can justify taking £500 per month from me.
The agency is named the CHILD support agency.”
Again, let us call her Miss X,
“is now splashing out on pedigree pets, luxury holidays and full Sky television packages. I can no longer afford to take my children to the cinema or the zoo or ten pin bowling without having to rely on hand outs from my parents. How is that in the best interest of either of my children?”
Mr. Mallinson then asks how he is supposed to support his children in such circumstances. That is a typical letter from a parent who is at their wits’ end.
The hon. Gentleman has raised many important issues, but he has used the phrase “common sense” several times. Is this not a bit difficult for the CSA, which is given legislation that we pass and has to implement it? Surely, if it were to say, “We just don’t think that feels right. We’ll come up with a different number”, would it not be vulnerable to challenge from the other party, who would say, “No, that is the law. You should have applied it”? Is it not rather hard on the CSA to say that it is not using common sense when it is actually applying the laws that we have given it to apply?
The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head, because that is the problem. When courts were dealing with these matters, the judge sat there and did the act of Solomon, and both parties had to accept what he or she said. The position now is that there have been many changes to the legislation, people are very confused and cases are very complicated. That is why we are getting what we are getting, and why I say that perhaps common sense should apply. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening.
In summary, in the first case I mentioned, everything had been involved: all the agencies, bailiffs, everybody from outside. Can the Minister tell me what the cost of all that was? Perhaps she cannot today, but I would like to know what the cost is of bailiffs coming into cases when it is clear they are not getting any satisfaction. They run around all the time, probably getting a fair amount in fees, but they are not delivering any of the outstanding money.
I would also like to know in a general sense why the compensation is so derisory. I heard this morning that farmers are looking for compensation, and they are talking about literally tens of thousands of pounds, but in this case, a Government agency is making fundamental mistakes and delaying matters, and people are whacking up enormous arrears. At the same time, compensation of sometimes £75, sometimes £150, is given. If there is to be what I would consider satisfactory compensation, the Government will have to revisit the matter.
Apparently, no legislation is in place at present to allow transfer from one scheme to the other, and the Government should address that. I am told that the reason for the three-year changeover date is a problem in the Department, which operates three different computer systems that cannot be married together. Is that so? Is that why we are talking about a three-year delay? In that circumstance, somebody surely needs to revisit the issue far more quickly.
There is a broader, cross-government issue that has always been of concern to me: the apparent lack of joined-up thinking between all the agencies and Departments involved. It only takes a micro-second to find out whether somebody has a driving licence or a national insurance number, or what the Treasury is taking from them in tax, but none of that happens. That is an outstanding issue as far as self-employed people are concerned, because although those on pay-as-you-earn are caught easily, those who are self-employed and have a smart accountant can, and often do, run rings round the agency. I have seen that at first hand on at least a couple of occasions in my constituency case load.
If someone’s wages or salary is arrested, who is responsible for making that happen? In certain cases, that course of action has not been continued. I cannot understand that.
There is always talk in the agency about targets, which it speaks of in glowing terms. There is talk about how it is now bang on target regarding the income from the parents. But there are two sides to a target. People could be overpaying and the calculation may be wrong. If I were in an agency that had an upper-level target, I would not be examining that position too closely. Has that been taken into account inside the agency as a matter of course? If it just shies away from examining a case where an individual is challenging the amount, because doing so means it will not meet its target for the month, there is a problem.
My next point has already been made in an intervention, but it is worth while reinforcing it. It would be useful for hon. Members to deal with the same staff when phoning the MP hotline, and it would be useful if our constituents dealt with the same staff when they phoned. At least that happened under the old system, but no longer, as I found out in my office when talking to both my members of staff, Ruth Brown and Samantha Mair. They told me they are not getting the same service now that they were getting six or nine months ago.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Staff turnover and not being able to contact the same person are common complaints. Part of the problem is morale and staff turnover in the agency. When I had some ministerial responsibility in Northern Ireland, in the Department for Social Development a number of years ago, that was an issue even then, but it still appears to be a problem. Has the hon. Gentleman any suggestions about how that could be addressed?
I have to say something as an ex-trade union official: I emphasise “ex”, because it is more than 20 years ago. I was responsible for housing officers in local government, who were under such enormous pressures that they had to put up screens between themselves and the public. A parallel could be drawn with how those working at the sharp end in the CSA must feel, going into work and being hammered every minute of the day by people who are irate because they think things are wrong. That is why we are in the situation we are in today.
I should like the Minister to tell me, although perhaps not today, what the staff turnover is in the CSA. There were 8,700 members of staff as of September, but I saw a worrying figure showing that as many as 600 members of staff have been transferred out of the CSA, which must put more pressure on the agency. Why has that been allowed to happen? There are pressures in Jobcentre Plus, but why have so many staff been taken out of the CSA, when it is dealing with people’s lives? That point is worth making. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) for his intervention.
I worry about the driving disqualification element—taking away the driving licence—putting people in jail and taking away their passports. On more than 900 occasions in 2007-08, the CSA applied at hearings for the most serious sanctions at its disposal: imprisonment or driving disqualification. On 695 occasions—a fifth of all such hearings that year—the defendants did not even bother to turn up, at a significant cost to the taxpayer. In such circumstances, the agency surely must endure further delay and the expense of taking out an arrest warrant to bring the defendant forcibly before the court. Is that not a waste of public money? At the end of all this, there is unnecessary further delay, and the parent caring for the child is still without his or her maintenance.
All those issues are of major concern to me and have become more so over the past few months. That is the main reason why I asked for this debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing the debate and I thank him.
I should briefly like to outline for the Minister an issue involving a constituent of mine who has been shown to be infertile, but is still being chased by the CSA even though it has now dropped the main case against him. I cannot name the man because in the community I am from, which he is also from, he is probably known by about 80 to 90 per cent. of the people. Also, the grown-up child and the grandmother in question do not know about the non-paternity. Mentioning his name would effectively shatter lives.
I have been in correspondence with the Minister on the main point, and the outline is as follows. In 2001 the Child Support Agency started requesting maintenance from my constituent. In early 2002 he denied paternity, but because he had signed the birth certificate the CSA decided that he was the father. Despite his denying his paternity the CSA started to charge him some £73 a week as well as a penalty. In 2006 his maintenance charges were adjusted and levelled out to about £127.60 a week. He did not pay maintenance to the CSA and it then placed a bill of inhibition on him and attempted to freeze his bank accounts. Over the period 2006-09, maintenance charges were at about £27,000 and the CSA attempted to have him incarcerated. However, he produced a doctor’s letter in court stating that he was infertile. Two leading figures in the British Medical Association in Scotland have been supporting and helping him, and the letter they produced put the arrest warrant on hold.
In February, the mother of the child was asked to produce DNA samples from herself and the child to prove paternity. She refused. My constituent then began a process of declaration of non-parentage in court. In August, the mother declared that she did not want payment of arrears, and the CSA dropped the case, but it is still pursuing my constituent for £2,400 in fees. The bill of inhibition still stands against him, so he cannot sell any property to pay off the debt. I met him in October, having met him many times previously. His house was under threat of repossession, and in November he was denied legal aid for declaration of non-parentage. The process has been long and difficult for him, and I shall give an idea of how long it has been. The former Prime Minister was in power, the Afghan war had not started, and Saddam Hussein was in charge of Iraq. That is a long period in someone’s life, and a number of questions arise.
Why did the CSA not go after the mother who made the claim against my constituent? Why is he being made to repay some funds? Where is the apology after 10 years of persecution? Where is the compensation from the CSA? His house was nearly foreclosed, his social life was destroyed because it is difficult in his community to lead a normal life with the stigma hanging over his head, and his career has been severely hampered. The CSA has effectively walked away from the case, but not without trying to charge him £2,400. Why is it charging him when it was found that he could not possibly have been the father? The fundamental point is that he is infertile, and has been declared so by eminent doctors, but his life has been turned upside down by the CSA. I have seen him in harrowing circumstances.
I have been in correspondence with the Minister, her predecessors, and a number of people at the CSA. I plead with her to get the case sorted as best she can, so that someone who has lost a decade of his life because of the difficulties in the CSA can get it back on track.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on raising this important and under-debated issue. All of us, including Ministers, have constituents at our surgeries complaining about the Child Support Agency, and several attempts have been made to reform it. The Liberal Democrats have often been critical of those attempts, and one of our concerns has been the very point that the hon. Gentleman made. In my view, the ideal system would have a simple baseline assessment with a safety valve for hard cases. That seems to be the right combination, however it is administered and enforced.
I am a father, and I think one tends to underestimate the cost of bringing up a child, so it is important to have a benchmark figure on which to base the system. In many cases, that will be more or less fair, but there will always be individual circumstances in which common sense shows that the formula does not do justice to the story, so there needs to be an exceptional safety valve to provide a fairer assessment in a small number of cases. The hon. Gentleman talked about the wisdom of Solomon, and that is sometimes needed. We need a mechanism by which the bulk of cases are assessed or do not go through the CSA, based on a fairly simple set of guideline figures, but a safety valve is needed for exceptional circumstances. That would deal with many of the issues that have been raised this morning.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for describing the six cases, which highlight a number of issues common to many of us, and I have some sympathy with some of his points. He mentioned the woeful inadequacy of consolatory payments, and the CSA’s line will be that they are not replacement for maintenance that should have been provided, but a few pounds to say sorry. That is not much consolation when hundreds or thousands of pounds are involved, and we should consider more carefully whether, in extremis, the agency should replace the maintenance that should have been paid if it was at fault and the person who lost out has done everything possible. If the agency has clearly failed, there must be a case for its having a duty to replace the maintenance that should have been collected. That should not be the norm, because it would be an extreme position, but sending someone £50 and saying sorry several years later is not good enough. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that.
I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the independent case examiner. The history is that the CSA was so awful that cases were swamping the parliamentary ombudsman, so we had to have an ombudsman just for the CSA. I value and respect the work of the independent case examiner, but I was slightly disappointed about a recent case in which the case examiner found in favour of my constituent, and the CSA ignored that. The only answer was to go to the ombudsman, which was complete nonsense. Will the Minister clarify whether the independent case examiner is advisory or has teeth? Constituents are frustrated when they go to what seems to be an independent third party, but months go by, evidence is collected, it finds in their favour, and the CSA then fails to act on the recommendations, so the case goes to an ombudsman and the process may take another year. That is in no one’s interest, and I hope the Minister will clarify the status of the independent case examiner’s conclusions.
I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments about, for example, members of the public phoning the CSA and reaching a different person every time. There is bound to be an element of that, because people work part time and so on, so the same person will not always be available, but the principle of people having a case load would provide some continuity, and that is important. A constituent who came to see me recently had phoned the CSA time and again over a year and had spoken to a different person every time. People kept promising to phone him back, but did not do so, and when he phoned again someone else promised to phone back. I raised that with the CSA, and pointed out that there was a problem because there seemed not to be a trigger. Someone may say that a matter has been passed to another section and that when it responds that person will contact the member of the public, but there seems not to be a trigger if that section does not respond until the applicant chases it up.
The agency told me that there is a casework system and a trigger, but when the chief executive looked at the case to which I referred, he said it was a clerical case—one where things have gone wrong and are a mess. The answer was that clerical cases are just different. They may be different, but surely people whose cases are being dealt with clerically should expect the same standard of customer service as everyone else. It is not their fault if the data on a computer are wrong, for example. Basic customer service is not sufficiently in place.
When I asked for account breakdowns, the chief executive told me that they will take 20 weeks, and that that is the customer service standard. When I asked him whether that appalled him, he said, “If you want them done quicker, what do you want us not to do? If the figures are wanted quickly and the task is a difficult clerical one, people must stop doing something else. What do you want us to do—stop chasing maintenance?”
That raises the issue of resourcing the CSA, which the hon. Gentleman touched on. I appreciate that serious money goes into it and that staff have been transferred out to deal with the rise in unemployment, but I wonder whether an assessment has been made of the adequacy of the CSA’s resourcing to do its job. If it takes nearly five months just to obtain a statement, something is not right. If that is the performance standard and all that it is expected to do, something has gone wrong.
A problem I sometimes come across is the money having gone to the CSA but not being allocated to the right person. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a case of money going to someone else with the same name. When one contacts the CSA, one sometimes detects a shrugging of shoulders and the attitude that it was just put in the wrong account, which is no big deal. However, it is a big deal for the families concerned. The attitude seems to be that the CSA is a big organisation with millions of payments coming and going, and the odd one will go astray, so get over it. That is not good enough. Just describing what has gone wrong and saying that it will be put right next month is not good enough.
Having said all that, I noticed that five of the six cases that the hon. Gentleman raised—this may be coincidence—involved non-resident parents. The first involved vast arrears of £44,000, and the others involved dads complaining about how their arrears and so on had been handled. There is a balance to be struck. When a family with a CSA case are sitting in front of me, I try to remember that the spouse or the children may also be constituents. What we want is fairness for the person who must pay the money, and proper money and support for the child and the family. Clearly, it would be wrong, unfair and distressing if the hon. Gentleman’s constituent had his “deduction from earnings order” money snaffled by the company, and I cannot comment on how the arrears arose, but in general if someone has arrears, it may be because the CSA has messed up or because the money to be provided for their children has not been paid. We need a balance.
In my constituency, there have been occasions when I have had one parent sitting in front of me, and the other parent sitting outside waiting to come in. There might be an imbalance in the six cases that I have spoken about today, but both parties come to see me, normally at different times.
I am sure that is right—the same thing has happened to me. My point is that whenever somebody has to pay arrears that seem unfair, it is important to bear in mind the fact that there is a child at the other end of the transaction. In the first case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, arrears ran into tens of thousands of pounds. That is tens of thousands of pounds that were meant for the welfare of the child but did not get through.
Typically, that is apparent when one sees the mother, for example, but when a father is in front of me, occasionally I will say, “Where do these arrears come from? Why didn’t you pay for the past 18 months?” Sometimes the answers that I receive are not as convincing as they might be. We need a system that is seen to be fair, transparent and responsive to the individual case, but we must always remember that the welfare of the child is central.
As I said in an intervention, we cannot condemn the CSA for implementing the laws that we have given it to implement. We must take responsibility and, as the hon. Gentleman intimated, CSA legislation was scrutinised appallingly when it was introduced—there was a feeling that something had to be done. Everybody was in favour of the legislation, and I always think that the worst laws passed in the House are those that everyone supports, as they do not get the scrutiny they deserve. Perhaps, together with our predecessors, we are all responsible in different ways for having allowed the situation to get to this point.
One of my concerns for the future regards those families who no longer go through the CSA. I have tabled some questions on that issue, and have received some helpful letters from the CSA. The presumption now is that partners should try to make a deal, and in an ideal world that is how things would proceed. Someone once famously said that when it comes to family breakdown, the CSA has never been part of the healing process, and that is correct. Obviously, it is a good thing if a couple, albeit separated, can agree on a fair assessment for a child that can be implemented without acrimony or the need for enforcement. I welcome the fact that that is happening more.
My concern is about when there are two partners, one of whom is perhaps articulate and well-lawyered, as it were. An initial deal might be struck and, for the sake of argument, the mother might be offered a cash lump sum and a modest monthly maintenance assessment. On day one, it might seem like a lot of money—£5,000 or something—and beyond the dreams of avarice. A year later, the lump sum is gone, the monthly maintenance is not much and money is needed for a new pair of trainers, a school trip or whatever.
It might be too early to know whether such a thing is happening, but I worry that, at that point, the mother might be in a poor negotiating position. She might talk to her ex-husband or ex-partner and say, “I need more money”, and he might reply, “I gave you £5,000. What have you done with that? I give you money every month; you get benefits. Go away. I have lawyers who say you can’t have any more.”
Clearly, that is not true, and such a woman could go to the CSA, ring the options helpline and so on. I hope she would do that. However, I want the Minister to ensure that we closely monitor what happens to people who in the past would have gone through the CSA process, but who have made a deal and fallen off the official radar because they do not need contact with the authorities.
I am pleased that the CSA has done some internal survey work, and that over the first quarter of next year it will do some formal surveying and look at the terms of the agreements of those people who have private arrangements. However, that work needs following up six or 12 months down the track to see what has happened to those who have gone off the radar. I worry that a small number of people will fall through the gap and not realise that they have the right to go back to the CSA, even if a private deal has been made.
I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil). Returning to the point about common sense, we sometimes find that the CSA is slow to back down when things have gone wrong. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned a case that had to go to court. I am aware that the CSA regards measures on driving licences and passports as a last resort for somebody who has probably evaded payment and tried to avoid every means of paying, and sometimes extreme approaches are taken. If someone does not turn up in court, that is not necessarily the fault of the CSA, but it raises issues about joint working between different Government agencies.
In such cases, we need the Government and the CSA to be able to tap in more smoothly to Inland Revenue data, which I know happens to some extent, as well as benefits and other data, to ensure that when an allegation is made about someone’s income or job, it can be verified.
My constituents say to me—I am sure this is the case for other hon. Members—that the CSA wants them to turn into private investigators. If someone says “My ex is working,” the CSA says, “Prove it.” How should they prove it? They are asked to go and stand outside the gates and take photographs and so on. When I told the CSA that my constituents feel that they have to don a dirty mac and turn into private investigators, its response was, “We don’t have the powers or the resources to do it ourselves.” That creates a tension.
We do not want malicious allegations, but where serious and well-founded allegations are made, we need a system whereby the CSA can investigate more vigorously, instead of putting so much onus of proof on the person who makes the claim. I understand that a balance is required, but sometimes people know a lot about what their ex-partner is doing—where they work or where they go to the pub. They also overhear conversations and so on, especially if they are still living in the same community.
Where a reasonably substantiated allegation is made about undisclosed earnings or something similar, perhaps the CSA errs too much towards saying, “Until you show us cast-iron, black and white, verifiable proof, we won’t do anything.” Given a well-founded allegation, I would like the CSA to be more proactive and say, “Yes, there is something in this. We will take it seriously and use our data sources to act on it.” That would be a fairer system.
Let me repeat my appreciation for the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, who has given us the opportunity to debate this issue. As MPs, we always see the bad cases, and I suspect that there are many instances of people getting their maintenance assessed and paid on time. Such people think the system is fair and the children get the money. Those cases never come across our desks, and we should place on the record our appreciation of those who ensure that hundreds of thousands of children in this country receive child maintenance that they might not otherwise get.
Nevertheless, there is considerable room for improvement, especially in areas such as the derisory consolatory payments, the powers of the independent case examiner and continuity of staffing and contact with members of the public. I hope that the Minister will help the CSA to improve the service that it provides for the public.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing this timely and important debate. As a Back Bencher, I did exactly what he has done, and brought seven or eight of my constituency cases to the attention of the Minister who was then responsible for the CSA. It is sad that an hon. Member still needs to do that after considerable efforts have been made by all parties to try to improve the CSA.
We all agree that a well-functioning child support system is vital. The Government will not meet their child poverty targets for 2010 or 2020 unless the CSA is effective and does its job well. The CSA can play a part in ensuring that there are fewer unwanted pregnancies if fathers know that the agency is effective and will come after them, and that they will have to pay for 18 years for the child that they brought into the world. There is also a little evidence to suggest that an effective CSA has some influence in reducing relationship breakdown, according to Professor Nick Wikeley. I was struck by a comment made by the journalist Polly Toynbee in The Guardian on 27 January this year. She said that
“the big story is the mass refusal of so many fathers to pay anything—ever.”
Earlier in the article, she said that
“two-thirds of all absent fathers pay nothing at all.”
That figure is a little too high, according to the latest information that I have seen. The 2007 families and children study produced by the Department for Work and Pensions showed in table 15.1 that 61 per cent. of all parents with care were not receiving child maintenance.
It is important when we consider the CSA that it tells us its performance on the number of cases for which there is a child maintenance liability, but as politicians we need to be aware of the situation throughout the country. That matters hugely, because if a clear majority of non-resident parents—about 60 per cent. or, for argument’s sake, somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent.—are not paying child maintenance, the word on the street, or the culture, is that people can avoid paying it. That is deeply unhelpful to what all of us in the Chamber are trying to achieve.
I commend the attempts that we heard about yesterday to inculcate a greater sense of financial responsibility among non-resident parents, and sometimes even among parents with care. In a recent survey, 22 per cent. of parents with care were saying, rather surprisingly and counter-intuitively, that they did not really want child maintenance. Perhaps the relationships had broken up very badly. That figure surprised me, but it was from a piece of work undertaken by the Department.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. Now that there are voluntary arrangements and we have repealed section 6 of the 1991 Act, people do not have to come within the CSA’s net. I was trying to make a slightly broader point and saying that if we look across society as a whole—not just at the CSA cases and the voluntary arrangement cases, but at those cases in which neither applies—we see that there is unfortunately a clear majority of cases in which parents split up and no money is moving. That worries me and we need to bear it in mind. Polly Toynbee was right to draw attention to it earlier this year. Indeed, when Sir David Henshaw produced his excellent report in 2006, he said that in only 30 per cent. of cases was some maintenance paid. I think that the figure has improved slightly, but we need to be aware of the broader picture.
I want better co-operation between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—the Inland Revenue, as we used to know it—and the CSA. I agree with the comment that many parents feel that they are forced to act as private detectives to establish the non-resident parent’s income. Will the Minister tell us what further co-operation is in the pipeline between HMRC and the CSA? That was one of the best things that we put in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. It should have happened long ago, but I am not convinced that we are yet reaping the full benefit in data transfer and tracking all income available to non-resident parents to make the CSA as effective as it could be.
I shall refer briefly to the case of one of my constituents, who is also calling for greater co-operation between HMRC and the CSA. Her ex-partner signed on as unemployed. She says that when Mr. X signed on earlier this year,
“it should have been quite simple to take the measly £5 a week from his benefit but still all I have received since April is… £10 or £15… this system is quite simply failing children. My children go without because of this terrible situation”.
She says that all she wants is
“justice for my children who have… holes in their… shoes… until I can afford to get some more!”
She goes on to say that she is convinced that her ex-partner is working, even though he is signing on. She has pretty good evidence of that and is extremely frustrated that that information does not seem to have been captured and taken forward.
This is just a practical point. I would like to know from the Minister why e-mail communication with the CSA is not now an option. That point was raised with me by Families Need Fathers, whose representatives I met on Monday. As they put it to me, e-mail communication would save considerable time, money and anger, not least when assessments are sent to old addresses, resulting sometimes in huge child maintenance liabilities arising without the non-resident parent’s knowledge. May we please move into the 21st century and ensure that e-mail communication can happen between the agency and parents with care and non-resident parents? That would be practical and helpful.
We need strong and robust enforcement powers in the CSA. For many years during the previous Parliament, I used to question DWP Ministers about the number of driving licences that had been taken away. I think that, although the agency had the powers, only two licences had been taken away. However, the effect of threatening to take such action can be beneficial. I understand from the helpful House of Commons Library debate briefing pack that, in the state of Maine in the USA, $89 million was collected through threatening to remove driving licences and that, in Australia, an extra 11 million Australian dollars was raised through threatening to stop non-payers travelling abroad.
I do not want anyone’s driving licence or passport to be taken away, but if the threat of that is effective when all other options have failed, those are tools that, sadly, the CSA needs in its armoury—there must be consequences. Child support matters. Children’s lives and futures are at stake, and we will not meet our child poverty targets unless we have a CSA that works.
The system needs to be fair, however. Fairness to non-resident parents—fairness to, in the main, fathers—is critical to a well functioning CSA that has broad public support. A couple of practical issues worry me in that regard. One is the fact that liability orders are not stayed if the application is appealed. We need a quick and fair appeal system so that cases are not held up indefinitely, but it seems to go against natural justice that the liability order keeps on going if there is an appeal. That should be looked into quickly and fairly, and an adjudication made fast.
It also seems odd that non-resident parents should have to pay the costs of challenging the use of administrative powers even if they have been wrongly used. There was provision in the 2008 Act; I remember debating that point when it went through the House. I have a great deal of sympathy for the case raised by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), in respect of the £2,400 that his constituent has been asked for when he never could have been a father. It is worrying that in such cases the mother has the right to refuse a DNA test. What if his constituent had not been proved to be infertile? Would those liability assessments have gone on piling up if the mother could refuse a DNA test? We have the technology to decide these things decisively now. That issue worries me as well and possibly needs to be examined.
I am concerned about the 25 per cent. variation of income figure that was mentioned when we were putting the 2008 Act on the statute book. Will the Minister confirm whether the Department still has that figure in mind?
I think that cases will soon be hitting the press of people who have lost their jobs and who are now on benefit, but whose maintenance liability has not been reduced, because the fall in their income was just below the CSA’s 25 per cent. variation figure. I appreciate that the CSA went for such a high figure because it was so scarred by the amount of work caused by very minor variations. However, as it gains in confidence and its systems become more robust, the 25 per cent. figure will need to change. If someone’s income drops by 24 per cent., should they really go on paying maintenance at the level at which they were first assessed? That seems to go against natural justice.
I want briefly to mention the one-year rule, which I thought the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire would bring up. It is a concern that parties who have happily and voluntarily gone to court to produce flexible arrangements that suit them to deal with their assets and income, can see those arrangements unwound within a year, to the detriment of either the parent with care or the non-resident parent. All parties raised that issue when the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill went through the House, and it is a bit of unfinished business, so I leave it on the Minister’s radar screen.
Child maintenance arrears, or the debt as they are commonly known, have recently come down slightly, which is excellent—let us give credit where it is due. They are now just under £3.8 billion, although that is a slightly fictitious figure because a lot of the assessments were not really accurate. Furthermore, about half that sum is owed to the Secretary of State, rather than to parents with care. However, it matters that we collect those arrears.
It also matters that we collect arrears where the children are over 18, and I am a bit concerned that the focus seems to have been on collecting debt only where the children are under 18. If someone has been deprived throughout their childhood, the fact that they can get a lump sum when they are 19 or 20—perhaps to help them to go through college or university or to get a small deposit on a house—is important, and we must not forget that.
I recently visited a CSA office and talked to some of the staff, who work extremely hard in difficult circumstances, as was said earlier. I heard of the joy that someone who has got nothing for years feels when a cheque for £15,000 or £20,000 comes through. The difference that that can make to a young person’s life is phenomenal. These things matter. Ideally, we want the income to be there as people go through their childhood, but if they have not had that income, we must not give up on the collectable debt. If the non-resident parent has assets, I would support the CSA in going after those assets.
On the debt, I am worried that up-to-date information has not been published. Gingerbread has pressed for the publication of client fund accounts throughout October, November and December. It worries me that there is no official published deadline. Many Government figures come out at set times of the year; indeed, the unemployment figures came out at 9.30 this morning. The DWP cannot say, “Sorry, we don’t feel like doing them this month. We’ll do them next month.” That is simply not good enough. We need the figures to come out regularly, because lobby groups such as Gingerbread study them carefully. Maintenance arrears matter, and we must make sure that we do not lose sight of them.
As the CSA grows in confidence, I hope that it will take a leaf out of the Australian CSA’s book by trying to ensure that the relationship between separated parents is as good as it can be. I say that because there is evidence that if the relationship is better, rather than worse, more money is likely to flow. I understand why the CSA has been wary of going down that route, but I hope that it will look at the issue as it gains in confidence. I have with me two booklets from the Australian CSA called “Me and my Kids—Parenting from a distance” and “Me, my Kids and my Ex—Forming a workable relationship for the benefit of your children”. The Australian CSA produces those because it recognises that if we can make relationships better, make contact amicable and help with parenting from a distance, more money is likely to flow. That is also better for children. I therefore commend that approach.
Finally, I share the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire. It will be five years before we get the gross-income scheme. We passed the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act in 2008, and it will be five years—2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013—before we get to 2014 and one gross-income scheme. We all back the scheme, because it is simpler and easier. It will also net the self-employed and take in rental and dividend income. It is scandalous that the original legislation did not include such income—I do not know what MPs were doing when we passed it. That was wrong, because all income should be included. Why have these changes taken so long? Five years seems a very long time. We have seen the differences between the old scheme, the new scheme and the future scheme, so let us move ahead as quickly as we can.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing this important debate. Over the years, he has done a lot of work on these matters for his constituents and he is completely committed to seeing a better system introduced. Yesterday, a lot of hon. Members went to an event run by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission in the House and they saw the huge amount of work that is going on to improve the situation.
One of the key issues that has been raised this morning is enforcement powers. Judging the rights and wrongs as between the parent with care and the non-resident parent will always be a difficult balancing act. Over the past 10 years, however, we have discovered that the balance was previously in the wrong place. The points that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has just made about there being a significantly problematic culture are absolutely right. It is a problem if, as is currently the case, only 45 per cent. of non-resident parents pay their maintenance in full.
In the measures that we have recently introduced, we have therefore strengthened enforcement powers. In October 2008, it became an offence for the non-resident parent to withhold information pertaining to a change of address. In August this year, CMEC assumed the power to deduct payments from non-resident parents’ bank accounts without recourse to the courts. It also has the power to ask the court to impose a curfew on a non-resident parent. Under the Welfare Reform Act 2009, which secured Royal Assent last month, the commission now also has the power to remove the passports and driving licences of parents who have wilfully or culpably failed to meet their child maintenance obligations. Those powers are controversial, but it is important that we have them, given the context in which we operate.
Hon. Members are clearly still getting a large number of extremely complex cases in their constituency mailbags, and those cases have not been handled properly or as well as any of us would wish. Leaving aside those complex cases, however, the number of complaints against the CSA has fallen by more than half since 2004-05, which is an indication of its improved performance, as are the other performance statistics. The number of children benefiting from the CSA’s work has increased by 250,000 over the past five years. The number of cases in receipt of maintenance has gone up from 400,000 to 600,000.
Hon. Members have talked a lot about the quality of the administration, where there have also been significant improvements. In 2004, only 27 per cent. of cases were dealt with within 12 weeks, but that number has gone up to 84 per cent. In 2005, the average time it took to answer the telephone was one minute 40 seconds, but it is now down to eight seconds. I fully understand hon. Members’ concerns about their constituents telephoning the CSA and getting different people answering. In essence, the reason is that we have extended the CSA’s opening hours so that it can be more available to people. The problem is that of course people cannot work the entire 60 hours a week during which the agency is open.
My hon. Friend is right about that. However, there are two things I want to say—and I do not want to wipe away the frustration of his constituents when they do not get the service to which they are entitled. First, the level of resources going into CMEC and the CSA must take account of the state of the public finances. We must look for efficiencies just as we are doing throughout the public services. Secondly, the reductions have been achieved while increasing the efficiency of the organisation. It is not as if we have been taking resources from the organisation and finding that service provision has collapsed.
One of the main points raised by my hon. Friend was the question of why people cannot move from the old scheme to the current scheme. There is a fundamental reason why we do not do that. We do it only after a significant change of circumstances, by which I do not mean someone’s income going up or down, but rather a new child in the family or one or other of the parties making a new partnership. We cannot allow people to choose the scheme they want to enter, because for every parent who would choose to move there would be one in an equal and opposite position of not wanting to move. Giving people that choice would intensify the degree of conflict. I accept that that means people being treated differently, but in running a system we must consider the level of justice being achieved overall.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked why it was taking so long to introduce the future scheme. We have the legislation and we must embed the new computer systems. We are doing that on a different basis from previously and are learning from the bad experiences we had. Now we are using off-the-shelf computer systems rather than building our own, which should make them more economical and flexible. We intend new cases to go on to the future scheme from 2011 and everyone to be transferred to it in 2014.
Will the Minister confirm that under the new system it will be possible to have cross-fertilisation of thinking between the agency, the Treasury and all the driving agencies? If that is the case, many of the complications that I have encountered would be overturned.
Among the main benefits of the future scheme will be the fact that it will get data from HMRC and that we shall move from a formula using net income to one using gross income. That system has been used in other countries with significant success.
I am sorry that I shall not be able to comment on every case that hon. Members have raised this morning, because there is not time to do so in detail, and I do not have all the information. However, hon. Members can, if they have not already done so, write to me about cases, which I can look into. I shall comment on a couple of cases of particular concern, starting with the company going into liquidation and the man who was asked to pay twice. The non-resident parent remains liable to pay child maintenance, but he should be able to claim the payments that have been deducted from the liquidator. If he is unsuccessful, the CSA will discuss with him how to handle the arrears.
My hon. Friend makes his point with characteristic force and I shall take that thought away with me.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) raised another case of some concern, about a non-resident parent whose name was on the birth certificate, but who could not possibly have been the father. Once the non-resident parent has provided proof of his infertility or a DNA test has shown that he is not the father, the CSA can revise its original decision, extinguishing all liability for child maintenance, and any payments may be refunded.
The honest answer, I am afraid, is that I do not know, and I shall have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on that point.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) gave a characteristically well- informed speech and set out a general schema in which we would deal in a fairly automatic way with straightforward cases, but pay greater attention to the hard cases. Generally, that is a good way of administering the scheme, and that is what we are attempting to do. I guess that the difficulty is in discussing which cases are hard.
The hon. Gentleman also made a valid point about people moving off the system altogether and whether people will get everything to which they are entitled from the options service. Gingerbread, for example, is particularly concerned about the re-establishment of what I shall call traditional gender relations, in which for the sake of peace women might not push as hard as they ought. I agree that that is an issue, and I am on top of it. We are considering how we can monitor that effectively.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire made a good point about the overall culture in which we operate and the difficulties that we face. I hope that hon. Members feel that we are making significant improvements to the child support system overall. We are succeeding at the moment in lifting 100,000 children out of child poverty because of the way in which the system currently runs.