Part of Orders of the Day — Child Support Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 22nd May 1995.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security) 5:30 pm, 22nd May 1995

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) introduced the new clause in an entertaining manner and tried to divert the attention of the House away from the excellent press release that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published today. On this occasion, as on all others, I wholly subscribe to the views of my right hon. Friend. The easiest way for the hon. Member for Garscadden to clear up any confusion about what his party intends to do and how it intends to finance it is for him to come clean now about my right hon. Friend's statements and deal with the matter once and for all. I suspect that we will be unable to deal with that matter simply today, as we have been asking for a long time for evidence of what the Labour party intends to do should it come to office, and the answers are always fudged.

I remember the celebrated exchange in Committee when the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) asked the Government to provide more substantial child care support through family credit—a subject to which he might return today. I asked him how much and he gave an extremely evasive answer. I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's efforts to get answers on the subject will have limited success. However, that subject is not the substance of our discussions today and I shall hurry on to deal with the new clause.

The hon. Member for Garscadden also described some of the advice groups that give information to all of us about the effects of the Child Support Agency. He was right to draw a distinction between some of the groups that give us reasonable and straightforward advice and some that appear to have gone slightly too far in some of their activities and the way in which they object to the CSA.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman dissociated himself and his party from some of the more extreme activities that we have seen. I am afraid that those activities still continue. The group, Network Against the Child Support Act, in its current periodical clearly suggests to its members that they should lie to the agency to get information and that they should seek to make life difficult for the officers of the CSA simply in order to disrupt the system. They then wonder why we feel aggrieved at such action and suggest that it does not help anyone. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for dissociating himself from such groups and hope that he continues to do so.

As the hon. Gentleman has explained, the new clause provides for an advisory committee to advise the Secretary of State on the workings of the child support scheme. We value consultation; there was a wide-ranging consultation exercise before regulations were made under the 1991 Act. We have always taken careful note of the advice of the Select Committee on Social Security and the views of other interested parties in developing the improvements to the child support scheme of which the Bill's provisions form a key part.

We have also had a constructive dialogue with many representatives of absent parents, parents with care and those with experience of family law issues. In developing the changes that we announced in January, we consulted eminent family lawyers and we correspond frequently about the child support scheme with many organisations, including the National Council for One Parent Families, Child Poverty Action Group, citizens advice bureaux and the Law Society. Whatever problems we may have had with child support, they have not been for lack of consultation and it is not clear how the new clause can assist. The Government's main concern is not so much that the new clause and its implications will add to consultation, but that it will obscure existing responsibilities—the hon. Gentleman acknowledged at the beginning of his remarks that that was the main flaw in his argument.

In addition to the function of overseeing legislation—analogous to that of the Social Security Advisory Committee—the proposed child support advisory committee would be required to monitor operational aspects of child support. It is on that subject that the committee's proposed annual reports would focus. In that respect, the committee would duplicate the role, not only of the Select Committee on Social Security, but of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the National Audit Office and the chief child support officer.

Both the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the National Audit Office have reported on the operation of the child support scheme. They have drawn attention to problems with those operations and, in response, Ministers have indicated the steps that are being taken to address those problems—in particular, by improved methods within the agency for measuring accuracy, additional checking and enhanced training for staff.

The hon. Gentleman concentrated briefly on the report of the chief child support officer and he was correct to deal with the shortcomings of the agency which the chief child support officer found. However, I remind all hon. Members that, although comments were raised in 86 per cent. of the sample, that does not mean that the assessment was incorrect in every case. We agree that the accuracy rate has been poor and inadequate and we are exerting a great deal of effort to put it right. The agency aims to reduce that comment rate, which was previously 86 per cent of the sample, to 40 per cent. of the sample as soon as possible. That is a particularly demanding target which has been chosen to reflect the importance that the agency attaches to the judgment of its performance by independent bodies.

There is great determination to reach that target in 1995–96 and to deal with the problems that have caused that high figure. Action taken to date includes remedial action on accuracy and quality initiatives. The agency's second-year plan has dealt with many problems. There has been a reorganisation of reviews and appeal work and we have developed staff training further. We have taken serious notice of the reports by the chief child support officer. He is part of the vital monitoring equipment that is built into the work of the Child Support Agency. That is his job, and it is another reason why we do not believe that the superfluous committee that has been mentioned this evening is necessary.

Many of the changes announced in the White Paper entitled "Improving Child Support" are also aimed at improving the operation of the child support scheme. I have no doubt that both the Parliamentary Commissioner and the National Audit Office will continue to provide valuable information about areas where we can improve the scheme and that Ministers will continue to respond positively to that feedback.

Hon. Members will be aware that the post of the chief child support officer was set up under the Child Support Act 1991 to advise child support officers on the performance of their duties. His functions, which he discharges independently of Ministers or the Department of Social Security, include monitoring child support adjudication and reporting annually on performance. His annual reports contain much that is of use in identifying areas where further work is needed and I know that he and agency managers are committed to working together to improve performance.

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The Department and the agency are involved in an on-going process of evaluating the effectiveness of child support policy and operations. That goes beyond responding to external comment and advice; the agency is seeking the views of key stakeholders by means of regular meetings and it has set challenging charter standards that will be monitored carefully. Officials will continue to monitor the policy, particularly the changes introduced in April and those introduced in the Bill. In addition, the departure system will be piloted before its full introduction in order to identify and solve any unforeseen complications.

There is already considerable overlap between the functions of those who advise about child support and the tasks of a proposed child support advisory committee. In my view, the inevitable overlap would seriously hamper the effectiveness of an advisory committee in the child support field. There is simply no distinct role for a new quango such as the child support advisory committee, either in advising about areas where legislation could be improved or in monitoring the performance of the Child Support Agency.

There was an exchange across the Floor of the House in relation to a question raised by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms). He referred to a table that he had particular difficulty following. It would be a cheap shot if I were to say that I cannot see where his difficulty lies. I will not say that, because the table requires quite careful interpretation. Once the hon. Gentleman spots the key, he will find it easy to understand; but one needs to spot the key first. I shall try to assist the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who may wish to examine the table in more detail.

The table seeks to illustrate the total number of parents with care—488,000—and to show how many of them are in receipt of benefit. That figure comprises the 391,000 parents with care who are on income support, 63,600 on family credit and 33,400 who receive no benefit. The table then relates each of those figures to the absent parents and their benefit status. For example, of the 391,000 parents with care who are on income support, 77,800 absent parents receive income support, 18,200 are on invalidity benefit, 138,900 are not on benefit and for 156,100 the benefit status is unknown. That is how the table works: it seeks to relate parents with care to the benefit status of absent parents. The benefit status of absent parents is the column on the right and the parent-with-care column is on the left. I must admit that I can see where the hon. Gentleman's confusion lies at first glance. However, I hope that I have made the situation a little clearer. If he wishes to take up the matter with me later, I shall explain it further.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East raised some questions in relation to protected income and the like. He did not give me previous notice of the figures, which I shall examine. I make it clear that protected income is designed to ensure that there is adequate support for the absent parent and his family. That is not the element that ensures that he is better off in work; the element that ensures that the absent parent is better off in work is the amount over and above that element which is built into the formula to make sure that the parent is not simply existing on benefit. The marginal deduction rate is not as high as 100 per cent. when one adds in that figure—it is something like 85 per cent. That is a high figure, but it is not the 100 per cent. figure that the hon. Gentleman cited. I will examine the figures that he has cited tonight and give him a full answer.

The fact that those questions can be asked and answered by the agency and by Department of Social Security Ministers together with the other equipment that is already built into the system to monitor and control the operations of the Child Support Agency demonstrate that there are enough mechanisms to deal with any queries. The House seeks to ensure that the system works. After two and a half years of live running, we know much more than we knew at the start of the process. Hon. Members have said many times that those who have established agencies similar to ours in other countries have faced similar difficulties. One cannot know a great deal until one gets started.

We are now determined to make sure that the system works better and more efficiently in order to deal with the problems that our constituents raise. I take each problem extremely seriously and the monitoring process to which hon. Members contribute is extremely important to the future of the agency. I ask hon. Members to recognise the monitoring equipment that is already in place and to accept my assurances that an extra committee is not necessary. I ask the House to reject new clause 4.