Child Support Agency

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Security – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23 January 1996.

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Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire , Dunfermline West 12:00, 23 January 1996

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the operation of the review procedure of the Child Support Agency. [8795]

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

A child maintenance assessment may be reviewed on various grounds. A variety of changes have been made over the past year to streamline and improve the procedures.

Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire , Dunfermline West

Does the Minister share my concern that one of my constituents asked for a review of the basis on which his assessment had been made on 1 August 1995, is still waiting for the review to be completed and is in severe financial difficulties as a result? Will the Minister undertake an investigation of my constituent's case and ensure that appropriate action is taken to prevent any similar delay for my constituents or those of other hon. Members?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

I am aware of that case, as the hon. Lady has raised it with me. I have looked at it personally and found that problems have arisen, some of which are certainly the Child Support Agency's fault. Her constituent's case is now undergoing simultaneously a change of circumstance review and an appeal, and I have given instructions that it should be taken forward as a priority.

Sir David Model:

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Child Support Agency still has some way to go before it reaches a reasonable level of accuracy of assessments? Does he further agree that staff in certain offices must show more patience and understanding when talking to our constituents about the complicated, detailed matters which our constituents are obliged to pass on to them?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of civil, courteous and effective treatment by agency staff at all times. Staff training has been increased significantly over the past year. It is important to recognise that, following last year's significant changes, the policy is now fair. The CSA will never be loved, as it enters people's lives at a difficult time. Its key challenge, however, is to continue to improve over the coming months, as it has over the past year.

Photo of Ms Liz Lynne Ms Liz Lynne , Rochdale

Is it not disgraceful that the Child Support Agency takes on average 211 days to process a claim and, of those, only 29 per cent. are right? Is it not also disgraceful that the Child Support Act 1991 is emotionally damaging children brought up in lone-parent families? Is it not time that the Government scrapped the Act and brought in a unified family court system?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

The hon. Lady's contribution is typical of the unconstructive suggestions that we hear from the Liberal Democrats. A Liberal Democrat policy document says: Some Liberal Democrat ideas are difficult to understand and over complicated. Nothing could be more true of what they say about the Child Support Agency. The hon. Lady should pay tribute to the fact that accuracy in the CSA is increasing and has increased significantly since last year. It has been set a target of 75 per cent. accuracy and is running at just over 70 per cent. I am advised that, in the past month, the CSA's accuracy has approached 80 per cent. of all the cases that have come before it.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes:

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the Child Support Agency has some way to go before it is as good as we all want it to be, hon. Members should congratulate its chief executive on the great improvement that she has made during her time in that job? Will he keep in sight the minority of fathers who can but will not pay, and who do not want to know what it costs to bring up their children, and let them know that the taxpayer will bail them out no longer?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

My hon. Friend is right. I shall pass on his generous and accurate remarks to the chief executive of the CSA. Over the past year, Parliament has made significant changes to the agency's operation. We have introduced the 30 per cent. rule, which means that no absent parent will pay more than 30 per cent. of his or her net income for current maintenance. In addition, we shall shortly pilot the departures process, which will add to the system an important degree of fairness that may have been missing in the agency's early days.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey , Vauxhall

Will the Minister consider a simple move that would change attitudes? Will he change the terminology that we use and get rid of the term "absent parent", which no other country with a child support agency uses, and use instead titles such as the "payee", or "non-custodial parent"? The fact that a parent is "absent" does not mean that he or she does not care about the child. Why cannot that change be made immediately?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

The hon. Lady has raised that point before, most recently in the Select Committee, so I am aware of her concern. I agree that the terminology is not entirely satisfactory, but it is not easy to find an alternative form of words to meet our requirements.