In April, we appointed a new chief executive for the Child Support Agency. When I took office on
May I recommend that the Secretary of State takes a plane trip to Australia, where he will find a child support agency that gets more money than our CSA to parents caring for children? The Australian CSA helps to look after the emotional needs of non-resident parents, rather than just extracting money from them, and it is about to help families to stay together in the first place through a network of family relationship centres. Those lessons are valuable. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give us that he will learn from them?
The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question constituted the best offer that I have had for several days, and I shall certainly take him up on it. I take the second part very seriously, however. We must take every possible step to avoid breakdown. We need, and have discussed, a gateway or ameliorative process to ensure that when relationships do break down, no bureaucratic machinery is involved in dealing with the consequences, but above all to remind people that the CSA was established—by a Conservative Government—because individuals were not prepared to take responsibility for their actions. We are trying to remedy a breakdown in civil society, not just a breakdown of the bureaucratic processes.
A constituent of mine should be paying £264 a month, but is paying £483 for one child under the old scheme. He is paying £220 a month too much, and is understandably angry and bitter about the unfairness of the scheme. He has been waiting for two years for the old scheme to be merged with the new one.
The Secretary of State suggested earlier that papers would be produced, and that a debate would take place. Is he telling us that there will be no early move to transfer old cases to the new scheme? If so, that is very bad news for thousands of people.
A quarter of a million cases have been moved to the new system, but the conflict within the families concerned—for every gainer there is a loser, such as my hon. Friend's constituent: a gain means a loss for the recipient—means that there is an unwillingness to transfer voluntarily to the new scheme. In such circumstances, we must get the information technology right. One reason why the process has taken so long, and why I am determined to be absolutely transparent and honest about the difficulties when we produce the report, is that misleading people into believing that something can be done and then creating bureaucratic administrative chaos leaves those who are most in need at the receiving end of the failure. I am determined that, following all the effort invested by my predecessors, we will get it right this time.
"We have undertaken that there will be no reduction in front-line staff working in the agency until we are absolutely sure that the system is robust and working."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 26 October 2005; Vol. 438, c. 122WH.]
Can the Secretary of State tell us how he would define "front-line staff"? Would they include the enforcement and criminal compliance team, and those who are involved daily in firefighting the various problems of the failing IT system in local offices?
In fact, we have increased the number of staff substantially over the last three months. Yes, those involved in direct enforcement are front-line staff, which is why we have been transferring back-office activity to the front line, using the product of information technology. I believe that we now have 2,000 staff on the enforcement programme. Obviously, clear signals and messages must be sent if people are to be compelled to pay.
Will the Secretary of State assure us that when he presents the House with a programme to reform the CSA, he will pay special attention to the 100,000 people who have been assessed for maintenance and have refused to pay a penny—unlike the constituent of my hon. Friend Mr. Mudie? Is it not a fact that the addresses of many of those 100,000 people are unknown to the CSA? Other countries that have experienced the same problem have devised a "bounty hunter" system, under which officers are paid only if they find those who refuse to pay maintenance. If we had such a system in this country, would not many more children receive maintenance, and would not taxpayers face smaller bills?
I am prepared to consider most options for following up recalcitrant parents and trying to find those who owe money—both to their partner and often to the state—but I do not believe that the bounty-hunter system would fit with our culture. If my right hon. Friend has any other ideas, I would be pleased to hear from him.