Child Support Agency

– in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 17th January 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

[Relevant Documents: The Second Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2004–05, on The Performance of the Child Support Agency, HC 44-I, and the Government's response thereto, First Special Report of the Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 477.]

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:36 pm, 17th January 2006

I beg to move,

That this House
agrees with the Prime Minster that the Child Support Agency has lost the confidence of the public, that its basic structural problems remain and that it is not properly suited to carry out its task.

I am pleased that we have this opportunity today to debate the future of the Child Support Agency—and to do so before the long-awaited and, frankly, long-delayed statement that we have been expecting for some months from the Department for Work and Pensions.

All hon. Members have received many representations from constituents, usually over a period of years, about the ineffectiveness of the CSA. The concern that many of us have is that many of our constituents have now given up hope that the problems with the CSA will ever be resolved. We hope very much that when Ministers "come forward shortly", in the words of the Minister, with proposals, they will be radical and will go to the heart of the problems of the CSA. I hope that by having this debate today there will be an opportunity for Ministers to reflect on comments from both sides of the House and from Members with considerable expertise. I hope that it will not be too late to influence the shape and detail of the statement that is brought forward in a few days or weeks.

There is no doubt about the chaotic and crisis-type situation that the CSA has been in since 1993 when it was founded by a Conservative Government. I say that now to save the Minister making that point later on, because we need to focus on what we can do to tackle the problems of the CSA in the future. Clearly, it is common ground across the House that there is a major challenge to be addressed.

As far back as 1998, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the CSA had lost the confidence of the public and described it as "a mess" in need of "urgent reform". Yet seven years on, we still seem to have failed to address the fundamental problems that have been experienced from the founding of the agency until 1998 when the Prime Minister made that statement.

As has been drawn to the attention of hon. Members on the Order Paper today, we have the advantage of the Select Committee report on the subject, a very critical report from a year ago in which the Committee described the CSA as a "failing organisation" that is in crisis. In its indictment, the Committee concluded that it was difficult to exaggerate the agency's already low reputation with the public and the Committee recommended that consideration be given to the option of winding up the CSA and plans being made for an alternative set of policies.

We know that the Prime Minister very much shares those concerns because he said so in the Chamber on 16 November last year. He said:

"I make no defence of the current situation. . . . The truth is that the agency is not properly suited to carry out that task."—[Hansard, 16 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 964.]

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of this week's report in Scotland's Sunday Mail newspaper that the CSA's chief executive has also called for the agency to be abolished and for its functions to be transferred to other Government agencies?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have not read the Scottish newspaper to which he refers. Judging by the looks on Ministers' faces, I would not conclude that what the report suggests will necessarily happen.

What did the Prime Minister's confusing remark in November mean? Many hon. Members left the Chamber that day hoping that it marked the beginning of fundamental reform of the CSA, but we later discovered that journalists who telephoned the Department for Work and Pensions found that people there knew nothing about what the Prime Minister had said. Indeed, they poured cold water on any idea that there would be fundamental reform.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Plaskitt, was asked about this matter at Question Time a week ago. He said that the Department's focus was on

"dealing with the problems in the agency so that we can get it on a stable footing."—[Hansard, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 10.]

That does not sound like a plan for dramatic change or for the abolition of the CSA.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Why did the hon. Gentleman table an entirely negative motion that contains no positive suggestions about how to reform the CSA? Is it because he does not have a clue about that, or because the acting headmaster—or acting leader—of the Liberal Democrats has not been able to make up his mind and cannot give him clearance for any positive suggestions? Would not it be more sensible to offer a solution?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for an example of the constructive approach offered by the modern Conservative party, and I look forward to hearing later what his Front-Bench team propose. However, he may be a little out of date and may not have seen the detailed paper that we have published on this matter today.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I am talking about the motion.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Our aim with the motion is to persuade Ministers to support what the Prime Minister told the House in November. He made it clear then that he did not believe that the CSA was, in the language of the press, fit for its purpose.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

In a moment.

Mr. Redwood will know that our motion is based on comments that the Prime Minister made on 16 November last year, and previously. We are inviting Ministers and Labour Members to do no more than agree with the Prime Minister that the CSA has "lost the confidence" of the public, that it has "basic structural problems", and that it "is not properly suited" to its task. We look forward to finding out whether Labour Members will support the Prime Minister's passionate denunciation of the CSA in its existing form, or whether they will vote against our motion.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

It is not childish, as we want to establish whether the Government are clear about the extent of the reforms that are needed. The Government's amendment uses most of the same text as our motion, although it omits the passage about the CSA having lost the confidence of the public. If the Minister believes that the agency still enjoys the confidence of the public, he is very out of touch.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The hon. Gentleman and I took part in a debate in Westminster Hall on this matter, but I was not sure from that whether his party ruled out ever scrapping the CSA. Will he clarify that now?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I should be happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the document that we produced today, which makes it clear that we have believed for some time that the CSA in its existing form should be scrapped, with its functions folded into those of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. After I have set out some of the agency's problems, I shall go into detail about—

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I do not want to detain you, Mr. Speaker, but I seek clarification. If Mr. Laws intends to refer to his party's document, should it not be made available in the Library?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I think that we all anticipated the nature of that point of order. I will come back to the detailed proposals later, and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity then to make his views known.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

The hon. Gentleman refers to the report by the Work and Pensions Committee, on which I served, and I stand by that report. After reading the motion and the amendment, I want to ask the hon. Gentleman if he will support the amendment, because it agrees with the motion that the CSA has severe problems. Perhaps we should wrap up and go home.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Our judgment will be based on whether Ministers clearly indicate that they intend to scrap the agency or make fundamental reforms.

Will we find out what has happened since the Prime Minister made his grand statement, as though it was an announcement of policy that would later emerge? We have had the Minister's comments, which have made it clear that his intention is not fundamental reform or scrapping of the agency, but putting it on a stable footing. Then we had the briefings to the newspapers about the Government's great idea—the change that will make the CSA work—of tagging, which is a gimmick that nobody who is serious about dealing with the fundamental problems of the agency thinks will help to resolve them.

The National Association for Child Support Action wrote to the Secretary of State on 9 January on the Government's proposals to tag non-payers of child maintenance. The letter stated that

"it is difficult to see what benefits this . . . might bring, in view of all the enforcement powers already available. It is anticipated that current attempts"— to fix the agency—

"will be much like the others and produce ghosts from the past to haunt the future".

Those hon. Members who are serious about reform of the CSA—and I include Rob Marris among them—will know that the detailed enforcement mechanisms form a small part of the serious problems of the agency, which were addressed in the report by the Work and Pensions Committee.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman does not support the tagging idea. A constituent who was tagged recently visited my surgery and took his tag off in front of me, and his middle name was not Houdini, so there are clearly problems with tagging. Given the hon. Gentleman's emphasis on civil liberties, would it not be a more effective punishment for people who do not pay maintenance to publish their photographs in local newspapers, alongside the amount of maintenance that taxpayers are paying on their behalf?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's first comment. I respect his experience in debating this issue and the commitment that he has shown to the reform of the CSA over many years. I am not entirely convinced that his proposal would work, because the low esteem in which the CSA is held by many of the people who do not pay means that they would be determined not to pay up regardless. We need to achieve a CSA that collects money, not one that focuses on a tiny number of people who are determined not to meet their obligations.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

While the hon. Gentleman is talking about extreme sanctions, can he tell us what the Liberal Democrats' policy is on the confiscation of driving licences from feckless fathers?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

That sanction has been used on a very few occasions—they can be counted on the fingers of one hand—in recent years, so it has been totally ineffective in dealing with the 1.4 million cases that the CSA is handling. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that even Ministers have lost confidence in that measure. Journalists who had been briefed by the Department about the tagging proposals said that Ministers were selling those proposals on the basis that the removal of driving licences was potty because it stopped people working and therefore earning money to pay the maintenance that they owed. That highlights the problems with the Government's policy.

Before we consider some solutions, we should reflect on the manifest problems in the agency, of which there is no better summary than its obvious failure to collect money and its relation to its administration costs. At present, as the Prime Minister acknowledged in November, for every £1 in administration costs, the CSA collects only £1.85 from absent parents, and the figure has fallen over the past five years. That compares with a ratio of 1:8.5 in Australia; in other words, the Australian system is more than four times as effective as our own—[Interruption.] If Chris Bryant wants to indicate that the CSA's position is even worse than it is, I shall be happy to take an intervention. Ministers owe it to us to let us know whether they are aware of any child support system in the world that is less effective than ours in collecting money from absent parents. I am certainly not aware of one.

A second measure of how bad the CSA is at collecting the money due to it is the position on arrears. Ministers have told us on numerous occasions that arrears would be stabilised or that arrears would be paid down. When the Government came to power in 1997, the arrears owed by absent parents were £1.1 billion, but that figure has tripled to £3.3 billion, so it is no surprise that the agency's client fund accounts have been qualified by the National Audit Office in every year since the CSA began.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we could probably count on one hand the number of occasions when the power to remove driving licences had been used. Although that may be the case, does he have any indication of the number of cases where something has come about after nothing more than the threat of the removal of a licence? In other words, people threatened with the removal of their licence soon pay up, and the vast majority are self-employed.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

There are figures showing how many people have been threatened with that sanction and my recollection is that the number is in the 10s or 20s; it is certainly not huge. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises from his constituency, the fundamental problem with the CSA is not the absence of enforcement mechanisms, but the inability to make assessments quickly and accurately and then to collect the money efficiently.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall give way in a moment, but I want to make a further point about one of the major problems with which the CSA is struggling—the backlog that has built up over a long period due to the ineffectiveness of the mechanism for considering assessments. Despite the move to the new system of child support maintenance a few years ago, the agency has a backlog of 333,000 cases—a third of a million—and of those 73,000 are more than two and a half years old. That is wholly unacceptable, as is the fact that a third of the new scheme cases that have not yet been processed have experienced waiting times of 448 days. When we consider that when the new scheme was introduced the Government were talking about waiting times of six weeks—yet it is now six months—we realise what an enormous problem the CSA is experiencing.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Paymaster General

I am no defender of the CSA, but the hon. Gentleman's proposed solution is to give the problem to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, despite the fact that it experienced a fiasco in its own right in the maladministration of tax credits—a problem that continues ad nauseam. Given that the hon. Gentleman, like me, has often been critical of HMRC and the Treasury because of that maladministration, how can it make sense to give HMRC this problem when it cannot even deal with its own fiasco?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Precisely because it was absurd in the first place to put, for entirely political reasons, means-tested benefits into the tax Department, which is used to collecting money, when in fact the CSA, which is about raising money, should be part of the Inland Revenue. The two are in the wrong position. To think of that simply as a managerial problem is totally to misunderstand the problems with both tax credits and the CSA.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families)

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to the House's attention this very important issue. He rightly talks about the amount of money that the CSA fails to recoup from absent fathers, but I am sure that he is also aware that much of the money that the CSA recoups is wrongly recouped. For example, one of my constituents—an ex-husband—dutifully made his maintenance payments, but found that they were going to the wrong person because the CSA had the wrong national insurance number. Having cleared up that matter for him, the same thing happened again three months later. So even if one in five absent fathers is paying, many of them are paying the wrong person.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Sadly, the CSA's story is one not only of a deficient structure, but of gross incompetence that seems unrelated simply to the structural issues.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Does my hon. Friend nevertheless agree that many of the CSA's staff are doing their best to work in a terribly flawed system and that their position is being made even more difficult by the Government's attempt to remove key workers who can go out and meet individuals on a one-to-one basis, thus making it even more difficult for those who are charged and those who are paid to correct mistakes—a problem that is particularly acute in Wales?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Not only do I agree with my hon. Friend, but he brings me precisely to the next issue that I want to raise with the Minister: the CSA's work force. At an agency with the appalling record of mismanagement and underperformance that the CSA has had since 1993, we would expect the Government either not to cut staff numbers or to increase them. Indeed, when the Select Committee on Work and Pensions reported in January 2005, it said:

"Cutting the work force of the Child Support Agency at this critical time is the major concern of the Committee. It's a massive breach of trust for the thousands of staff who've worked hard to improve the service. It makes no sense to implement job cuts when the Agency is already struggling."

I thought that Ministers had accepted that point, because in the Government's response to the Select Committee report in March 2005, they said:

"The Secretary of State. . . announced on 26 January that there would be no further reductions in front line staffing until the new computer system is working effectively. . . The Agency is now recruiting staff to meet current and anticipated needs."

Anyone would conclude that, at the very least, the CSA's staffing numbers would be stable, and the final sentence suggests that they could even be on the rise.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

When we look at the statistics, we discover that in March 2004 the CSA had about 10,800 staff, and that by the time the Government's response to the report came out, the number had fallen by about 1,000 to 9,784. We now discover that the figure will be even lower this March—down to 9,400—and the Minister owes us an explanation as to why it has been right to cut staff numbers by one in eight at an agency that is failing some of the poorest people in the Britain and why it appears from those figures that, frankly, the Government have gone back on the clear undertakings that they made to the House about the CSA's staffing.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

As my hon. Friend has said, the Government's reply talks about a time when the IT system is working. It is clear from recent casework that the IT system is still failing badly. Many cases are being transferred on to a manual handling system, because the IT system cannot be repaired to deal with individuals' casework. Clearly, that will put even greater burdens on the staff and create even more problems for our constituents.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is exactly right. We were discussing earlier the IT problems that have plagued the tax credit system, and they are obviously endemic in the child support system, too.

We could commit a large part of this relatively short debate simply to examining the deficiencies of the agency. I want to reflect briefly on the fundamental problems of the agency, and then examine possible solutions.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

Fathers are not obliged to tell the agency when they change jobs, which contributes to enormous problems in the CSA. If the scheme were managed through the Inland Revenue, surely that would no longer be a problem.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is exactly right. When I was told by an expert in the Child Support Agency that absent parents had no duty to notify the agency of a change in job or residence, I was amazed. It was only when I tabled a question to Ministers that I discovered not only that that was true, but that the Select Committee had made recommendations on the matter in its report a year ago. It also recommended that there should be a mechanism through which it could be ensured that an individual's deduction of earnings order could be transferred, because such orders are currently lost if people lose their job or decide to resign, which is bizarre.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall give way one last time and then I must move on.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

Will the hon. Gentleman give us a little more detail about his point on staffing? If he is proposing to transfer the CSA's functions to the Inland Revenue, is he guaranteeing that all the current staff of the agency would be able to keep their jobs? If he thinks that the current staff numbers are too low, how many more staff would he hire when transferring the functions to the Inland Revenue, and what might be the cost of that?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am happy to say that I am making the point that it is absolutely potty—I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees—that one in eight of the CSA's staff should be taken out over two years when the agency has a backlog of a third of a million cases, 73,000 of which have been in place for more than two and a half years. I should have thought that that would be absolutely clear to every hon. Member.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend tempts me into taking one further intervention, and then I must move on.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Liberal Democrat, Cardiff Central

Does my hon. Friend agree that the combination of a heavy work load and reducing staff numbers has led to the CSA not investigating cases properly? Two of my constituents have told me that they notified possible benefit fraud relating to their cases to the CSA, but neither matter was investigated. Does he agree that that is yet another example of how an overworked CSA is unable to function properly?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I would be very surprised indeed if every Member of the House did not recognise the problem to which my hon. Friend draws attention. Many people whom I have seen in my constituency advice centre in recent months have had precisely that problem.

I shall touch briefly on the fundamental problems of the Child Support Agency before I examine some of the solutions. It is clear that the CSA is not an agency that commands respect. Many people see it not as an agency that is primarily about getting money to children, but as a means of saving money for the Exchequer. Its case load is not only heavy, but often bogged down by complex cases that might be better dealt with in the courts because of associated matters that are related to them. It is clear that the CSA cannot cope with its work load and that it is unable to link in with other agencies, including the Inland Revenue, to share information that is critical to not only making assessments, but ensuring that the money that is due is collected.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Sanders said, it is clear that non-resident parents should have the duty to notify changes of job and of address. It is clear to every hon. Member that there is too little emphasis in the agency on compliance and an unwillingness to use middle-order sanctions, including immediate deduction from earnings, to deal with problems. In the United Kingdom, some 19 per cent. of the CSA's cases involve a deduction of earnings order. The figure is about double that in Australia, which has a far more effective system. If we were to deal with that problem, it would have far more impact on the money raised for child support than some of the gimmicks that the Government have trailed.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point about not making effective use of middle-order sanctions. Can he tell me what his hon. Friend meant when he referred to existing enforcement powers being "draconian attacks on liberties"? Are not such powers middle-order sanctions?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman has not made it clear what comments he is referring to. My point, which I am sure he is wise enough to take, is that the CSA's objective is to raise money to help to tackle child poverty and it is the agency's failure to do that—not implementing enforcement mechanisms except in a desperate last-ditch attempt to get the money—that we really need to address. Although the agency already possesses tough enforcement powers, it rarely uses them.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I must make some progress.

We believe that the CSA should be scrapped and its functions transferred to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. We are pleased that Mr. Field has adopted a similar position—in fact, he advised the Prime Minister to do that as long ago as 1998, unfortunately without effect so far.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall make some progress, then take more interventions.

Transferring the CSA's functions to HMRC would be a dramatic and fundamental change, but there comes a point where a failing agency can no longer be patched up. That is surely the conclusion that the Prime Minister has reached, which would explain his comments in November. The switch to HMRC is not only about securing a new culture and better management—although, my goodness, we need both after the past 13 years. It is about making sure that there is effective transfer of information on the incomes of absent parents who are not willing to pay, and about making sure that we can more effectively deduct money from those absent parents' earnings when they show determination not to pay. HMRC is in a far better position than the CSA to gather that information and to deduct money at source.

The CSA must retain a simple tax-like formula for assessing maintenance and we give the Government some credit for their efforts to simplify the formula since 1997. Simplicity is vital if maintenance calculations are to be made quickly and reliably.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

I have not had a chance to read the Liberal Democrat document that sets out their proposals—it might have been better to state them in the motion. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his party's position? Responding to the National Audit Office report on the complexity of benefits, his hon. Friend Danny Alexander said that it was their party's policy to separate the benefits system from the tax system, yet today Mr. Laws appears to be arguing that the element of the benefits system administered by the CSA should be part of the income tax system. I am confused.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am happy to enlighten the hon. Lady by showing her a copy of the documents, but I suspect that she has got her wires slightly crossed. I believe that she has in mind the comments that my hon. Friend Danny Alexander rightly made pointing out that Her Majesty's Treasury is precisely the wrong place for the administration of means-tested benefits—which is what tax credits are, after all. I am sure that Miss Begg, as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that produced the excellent report a year ago and signed up to fundamental changes, including scrapping the CSA if it was not sorted out, understands the point that I am making today.

Several hon. Members rose:

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall take one more intervention, but then I must press on so that others have time to speak.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

By giving way to me, the hon. Gentleman has disappointed many of his colleagues. He has made some fair points this afternoon and is right to say that all hon. Members know from their own casework the problems of the CSA, but I counsel him against using the term "scrapping the CSA". The feedback that I get from my constituency is that every time there is talk of scrapping the agency, some of the feckless parents to whom Bob Spink referred suddenly think that they no longer have to pay anything or make any sort of contribution. Although some of his suggestions may be good ones, I suggest that he lay off the populist rhetoric.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman is an expert on populist rhetoric, but I shall take that as one of his more measured and constructive interventions. I accept the point that he makes. We are not suggesting that absent parents should not have an obligation to make payments. We are suggesting that we should put a Government body in charge, with the powers, ability and effectiveness to do the job an awful lot better than it has been done for the past 13 years.

There are a number of other issues that ought to be part of a reform of the Child Support Agency. It is clear that we can no longer tolerate a situation where not only does it take an enormous amount of time to make the maintenance calculations, but where these are often not implemented for lengthy periods, so massive arrears build up. There must be a determined time limit within which the maintenance deductions can start. There should also be a new statutory requirement on non-resident parents to report change of address or change of job so that they are not able to get away unnecessarily with dodging their maintenance liabilities. As we said earlier, there must be a halt to the reduction of staff numbers, which is inconsistent with the failed state of the agency. There must be a more effective enforcement arm.

I hope also that the Minister will acknowledge that when we get a statement and possibly legislation, the reform will be fundamental. I hope that he and his colleagues will seek to bring in the considerable expertise that exists in this place and on the Select Committee, as well as in outside bodies. We are discussing an incredibly detailed area. I hope the Minister will consider the idea, which was recommended by the Select Committee in 1999, of a child support advisory committee that could comment on any new measures, to make sure that we get the new child support arrangements right.

We strongly agree with the Prime Minister that the time has come to stop patching up a system that has failed for the past 13 years. We want to see fundamental reform, not gimmickry or incremental change. We hope the Minister will give us a signal of that intent on behalf of the Government today.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions 4:12 pm, 17th January 2006

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"agrees with the Prime Minister that the Child Support Agency suffers from basic structural problems and is not properly suited to carrying out its current tasks;
accepts the importance of ensuring that more families with children receive the maintenance payments to which they are entitled;
and notes that the Government will shortly set out its conclusions on the right way forward following the Chief Executive's review of the operation of the Child Support Agency."

I am grateful to Mr. Laws for giving the House the opportunity to discuss a range of child support issues. I listened carefully to his speech, which I would characterise as a great many words marching across the paper in search of a new idea. I waited to hear one, but it was absent.

Let me correct the hon. Gentleman on two key parts of the argument that he advanced. First, he made great play of enforcement, yet when he was quite reasonably challenged by my hon. Friend Steve McCabe on what his party had previously said about that, he carefully ducked the question. I remind him that his party's previous spokesperson on the issue described the existing sanctions at the agency's disposal as "draconian attacks on liberties". I therefore doubt the veracity of the hon. Gentleman's calls for greater enforcement, because those do not match what his party has hitherto said on the subject.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman set great store by staffing. I am anxious to correct the information that he gave to the House. In March 2005 the agency employed 9,784 staff. The latest headcount on 30 September 2005 was 10,027. The agency is recruiting, and on present trends it is anticipated that by March this year there could be 11,000 staff in the agency. As part of the recovery plans that are being put in place, additional staff are being recruited to tackle the problems in the agency. Far from his giving the impression that the number of staff is declining, the fact is that the figure is already several hundred higher than the March 2005 level and is still rising.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am keen to establish the facts. The figures that I cited came from a parliamentary answer provided by the Secretary of State in the past month. If they are inaccurate or distorted, I want to hear about it, so we can all understand the real situation.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I have seen almost all of the 158 parliamentary questions tabled by the hon. Gentleman on the subject in the past eight months, because I signed almost all the answers. I assure him that the figures that I have given him are consistent with the printed information in parliamentary answers.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

No; let me make some progress.

The third part of the hon. Gentleman's pitch concerned his party's document, which sets out what he thinks his party could do with the agency. The document seems to be highly secret, because it is not in the Library, and we cannot even obtain it from the Liberal Democrat press office.

Notwithstanding those matters, I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Yeovil for giving the House the opportunity this afternoon to discuss a range of child support issues. I entirely understand his concern and that of all other hon. Members about the performance of the Child Support Agency, which is clearly unacceptable. Since the agency was set up nearly 13 years ago, it has accumulated more than £3 billion in debt. It has more than 300,000 cases awaiting an initial maintenance assessment, and 30 per cent. of non-resident parents who are assessed to pay maintenance fail to do so. That situation cannot be allowed to persist. Although the problems facing the CSA are huge, we should not forget that the primary responsibility for non-resident parents to contribute to the upbringing of their children lies with the parents themselves.

I want to describe the circumstances in which staff in the CSA are expected to operate. Many clients come to the agency when their relationship has broken down, when they have lost their job or even when private maintenance arrangements have failed. It will never be easy for the state to be involved in the difficult and emotional circumstances that often surround parents when child support becomes an issue. The circumstances are often extremely fraught, and Government intervention in relationships, money or caring for children may inflame parents who are already in a tense situation, but we expect staff in the agency who sort out child support maintenance to become involved in a mixture of all three issues.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

In my constituency—I am sure this is true of many other hon. Members' constituencies, too—one unfortunate absent parent, as he is deemed, has been paying under the old system since 2003, which has caused him hardship. When I wrote to the Minister about the case, he referred me to a parliamentary answer:

"We will only make a decision on the transfer of old scheme cases once we are confident that the system and business processes are robust."[Official Report, 20 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 705W.]

Which systems and business processes require improvement, and what is the time scale? Can the Minister provide any hope for people such as my constituent, who is waiting for those business processes and who is desperate to leave the old system?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The issue concerns converting cases from the old scheme to the new scheme, which has been a fundamental problem in the agency. I will go into the matter in more detail, but the summary answer to the hon. Lady's question is that hundreds of thousands of cases are at issue. It is clearly sensible to contemplate convergence from the old scheme to the new scheme only when the IT is robust enough to support it. The problem has been that the system on which the agency depended for some time, which was thought to have some short-term faults, has turned out to have faults of a much more structural nature. It must of course be stable before we even contemplate the conversion of cases that are on the old system.

Let me say to the hon. Lady, and to other Members who may be tempted to intervene on the same point, that this issue is central to the analysis that the new chief executive has been carrying out, and we will have more to say about it shortly when we make our statement on the future of the agency.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

This is related, but not directly, to the same issue. The CSA's standard response to inquiries is to say that the matter has been resolved and to provide a letter that one can send to one's constituent saying that it will be cleared up. Two or three months later, one gets a letter from the constituent saying that absolutely nothing has happened, and the correspondence, which was closed, has to be reopened. Would it help the CSA if it could deal with those cases and not extend the correspondence, and the problems facing the constituent, unnecessarily?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

We are all able to cite examples from our constituency case files—I can do that just as well as any other Member. I completely understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The situation is symptomatic of performance issues inside the agency that are not acceptable and clearly must improve. He cites one form of the problem—correspondence that purports to have done something but has not, which means that the case has subsequently to be reopened. That creates one of the problems that the recovery scheme for the agency must address.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

Before those interventions, my hon. Friend was beginning to set out the complexity of many of the cases that people at the CSA have to deal with. When I visited the agency in Plymouth, I learned that as many as one in 10 of those cases involve multiple partners, some with as many as five to 10 partners to try to sort out. Would my hon. Friend consider isolating those complex cases so that they can be dealt with separately from the others? That might improve the performance on the other nine out of 10 cases that we all want to be dealt with more efficiently.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and pertinent point. I, too, have seen flow charts that the agency has produced showing the extraordinary interlinking between different cases. I take on board my hon. Friend's point about separating such cases. Cases in which the administration is extremely faulty and which come to us as constituency MPs often tend to be those that relate to very complex arrangements. It is in the nature of things that we do not get to see the relatively straightforward cases that the CSA handles, which are quickly processed and stay in payment without much problem for the lifetime of the maintenance agreement. However, we should bear the complex cases in mind when we are contemplating how to deal with the agency and the problems that arise, of which there are far too many in such cases. My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I need to make a bit of progress, but I am happy to give way again.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I am interested in what the Minister is saying about the complexity of cases. Does not that go back to the original resourcing of the agency? Before coming to this House I was a solicitor, and I have dealt with the CSA, in both capacities, for some 13 years now. I well remember the naivety of those who set it up. They did not understand the lengths to which some absent parents would go to avoid paying anything for their children—the feckless parents to whom Bob Spink referred. That is the root of the problem, and only by proper staffing and resources will we ever get round it.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman is right again to emphasise the complexity of cases and the extraordinary lengths to which some people will go to try to evade their responsibilities. We are asking the agency to deal with people who are of that frame of mind, will not face up to their responsibilities as a parent, and will go to the most extraordinary lengths to avoid doing so. That is why, as part of this debate, we have to think about the agency's enforcement powers. I will say more about that shortly.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I want to make some progress, because I have hardly started yet. I promise to give way to other hon. Members in a moment.

Before I took that group of interventions, I had started to explain the difficulties with which the agency has to deal. The provision of child support is an especially difficult aspect of welfare reform. We have struggled with it in the UK for some time, even before the CSA was established. We are not alone in that. Other countries find it difficult as well.

It is worth reminding the House, especially in the light of the previous intervention, of the position before the agency was founded. It was well described in the 1990 White Paper, from which I shall quote a paragraph. It states:

"The present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective. It is based largely on discretion. The system is operated through the High and county courts, the magistrates' courts, the Court of Session and the Sheriff Courts in Scotland and the offices of the Department of Social Security. The cumulative effect is uncertainty and inconsistent decisions about how much maintenance should be paid. In a great many instances, the maintenance awarded is not paid or the payments fall into arrears and take weeks to re-establish".

Sometimes an impression is created of a golden age of child maintenance before the CSA was set up. It is worth reminding ourselves that it never existed.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has highlighted the personal cost and the difficulty of getting money from absent parents when relationships have broken down. Has he any evidence that the culture of the Inland Revenue means that the people who would do the job under the Liberals' scheme have any understanding of that complexity in an already complex part of the benefits system, and of the human cost that could ensue from a system of faceless bureaucrats simply getting money out of people? The matter is far more complex than that.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is right. The matter is complex and there is a certain simplicity about the Liberal Democrats' repeated suggestion. They used to propose giving it all back to the courts but have recently switched to giving the system to the Inland Revenue. The courts found the complexity difficult to tackle and the results were unsatisfactory. The agency has found it difficult to deal with complex cases and, again, the results are not entirely satisfactory. Simply handing the process to the Inland Revenue would not remove complexity and difficulty. I cannot accept that somehow there is something about the Inland Revenue's administration that would not trip up over the complex relationships that lie at the heart of many difficult CSA cases. My hon. Friend is right: it is much more complicated than that.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the Under-Secretary on finding the quote from the White Paper. Does he recall that, before 1990, the taxpayer paid for many more absent parents than is the case now? Getting rid of that inequity was the fundamental benefit of setting up the CSA. Sadly, there is now a different inequity. Two families in identical circumstances can pay very different amounts because of the disparity between the two schemes. The Under-Secretary suggests that he can foresee no date by which those two schemes will be rolled out together. Is he genuinely telling the House that?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman makes two points. He is right about the cost to the taxpayer before the agency was set up. That is one of the reasons for the previous Government's decision to introduce the agency and move away from the court-based system.

The hon. Gentleman is not entirely right about the two schemes. I understand his point—I have made the same criticism of the position before today. Two schemes are running in parallel—in some ways, the position is even more complex because there are sub-divisions in the schemes. However, if he can await the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make shortly on the agency, he will find an answer to his point.

Before the agency was introduced in April 1993, there were two main routes for cases in which couples could not make their child maintenance arrangements. Maintenance was determined by the courts, which enforced it only on application to do so and with limited facility to trace non-paying parents. When the parent with care was on benefit, maintenance was secured through the then Department of Social Security's liable relative scheme. That involved benefits staff negotiating an amount of maintenance with the non-resident parent, who was generally paid only while the parent with care stayed on benefit. That resulted in massive inconsistency in the amounts paid, and did not support parents who wanted to return to work.

The original child support scheme introduced with the CSA was meant to address those problems. In the event, however, we had an initial formula that parents, their advisers and even agency staff just did not understand. The agency therefore hit problems from day one, but the Government's approach at the time was to introduce a whole range of legislative changes that served only to add to the complexity of the scheme, until they reached the point under the old scheme at which some cases needed up to 100 separate pieces of information to make an assessment. That had the effect of drawing staff away from enforcement and into information gathering, meanwhile leaving many more children in poverty.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

Notwithstanding what the Minister said earlier about the use of the courts, does he accept that, in complex cases in which child care orders might already be before the court, it might speed matters up if the ability to make court orders were returned to the courts while they were already dealing with other family-related issues?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I am not sure whether that was, is or will be part of Liberal policy. Perhaps when we have found the secret document that no one can lay their hands on at the moment, we will discover what lies behind that comment.

The agency has been grappling with performance issues almost from day one. Indeed, initially it cost more to run the agency than it collected in maintenance. That situation was reversed only after 1997.

As well as examining matters internally, we have looked abroad to see whether we can learn anything from schemes elsewhere. The simple answer is that no one country has completely cracked the problem of creating an effective child support system. People often quote Australia as the benchmark to which we should aspire—the hon. Member for Yeovil did so earlier. However, we are not comparing like with like—indeed, the hon. Gentleman did not do so in his speech—and I shall explain why. The Australian estimate of maintenance includes all money paid directly by non-resident parents to parents with care, whereas the UK comparison includes only the maintenance paid through the Child Support Agency. Furthermore, the Australian link to the tax system is critically dependent on the different way in which the tax system there is structured. The comparisons with Australia are not as straightforward as the hon. Gentleman might like to suggest.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I quite accept that the comparisons need to reflect the differences between the two countries. However, can the Minister cite a single child support agency in any developed country that has a worse record of collection per pound of administration than we do in Britain?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I accept that point. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to say that our CSA comes out poorly in international comparisons of the cost per unit collected. That is precisely why we are now addressing some of the fundamental issues in the agency. We have been looking carefully at the systems that operate in other countries and feeding our findings into our recent root-and-branch review of the agency's operations.

It is not my intention to downplay or minimise the problems in the agency. As many hon. Members will know, I have been a regular critic of it myself. In this debate, however, it is important that we try to maintain an overall perspective of the situation. Despite all the well documented problems, there are nevertheless signs of improvement in the agency's performance. Last year, it collected more than £600 million from non-resident parents, and nearly 400,000 parents with care received maintenance, either via the agency, or arranged by the agency but paid directly. This equates to 529,000 children who now have maintenance as a result of the agency's intervention, and since its inception the agency has collected £4.5 billion of maintenance payments.

Over the last calendar year, 2005, case and cash compliance, accuracy, enforcement and the telephony improved. Between January and September, the number of outstanding, uncleared potential applications across both schemes fell by 8 per cent. from 362,000 to 333,000. That is still far too high, but from the trend over the year we begin to see a reduction in that number. In September, the last month for which we have accurate figures, 25 per cent. of new cases coming to the agency were cleared in less than six weeks, although the average clearance time—this is not acceptable—was 26 weeks.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

I am sure the Minister fairly accepts that the cases that tend to come to us are the difficult ones, but one thing that seems to be grossly unfair is the fact that, even in those cases where the ombudsman accepts that there has been maladministration or a claimant has been seriously let down—the worst of the worst—there seems to be no process of compensation. People can lose out really badly, and neither the parliamentary commissioner nor the independent case reviewer seems to be in any position to award decent compensation. This may involve minimal stuff such as inconvenience, but there seems to be no provision in the system for compensation to be made for losses incurred.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

As a matter of fact, there is the facility for compensation payments. There are payments for inconvenience—the hon. Gentleman might be thinking of those—which tend to involve small amounts, such as £100 or £200.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

I am talking about real compensation.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The agency can make compensation payments, some of which can be quite sizeable. We are talking about payments of thousands of pounds. If the hon. Gentleman wants more information on that, I urge him to get in touch with my Department and we will happily explain it to him.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous in giving way. While he is talking about improvements to the CSA, may I try to be constructive? The residence of the child may change between parents, and the new parent with residence may previously have been a feckless parent who withheld payments to the previous parent. The CSA will chase the good parent and force them to make payments to the feckless parent, but will not enable the good parent, who did not receive the money from the feckless parent, to net off the amount that they have to pay. Will he make that simple change so he can remove that injustice?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman might describe that as a simple change, but I suspect that it would turn out to be nothing like so simple in the application. After all, what we must put at the centre of all this is the child. The objective is to ensure a flow of maintenance to support the child. Whatever changes we make to the scheme, it must be based on the central tenet that the purpose of having the agency is to ensure support for children who would otherwise be vulnerable.

Although enforcement is too low, it is improving. For example, in 2002–03, 2,300 liability orders were granted by the courts. Last year, the figure more than doubled to 5,600. In the first eight months of this year, the total was already 6,300.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

Like many other hon. Members, I have constituents and their children who are living in unnecessary poverty and who rely on the CSA to collect the arrears. I am interested in what the Minister has just said because I am dealing with what is patently a straightforward case, but the father is a barrister who is leading the CSA a merry dance, thwarting at every opportunity its right to collect the money. If non-paying parents, especially those who know the law, are using the system and feel that nothing will be done to enforce their responsibility towards their children, that just adds to the CSA's difficulties. What more can be done to encourage the CSA to take action against those who are wilfully doing that and what can the courts do to help?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. She is right to say that some non-resident parents will try to play the system for all it is worth and exploit every available opportunity. Many of us have come across such instances at our advice surgeries.

The agency is now taking much more action on enforcement. I have given my hon. Friend the figures on the sharp increase in the number of orders placed before the court, but may I also point out the effectiveness of the liability orders? Let us consider the case of a non-resident parent who was self-employed—often the category who are effective at playing the system—and whose debts, accumulated over four years, had grown to nearly £9,000. When the agency went to the court to take a liability order, that was enough to make that non-resident parent pay up in full. We have plenty of examples of how stepping up action on the liability orders, as we are doing, has the desired effect on some of those non-resident parents who have been trying to duck the system, in some cases for quite a long time.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I shall make a little progress, as I have taken a lot of interventions and I know that there are Members who wish to make speeches.

While the number of complaints about the agency is too high, it has also stabilised. In September 2005, 88 per cent. of initial complaints were resolved by the agency—or a resolution plan was agreed with the client—within three weeks. That figure is up from 74 per cent. in the previous year. I am pointing out those improving trends in order to dispel the view sometimes put about that every aspect of the agency is completely beyond hope. The truth is that the problems are sizeable, and some are chronic. The performance is not what it should be. There is a platform on which to build, however, which is in large part thanks to a dedicated staff grappling with the challenges.

I hope that the House will agree that it is essential to incorporate arrangements for delivering child support in a modern welfare system.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

This might be a good opportunity to emphasise that there is a distinction to be made between the performance of the CSA and the performance of its staff. I and other members of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited the CSA office in Hastings and were struck by the incredible dedication of its hard-working staff and the stressful nature of their work. Such people are at the front line, receiving phone calls and dealing with distressing cases involving children from broken homes. The House should recognise that when we talk about the performance of the CSA, we are talking about it as an organisation, and not about the people who work there.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Like her, I have had the opportunity to visit some CSA offices up and down the country and to talk to staff at first hand. I wanted to do that as part of our review of the agency's workings. I share her interpretation of those meetings. The staff inside the agency are being asked to do a very difficult, stressful job. They are being asked to work with a difficult system and with IT that does not always support what they are trying to achieve. As I said, they are dealing with people whose circumstances are difficult and whose lives are quite fraught. It is not a situation in which many of us would like to find ourselves on a regular, day-to-day basis, and yet the agency's staff are doing that, coping with very difficult circumstances, sticking by the agency and sharing our determination to achieve in due course a system of child maintenance in this country that works effectively. In recognition of their efforts, we should focus on fixing the problems with the agency, not only, crucially, in respect of the children whom we are trying to support, but in respect of those whom we ask to carry out that task on behalf of the community.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am struck that the Minister argues in the CSA's defence that its record is improving, while the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister makes clear the view that the agency is not fit for its current purpose? Which is it to be?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

We were doing quite well, but now the hon. Gentleman is trying to be mischievous in deliberately misinterpreting what I am saying. I moved the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and my argument is absolutely clear. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little more progress, he will realise that I fully support my right hon. Friend's amendment.

This is the point. While there have been some small signs of improvement, that is not good enough. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said,

"the task that we are asking the agency to perform is an extremely difficult one . . . we cannot discuss sensibly the Child Support Agency unless we are prepared to look urgently at the fundamental nature of the task that it performs".—[Hansard, 16 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 964.]

So what are the fundamental issues? The difficulties that the CSA faces have been well documented in a range of areas, particularly backlogs and the building up of debt, and some of the information technology issues that we thought were teething problems turned out to be major defects.

It was because we recognised the deep-seated nature of the problems that the agency faced that we asked Stephen Geraghty, following his appointment as the new chief executive in April last year, to undertake a root-and-branch review of the agency's operations. He has given us an extremely thorough and candid assessment of where the agency stands at present. Armed with that, we need to take a sensible look at how we can get the agency on to a stable footing; but it is important to remember that, in child support, going for quick fixes has a long history of not succeeding. Our imperative is to improve the service delivered to CSA clients, so that children receive the maintenance that they deserve and non-compliant parents take responsibility for their children; but whatever we do in the future should not be allowed to disrupt the maintenance that already supports half a million children.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

The hon. Gentleman says that Ministers have received that damning document from the new chief executive. Will we be able to see it before the Government present the House with their proposals for reform, or will access be restricted, as with the Liberal Democrats' reform programme?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The difference in this case is that the report we received from the chief executive has led to, or will shortly lead to, a statement to the House setting out in detail the Government's proposals for dealing with the CSA. That is in marked contrast with the Liberal Democrats' invisible document, which does not seem to contain any ideas—although we do not know, because we cannot find it.

Stephen Geraghty has given us his views on how we can address the agency's operational problems, and how significant improvements can be secured for its clients. Given the difficulties that I have described, it is right for us to take a proper and considered look at his conclusions—and, as I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make a statement to the House shortly.

We need to find a solution to the agency's problems, because in many cases parents are just not facing up to their responsibilities to their children. Worse still, a significant number of parents actively avoid paying maintenance. Some go to extraordinary lengths to do so, leaving their jobs, constantly changing address or leaving the country as soon as the agency gets close. Whatever we do in the future, the fact remains that it is the overriding responsibility of non-resident parents to support their children financially. We need to revisit the fundamental questions of what we are trying to achieve and whether we have the right tools with which to do it. Where we do not have the right tools, or they are not in the right place, we need to put together a robust plan to fix the problem—and that is exactly what we are doing.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 4:48 pm, 17th January 2006

I congratulate Mr. Laws on securing the debate at such a timely point. I also congratulate the Minister, who spoke with heartfelt honesty.

I should begin by declaring an interest. I began my professional life in Edinburgh, at the Scottish Bar, when the old system so aptly described by the Minister was in place—so I benefited financially and economically under that former system, but also in terms of being paid in arrears.

We Conservatives remain vigorously in favour of the principle that absent parents should contribute to the maintenance of their children. I want also to associate myself with the remarks of my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman—the Minister was good enough to quote him during recent parliamentary questions—who said that there is no easy solution. We are not looking for easy solutions, but I was mildly surprised to discover that we did not have the benefit of in-depth solutions from the Liberal Democrats, who have called this debate, a point to which I shall return.

I want also to record my personal gratitude to the staff of my local CSA. They are always at the end of a telephone line, but in one very disturbing case they met the absent father in question at my surgery. It was appropriate for the Minister to record his appreciation of the circumstances in which CSA staff have to work—an appreciation that the whole House will share. We must not lose sight of that point, because all too often they are exposed to criticism. I will not go over ground that has already been covered in this regard, but there are a number of issues that the Minister might want to comment on later. We remain wedded, as I said, to the principle that absent parents should contribute, but as the Minister identified, we need to improve on current practice.

The Government's amendment to the motion states that

"the Government will shortly set out its conclusions on the right way forward following the Chief Executive's review of the operation of the Child Support Agency."

We know, because the Minister was good enough to tell us, that that review has been with his Department for a matter of weeks—perhaps a little over a month. It would assist today's debate if a date were put on its publication. Will it be published before the end of this month? As Mr. Field said, it might help if we took a two-stage approach—if the House had the benefit of seeing the review before the Minister and his Department produced their proposals. Here, I will tease the Liberal Democrats by asking that their document be made available on their website. We visited it as recently as yesterday, but we were disappointed to discover—given the spirit of open government in which the Liberal Democrats want to operate, and given that they are on record as saying that they want to be a party of government—that they do not want to share their proposals with us in time for this debate.

Why was the CSA's chief executive felt to be the most appropriate person, working through the heads of the Minister's Department, to conduct this review? We agree with the Minister that it was right to conduct a root-and-branch review, but we also agree with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that it should have been conducted less secretively, so that the House could have had the benefit of seeing the proposals. It should have been independent, more impartial and external to the Department—in the long term, the Department and the House would have benefited from such an approach.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady is making some extremely important points about airing the review. Does she agree that it would have helped if the Government had told us whether the review examined seriously other options for the agency, instead of simply improving it as it stands?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

That is not for me to say, but I should be very surprised to discover that the Department did not produce other options. There has been some talk of the Australian model, but I should point out that I do not entirely associate myself with the proposals of the hon. Member for Yeovil concerning the Inland Revenue scheme. One thing that the Revenue and the CSA share is that their computer systems have had not just teething problems, but major defects. I should be loth to switch from an agency with such problems to another with similar ones. However, there are parts of the Australian model that commend themselves to the House, and if the Government were to introduce such proposals they would enjoy a lot of support. One example is having one caseworker per couple or per family. Together with tax credits, this is the issue that arises most frequently with hon. Members, and it touches not just on families across the country but on many employers, and causes them considerable concern.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

The hon. Lady should not think that there will be substantial structural reform by establishing caseworkers. We want to get away from a system that treats individuals as though they are receiving, and we are computing, a benefit. The non-payment of maintenance ought to be met by imposing a tax. That would be crude, but surely we want to move to a system where, for one child, there is an additional X pence on the standard rate of tax, for two children, two times X and for three children, three times X. We should not take into account any circumstances such as how far one travels to work. We do not do that when computing tax rates, nor should we do so for the failure to pay maintenance, which is about paying tax. Before the hon. Lady dismisses the Inland Revenue, she should be aware that we are asking it not to run a social service, but to impose an additional tax rate on those who refuse to pay maintenance.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I consider myself castigated in terms of calling the person a caseworker. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. However, the CSA's quarterly summary for September 2005 states that the CSA received 5 million telephone calls and answered only 4.2 million, which is where much of the frustration arises. We often telephone on behalf of constituents, but they generally do the telephoning and it is a source of enormous frustration that there is not the same person dealing with the same family each time.

The Minister will appreciate our fundamental concern that it costs £12 million to run the enforcement unit, yet it is recovering only £8 million. This is an area that the Government will wish to address in the immediate future with their reforms. The Minister was admirably honest in explaining the administrative chaos and the failure to enforce maintenance payments. All of us will be able to speak with much more authority when we see the fruits of the chief executive's review.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

My experience of enforcement suggests that the figures might be misleading. In many cases the enforcement procedure starts and the parent subject to the procedure makes a couple of payments and then stops. There seems to be a huge delay in restarting the enforcement procedure, and the parent who should be receiving the money gets no benefit from it.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. That may be the problem, but the Liberal Democrats have not come up with the solution. To pass the whole assessment and collection process to the Inland Revenue is flawed in one fundamental way, and that concerns the self-employed. I will take them out of the equation for the purposes of this argument, but even if an absent parent were in full-time employment, it will only be at the end of the year—particularly if he or she is in seasonal work or there are fluctuations in income—when the P35, and not, we hope, the P45, is issued that the Inland Revenue will be in a position to know what that person's income is before an assessment can be made. That is a fundamental flaw that I believe cannot be overcome.

Photo of John MacDougall John MacDougall Labour, Glenrothes

Does the hon. Lady agree that the CSA's goals were not clear when it was set up and that there was confusion about who should be targeted? In my constituency, the people who do not get caught are those who are on the move all the time. Agency staff try to build a case to catch a person, only to find that the person has moved on. They have to start all over again, and that is very frustrating. One case in my area has lasted four years. That is not the norm, but when we talk about improvements we must remember where we started from. The Government have made significant improvements in the CSA, but the trouble is that such a poor start was made that they are not catching up with the problems.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech. Interventions should be brief.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am sure that we would all like to give some thought to what Mr. MacDougall said, but the Minister was refreshingly honest about the problems to do with the assessment. He said that the computer problems were not teething problems, but resulted from fundamental defects in the system.

Collection management is another problem, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes noted. Still another is enforcement: inevitably, some people cannot pay, while others will not. At Work and Pensions questions last week, I made the point that the CSA is extremely good at chasing those absent parents who had been identified and who were making payments, but that difficulties arose when such people had to be reassessed as a result of changing circumstances. The CSA was set up with all-party support. I am not convinced that it is meeting its targets in respect of finding absent parents who do not wish to be found. I am sure that the Prime Minister and the Minister will agree that there is much room for improvement in that regard.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

My hon. Friend may be about to deal with the question of enforcement, which is the key to improving the CSA's performance. Absent parents who refuse to pay often go underground and become part of the black economy. HMRC is unlikely to be the solution to that problem, as it is unlikely to capture such people anyway.

I do not want to make a speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but a case in my constituency has gone on for six years. The sum involved is £18,000 and the person who should pay it was the cheque writer in the company for which he worked. He refused to authorise the payments, turned self-employed and then went into the black economy. Many hon. Members will be aware of similar stories. My argument is that the Minister must deal with improving the CSA's powers of enforcement.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes his point very well. The CSA's failure, or inability, in respect of enforcement is the key problem, and the Government must tackle it. The agency's failure to enforce maintenance payments from defaulting absent parents has left parents with care unable to support their children.

There have also been administrative errors, as the Minister rightly noted. About 25 per cent. of parents with care are not getting the moneys to which they are entitled, and thus depend on benefits such as the absent parent payment. The Minister also mentioned the problem of uncollected payments, but other difficulties include incorrect payments and the failed audit. The independent case examiner has alerted the House to the massive increase in the number of complaints in that regard.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Many hon. Members have set out the various complex issues that can arise in any case, but does the hon. Lady agree that the rise in the number of complaints might also result from the straightforward cases that appear to go wrong? I have constituency cases in which absent parents have made their maintenance payments diligently and on time, often for several years. However, CSA assessments have not taken account of those payments, with the result that the figure set for arrears is entirely wrong and the complaints start rolling in. Does she agree that at the heart of the problem is the fact that the CSA is failing with simple cases as well as complex ones?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I hope that it will be acted on. Sometimes the simplest cases can turn into the most complicated.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Lady has set out clearly some of the problems of the CSA. Does she agree that

"it is not properly suited to carry out its task."?

If so, what alternative proposals does the Conservative party have for its replacement?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall conclude with a four-point Conservative plan—[Hon. Members: "Ooh!"] That promise may come back to haunt me. Our plan is much punchier than the rather short motion, which sets out the problem in inane terms. The motion states that the House

"agrees with the Prime Minister"— although I find it very difficult to do that—

"that the Child Support Agency has lost the confidence of the public, that its basic structural problems remain and that it is not properly suited to carry out its task."

The Minister has identified the task ahead, and key to delivering on that task is the computer system. Where we part company from the Liberal Democrats—it is why they will remain the minor third party for some substantial time to come—is on the point that if the computer system provided by a company, in this case EDS, is not working for one agency, it is unlikely to transfer to another without problems. I also have reservations because assessments of maintenance payments cannot be made if one has to wait for the P35 at the end of the year. That will cause further delays.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Does the hon. Lady accept the point that we are making in recommending that HM Revenue and Customs take over the CSA, which is the point that others, such as Resolution, have made? It is that the siting of the agency within HMRC will remove duplication and improve the flow of data about income between the agency and HMRC. Is not that the essential point?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

There is another approach that I shall come to in a moment, if I may test the hon. Gentleman's patience.

The Minister was right to say that the agency had had more than just teething problems with the computer system. It was delivered late, some 18 months after the original date. It continues to fail families and, as recently as January 2005, 250,000 cases were stuck in the system. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman said that the figure was now 300,000. The computer system was described by the Work and Pensions Committee as "defective" and the then Committee Chairman said that such systems

"are an appalling waste of public money and cause distress to thousands of people".

I agree with the Minister that we are where we are, and we must now move forward. In addition to the problems caused by the computer system are those caused by migration. Indeed, the Committee's report asked the Minister to put a date on migration, but I think that we are still waiting. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mrs. McGuire, can give us a date when she winds up. The transfer of customers from the old to the present computer base is also causing delay and concern. Figures from the CSA September quarterly statistics show that the current case load is enormous—I will not even mention the number—and that 65 per cent. of cases are in the old scheme, with 35 per cent. in the new scheme, while 306,000, or 21 per cent., have not yet even progressed to the point of calculation and assessment; and that 261,000 applications in the new scheme have not been cleared.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West

I, too, am intrigued by the old system versus the new one. I have many constituents sitting impatiently in the old system waiting to go over to the new one. Does the hon. Lady agree that once the new system is up and running it will ease the burden and that far fewer cases will go through the clerical route? That was originally intended to be the fallback position, but has become the norm. Pressure on the system would be eased, as would pressure on the hard-pressed staff about whom we have heard.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I do not know whether the Minister will agree but I am rapidly coming to the view that I should advise constituents to stay on the old system until substantial progress has been made under the new one. Perhaps the Minister would like to give a date for migration during this debate, because false hopes have been raised for constituents of all Members. Short of a date, remarkable improvements need to be made in handling the computer system. I hope, too, that the Minister responding to the debate will at least mention the 0.8 million telephone calls that have not been returned. There may be a good reason for that, but House should know what it is.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

There is much misinformation among the agency's clients about migration. Even for people who migrate from the old to the new system there are tapering payments, and as it takes so long to migrate, many who do so will never obtain the payments that they would have received under the new system due to the age of their children.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to respond to it.

The Minister told us about the catalogue of missed targets. The Select Committee report showed that not one of the targets had been reached. Paragraph 31 stated:

"The Committee believes that the failure to achieve any of the Ministerial targets for the new scheme is totally unacceptable and in the opinions expressed forcefully by One Parent Families represents nothing less than a severe breach of trust."

The Committee related that failure to the increasing incidence of complaints to the independent case examiner.

As I said, we do not expect that the solution will be easy or that there can be a quick fix, but we are not convinced that the Inland Revenue is the answer. Its computer system shares many of the faults and defects of the CSA system and the Revenue has the disadvantage of not knowing a person's total income until the year end.

The Conservatives want to help parents with care and to set people free, thereby saving money for the benefits system, and thus the state, while making parents live up to their responsibilities. Obviously, two parents are always better than one, but the CSA has to deal with the situation to the best of its ability and I am sure that the House agrees that the system should be improved. The question is what those improvements should be, and I should like to go through them.

The case for the CSA was agreed with all-party support when it was set up in 1993. Wherever possible, children should be supported financially by both parents, rather than by the taxpayer, and the agency should play a key role in providing financial support to enable lone parents to get out of the benefit trap and into work.

I should like to place on record the reason we believe that the Liberal Democrat policy, in so far as it was set out—

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am coming to that, if the hon. Gentleman will just be patient.

We obviously look forward—I am sure that all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate will do so enthusiastically—to visiting the Liberal Democrat website to find out when the document might be in place. However, we believe that changing the responsible Department is not the answer. It is not enough simply to point out that the Australian child support system operates under the Taxation Office and works well for reasons that the Minister correctly identified. The Australian Child Support Agency owes its success to a number of other factors that are lacking in the UK system, including continuity of case management. I hope that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead will accept that, rather than the point about caseworkers, the continuity of case management and having access to one person who is in charge of the case are the important factors.

As I said earlier, we already know that the CSA is seriously struggling. The Government are struggling to administer the tax credit system, but I will not go there today because we are all as familiar with the tax credits scenario as we are with the child support system. The well-publicised IT system failure led to 1.9 million people being overpaid and a further 700,000 were unpaid. The Inland Revenue already has collection problems, and the National Audit Office has commented that the need for more hands to sort out the tax credit problem has left the PAYE system under-staffed.

The hon. Member for Yeovil has criticised the Inland Revenue's performance and, as recently as yesterday—I know that a day is a long time in politics—called for an independent investigation into tax credit fraud. We are slightly bemused about how he can support giving more responsibility to that Department when he questioned its performance as recently as yesterday.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Is the hon. Lady really saying that she has a fundamental objection to the collection of child maintenance resting with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, or is she simply saying that, because that Department has problems at present, now is not the time to make the transition?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I personally have a fundamental problem with transferring responsibility from the Department, for the reasons that I have spent the past few minutes setting out. Computer problems are common to both Departments, so nothing would be gained by such a transfer—one set of harassed staff would be swapped for another. Another fundamental issue is that we cannot expect the person who is awaiting an assessment for payment from the absent parent—that is, the parent with care—to wait until the year end before the Inland Revenue can work out what the absent parent's total income was in that year. For those reasons—the computer issue and the income issue—such a transfer is simply not the way to proceed.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I wish to comment quickly on two points that the hon. Lady has made. She compares the tax credit system with the CSA's problems, but surely the problem with tax credits is that underpayment and overpayment are built into the system. That is not a matter of organisational failure in the way that we suggest is the case with the CSA. She implies that the computer problems are comparable to those in the Inland Revenue. However, the Inland Revenue deals with an enormously larger number of cases and I receive almost no complaints about its systems, certainly not from my surgery case load.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I should be very happy to share with the hon. Gentleman the complaints that are made to me about the system. I have personally dealt with a number of cases in which the absent parent's assessment of what he is due to pay has changed, but the CSA has simply not been able to react quickly enough to change the assessment and the parent has been overpaying. It is incredibly difficult to recover that money, particularly when the absent parent's income fluctuates.

In a spirit of helpfulness and co-operation and in the consensual nature of the debate, I wish to set out what we believe the policies must focus on. First, resolving chronic IT problems must be a priority, but it is difficult to do that for the reasons that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and others have set out. It is difficult for the House to have a full understanding of the situation, especially because it has not had sight of the Child Support Agency IT contract and hon. Members are thus not aware of the full nature of the problem. I make a plea to the Minister and the Department to give us sight of the contract so that we can find out whether the problems are more contractual, or related to delivery.

Secondly, we would like to improve management. We should rely heavily on the conclusions of the Select Committee report from January 2005. The report focuses on the lack of monitoring, supervision and training of management, and we owe it to the CSA staff to give them all those three things. I think that the Minister would not disagree that the agency lacks leadership, direction and an ethos that would allow the problems to be resolved. The Government need to address the problem, and then the new management must sort out the internal administrative mayhem that is causing so much confusion for parents and staff alike.

There should be greater focus on compliance and enforcement. I disassociate myself from the gimmick of tagging. I believe that there have been only eight cases in which a driving licence has been suspended and only five cases in the past year in which a driving licence has been physically removed. Why have the Government been so slow to use the clear enforcement procedures—the punishments—that are already in place?

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

On enforcement, what is the Conservative party's position on cherry-picking? That is inevitable when there is a huge backlog of cases, because a case manager will choose those that are easiest to deal with. I know of two cases that highlight the situation. I can trump Mr. Dunne because I know of a case that has been going on for 11 years. The woman is owed the huge amount of £20,000—I do not know whether anyone can top that—and the man is self-employed. He is in and out of the labour market, moves house a lot and has a lot of different partners, so it is difficult to find him and the agency is not prepared to make much of an effort. However, the CSA is still chasing a man who is voluntarily overpaying his ex-partner, even though it has evidence that he is paying the money, so there is an administrative error that is not being dealt with. How would the Conservatives deal with very easy and very hard cases?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

We will not flinch from making difficult choices. When I read last year's excellent Work and Pensions Committee report, I was struck by the fact , as the Minister set out, that we are asking agency staff and officers to work in difficult conditions. Two ladies from the CSA who came along to my surgery were virtually threatened by an otherwise mild-mannered gentleman—he was mild mannered when he came into the surgery, but certainly not when he went out. Training, monitoring and supervision are of key importance.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

It seems to me that although we can talk about changing systems, we often forget that the thing works at a minute level. Our caseworkers require a great deal of sensitivity and finesse. We often forget to put training in place to allow that sensitivity and finesse to be displayed for our benefit, as taxpayers. Will my hon. Friend urge the Government to address the matter because we have not spent the necessary time on that delicate area?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. He speaks with great passion and with his experience in business, so I hope that the Government will act on what he says.

Thirdly, we should foster better relationships between agency staff and both parents—the parent with care and the absent parent. The agency must allow assigned staff members to establish continuity of contact with both parents, instead of having a situation in which parents deal with a new member of staff each time they contact the agency. In its January 2005 report, the Select Committee rightly identified that approach as the one that works so well in the Australian system.

Fourthly, we would identify the functions that could be better provided by the private sector. That idea has not yet been mentioned in the debate, but I hope that it will find support on both sides of the House. Key public services should be free at the point of delivery, but there is no reason why they should not be provided by the private sector. We must consider whether some of the agency's work could be carried out by others more suited to the task—for example, the enforcement function.

We have had a good start to the debate and I look forward to hearing other speakers. I hope that the Minister will see fit to share the conclusions of the review with the House as soon as possible, perhaps even before we are told the nature of the Government's proposed solutions.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 5:25 pm, 17th January 2006

I, like other hon. Members, congratulate the Liberal Democrats on choosing for today's debate a subject that affects too many of our constituents, who will be following the debate with considerable interest.

It was a pleasure to sit on the Government Benches listening to the Minister treat the House of Commons as though it is composed of grown-ups rather than children. His speech was serious and considered.

I congratulate Miss McIntosh; this is the first time that I have heard her open a debate for the official Opposition and I am a great admirer of her skills. I fear, however, that she wrote her speech before she had heard how careful the Minister was in what he said and did not say. The way in which she committed the Conservative party to the Child Support Agency reminds me of a comment made by David Steel, now Lord Steel, when a prominent Liberal supporter left the Liberals to join another party: he said that he thought it was the first time in history that a rat had a joined a sinking ship. That may well be the position in which the Conservatives find themselves when they read the Minister's speech carefully.

Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the staff of the CSA. I have not seen the figures that the Minister has showing an increase, and a planned increase, in the number of staff working for the CSA, but I was going to suggest a reason why their number was falling. When the agency was created, people from the private sector and the public sector joined it with huge enthusiasm because they thought it had a desirable objective—to ensure that people pay maintenance when maintenance is due—and that they would get considerable job satisfaction from working for it. Given that we have provided them with a broken-backed IT system, it is hugely to their credit that so many of them continue to try to provide a first-class service and turn up each day to do probably the most stressful job in the public sector.

I was heartened by the Minister's speech. The Government now have the chief executive's report, although the Minister has wisely decided not to let us see it before the Government have come up with their proposals. I would be very surprised if the chief executive did not accept that his agency has deep-seated problems, which the Minister set out in a serious way, and if he did not accompany his acceptance of that analysis with a request for more money. I hope that the Government do not follow the line that the Opposition have advocated. I hope that they do not believe that the service can be patched up and that another huge tranche of taxpayers' money should be directed to an end that I believe is unachievable.

If the chief executive wants another £500 million of taxpayers' money, I would prefer it to be given to the mothers and children who do not get their maintenance. We should not try to find the end of the rainbow and think that EDS—if only we feed the company more money—will come up with an IT system that is fit for purpose.

So when we hear the Government statement, I hope that we will get two things from them. First, how can we improve this broken-backed system to provide a better service for claimants in the foreseeable future? There is no way in which long-term reform can be introduced at a moment's notice. Secondly, how do we turn our attention to that serious long-term reform?

Some of the contributions have already suggested to the Minister short-term measures that might help the agency perform better. My hon. Friend Linda Gilroy suggested taking out of the day-to-day management of the system—or attempt to manage the system—what she euphemistically called complicated cases. Birkenhead constituents would have another name for fathers with multiple cases before the CSA. If those cases were dealt with by a special unit, that might help the running of the rest of the agency. My constituents might also suggest some sanctions that should be applied to such gentlemen, who might have up to 10 children by different partners, but parliamentary protocol prevents me from suggesting what that solution might be.

As a further suggestion, is it possible to move over from the old system to the new system all those who, under the old system, have nil assessments? Most of those would be people who were on benefit when the assessment was made. Under the new system, all of them will be required to make a small contribution. Could not they as a group be moved over, or is the agency's IT system such that it cannot talk to the IT system of Jobcentre Plus? Is that the real reason why some of the obvious ways of immediately and significantly improving the performance of such a broken-backed agency are not encouraged?

When the hon. Member for Vale of York was advocating the private sector, I thought that she would roll up her sleeves and make some suggestions. As she failed to do so, let me come to her aid. We should look to the private sector to help the agency trace parents for whom we have no addresses. Perhaps foolishly, I suggested in the House that we should call such personnel bounty hunters. I did not realise that the then Secretary of State would find that too shocking a suggestion. In this country we usually speak of bailiffs. Surely there is nothing to be lost by telling the private sector, "If you can find these people, you get paid. If you don't find them, there is no fee. Finding them and getting the first payments made will attract a very substantial sum indeed."

Those are three suggestions that Ministers might consider when trying to patch up what is recognised in two parts of the House, if not the third, to be a broken-backed system that will not be made to work and is not for fit for purpose.

When I read the Order Paper this morning, I had considerable sympathy for the position in which Balfour found himself when he led the Tory party, which was riven asunder by the issue of tariff reform—so much so that one Liberal Member of the day, hearing the then Prime Minister again trying to appease both sides of his party, said that the Prime Minister had once again come to the House and nailed his colours to the fence.

Looking at the Order Paper, I wondered how anybody could not vote for the Liberal Democrat motion. I then read our amendment and wondered how anybody could not vote for that. It is the first time that our side has responded with a degree of wit when tabling amendments to the main motion. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will vote for the amendment, and that our side will pay the compliment of voting for the substantive motion.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Is the right hon. Gentleman encouraging Labour Members to support our motion when it is put to the House?

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

Labour Members should support the Government amendment, but if it is not carried we should support the Liberal Democrat motion.

The serious message that we want the Government to take away from this debate is that the problems with the CSA are so deep-seated that radical solutions are required when the Government introduce their programme of reform. Although the number of people coming to my constituency surgery to complain about the CSA has dropped, it is not because the CSA is working better—it is because those people have given up hope of obtaining redress.

I approach this debate with sadness and shame. I am sad that I did not persuade my side to embrace radical reform in 1998 and accept that we could not patch up the system and that all new money would be wasted. I am ashamed because when I walk around the market in my constituency, people who came to me with CSA cases when their children were young no longer talk to me—in many cases, those children have left school, but their mothers have not received a penny from the CSA. I am ashamed that I have not been more effective in this place in achieving the radical reform of the CSA, because we could have brought hope to those families. After the Government announce their programme of reform, I hope that we will not have to hang our heads in shame at how the service performs, but it is only by thinking outside the box that that might become a possibility.

When the Government make their announcement, I hope that they say that they are seriously considering using the Inland Revenue rather than adopting the casework approach favoured by the Opposition of taking complicated cases with all their details over to the Inland Revenue system. If we move to an Inland Revenue system for enforcing maintenance, we must realise that it will be crude. We cannot build in all sorts of circumstances for the Revenue to take into account before it computes maintenance, because we will move from working out a benefit to working out a tax rate.

The Government should examine converting maintenance payments to x pence in addition to the standard rate of tax for each single child, 2x pence for two children, 3x pence for three children and so on, in which case we would not have to lobby the agency about special circumstances that it should take into account before our constituents pay maintenance. Such a system would be crude, but it would be more effective, because more money would be delivered. It would also allow CSA staff to get on with what I thought they would spend the vast majority of their time doing when we first debated the agency—trying to ensure that the will of this House is enforced when it comes to supporting children.

I want to say again how impressed I was by my hon. Friend the Minister's contribution, which it would pay the Opposition a huge dividend to read carefully tomorrow. From what the Minister has said, the Government have clearly moved on from the bunker mentality that they must defend the agency at all costs—the staff know that the Government are sympathetic given their task. The shame that I feel when I greet constituents who are yet to receive a penny in support is not because the staff have failed, but because this House of Commons has failed to set up an agency that at least has a chance of success, which is what I will look for when the Government introduce their big reform programme.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, Scotland 5:39 pm, 17th January 2006

I am sure that I am not the only Member in the Chamber to be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. With the possible exception of newly elected Members, many of us have been here before. We have heard different Members stand up and speak on behalf of their constituents and seen different faces fielding questions at the Dispatch Box.

Sadly, however, things have not improved. The Child Support Agency is still failing in its principal aim—to ensure that children whose parents do not live together are financially supported in a fair and just manner. The last time we debated the issue in this place, the CSA was failing to meet that aim. I would have liked nothing better than to come here today to congratulate the Minister, on behalf of my constituents, on achieving real progress and improvements in the system. However, the Minister will not be shocked to learn that I am unable to do so. The CSA has been a constant source of pain and misery for my constituents from the day on which I was elected in 2001 right up to my most recent surgery appointment last Friday. I would be hard pushed to say that I have noticed any real improvement in the system in the past five years. For as long as the CSA remains, hon. Members will continue to see problem cases in their surgeries and Ministers should expect to respond time and again to debates such as this.

I compliment my hon. Friend Mr. Laws on his excellent introductory speech. In the Liberal Democrat 10-point plan that he mentioned, it is all summed up in the first sentence, which, under the heading, "Proposed Solutions", says that we believe that the existing agency should be scrapped. There are nine more detailed points, which I am sure that the Minister will mention when winding up.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recall the cross-party support that greeted the Child Support Act 1991 and the subsequent creation of the CSA. When it was established, it was supposed to be a mechanism for fairness and justice; in reality, it has proved to be a failing organisation that is ill-suited to its task and unable to help those who need it most. The unavoidable fact is that not only is it not working as well as it should, but that for many people it has never worked well, and for others it has been a complete disaster. The figures tell their own story. In the past four years, there have been 35,000 cases of maladministration. Unpaid maintenance is running at £1.7 billion. However, I will not concentrate too much on the figures, because we will become embroiled in squabbles about their authenticity, partly because we have heard them all before. The more important reason why we must not allow quarrels over statistics to hide the real stories lies in the details of those stories of hardship and misery caused to those dependent on the CSA.

Perhaps the most extraordinary case that I have come across was that of one of my constituents, whose case is rumbling on five years after her original application. In 2000, she gave the CSA all the necessary documents. After hearing nothing for several weeks, she contacted it again, only to be told that it had no documents about her and she should send them off again. A few days later, she received a letter from the CSA returning the very documents that it had told her that it did not have and asking for more information. She phoned the Hastings office to be told that it was dealt with at Falkirk; Falkirk told her that it was being dealt with at Hastings. Such stories do little to inspire confidence in the system. Eventually, my constituent's papers were found in the Hastings office and a maintenance calculation was made, but no payments were ever forthcoming. The CSA kept on adding the missed payments on to arrears. Unsurprisingly, those payments were not made either.

Two years after the original application was made, the CSA got round to making a liability order to the sheriff's office. It took another year for a public auction of the ex-partner's office goods to be organised. At that auction, he handed over a £1,000 cheque to the CSA, but it was no surprise to hear later that it bounced.

While all this was taking place, my constituent rightly queried the exact amount of child maintenance awarded by the agency. She advised the CSA that her former husband had a variety of properties for which he received income and that he was in full-time work. Yet those figures were not included in the CSA's calculation. To this day, it appears that it never carried out proper investigations to verify the former wife's claims.

Such delays are bad enough but the case highlights two further systemic problems with the CSA that I wish to raise. First, the agency often takes the former partner's declaration of income at face value. That is often a particular problem—to which the Under-Secretary referred—when the former partner is self-employed and it is difficult to verify the profits and income independently.

I came across another case that involved a former husband who claimed that his income was £100 a week, on which the CSA calculated maintenance. Yet he had a new car, had recently been on holiday and had bought a new house. Is it possible that the CSA accepts the figures too easily and does not conduct proper investigations, which would find that no one who lives on £100 a week could have that lifestyle?

That leads to the second problem: the former partners—the women—often have to become detectives. Lack of action by the agency means that the parents with the care of their children must sometimes turn into private investigators. They have to prove that the income of the non-resident parent is higher than is declared, rather than the non-resident parent having to prove that their income is as low as they claim. That simply cannot be right.

Last Friday, I met a constituent, Jacqueline Peterson, to discuss her continuing problems with the CSA. Mrs. Peterson was divorced in 2003 and has had to follow up her former husband's activity. He is now remarried to a Russian internet bride, has bought a brand new hotel and a new house and runs around in a Mercedes, yet his CSA calculations are based on his income of less than £5 a week. Mrs. Peterson has been given no award. Perhaps the least that could be done is the withdrawal of his driving licence to stop him running about in his Mercedes.

In my experience, that is not an isolated incident. In too many cases, the CSA has taken the word of one parent—often the father—as gospel and left the other, who is inevitably the mother, to chase up further details. She has to fight effectively to clear her name and is guilty until proven innocent. The CSA was not supposed to be about that. The fact that those women do not go screaming from roof tops, crane tops or Buckingham palace does not mean that they do not suffer or are any less deserving of justice for themselves and their children.

I appreciate that other hon. Members are keen to speak and I shall therefore watch the time. Let me briefly mention IT. Other hon. Members have referred to the Work and Pensions Committee report, which was fairly damning about the new computer system. The costs and the cases have been well documented. Like other hon. Members, I do not believe that the problem is due to the front-line staff. Last year, I visited the CSA call centre in Falkirk and it was clear to me that the staff are not the villains in the story. Staff turnover and sickness rates are testament to the pressures under which they operate. Unfortunately, the price of the excess pressure is paid by people who rely on the system.

What is the latest position regarding staffing levels at the CSA? The Under-Secretary's figures do not compute exactly with those given in written parliamentary answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil.

Last year, I was given information about the company behind the much-maligned IT system. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will understand my concern at being told that the bottleneck of cases, which clogs up the computer system, was not caused purely by the system but by the Government's unwillingness to employ the necessary number of staff because of their fixation with reducing the number of civil servants. I was informed that IT suppliers were more than willing to take the rap for the CSA failings in order to secure far more lucrative contracts in future, including providing the IT system for the proposed identity card scheme.

Although it is right to understand why the CSA has failed and to apportion blame if necessary, that does not change the fact that the system fails those whose well-being it is supposed to safeguard. It does not matter whether the Under-Secretary decides to blame staff management or the previous Conservative Government. The harsh reality is that the CSA is riddled with failings. There is little point in giving a building a new lick of paint if the foundations have been poorly laid. The system makes life worse for people who are already in difficult circumstances. Indeed, I have heard claims that the CSA may be the biggest administrative disaster in the history of the welfare state.

The Minister will know of my party's long-standing policy to abolish the CSA and to move its assessment and enforcement functions to the Inland Revenue. Given the amount of cross-checking with the Inland Revenue that the CSA needs to do—but does not always carry out—that would seem an entirely practical and sensible solution. I accept that the situation will not be remedied overnight. However, this is a serious proposition and could provide the kind of government that this Labour Administration are so fond of. The fact is that far too many children are not getting the money that they need and deserve. Clearly, that is often the fault of the absent parent, but the Minister must nevertheless accept that, in too many cases—tens of thousands of them—children are not getting the help that they need because of the direct failure of the CSA to act quickly, effectively or at all. I keep hearing about the Prime Minister's eagerness to secure a political legacy. If he is looking for ideas, might I suggest that putting the CSA out of its misery would be a good place to start?

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South 5:50 pm, 17th January 2006

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I should like to remind the House that more than 600,000 children are benefiting from child maintenance payments today as a result of the Child Support Agency's work. We should not drop the agency as carelessly and indifferently as has been proposed by the Liberal Democrats. I should like to put it on the record that I have worked with many CSA officers over nearly nine years. They have visited my office in Stockton from Falkirk, and delivered in a careful and considered way to many of my constituents. They have resolved many of their problems, and it is important to remember that if we carelessly underestimate and undermine their profession, we will reap the reward.

My first real statement to the House this afternoon is about the effect of family breakdowns on children. The CSA does not cause those breakdowns, and I am well aware that it cannot mend them. I chair the all-party group on adoption and fostering and I take a keen interest in children's policy. I should like to remind the House of some of the most hideous situations that can arise when a father walks out. Children are left, suddenly and without explanation, and they do not understand why. They feel totally unloved. That situation becomes infinitely worse when the child begins to realise not only that their father has walked out—95 per cent. of non-resident parents who have walked out are men—but that he is now deliberately going to evade his responsibilities. Such situations have a marked effect on children, not only at the time but throughout their life.

Children often have to come to terms with the fact that their father is still living in the same town while claiming not to. He might actually be avoiding meeting them, yet they know that he is there. I have evidence of cases in which the father works abroad for a period of time then comes back, yet, as far as his responsibilities to his children are concerned, his family are invisible to him. This is a serious and significant problem, but we should not forget that more than 600,000 children are now being supported by the CSA.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrats demonstrate a touching faith in suggesting that the obligation for the non-resident parent—usually the father—to notify changes of employment and residence would have a significant effect? Does that not underestimate the ingenuity and deviousness of many non-resident parents? Does it not also fail to recognise the nature of the economy—self-employment, agency work, casual or freelance work—in which many of them work? They often lack the kind of permanent employment that could provide the necessary links to the CSA.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. One of the most difficult issues is that some men are capable of becoming completely invisible to those who would ensure that they fulfil their responsibilities.

I speak from experience this afternoon. We have heard it said time and again that the CSA—which, implicitly, means its officers—is totally failing. However, I suggest that it is the determinedly clever men—who know all the tricks in the book and who will evade whatever system we introduce—who are the problem. We have given the CSA's officers an impossibly difficult task to perform. The Minister spoke earlier with great care, and I was pleased to hear the cautious and careful way in which he was prepared to suggest reforms to the CSA. I want to suggest to him that the agency should separate the families in which the men are deliberately evading their responsibilities, and take them out of the system altogether. Let us then look at a system that could specifically respond to those circumstances.

Alternatively, we should give the CSA investigatory powers to ensure that it can authorise surveillance to produce the evidence to stop the evasion. I want to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that such an approach is essential.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Whip

The hon. Lady says that part of the problem is the determination of some non-resident parents to evade making payments. One way of forcing such parents to pay is to issue a liability order. However, a key problem with the system is that, while a liability order is progressing and someone is paying off their arrears, they cannot be made to pay their regular monthly payments. Arrears therefore continue to build up, and further applications have to be made for liability orders. Does the hon. Lady accept that non-resident parents are not the only problem, and that these basic flaws in the system also play a part?

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

I agree with the hon. Lady. I would not for a minute want to stand here and say that the system had integrity. It has many problems. However, CSA officers are handling 1.4 million cases. That figure grows exponentially every year, yet everyone wants their own case to be handled immediately. The system does not have integrity, but I am delighted that my Government are reviewing it and I hope that we shall come up with solutions that all of us can live with.

It is crucial that we all speak from our own experience, and I have had nearly nine years' experience of handling problems with the CSA, in different ways at different times. I must stress to the Minister that investigatory powers and significant resources should be given to the CSA. It should have the right to pay for surveillance activity. It should have the ability to follow up leads, for example, and to access people's mobile phone records.

Many of the women I speak to have expressed their enormous distress at being hounded on their mobile phones because their former partner has their number. I tell them to change their SIM card, but that is easy for me to say. I have an income, so I can afford to do that. Most of these women are stuck, and cannot afford the cost of changing their number. They are therefore resistant to the idea of getting rid of their phone, even though the former partners are hounding them. We ask the police to check a mobile phone's records, but they say that they need to be paid to do so. The CSA has no ability to pay the police to check mobile phone records. I want it to be able to say to the Inland Revenue, "We want this information now. We want this person to be tracked." But it does not have the power to authorise that. The Minister has stated today that there are problems of enforcement, and of course I agree with him. However, we cannot talk about enforcement in a vacuum. We must examine the way in which investigations should proceed.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

May I make a plea to my hon. Friend, whose argument I am following carefully? Will she make a comparison between what happens in our local authorities when people do not pay their council tax and what happens with the CSA? In Wirral, people who do not pay their council tax go before the court. Even if they do not turn up, a charge is made against them, and the bailiffs are then sent in to recover the money. Why should we expect CSA staff to take on the role of bailiff? There is a service there; surely we want to embrace it.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

I want to move on. Many people speak as though the old system, which is extremely complex and dysfunctional, is the problem and the new system will, somewhere along the line, give us opportunities. I do not think that anyone has said that in the Chamber this afternoon. Of course, many fathers say it to me because they think they will be paying less, but the people involved in only 12 of my cases under the old system want to be on the new one. I have a multitude of new cases that remain up in the air because we are struggling to get the appropriate evidence to make the errant father pay up.

I want carefully and without naming names to outline two cases that are so valuable in terms of what I believe we need to be doing. Mrs. X was married for eight and a half years. Her husband left her; she had a son of six. The child is now 16 and she is owed £50,000 in arrears. This is an abysmal situation. The husband, Mr. X, claims to earn £22,000. The fact is that he works for an American company in Dubai and earns £52,000. He lives in a house worth £300,000 and has a mortgage for £215,000. That is evidence, but we cannot get it on paper. Because we cannot present that evidence on paper, we cannot get that man to pay up. In two years, Mr. X will have worked it brilliantly. The child will be 18 and there will be no more responsibility. It is highly likely that the child will go to university, and it will be the taxpayer who pays.

I have another case, which I will describe to the House because I am so thrilled. It involves Mrs. Y, who took on Mr. Y with great support from the CSA. However, its investigatory powers are poor. This man claimed not to be working, but he works for an American company abroad and moves around a lot. She found out where he was living and checked on him. How she got the information I do not know, but she managed to produce concrete evidence of this person's income. She found that out; the CSA does not have the investigatory powers to do so.

Mrs. Y discovered where Mr. Y was living, produced a marriage certificate and obtained his mobile phone records. This woman should be employed by the CSA. She is one serious bit of kit.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

Mrs. Y now has sufficient evidence and the CSA has brought a case against Mr. Y. Enforcement action has been successful. I have a multitude of such cases, and I ask the Minister to consider investigatory powers.

No wonder CSA officers feel stressed; if they have heard much of what has been said in the debate, they will be feeling even more stressed. I meet them each month at my Stockton office. They have a clear sense of professionalism and they are determined to deliver, wherever and however, for the families, most particularly the children. I say to the House, please remember that CSA officers are handling 1.4 million cases, and that figure is growing. They are supporting more than 600,000 children and have collected £4.5 billion in maintenance.

I have pleaded for the Minister to consider investigation. I also suggest that he take out of the system the multi-difficulty cases involving those who are deliberately avoiding and evading, and who will continue to do so. Equally, let us put in the system people who want to pay—those who have a responsibility and who feel it appropriate—but properly, through the organisation. We must remember that when marriages break down, speaking to each other decently becomes more and more difficult. We should not think that having two families to care for is easy.

We need a system whereby the decent parent can feel reassured that his payments are appropriate and are going to the children. This is the plea of all pleas: if Mrs. Y is not to be employed by the CSA—

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

As chief executive, as my right hon. Friend says. If Mrs. Y is not to be employed by the CSA, let us hope that we can get the IT system working, because we are putting too many children and vulnerable youngsters in too many unstable families due to a situation that they should never have to face. Frankly, we as a society will rue the day if we are unable to put this right.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 6:05 pm, 17th January 2006

As I said in an intervention, I have dealt with the Child Support Agency for some 13 years, first as a solicitor and then as a Member of Parliament. I remember as a solicitor dealing with many cases relating to child maintenance and divorce. I found them the most emotionally draining to deal with, although I dealt with lots of other things as well. I cannot imagine what it is like to go into a CSA office day after day to deal with nothing but such cases. It must be a terribly stressful job, and I have a great deal of respect for the staff who do that.

I reiterate what was said by Ms Taylor: the staff should not be attacked, as it is not their fault that there is a problem with the agency. They are dealing with a very difficult situation. I understand that there is quite a large turnover of staff at the Falkirk office. That is partly because of the stress of the job—it is not surprising. I must also say to the Minister that these are probably not the best paid jobs in the civil service. We all know what is wrong with the agency.

I also mentioned earlier a report in Scotland's Sunday Mail, which describes the famous report from Stephen Geraghty, which we have not seen, as a

"damning report" that

"calls for the agency's work to be shared between other Government departments."

The article is headed, "We Don't Deserve Any More Support, Boss Says CSA Must Be Axed". I do not know whether he is saying that and the Minister will not tell us, but it is interesting that the counsel of despair has perhaps gone so far that the CSA's own boss does not see any great future for the agency. Having said that, I have some sympathy with the Minister's comments because, whatever we do, we have to have the CSA or something like it.

Every constituency MP will have filing cabinets full of cases involving the agency. Those are certainly the biggest component of my case load, although complaints about tax credits are fast catching up. That is my objection to the Liberal Democrat proposal: to transfer the agency's functions to the Inland Revenue seems to me to be the equivalent of wilfully leaping out of the frying pan directly into the fire.

The tax credit system is also failing those whom it is supposed to help. Indeed, several constituents have told me that they are so sickened by their treatment that they will no longer claim tax credits. That is a terrible indictment of the system. Adding to that chaos the chaos of the CSA would be insane. It should not be done.

There is also a practical problem: the CSA works with one computer system while the Inland Revenue works with another. Are those systems at all compatible? Can we transfer, one between the other, or are we to pay the famous EDS another massive sum for a computer system that can run both together?

As I also said earlier, the agency's problems go back to its very foundation. When the agency was established, there seemed to be no appreciation among those involved in setting it up of the lengths to which some parents will go to avoid taking responsibility for their children. In many cases and in many ways, it seemed that the agency almost tried to disguise that problem by concentrating on those who would pay, or at least pay something. That led to hundreds of cases in which huge arrears grew up, with little or nothing being done, although other parents were harassed by the agency. In my view, the agency has never got over that initial problem. What is in principle a good idea was undermined from the outset by its rushed introduction.

I asked some parliamentary questions about the number of cases of arrears in my relatively small rural constituency. I was told that 600 cases had been outstanding for more than three months in Angus alone, and 26,000 across Scotland as a whole. That is an appalling situation. One case, in which the problems are compounded by various appeals and reassessments, has been going on for 10 years and continues. The parent with care is at the end of her tether, and who can blame her? Another case, which is far from unique, was sent for enforcement and reached the stage at which the agency threatened the absent parent with imprisonment. He paid a little, and a schedule of payments was agreed. He paid for a couple of months and then stopped. Nothing was done. When action was eventually taken, the process started from scratch. Why on earth are such cases not rigorously monitored to ensure compliance? The answer in part, of course, is that there are not the staff to do it. Monitoring of compliance, however, is important.

It is not just the agency that is at fault. One of the problems is that the agency has the ability to take people to court for failing to provide information or providing false information, which is a criminal offence that can go to the sheriff court in Scotland. I understand from those working in the agency, however, that many such cases that are reported to the court are not proceeded with by the fiscals. There is an urgent need for a multi-agency approach to link up the agency with the court and to make sure that the court plays its part.

The Minister might think that it is my favourite reading, but there was another story in last Sunday's Sunday Mail—[Interruption.] I am trying hard. The case that it narrates is of someone who is owed £15,000 for a 14-year-old child. The case was taken to the court, but the sheriff decided that the father was

"a drinker and a gambler and did not have the money to pay her."

Again, that is a terrible indictment of what happens. If cases go from the CSA to the court, the court must play its part.

There are numerous cases with large outstanding arrears. When the Scottish Affairs Committee examined the agency a couple of years ago we were assured that the collection of arrears was a priority. It seems that nothing has changed in the interim, however. I still have constituents who are chasing huge arrears, and worse still, in one recent case, a constituent who had been chasing substantial arrears for two years was suddenly told, "Sorry, it's a mistake; no arrears are actually due." The information given by the agency to parents is often at fault. As has been pointed out, there is contradictory information in letters, saying that things are being done that are not done. The case might come back a couple of months later, questions are asked about why nothing is being done, and the chase starts again.

It is not just parents with care who have legitimate cause for complaint—there is the question of absent parents, not all of whom are trying to avoid payment. Indeed, in my experience, an awful lot of them accept that they must pay, but there are now at least two different systems, and in some cases there seem to be up to six operating in different areas. At least two are operating side by side, and people in identical situations can pay hugely different amounts. One constituent who contacted me recently pointed out that he was on the old system and was paying around £500 per month, while a work colleague in an identical situation who was on what I suppose we could still call a new system—although it is some three years since it should have been introduced—is paying less than £200. Such glaring and obvious inequalities fuel discontent and undermine the agency still further.

A steady stream of constituents have that complaint, and there is little that MPs can do. If we contact the Minister—I am sure that most of us have done it—we get the formulaic reply that it would be irresponsible to transfer old cases on to the new system until such time as there is certainty that the computer system is robust. That is fair enough, but how long does it take to get a robust computer system? It is now three years since the new system was introduced, and yet few cases have been transferred.

As I also pointed out earlier, it is worth noting to constituents that even being transferred to the new system might not necessarily help. There is a common misconception that many men, when they are transferred from the old to the new system, will immediately have a large fall in payments. That is not the case. There is a taper, and because of the delay in introducing the system many who have children in their teens will get no benefit from a transfer now. Even under the new system, one fifth of cases contain errors.

As I said, I have some sympathy with the Minister. I do not blame the Government for all the problems of the agency. They inherited a mess, but they have now had eight years and the mess does not seem to be getting much better. Urgent action is now needed. A fundamental root-and-branch reform of the agency is required. I do not have all the answers—I wish that I did, as perhaps I would be made chief executive, which I am sure is worth a lot more than standing here. When the new system was introduced, there was real hope that the mess would be tackled, but nothing seems to have improved.

I do not support the abolition of the agency, because, as I said, something would have to be put in its place—if not the agency, then something similar. We cannot go back to the old courts system. I cannot speak for the courts in England, but the courts in Scotland could not cope with a massive influx of child support cases. It would overwhelm the system and lead to utter collapse. The one point that the old system had in its favour, which struck me when the Minister outlined it, was an ability to have a quick interim assessment made on ex parte statements. If 300,000 cases are awaiting even the initial assessment, it seems to me that one way to get some speed into the system would be to reintroduce the interim assessment, either through the courts or some other agency, that will at least give a quick decision that will allow enforcement while a full investigation is made of the facts.

In a previous debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister gave an assurance that there would be no job cuts in the CSA until the problems had been sorted out. There have been various comings and goings about the numbers in the CSA, and I do not intend to enter into that argument. There is, however, a question of resources—we need people who can do the investigation, the calculation and the enforcement.

To ensure fairness, all cases need to be treated in the same way, to ensure that the pubic have confidence in the agency's methods. That means that we must go forward and move everybody on to the same system. To cut the Gordian knot, that must be done. We cannot continue with the complexity of different systems—an old computer system, a new computer system, a manual system and a part-manual system. I cannot understand why there are so many systems. The case of one constituent on the new system, for some reason that I could not understand, would not work on the computer, so it went back to a manual system, but she was told that she had to phone the agency every month to remind it to take the money and pay it into her bank account. That seems a bizarre way to proceed.

The agency has lost public confidence. Root-and-branch reform is necessary. I do not support a transfer to the Inland Revenue, which would be going from bad to worse. I can happily support the Liberal Democrat motion, because it does not provide a specific solution, and I can also happily support the Government's amendment, which recognises the difficulties with the agency. While it mentions Stephen Geraghty's report, however, it does not tell us what is in it and what the Government will do. Until we get that information, all that we can say—[Interruption.] The Minister says that we will get it soon, but how soon is soon? In this place, soon seems to be anything from tomorrow to next year. If there is a date for an announcement, let us hear what the Government have to say. Reform is urgently required, and I think that the Minister accepts that it must be a root-and-branch reform and a real cleaning out of the agency.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham 6:19 pm, 17th January 2006

I join other Members in praising the dedication of the staff of the Child Support Agency. I agree with Mr. Field, who is no longer present, that it takes some dedication to work day after day for an organisation that faces such problems. A late friend of mine who was a management consultant for the agency said as long ago as the 1990s that it had failed the dinner-party test: its staff were not prepared to admit that they worked for it when they met people for the first time over dinner. The problems seem to have continued and multiplied since then. I shall cite two constituency cases, which demonstrate that the scale of evasion is not the only cause of those problems. Systematic inefficiencies, poor systems and the poor quality of decision making in the agency cannot be overlooked.

A constituent of mine first made a claim on 15 October 2004. Rather unusually—because, as she rather charmingly said, she had heard that the CSA was not a very efficient organisation—she kept a log of what followed. After 11 months, 22 telephone calls and two faxes, her log contained a litany of computer problems, calls, complaints and information that had not been acted on, promised updates that had not been given, and failure to act on payment defaults on which she had been told that action had been taken. No effective work was done on her case for month after month and, inexplicably, the whole case was transferred from Dudley to Plymouth halfway through. It all culminated on 6 September 2005 with a call from a CSA caseworker, who offered to help her with her new claim—11 months after the original claim had been submitted. As any manager knows, such inefficiency increases not just the queue but the burden. It complicates the position and makes it worse.

In the second case, a couple separated and the child stayed with the woman. She made a claim through the CSA and a payment assessment was made. The amount was not paid by her ex-partner, who was self-employed. The extent of the arrears is a matter of dispute between her and the agency, but there certainly were arrears. At that stage, the child moved house from one parent to the other. The woman's self-employed ex-partner then made a claim against her for payment. Because she was a salaried public employee, she automatically had to pay. She was therefore paying twice—she was paying for the period during which the child had stayed with her and also for the period during which the child was staying with her ex-partner. When we asked whether the arrears could be offset against the payments, we were inexplicably told that they could not. Apparently, it was beyond the competence of the agency even to entertain the idea.

I feel that that case constitutes an argument for some separation, or a degree of escape, from absolute dependence on the receipt of payments from one partner before payments are made to the other. Surely the reputation, at least, of the Inland Revenue might give people pause before they evaded payments in such a systematic way. While certain schemes may have caused problems, that reputation, and the Revenue's general efficiency, suggest that it should be given responsibility.

Would tagging have helped in either case? Of course not. The CSA is an organisation that has been in crisis for many years. The platform on which the Minister wanted to build is broken. The agency is not fit for its purpose and it is time to return to the drawing board, preferably with cross-party support if it can be mustered. I see no ideological divide; I simply see a very serious problem, the victims of which are children and families in my constituency and across the country. That problem has been allowed to drag on for far too long.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport 6:23 pm, 17th January 2006

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Laws for initiating the debate, and to the many Members who have made such thoughtful contributions to it. I think that the welfare of the child is at the heart of all our concerns. Notwithstanding what was said by Ms Taylor, many thousands of young people are still not receiving the support that they so richly deserve. Like many other Members, I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government propose to restore confidence in a process that—as Mr. Field rightly said—is half broken.

The fundamental issue, as was eloquently pointed out by Mr. Weir, is the lack of public confidence in the CSA. That was brought home to me forcefully during the summer recess when a friend told me about his two daughters, both divorced and both with children, neither of whom was bothering to chase up support from the children's fathers through the CSA. They had been so put off by the experiences of friends that they decided to go on bringing up their children on their own.

The Minister made much of the need for more enforcement. How does he propose to make that work? I am currently dealing with the case of a grandfather who is bringing up three children on his old age pension because their mother has died. A court order was issued last March, and in November the police were still refusing to enforce it and take the father to court. Last week, I received a letter from the police saying that as the father had had an accident and been taken to hospital, they would not pursue the case further. That is unacceptable. If we are to have enforcement, we must have enforcement all along the line. All the agencies involved must ensure that those who refuse to pay are brought to book.

In his answer to the question that he was asked in November, the Prime Minister said that he felt that the CSA was trying to do too much—that it was taking on too much. What is it being asked to do? It must carry out assessments; then there must be the collection; then there must be enforcement in the cases of the all too many fathers who will not pay up readily.

Mine is the only party that has today suggested ways in which the system could be reformed. If the Minister will not consider wholesale transfer of responsibility to the Inland Revenue, will he accept the view of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that the Revenue could be used effectively to enforce collection? Nothing focuses the mind more strongly than an effect on the pay packet. The root of the problem is the lack of clear enforcement procedures, which enables so many people not to own up to what they earn and not to make regular payments. Whatever may be said about tax credits, the Inland Revenue is an excellent collection agency. A system to enforce some form of collection—albeit rather crude—would bring people to book.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Much has been made of enforcement, but it has all been about enforcement by the CSA to ensure that the non-resident parent pays. There is a different enforcement issue for, in particular, fathers' groups who have been paying child maintenance. They are concerned about enforcement of the court order that allows them access. That is why we often see very angry fathers who feel that one side of the system—ironically, the CSA—is being enforced sufficiently, but the court orders are not. What is the Liberal Democrat solution to that?

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

In an intervention earlier, I pointed out that there was a role for the courts as well as for the Revenue. Many cases are ongoing, whether they involve access or other matters. I would not advocate returning to the old system, but why cannot the courts play a greater role in ensuring that issues concerning the child are dealt with concurrently, rather than separately and through various agencies?

This has been an excellent debate and I hope that, in her concluding remarks, the Minister will agree to release the chief executive's report before the Government's proposals are published, so that Members can read the report and then perhaps respond more positively to the Government's proposals. I look forward to their finally restoring public confidence in a failing organisation.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) 6:30 pm, 17th January 2006

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate. I speak in support of the points made by my hon. Friend Mr. Laws, and of the motion before the House. I know that I am not the only Member whose constituency mailbag amply demonstrates the somewhat chaotic nature of the Child Support Agency in its current form. Fathers and mothers approach me daily in large numbers with tales—the vast majority of which are subsequently proved to be correct—of incompetence, misunderstanding, contempt and despair.

I do not suggest for one minute that CSA staff are not dealing with sensitive and difficult issues as best they can, or that the organisation does not have a tough job on its hands. However, far from achieving positive outcomes in difficult circumstances, the CSA has in my view all too often contributed to a further breakdown in relationships that were already broken. The end result is that children are missing out on the financial support that they deserve, and their chances of enjoying a positive relationship with both parents are being jeopardised. In my experience, it is not just a question of the wastefulness of the system, which was highlighted in recent months, and the incompetence that led to thousands of fathers being wrongly named as absent parents; the CSA also has a seriously bad image problem. It is structurally unsound, and the tragedy is that it has lost the confidence of so many of those whom it is designed to help.

Every week, I am presented with correspondence from the CSA, written in language that is highly unlikely to elicit co-operation from parents. Many parents face a CSA that acts as judge, jury and executioner in its dealings with them. In many cases, such correspondence is directed to parents who are more than willing to co-operate. Is it any wonder that so many children are not getting their fair share of maintenance, when the system treats parents in this way?

It is clear that the structural complexities of the CSA in its current form have led to administrative difficulties. We are all familiar with the backlog in processing claims, and with the headline figure on how much it costs to collect maintenance, compared with the amount that children actually get. Those complexities have filtered through in the CSA's dealings with families. This unholy alliance of complexity and hostility is costing thousands, if not millions, of children every day. Without a modicum of confidence in the system, the CSA simply cannot operate.

The strategic review of the CSA has to be one of the most overdue reviews in any part of government. I urge Ministers to take into consideration the reasoned and reasonable proposals that my colleagues have outlined this afternoon. Nobody wants a return to the old system, but we do need to move forward with a new one.




Submitted by Tony Moore

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 6:33 pm, 17th January 2006

This has been an excellent debate with well-informed contributions from all parts of the House, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). I am grateful to all those who made very useful points during the debate. Of course, I should not forget to thank my hon. Friend Mr. Laws, who opened the debate.

In opening for the Conservatives, Miss McIntosh referred to their four-point plan. I do not intend to comment on that today—perhaps the Minister will not be so careful—except to note her reference to the potential privatising of parts of the Child Support Agency. I am not convinced that that is a particularly useful contribution to this debate. Overall, the Conservative approach is one of tinkering—perhaps understandably, given that it was a Conservative Government who set up the CSA—rather than the fundamental reform that we Liberal Democrats want to see. It is perhaps indicative of the challenge facing the supposedly new, modern, compassionate Conservative party that none of its Back Benchers chose to make a speech today on an issue of overwhelming social importance.

I was particularly gratified to hear the comments of Mr. Field, who shares our desire to see radical solutions to the CSA's problems. He also rightly shares our view that full and active consideration should be given to handing over the CSA's functions to the Inland Revenue.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the Liberal Democrats' position on this issue? We have heard today about the idea of transferring the CSA's functions to the Revenue, but have there not been rumblings in the hon. Gentleman's party about privatising the CSA? Which is it to be?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil spelt out in some detail our policy—indeed, so far, ours is the only party to do so—of transferring functions to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. That is a clear, sensible and forward-looking policy, and I hope that it will commend itself to the House when we come to vote.

I hope that Mr. Weir is successful in his bid to get into the Sunday Mail. Having pointed that out, I shall press on, as we are short of time and the Minister has a number of points that she wishes to make.

For reasons that have been outlined, the CSA has been in a state of almost perpetual crisis since it was established by the Conservatives in 1993, and it is still in crisis today. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions report of January last year described it as

"a failing organisation which is currently in crisis", and suggested that

"consideration be given to the option of winding it up".

In November 2005, during Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister said:

"I make no defence of the current situation . . . The truth is that the agency is not properly suited to carry out that task."—[Hansard, 16 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 964.]

He may have decided that it was appropriate to make no defence of the current situation, but the Minister who opened for the Government was not entirely sure whether to bury the agency or to praise it. On the one hand, he called for a fundamental review; on the other, he described the Government's policy as one of trying to get the agency on to a stable footing, with no quick fixes. Given that it is 13 years since the CSA's establishment, quick fixes are hardly what we are contemplating.

The Minister referred to the CSA chief executive's report, and I echo the call of several Members for that report to be published. The Government asked for a copy of our proposals earlier today, and I furnished them with one within minutes. I hope that they will show similar alacrity in publishing the chief executive's report. As was pointed out, that would be a fair exchange. It has to be said that the Minister's approach sounds like tinkering, rather than the fundamental reform that we Liberal Democrats hope will form the substance of the Government's policy, when it is finally published. The central question of this debate is, should we have fundamental reform, or will there be yet more tinkering? In that context, it is worth noting one of the substantive differences between our motion and the Government's amendment to it. Our motion refers to the loss of public confidence in the CSA—a point that was neither echoed in the Government's amendment nor tackled by the Minister. After 13 wasted years, the time has come for fundamental reform of the CSA.

Reference has been made to the various problems associated with the CSA. It collects just £1.85 in maintenance for every £1 it spends on administration, and the amount of uncollected maintenance has tripled since 1997—from £1.1 billion to £3.3 billion in 2004–05. I should be grateful if the Minister would address in her winding-up speech the issue of the number of staff. We were told today that there are 10,027 members of staff, and that that figure should rise to 11,000 by the end of March. But in a written answer of 9 January—only a week ago—the Minister herself said that the target figure for the number of staff by the end of March 2006 was 9,400. I should be grateful if she would explain why there has been such a rapid transformation in the objectives. It may be because of this debate being called, but perhaps the written answer was referring to full-time equivalents while the Minister was referring to a head-count. Will she clarify that and, if necessary, correct the record?

Reference has been made to the CSA's high staff turnover rate of 17 per cent. Increasing the number of members of staff may be part of the answer, but ensuring that they stay in their jobs and can build up the experience needed, which has been rightly urged by hon. Members, is important.

Hon. Members have said that, in many cases, the CSA is there to serve the poorest in society and is fundamental to the tackling of child poverty, which I know is of concern to hon. Members on both sides. Maintenance is received in only 25 per cent. of cases where a lone parent is on benefit; that is down from 28 per cent. when Labour came to power and no better than in 1989 when the agency was set up, despite a public service agreement target to raise the level by March 2006. Underlying those statistics are thousands upon thousands of individuals with experience of repeated failure, and many hon. Members have mentioned such cases.

We need a fundamental reform based on clear principles. The first is that parents have a moral responsibility to maintain their children whenever they can afford to do so. The child's well-being must be paramount in everything that we do. The fact that, earlier this year, only one in five cases was having maintenance collected shows that whatever the successes in some cases—hon. Members have mentioned some successes—in the vast majority of cases maintenance is not collected and the agency is failing.

Families should have the right to determine their own level of support where they are fully informed about all aspects of the matter and where the interests of the taxpayer are not affected. The organisation responsible for arranging and enforcing child support must command the respect of the public, and it is fair to say that the CSA does not. The assessment of maintenance liabilities must be administratively straightforward, efficient, transparent and relatively predictable, which is one of the advantages of transferring the CSA's functions to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, an organisation with a good reputation in dealing efficiently with its business.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

No, I will press on.

I have been highly critical of the operation of the tax credits policy, but that is the fault of the policy as much as anything else. One of the major problems with tax credits is that the computer system has been far too effective in taking money out of bank accounts before appropriate appeals and assessments have been carried out. That efficiency, while inappropriate in the case of tax credits, would be an asset in dealing with the collection of money from absent or feckless parents and the passing on of that money to the children who, after all, should be the main beneficiaries of the policy.

Where individuals believe that justice has not been done because of exceptional individual circumstances, a process of arbitration must be available to look at the case and come to a judgment that is swift, fair and final. We propose that a new child support arbiter be set up. Once the functions were transferred to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the arbiter would be there to deal with those difficult cases in a way that is fair, swift and final.

A truly child-centred policy must look beyond merely enforcing the financial obligations of non-resident parents and do more to encourage the involvement of both parents in their children's upbringing. The CSA was set up under a Conservative Government and the failings began then; it has not been improved under Labour—indeed, the problems of the new system highlight that. As we know from our constituents, parents have no confidence in the CSA; the Select Committee has no confidence in the agency; and it is clear from answers in this House last year that the Prime Minister has no confidence in the agency, either.

An alternative proposal that is simpler, fairer and effective does exist. It is to transfer the functions of the CSA to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. I have heard no other proposals. I know the Government are holding their breath, as we all are, for their own proposals to be published in due course. It would be helpful if the Minister gave the House some idea of when the Government's proposals will be published. Will it be a few days, weeks or months? The Government have had eight years to look at this and I hope they will give us some idea of when they will make their proposals for reform.

Parliament today should give hope to the hundreds of thousands of parents whose lives have been made a misery and in some cases wrecked by the CSA and to the children it is failing to help by recognising that the agency has utterly failed beyond any possibility of reform. Lack of confidence and respect for the CSA will translate into a lack of respect for Parliament, and rightly so, if we do not finally act to deal with the problem as we have proposed.

I conclude by commending the motion to the House and urging the Government to embrace a policy of fundamental reform of the CSA, rather than tinkering at the edges.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 6:46 pm, 17th January 2006

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for what has been a mature and deliberative debate on a difficult issue. It is important to recognise the areas where there is agreement, regardless of which political perspective we come from. We all agree that it is right that parents, whether or not they have care of the child, should take financial responsibility for the child; that financial support should be reasonable and accurately reflect the true cost of bringing up a child; that, for the most part, support responsibilities work best when they are undertaken as a voluntary agreement between two adult parents, even if the administration has to be carried out by a third party such as the CSA through maintenance direct; and that where that cannot or does not happen, there should be the involvement of a statutory intermediary, previously mainly the courts and now the CSA.

There is agreement on both sides that for a variety of reasons, many of which we have heard explained today—some of which I hope to cover in the next few minutes—collectively as parliamentarians and legislators, we have not yet cracked how best to provide that intermediary support so that it can carry out its functions in the best interests primarily of the children, while recognising that it is a parent's primary responsibility to provide for their child and not that of taxpayers.

I want to thank the Liberal Democrats who have now published their weighty tome on their website. I was lucky enough to get a copy; Liberal Members had a wee conflab and decided that it was safe to give it to me. I must say that I would not miss "The Bill" tonight reading it. Most of the information it contains is already in the public domain, provided by the 158 parliamentary questions asked by Mr. Laws. It is extremely light on analysis.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Not at the moment: I do not want to interrupt my train of thought as I deal with the one thought in the Liberal Democrats' 10-point plan. They want to scrap the CSA, but they do not seem to have considered what that would mean in terms of legislation or implementation.

There is no quick fix to this issue, as the complexity of the problems highlighted in the debate shows. We cannot let children down, or allow my right hon. Friend Mr. Field to continue to feel the shame that he said was part of his daily life. We must accept some collective responsibility for what has gone wrong with the CSA.

Normally, I do not give adverts for the Liberal Democrats, but their new document has been passed on to me. In my forthright, Scottish way I must tell the House that it contains just one, lonely, idea.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Clearly, the Minister has come to the end of her thought processes. She mentioned that the evidence supporting our contentions about the CSA were in the public domain, but the one piece of evidence not in the public domain is the report by the CSA's chief executive, Mr. Geraghty. That report will colour all our thoughts about the agency's future. Will the Minister say when she intends to publish it, and does she intend to place it in the Library?

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I love the depth of the questions that are sometimes put to Ministers. I shall deal with the report in a few seconds.

Today's debate has highlighted yet again the breadth and complexity of the problems facing the CSA. Many of those problems stem from the way in which the agency was set up originally, as even some Conservative Members agree. The CSA was established with strong cross-party support, and it is fair to say that the complexity of the issues that it had to deal with was recognised only slowly by the Government of the day.

The principles underlying the CSA were correct, although some people suspected that the priority might have been saving benefits rather than helping children. However, a process in which up to 100 separate pieces of information could be demanded from parents was almost impossible to implement efficiently. Often, those parents no longer communicated with each other and were reluctant to deal with a third party. A forest must have been sacrificed to provide the paper for the continual stream of assessments that were sent out.

I was elected in 1997, and I remember dealing with my first CSA complaint. It was a bit like going on my first date. [Interruption.] The emotions and issues were complex—

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I led a very boring life, but I remember the amount and complexity of the paperwork involved, and the number of calculations that had to be made.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I think that we should just let my date remark lie. Scottish solicitors are good, but it really needed a Philadelphia lawyer to understand the complexity of that first case, which involved a young man who earned £175 a week but whose accumulated debt amounted to £11,500. He would never have paid it off in a month of Sundays.

Many of the problems highlighted in the debate do not concern errors made in the past few months, or even the past couple of years. They have their roots in things that have gone wrong over the entire period of the CSA's existence.

In 2003, a recognition of those problems compelled the Government, with the support of all parties in the House, to move to a better system. However, it is fair to say that we did not fully appreciate the major difficulties involved in simplifying matters and in trying to superimpose new procedures on such a deeply flawed system.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

May we move away from the Minister's previous experiences, and focus on the reduction in the number of CSA staff? Last week, she signed off an answer to a parliamentary question that included information about staff reductions, but her colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Plaskitt, said earlier that staff numbers were rising. Which is it?

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman anticipated my next sentence, as I want to echo the comments made by many hon. Members to the effect that CSA staff are dedicated but working under extreme pressure. To clarify the question about staff numbers: the hon. Gentleman asked a parliamentary question a month ago—

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

That question has been answered, but he should by now have received from the CSA chief executive the actual figures, rather than the planned ones. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was right to say that by September 2005 there had been an increase in full-time equivalent staff in the CSA—

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman may huff and puff, but the chief executive's letter should have reached his tray either yesterday or today. If it has not done so, it should arrive tomorrow, but I have a copy.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My information is that the CSA employed 10,779 staff on 31 March 2004 and that, by last March, that figure had fallen by 1,000. Those figures cannot have changed, as the dates to which they apply have passed.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am dealing with the most recent figures, which are for 30 September 2005. As part of the recovery plan, we increased the number of full-time equivalent staff in the CSA. That is my clarification of the matter, and if the hon. Gentleman still has a major difficulty, we can come back to it at another time.

In the debate, we heard about the experiences of many hon. Members, including Ministers. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in his opening remarks, extraordinary measures have been taken by people—mainly by men, as my hon. Friend Ms Taylor said—to avoid paying child maintenance. Every trick in the book has been used. Constituents of mine tell me—even the ones who earn reasonable salaries and admit that they have a financial responsibility for their children—that their payment assessment is too high because they have a car to pay for, a holiday to go on, or a social life to lead. That is what we are dealing with—people who do not want to accept their personal responsibilities.

I could have come to the House and highlighted some of the areas where there has been improvement. Enforcement is one them, and I hope that that reassures those hon. Members who asked about that in the debate. In 2002–03, 2,383 enforcement orders were issued, but more than 6,300 were issued between April and November last year.

As for compliance, I could have told the House that the CSA collects £600 million from absent parents every year. I could have asked the House to accept that our contact with parents means that more than 400,000 now receive maintenance, either arranged through the agency or paid to them directly or indirectly. I could have asked the House to accept that, when it comes to supporting children, we are doing much better than anyone could have anticipated, with more than 529,000 children now receiving money because of the CSA's intervention. I could have said to the House that these are the improvements we have made and asked it to agree that we are moving forward. However, we are not asking the House to do that. We asked the new chief executive to commission a root and branch review of the agency when he took up his post. We have asked him to look at the agency's operations in the round to ensure that his findings, when they are eventually put before the House, give a strategic view of the situation.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Well, the hon. Gentleman knows that I will not give him a specific date, but I will give him an assurance that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes a statement to the House, he will also indicate what documents will be put in the public domain and what information will be seen by the House.

The amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister does not ask the House to ignore the difficulties that the agency faces in carrying out the duties set for it by Parliament. It recognises that the agency is not properly suited to carrying out its current task. Our amendment also makes it clear that once we have considered our conclusions, we will present them to the House. Given that the Liberal Democrat motion asks us only to note the obvious, like some school debating motion, I ask them to withdraw it.

The House has been patient on this matter, and I also thank those parents caring for children for whom the system has not delivered for their patience. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure in due course that the House is fully informed of the solutions that we think we can put in place for the reform of the agency.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 69, Noes 306.

Division number 125 Child Support Agency

Aye: 69 MPs

No: 306 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House agrees with the Prime Minister that the Child Support Agency suffers from basic structural problems and is not properly suited to carrying out its current tasks; accepts the importance of ensuring that more families with children receive the maintenance payments to which they are entitled; and notes that the Government will shortly set out its conclusions on the right way forward following the Chief Executive's review of the operation of the Child Support Agency.