Child Support Agency

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:33 pm on 17th January 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

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

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.