Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 4th July 2007.

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Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Secretary of State (Cabinet Office) and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 3:09 pm, 4th July 2007

The hon. Gentleman may have had the same experience as I have—of the most difficult cases being referred to the office in Bolton, which I believe does not take incoming calls. There may be good reasons for that. However, it adds to the sense of frustration, particularly for Members of Parliament who are pursuing cases —[Interruption.] I see that Mr. Evennett is echoing that sentiment.

The staff cuts are taking place against a background of poor performance and uncollected arrears. Given that, the CMEC does not look like the clean break recommended by Sir David Henshaw; it seems to be much more like a rebadging of the existing operation. It will have to manage three maintenance systems simultaneously, as well as collect past arrears. I accept the Minister's good intentions, but despite them the staffing cuts mean that the new agency risks being crippled by the problems of the old one. I hope that the Minister will address that serious point in his closing remarks.

Heroic assumptions have been made about the extent to which the Government believe that large numbers of people will shift towards making private agreements. I support the objective of making them. However, there is the context of the staff reductions and if the aspiration for a large number of new private agreements is not met, either the CMEC will be overloaded and unable to cope or huge numbers will opt out of the system, not make a private agreement and therefore have no maintenance at all. That is a serious potential backward step.

Furthermore, the CMEC will have to process up to 600,000 benefit cases, which will automatically fall off the system next year. On top of even that, there will be an extra administrative burden if large numbers of people choose to withdraw their cases under the old system and reapply under the new—and the hon. Member for Angus suggested that many would. That is the context that leaves me pessimistic.

I come to some of the specific elements of the Bill. I have said that the Liberal Democrats support the aspiration for private arrangements. However, the Bill does not make obvious how the Government expect large numbers of people to come to their own private arrangements. As I said, there is a risk that many will end up with no maintenance arrangement at all. Meanwhile, the Government assume that there will be an enormous decline in CMEC cases; an assumption is being made that there will be large numbers of private arrangements, and administrative costs are planned to fall by £200 million a year from the current £570 million. That would be a huge contraction in the budget. Clearly, if the reforms were successful both sides of the House would expect a reduction in the amount of money needed to run the system. However, to plan ahead to cut the budget before we have seen how the new system is performing seems to put the cart before the horse—or perhaps that should be the other way round.