Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:38 pm on 4th July 2007.

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Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:38 pm, 4th July 2007

I am delighted to follow Danny Alexander. I wish him and his wife well for their forthcoming event and hope that that all goes extremely well.

I am pleased to participate in this important debate. Since I returned to the House in May 2005, hundreds of my constituents have visited my constituency surgery, or contacted me by post and e-mail, to comment on and complain about the Child Support Agency, which has been one of the biggest issues in Bexleyheath and Crayford. The problems have been many and varied, and they have often had severe consequences for the people concerned. Bureaucracy and inefficiency have caused my constituents frustration and worse. There have been many failings under the existing system, while bureaucracy and unfairness have caused considerable distress.

We are all concerned about child poverty; even today, many children in Britain suffer deprivation, and that is unacceptable. Obviously, we want to make sure that children are not deprived of the resources that are necessary if they are to develop and grow satisfactorily. Of course, we also need to consider the taxpayers' interests and the issue of fairness. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State's measured speech, and I agreed with the broad thrust of his remarks. The Bill is generally to be welcomed, and I am broadly supportive of it. My Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend Chris Grayling, highlighted the issues extremely well in his excellent speech. He mentioned the aspects that we support, but he also raised issues of concern. Most importantly, he and Danny Alexander, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, asked whether the Government's aim is attainable through the Bill. Will it work, or is the new body just the CSA mark 3?

There are still real concerns about the Bill. The Secretary of State talked about change as if his party had not been responsible for the CSA for the past 10 years, and for the problems that occurred. Our concern is that the Bill has been presented as a radical reform, but as currently drafted it promises the same people, the same buildings, and—I do not know—perhaps the same computer system. There is very little detail on how the measures will deliver the culture of change that we need, and the change to child maintenance that the Government promised.

I was in the House in the 1990s when the CSA was established. I was supportive of action and hopeful of success in dealing with the problems that it was set up to solve. I was a supporter in principle, and remain a supporter of the founding principles. Regrettably, the CSA did not get off to a smooth or effective start. It suffered a loss of popular confidence at the very beginning, and it never regained the confidence of the people who depended on it. That has been a matter for regret over the years. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, there have been improvements, and we welcome that, but regrettably there are still huge areas of failure. That is not to be critical of the staff; they are working hard and are doing their very best, but that is no good as an answer to our constituents, who experience problems that include constantly getting letters that say different things, failing to get through on the telephone, and failing to get satisfaction. That is why it is so important that we discuss and debate the issue in detail this afternoon.

I want to highlight a number of problems that my constituents have experienced. The first relates to compliance. Statistics for my constituency show that partial or non-compliance seems to be going up, and that is worrying; full compliance is down considerably. Some people—men, particularly—are just not taking responsibility for their children, and that is totally unacceptable. All of us in the House are in agreement on that. It is not a party-political issue; we are just discussing how we can improve the situation. We want to be constructive. We want to make sure that the Bill is improved, and we want to make sure that when it reaches the statute book, it will determine successful outcomes for applications.

I must raise the case of one of my constituents, and I would particularly like to draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend Mrs. Miller on our Front Bench, who will wind up for us. My constituent signed over the equity in his house when his relationship broke up, and he then went on to have another family. The partner who had taken the equity had no wish to accept any more maintenance, but the CSA did not take the equity in the house into account, so the man had to continue to pay, and had considerable financial difficulties. The CSA seemed unable to deal with a situation in which there was a voluntary agreement, and in which the parties wanted no further involvement with the CSA.

The main problem has been administration. Constituents have come to my surgery with letters, sometimes written on the same date, saying completely different things. People who have the responsibility of bringing up children, which is difficult enough in today's society, do not need the additional problem of getting three letters from the same organisation which say three different things at the same time. I hope that when the new commission is set up, it will be much more robust and efficient, so that the distress and hardship caused to people who are already subject to considerable pressure is not exacerbated, and they are helped.

The principle underlying the CSA was to help children out of poverty and to help mothers with responsibility for children to fulfil their responsibility without worrying about extra money. I was fortunate—my wife and I were together, yet we found that even with two parents, children were difficult to bring up. With only one parent, it is extremely tough. We want the new system to deal with the problems effectively.

Sometimes the bureaucratic problem is the failure to get through on the phone or to get any answer at all. That causes considerable frustration.