Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 4th July 2007.

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Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2:22 pm, 4th July 2007

Absolutely. Having waited so long for these essential reforms on such an important subject, which affect the lives of so many families in the UK, it is essential that we get them right.

Let me return to the question of how much is really changing—the point that I made a moment ago in response to my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright. The creation of a new child maintenance and enforcement commission sounds like a brave new departure in this important area: a new body, a new location, a new team, new systems to improve on what we had before—a completely fresh approach to the service that will change the frustrations of the past few years. I have no doubt that that is what people will be expecting from this Government and this Bill, but if I am not mistaken, that is not necessarily what is happening.

It appears that the organisational side of the Bill involves unscrewing the CSA name-plate from the front of its building and replacing it with one saying "Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission". The Government are pretty good at changing name-plates. We have not forgotten the £600 bill for replacing the name-plate of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister with one saying, "Deputy Prime Minister's Office". Of course, inside the new agency's building, there will be the same team of people in the same offices using the same computer system—the one that has caused the Government so many headaches over the past few years.

Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us in his winding-up speech what is being done internally to ensure that this is much more than just a re-branding exercise for the CSA. What is actually being done to ensure a real culture change within the organisation? Are the Government really planning to maintain the same internal systems, or will they need to spend yet more large sums of taxpayers' money on yet another new computer system? And why is it taking so long for the transition to the new system to take place? The new approach, we understand, will not be fully operational until 2013—most of the way through the next Parliament. Why is the change to a system in which assessments are based on information from Revenue and Customs not being fast-tracked? After all, it will be dealing with one of the biggest sources of current frustration with the present system. If Ministers can accelerate that change, they will have our support in doing so.

When the Bill is in Committee, my hon. Friends will want to probe the Government in detail about whether they intend that there should be support for couples seeking to enter into voluntary agreements. Many interest groups, for example, would like a formal structure whereby the new agency can provide back-up support for couples as they negotiate with each other. In particular, we expect to discuss in detail in Committee whether the new agency should be able to offer women information about the income levels of their former husbands or partners, in order to help inform those voluntary agreements. Given that these negotiations will be taking place at a very emotional, sensitive and difficult time for those involved, it is absolutely right that the Committee look carefully at the level of support given to those embarking on the task of reaching a voluntary agreement.

Likewise, there is an issue about how equipped the voluntary sector will be to cope with the advice that undoubtedly it will be asked to give. I know how hard pressed many such groups are at the moment. The citizens advice bureau in my constituency is facing more and more demands for its services, particularly with the worrying growth in consumer debt. I have no doubt that the welcome change to greater use of voluntary agreements will place an extra burden on such organisations in my constituency and around the country. What steps are the Government planning to take to ensure that the voluntary sector can cope?