Child Support Agency

– in the House of Lords at 2:59 pm on 24th January 2006.

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Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 2:59 pm, 24th January 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What changes they intend to make to the operation of the Child Support Agency.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, the chief executive of the Child Support Agency has been asked to undertake a root and branch review of the operations of the agency. He has reported his findings to Ministers, and an announcement will be made shortly.

Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

My Lords, I confess that I was expecting a slightly different Answer, because various activities have been revealed in speeches from the Secretary of State and in press briefings, not least the contracting-out of debt collecting pertaining to the Child Support Agency. How many cases are under review? The noble Lord will know that I have been in correspondence about one such case. It would be wrong for debts to be collected from absent parents in such circumstances, would it not?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, there have been various stories in the media in the past few weeks, but I think it better that we await the announcement that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will make to Parliament in due course, following the report that we received from the chief executive. Notwithstanding the many challenges and problems that the CSA faces, £600 million a year is collected in maintenance for children. Clearly we want to do better than that, and one challenge that we face is that many non-resident parents do not face up to their responsibility to pay maintenance for their children. We are certainly looking for a much stronger enforcement effort by the CSA to help to make sure that we collect more money for more children.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

My Lords, have the Government issued any guidelines or taken any other action to ensure that young men in school are taught about their responsibilities as fathers?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, that is not a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, but I very much understand that issue. Going beyond the operational responsibilities of the Child Support Agency, I should say that we need to do much more to bring home to young people—and to all parents—their responsibility. When they split up, it is important that the children do not become a tug of war between the resident and non-resident parent and that we reinforce the rights and responsibilities of all parents, including responsibility for financial support for their children. I very much agree with the noble Lord.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, my noble friend has emphasised—rightly, I am sure—that the core of the problem of the CSA is that too many non-resident parents think that, when they break up with their partner, they simultaneously no longer need financially to support their children. That is disastrous for everyone concerned. The Inland Revenue may become a collection agency and collect money from defaulting families, which may be a good idea. So often, at the same time, it may pay tax credits to those defaulting families. Can we hope that at last the Inland Revenue might be willing to net the one sum against the other and thus ensure that money goes to the lone parent and her child?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for her work in this area and particularly for the work that she led in making the assessment scheme much easier to understand than the old scheme. She asked two hypothetical questions, neither of which I ought to answer, in anticipation of our Statement to Parliament. There is co-operation between HMRC and the CSA, and of course we wish to encourage more in future.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, what are the costs of the Child Support Agency

Photo of Lord Molyneaux of Killead Lord Molyneaux of Killead Crossbench

My Lords, how is it possible for the Treasury to justify payments to a body that is so utterly incompetent in every part of the kingdom?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I would not underestimate the challenges and problems that the Child Support Agency faces. Equally, I re-emphasise to noble Lords that it is raising £600 million, that half a million children benefit and that the staff at the CSA work under very difficult circumstances, often caught in the middle of warring parents. It is easy to complain—I do not at all underestimate the problems faced—but we ought to acknowledge the good work still being undertaken.

Photo of Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay Spokesperson in the Lords, Treasury, Spokesperson in the Lords, Work & Pensions

My Lords, when I was preparing to ask this question, my initial thought was that I might quote the House of Commons Select Committee report calling the CSA a failing organisation that is in crisis, but I am afraid that I am not as brave as my acting leader in the other place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, put her finger on a serious point by mentioning the Revenue. Does the Minister accept, as the Prime Minister said, that the CSA has lost the confidence of the public, its basic structural problems remain, it is not properly suited to carry out its task, and the handing over of its functions to the Revenue is long overdue?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I am not going down that speculative route for the reasons that I have already given. I certainly accept, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in another place, that some major issues around the structure, policy and operations of the CSA warrant the most serious consideration. I pay tribute to the Select Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, which made interesting proposals for CSA reform. We have responded, but we are taking into account its recommendations in relation to the current review.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

My Lords, before final decisions are made, will the noble Lord and his colleagues read this House's debates on the Child Support Bill, way back in the 1990s? Will he read the contributions made by the late Earl Russell and the late Lord Houghton, both experts in the matter, who predicted—as, incidentally, did I—the shambles that the Child Support Agency has become?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I have looked at some of the debates, but I am happy to look at them again. There is no question that it was a huge undertaking, but it is worth pointing out that the situation before the Child Support Agency was not entirely a happy one. I quote from the White Paper, Children Come First, produced by the previous government, which, commenting on the then court-based system, stated:

"The present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective".

For all the problems that the Child Support Agency faces, none the less it is producing £600 million a year. We should not underestimate that.