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Column 475us, when the ex-wife, as it mostly is, marries or lives with someone who is or becomes unemployed, so that it then appears to the first partner that he is now having to pay not only for the children and the ex-spouse, but for the ex-spouse's new partner if he or she is on income support. That strikes people as absurd and unjust. That leads to spousal maintenance, which causes enormous resentment. Again, we need not go into the rights and wrongs of the break-up of relationships, but if we are dealing with the Child Support Act and the Child Support Agency, we must query the inclusion of spousal maintenance. In the debate on 4 July the Secretary of State conceded that spousal maintenance was a matter for the courts and it would be better left there. The Minister shakes his head. If he wishes to take up the point, I am sure that I can quote the Secretary of State directly. It would be much better if the maintenance was strictly for the children, not for spouses. It would be considerably better if most of the money went to the children rather than disappeared in abatement against income support. There is also considerable concern about the assessment and collection charges, particularly for those who did not request the service. The Minister must decide whether the inconvenience, cost of collect and resultant ill feeling is worth such sums of money. There is no doubt that that is causing considerable resentment. The Minister must also be concerned at the huge amounts of arrears that many individuals are building up. Those who have never previously been in debt now find themselves in debt. As always, one of the problems is that debt becomes a multiple problem--as people fall into debt in other areas and face repossession, penalty costs and bailiffs and join the vicious cycle that we want to prevent. That requires a speeding up of the process of assessment and perhaps a re-examination of the way in which those arrears can build up. The first key element of change is that more money should go to the children and the disregard should be reconsidered. In Australia, the disregard is far more generous and that leads to far wider public acceptability. Not only is it true that in many instances the money does not go to the children ; the family is worse off as a result of money coming via the CSA because the mother often loses passported benefits.
In my constituency, a mother with three children is £15 a week worse off as a result of the money coming via the CSA and having to pay for school dinners. That is a considerable dent in the family income, resulting in real problems. We would be grateful for an indication of the amount that will go to children. The original estimate, given in the Minister's evidence to the Select Committee, was £50 million out of £480 million. A variety of estimates were given on 4 July. May we have an up-to- date figure ?
I hope that the Minister will take on board the question of incurred costs, particularly in respect of travel to the individual's place of employment. They may be reflected by higher income but if there is not a similar offset, that adds substantially to the individual's CSA liability without any commensurate benefit. Also, the Australian scheme makes allowance for access. That is a much bigger country, but many people in this country are confronted by significant access costs.
Column 476There needs to be recognition of previous settlements and some phasing, to incorporate some of the huge changes. One suggestion is that after an individual has been given a notional assessment, his payments should increase £5 a week at yearly intervals. That would avoid huge disruption to people's lives and finances.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has argued before for a proper appeals procedure on the lines of the Australian model, which would introduce robust common sense, which has been absent so far.
Would such changes require amending the legislation or scrapping the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency and devising a new Act ? The 1991 Act and the agency in its current form are unsustainable and should certainly go.
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : We have had many opportunities to debate the vexed question of the Child Support Agency. I welcome this bizarrely late slot, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) on his persistence and staying power. I hope that the Minister will be able to give useful information before we give way to other hon. Members who are deeply enthusiastic about very different issues.
This is almost certainly the last time that I will address the House as a DSS spokesman for my party, until we return from the summer recess. I notice from today's events that not only the Department's budget but its ministerial team is expanding. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) has been joined by three Under-Secretaries of State--one of them in the other place. I hope that it is not tasteless to observe that there is a newly minted Minister of State. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bury, North has to be married to duty in the Child Support Agency. In the hon. Gentleman's case, no doubt, virtue will have its own reward.
The CSA has given rise to enormous discontent, bitterness and difficulties, the like of which I have not seen before in my career in this place. In the debate on 4 July, there was broad canvassing of the issues, and I do not intend to spend time going over the whole canvas.
I shall raise one or two points in short compass in the hope that the Under -Secretary will be able to help me with information and with clarification. Most hon. Members will know that the suggested sum of £310 million was raised by the agency in its first year of operation. That figure appears in the agency's annual report for 1993-94, which was published on 4 July--the very morning of the Opposition Supply day.
As the Minister will know, in a letter to the Select Committee, the chief executive of the agency produced a figure of £312 million, which is a very minor adjustment, of which I would make no criticism. I wish to place on record some of the conclusions, which I hope I have justifiably drawn, from that letter, and which will be of some interest to those following the debate. I remember that, on 4 July, I asked about the contribution that had been made by the liable relatives section. I did not get a reply, but it was a detailed point, and I recognise that, in the hurly-burly of exchanges, not every point can be picked up.
If I have understood it correctly--I say that a little tentatively, because the figures still seem to be somewhat obscure in some respects--the amount of that £312 million
Column 477that is directly attributable to the liable relatives section and to arrangements that predate the Child Support Agency was £199 million. If we take that out, we are left with a figure for the first year of operation which is directly linked to the activities of the CSA, and assessments levied by it fall to £112 million. I say this in no sarcastic or hostile way, but that seems to me to be a startlingly modest figure against all the claims that were made.
If one looks at that £112 million, one will see that something else of interest emerges, on which I invite the Minister's comments. Apart from the £199 million for the liable relatives section's activities--its continuing legacy--we also find that £98 million is accounted for by the parents with care who are drawing family credit. Those people are of particular interest, because they give rise to the £73 million, which, rather surprisingly, popped up as the amount that was being retained by parents with care.
I shall come to that in just a minute. Let us deal with the £98 million. It is extremely helpful of Ros Heppelwhite to have supplied the figures. She gives a breakdown of that figure, and says : "Of the total of £98 million, £27.9 million offset benefit spending. The balance of £70.1 million was retained by parents with care due to the application of the disregard."
She went on to explain that.
I hope that the Minister will confirm that, or point out to me where I am wrong--if I am wrong--but it seems almost inevitable that the £98 million must also be split in terms of deciding what can be linked directly to the activities of the CSA, in the same way that the £199 million must be separated out to get the correct figure. I put this as an Aunt Sally, but it would seem reasonable to assume that the £98 million would have to be split between the liable relatives section activity carrying on from a previous year and new assessments from the CSA, in roughly the same ratio as the £199 million to the rest of the total.
Ros Hepplewhite's notes state :
"Information is not available on how much of the amount shown in the table for Family Credit"
that is, £98 million
"was arranged by the CSA."
I see no reason to think, however, that that split would be any different from the split represented by the £199 million. If I am right, another £60 million or £70 million, in addition to the £199 million, is not attributable to the CSA's activities but would have been paid and collected in any event under the liable relatives scheme. If that is correct, it is possible that as little as £40 million can be attributed directly to the CSA's first year of operation.
I recognise that I have reached a fairly dramatic conclusion, but it seems reasonably logical, give or take a few million ; we are talking in very large sums. When Ros Hepplewhite appeared before the Select Committee, it was put to her that effectively only £15 million--the £15 million enumerated in the appendix to the report that has just appeared--could properly be claimed as having been gathered in by the CSA. That may be a little harsh, however ; the agency may be entitled to the rather larger figure that I mentioned, for the reasons I gave.
It would be extremely helpful if the Minister would comment. He has the time : he will not be howled down by eager hecklers. I hope that I can speak even on behalf of the beleaguered Liberal Democrats who are in our midst, for we all know that they are men of peace. This is important ; we all want to know the definitive figure, and I think that my exposition has been reasonably clear.
Column 478Let me put my question in brutal terms : how much new money is in that £312 million ? It is self-evident that we can take out the £199 million, and that we must split the £98 million : we have that on the CSA's own figures. But am I right in thinking that that brings us to a figure of less than £40 million in the agency's first year of activity ? If so, is this not an extraordinary state of affairs, given the claims, hopes, expectations and trouble that have resulted from the whole operation ?
Given that we can expect a considered reply, will the Minister also give us some explanation of the benefits savings ? When I spoke on 4 July, I pointed out that, at that point, £310 million had been gathered in, and £418 million had been saved in benefits. I did not apologise for expressing some scepticism as to how £310 million could be translated into benefit savings so much greater than the total sum paid in maintenance.
Let me be fair to myself. I said then that I recognised that certain factors--particularly cases in which a claim for income support or benefit had been abandoned--might, by applying a multiplier, have produced additional savings to explain the more than 100 per cent. translation of maintenance paid into benefit savings. I understand that that is what happened in this instance.
As the Minister will know, the £418 million total includes the £199 million from the liable relatives total again ; that must be taken out immediately. In addition, it includes what are labelled--rather mysteriously, to the layman--"non-maintenance cessations", which amount to the noble sum of £138.2 million. As I understand it, non-maintenance cessations refers to situations when benefit ceases, presumably because of the activities of the agency and its approach to the parties in the case.
I am interested because I know that there are many reasons why the claims might be abandoned, and I can quote parliamentary answers from the Minister which show that. It may be that there has been a reconciliation between the parties, or that the party who has authorised the claim has returned to work, and there is no locus for the agency to intervene.
There are a variety of other circumstances. I am not clear about the basis on which it was decided when a claim, having been abandoned, should be seen as collusive desertion or some other form of fraud. That is important, and it is clear that not all the claims could fit into that category. Many of them might be claims that would have fallen by the wayside anyway for some of the other reasons that I have mentioned.
I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on this, because those of us who are engaged in the minutiae of the issue are genuinely interested in how the split was made. If no deduction was made for honest cessation of claims, the £138 million could be an optimistic figure. As it is a key figure in terms of justifying the £418 million, we should be told how it was arrived at.
Even in cases of fraud, perhaps the Minister could say a word or two about how the benefit saving was calculated and which multiplier was applied. I am aware that the Department of Social Security uses standard multipliers, and I have no doubt that the Minister will have them at his fingertips. I am afraid that I am not as versed as the Department in that type of detail. We should know, because page 8 of the CSA's annual report says :
"Just as the nature of the work carried out by the Agency has changed in comparison with previous systems, so has the basis for calculating some of these savings, thus giving a better
Column 479indication of the impact of the system on benefit expenditure." That is an extremely interesting sentence that is full of inferences and implications. However, on any reasonable interpretation, it is implying that the basis for calculating the savings in these cases has changed from that which has been used previously in similar cases. The report uses the words
"giving a better indication of the impact".
If it is more optimistic in terms of giving a higher savings figure as against what has been used previously, the House is entitled to know about it and to hear from the Minister.
I mention in passing the maintenance cessation figure of £16.3 million. As I understand it, that occurs when someone is floated off benefit ; in other words, the maintenance payment is so high that the benefit claim is excluded and automatically falls. If we can calculate the figure of £16.3 million, why is it impossible to calculate the number of people involved ? If we can corral the cases and quantify them to calculate the figure of £16.3 million, on that basis, we should be able to say how many people are involved. I have asked parliamentary questions about that and I have been told--this is an experience familiar to other hon. Members--that the figure is not available and cannot be found. Perhaps the Minister can help me. If the system cannot produce the number of people in this circumstance, it seems a little odd that it can produce a total figure of £16.3 million as the proceeds of benefit saving. I do not see how we can reconcile those two points. The Minister has some time in hand, so perhaps he will say a word or two about that issue. From that flows the final category, which involves the consequential savings in housing benefit and council tax which, at more than £28 million, are substantial.
I should like to understand the figures better in order to be able to assess the £418 million. Even if we assume that the figures are above board, we must take about £199 million--almost half of the £418 million--away from what has been produced by the CSA. I concede that the CSA's report contains a coded message when it states : "We estimate that, in total in 1993/4, the payment of maintenance exceeded £310 million in cases in which the Agency was involved. Nevertheless, it is evident that not enough of this yet stems from new arrangements, and that many absent parents were not complying in full with the assessments we made."
On a narrow inspection, and if one were in full possession of the facts, one could make a deduction from the phrase
"not enough of this yet stems from new arrangements".
Nevertheless, that is an inadequate way in which to flag up the fact that at least half the alleged benefit savings did not come from the activities of the CSA but comprised money that would have almost certainly been collected in any event with the run-on of what had been set up by the liable relatives section.
I shall deal hurriedly with a couple more points, as I promised that my speech would be of narrow compass. The Labour party has an agenda for change with which the Minister is very familiar. I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West said. There has been inflexibility, and I was especially interested in what he had to say about the collecting of information on the income of a spouse in the case where the so-called
Column 480absent parent has either remarried or is living with a new partner. It seems to me that the only reason for having that information is to calculate the protected income.
I wonder whether there is not a case for saying that, as long as the people involved are aware of the protected income rules, are satisfied that they would not benefit from them and therefore do not want to provide that information, they should have that privilege. Of course, they should recognise that they have no right to complain if they then discover that, had they returned the information and used the protected income rules, they might have benefited from them. However, I am sure that, like me, the Minister is aware of many cases in which an interim assessment has had to be made. That is in no one's interest.
I reinforce another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West. I, too, was fascinated by press reports to the effect that 40,000 of those who had been the subject of a mainstream CSA assessment were left with less than 70 per cent. of their net income as a result. That is a clear breach of the guidelines, which stipulate that a spouse should be left with 70 per cent. to 85 per cent. of net income--being left with even 70 per cent. puts one at the very bottom of what should be quite a generous range of possibilities.
Ros Hepplewhite told the Select Committee that 20 per cent. of cases fell below that level, although she said that virtually none fell below 60 per cent. However, the fact is that about one in five cases falls between 60 per cent. and 70 per cent.
We have not yet had the printed evidence but, according to press reports, the Secretary of State tried to minimise the number of such cases by saying that it was based on a rough sample,
that--typically--it dealt with people who did not have second families, and that they had no or low housing costs. However, it is a serious matter.
I should perhaps wear sackcloth and ashes. Protesting groups often told me that many people were being taken below the 70 per cent. threshold, but I expressed scepticism about that. In a sense, I now feel that I owe those groups an apology, because it is clear that the number of people affected in that way is substantial.
Something must be done about that. We cannot simply wait and see whether anything comes out at the end of the day. When we are faced with such a situation, it is essential that we secure a commitment from the Government to deal with it, and to re-establish the guidelines that they originally presented as an important part of the system that they were introducing. I hope that the Minister will say a word or two, not to minimise the point but to show what he intends to do about it.
That takes me neatly to my final point. I do not want to run over the arguments for an independent appeal procedure, or for the possibility of a disregard for dealing with clean-break settlements. The Minister is well aware of that agenda ; I hope that it will be part of his agenda too, and that he will consider it carefully. May I remind the Minister of our exchanges of 4 July ? I asked him whether he could
"give us any indication of any area in which he believes reform is necessary".
The Minister courteously replied :
"I shall come to that too in my closing remarks . . . because it is a serious point."--[ Official Report , 4 July 1994 ; Vol. 246, c. 113.]
We all know how time can overtake one when one is making a speech in this place. Sadly, the Minister did not
Column 481get round to dealing with the question or explaining what those areas might be. I do not criticise him for the omission, but he now has the chance to put it right.
I hope that he will be able to tell us the areas on which he is concentrating, and whether he accepts, as I hope he does, that there are genuine matters of concern that must be tackled.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Warley, West (MrSpellar) on securing the debate. As always, he made several constructive criticisms, as well as others that I consider less supportable. And, as always, I appreciate the manner in which he has put his arguments. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that developing a sustainable system for the delivery of child support is important, and that we are all genuinely trying to find our way through some difficult issues to develop a satisfactory system. I have often explained in detail the principles that underpin the new system of assessing child maintenance, and it would stretch the patience of the House if, at this late hour, I embarked on another reassertion of those principles. I shall therefore not set them out again, but it is important not to forget that once a measure has been passed we spend much time in the House dealing with extremely detailed criticism, and may forget some of the underlying reasons for the legislation--such as the position of lone parents on income support, the vast majority of whom do not receive maintenance. The House has touched on that subject before, but it was not raised one whit in the debate. Perhaps it is easily forgotten, and I am somewhat frustrated by the fact that in our concentration on the detailed effects of the Child Support Act 1991 and of the Child Support Agency we may forget about the other side of the coin. Other people--such as representatives of the National Council for One Parent Families--have been before the Select Committee to make that point, and there is an occasional interview on television or in the newspapers about the other side of the story.
Again, nothing has been said about that tonight. Shortage of time may be to blame ; this is a late-night Adjournment debate, and it is easy to forget the people whom the system was set up to support. However, it is worth putting on the record that it remains a principal concern of mine to try to ensure that the system works for the benefit of those people and that we do not forget the injustices of the previous system, which were among the reasons for introducing the current system. I do not forget that, even if other people apparently do.
I do not forget, either, the fact that the Child Support Act was passed with the universal support of the House, as something that we all wanted to do. The need for it was recognised at the time, and I am grateful for that, but when principles are put into practice they can sometimes be rather harder to swallow. However, that said, I do not stand here tonight to suggest in any way that the system works perfectly, that there are no problems in the system and that there is nothing about which the Government are concerned.
When the Act came into operation, we said that the Government thought it right to keep any new legislation under review. That is especially true in the case of a change
Column 482that has been described on more than one occasion by the Select Committee as the most major change in social policy since 1945. The Government showed faith in those remarks by ensuring that last February, after a period of reflection on the first six months or so of the working of the Act, they made changes based on their own observations and on some of the work of the Select Committee. The changes that we introduced included, first, a substantial increase in the minimum amount of income an absent parent would keep after meeting his maintenance liability. Secondly, there was a reduction in the additional element where there was a liability for only one or two children. Thirdly, there was a reduction in the amount included for the care needs of the children as they grew older. Fourthly, there was an extension of the arrangements for phasing in the new amounts.
Information is now starting to feed through on the impact of the changes. I once again appreciated the contribution of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden, (Mr. Dewar) but I may not be able to go into quite as much detail as he would like. As he understood, we have said a number of times that it is important to look at the impact of the February changes and to trace them over a period before considering whether and what further reforms might be necessary.
Our early signs are that as many as 44,000 absent parents have already benefited from the changes to the formula. On average, liability appears to have been reduced by about £9 a week. When one bears in mind the fact that the formula was designed to increase average assessments by around £20 to £30 a week, it can be seen that the changes are not just minor tinkering but a real and substantial adjustment to absent parents' liabilities. The House will recall that, on average, figures for maintenance under previous systems were estimated to be between £25 and £30 and that the new figures were supposed to be between £45 and £50. Average liability should, therefore, be reduced by some £9 a week, which is a reasonable sign that the changes made in February had quite a considerable direct impact. It would also be helpful for the House to note that the reforms have been of particular benefit to absent parents on low incomes or with second families.
The changes have not, of course, met all the criticisms of the scheme and some absent parents continue to be dissatisfied. It is, however, important to remember that in almost every case that the Child Support Agency has handled so far, the parent with care and her children are in receipt of income-related benefit. In contrast, the vast majority of absent parents enjoy a much higher standard of living. Two points arise from that.
The hon. Member for Warley, West again made his comment about feeling how unfair it was that so much of the maintenance collected went back to the taxpayer by way of the Treasury. I have never felt that that was wrong. The House, in passing the Act, recognised that, for too long, the taxpayer had been the unwitting supporter of separations between parties in the United Kingdom. I do not believe that the House can hold to that opinion and then criticise the work of the agency in ensuring that the taxpayer sees some benefit from increased maintenance payments designed not only to secure higher levels of maintenance for the families involved but to ensure that the taxpayer is not bearing so much of the burden. Bearing in mind the difference in income between the parties, there is some equity in changing the balance, which was previously so heavily weighted towards second families.
Mr. Spellar : Does the Minister accept the point that, even if the House and the Government wanted to make that change, to make it in such a drastic way has had a devastating effect on those families ? Transitional arrangements would have been a far more sensible and equitable way in which to restore the balance that the Government wanted.
Mr. Burt : The Government take the hon. Gentleman's point. That is why phasing arrangements were in place in the Act and that is why the phasing arrangements were changed in February to take account of just the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes. They were changed to ensure that where there were second families and there had been a written agreement or a previous court order, the increases in maintenance were carefully phased. That has been done and that is one of the things that has resulted in a change in the circumstances of absent parents, which the hon. Gentleman would support. Phasing arrangements have not been forgotten ; they are there.
A number of matters were raised, both by the hon. Member for Warley, West and by the hon. Member for Garscadden. I shall cover one or two of them, but I shall not be able to cover them all at this late hour. I want to say something about the performance and administration of the CSA because the hon. Member for Warley, West mentioned those important points. I want to mention them too.
It is perfectly straightforward for me to tell my colleagues that I am disappointed with the administration of the agency in its first year. The report was a fair and accurate reflection of the fact that the agency, its chief executive and those involved felt that their performance had not been as good as they wished ; they were up-front about that. A number of reasons were advanced for that, and I stand by them.
A new system was being set up from scratch. A number of assumptions had to be made about the operational workings of the agency and about how long it would take people to respond to the requests for information. Assumptions were also made about the ease of verification, and the like. Again, the House will know of the importance attached to verification, checking and the ruthless pursuit of accuracy on some occasions to ensure that the system works fairly on behalf of us all.
All of that has taken more time than was anticipated, and has resulted in a backlog of cases and--as most colleagues in the House will know--a backlog of correspondence, and the like. I regard some of those difficulties as being almost unacceptable to hon. Members, and I apologise. I am deeply sorry that the administration was not able to work as smoothly as we wished.
It is one thing to stand here and say as honestly and as fairly as I can that I am disappointed that the administration has not worked well. It would be another thing to ignore that and say, "Carry on, chaps. You must make do." We do not believe that that is right, and that is why we have taken steps to make changes to the administration and ensure better responsiveness. However, I warn my colleagues that there is a time lag because we are dealing with work that requires skills and trained personnel. We cannot simply draft in people and expect an immediate change in the workings of the agency. It takes time to train people and to see an improvement. I am sure that the measures that we have taken will show that.
Column 484I shall discuss in detail some of the things that we have been doing.
The Child Support Agency is currently putting in practice a range of measures to improve productivity and customer service. It is recruiting an additional 700 staff to work in areas where the agency has identified the need for the input of dedicated resources : reviews, appeals and customer inquiries. It is in the process of centralising the handling of incoming telephone calls by setting up dedicated call-handling sections in each of its six child support centres. These will handle all case-specific inquiries enabling child support officers to concentrate on processing their case loads. That is important.
The other week, I was in Birkenhead. The difference that call handling sections make is that, effectively, the calls that were being put through to business teams checking on the progress of cases, which disrupted that work necessarily, are now screened by telephone operators who have access to the information held by the business teams. The replies can be given, therefore, by the operators with the use of that access. That prevents calls from going through to the business teams, so they can get on with the job.
I have seen the work of the CSA centres. I have gone around on the floor and seen people constantly answering telephones and trying to deal with paperwork at the same time. I have seen the effect of that in Birkenhead and the quietness on the business team floors as they are able to do their work, in contrast with the business of the caller section downstairs. I know that call handling is just a simple, straightforward and practical thing that will pay a dividend for us all.
The CSA has established a centralised national inquiry line for the handling of general inquiries. The line will be connected to call-handling sections to allow for the direct transfer of calls between the two. It is planning to upgrade information technology support in local offices and to give local staff the facility to process case work on the child support computer system. That will increase the productivity of local child support officers and give agency managers greater flexibility.
The agency is also in the process of developing further the automation of its management information service, which already provides regular and accurate information on key performance indicators--although, as the House will know, not enough in crucial areas where the House has been asking for extra information. That is acknowledged by the Government and the agency, and the work that we are doing to improve the management system will help to answer some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Garscadden tonight. It will also enable the agency to deploy its resources more effectively.
Finally, before I come to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), let me say that the agency is in the process of introducing a standard operational model for its child support centres based on the best practices which emerged during the agency's first year. For example, the centres are streamlining the procedures by which they liaise with the Benefits Agency, which must make some adjudication decisions at some
Column 485stage of the process, and they are standardising the way in which their debt management teams operate. It would be premature to attempt to quantify the success of the improvements and many of the measures must be fully implemented, but some changes are already noticeable.
Mr. Barnes : One problem that I have discovered is that my constituents who are being dealt with by the Belfast office seem to get different information at different stages. It is almost as though two or three different people are dealing with the files in Belfast. An instruction sent on one day may be countermanded by another sent the following day. Constituents are left confused. Even after I have written to Ros Hepplewhite and I seem to have resolved the problem, it is then handed over to Belfast, where it is not resolved immediately. It is difficult to believe that any co-ordination exists. Another problem is created by the letters that are generally sent to constituents. Those computer-produced letters are unsigned and it is difficult to discover whether different people are handling cases and dealing with them in different ways.
Mr. Burt : The hon. Gentleman is right to criticise the fact that different information is provided to constituents or Members of the House. That is wrong and I understand that the approach be should consistent. Different people handle cases at different stages because the work is functionalised during different parts of the process. While it may be possible that different people handle the same case, the same accurate information should be offered at all times and properly given.
Some of the problems are due to the fact that the agency has been set up from scratch. Hon. Members have discussed before some of the operational problems that I have been open enough to outline again to the House tonight. I ask colleagues to acknowledge that it is for the agency to improve its performance markedly to ensure that the problems that affect colleagues do not persist for too long. I should like to put on record my great appreciation of the work done by the staff of the agency. Many cases are proceeding perfectly straightforwardly. The House will be aware that the CSA took on 850, 000 cases in its first year, sent out that number of forms and processed those cases. The staff are working well and are well informed. Each of the agency's centres has a notice board displaying letters thanking the staff for their work. I will not discuss the pressure under which those staff work, but the House knows my feelings, and I know the feelings of all colleagues about the unfair pressure under which civil servants, carrying out Government policy have been placed. That pressure has not helped either. The staff are working hard and they are determined to improve their performance at all levels to ensure that some of the difficulties are resolved. The agency is encouraged by the increased level of performance that has been achieved in the first quarter of 1994-95. More than half as many maintenance assessments were cleared in the three months up to the end of June--177,000--as in the whole of 1993-94. The number of cases now awaiting assessment is falling and more action is being taken to ensure compliance. In all those ways, the performance of the agency is improving considerably and will continue to do so. The hon. Member for Garscadden asked me about what areas we might be specifically concerned. The reason that
Column 486I have hesitated to pick out specific areas, and why I will hesitate again to do so tonight, is that it would be unfair for me to pick out two or three particular areas and say that we are concentrating on them. If I did that, people might say, "Oh. This is what the Government are going to do." I have already said that the Government keep the workings of the 1991 Act under review. Hon. Members have raised a number of concerns and they will know that, when the need for reform was proved, we responded in February, in good faith, with a number of changes. I ask the House to keep faith with that process again. When we say that we are keeping the entire workings of the Act under review, we mean just that- -nothing more, nothing less. I know that the hon. Member for Garscadden is not being mischievous, but I will not tempted down a series of roads to suggest that we are doing one thing rather more than another.
A number of matters have emerged. As the House will know, there are answers to
Mr. Dewar : I shall not try to chivvy the Minister out of his cautious stance. There is a difference between a Minister who says as a matter of routine that good Government Departments always keep systems under review and a Minister who has a determination to review things because there is a recognition that change is required. Can we at least have an assurance that we are watching the second type of Minister ?
Mr. Burt : I have said in the past, and I have repeated tonight, that the entire system is being kept under review, and that if the need for change is proved, the Government will make changes. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman as to intent and also on our approach to these matters.
I shall move on to one or two other matters before the hon. Gentleman chivvies me for not answering enough of his questions.
First, I shall deal with the 70 per cent. issue by quoting from the basic CSA leaflet that goes out to families. It reads :
"Absent parents who do not have other children of their own living with them will usually be expected to pay between 15 per cent and 30 per cent of this net income figure in child support maintenance." I said in Select Committee that typically some 70 to 85 per cent. of net income would be available. I do not think that I or the Government ever suggested that in all cases everyone would be in that banding. We said that the majority would be, and that typically people would have about 70 per cent. plus of their income, but not everyone.
Hon Members are right to say that evidence taken from Ros Hepplewhite and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State by the Select Committee dealt with instances where the figure had gone below 70 per cent. There are hardly any cases--I think six out of the sample that was taken--where the figure has gone below 60 per cent. The majority of the 20 per cent. of absent parents who are left with less than 70 per cent. of their net income after paying maintenance are left with between 65 to 70 per cent. The reasons for that are those that were given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before the Select Committee.
Those who are left with less than 70 per cent. of their income after paying maintenance usually have low or no