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5.9 pm

Sitting suspended.

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1105

6 pm

On resuming--


Jobseeker's Allowance

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): It is my honour to hand in a petition from the citizens of Newcastle upon Tyne concerning the jobseeker's allowance. The petitioners extend to the House the normal courtesies of this occasion and go on to say:

The petition is signed by Councillor Gerard Nugent, Councillor William Dodds, Councillor Sheila Spencer, Mr. Fred Copley and some other 1,000 citizens of Newcastle upon Tyne.

To lie upon the Table.

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1106

Child Support Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Coe.]

6.1 pm

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton): This debate is about the Child Support Agency and the manner in which it has provided its services, which inflict massive injustices on families throughout the United Kingdom. It is the last Adjournment debate of this Government and it is appropriate that it deals with an issue that is causing so much trouble for so many families. Hon. Members on both sides are constantly being charged by constituents to take action to help families who are caught up in the inefficient way in which cases are dealt with by the CSA.

My complaint about the CSA is not new, but it is not without good cause. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it was the Prime Minister who, in 1990, first suggested that an agency dealing with child support should be set up. In April 1993, the CSA began to operate. Many hon. Members have registered their complaints over the past four years about the way in which the CSA has treated many of their constituents. Since 1993, I have had cause to write to Ministers requesting investigations into many cases in my constituency, although assurances have been given that efficiency in dealing with cases will improve.

The CSA came into operation in April 1993 and there was then uproar throughout the country about its operation. Families were split up and it has been alleged that many people committed suicide because of the severity with which the CSA then operated.

In November 1993, I presented a petition to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), who was then the Minister responsible for the CSA, charging him to investigate certain issues that had been raised by constituents about the administration of the CSA. Assurances were given then that the CSA would be as efficient as Parliament intended it to be. During the debates that we had on the Child Support Bill, which introduced the CSA, we demanded efficiency. When I received the Minister's reply saying that the CSA would be as efficient as Parliament intended it to be, I took his words in good faith.

On 2 December 1993, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) secured an Adjournment debate in which he registered concerns about the work of the CSA. During that debate, assurances were given that the CSA would be more efficient. On 6 December 1993, the Minister told me that no changes were to be made to the powers of the CSA. There was a move away from trying to improve the CSA at that time.

On 15 December 1994, there was a debate on the CSA in which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare(Sir J. Wiggin) stated:

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1107

    and equitable and less complex formula can be devised, there will be no substantive improvement in the management or operations of the CSA or its handling of cases."--[Official Report, 15 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 1096.]

There we have someone who has been a Member of the House for a considerable time outlining his concern about how the CSA, after two years in operation, was affecting his constituents. I am witnessing problems similar to those expressed by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare.

In July 1994, there was an Opposition debate calling for improvements in the work of the CSA and an end to the injustices brought about by it. During that debate, assurances were again given by the Minister that the CSA would improve its performance. On 23 December 1994, the Minister sent a letter to Members assuring us that there would be improvements to the CSA. He said:

I shall demonstrate tonight that there is a lack of efficiency in the CSA.

On 20 March 1995, we debated on Second Reading the Child Support Bill, which was designed to make changes to the original CSA legislation. Again, the Secretary of State gave assurances that there would be prompt and efficient service. He said:

There has been a history of assurances and promises, but I have not witnessed any change in the number of cases that I have had to pursue in my constituency.

Many written and oral questions have been tabled to Ministers, by hon. Members on both sides of the House, expressing serious concern about the way in which the CSA is operating. One such case is that of a constituent, Ms B, who has two daughters and whose husband left her in February 1996. She informed the CSA straight away, but has received no response to her application and no answers to her letters. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security for responding to my letter of 17 March, when I sent him details of that case. In his reply, he said:

Ms B's

    "position are exactly those we introduced the arrangements to help."

Also, a letter dated 5 March from the agency to me states:

    "The Agency's Belfast Centre tell me that on 28 March 1996 an application for child support maintenance was received from"

Ms B

    "and on 19 April a maintenance enquiry form was sent to"--

her partner--

    "Regrettably, no further action was taken on the case until 20 February 1997".

That means that, for a full 12 months, no action was taken, and that is a recent case.

I also felt the need to write to the Minister about another constituent, Mr. B, who travels 24 miles per day to his employment. He applied for a travel allowance,

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1108

but that was denied to him because the CSA claimed that he was travelling only 14 miles to and from work. When I inquired about that, I found that it was because the agency has a broad-brush approach. Any broad-brush approach that changes an actual mileage of 24 to 14 is unfair and is not in the best interests of the people we represent.

The Minister advised me that my constituent would be contacted, but in view of the exchange of correspondence between the CSA and myself, I should have thought that it would have been courteous of the officer dealing with the case to let me have a response to the point raised with the Minister. My file is not yet complete. I have received assurances from the Minister and been told that the CSA is dealing with the matter, but have received no response from the CSA. I hope that that sort of thing will not be allowed to continue and that I shall receive some notification of the action that has been taken on that case.

On 5 March, I wrote to the Minister about the case of Mrs. A, who has been pursuing her claim for maintenance through the CSA, which keeps requiring information that she has supplied on more than one occasion. The agency keeps sending the same form, which is frustrating for the claimant and demonstrates that it is either using delaying tactics and is delaying finding out why my constituent is not receiving maintenance, or is requesting the same information over and over again, because it is totally inefficient.

Those cases are current. I am talking about correspondence of 5 March this year. On 13 February, I had cause to write to the chief executive of the CSA, Miss Chant, requesting information on a constituent who had regularly been making maintenance payments through his bank--through a banker's order--but who received a letter early in February advising him that a deduction from earnings order had been issued to his employer. The payments were being made, but because of the way in which the various offices of the CSA operate, his employer received the order, which was embarrassing for my constituent. The fact that that letter was sent to him when he was making the payments merits investigation. The ombudsman investigates only cases involving compensation, but I think that my constituent should be considered for compensation.

Another constituent, Mr. F, ceased work because of ill health and is now on a pension. Although he notified the CSA, he is still being charged the same level of maintenance as when he was working. As the maintenance amounts to more than 50 per cent. of his pension, one can understand his concern. That matter has been referred to the ombudsman.

I could describe numerous cases. These matters should be investigated. I have here a letter dated 14 March--this week--from the CSA stating that Mr. H

Mr. H

    "to contact them to make an agreement to pay regular child maintenance plus an amount towards the arrears which have accrued. This he did . . . on 4 December".

On 3 February, Mr. H was advised that he had made no payments. On the following day, the agency wrote to tell him that it had received the payments, but that they had

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1109

not been credited to his account. That is a recent case--these are not historic matters. I ask that the issue be investigated.

Finally, The Times today contains an article about the CSA and a report of the Select Committee on Social Security. It says that there has been a problem with the backlog of cases and that

It is not creditable if only one out of three people who are looking for assistance are getting it from the CSA. The article continues:

    "The MPs praise the agency for a 'significant improvement' in performance since the agency started work in 1993. The committee has previously described its administrative performance in its first 18 months as 'dire'".

That is the base from which the report comes--the Committee thought that the CSA would fold and that it was in a dire situation. Although the report may have been creditable at this stage, it shows that the agency has not fulfilled Parliament's expectations on efficiency.

I draw the attention of the Minister to another report, published on 19 March--48 hours ago--by the parliamentary ombudsman. It says:

A quarter of all complaints referred to the ombudsman concerned the CSA. The report continued:

    "Despite the measures taken by CSA to improve performance there has been no reduction in the number of complaints against the Agency referred by Members of Parliament . . . The issue of financial compensation arose in a large number of cases, particularly CSA cases, on which reports were issued in 1996 . . . The Ombudsman obtained compensation for many of those whose cases he investigated. In his report he stresses the importance of fairness and consistency and says that the principle of redress should apply not only to those whose complaints he investigates but also to the 'vastly larger number of aggrieved who take up their concerns either direct or through their Members of Parliament.'"

In other words, the ombudsman is saying that when payments have been made, but an attachment of earnings order has been imposed, the persons to whom I referred should be compensated because of the problems generated and the unfairness applied by the CSA.

I therefore consider that, far from the CSA improving efficiency and bringing forward measures to support claimants, we are witnessing many people suffering because of the CSA's inefficiency. I am totally disillusioned with the CSA. It has had sufficient time to honour all the promises and assurances, but has failed to do so. If that is the CSA's record, I consider it a failure. I suggest that if the Minister--perhaps it is not for the present Under-Secretary, but for a Labour Minister--cannot improve the situation so that people get satisfaction, we should return to letting the courts decide maintenance.

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