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6.21 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) has given a vivid account of the problems that arise from the Child Support

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Agency. On this final day of Parliament, he has done a service to the House in securing this Adjournment debate to talk about the problem in general. Such matters arise in Question Time, but in this debate he has been able to refer to the CSA's basic inadequacies--and there are many.

It would be fair to say that in many constituencies, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, many surgeries concern this one subject. If we had been asked in 1991, when the Child Support Act was introduced, whether that would happen, we would have said that we had never heard such rubbish. We have always been used to dealing with housing and social security matters, which form a great proportion of our postbags--but then came the CSA. We were told that it would resolve the problem; it was better than having the matters dealt with in the courts; and, what is more, it would provide women in particular with money that they had not had before. The fact that stares us in the face--my hon. Friend referred to it happening in his area--is that we are being inundated with complaints.

It is true that, when Members of Parliament write to the CSA in Belfast, the case might be pushed to the top of the queue temporarily, but it is also true that a hell of a lot of cases never get anywhere near that when people do not approach their Member of Parliament. If, as my hon. Friend said, so many cases concerning the CSA are being referred to the ombudsman, it is time that we asked ourselves: is this Act working well? Initially, many people said that the problems were just teething troubles; there was a big backlog, but everything would be sorted out in two or perhaps three years. My hon. Friend is saying that, after five years, the system is not working.

I do not agree with the Social Security Committee either. I think that it has glossed over the matter. When the few Members of Parliament who serve on that Committee give the impression that somehow the matter is being resolved, I do not accept it, because I am still having to deal with the same number of cases in my constituency--probably more--as I did when the CSA was set up. We must look at the matter afresh.

I have never seen so many people lobbying Parliament on one issue over five years as I have on the CSA. A lobby on the CSA came to the House only a few weeks ago. Last year, there were several. I went outside the House of Commons one day and said to the lobbyists, "What are you lobbying for?" I always see whether anybody is lobbying and usually try to join them and help them along the way. Those people said, "We've come to lobby on the CSA." I said, "I met them last week." They said, "But we are 'Police against the CSA'." There were 250 people in a line.

The idea of the CSA might have sounded good at the beginning--and obviously did--but after five years, it is obviously not working. Over the past two or three years, some of us have called for it to be scrapped. The House has heard the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton. He approached the matter in a reasonable, moderate way, and has come to the conclusion, like me, that it is time to take a fresh look. I shall be with him when the next Labour Government get into power on 2 May, to try to find a better method. He says that we should return to the courts--that might be necessary. Somebody said that the CSA would save the Treasury

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a lot of money. I would like to know how much, because it has certainly cost a hell of a lot in administration over the past five years.

The question is not one of a few odd cases in a constituency up in Yorkshire. We are saying that the problem is widespread, that it is pretty clear that Belfast is not getting on top of it and that it is time to take a completely fresh look. We should not leave the Social Security Committee to make a few humdrum remarks. If after five years the Act is not working, it is time that we had a fresh one to replace it.

6.26 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Andrew Mitchell): I congratulate the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) on securing the last Adjournment debate of the Parliament. It is a particular pleasure for me to make the final speech of the Parliament because on 6 May 1992 I had the somewhat dubious privilege of making the second speech of the new Parliament when I seconded the Loyal Address to Her Majesty. I recognise the concerns that were expressed by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), who has taken a great interest in improving the Child Support Agency on behalf of his constituents over the two years that I have been the Minister with responsibility for it, and has brought a number of cases to me which we have together been able to resolve.

I should like to deal with the three individual cases about which the hon. Member for Normanton expressed concern and on which he was kind enough to advise me before the debate. He also mentioned another case about which I do not have details, but if he would let me have further details, I shall undertake to give him additional information on it. My officials will get back to him tomorrow on any outstanding questions.

The hon. Member for Normanton has written to me about one of his constituents, Mr. H, who was concerned that the broad-brush allowance in the formula for travel-to-work costs would not meet his needs. We recognise that, although the formula is correct in the vast majority of cases, there will be a small number of cases where limited discretion should be allowed. For those reasons, we introduced the departure scheme, which can cover travel-to-work costs in certain limited circumstances. Mr. H has since made an application for a departure. His application is being dealt with. It is currently at contest stage, and the papers have gone to the parent with care. She has until 27 March to respond.

In the second case--that of Miss B, who is a parent with care--there has been an inexcusable delay of seven months in assessing her maintenance. That was in part due to the large volume of applications at the CSA centre. We have, as hon. Members will know, addressed problems of high workloads by simplifying the rules governing the scheme, and I intend those changes to ensure that the poor standard of service suffered by Miss B is a thing of the past. When the agency has obtained details of the absent parent's current circumstances, all action required to complete a maintenance settlement will proceed. I have specifically asked the agency to ensure that that, and all other action on Miss B's case, is treated as a priority.

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The third case that the hon. Member for Normanton raised was the case of Ms A, a parent with care and involving two absent parents. The problems in that case centre around the large amount of information that is required to ensure a fair outcome. One of the absent parents has not been co-operative. That has caused difficulties in enforcing maintenance which were compounded by mistakes made by the agency. The agency has now imposed an interim maintenance assessment on the unco-operative absent parent and enforcement action is being taken, but maintenance has yet to be paid. For the other child in the case, the next step in the application is for the relevant notification to be issued to the Inland Revenue to obtain the absent parent's employment details, if applicable. Following that, the case will be fully investigated with regard to the possible imposition of an interim maintenance assessment or completion of a full maintenance assessment.

I wish to apologise for the delays in the agency's handling of the cases. They are now being treated as urgent. Obviously, the agency's primary concern is for the children in each case. In the cases mentioned, the agency is working towards fair maintenance assessments and will continue to do so.

I shall move on from specific cases to the general comments that were made by the hon. Members for Normanton and for Bolsover. Many of their fears are now being addressed and resolved. It is a truism to say that the agency had a difficult start. The Social Security Select Committee described its introduction as the biggest social change for 40 years.The sheer scale of the change was not adequately appreciated on either side of the House.

At the end of the first year, work was outstanding on 550,000 cases. Only £15 million had been collected or arranged for direct payment in the first year. However, in 1994, the agency's second year, maintenance collected and arranged exceeded £187 million--a more than twelvefold increase. In 1995, that figure almost doubled to £301 million, and in the present year the figure has increased again and looks likely to be almost £400 million. The agency now collects and arranges as much each fortnight as it did in the whole of its first year of operations. Four child support agency centres each collected £4 million in January alone. Within three years, I estimate that the agency will be collecting £800 million a year, three quarters of which will go to the parents with care.

The House may wish to reflect on the scale of the improvement in the lives of children which will result from the huge increase in the flow of child maintenance, to which they are rightly and fully entitled. The improvements reflect a steadily increasing number of active cases with a maintenance assessment--up to 345,000 in March 1995, and to 460,000 in March 1996. By November 1996, the agency had more than 545,000 live cases.

As hon. Members will know, the agency has had to deal with a continual backlog. That backlog must be cleared by April 1999, when the new computer system will start operating. I have therefore given instructions that the situation should be closely monitored month by month, over the next 24 months, to ensure that the eradication of the backlog is accomplished. I and the senior management of the CSA have good reason to be confident that the full eradication of the backlog will be achieved in the next 24 months.

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There has been a similar improvement in the accuracy of assessments. By March 1996, 79 per cent. of assessments checked were correct to the last penny. This year, the agency expects to meet its target of 85 per cent. of assessments being correct. That level of accuracy compares well with benefit assessments--for example, for income support--which are generally less complex. The agency has been effective in combating fraud and containing social security expenditure. It has consistently saved the taxpayer nearly three times as much as it costs, which answers a specific question by the hon. Member for Bolsover. Between April 1993--when the agency was launched--and March 1996, the agency achieved nearly £1.4 billion in benefit savings. Net operating costs for the period were around £500 million. In the current year, through 31 December 1996, savings of more than £354 million have been recorded, against net operating costs of £146 million.

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