Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 270 - 279)




  270. May I reconvene the Committee and welcome Andy Farquarson who is here representing the National Association of Child Support Action, a body which has been active in the field since the early days of the Child Support Agency. I think your colleague Michelle Counley is unable to be with us this afternoon. If that is so can you tell us what your relationship and what your office is in the organisation and what her relationship is and maybe make a short opening statement and we will take questions from there, if we may.

  (Mr Farquarson) Michelle is the newly elected chair of the association and she sends her apologies for her absence. I was expecting to be here to support her and also to be supported by our statistician who is in Holland. Ms Counley cannot attend because her sister is having a baby whom we very much hope will not later become the subject of a child support order! I am the immediate past chair and authorised by the Committee of NACSA to speak for the organisation this afternoon. I very much feel I am here alone not only literally but also metaphorically. Listening to the evidence so far there seems to be a fair unanimity that the scheme proposed by the Government will be the panacea, the way forward. I am afraid my organisation takes the dissenting view. We do not believe that this is the way forward. Furthermore, we believe that the Government has missed a golden opportunity to make a really new start in child support. We see the White Paper proposals as reform of the existing system, substantial reform I grant you, but reform nonetheless. We have campaigned long and consistently for a different system. My personal belief is that the Child Support Agency is almost beyond reform. That said I concede that the present Chief Executive has made great strides towards improving the service ethic of the Agency. Most of the points I would raise are in our policy response document which with apologies is rather prolix but before I do I would like to quote something Frank Field said in the Channel 4 documentary.[1] I will paraphrase as I have not got my glasses with me. He said that when parliamentarians of all parties agree, then that is the time for the electorate to be worried and for the taxpayer to look carefully at the proposals before Parliament. So that would be our starting point, that the mistake in 1991 and the mistake again in 1995 was insufficient scrutiny. I do not believe that will happen this time. I think the lesson of insufficient scrutiny has probably been learned and well understood. Thank you.

  271. Thank you. Your organisation say that the CSA is irredeemable. Does that mean that you would want to revert back to the system that pertained prior to 1991 when the Agency was brought into being? What is the alternative or should there be one? Are you saying that the thing should be abolished altogether full stop?
  (Mr Farquarson) Obviously there must be an alternative. We do not advocate a return to the courts as they were because we recognise also that particularly in the areas of enforcement and collection the court system let down parents with care. We do not accept the argument, however, that one of the great failings of the court system was inconsistency. We believe that inconsistency is inevitable because the issues are complex. Every family has different circumstances. Geography can affect it, as one of the members of the Committee observed this morning. House prices in London are enormously higher than house prices in my own area in the Midlands and again further north. So we do not accept that as a criticism. We do not advocate that we return to the court system as it was. Equally, we do not believe that child support is purely an administrative process and, furthermore, we think it is anomalous that virtually every aspect of family breakdown and separation is dealt with in one fora with the exception of child support which is dealt with by a different department of government. We look, as we say in our submission, for a unified, entirely new professional service that looks at all aspects of family breakdown that all comes together probably under the aegis or guidance of the Children Act 1989 and that would in our view best come under the aegis of the Lord Chancellor's Department so, yes, a family court or family mediation or family tribunal service that did have discretion. We realise that there would be in that a cost to the taxpayer. Given the cost to the taxpayer of the present system, that may sound like a bitter pill to swallow, but in ten years' time I do not want my successor sitting here saying "Told you so". We had this in 1991. This was going to be the answer to every lone parent's prayer. It has not been. We genuinely do not believe that what is proposed in the Green Paper and White Paper is an answer to anyone's prayers.

  272. If you had your wish and set up this law family centre way of tackling the problem do you think it would get to the position where people would be more willing to comply with the demands that were placed on them?
  (Mr Farquarson) Yes. I think compliance is an issue that the Committee have heard evidence on from virtually every organisation represented. I think Nick Mostyn this morning summed it up. The key to compliance is two-fold, firstly effective sanction and we have no problem at all with enforcement of legal and moral responsibilities. The second key—and I think this is the crucial one and goes to your question Chairman—is that compliance is dependent upon a perception, particularly on the part of the payer rather than the payee, of fairness and I do not think that it is very easy for the Government to sell to the general public the notion that a rigidly enforced formulaic non-discretionary system that does not, to use a metaphor, give them their day in court is fair. I also strongly contest something that was said under Chatham House rules so I cannot attribute it, that simplicity equals fairness. Personally to me palpably it does not. It may have merit in other areas but I do not think it equals fairness. If you do not have a perception of fairness then compliance becomes a real problem.

  273. A final question from me before I turn to Andrew Dismore. That means that you think that the White Paper proposals if they were to be implemented would result in the same level of unrest, anger and disruption that we have seen in past years if this White Paper is translated into a new set of legislation that the people who are the payers, as you describe them, do not like?
  (Mr Farquarson) I need a crystal ball to answer the question categorically. It is my belief that it will stir up new anger, a different hornets' nest whilst not assuaging the anger of the people in the existing scheme. I think the danger where one disregards totally the parent with care's financial circumstances, her income, her capital, her overall financial position, and I know what the Minister will say in justification, and levies 15 per cent from the paying parent to the non-resident parent of itself will bring into the CSA a huge raft of so-called private cases so you will have another group of discontented people. I think we cite in our submission that it will bring in professional people with a lot of experience of campaigning and/or complaining. Equally, I do not think it will meet the anxieties of those in the present system. We have heard a lot of evidence about the difficulties of the transition period. Chairman, you asked earlier is the anger still there. In my experience, yes it is. It has now been channelled from the streets and from the bands into this place, our mass lobbies, our letter writing campaign, our exhortation to members and people who turn to us for help to take the matter to their MPs' surgeries. I hope we have brought it back to Parliament but the anger is still there, subdued yes, and of course as with any system the initial reaction is always more extreme than subsequently so I do not think, quite honestly, that you are going to see 10,000 people sitting down on Westminster Bridge. I do not believe that will happen, but I do not think on the other hand that your post bags will be any lighter, that our lobbies will be any less well attended or that our letter writing campaigns will not continue.

Mr Dismore

  274. The Independent on Sunday last month[2] quoted from one of your publications directly as follows: "NACSA cannot guarantee its accuracy, usefulness or even legality and reminds readers that any decision to make use of this information is theirs alone". If that is the case how can we be sure that what you are telling us today is accurate, useful, legal and not other adjectives we might choose to use?

  (Mr Farquarson) The quote is from our so-called Survival Guide. It is ways of dealing with the CSA for parents with care and for non-resident parents. You cannot take any of the evidence that I give you as quantitative research. We are not a research organisation. The evidence that we hear is anecdotal, the evidence is qualitative. Everybody in NACSA does this not as a hobby but does this in their spare time. Most of those giving evidence to this Committee have had either a professional involvement, lawyers for example, or are researchers or directors of charities working in the field. They can give you the statistical evidence that you want. We cannot nor do we claim to.

  275. Do you accept the definition of yourselves given by some members to quote from the Independent on Sunday who "openly describe themselves as `pocket revolutionaries'". Do you see yourself as one of those?
  (Mr Farquarson) Do I see myself? I was rather under the impression having not read the IoS article that that sobriquet was attributed to the Minister. I may be wrong.

  276. Not according to this article.
  (Mr Farquarson) No, I do not see myself as a pocket revolutionary. I see that as rather demeaning. I know that some members of our organisation probably do consider themselves as such but we are a broad church and certainly not policemen.

  277. You said earlier on that you had no problem with the enforcement of moral and legal responsibility.
  (Mr Farquarson) Personally, no.

  278. That is what you said.
  (Mr Farquarson) That is what I said.

  279. How do you square that with quoting from the same article the group offering tips on delaying the introduction of CSA payments including failing to return documents or "forgetting" to include relevant information, and returning to the CSA their correspondence unopened marked with the words "gone away" or "not known at this address"?
  (Mr Farquarson) How do I square those two?

1   "Can't Pay, Won't Pay"-broadcast in three parts on 12, 19 and 26 September 1999. Produced by Brook Lapping. Back

2   8 August 1999. Back

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