Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 449 - 459)

THURSDAY 16 SEPTEMBER 1999

MR JOHN WHEATLEY

Chairman

  449. We may reconvene the public session and may I welcome John Wheatley who is the Head of Social Policy with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. I wonder if you would like to say a wee bit about your paper, we are grateful for the evidence that you have submitted, and say a bit about how NACAB see things and what your position is and a wee bit about what perspective the organisation has taken on the White Paper proposals.
  (Mr Wheatley) Thank you very much, Chairman, for the opportunity to give evidence to you today. The CAB service has been involved with child support since the outset of the system. The number of enquiries that we receive has been tailing off slightly, but last year we saw over 72,000 people with problems relating to child support. We have the benefit of seeing people on all sides of the equation, both non-resident parents and parents with care. Also, as part of the social policy work we do, we asked bureaux to send us specific reports of where they see policy failing individuals and we received 800 reports, so the reports that we receive are a fraction of the work the bureaux are dealing with day to day. Listening yesterday, I was wondering about our sort of central welcome to the move to a simple system. I think our welcome stems from the effect that we would imagine that would have on advisers' ability to explain liability and assessments to the clients that they see in front of them and also the ability of clients themselves to have a greater certainty about what their liability was, but hearing the evidence that the Committee has been hearing in recent days, I am not convinced that simplicity of itself is going to improve the system. In our response to the White Paper we welcome the lower rates for non-resident parents on lower incomes and we very much support the move to a more customer-focused service. I think one of the main problems has been the image of the service and the way it has been administered and anything which improves the way it deals with customers has got to be good. One of the strongest reasons that we feel able to give general support to the White Paper proposals is the introduction for the first time of a disregard for parents on income support. We think that is the first clear sign that the child support system is now about getting money to children. In the past it has been too easy to believe that it has been about saving money for the state, for the taxpayer, and whilst we have reservations about the precise amount, we very much welcome the introduction of a disregard. We generally accept the need for tougher sanctions, but we would suggest, as was suggested by Mr Pond yesterday, that that should only really be in the context of a system that is working properly and is seen by the majority to be working fairly. We would have strong reservations if sanctions were introduced in advance of the system working perfectly because then it would just be to the detriment of everyone concerned. We are also continuing to be concerned about the existence of the benefit penalty which we see deepening poverty for people who are already in it and the evidence that we get from the citizens advice bureaux suggests that that benefit penalty is in fact applied unfairly in a number of the cases we see where women are giving as much evidence as they possibly can or are in genuine fear of violence from their former partner and yet the benefit penalty is still applied, so we have reservations about whether that should exist at all.

  450. Thank you, that is extremely valuable. You are right to say that your particular value as an organisation in all of this is that you see everybody's problems from all sides and you have perhaps wider experience of the difficulties of the current system. How important do you think it is for the Child Support Agency system in the future for people to have the ability to have face to face interviews with staff from the Agency? Is that something that you think helps? Is there experience from your own local offices that that is something that is not available at the moment and should be? Do you have a view on that?
  (Mr Wheatley) Certainly it is going to help both advisers and clients. One of the key problems that we see at the moment is difficulty getting replies to correspondence, enormous delays in getting replies at all. If there is a proper system where people can get a quick interview where problems can be resolved quickly, where clear explanations can be given, that is clearly going to be beneficial.

  451. So the emphasis there is you are interested in quick interviews, it is not just the ability to get face to face interviews but if it is three, four, five weeks down the track then that is not really what is going to be required to deal with people's problems?
  (Mr Wheatley) I think even three or four weeks would be an improvement on the present situation. What we are seeing now is large numbers of non-resident parents who complain that they have heard nothing from the Agency for some years even since they filled in a form, they have heard nothing, and they are presented with a demand to pay £4,000, £5,000, £6,000 within a week very often. This is clearly not helpful. If liability was assessed, an interview was arranged within a month, say, to be reasonable, then people would know what their liability is.

  452. I am interested in that because you have the kind of service where people walk in off the street and get interviews within the next day or two, in my experience the CABs are able to do that and people appreciate that level of service, but you are settling for a month. Think carefully about this.
  (Mr Wheatley) The CAB service is staffed by 90 per cent volunteers, I am sure the CSA is not in that same happy position. Six hundred more staff is going to help. I think the commitment is there. We are already seeing improved communication at the adviser level by the introduction by the Agency of helplines specifically for advice agencies. That is improving the ability of advisers to get through to someone who is able to comment accurately on cases.

  453. You have telephone contact too, a combination. I am genuinely quite surprised that you would settle for a month, I would like to see half of that myself.
  (Mr Wheatley) We are reasonable.

  Mr Pond: It is a Dutch auction, is it not?

Chairman

  454. I am particularly interested in the kinds of households that Joan Humble was mentioning in the previous session, people who really have a willingness to pay but are locked into a set of financial circumstances which they entered into some time previously which are not easily changed, housing, mortgages, that sort of thing. Have you any evidence at all about the proportion of those who really want to pay who cannot pay as opposed to those who can pay but will not pay because they are both going to get hit with the same formula? Do you have a view on that?
  (Mr Wheatley) We do see people very much in that position where their commitments are such that they are having great difficulty meeting them as well as meeting their child support payments. Typically I have to say it is either because the wrong amount is being deducted by the Child Support Agency from their earnings or because there has been a delay in their assessment and they are being asked to pay an additional amount because of arrears. From our experience only in a smaller number of cases is there a problem because of the level of commitment.

  455. What is the NACAB view of that smaller percentage who are locked into housing costs and the rest? If it is a really well organised enforcement procedure they might find themselves in jail. What does NACAB suggest they do about that?
  (Mr Wheatley) It is an example of the phrase we heard yesterday of "rough justice". With any system that is based on a formula you are going to find cases of that kind. I do not think there is any simple way round it unless you start looking at discretion. I do not have a simple answer I am afraid.

Mr Dismore

  456. Can I ask a question on section 8 of your original paper from November 1998 on the Green Paper.[7] First of all on the timing of the introduction of the new scheme. We have heard from Government that the intention is to bring the new scheme into effect for new cases and phase in over what may be up to five years existing and older cases and assessments on old cases applied for but not finalised under the old scheme or in the transition period. What is your view about that?
  (Mr Wheatley) I think it would be a nightmare for all concerned. I think it would be perceived as unfair by those in the old system that people are being assessed under a new system. It would place an additional administrative burden on the Agency deciding which case to assess under which system, it would make life even more difficult there, and also be generally unfair in the context of a system that was introduced as a retrospective system. To then introduce a new system that is not retrospective seems just a policy mistake. I think it would be much better to move wholesale to the new system and deal with cases under the new system.

  457. What do you think the effect on your volunteers will be and the CAB generally if the present position is maintained?
  (Mr Wheatley) I think they are going to be in the same position as Agency staff themselves. It is going to be difficult to explain to people the logic of moving to a new system whilst retaining cases under the old system. It is going to be very difficult.

  458. From your perspective would it be better to delay the introduction of the whole thing if it meant that you could do it all in one big bang or with a relatively short transition period or stick with the original kick-in date?
  (Mr Wheatley) I think the former, it would be worth delaying. My heart sinks when I hear that the whole reform is dependent on the introduction of a new computer system anyway. I think it might well be prudent to postpone the introduction given recent experience with computer systems.

  459. The other thing I want to ask you about is something in 8.2.[8] Some of the evidence we have heard suggests that really the CSA should only be concerned in cases in which the taxpayer has a stake, in other words income support cases or Working Families Tax Credit, and where there is no benefits element the parties should be left to sort it out amongst themselves in the court process. The way I read paragraph 8.2 suggests the opposite, that the CSA should be available for everybody not just those involved in the benefit system. Am I right? Perhaps you would answer the suggestion that has been made in some of the evidence we have had.
  (Mr Wheatley) I do not have the benefit of having our earlier paper in front of me but I do think social policy is at its least effective when it is seeking to change people's behaviour. I think child support in the past has always been focused on recouping money that the state was paying out, that it was right that parents themselves should be paying. I think the direction of policy has always been much more focused on cases where there was a question of benefit. It does get more complicated and there are new features in the White Paper about removing the maximum liability and, heaven forbid, even introducing charges for the service at some later date. I think those questions are much more difficult for us to answer. We have traditionally been an organisation that deals not exclusively but primarily with people at the lower end of the income scale. I think it is difficult for us to comment on the effects on the rest of society but, equally, social policy measures of this kind tend to fail if they are only for a small part of the population. If there is to be general support for the principle that parents should bear a financial responsibility for their children then it is more likely to work if it is applied across the board.


7   Not printed. Green Paper responses are available from the DSS. Back

8   Not printed. Back


 
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