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Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed across the country, and by all hon. Members, who constantly deal with the type of cases that he has been describing. Occasionally, however, we introduce disregards that have unforeseen impacts. Will he therefore examine possible interactions between maintenance payments and housing benefit, council tax benefit and all the other benefits?

Mr. Darling: As my hon. Friend knows, we are on the case. The working families tax credit went a long way towards reducing the tapers and disincentives that we inherited. We have already announced that we are examining the way in which housing benefit operates; it is a separate matter in itself, and affects not only maintenance but other benefits and many incentives.

A few moments ago, hon. Members were asking about parents who do not pay. In reply to the hon. Member for Macclesfield, I noted that 30 per cent. of parents on the CSA's books pay nothing at all. I should take this opportunity to outline some of the actions that we are proposing and that I believe will help.

First, when parents wilfully withhold information or lie to the CSA, they will face fines of up to £1,000. That is not a first resort, and they will be given a chance to co-operate. However, we cannot put up with a situation in which people are withholding information and we cannot process their claims. We should remember that, ultimately, the children--not the mother or the father--are the ones who are losing out. We shall therefore take those new powers.

As I said earlier, we shall also take new powers to appoint new specialist inspectors, not only to obtain information from individuals, but--if necessary, when we cannot obtain information voluntarily--to obtain information from employers and the self-employed. As I said, we shall also take powers to gain access to the Inland Revenue.

We can introduce those powers before the establishment of the new system, about which I shall say something shortly. The Government believe that if Parliament gives us those powers, we should take them now to tackle some of the problems that we are all too familiar with.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Yesterday, I spoke with a constituent who is owed £28,000 by her former husband, who is almost certainly a millionaire, but who has absconded to America. She has been told by the

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CSA that she cannot claim that money against any assets--which she believes are still in his name--that he might hold in the United Kingdom. Will the Government consider ensuring that, once they have been established, the debts of those who have left the country are chargeable against assets that they hold in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Darling: If the hon. Lady writes to me with the details of the case, I shall be happy to reply. Clearly, the points of principle that she raised can be explored in Committee, although we would not divulge the name of her constituent. The rules on recovering someone's assets are part of the general law on the recovery of debts. Nothing in the Bill directly impacts on that. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I am prepared to look at any suggestions that would tighten things up. However, we need to be realistic. Changing the CSA will not resolve all the problems, although I hope that we can address a substantial number of them.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Darling: I suppose so.

Mr. Bercow: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way in his characteristically gracious manner. Does he recall that I raised previously with the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), in the context of a constituent, the important issue of establishing parentage? I have perused clauses 14 and 61. Can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that from now on, in every case where an individual is willing to have a DNA test to prove parentage--or more particularly to prove non-parentage--he will be able to do so? It is a matter of the utmost importance to a constituent of mine.

Mr. Darling: I do not see why anyone who is willing to undergo a DNA test should have any difficulty in doing so, as that would put beyond doubt whether or not he was the father of a particular child. Another change in the Bill is that if two people were married to each other when a child was born, the husband is presumed to be the father of that child. That simply extends the provision that applies to Scotland, but for some reason did not apply to the rest of the United Kingdom. Where there is any doubt--

Mr. Bercow: Can such people insist on a DNA test?

Mr. Darling: Yes. The whole point of DNA testing is to put the matter beyond doubt once and for all.

We are taking powers that can be applied earlier to ensure that we can deal with people who insist on being difficult. When someone deliberately delays paying money to their children, we will impose a new penalty of up to 25 per cent. of the money due until they pay. We are also taking powers to make a temporary arrangement when there is difficulty in getting information from people. As a last resort, if someone will not co-operate, the courts will be given the power to imprison them and, at the court's discretion, to remove their driving licences.

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The measures that we are proposing will double the number of families on income support getting maintenance. As a result, some 600,000 children in the poorest families will benefit from maintenance for the first time.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Will the powers in relation to establishing parentage be used by the CSA even if there is no money to be collected? One obvious concern is to make it quite clear for future planning who the two parents responsible are, but the CSA seems to be saying that if there is no likelihood of gaining money from the suspected father, it is not interested in making the case a priority.

Mr. Darling: There will be money to collect unless the father is a student or a prisoner. Under the new system, everyone has to pay something to their children, so it will be worthwhile on a point of principle for the CSA to pursue these people.

Let me say a brief word about timing, which is a matter of concern to all hon. Members. We all agree that the need for reform is urgent. The CSA is already making progress within the constraints of the present system, but there is also widespread agreement across the House that we do not want to repeat the mistakes that were made in the 1990s. When the CSA was set up, it took on the entire case load and collapsed under the weight. To do that again would be absolutely disastrous. It is worth bearing in mind that the CSA has nearly 1 million cases on its books and deals with some 400,000 new cases a year. We are determined not to introduce the reforms before everything is in place. It is a large task. It is not just about new legislation but involves new information technology and significant changes to the way in which the agency works.

The agency's case load increased by some 80 per cent. over the past few years, so I want to ensure that we get the reforms right. I want them in place as quickly as possible, but no one would want us to introduce the new system if we were not satisfied that it would work from the start. If we did, we would revisit all the problems that arose in the past.

In the meantime, we have invested an additional £28 million in the system. As I said, we brought in the private sector to help to improve debt recovery, we are making more use of the telephone, the CSA is open longer, including at the weekends and in the evenings, and staff will meet people in the privacy of their own homes. We are now providing a nationwide framework of nearly 500 staff who can see people in face-to-face interviews. Shortly, the agency will also introduce statements that set out what has been paid and what is still due, which many people will find useful--not least hon. Members.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): One of the more chilling aspects of the explanatory notes to the Bill is the information that the CSA will shortly have a new computer system. I sat on the Public Accounts Committee long enough to understand that the installation of new computer systems in Departments has been an almost unmitigated disaster. May we have the Secretary of State's absolute assurance that he will ensure that the new computer system improves matters rather than making them worse?

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Mr. Darling: I certainly did not regard the information that we will have a new computer system as chilling, because I was more optimistic about it. Having been Secretary of State for Social Security for some 18 months, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I regard computers in much the same way as he does. Given the experience of Government procurement of computers, in my Department and elsewhere, I am determined that we should replace the entire Department computing system--it is antiquated and, in the middle of the next decade, spare parts for it will no longer be available--in manageable bits and so that one part of the system does not depend on another part to work. The problem with the plans that we inherited was that if one part of the system collapsed, it would bring down the rest. Such attitudes led to all the problems with NIRS2 and the benefit payment card.

We are negotiating with EDS and the consortium that it leads to procure a new computer system for the CSA. We have spent some time doing so, because we want to ensure that the contract is right. It is due to be delivered towards the end of 2001, but I want to ensure that it actually works before we switch it on and transfer the new cases, let alone the old ones, to it. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) can take it from me that I have had enough experience of NIRS2 and the failed benefit payment card to be very wary of the procurement of computers.

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