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8.40 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, especially after so many thoughtful and interesting contributions.

I shall concentrate my remarks on the Child Support Agency, but I shall first make an observation about war pensions. Many of my constituents work for the War Pensions Agency at Norcross near Blackpool, and I know how hard they work to get assessments right in the first place. I am also aware that sometimes they do not get them right, and appeals are made. I have three constituents who have been waiting months and months to have appeals heard. They are all elderly, and they cannot afford to wait much longer. I therefore welcome the clauses that will speed up the appeals procedure. I hope that my hon. Friends will also consider speeding up the assessment procedure in the War Pensions Agency.

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Turning to the proposals for the CSA, I am pleased that hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise the need for change. There is a consensus that parents have a responsibility to provide for their children. When the previous Government set up the CSA, almost everyone agreed with that underlying philosophy. The problems arose because of the practicalities of implementing the legislation. Clearly, there are lessons that we need to learn to make sure that the implementation of this Bill does not lead to the problems that we experienced last time.

The spectre of the CSA has hung over too many people for far too long. The agency has failed the children whom it was designed to help, but it has also caused anger among their parents--more anger than is necessary in the breakdown of any relationship. With the new regulations, we need to encourage parents to work together in the best interests of their children, instead of trying to avoid their responsibilities, as so many do.

We know from earlier contributions that the CSA has almost 1.5 million children on its books, but only around 250,000 are gaining financially from child support payments. As staff deal with up to 100 items of information in each case, huge delays are built into the system. As delays occur, so arrears accrue that non-resident parents cannot pay. When they cannot pay, they do not want to pay, so the whole child support system becomes discredited.

We have to remember that behind all the statistics about the CSA, there are real people whose lives have been blighted. Like many hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, I have dealt with many constituents who have suffered at the hands of the CSA and who come to me out of anger, frustration and desperation. I have met mothers who are totally unable to get any money from the fathers of their children. Some of those mothers have been married to wealthy or self-employed men who have avoided payment but continued to live an affluent life style, thereby not only causing anguish to their former partners but sending their children the message that they do not care. Something must be done about that.

Equally, there are second families where the fathers are paying their CSA assessments. Sometimes they cannot afford to make the payments because they accepted debts, often credit card or loan debts, at the breakdown of the previous relationship. They find that the CSA cannot include these payments in its calculations, but the debts still have to be paid. The CSA produces assessments that fathers want to pay but cannot. Constituents have told me how the CSA has failed them and their children. That is why I am pleased that the Government are proposing radical changes instead of tinkering with the system. Everything that could go wrong with the CSA has gone wrong.

The simplified formula that is set out in the Bill will help staff to do their job more quickly, efficiently and accurately. Soon after I was elected to this place, I obtained a copy of the CSA assessment procedures that the staff have to complete. It took me a long time to read it. I read it three or four times, and I still could not understand it. I have a deal of sympathy with the staff who were trying to make the assessments. I well understand how they made so many incorrect assessments. The new, simplified formula should help them to produce correct assessments at the first stage.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): My hon. Friend has made an important point. At present, the charter

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allows the CSA to take 22 weeks to respond to queries about an assessment. The new and simplified system should ensure that the turn-round is much faster than that. That alone will create a great deal of good will in rectifying injustices.

Mrs. Humble: I agree with my hon. Friend. The new system will help parents to have a clearer idea of how much they should be paying out and how much they are likely to receive. In many instances constituents come to me with complex assessments, not knowing how they have been arrived at. They do not understand why they should pay what they are being asked to pay.

I welcome the proposed £10 child maintenance premium, which together with the maintenance disregard for working families tax credit, will be a valuable tool in the fight against child poverty.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security. As a member of the Committee, I was pleased to take part in detailed discussions. Many people gave evidence to us and many heartfelt representations were made. The majority of those who made submissions in writing or who came to give evidence to the Committee were supportive of the reforms although there were one or two problems with them.

Paradoxically, the problem that was highlighted by the Committee's report and by people who gave evidence to us was that because so many people welcomed the proposed changes, there were concerns that clients under the existing system would feel aggrieved if the transitional period leading into the new system was prolonged. As the Select Committee's report points out, it will be difficult to operate two systems over a prolonged period. That could lead to a sense of unfairness.

I think that we all realise that if we cannot bring everybody on to the new system in one big bang, there must be a period of transition. We must ensure that the new system works if we are to ensure fairness for new claimants and for the old claimants who are transferred. I hope that there will be detailed debates on the Bill and that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench will offer reassurances to existing clients on the time scale that they can expect for the transitional period.

Consideration should also be given to existing claimants who want their cases to be reviewed during the transition period. Are such cases to be given new assessments that will be phased in, or will they be brought on to the new system? We must assure existing claimants that we shall examine such complexities as soon as possible, while doing all we can to ensure that the current system takes care of their best interests, and those of their children, as well as possible under the existing rules.

I recognise that, in part, the problems of the transition period will be resolved only if the information technology available proves reliable. I am no expert in computers and IT, so I listen to the advice that I am given by others. I hope that the new systems being considered by the Government for use by the CSA will be sufficient to deal with the complexities of both the current system and the new system that we propose to introduce. If they are, people will be assured of receiving a far better service than is currently provided.

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The new system, new technology and the training in dealing with claimants that staff are to receive are influenced by the changing, more complex family circumstances in which many children are now brought up. The Bill takes careful consideration of shared care arrangements. I welcome its provisions in that respect, in part because I want parents to talk to each other about the care of their children; it is in the child's best interests if apportioning child maintenance helps parents to do that.

I am also aware that the Bill and the preceding White Paper refer to first and second families, but there are many first, second, third and fourth families. I listened with interest to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith). I encountered a similar case, in which a mother applied to the CSA for support, but, on making inquiries, the CSA discovered that the father of her child had fathered another child, and it could not proceed with her application because of the confidentiality of the previous application. The family were left in limbo, despite the fact that the father had a responsibility to both children. I entered into an interesting correspondence with the CSA on that matter.

The Bill refers to children of a relationship who have an entitlement to support. I hope I understand correctly that that means all the children of a father and that any assessments will take into account and apportion the percentage payments across all those children. Dealing with such complex family arrangements is difficult, not only in terms of financial assessment, but when CSA staff talk to people on the telephone. I hope that Ministers will ensure that CSA staff training covers not only the new assessment procedures, but dealing sympathetically with members of the public from extremely diverse family backgrounds. I am sure that issues of confidentiality will be taken into account, but the basic point is to ensure that all children receive their full entitlement.

When the Social Security Committee visited Falkirk, we found that CSA staff were keen to do a good job. They want us to give them the tools that they need. I am sure that we shall do so.

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