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CSA (Reform)

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What representations he has received on reform of the CSA; and if he will make a statement. [99060]

7. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): If he will make a statement on his plans to reform the Child Support Agency. [99067]

14. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What plans he has for reforming the Child SupportAgency. [99076]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): There is widespread support for radical changes to the current system. We have received a wide range of views on the detail of the proposals since the White Paper was published in July. New legislation on child support, announced in the Queen's Speech, will address the failures of the current system and put children's rights at the heart of the child support system.

Miss McIntosh: Page 7 of the Green Paper gave a written assurance that

We have now been told that all responses are to be treated as confidential apart from 110 from academic organisations. I gave a written submission, as did 34 Members of Parliament and more than 1,300 members of the public. Have these responses been deemed to be confidential to cover up the overwhelming opposition from the general public to the Green Paper proposals?

Angela Eagle: There was not overwhelming opposition to the basic restructuring of the CSA, although many comments were made on some aspects of it. Some responses have not been made public because they would disclose individual circumstances which it would be unfair to place in the public domain without the say-so of both parents involved.

Helen Jones: What steps will be taken under the new proposals to deal with absent parents who either refuse to co-operate with the CSA or give deliberately misleading information to the organisation, ensuring, in many cases, that parents with care have a long wait before they receive any money while others play the system to their own advantage?

Angela Eagle: One of the basic points about the new system is that in place of more than 100 different facts about the non-resident parent, three or four facts will be all that is needed to calculate maintenance. Non-resident parents can have a good idea of their liabilities if they have a calculator. We will have simpler assessments which will be made much faster. If the non-resident parent refuses to pay, deduction of earnings orders can be

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introduced. If the parent provides misleading or false information, that will be a criminal offence--for the first time--and subject to penalties of up to £1,000.

Helen Jackson: Has not the bungled way in which the CSA was introduced meant that, far from children being put first, there has been increased acrimony so that shared care arrangements have been jeopardised and sometimes have fallen down as a result of the CSA? Will the Minister assure me that shared care arrangements will be brought into the reckoning in the new reforms, and that a fair way will be found to balance financial obligations and care arrangements in the interests of children?

Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend and I could spend all day talking about the many things that have been wrong in the practice of the CSA and in the legislation that set it up. I believe sincerely that the reforms will do much to take away the acrimony. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the fact that we wish to encourage the sharing of care by increasing the allowance made in the maintenance assessment for time spent with the child by the non-resident parent. We hope that this will encourage estranged parents to work together, rather than using the agency as a further attempt to pursue their own vendettas against each other, and to put the child and his or her welfare at the centre of their thoughts.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): If the Minister is so keen to reduce acrimony between parents and to encourage shared care and shared financing, and as the Government are so keen to proclaim joined-up government, why are the Government delaying the implementation of part II of the Family Law Act 1996? What discussions is she having with the Lord Chancellor's Department on that matter?

Angela Eagle: The right hon. Lady has been in the House long enough to know that that is a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Could I invite the Minister to correct the Secretary of State, who seems to have got the wrong end of the stick? Will she confirm that about 350,000 parents with care, whose non-resident parent is in paid work, would have a lower maintenance assessment as a result of the new child support rates, and that the average reduction would be about £17 a week? Just to help her, that was in a written answer that she gave to the House only three weeks ago. Does not that reveal that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was correct? How is that fact compatible with the Government's rhetoric on child poverty?

Angela Eagle: I wish that the Opposition would stop trying to play one parent off against the other by talking about gainers and losers. The people who will gain from the proposals will be the children. The hon. Gentleman's analysis of my parliamentary answer would be absolutely accurate if 100 per cent. of people were paying maintenance. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, 1.5 million children are on the agency's books, but only 350,000 of those children receive any maintenance at all, and only 100,000 receive

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full maintenance payments. The reforms will get maintenance flowing and more children will be better off--everyone will gain.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Giventhe inept operations of the Child Support Agency, the continuing problems in the Benefits Agency and the difficulties that the Passport Agency has been through, have the Government considered that the problem may lie with the agency model? Perhaps we should consider getting back to a system in which civil servants and public service provisions are to the fore.

Angela Eagle: I am sure that my hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on the Passport Agency. After all this time, only 20 per cent. of women on income support receive their maintenance. The figure was the same the day before the Child Support Agency was set up. We must consider why the agency's existence has made no difference to the flow of maintenance. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members will agree that the formula was too rigid and prescriptive and there was simply too much to do, which is why we have gone for a very basic, simple and easily calculated formula.

Means-tested Benefits

3. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): What estimates he has made of the numbers of people receiving means-tested benefits (a) in May 1997 and (b) in May 2001. [99061]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): We estimate that the number of people in receipt of one or more of the means-tested benefits in May 1997 was about 8 million. We forecast that the number will reduce to about 7.9 million in May 2001, including those receiving the working families tax credit. The reduction reflects the Government's success in enabling people to get off jobseeker's allowance and back into work.

Mr. Brazier: The reply reflects the fact that unemployment is falling at this point in the economic cycle. Does the Minister accept that putting a large number of new people onto a means-tested benefit--the working families tax credit--and putting many of them on a combined tax and benefit withdrawal rate of more than 80 per cent. will in the long run militate against self-help, lead to a loss of self-confidence and encourage dependency?

Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman must be aware that our economic policies have reduced unemployment and increased the total number of people in work by 400,000, to the highest level ever. His comments about the working families tax credit are entirely wrong. It will boost the incomes of 1.5 million families by an average of £24 a week. Come the next general election, the Conservative party will find that its opposition to it will cost it hundreds of thousands of votes.

Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): My hon. Friend will no doubt have been encouraged to learn that over the first two years of this Parliament the number of income support claimants fell by more than 400,000, or more than 750,000 if one includes children and other

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dependants. Is not that proof that the Government are not merely talking about defeating poverty but are getting on and doing it?

Mr. Bayley: My hon. Friend makes the point extremely powerfully. The Government have set extremely challenging targets over the long term to reduce poverty. We have made a start and our policies are having the desired effect.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Will the Minister reflect on three facts: that pensioners resent being forced to go through a means test simply to get a decent income; that his decision to increase pensions by 75p next April will force thousands more into the means test; and that his policy of a state second pension and stakeholder pension will not touch pensioner incomes for a decade or more? Is it not true that the Government have no policy to reduce pensioner dependence on means tests for a decade to come?

Mr. Bayley: That is absolute nonsense. The Government have policies in the long term to reformthe pension system so that so many elderly people--the proportion is one in five at present--do not have to be dependent on means-tested benefits, and we are taking action now to improve the position of pensioners. Our predecessors, the Conservatives, simply increased the pension each year by the rate of inflation. On top of the 75p inflation increase this year, we have provided a £100 winter fuel bonus for all pensioners--that is almost £2 a week extra for each pensioner household.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Has there been a reduction or increase in the take-up of housing benefit, and how is the review of housing benefit coming on? Are we getting somewhere?

Mr. Bayley: The review of housing benefit is continuing, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will make an announcement in due course.

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