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Child Support Agency

4. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): What plans he has to improve the confidence of the public in the handling of individual cases by the CSA; and if he will make a statement. [99062]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): Our plans to reform the child support system were set out in a White Paper on 1 July. The new system will be effective and easily understood, ensuring that maintenance is paid regularly and reliably. The Child Support Agency is also being reformed to provide a service that is better focused on its customers.

Mr. Flight: May I have the Government's assurance that the computer system will be properly tested for the new system, simple though it is, because many of the problems with the existing system have reflected an inadequate and failing computer system? Secondly, will the approach be changed, because the absence of case officers has, in many of the cases I have dealt with, caused mistakes due to clerical error, with no apparent central

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responsibility for any one case? The new system may be simpler, but unless its software is efficient and it is administered well, it runs the risk of experiencing many of the same weaknesses as the present arrangements.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is right on both counts. The present computer system operated by the CSA is not very good. It was purchased by the previous Government and it should have been a lot better. I can assure him that the new system will not be brought in until we are satisfied that the IT systems can cope and also that the culture in the CSA has changed, because we have to offer a radically different approach. In the meantime, the staff, who still have to cope with a complex system, are making changes.

We have made changes to the decision-making process, so that things can be put right as soon as a mistake is discovered and parents do not have to appeal. In addition, we have introduced more face-to-face interviews for people who want them and more discussion over the telephone, which can sometimes resolve problems. However, I have to tell the House that until the new system is introduced and becomes operational, we have to operate under the existing system. While we will do our best to ensure that it is improved week by week and month by month, some of the problems that we are all familiar with will continue until the new system, which I am determined will work far better, is introduced.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): No one doubts the Secretary of State's commitment to making the system work better, and indeed it would be difficult to make it work worse, but is not the hazard involved in the length of time the changeover is taking the fact that many people are in real trouble because they are not receiving assistance from the CSA? I had three cases on Saturday--each one was genuine--and unless some urgent action is taken, many people will not receive assistance. Some people feel that the agency does not investigate when they provide evidence and others are loth to get involved with the CSA because of its apparent incompetence.

Mr. Darling: I understand entirely the point that my hon. Friend makes. She will appreciate that, at the moment, before any calculation can be made, some 100 pieces of information have to be obtained from the non-resident parent. Sometimes that is difficult, and even when the agency gets the information the position can change before the application is processed and the amount due to be paid is calculated. I do not apologise for that; it is simply a matter of fact.

The present system is inherently complex and difficult to operate. As I said to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), we are making changes within the agency to improve performance. It was woeful in the past, but it is improving. Unfortunately, the increase in the case load of some 60 per cent in the past few years is putting additional strains on a system that was already creaking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that she wanted change as quickly as possible, and I understand that. Unfortunately, it will take primary legislation before we can make any of the changes, and that will be included in the legislation that will come before the House shortly. As the hon. Member

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for Arundel and South Downs said, the changes are dependent on a new IT system, which we are in the process of procuring. However, I repeat that it will help no one, least of all the 1 million children who will gain under the new arrangements, if we rush our fences again. By doing that, we should end up with exactly the same problem, with which we are all too familiar.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us the exact target time in which Child Support Agency staff should return telephone calls to members of the public? Furthermore, according to exactly what criteria will individuals under the new system be able to appeal against decisions under the flat-rate formula?

Mr. Darling: It is made clear to the staff that they should return calls as quickly as possible. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that performance is sometimes not as good as it should be. However, we have put some £28 million more into the agency this year to ensure that we retain some of our best qualified staff and to improve things.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that earlier this year we introduced a new decision-making and appeals process throughout the social security system, which is now being rolled out across all the agencies. Instead of individuals having to go through a full-scale appeals process, which is what happens at present, under the new arrangements, people on the front line will, for the first time, be able to put matters right when the facts are brought to their attention.

Disability Living Allowance

5. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): If he will make a statement on the progress being made by his Department in improving the accuracy of testing for eligibility for disability living allowance. [99065]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): We are making progress on work to ensure the correctness and reliability of awards of disability living allowance. We are doing so in consultation with organisations of and for disabled people.

Mr. Borrow: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I recognise that there will always be cases in which the decision on eligibility is debatable. However, a number of constituents have sought my help in the past 12 months because of perverse decisions or recommendations by doctors carrying out medicals for DLA eligibility. My concern is that the Department should monitor doctors' performance in carrying out such medical checks. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the number of cases in which perverse decisions are made is reduced, because the unwarranted removal of DLA eligibility creates a great deal of distress and hardship for constituents everywhere?

Mr. Bayley: My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. Let me reassure him and the House that the Government's approach to DLA and other benefits is to change the delivery system so that the decisions are right in the first place, and continue to be right thereafter.

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We have made significant changes to the way in which the medical services operate since they were contracted out to Sema just over a year ago. We monitor the performance of medical board incentives and doctors, doctor by doctor. When performance strays from the norm, follow-up management action is taken with the doctor concerned.

We are also introducing more rigorous training for medical services doctors and more rigorous tests before such doctors are employed. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that we recognise the problem that he describes and are taking action to deal with it.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): But is there not a conflict of interest here? Doctors obviously want to remain on the panel, but if they find in favour of applicants too often they might find themselves off the panel.

I share the experience of the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). In a recent appeal, a young gentleman suffering from multiple sclerosis was refused DLA because he said that he probably could walk 102 yd, or whatever the silly distance was. The whole system and the forms are weighted against people who suffer from an illness that is partly physical and partly not. Will the Minister urgently consider the need to review the initial forms?

Mr. Bayley: I reassure the House that doctors employed by the Benefits Agency have never been remunerated according to the decisions that they make. Such a system has never existed, and will not exist in the future. Doctors must make the best clinical judgment. There is no pressure on them to err in the claimant's favour, or against the claimant's favour. When we review doctors' performance, through the review that I mentioned in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), management action is triggered as a result of variation from the norm in either direction; discussions about a doctor's clinical practice then take place.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Does not the Minister appreciate the real distress caused to many people with disabilities when they are reassessed despite the manifest difficulties that they have? What proportion of appeals is allowed? Will he give me an absolute assurance that the initial assessment process is not used to reduce the number of benefit recipients to those who are sufficiently articulate or well advised to appeal successfully?

Mr. Bayley: The assessment process was agreedwith disabled peoples' organisations, and with those organisations that represent and speak for disabled people. They wanted a self-assessment system. The form used is a long one, but it allows people applying for benefit to put their own views. That is the primary basis on which the award is made.

When this Government took office in 1997, 59 per cent. of appeals were successful. Although the proportion has now fallen to 48 per cent., it is still too high and the Government must go further. We are, however, moving in the right direction, and we are doing so in consultation with bodies that represent disabled people.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Does my hon. Friend agree that the disability benefits system works better when

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disabled claimants understand it more clearly? Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of local disability information and advice line organisations, which provide advice to disabled people?

The Government have introduced much excellent legislation on behalf of disabled people, and have changed the benefits system for the better. Will my hon. Friend consider working with local organisations to set up or support information seminars? Such seminars, which would have to be held in more than one locality in a region, would help disabled people to understand the system. Would that not save time spent on fruitless appeals and on the other problems described earlier?

Mr. Bayley: I agree that local disability information and advice workers have an extremely important job. In fact, on Friday evening in Birmingham, I spoke at the conference of the Alliance of Disability Advice and Information Providers. My hon. Friend will know that I recently made a couple of presentations in the House to inform hon. Members of what the medical service of the Benefits Agency is doing to improve the quality and consistency of decisions. I shall certainly consider taking those presentations out on a roadshow with voluntary bodies up and down the country.

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