Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)|
WEDNESDAY 22 MAY 2002
100. If we have picked up the statistics correctly
51 per cent of non-resident parents are paying in full at present.
How do you see that figure improving?
(Mr Smith) We have a target whilst we move through
the child support arrangements to move to 75 per cent compliance
levels and that we will be pushing for. Aspirationally I hope
we can move significantly above that when we get these arrangements
working properly as planned.
101. Moving on to figures about collectable
debt, and again looking at the statistics that we have been provided
with, you have a target to reduce the debt which is currently
around £286 million. How quickly do you see that being reduced?
(Mr Smith) We are achieving the reductions that we
forecast. I think we can do more on reduction this year. It is
aspirational. I am deliberately trying to shift resources where
I can get them out of mainstream areas in the Agency into enforcement
work. This is on slow burn because enforcement work is a skilled
activity and requires a good working knowledge of the law. Bringing
people up to speed quickly is not easy. I am looking to see what
I can do by additional support for people who do enforcement work
so that routine work we can shift down to somebody else's shoulders
and they concentrate on the skilled work and gradually build it
up. It is that impact over a period of years that will start hitting
that level of debt.
102. The legislation which we have passed has
hopefully given you an improved tool kit to chase up non-resident
parents who do not pay. Do you feel there is more that should
be done as far as improving that target?
(Mr Smith) Yes and no. I do not think we are looking
at this stage for any legislative improvements to the tool kit.
I think we need to look more rigorously at the constraints that
we impose on ourselves and how we use some of the current legislation
and the current tools that are available, many of which grew up
in the 1990s as the Agency went through a particularly bad period.
We may have put more shackles on ourselves than is, in the light
of current events, where we are now, sensible or practical. We
just need to go through a test of that over the next year or so
and say, "Is there more that we could do within existing
legislation, existing rules, to move faster and more forcefully
on some of the people who are quite deliberately seeking to evade
103. Can you give us an example of where you
feel the Agency constrains itself?
(Mr Smith) Perhaps the number of checks and referrals
that a case officer at the front line needs to jump through to
move a case towards a court hearing, for example. It may be that
we are in a world where we can trust people to take on more risk
around that and move those cases through the system more quickly.
That is the sort of thing we need to test.
104. Do you mean something other than bureaucracy
and delegation in the system?
(Mr Smith) You are tempting me on words I would like
to use myself but we do need to find a way of shifting cases more
quickly from the front-end of the process to the core. We need
to understand properly the risk associated with moving them more
quickly because the potential risk is that you end up taking action
on a non-resident parent that is not appropriate and is not the
sort of target where we ever share the view, "Hey: you have
got to get this guy into court very quickly because he has been
making a mockery of the system". It is wrong to do that if
actually the underlying assessment is wrong or we have done something
in the past that is inappropriate.
105. Is the interaction with the legal system
a frustration to you and your staff?
(Mr Smith) No. It works very well.
106. How effective will it be with the new proposal
of the threat of taking someone's driving licence away? What is
your feeling about that?
(Mr Smith) It is effective. We have taken a number
of cases up. We do not threaten to take people's driving licence
away. This is one of the sanctions that a magistrates' court can
impose. In some cases that is effective in encouraging compliance.
In other cases other sanctions are effective. It is a useful addition
to the armoury.
107. You may not know this off the top of your
head, but how many licences have been lost in the system?
(Mr Smith) They are certainly in single figures, maybe
as low as one.
108. We have some way to go there.
(Mr Smith) Yes and no. The name of the game on this
never was to have wholesale withdrawals of driving licences. The
name of the game is to drive up the compliance levels and I think
that the increasing awareness that we are serious about compliance
is fed by these stories that are floating about the place on driving
licence withdrawal and is having far more impact than actually
withdrawing licences left, right and centre.
109. So it is a psychological effect and sanction,
(Mr Smith) Yes.
110. It must be hard to measure that. Have you
any research on that issue?
(Mr Smith) Not specifically, but in terms of measurements,
in one sense the proof of the pudding comes in the eating and
our compliance levels are going up. They are going up because
of a range of factors of which that is one. It is very difficult
within that to say that driving licence withdrawals have accounted
for this tranche of it and management changes have accounted for
that tranche of it.
111. In one sense it does not matter if the
compliance rate is up because that is a good sign?
(Mr Smith) Indeed.
112. In some senses it is a scatter-gun approach.
What you have to look at is the end result.
(Mr Smith) That is what I am firmly fixed on.
113. You have actually touched on an area that
I wanted to ask you about and that was the use of courts to enforce
payment. Certainly from the constituents whom I have been dealing
with, they have a serious complaint about the delays that you
yourself have acknowledged are built into the system before the
CSA even contemplates using the courts, and sometimes years pass
before any decision is made to go to court. But then there also
seem to be very substantial delays once that decision has been
made. I was interested in your comment to David Stewart where
you said they were working well with the legal agencies. A constituent
came to see me only two weeks ago and she actually had a letter
from the Agency saying that at long last, after God knows how
many years, the issue was going to be referred to the court but
warning her that there were still going to be very long delays
before any final outcome. Where are the delays there? Are the
delays in getting cases scheduled before the courts through adjournments,
the usual things? When you say courts do you mean magistrates'
courts? Is there anything that we as a Committee can do to help
that? Are there any recommendations that we should be making about
your interface with the court and how we can best expedite matters?
(Mr Smith) I do not have detailed figures to hand
but my understanding is that the main cause of concern in magistrates'
courts is the willingness to adjourn rather than bring the thing
to a decision. We are working with the magistrates' courts to
try and explain more fully the background to what we are about,
what we have done before the case comes into court, and to encourage
magistrates towards reaching quicker decisions on cases that go
before them. If you want some more information on delays that
we are facing I can provide that.
114. Yes please, and also what sanctions are
available to the Bench in making a determination; what penalties
can they impose against what I assume is usually the non-resident
parent who is not paying up.
(Mr Smith) Indeed.
115. What powers they have to enforce penalties
against that individual if he is found guilty of not paying.
(Mr Smith) I received only in the last three weeks
my first letter of complaint about the speed at which the Agency
had achieved enforcement of a debt.
116. Frame it.
(Mr Smith) I put that as a small aside. It just represents
the seriousness with which we are trying to shift some of these
117. Will the situation also change now that
the new Act makes it a criminal offence to give false information?
Have you already used the legal system against individuals who
have given false information to the CSA or have you not, and do
you anticipate using the courts for that as well?
(Mr Smith) We have done and in fact a few weeks ago
we had our first successful prosecution on that, so we are starting
to enforce that and that should become more visible as we go into
the next year. The one thing that I was quite anxious about with
the new powers, particularly in relation to prosecution, was that
we did not start to run before we learned to walk on this. We
did not want to go out pell-mell trying to prosecute left, right
and centre for failing to provide information or for deliberate
errors in the information that has been provided. We are now starting
to build up a significant caseload of cases that we will progress
into the courts. That is important because that is part of building
the compliance culture that we talked about earlier but we do
need a steady drip feed of visible cases where people have declined
to provide information to the CSA and have been prosecuted, or
people who have attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of the
CSA and have been prosecuted. We need that constant drip feed;
otherwise we are not going to sustain and support our people at
the frontline who are dealing with the difficult telephone conversations.
The two have got to go hand in hand, which is why it was so important
to get that balanced package.
118. There are some questions in the existing
system and the work you have been doing on prospective reforms
but I cannot resist drawing your attention to this. You sent us
a letter with the Child Support Agency Business Plan 2002-03 where
you say that the reform has been delayed, trying to remedy the
fact that there is a bit of a delay here, and you have a number
of bullet points where you say you will continue to extend the
awareness of your ability to prosecute people who refuse to provide
information or deliberately provide incorrect information, and
a letter which came to me the same day via my colleague Professor
Steve Webb says that there have been no prosecutions and therefore
no convictions made under the criminal offence of non-co-operation
with the Child Support Agency. It is a bit of a worry. The serious
point is that there are about 30 per cent, nearly a third, of
cases which are still a non-compliant core of the caseload. You
have actually been making some inroads into making partial compliance
into full compliance and the statistics show that and that is
very welcome, but there is a residual core here of nearly a third
of people whom you are getting no change out of at all. You are
talking tough in the letters you are sending to Members of Parliament,
you are prosecuting nobody and you are not even taking driving
licences off them. What are you doing to bear down on that core
third who are thumbing their noses at you metaphorically?
(Mr Smith) That is fair. The outturns of prosecutions
and the outturns of driving licence withdrawal are not high, I
Chairman: They are non-existent.
Mrs Humble: There is one.
Miss Begg: Two.
119. I do not think the courts have enforced
them. I can tell you about that. In two cases the courts ordered
a non-resident parent to be disqualified from holding a driving
licence but the order was suspended. They are both now making
regular payments, so I suppose that makes the point.
(Mr Smith) If you can imagine a pyramid this is the
small part that is visible in the actual number of prosecutions.
Under the surface there is a significant amount of work being
done in preparing cases for prosecution and gathering information.
There is a real issue. If you are moving down the line towards
prosecution as somebody provides the information, actually you
get a really successful outturn on this. That is exactly what
you wanted. You want the information coming across, you want the
maintenance assessment in place to get a down payment flowing.
You do not want the prosecution. That is an absolutely undesired
6 Please refer to the letter from Doug Smith to the
Chairman of the Committee dated 20 June 2002, Ev 22. Back