Draft Child Support Appeals (Jurisdiction of Courts) Order 2002 and Draft Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) (Modification and Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Wilshire: The Committee will be relieved to hear that I shall be mercifully brief. Two or three things concern me. The first might be described as reverse political correctness. I am occasionally irritated by

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certain things, and the Minister has helpfully put in front of us an explanatory memorandum. Paragraph 3, under the heading, ''Policy Objective'', says:

    ''providing the absent parent met his responsibility''.

It continues by saying that the agency would:

    ''make a payment to the parent with care in lieu of the maintenance she would have received.''

This is the first time in my life that I have suggested that the use of he/she in such a case would have been far more appropriate. Although errant fathers may well be the ones in the dock 99 per cent. of the time, there are occasions when the absent parent with the money is the mother. It offends my sensibilities as a man to always encounter the assumption that it is always he who is absent and she who is hard done by.

Mr. Turner: Does my hon. Friend agree that that could be corrected, without any resort to political correctness, by the substitution of ''he'' for ''she'' in the final line of that section?

Mr. Wilshire: That would half put it right. I will not labour the point—I have got it off my chest and I feel much better. I am sure that it is taken. Having said that, can I say what has been said before, that I, too, welcome—

The Chairman: No.

Mr. Wilshire: All right, Mr. Gale, I will not welcome the scheme but I would have done if you had allowed me to.

Whether we agree with it or not, an assumption is being made here that the procedure will be needed. It is all very well to argue that the procedure was in place and ought, out of fairness, to continue for a while, but that skates over the fact that the Government admit that cock-ups will continue into the foreseeable future. What happened to the wonderful, reforming, businesslike Government that can put everything right? Notwithstanding all their propaganda and rhetoric, they are now quietly admitting that some of the shambles that they have been looking after since 1979, or 1997, rather—[Interruption.] I shall continue—that was a Freudian slip but I am sure that the Committee gets my drift.

If the Government admit that trouble will continue, they should come clean and say how many cases they expect, because that relates to the financial implications of the measures. It says somewhere that the cost of the measures can be met from within the CSA's administration vote. To know that, somebody somewhere must have done a calculation based upon the number of cases and the length of delay, otherwise the notion has been plucked out of the air and is not worth the paper that it is printed on. Somebody must have found out how much this will cost. Will the Minister tell the Committee how many more bungled cases we have to look forward to?

It is, I suppose, quite sensible to maintain that, because things have been done in such a way, they should continue to be so, but we should ask whether three months is a reasonable period of delay. I have not been much involved in these sorts of issues in the 15 years that I have been here and some may say that it

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shows, but nevertheless, somebody somewhere must have decided that a three-month delay is reasonable, and I am not sure that it is.

We are being asked to endorse the idea that people can delay things within the CSA and that it does not matter initially, but after three months its does. What is magic about that three-month limit and what attempts are being made to reduce it? Should the limit be changed to two months? Similarly, what is the situation if somebody is kept waiting for two months, three weeks and four days? Does that mean that they do not qualify, but that a couple of days later they would? There is an awful temptation to do some paper shuffling, say that it is not our fault and pass the buck.

I would also like to raise the question of the new scheme, which may or may not be introduced in 2005—I, too, am worried about that magic date. Can the Minister tell us whether that date was plucked out of the air or whether it was set following a great deal of research? If he is suggesting that the scheme should continue until the new arrangements are in place, would it not have been simpler to introduce a draft order that provided for the scheme to continue not until some date plucked out of the air, but until such time as the new scheme is up and running? That would save us having to come back in 2005 when there is another Government foul-up because they cannot get the computer system right.

6.25 pm

Mr. Turner: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the regulations. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne about paragraph 3, which is not a minor matter. My able secretary and research assistant specialist in CSA matters and, not least, my better half has done a considerable amount of work with the CSA. The universal assumption among people to whom she has spoken at the agency is that the wronged person is female and the absent parent is male. When I was first elected, I went to a seminar conducted by the noble Baroness Hollis of Heigham, who made exactly the same assumption. Neither of us was impressed with that assumption. Indeed, on one occasion, when my research assistant made a telephone call to the agency on behalf of a friend who happened to be male, the agency assumed that, because the voice on the end of the telephone was female, she must be his estranged wife and proceeded to give her certain details about her friend's estranged wife. That is wholly unsatisfactory. Furthermore, the nature of the conversation made it clear that the agency's sympathy lay with the estranged wife, not with the person whom my research assistant was helping. Neither the agency nor the Department should make assumptions about the gender of the absent parent in dealing with child support matters. I hope that the Minister will agree with me on that because it is tremendously important.

The termination date in the regulations seems to be an admission that the new system will not be working until 2005. I find it hard to understand why it is

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necessary to move people to the new system in a phased manner, given that the only information about that will be required about an absent parent is their net income, the number of children in their care, the number of children for whom they are responsible and who are not in their care and the current assessment. I am surprised that Ministers are assuming that the new computer system, or whatever it is that is not working at the moment, will not be working in time for these regulations to terminate before 2005. Is the Minister saying that the computer system is unlikely to be working effectively before 2005, or is 2005 merely his latest objective for the implementation of the new system?

6.28 pm

Malcolm Wicks: This has been a useful debate. I welcome the broad support of the hon. Member for Daventry for our objectives. Hon. Members have understandably asked about the delay and when the new scheme will be introduced. I have nothing to add at this stage to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State on 20 March about the delay in introducing the new scheme. Testing of the new computer system is continuing.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked about the technology. He would be the second, because I would be the first, to suggest that we want to avoid a terrible calamity such as that which occurred when the Conservative Government introduced the CSA with computer technology that was far from fit for the purpose. We have learned the lessons, which may mean delay because we need to get it absolutely right.

The hon. Member for Daventry asked about the potential increase in deduction from earnings orders. The deferred debt scheme is intended to secure ongoing maintenance on a voluntary basis. Generally speaking, a deduction of earnings order is an enforcement measure. We do not therefore envisage that the deferred debt scheme will result in an increase in deduction of earnings orders.

The hon. Member for Daventry also asked about backlogs. We estimate that the backlog should be cleared by 2005, but there is always the possibility of a handful of difficult cases taking a long time to sort out. We were asked whether the scheme will apply to cases that arise under the new child support arrangements when they are introduced. The answer is no because the primary legislation will not permit that. We expect that cases will be dealt with and that maintenance will start flowing much faster than now given the simpler formula that was outlined by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. Arrears should not build up in the way in that they do under the current scheme.

Mr. Boswell: I had anticipated the Minister's response on new cases. If either party loses as a result of an administrative error by the CSA, notwithstanding the fact that the scheme is not in place, will there still be a mechanism for compensating a person for the extent of their loss?

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Malcolm Wicks: Yes, I can give that assurance. The current Department for Work and Pensions discretionary compensation scheme will cater for any—we hope that they are exceptional—cases of delay by the CSA in the new scheme, which was a point raised by the hon. Member for Northavon.

Mr. Webb: But that is different. There is a compensation scheme now, yet the previous Government saw fit to run a deferred debt scheme that was separate from the compensation scheme. Surely the CSA could still mess up one case and make the payment three or six months late. What will happen to those people? Will they receive compensation from the scheme and an analogue of the deferred debt scheme, or will they just get less than they would now?

Malcolm Wicks: As I implied, the purpose of the new scheme is that decisions will be made quicker and as a result of the new formula we will be able to spend less of our staff and general resources on assessment and more on enforcement, which is what hon. Members want. In exceptional cases, the discretionary compensation scheme will come into play.

We estimate that the cost of compensation to the persons with care will be in the range of £3 million to £5 million. Implementation and administrative costs are estimated at £40,000, with the cost of minor information technology changes being in the region of £10,000. The costs will be met from the agency's current budget.

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