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Africa (Conflict Prevention)

13. Hugh Bayley (City of York): What assistance his Department is giving to conflict prevention in Africa. [93180]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Ministry of Defence contributes to the Government's conflict prevention efforts in Africa in close co-operation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development through the interdepartmental conflict prevention pool. Together, we are also working with our

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partners in the G8 and Africa to increase the impact and effectiveness of existing and emerging conflict reduction efforts.

Hugh Bayley : In view of the important contribution that British military advisers have made to the search for a durable peace in southern Sudan, will my right hon. Friend look at the prospects for building a ceasefire between the Ugandan Government forces and the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda? Will he especially take advice from our high commissioner in

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Kampala on the views of members of the Ugandan Parliament who come from northern Uganda as to whether it might be possible to broker a ceasefire there as well as in southern Sudan?

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend is a specialist on all matters relating to Africa and raises a most important issue: how we take forward conflict prevention. At all times, we must examine the whole range of practical options that can be delivered. I shall certainly take account of the views that he has expressed and ensure that they are actively considered.

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Child Support Reform

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): With permission Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the implementation of the child support reforms.

As the House knows, the Government are reforming the child support system to ensure that more children benefit from regular maintenance. That will get support more effectively to parents with care and their children, help non-resident parents meet their responsibilities and tackle child poverty.

The new scheme will be more transparent and easier for parents to understand. It will also be easier for the agency to calculate maintenance and enforce payment so that children have the support that they need. It will be based on a simple rate so that non-resident parents will know in advance how much maintenance they must pay. For example, non-resident parents with net incomes of £200 to £2,000 a week will be expected to make payments—based on 15 per cent. for one child, 20 per cent. for two and 25 per cent. for three or more—from their net weekly income; that is, after tax, national insurance and pension contributions, and after the same percentage allowance for any children in their new family.

For non-resident parents with net incomes of less than £100 a week and those receiving income support and jobseeker's allowance, child maintenance will be set at a flat rate of £5 a week. For those with incomes of between £100 and £200 a week, there will be a sliding scale. There will be specific provisions for cases where the care of children is shared.

The introduction of the child maintenance premium will mean that for the first time parents with care receiving income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance who are on the new scheme can keep up to £10 a week of any maintenance paid for their children. That will give them a real stake in making child support work.

The changes we have brought in since 1997 will help, too. The Child Support Agency is more customer focused. Levels of compliance have increased; the agency now collects over £200 million more each year in child maintenance than it did five years ago. The number of complaints is well down; for example, those referred to the chief executive by Members of the House have fallen 28 per cent. over the past three years.

Last March, my predecessor, now the Secretary of State for Transport, announced that the introduction of the new scheme would be delayed until the Government were confident that the new information technology worked effectively. That was the right decision and was generally welcomed on both sides of the House, as well as by voluntary groups.

Last September, I wrote to all Members updating them on progress. I said that testing of the computer system had been progressing satisfactorily over the summer so that we were in a position to pilot the new IT for some cases on existing rules. Those pilot arrangements have worked well and are operating across the country. Both senior officials and I are now satisfied, on the basis of the careful and comprehensive testing, that the system will deliver the level of service that our customers have a right to expect.

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I am pleased to tell the House that new cases will be calculated using the new rules from 3 March this year. New cases are those where liability for maintenance begins on or after 3 March. They will come on to the system at a rate of 30,000 a month. I should remind the House that we always planned to introduce the changes in a phased way. We will start in March with new cases, and then convert the existing 1.1 million cases later, when we can see how the arrangements are working.

However, some existing cases will be brought across to the new scheme earlier than others—primarily those that become linked to a new case. For example, if an application calculated under the new scheme were made by a parent with care in respect of a non-resident parent who was already liable for maintenance in a different case, it would be neither fair nor workable for people to have liability simultaneously under two different schemes, so it is best to move those linked cases on to the new system together. We will, of course, write to existing clients to explain how they will be affected by the changes and to tell them that they need do nothing further until they are contacted by the agency.

I am satisfied that the IT system will deliver a level of service that is acceptable, but with any new system of this size, even after exhaustive testing, there will be some bugs to be sorted out. We have put in place systems and procedures to deal with that. We are also improving arrangements for responding to inquiries from the public, advice agencies and hon. Members. Tomorrow, I shall write to hon. Members with details of an MP-specific hotline that is already in place in all the agency's business units. The agency will do all that it can to ensure that the new system gives a better service to clients.

On the financial implications of this announcement, my predecessor told the House in his statement on 20 March last year that there would be additional costs. The system has proved to be more complex than had been originally thought, and we have reached a negotiated agreement with EDS to share those costs, with it meeting its share under the contract. The amount that the Government will pay has risen by about 7 per cent. over the term of the contract. Although any extra cost is unwelcome, an increase on that scale is not at all unusual for a complex project—whether in the public or private sector—and it is justified to deliver this important reform.

The implementation of the new IT system is the key to bringing in the much-needed new child support scheme, with its better, fairer and simpler system for calculating maintenance. It will help us to target resources to make sure that more maintenance is actually paid, getting more money to children more quickly. That is the right policy. I believe that the decision that we took to delay implementation last March was right, and that it is the right decision to proceed now.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. In fact, more than that, I welcome it with some relief after years of delay.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the new IT system was originally promised for October 2001; then April 2002; and then, in March last year, it was delayed with no new date fixed at all? Although millions of families have been kept waiting, the latest CSA annual

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report—in typical new Labour style—claims that it has already delivered the change agenda. It says, "target achieved", with one of those ticks in the box as well.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House about the reasons for that delay? We need to know, not least because it is very relevant to the bill for the delay. EDS says that the problem is that Ministers kept interfering in the details of the system. Ministers may, understandably, have a different version of events, but we know from the Secretary of State's statement that the Government will now pay more as a result of that delay. That implies that they accept some responsibility for what has happened. The Secretary of State did not tell the House how much more they will have to pay. We are talking about a project valued at hundreds of millions of pounds, with very significant cost over-runs. How much of that cost will be borne by the taxpayer? The House is entitled to know.

There are 1.5 million children in families covered by the CSA. We all know the problems of the CSA, which have been brought to the surgeries of all Members of the House. Can the Secretary of State give the House any more information about the handling of existing cases? More than 1 million families are still in the dark after today's announcement. When will they be moved on to the new IT system and the new formula? One Minister said in a Committee that it would take a year; another said that it would take five years. What is the Secretary of State's estimate, which will enable existing cases to know where they stand?

The Department has several major projects on its hands. The Secretary of State is introducing a new system for paying benefits in the spring, the national rollout of Jobcentre Plus, the new pensions service, the new pension credit in the autumn, and all the Chancellor's pet tax credits, which are also being changed. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am pleased that Labour Members welcome all those changes, and I hope—especially if they have welcomed them—that they, like me, will seek an assurance from the Secretary of State that they are all on time, on budget and deliverable. Surely the lesson from the disaster with the IT project for the CSA is that the Government have significant problems delivering all these changes. Will the Secretary of State learn lessons from that sorry episode and apply them to the other big projects piling up in his Department? Millions of families will face uncertainty and delay unless he can guarantee to the House that the projects will be delivered on time and on budget.

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