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10 Feb 2003 : Column 634continued
9. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): If he will make a statement on the treatment by the Child Support Agency and the benefits system of parents who voluntarily choose to share the cost of child maintenance. 
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): In the existing scheme for child support, the non-resident parent's maintenance liability reduces if care is shared for 104 or more nights in a year. In the new scheme, which starts for new cases from 3 March, reductions will apply if care is shared for 52 nights or more. For equal care, there are special rules. The new scheme gives more recognition and encouragement to non-resident parents who are trying to meet their responsibilities towards their children.
Chris Grayling : Will the Secretary of State look at the example of a constituent of mine who came to see me a couple of weeks ago? He and his former wife share equally the custody of their children, and the costs, but as a result of the changes to the children's tax creditunder which, up to now, they both received 50 per cent. of the benefitafter 1 April he will receive none of it and his former wife will receive all of it. What message should I give my constituent about the justice of that?
Mr. Smith: I am of course happy to look into the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. On child support reform, in the new scheme, where people are sharing carein other words, where a non-resident parent has care for 175 nights or morechild support will reduce by half, plus £7 a week for each child.
Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): My right hon. Friend is correct in trying to advise that where parents can come to some agreement on maintenance for a family, that will be in the best interests of everyone concerned. I congratulate him on trying to take us out of the minefield that the Child Support Agency has entered into, but will he comment on the situation that will develop after April, when the working families tax credit comes into being? The parent with care could receive a substantial increase in their income, which could be more than that of the absent parent. We are therefore creating an imbalance and an unfair system, and entering a further minefield. Will he take on board that point and ensure that that unfairness does not apply?
Mr. Smith: It was essential to get away from the complexity and the more than 100 assessments that had to be made in each case in the present system. There was general support in the House and among the general public for introducing a much simpler scheme. The basis of that simpler scheme is that the factors taken into account in assessing non-resident parents' liabilities are their net incomethe amount that they receive after tax, national insurance and pension contributionsthe child care responsibilities that they have in respect of the family in which they now are, and, as I said, how many nights' care are shared. Account is not taken of the income of the parent with care, but that is a feature of the simpler system that we are introducing, which has the great merits of ensuring that people know where they stand and of being more efficient to operate, thereby allowing child support resources to be diverted away from assessment, which currently takes such a large share, and on to enforcement, so that we can ensure that children benefit from the child support that they should have.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): The Secretary of State will be aware that the move from the old child support rules to the new ones will create lots of gainers and lots of losers. He will also know that people who are on the existing system may know what their assessment will be under the new system, but will realise that that assessment will not apply until they are switched to that new system. Has he received the reports that I have received from around Britain describing what is happening now that a date for the introduction of the new system has been given? For example, working lone parents who can see that they will gain some money under the new rules are contacting the Child Support Agency and saying, "We do not want anything more to do with you for the next three months", with a view to coming back in three months' time to register new cases on an enhanced maintenance assessment, so that they
Mr. Smith: Yes indeed: there are rules covering the period between the cessation of an existing claim and the start of a new one that are precisely calculated to attempt to close that loophole. A 13-week period is involved. One can well understand why those who have calculated that they stand to gain from the new system want to get on to it as soon as possible. It has been clear from the beginning that we would have to take the process in stages. First, we should deal with the new cases, including the other cases that are linked to them, and we should then move to conversion of existing cases once we know that the new system is working properly. That is the sensible way to proceed. We needed to deal with that loophole without again erecting a battery of rules and bureaucracy that is so complex that it starts to divert more resources away from the main job in handgetting money to the children who need it.
Vera Baird (Redcar): When the new system starts on 3 March, by and large, it will pay out less cash to single parents than before, according to the National Council for One Parent Families. The quid pro quo is that there should be better enforcement, which is the Government's stated aim. At the moment, about half the people who are ordered to pay maintenance do not pay all that they should and about a quarter do not pay anything at all. Can we be reassured that increasing compliance is at the top of the Government's agenda for the new scheme?
Mr. Smith: Absolutely. That is why I have mentioned this already in virtually every answer that I have given. This will enable us to put more resources into compliance. In making these estimates of gainers, it is also important to take account of the fact that, at the moment, those on income support who do not see the benefit of any maintenance paid will benefit from the child support premium of up to £10 a week.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I am sympathetic with the Minister in terms of the changes that he is making, but does he understand that my constituents would like occasionally to be able to get through to talk to somebody about this? The problems with the CSA remain its very slow response and the great difficulty in getting through to itnot only for one's constituents but for Members of Parliament. After all these years, we have still not managed to establish a system that is user-friendly in the sense that the people who really need to talk to someone can feel that there is someone there to help them and explain to them what to do. All hon. Members on both sides of the House would be much impressed if the Minister could give us some assurance that this really will be put right at long last.
Mr. Smith: I can give the right hon. Gentleman and the whole House the assurance that, yes, it will be better under the new system, for the reasons that I have already given. Of course, we have already improvedquite dramatically in some areasthe performance of the Child Support Agency. We have got case compliance up to 71 per cent. and cash compliance up to 68 per cent. and,
The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): More than 70 integrated Jobcentre Plus offices are now operating across the country and, by the end of this financial year, we aim to have increased that number to well over 200. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are planning to open an integrated Jobcentre Plus office in Burnley, and I would like to thank him for the support that he has given to local managers in trying to find a suitable site. We are still hoping that we will soon secure an agreement with the local council on a site that is suitable for our customers and compatible with local planning priorities. We have agreed to evaluate the sites currently on offer from the council, while also exploring opportunities for joint development. All options are being reviewed as a matter of urgency.
Mr. Pike : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he will want the people of Burnley to benefit from a Jobcentre Plus as soon as possible. I am also sure, however, that he will recognise my concern over the deadlock that exists at the moment. Is it not important that the Northwest Development Agency, as well as the Department and the council, should look positively at the development that the Department would like to have on the site, as it could surely include retail premises as well as the new Jobcentre Plus, thus benefiting all the people of Burnley?
Mr. Brown: I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for the constructive interest that he has taken in this matter. There is a real opportunity here to do something that will benefit the people of Burnley. Discussions are continuing, and if my hon. Friend would like to come and see me, and to meet officials and make his representations to them, I would of course be very happy to see him.