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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on a subject that is so important to the lives of his constituents—CSA staff, and the parents and children whom the agency exists to serve. I am delighted to be responding to my second Adjournment debate on the CSA in one day.

Let me begin by emphasising that my ministerial colleagues and I are committed to the improvement of public services across Government, and specifically to the aim of creating an efficient, effective child support service. Modernisation of public services is vital to ensuring that our constituents receive the services to which they are entitled, and that taxpayers' money is properly spent. As one of the largest Departments, the Department for Work and Pensions is significant in the drive for efficiency and quality, as is the CSA itself.

The child support reform programme aims to create a child support system that is simple, transparent and easy for parents to understand. As my hon. Friend knows,
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the new child support scheme was introduced in March 2003. A vital component of the reform programme is the new information technology system, which is essential to the delivery of the scheme.

In introducing such sweeping and major reform to an organisation, we have made it a priority to maintain a good level of service for clients and to ensure minimal disruption. We did not want to make the mistakes from which the agency suffered when it was set up in 1993, so we decided to introduce the new scheme for new clients only in the first instance. Only when we could be satisfied that the new scheme was working well, and were confident that the system could cope with the large number of cases—more than a million—that would have to be transferred, would we decide when old scheme cases would migrate and be converted. I believe that that incremental approach was the most sensible and appropriate, even though I understand the frustration of those who want to see the new, simpler and fairer system in place immediately.

Although in the majority of cases liabilities will change under the new scheme, new liabilities will in any case be phased in via a series of steps to allow parents to adjust to the financial changes. It is worth remembering that if one parent sees an advantage in moving to the new scheme, the other probably will not. We are keen that all clients should benefit from the new reforms, but it would be irresponsible to move old scheme cases to the new scheme until we are sure that the IT can cope properly.

Inevitably, as part of the efficiencies that modernisation brings, it was always planned that the number of staff would reduce as the reforms were implemented. The agency has been planning that for some time. I am sure that my hon. Friend is well aware of the unexpected difficulties that the agency has encountered with the new IT system, and I can confirm that payments have in fact been withheld from our IT contractor, EDS—Electronic Data Systems—of between 15 and 20 per cent., to take account of that non-delivery. Those problems have impacted on some clients, and I want to take the opportunity, for the second time today, to apologise for that.

We must ensure that disruption for clients is kept to a minimum. Inevitably, some clients will have complained about the service that they have received, and the agency acknowledges that in some cases, the service that it has provided is not of an acceptable standard. I know that the agency places great emphasis on ensuring that complaints are properly dealt with, and during the past year it has improved the way in which it handles complaints, including accepting and registering complaints by telephone to make the process quicker and easier for clients. That has inevitably led to an increase in the overall number of complaints logged, although the number of complaints in relation to the old scheme has actually decreased.

It is not yet possible to set time scales for when all cases will be converted on to the new scheme, although I wish that I could do that. We will not do that until the IT system is working effectively—to do anything else would be irresponsible, and do a disservice to our clients and constituents. Where the new IT does work well, the feedback from staff and clients has been very positive: they say that the system is much quicker and simpler.
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Performance has improved and continues to do so, and there are plans for improving the system to prepare for the migration of old scheme cases.

The delays that the child support reform programme has encountered have meant that plans for staff reductions in the agency have been revised, but the fact remains that the new scheme will not only improve the quality of the service but release resources through greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. The agency is currently undergoing a review of the business to ensure that the required reductions in the number of staff will not impact adversely on the service to clients, or prevent the successful implementation of the rest of the reform programme. That will ensure that greater efficiencies in working practices are identified and implemented.

Doing business by telephone and electronic means is, as my hon. Friend acknowledges, quicker and more efficient, and the agency is making great progress in developing the business in that way. However, I accept and appreciate my hon. Friend's comments on the importance of face-to-face contact between CSA staff and clients. I should like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for his generous comments about the professionalism and commitment of CSA staff, with which I fully agree, and particularly his comments about Cath McLaughlin and her colleagues.

Times of major change are understandably unsettling for some staff, and the agency is managing a number of support initiatives for managers and staff throughout the period. Consultation with the trade unions is, of course, ongoing. My hon. Friend asked for an assurance that there are currently no plans to reduce staffing levels in Falkirk, West by 500 staff, and I can give him that assurance. The current plan does include a reduction in staff of 94 by March 2005, a plan that has been discussed with the trade unions, which constitutes not a 30 per cent. but a 9 per cent. reduction in staff.
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As part of the DWP, the agency will work with the other businesses to plan and manage reductions in staff in an integrated and joined-up way, in order to benefit the wider Department and the people whom we serve. The Department will manage these reductions through natural wastage, and I can confirm to my hon. Friend that staff turnover at the Falkirk centre is about 13 per cent., which is about average for the agency throughout the country as a whole. We will also seek to minimise compulsory severances. My hon. Friend also sought assurance that there are no plans to close the Falkirk centre, and again, I can give him that assurance. He will agree with me that the public deserve to receive quality services, and that taxpayers deserve to get value for money.

The vision for my Department is that it should become a leaner, more focused and efficient organisation, delivering first-class services to clients; the Child Support Agency inevitably has its part to play in this. Major reform is not simple or easy, but I have every confidence that, ultimately, the agency can deliver it successfully.

I would like to take this opportunity again to thank the agency staff in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere. They work in difficult circumstances, dealing with clients at an often very emotional and sensitive time in their lives. It is because of the hard work of such staff that the implementation of the reforms will be successful, and that a reduction in staff numbers will not have an adverse impact. I should underline that where we have to make such reductions, we will do so whenever possible through turnover and voluntary severance.

The Government's aim remains to have an efficient and effective child support service that benefits parents and, ultimately, children. After all, they are our No. 1 concern.

Question put and agreed to.

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