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Child Support Agency

3. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): When he expects to migrate existing Child Support Agency cases to the new maintenance assessment formula. [196322]

8. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): How many child support cases the Child Support Agency is dealing with under (a) the old rules and (b) the new system. [196323]
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): The agency is working with EDS, the IT supplier, to resolve the problems with the computer system. We will make a decision on the transfer of old scheme cases once we are satisfied that the new scheme is working well. Currently around 326,000 cases are being dealt with under the new arrangements, with just over 1 million still subject to the old scheme.

Despite difficulties of which the House is well aware, the agency is still collecting £280 million more in child maintenance than it did in 1997–98.

Mr. Plaskitt: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but, as I am sure he is aware, it is broadly the same as the one that his Department has been giving since July 2003, when migration was supposed to start. It was supposed to be completed by April 2005.

As more new cases come on stream and are assessed under the new formula, we are fast approaching a point at which we shall be running two CSAs in parallel. That is not sustainable. Whose fault is it, and when will it be put right?

Mr. Pond: I acknowledge what my hon. Friend has said about the disappointment shared by all of us about the fact that we have not been able to make as much progress with the computer system as we wanted. That inevitably means that we cannot implement what all Members agree to be a much more effective system.

I do not think that this is the place in which to allocate blame. My hon. Friend will know that we have had robust discussions with EDS. We are disappointed that the scheme is not in a fit state for us to be sure that it can work properly for parents with care and non-resident carers, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are doing all we can to make the system work effectively as soon as possible.

Mr. Kidney: Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to state publicly that the CSA's job would be easier if all parents, rather than just some, accepted their responsibility to maintain their children? Will he also acknowledge that running two systems side by side makes the agency's job difficult? Making one system out of the two would benefit not only parents and children, but CSA staff.

Mr. Pond: My hon. Friend is right on both counts, but the most important point is that parents must take responsibility for the maintenance of their children. The CSA is there to ensure that that happens. If more non-resident parents took real responsibility, perhaps we would have less need for a CSA in any form. That could be described as a sad indictment.

My hon. Friend is also right on the second count. Inevitably, running two systems at the same time makes the whole arrangement more complex. That is why we—like my hon. Friend, who has made an important contribution—are keen to ensure that the new system is working properly and effectively as soon as possible.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Minister will know that in the case of a lone parent on income support under the old child support system, any maintenance
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that is collected is deducted pound for pound. Under the new system, a lone parent can keep a tenner a week. That means that every week in which the Minister fails to get a grip on the issue, some of the poorest children in the land lose £10. As the new system was introduced 18 months ago, some of those poor families have lost more than £700 because of his failure to get a grip.

Earlier this year, the former Secretary of State said that a recovery programme would be completed by the autumn. Did he mean this autumn, and has it been completed?

Mr. Pond: The hon. Gentleman will know that 33,000 families already receive the child maintenance premium. We want to ensure that all who are entitled—and 600,000 children would benefit—receive that help as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is looking afresh at this and a number of other issues to ensure that we can make that happen. There is a difficulty at the moment but the child maintenance premium is a feature of the new system. It cannot operate under the old system, the old system rules or the old system legislation. We are looking at the matter afresh to see whether there are any other mechanisms that we can use to ensure that the children who need the help get it.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I am glad that the Minister is not seeking to stand there and blame others for this Government shambles, but will he do what my constituents want him to do and accept ministerial responsibility for that shambles and give a definite deadline, which he will personally stand by, for when it will be cleared up?

Mr. Pond: No, I will not be giving any deadlines because I, my colleagues and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have made it clear that we will make the transfer to the new system only when we believe that it can really deliver effectively for non-resident parents, for parents with care and, most important, for children. I have said openly to the House that we share the disappointment of other hon. Members that we have not been able to make those moves as quickly as we expected. The Secretary of State said clearly to the Select Committee that he would like us to be moving ahead more quickly, but we have to be honest that we have not made the progress that we wanted to make. It would be highly irresponsible to try to transfer the old cases across until we are sure that the system is working properly.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): I accept that it is a complex computer problem and that having two systems is unsatisfactory but the human effects are disturbing. I have been writing to the Minister since April about Mrs. Voros from Crofton, who has lost all the money for her and for her child. That is surely an unsatisfactory situation. When can we anticipate justice for such people?

Mr. Pond: My hon. Friend will understand that it is difficult to respond to individual cases on the Floor of the House. I can tell him, however, that we will certainly follow up cases in which constituents feel that the CSA is not providing an effective service. The CSA is committed to ensure that, as far as possible, the income
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from non-resident parents reaches the children who need that help as quickly and as effectively as possible. I will happily discuss with my hon. Friend the particular case that he has raised.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): A key witness to a recent Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiry claimed that poor planning by the Department was responsible for over 2,000 change requests being made to the new computer system. The Select Committee has said that it is "profoundly dissatisfied" with the Government's response to its report, which cited that claim and others.

Will the Minister publish a full response to the Select Committee? If he does not, surely parents will conclude that the Department may have something to hide.

Mr. Pond: If the Department were trying to hide something, I would not be standing at the Dispatch Box now—[Interruption.] Well, I could stand here, but I would not be saying that we accept and understand the frustration felt not only in the House but by parents because the system is not working as effectively as it should. We will certainly respond to the comments made by the Select Committee, which we believe is making a real contribution to the debate. I can promise hon. Members that the Committee will get a constructive response from the Department in which it will seek to deal with the issues that the Committee has raised.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I have five constituents who moved from the old system to the new system, but now that the new system has failed they are on paper and pen systems. What they all want to know—all hon. Members are aware of similar problems—is when they will get their payment.

Mr. Pond: I can only reiterate what I said earlier. Where the technological difficulties can be worked around on a clerical basis, the agency is committed to doing that. Like all of us, it wants to ensure that the payments get to the children. If my hon. Friend has particular cases that he would like to discuss directly with me, I will happily pursue those on his behalf.

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