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Debate to be resumed tomorrow.





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7.14 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I wish to present a petition of more than 200 signatures of residents of the Romford constituency who strongly object to Crossrail's proposal to build a large area of railway sidings at the rear of residential properties in Gidea park, adjacent to Cambridge avenue, Belgrave avenue, Amery gardens, and generally around the Gidea park area.

You will understand, Mr. Speaker, that local residents are deeply concerned about the effects of such a large area of railway sidings on the local community, particularly in terms of noise, pollution and additional lighting, which has previously been tranquil and quiet. The petitioners ask the House of Commons to urge the Government to review the plans and ask Crossrail to reconsider what it proposes.

The petition states:

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To lie upon the Table.

Riverside Mental Health Care Unit

7.16 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I wish to present the petition of Mr. Steve Hallam and others, who are concerned about cuts to mental health care services in the Devon partnership mental health care trust, and particularly the closure, albeit temporary, of Riverside unit at Torbay hospital.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.
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Child Support Agency

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Vernon Coaker.]

7.17 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I want to use this opportunity to highlight just a few of the problems experienced by the many constituents who contact me about the difficulties that they are experiencing with the Child Support Agency. I realise that almost every MP must have a similar size mailbag on this issue, so it is not surprising that the CSA has written off more than £2 billion of uncollected child maintenance since it was set up. In addition to illustrating the all-too-common problems experienced, I wish to highlight the tragedies underlying the facts. To do so, I want to concentrate on one particular case.

I first met my constituent, Ms E, in 2001. She initially became involved with the agency in 1993. I made a personal commitment that I would do my utmost to help her. At that stage, I had no direct experience of the Child Support Agency, and I had no idea of the difficulties that lay ahead. The agency tells me that between 1994 and 1997, it unsuccessfully tried to find a "confident" address for the husband, to whom I will now refer as Mr. X, despite receiving information from Ms E and other Government departments.

At one stage, Mr. X behaved very violently, and forced Ms E to sign that she would not claim maintenance. The violence continued on and off, and in 1998, Mr. X was sentenced to 60 hours' community service. Not surprisingly, Ms E became extremely distressed, and felt that she just could not cope with the system any more. On 21 May 1997, the case was closed, as good cause had been accepted, because of the risk of harm to her. However, she wrote to the CSA in July 1999, requesting that her case be reopened, but did not receive a reply until 2 October 2000—a delay of 15 months. The agency has explained that that was unfortunately due to the work in hand at that time.

More attempts were made to contact Mr. X between October 2000 and April 2001, but they elicited a straight refusal by Mr. X to confirm any details or to complete the maintenance inquiry form. The agency gave up entirely on 9 April 2001, although Ms E was advised that it would issue an interim maintenance order in February 2002. My inquiries revived the processes in March 2002.

The agency sent a further maintenance inquiry form to Mr. X at an address provided by Ms E, and an inquiry was sent to the Inland Revenue. However, the agency wrote to me blandly in July that year to say that

and to apologise for not even making progress with action on information that had been supplied about a vehicle driven by Mr. X.

At that stage, my constituent was awarded a paltry £85 in compensation for all the inefficiencies. She returned the cheque.

The agency requested a physical description of Mr. X. That had long since been supplied, but nevertheless a further photograph was sent. In July 2002, the agency assured me that if Mr. X failed to comply with the request for information he would be taken to court, with a possible fine of £1,000. I wrote a further letter to the
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agency in September 2002 pointing out that over eight years no help had been received from Ms E's former husband, that information had been repeatedly supplied, that as a community sentence had been given names and addresses must be available, and that at that time the children were seeing their father nearly every weekend at his parents' house.

A reply dated 24 September 2002 said that Mr. X had not attended an arranged interview, and that the agency was preparing an interview under caution. Mr. X did not turn up for that interview, but no follow-up action appeared to have been taken. On 23 October 2002  I wrote to the then chief executive of the CSA, Mr. Smith, asking whether, given the eight-year wait and the inertia demonstrated by the agency, the case could be given national priority. No progress was made. On 27 November 2002 I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but my letter was simply passed back to the chief executive of the agency.

On 20 December 2002, the CSA informed me that it had now received new details of Mr. X and would be arranging another interview. Mr. X rang the agency on 4 February 2003 to say that he could not fill in the form that it had sent because he was waiting for financial information. At least a proven address had finally been confirmed—but apparently the face-to-face team works only from nine to five from Monday to Friday and home visits are undertaken reluctantly, so no progress was made.

Was this not, by now, a pretty exceptional case, given that there could have been more persistent chasing? I understand that there has been a fear of violence over the years, but is not some protection offered to face-to-face teams in such cases?

On 24 June 2003, I heard that accounts had been received from Mr. X, but to date still no payments have been received. The current position is that Ms E has raised questions about the income declared by Mr. X, given his present lifestyle.

I can conclude only that the agency has made no more than token efforts to obtain any maintenance for Ms E's daughters. There has been no consistent and persistent attempt over the years to challenge the many prevarications, or indeed in recent months to check information supplied by Mr. X. Enforcement action has now been initiated, and Ms E completed a long form earlier this month. So far she has been rewarded with yet another form to complete, this time 36 pages long. I do not think that she can cope with the new form.

I need the Minister to understand how my constituent feels. She has been left struggling for 11 years; she finds herself drained of effort, and has no confidence in anyone. She cannot afford to work without the maintenance, although she would have liked to pursue her career. She feels that her children have been denied a reasonable lifestyle for 10 years. In the case of Mr. X, we are not talking about somebody who has fled the country. Throughout this long period, my constituent's ex-husband has never lived further than two miles from his place of birth.

Ms E asks:

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Christmas is a very hard time for her. She feels upset and angry that she cannot provide for her children as she would wish. An undertaking from the Minister that she will personally monitor this case until a conclusion is reached might provide some hope for my constituent this Christmas.

I want to comment briefly on some other issues that I frequently encounter, and to refer to six particular cases. In the first, the husband and wife are each in a second partnership. The wife receives no maintenance for her children from the previous marriage, despite a long history of trying to work through the agency; the husband is faced with numerous errors and is being asked to pay too much. The result is a phenomenal strain on the new partnership, and particular difficulties in the relationships with each set of children. That case highlights inconsistencies in the intensity with which people are pursued, and in the degree of enforcement.

In the second case, a husband who was in a second relationship had the new formula applied to him after an interval of many years; the previous wife had not requested maintenance. He checked with the CSA to see whether he was likely to be required to make payments in future. He then took on a large mortgage in order to accommodate a total of five children. Of course, the new formula does not take into account housing costs, which are very high in my part of the world, and he was simply unable to pay the amount imposed on him. Personnel at the agency warned him that the bailiffs would be sent in. He became absolutely desperate. I could not persuade the agency to phase payments in a way that he felt he could cope with. Apparently, he has just given up his job. That does not seem a satisfactory outcome. A case such as this emphasises the inflexibility of the current system and the often unintended consequences.

In the third case, the wife informed the CSA of her former husband's employer. The CSA contacted the employer and was told that it had never employed her former husband. The CSA just accepted that as a true answer, and I have had to intervene to make sure that further employment checks are made. The wife felt that the CSA simply did not believe her, and that she was being regarded as a liar.

In the fourth case, a letter from a constituent, written in November of this year, states:

In acting on this letter, I received a prompt reply from the CSA, which is good. It now says that it will establish why the deduction-from-earnings order has not been made. But are there no follow-up procedures within the agency itself?

In the fifth case, Mr. T has been advised that the CSA will continue to require payments based on the old system, but that it has calculated that his current payments of some £80 per week for his one child would fall to £27 per week if he were assessed under the new system. The failures of the new computer system are well documented. My constituent feels that this now substantial delay in changing to the new system is causing him considerable hardship.

In a sixth case, a former husband and wife would both rather opt out of the CSA system because of the increasing incompetence that they face. My constituent writes:
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That is a very telling point. My constituent continues:

They both signed a document of intent and I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether they can manage their own affairs in the way they propose. That would save me having to write a letter.

Unsurprisingly, I believe that the CSA should be scrapped, so that a balance can be found between rigidity and unfairness and the complexities of coping with individual cases. It seems essential to me that, for the difficult cases, there must be an individual-based system. I would like to see a system based on family courts to deal with cases that are not easily resolved, and I would also like to see the Inland Revenue take over some of the functions of the CSA.

Many people welcomed the system because they all accepted that the non-resident parent should contribute in some way, but the system introduced by the previous Government is not working and it is always a problem to try to fix something that is not working. There are now probably many aspects that are beyond the current Government's control and the new computer system has thrown the system into even greater disarray. Is it not time to bite the bullet, genuinely put children first and introduce a system that will achieve precisely that?

7.31 pm

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