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{**jf41**}The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) on securing this debate on a subject that is so important to the lives of so many families. I am speaking here in place of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), who usually speaks on matters relating to the Child Support Agency, but is engaged in important European business in Brussels and cannot attend tonight. I am a poor substitute on this occasion, but I will do my best to answer one or two of the hon. Lady's specific points.

I would like to start by emphasising how committed I and my ministerial colleagues are to creating an efficient, effective child support service. The new child support scheme is simple, transparent and easier to understand. Ultimately, it will ensure that money gets more quickly to more children. Indeed, already more and more cases are being dealt with under the new scheme, and clients and staff tell us how much they like and understand the new simpler calculation. I add the caveat, "when it works as it should." From the case described in such graphic detail by the hon. Lady, it is clear that it not working as it should in all circumstances.

I would say that, in general, MPs' surgeries tend to be filled with constituents who come to complain about public service failure. We do not generally encounter
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those who are perfectly happy with the service that they are receiving or those who are complimentary about it. I will speak in general terms about the CSA's work and what is being done to improve the agency's working, though I will try to touch on some of the hon. Lady's points.

The Child Support Agency is now effectively clearing thousands of cases each week. More than 33,000 of the poorest families are now benefiting from child maintenance premium payments, which means that, for the first time, parents on benefit see a real advantage from any maintenance paid and at a time when they most need it. Also, because the new scheme is so much easier to understand, parents are more able to make their own arrangements without involving the agency. The one exception is parents who are in receipt of benefits. The interactive calculator on the CSA's internet site regularly gets over 25,000 visits every month, so the hon. Lady can see that the new child support scheme is starting to make a real contribution to supporting children.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, since the new scheme was introduced in March 2003, the level of service given to some of the agency's clients has, due to difficulties with Electronic Data Systems Corporation's new IT and telephony service, still fallen well short of what they are entitled to receive. For that, I apologise. I am not going to pretend that I and my ministerial colleagues have not been disappointed, and I know that the agency, too, has been frustrated that more parents have not been able to experience the improvements that the new scheme has to offer. However, it continues to work closely with the computer supplier, EDS, to resolve its technical problems, and it is making progress.

Staff in the agency have to deal with often very sensitive and complex issues, and they deal with people who are in emotionally delicate circumstances, when relationships have broken down. I pay tribute to the staff who work in an already difficult job and who have shown dedication in trying to shield clients from the worst impact of the technical problems the agency has been experiencing.

The means of getting money flowing is a key issue for those of the hon. Lady's constituents on whose behalf she has written to the chief executive, and I commend the diligence with which she pursues her constituents' cases. Achieving compliance from non-resident parents is a key part of the work of a large number of the agency's staff. It is not true that there is no follow up. At all stages of a case, staff take action to ensure that non-resident parents accept their responsibility and comply with the maintenance calculation. Even before then, staff encourage non-resident parents to make voluntary payments to the parent with care, while they are waiting for a calculation to be made. That helps to prevent arrears from building up at the beginning of a claim. The agency is now placing even greater emphasis on ensuring that money flows between parents as quickly as possible.

The hon. Lady asks whether I will personally monitor the constituent's case that she has raised this evening in such detail. I undertake to do so, and I will draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
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We should be realistic about enforcement. Some parents will fail to co-operate, fail to pay and fail to take the financial responsibility that they have for their own children. Indeed, worse than that, some people set out deliberately to evade their responsibilities. The lengths that some non-resident parents will go to are astounding: they change jobs—the hon. Lady suggested that that might have happened in the case that she raised—move house, become deliberately unemployed or even leave the country to avoid financially supporting their children.

Mrs. Brooke: Is the Minister aware that there is even a website advising parents on the various routes that they might take to avoid making any payment?

Jane Kennedy: I am aware of that website—the hon. Lady is right to draw it to the attention of the House—and it is to be deplored.

Of course, the agency's job would be easier if all parents accepted their responsibility and, ultimately, the children would benefit. The agency has reviewed its enforcement processes and implemented improvements, one of which has been an increase in the number of staff who work in specialist compliance and enforcement. A new director of enforcement post has also been created, recognising that a dedicated role is needed for work that is so vital to the agency's aims. Last year, the agency doubled the number of enforcement actions taken, and in the first six months of this year, it has doubled that figure again. I hope that the hon. Lady takes some comfort from that.

The agency uses a wide range of information sources to trace non-resident parents, including departmental records, the Inland Revenue, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, employers and accountants. The agency will also prosecute parents who fail to provide the information that they have been asked for. Between April and October 2004, 380 people were taken to court and convicted for failing to provide information to the agency.

If a parent with care does not believe that a calculation based on the information provided represents a true reflection of the non-resident parent's income or lifestyle, they can apply to the agency to have the calculation looked at again. That has been done in the case that the hon. Lady raised. If non-resident parents refuse to make arrangements to pay, either directly to the parent with care or through the agency, a number of options are available. Although the threat of a sanction often results in the payment of maintenance, the agency does not shy away from taking action if the threat does not result in that maintenance being paid.

For example, non-resident parents in employment may find that maintenance is deducted directly from their wages, and the self-employed may face action through the courts with liability orders. In cases where the non-resident parent persists in wilful non-compliance, the courts can take away driving licences or commit a person to prison. In the six months between April 2004 and October 2004, 108 people were taken to court and received a suspended committal sentence, which means that they must comply with the conditions stipulated by the court, usually to make regular payments or face a prison sentence.
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I know that some of the hon. Lady's constituents are keen to move to the new scheme—she has written to that effect—but I cannot say when cases on the old scheme will be transferred to the new one. I am not in a position to say that today. We are keen that all parents who deal with the agency should be able to benefit from the reforms, but we believe very strongly that it would be irresponsible for us to move cases across to the new scheme before we are satisfied that the IT is able to cope and is working well. This is something that we have always maintained. Cases will be converted once the system is stabilised to our satisfaction and our business operation is robust.

As I said earlier, I apologise to those parents with care and non-resident parents who have not received the standard of service that they have the right to expect. I also know that the agency places great emphasis on ensuring that complaints are properly dealt with. Over the last year, it has improved the way in which it handles complaints, including accepting complaints by telephone, making the process quicker and easier for clients. However, the agency acknowledges that, for some cases, the service it provides is not of an acceptable standard. I hope that the hon. Lady will accept my
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assurance that I and my colleagues are working very hard to raise the standard to make sure that the service delivered to the people that we seek to help is of the highest possible standard.

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