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Child Support Agency

6. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What his estimate is of the number of outstanding Child Support Agency claims. [12306]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Of 680,000 new scheme applications, 260,000 are still to be cleared. A further 78,000 old scheme cases are still to be cleared, down from 130,000 a year ago. Some progress has been made, but those figures again illustrate the scale of the problems with the agency. We have therefore asked the chief executive to conduct a strategic review. His findings will be presented in the coming months, and we will report to the House in due course.
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Paul Rowen: I am sure that the Minister will recall that, in January, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions expressed concern and said that the CSA was living on borrowed time. At that time, just under a quarter of a million cases were outstanding. On the figures that he has given us this afternoon, the figure is now up to 330,000. Does he agree that the CSA is living not just on borrowed time but on stolen time and that that delay is causing misery and despair for many working families?

Mr. Plaskitt: The delays are, of course, a problem. I think all hon. Members deal with these matters in their surgeries, which is why we are anxious to make progress in tackling the problems. The key is improving compliance rates because, if we can get those up, the agency can deal effectively with the backlog. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that, based on the first results from 2005–06, compliance rates are reaching 82 per cent. in new cases and up to 75 per cent. under the old scheme. That is a remarkable improvement on where we were some time ago.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): May I bring to the Minister's attention the fact that, as a Member representing individuals affected by the CSA, one of the great difficulties that I have is in getting a coherent response when individuals want to know when their cases will be migrated from the old to the new system? Can he give us some assurance that there will be some coherent rationale for the migration and then ensure that the civil servants at least let us know what it is?

Mr. Plaskitt: There is quite a queue forming on the migration question. Indeed, I used to ask about it myself quite regularly. No migration has taken place yet because we have to ensure, first, that the case files on record are clean and, secondly, that the IT is absolutely robust. Work is in progress on both those issues. Then we will be in a position to do the migration. It will be done in a logical way, which should enable my hon. Friend and others to reassure their constituents. It is a little way off but we will report on it later in the year.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Should the day of migration ever, thankfully, come, there will still be a problem in that, as I understand it, it may be several years before migrating cases will converge with those under the new scheme. Given the delays that there have been in the system, will the Minister look at whether it is possible to accelerate the convergence between the two payment schemes?

Mr. Plaskitt: It is worth pointing out that there are at the moment 480,000 new scheme cases on the new system and 680,000 old scheme cases on the old system. Some migration already takes place: where there is a linkage in cases, they transfer to the new technology. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), as soon as the files are clean and the IT is robust, we will be in a position to commence the migration.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I hope that I am not letting the cat out of the bag, but the Minister will know
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that one way of getting migrated from the old to the new system is to persuade an ex-partner to suspend her claim for a few weeks while continuing to pay her child support allowance and then to make a new claim. Is not there a mounting injustice that we need to put right urgently? Some of the letters that are going out to constituents trying to explain the rationale fall a long way short of what the Minister has just explained to us.

Mr. Plaskitt: That is why it is important to get these issues resolved. There has to be quite a lengthy lag between the two incidents. It is not straightforward to come out of an existing case and to come back into a new one. The price of doing that is quite a lengthy period without maintenance or benefit in some cases, so although some people have looked at that possibility it is quite a tricky thing to do.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Since work and pensions questions last took place, the independent case examiner's annual report into the CSA has been published. She says, following on from some of the points made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), that referrals to her office have rocketed, that parents' experience of dealing with the CSA is demoralising, that it is almost impossible for people to obtain up-to-date information about their case, that they cannot have confidence in the phone system and that she has upheld the vast majority of complaints. Bearing all that in mind, can the Minister guarantee that there will be an improvement next year, or is it the case that Ministers cannot get a grip on the problems of the CSA?

Mr. Plaskitt: Let me make it clear that we welcome the independent case examiner's report. She has provided a very good analysis of the situation, but it is important to put her findings in perspective. Of some 1.4 million cases, just under 4,000 referrals were made, which is 0.2 per cent. of the agency's entire case load. Of those 4,000 referrals, the independent case examiner took up only 478, of which 84 per cent. were upheld.

Before the hon. Gentleman gets too excited about the CSA situation, he should mix his attitude with a little contrition. At the base of the CSA document, it says, "Made in Conservative Britain."

Pension Credit

7. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): How many people are not receiving the pension credit to which they are entitled. [12307]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): More than 2.7 million households in Great Britain are now receiving pension credit—nearly 1 million more than the number that received the minimum income guarantee that preceded it—including, incidentally, 4,780 in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. The latest estimate is that 3.85 million households are entitled to pension credit. That is rather fewer than was first estimated, but further data should be available by the end of the year.
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Mr. Jackson: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but will he confirm that, despite the Secretary of State's claim at oral questions on 20 June that there has been a "substantial drop" in the number of people not receiving the pension credit to which they are entitled, take-up has reduced considerably since the beginning of 2004?

Mr. Timms: Certainly not. Take-up has continued to rise, and, as I said, it is has now exceeded 2.7 million. As I also said, the estimate of the total number entitled has fallen somewhat from the original estimate, but actual take-up has continued to rise. In 1997, a lot of single pensioners had incomes of less than £70 a week through income support. Now, every one of them is entitled to at least £109 a week through the pension credit, which is the major factor behind the recent declaration by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that, for the first time, pensioners are no more likely to be poor than anyone else. Take-up is much higher today among those who stand to gain the most from the pension credit, and if the hon. Gentleman knows of people in his own constituency who should be receiving it but are not, I should be grateful if he would let me know.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Is the Minister's experience in his constituency the same as mine, which is that it is very difficult to find anybody who has been eligible for pension credit for any length of time? Might that suggest that the official data have wrongly estimated the numbers who can claim it, and that—far from there being a problem with non-take-up—the pension credit has been such a success that unless the Government undertake major long-term pension reform, it could be unsustainable in the long run?

Mr. Timms: My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the significantly higher level of take-up, based on anecdotal evidence, than the data suggest. Overall, the data suggest a current take-up level of some 75 per cent. Take-up among those entitled to the guarantee credit—the people likely to benefit the most—is about 80 per cent., and among single women it is perhaps as high as 90 per cent. So, like my right hon. Friend, I think that the pension credit has gone a very long way toward addressing the scandal of pensioner poverty that existed in 1997.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Does the Minister plan to undertake research into the effect of means-testing on pension credit take-up, particularly bearing in mind the commitment given by the current Chancellor when in opposition to abolishing means-testing for pensioners?

Mr. Timms: The pension credit has directed extra help at those who need it most, which is why we have seen a dramatic reduction in pensioner poverty since 1997. In addition, Pension Service staff spoke to the more than 200,000 customers who visited them in the quarter April to June 2005, in order to make sure that they received all the help to which they are entitled. That has generated 43,000 applications for the pension credit. We continue to work very hard on this issue, and as a result, we are seeing significant increases in take-up and new applications.
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Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware, from earlier answers to questions, of how the pension credit has changed the quality of life of some of the poorest citizens in this country. What steps, if any, are in place to ensure that information about how to apply for the pension credit reaches the parts of the community that most need it—ethnic minority pensioners, for example, or women pensioners who, as we heard earlier, are often at the bottom of the chain when it comes to receiving pension entitlements—and where pensioner poverty is the likely result?

Mr. Timms: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Many of us had the experience during the election campaign of meeting retired people whose lives had been transformed by the improvements brought about by the pension credit. We are working hard at finding new ways of getting information across. I agree that there is a particular challenge when it comes to pensioners in the ethnic minority communities, and we are developing some new ideas. Many visits are taking place: I have already mentioned that there were 200,000 in the last quarter as compared with 130,000 in the same quarter of the previous year. What I hope we will increasingly be able to do is to use data that the Department gains from other sources to identify those who stand to benefit from pension credit but are not yet receiving it. We can then help them to make a claim and perhaps even inform them that they are entitled to the credit although they do not realise it. There is much important work to be done on that.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Despite what the Minister says about the take-up of pension credit, the figures show that in Northern Ireland only one in three pensioners are in receipt of it. Will the Minister look further into the issue of regional differences in the take-up of pension credit? What can be done to improve the take-up in areas where it is particularly low? The figures that I quoted are actually official figures released by the Government.

Mr. Timms: I did not quite catch the statistic that the hon. Gentleman gave. If he is saying that one in three pensioners in Northern Ireland are actually receiving pension credit, that is not very far out from the proportion that obtains across the country as a whole. If there are difficulties in Northern Ireland that the hon. Gentleman thinks require special attention I would of course be happy to discuss them with my ministerial colleagues.

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