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Council Tax (Portsmouth)

7.17 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I have great pleasure in presenting a petition on behalf of Mrs. Pauline Gulley of 108 Brompton road, Southsea, and thousands of other constituents of mine in Portsmouth, South and in the greater Portsmouth area. The petition of the IsItFair council tax campaign

In the city of Portsmouth, the position is made worse by the Government's actions. They have literally stolen millions from the city to redistribute elsewhere. That has cost the average council taxpayer an increase of some £64 over five years.

To lie upon the Table.

Mixed Sex Wards (Marlow)

7.19 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I wish to present a petition on behalf of some 50 of my constituents, which reads as follows.

To lie upon the Table.

Kuzvidza Family

7.19 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): The petition of residents of Barnsley and others declares:

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To lie upon the Table.

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Child Support Agency

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

7.21 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent, Mrs. Summerbell. Both she and her son have been failed badly by the Child Support Agency, and I hope that the Minister will be able to put that right in his response tonight.

Mrs. Summerbell's child will be 10 years old in November, and in her file, which I have in my office, there is evidence that the same three steps have been repeated over and over again. Sadly, I hold in my hand a letter sent to me earlier this year that contains the immortal phrase,

I am sure that that sentiment is echoed by many people when dealing with the CSA.

The pattern is as follows. Mrs. Summerbell collects evidence about her former partner's means and presents it to the CSA. The CSA tries, and fails, to collect outstanding arrears from the absent father. It tells Mrs. Summerbell that there is nothing more it can do, unless she accepts a departure to a maintenance procedure. It would be rather like a formal and rigidly patterned dance, were it not so frustrating for the parent with care, and were it not for the fact that, in the end, it is a young child who is effectively the victim. Believe it or not, it is seven years since Mrs. Summerbell approached the CSA, and the matter is far from resolved.

Mrs. Summerbell tells me that she has seen it stated in the press that the CSA has the power to employ private detectives or to take away an absent parent's driving licence, but none of these sanctions has been used in her case, to the best of my knowledge. If no new evidence existed about the absent father, the CSA understandably might say that it had tried and failed, but with the best will in the world that cannot be said in this case. This is yet another example of the CSA's administrative failures compounding and ultimately supporting—I do not say that lightly—the attempts of an absent parent to avoid the financial duty of paying maintenance.

The latest frustration for my constituent is that after her having supplied further information, the CSA announced that its computer does not recognise the postcode of the address at which the father is resident. Given the existence of databases such as electoral rolls and postcode directories, it beggars belief that the CSA can come to a grinding halt. However, that only ties in with what we have learned to our regret about the computer records of many Government agencies.

Mrs. Summerbell told me that as of 13 October, the case file is still not on the computer. Given that it is described as a "new case" in the CSA's own nomenclature, the address could be put on the system manually. The irony is that the postcode remains unchanged from the previous occasions on which the CSA used it successfully to locate the person concerned.

This case also demonstrates a glaring deficiency in the joined-up government of which this Government boast. One of the pieces of evidence in the case concerns
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payments to the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. One would think that such information would be simple to check, but the CSA claims that it cannot do so.

This case points to the total inadequacies of the system when it comes to providing for the child of a single parent where the absent parent appears determined to conceal his financial position. It is a situation where the mother struggles while the absent parent is wealthy. Cases such as these reveal the pressures that can be placed on the parent with care. Children can be used as pawns. The actions of the CSA should always be to foster the welfare of the child, not to appear to tolerate or turn a blind eye to unreasonable behaviour, nor to pressurise a parent into the acceptance of unreasonable behaviour. If duress is being placed on any party, matters such as access, level of maintenance or educational opportunity cannot be accepted as legitimate bargaining chips in pursuit of the settlement of the case.

In my view, the agency must take those aspects into account when seeking a departure agreement. Ultimately, if the circumstances of the family are such that there is a strong likelihood of unreasonable pressure being exerted, the CSA should be able to examine another route—not just to declare that nothing further can be done. That may require legislation, but if it will secure a mechanism to ensure adequate financial provision for young children who are growing up without such provision at the moment, I hope that the Minister will consider it. In the short term, it is unacceptable that the CSA can refuse to examine an apparent inconsistency between the lifestyle of a parent and the assessed level of income on the grounds that something seems to be wrong with the agency's computer.

Parents with care who are looking after their children are, by definition, living on a shoestring; otherwise, they would not be seeking the CSA's intervention. They do not have the resources necessary to invest in chasing up the agency. In fact, as I was preparing for this debate, I received another letter from my constituent, saying that she had been told that her file had been sent from the head office in Dudley to an office in Plymouth, which she now needed to contact, and, by the way, the case number had also changed.

Mrs. Summerbell asked me to clarify that she asked the CSA to look into the previous case file, which would have shown how much information she had collected in the past. Sadly, my constituent's circumstances have not changed; nor have those of her child. After seven years, the delays continue. Mrs. Summerbell contacted the CSA at the end of June and was recently told that her case would have a commencement date of September because the agency did not make contact with the absent parent until August. That is when the agency file became live—nearly three months later—and I understand that it is still pending.

On that basis, parents with care need the skills of an archivist and the patience of a saint to keep track of all the documentation, the telephone calls, the personnel involved and to mark the time ticking relentlessly away as nothing happens. All that is quite apart from the expenses involved, which weigh heavily on families with slender purses. I believe that that is an injustice for parents and children such as my constituent and her son
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and I hope that the Minister will seek to right it, and do so with the immediate speed that parents and children in those circumstances deserve.

In that context, Mrs. Summerbell has reminded me of a GMTV programme in which a mother was assured by a Minister in the other place and by the Secretary of State that her case would be dealt with expeditiously. That mother had been appealing for help for four years. I remind the Minister that Mrs. Summerbell first appealed to the CSA not four, but seven years ago.

In conclusion, I would also like to raise my concern that, as I understand it, under the new chief executive of the CSA, the senior case worker role is about to abolished. I believe that that role is a worthwhile one and that this case would certainly have benefited from the attention of a senior case worker. Will the Minister comment on that, because I believe that the change will result in parents with care and children being less well served by the CSA than they are currently?

I finish by observing that the last paragraph of my constituent's letter says it all. She believes that the father's lifestyle has not changed at all: he is still flying planes, going to private health clubs, driving high-class cars and so forth. "Please, please help me", she says in the letter. You have given me the opportunity, Mr. Speaker, to raise this matter on behalf of Mrs. Summerbell, so I hope that the Minister will be able to help my constituent this evening.

7.29 pm

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