The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on securing this debate on a subject that is obviously important to her constituent, but which is also important to the lives of so many other families. The agency has fully briefed me on this particular case and I am concerned about the way some aspects of it have been dealt with. However, I understand maintenance is in payment. I will therefore address in general terms some of the issues raised by the hon. Lady in respect of this case. She will, I know, understand that data protection requirements restrict the scope I have to respond on many of the case specifics that she raised.
I wish to start by emphasising how committed we are to creating an efficient, effective child support service. We accept that that is not where we are at the moment. We are all completely aware of the difficulties the agency faces. Too many families have experienced ongoing problems with the CSA. The staff of 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 wish to take this opportunity to commend all staff at the agency for their continuous hard work and dedication. The system can let the staff down, as well as the agency's customers. That is why we are now attempting to get things sorted out.
In April, the agency's new chief executive, Stephen Geraghty, took up post. He brings many skills from his experience in the insurance and finance industries. We have asked him to use his experience to review the agency's operations and service delivery, with the aim of improving performance and getting more money flowing to children. His findings will be with the ministerial team shortly and will be reported to Parliament in due course.
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The hon. Lady asked me to comment on a specific proposal that she has heard the chief executive will recommend. All I can say at this stage is that that must be speculation. We have not received the chief executive's report and, until we do, we cannot make decisions or comment on any particular suggestion that she thinks that he might propose.
Mrs. Gillan: I understand that under data protection rules the Minister cannot give me specific responses to some of the points I raised, but I hope that the debate will trigger a written response that I can pass on to my constituent. I also appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on rumours that I have heard, but perhaps he would express his full confidence in the role of the senior case worker, because that would be reassuring to me and many others.
I wish to address some of the specific points raised by the hon. Lady this evening. The agency often needs, and asks for, assistance in collecting information to trace, and gather relevant information on, non-resident parents. However, on some occasions, that information is found to be either inaccurate, or of no benefit to the case. If there is no compelling evidence of inconsistency, the agency cannot reasonably be expected to act. The agency does not hire private detectives to trace non-resident parents, or gather information about circumstances and whereabouts. But the agency does have extensive information gathering powers.
I recognise the frustrations that the hon. Lady's constituent has experienced with getting her case on the new computer system. That has clearly caused unacceptable delay. I understand that when a case encounters that sort of problem it will be dealt with clerically. I appreciate that that is not an ideal solution, but it does at least enable some progress.
The agency's preferred method of payment for working parents is maintenance direct, in which the agency calculates the amount of maintenance to be paid, but leaves the parents to make their own payment arrangements. Cases can sometimes be stopped and subsequently restarted by either or both parties involved. In the event of closure, the agency's actions will of course cease, although voluntary maintenance arrangements may continue to operate. We recognise that continuous involvement of the agency is not necessary for all parents. In future, we shall look to extend that so that we can better support working parents in making their own arrangements. It is correct that in cases where the non-resident parent persists in wilful non-compliance, ultimately, the courts can take away driving licences or commit a person to prison. Those powers have been used, but they are also effective as a deterrent.
A crucial aspect of the case raised by the hon. Lady appears to be that her constituent is dissatisfied with the amount of child maintenance awarded in the past. It may be helpful to remind the House that in those circumstances either parent has the right to ask for the case to be reviewed, and ultimately to appeal to an independent tribunal. Clients of the agency can apply for a departure under the old scheme and a variation under the new
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scheme. Both are designed to consider the exceptional circumstances of clients and, in some cases, there may be real grounds for varying the rate of liability. I shall go into some more detail about variations.
It is worth stressing that variations are different from departures. The fact that someone has been refused an old-scheme departure does not mean that they will fail to get a new-scheme variation. Grounds for a variation in the new scheme include cases where the parent with care considers that the non-resident parent has diverted income, enjoys a lifestyle that is inconsistent with the income used to calculate the maintenance or has assets of more than £65,000. In those circumstances, the parent with care can apply for a variation. They may also apply if a non-resident parent, who has the ability to control their own income, has income of more than £100 a week from a company or business that is not taken into account in the maintenance calculation, which allows, for example, income in the form of dividends received by company directors to be taken into account.
If allowed, a variation on one or more of those grounds will increase the non-resident parent's net weekly income for child support purposes, and thus the maintenance liability. However, I would like to make it clear that the onus is on the applicant to provide the information to support their application. The other parent will have the opportunity to make representations and a variation will be given only after consideration of evidence from both sides and only where it is equitable to do so.
We should be realistic. Some parents will fail to co-operate, fail to pay and fail to take financial responsibility for their children. Indeed, some parents set out deliberately to evade their responsibilities. The lengths to which some non-resident parents will go continue to astound me: changing jobs, moving house, becoming deliberately unemployed or even leaving the country to avoid financially supporting their children. The agency's job would of course be easier if all parents accepted their responsibility and ultimately the children would benefit. I want us to head to a time when failing to pay maintenance is socially unacceptable.
As I said earlier, I accept that some parents with care and some non-resident parents have not received the standard of service that they had the right to expect. That was not, and is not, acceptable. It is a reality that when a relationship breaks down there is often hostility; it can be an emotionally fraught time, but it is important to remember that responsibility for a child does not end when the relationship between the parents ends. Children have a right to support from both their parents, and that right sits at the very heart of what the Government are attempting to do with the agency.