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Child Support Agency

2. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of the Child Support Agency. [22502]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr.   David Blunkett): In April, we appointed a new chief executive for the Child Support Agency. When I   took office on 6 May, I asked him to undertake a root and branch review of both operation and service delivery, and that report will be available within a matter of weeks. We intend to place the report before the   House, to place ourselves in front of the Select Committee and to negotiate with the House authorities on obtaining a proper debate on the report, which will open up the issues and ensure that we get it right for the future at last.

Andrew Selous: May I recommend that the Secretary of State takes a plane trip to Australia, where he will find   a child support agency that gets more money than   our CSA to parents caring for children? The Australian CSA helps to look after the emotional needs of non-resident parents, rather than just extracting money from them, and it is about to help families to stay together in the first place through a network of family relationship centres. Those lessons are valuable. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give us that he will learn from them?

Mr. Blunkett: The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question constituted the best offer that I have had for several days, and I shall certainly take him up on it.
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I   take the second part very seriously, however. We must take every possible step to avoid breakdown. We need, and have discussed, a gateway or ameliorative process to ensure that when relationships do break down, no bureaucratic machinery is involved in dealing with the consequences, but above all to remind people that the   CSA was established—by a Conservative Government—because individuals were not prepared to take responsibility for their actions. We are trying to   remedy a breakdown in civil society, not just a breakdown of the bureaucratic processes.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): A constituent of mine should be paying £264 a month, but is paying £483 for one child under the old scheme. He is paying £220 a month too much, and is understandably angry and bitter about the unfairness of the scheme. He has been waiting for two years for the old scheme to be merged with the new one.

The Secretary of State suggested earlier that papers would be produced, and that a debate would take place. Is he telling us that there will be no early move to transfer old cases to the new scheme? If so, that is very bad news for thousands of people.

Mr. Blunkett: A quarter of a million cases have been moved to the new system, but the conflict within the families concerned—for every gainer there is a loser, such as my hon. Friend's constituent: a gain means a   loss for the recipient—means that there is an unwillingness to transfer voluntarily to the new scheme. In such circumstances, we must get the information technology right. One reason why the process has taken so long, and why I am determined to be absolutely transparent and honest about the difficulties when we produce the report, is that misleading people into believing that something can be done and then creating bureaucratic administrative chaos leaves those who are most in need at the receiving end of the failure. I am determined that, following all the effort invested by my predecessors, we will get it right this time.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Last week, summing up a debate in Westminster Hall, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), gave the following welcome assurance:

Can the Secretary of State tell us how he would define "front-line staff"? Would they include the enforcement and criminal compliance team, and those who are involved daily in firefighting the various problems of the failing IT system in local offices?

Mr. Blunkett: In fact, we have increased the number of staff substantially over the last three months. Yes, those involved in direct enforcement are front-line staff, which is why we have been transferring back-office activity to the front line, using the product of information technology. I believe that we now have 2,000 staff on the enforcement programme. Obviously, clear signals and messages must be sent if people are to be compelled to pay.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State assure us that when he presents the
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House with a programme to reform the CSA, he will pay special attention to the 100,000 people who have been assessed for maintenance and have refused to pay a penny—unlike the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie)? Is it not a fact that the addresses of many of those 100,000 people are unknown to the CSA? Other countries that have experienced the same problem have devised a "bounty hunter" system, under which officers are paid only if they find those who refuse to pay maintenance. If we had such a system in this country, would not many more children receive maintenance, and would not taxpayers face smaller bills?

Mr. Blunkett: I am prepared to consider most options for following up recalcitrant parents and trying to find those who owe money—both to their partner and often to the state—but I do not believe that the bounty-hunter system would fit with our culture. If my right hon. Friend has any other ideas, I would be pleased to hear from him.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): It has been claimed that, since his appointment, the Secretary of State has given advice to DNA Bioscience about CSA contracts. So far, those claims have not specifically been denied. To clear up the matter, will he either deny or confirm them?

Mr. Blunkett: I am happy to say that I have done no such thing.

Private Memorials

3. Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): What steps he is taking to provide local authorities with guidance on (a) the circumstances and (b) the manner in   which it is appropriate to interfere with private memorials on the ground of safety; and if he will make a statement. [22503]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order 1977 gives local authorities that act as burial authorities wide powers to carry out whatever they consider necessary or desirable for the proper management, regulation and control of cemeteries, and specifically to put and keep in order any tombstone or other memorial. In addition, a considerable amount of guidance on memorial management and safety standards has been published by the relevant professional and representative bodies.

Mr. Newmark: Does the Minister appreciate that a vicious circle of referrals and consultations has developed since the issue first came to light in 2000? For the past five years, people such as my constituent, Margaret Archer, have had to suffer interference with the graves of their loved ones and local councils have had to bear the brunt of criticism for a policy that they did not choose to initiate. Why have the Government taken so long to produce clear advice?

Mrs. McGuire: May I first put the situation in context? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of it. In the past six years, serious accidents, including three
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fatalities, have occurred in graveyards through memorials toppling over. In 2000, guidance was drawn up to highlight a range of options to make memorials safe. The Health and Safety Commission chairman was concerned that some local authorities were perhaps being over-zealous in their interpretation of the guidelines. I note that he wrote to local authorities. There have been significant difficulties in trying to form a consensus on what needs to be done, not least because of the spectrum of organisations, ranging from large local authorities to small churchyards, that manage burial grounds. We await advice from the advisory group and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the House will be advised in due course.


5. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the claimant count level of unemployment. [22506]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): Latest figures show that claimant unemployment stands at 875,500. Despite recent rises in the claimant count, it remains historically low. In the past year, employment has continued to increase with more people in work now than ever. Economic inactivity has fallen and, overall, the number of people on out-of-work benefits is down.

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the Minister for her answer but does she agree that it is important that she should not be thought to verge on complacency? She did not say that the figure in September is 8,200 up on a month earlier and 39,500 up on a year earlier. All the figures demonstrate that the trend is upwards. If we are to believe her that the figures are good news, will she stake her reputation as a Minister on their being back down again 12 months from now?

Margaret Hodge: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are far from complacent. Indeed, I am currently examining the reason for the small rise in the claimant unemployment count. It is interesting that more people are not coming on to that count. However, people are staying on it for longer and we need to track what is happening to cause that longer period out of work. It would not be right for me to give an assurance about the position a year from now. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall make every endeavour to ensure that we maintain the strong figures on employment, which is up by more than 100,000 in the last quarter, more than 300,000 in the past year and more than 2.3 million since we have been in government. We are proud of that record and we intend to sustain it.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): May I tell the Minister that more people are working in my constituency today than at any time when the Conservatives were in power? It is a great credit to this Government that unemployment has   dropped by 50 per cent. in my constituency. I am slightly concerned, however, about the slight increase in the claimant count. The Minister recently introduced the building on the new deal programme for Gateshead and Tyneside. Will she, in a sympathetic moment,
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extend it to the Tees valley and my constituency? Then we could really put an end to the great social concern of unemployment for all our constituents.

Margaret Hodge: We have an unparalleled record of   dealing with unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. We have got rid of the scourge of youth unemployment from the face of Britain. We have also had huge success with our new deal programmes, including the new deal for young people, the new deal for lone parents—which has resulted in an 11 per cent. increase in their employment rates—and now the pathway pilots for incapacity benefit reform. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will spread to all parts of the country the best practice from a range of initiatives taking place across the country, as we aspire to achieve even higher levels of employment in Britain.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that minimising the regulatory burden is vital to the creation of wealth and jobs, will the Minister tell the House what discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the merits of the Regulatory Flexibility Act 1980 and the Small Businesses Regulatory   Enforcement Fairness Act 1996 in the United States?

Margaret Hodge: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's clever question is that I have not had any such discussions. I shall write to him when I have familiarised myself with those pieces of legislation, and, if they are relevant to my job, I shall ensure that I do undertake such discussions.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): May I tell the Minister that unemployment has gone down dramatically in my constituency since we have had a Labour Government, but that there are still problems in seaside resorts? Will she take that on board, and give me an assurance that unemployment will not reach   3 million again, as it did under the previous Tory Government?

Margaret Hodge: I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that we would not damage the economy in the way in which the Conservatives did, which resulted in high levels of unemployment and in mortgage and home ownership collapse, along with many other examples of a poorly run economy. My hon. Friend made the serious point that we need to look right across the country at the areas that suffer particular challenges. I hope that, as we develop a more flexible response to unemployment and inactivity in the labour market, we shall be able to have a greater impact on those particularities in her constituency, which are also features of so many hon. Members' constituencies in relation to employment and unemployment.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Could not the Minister show a little less bluster and rather more concern that the claimant count has risen for eight consecutive months? That is the longest uphill run of such claims for 13 years. In relation to the Minister's direct responsibility, apart from laying on a rolling
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programme of cuts to the Jobcentre Plus service in the name of economy, does she intend to do anything positive about that deplorable trend?

Margaret Hodge: I would have hoped that a Front-Bench spokesman for Her Majesty's Opposition would look at the figures in the round. If we do so, we can see that there is plenty of good news. The employment rate is now higher than it has been for decades, with more than 2.3 million more people working today than in 1997. Most importantly, we are beginning to tackle the inactivity in employment that was a feature of Britain for generations, and which the Conservatives never attempted to tackle. We now have more than 1 million lone parents in work, and for the first time in decades the number of people on incapacity benefit is beginning to decrease. That is a record of which we are proud. Having said that, as I said in answer to a previous question, we are not complacent about the small rise in the claimant count, which is not because of more people coming on to jobseeker's allowance but because they are staying on it for a little bit longer. I am considering the reasons for that trend, so that I can take appropriate action to reverse it. We have an economy and labour market that are second to none and unparalleled in the world.

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