Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Child Support Agency

15. Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): If he will make a statement on the performance of the Child Support Agency. [31696]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Clearly, it is not as good as it should be. I think every hon. Member will agree with that. That is why the chief executive, working closely with Ministers, is drawing up a strategy to tackle the root causes of the agency's difficulties and to get it into decent shape so that its performance can begin to meet the standards we expect of it.

Mr. Gale: The Minister knows perfectly well that there is not a Member of the House who has not got a file of letters from parents with children who cannot access the money to which they are entitled, and an equivalent file of letters from absent parents who cannot afford the demands that are made on them. While both those sequences of cases are causing misery, the information technology is failing and the people
28 Nov 2005 : Column 20
working it are failing. Has not the time come to draw this whole sorry episode to a close and replace it with something that works?

Mr. Plaskitt: When did this sorry episode start? Back when the hon. Gentleman was in government and voted for it—[Interruption.] Oh yes. It is worth reminding him and all Conservative Members of that. He will know that we inherited a mess in the CSA in 1997—[Interruption.] I am happy to remind hon. Members of the work that we have done. I am sure that they will remember that we introduced reforms in 2000–01 which established a new method of calculating the maintenance assessment.

As we analyse the problems, we find more and more that many of them date back to mistakes in the setting up of the agency—[Interruption.] No, that is where most of the debt comes from. The original formula for assessing maintenance was excessively complicated, with 90 different variables. The hon. Gentleman voted for that and it led to many of the complexities in the system. He and his party set it up with second-hand, second-rate IT. We have begun the reform process. I agree with him—every Member in this House has a thick file of cases of constituents who are having difficulties with the CSA. I have spoken about such cases just as often as he has. We are just as keen to get on with reforming the agency. As I have said, we are working with the chief executive to bring forward a reform programme.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Government have been in power for eight years and it is time that they took responsibility for the state of the CSA. The Prime Minister said yesterday that the CSA has basic design problems. Only a fortnight ago in this House, he said that the CSA is not suited to its job. With the CSA, as with incapacity benefit, the running seems to be being made by Downing street and not by the Department. Can the Minister guarantee that we will get a statement on the future of the CSA before the Christmas recess, or has he no more knowledge of the Prime Minister's plans than the rest of us?

Mr. Plaskitt: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right when he said that the agency has basic design problems. When was it designed? It was back when the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were in office. Let me remind him of what he said in The Guardian only last week:

He wants to know when our reform proposals will come forward. We still hope to bring them to the House before the end of the year.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Is not the time for action from this Government long overdue? The agency has at least 400,000 cases where no payments are going to children, and it has a backlog of 350,000 cases that have not even been assessed. In respect of action that the Government are thinking of taking, will the Minister confirm that his Department is considering privatising this dog's breakfast?
28 Nov 2005 : Column 21

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Lady has been reading the press speculation and I suggest that she treats it as exactly that. Her party's position on the agency is getting more and more confusing. I am used to hearing some of her Front Benchers suggest that we hand things
28 Nov 2005 : Column 22
over to the Inland Revenue, but the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked in the House last week whether it was sensible to transfer the administration of mean-tested benefits for children to the Treasury. But that was last week.

28 Nov 2005 : Column 23

Points of Order

3.32 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister was asked why his Defence Ministers had suddenly stopped giving 2012 and 2015 as the projected in-service dates for the future aircraft carrier. He replied that it was "perfectly possible" that those might be the actual dates. At the weekend, however, reports were manifest that the project has slipped by anything up to four years. Have you, Mr. Speaker, been informed of any intention by the Defence Minister to come to the House to make a statement about this important project, or by the Prime Minister to come to the House and correct the record?

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Let me answer the point of order and then perhaps the hon. Gentleman will not need to ask me his.

The Prime Minister's responses and replies are not a matter for me. If the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) feels that the figures or statements should be challenged, he can seek an opportunity for an Adjournment debate or table more parliamentary questions. Does that help the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois)?

Mr. Francois: It does, Mr. Speaker, but might I humbly add that this is an important matter, because the current class of carriers are growing old and will be withdrawn, and the Sea Harriers that they carry for the air defence of the fleet are being withdrawn now, so the fleet is without long-range air defence? I realise that you are not responsible for the actions of the Prime Minister, but is there anything further that you can do for the security of the Royal Navy?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is a good, fighting Back Bencher. Perhaps he can do more for the Royal Navy by asking more questions.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you help me, as I tabled question 7 on the important issue of constituents who have private pension schemes that have been wound up? Many Opposition Members were trying to ask a question to raise the plight of their constituents. I saw you, Mr. Speaker, look encouragingly at Government Back Benchers, but in vain because none of them was trying to catch your eye to raise their constituents' concerns. What advice can you give hon. Members such as me who wish to raise these matters and have a long debate on a question?

Mr. Speaker: All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the only thing I encourage hon. Members to do is not to shout at Ministers—that applies to hon. Members on both sides of the House. When it comes to pursuing matters on behalf of constituents, if I ever needed any lessons—I am a constituency MP in my own right—I would go to the hon. Gentleman.
28 Nov 2005 : Column 24

Orders of the Day

Childcare Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Today is a landmark for families and children, as we have embarked on the Second Reading of the first ever Bill on child care, ensuring that all parents can make genuine choices to help them to balance work and family life, and that children have the best start in life. When the Labour Government came to office, child care and early years provision had suffered from years of underfunding and neglect. We inherited one of the worst sets of child care and family-friendly provision in Europe, and one of the worst records on child poverty in the industrialised world. We are determined, however, that child care and early years provision should be at the heart of our strategy to allow families to make the choices that modern lifestyles and work patterns demand. In doing so, we must ensure that we help the people who need it most and improve the life chances of every child.

The Bill builds on our manifesto commitments and sets out our aspirations. It ensures both that we have sufficient high-quality provision and that parents have the information that they need to be able to access the services that they want for their children. The Bill recognises that families on the lowest incomes need the greatest support. It achieves those things by setting out a new duty on local authorities to take steps to provide sufficient child care, integrating inspection regimes, setting targets for outcomes that we want to be achieved for children and ensuring that local authorities provide clear and accessible information for parents.

Next Section IndexHome Page