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Child Support Agency

5. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What recent meetings he has had with the chief executive of the Child Support Agency. [40161]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I and ministerial colleagues regularly meet the agency's chief executive, Stephen Geraghty. Those meetings have mostly focused on the review of the agency that he has been carrying out, the findings of which we are now considering.
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Mr. Mackay : As every month more and more of my constituents come to me with legitimate complaints about the inefficiency and incompetence of the Child Support Agency, is it not strange that Ministers did not bring their reforms before the House before Christmas, as was promised? Why did they not do so? What is the problem?

Mr. Plaskitt: We asked Stephen Geraghty to undertake a very thorough review of the agency's workings. The agency's problems are well known to all hon. Members from our constituency casework, if through no other route, and the problems are deep-seated in the agency. It was therefore sensible to give Mr. Geraghty and his staff enough time to conclude their review. It is also appropriate that we should think about and reflect carefully on what he said, because we intend to produce proposals in due course to put the agency on a decent footing.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): As part of that review, will the Government consider the complete abolition of the Child Support Agency, given the amount of uncollected maintenance, the problems of transferring to the new system and the problems that my hon. Friend says are well documented?

Mr. Plaskitt: As my hon. Friend suggests, we are all very familiar with the agency's problems. I understand the temptation for some people on both sides of the House to leap from that to the assumption that we should just scrap the agency. I point out to him, however, that although the agency has plenty of problems—that is precisely why the chief executive is now reviewing them—it has collected £4.5 billion of maintenance since it was established. Last year alone, it collected £600 million in maintenance, and it now collects more maintenance than it costs to run, which was not the case initially. Some 500,000 children are supported by child maintenance as a result of the agency's work. Simply scrapping it or closing it down might look attractive in terms of dealing with some of its problems, but it would only create another heap of problems that somebody else would have to pick up. It is, in fact, a simplistic solution to suggest that the only thing to do is shut it down.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Have the Government ruled out scrapping this extraordinary agency?

Mr. Plaskitt: I think that I just covered that point in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley). It is important for us to focus on the primary purpose for which the agency was established: to secure a flow of maintenance for children and to ensure that parents live up to their responsibilities. As I have just said, the agency actually does that to a considerable extent. It has collected £4.5 billion of maintenance since it was established. For some parents and for some children, it works quite successfully; for far too many, it does not. The focus of the chief executive's efforts and our reflections is on dealing with the problems in the agency so that we can get it on to a stable footing.
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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am sure that the Minister shares my concern that there are men who will refuse to pay for their children after they are born. Because of my increasing postbag from people trapped between a failing computer system and an absolutely sluggish clerical method of payment, my Christmas message to my constituents covered this issue, and I hope that this year we will somehow find a way to get them out of the trap that they are caught in by the CSA. How long will we have to wait for the Secretary of State's new year message of hope for these people?

Mr. Plaskitt: I can tell my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to come to the House shortly to make a statement that will indicate to him and to all other hon. Members the conclusions that we have reached on the basis of the chief executive's review.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is it not the case that the agency has been very effective at chasing those absent parents who have not been paying but less effective at chasing those parents who have yet to make a payment? Can the Minister confirm that he said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) that he has now received and is considering the findings of the review by the CSA's chief executive? Can the Minister give us a date when the House will have an opportunity to consider his reforms, and will the Secretary of State be minded to reform the agency—or does he share the Prime Minister's view that it is simply not fit for purpose?

Mr. Plaskitt: I can confirm that we have received the report from the chief executive and I can confirm that we are considering its findings. I can also confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to make a statement to the House shortly.

As the hon. Lady joins the Opposition's Front-Bench team, I remind her of what the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who used to speak on this issue, said to The Guardian on 23 November. His conclusion was:

ASW Sheerness (Pension Scheme)

6. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): How many workers who were members of the failed pension scheme at ASW Sheerness have received compensation from the financial assistance scheme. [40162]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): None as yet, although the first members of the ASW Cardiff scheme started to receive payments before Christmas. The ASW Sheerness scheme has not yet completed wind-up, and the scheme trustees have confirmed that they have no members aged 65 and over who would qualify for initial payments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend and former ASW employees later this week.
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Derek Wyatt: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What will happen to the 80,000 or so people who are caught in this trap once the £400 million is spent? What is the Government's plan B on this issue?

Mr. Timms: We estimate that 15,000 will benefit from the financial assistance scheme as constructed. We have made it clear that we will review the scheme, including the amount of funding that is available for it, in the next spending review and, at that stage, decide whether it would be appropriate to change its details.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): While it is good news for those at ASW Cardiff that they have finally received something, why has the process taken more than 18 months to achieve? When will the 249 other schemes that have already been notified to the   FAS be likely to receive some compensation? Will the Minister urgently review the amounts payable, the conditions for eligibility and the patent inadequacy of the funds earmarked for the FAS?

Mr. Timms: Let me make it clear that payments to the first of the former ASW employees were indeed made on schedule—before Christmas. However, it will still take some time for all people in that and other schemes to receive the payments that are due to them. This has been a pretty major exercise. We are expecting some 15,000 people to benefit, and a lot of data must be assembled to make the payments. I pay tribute to the staff, who have worked extremely hard to get the scheme in place, for what they have achieved and for securing the timetable and deadline that we set for making the first payments before the end of 2005.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that the ASW workers are part of a broader network of people, especially steelworkers, who find that after decades of service to our country, they are without properly protected pension funds because for 18 years the Conservative party did not stand up to business and insist that adequate laws existed to protect such people. Will he acknowledge the work of trade unions such as Amicus and Community, and if and when this is needed, will he receive a delegation from them, because they know the real problems of these great workers, who we need to support as much as we can?

Mr. Timms: I agree with my right hon. Friend about the difficulties that many people have faced. I join him in paying tribute to the trade unions that have done a lot of work to draw attention to the problem. A large group of people—we have been especially concerned about those closest to retirement—faced the prospect of receiving almost nothing from a pension to which they contributed for many years. People who were within three years of their scheme pension age in May 2004 will be receiving assistance, in many cases, from the financial assistance scheme. I have had the opportunity to meet individuals from several trade unions and others who have made representations on the matter. As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will meet some people later this week, and I will certainly welcome the opportunity to talk to others in due course.
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