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Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of this week's report in Scotland's Sunday Mail newspaper that the CSA's chief executive has also called for the agency to be abolished and for its functions to be transferred to other Government agencies?
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have not read the Scottish newspaper to which he refers. Judging by the looks on Ministers' faces, I would not conclude that what the report suggests will necessarily happen.
What did the Prime Minister's confusing remark in November mean? Many hon. Members left the Chamber that day hoping that it marked the beginning of fundamental reform of the CSA, but we later discovered that journalists who telephoned the Department for Work and Pensions found that people there knew nothing about what the Prime Minister had said. Indeed, they poured cold water on any idea that there would be fundamental reform.
The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), was asked about this matter at Question Time a week ago. He said that the Department's focus was on
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why did the hon. Gentleman table an entirely negative motion that contains no positive suggestions about how to reform the CSA? Is it because he does not have a clue about that, or because the acting headmasteror acting leaderof the Liberal Democrats has not been able to make up his mind and cannot give him clearance for any positive suggestions? Would not it be more sensible to offer a solution?
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for an example of the constructive approach offered by the modern Conservative party, and I look forward to hearing later what his Front-Bench team propose. However, he may be a little out of date and may not have seen the detailed paper that we have published on this matter today.
Mr. Laws: Our aim with the motion is to persuade Ministers to support what the Prime Minister told the House in November. He made it clear then that he did not believe that the CSA was, in the language of the press, fit for its purpose.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) will know that our motion is based on comments that the Prime Minister made on 16 November last year, and previously. We are inviting Ministers and Labour Members to do no more than agree with the Prime Minister that the CSA has "lost the confidence" of the public, that it has "basic structural problems", and that it "is not properly suited" to its task. We look forward to finding out whether Labour Members will support the Prime Minister's passionate denunciation of the CSA in its existing form, or whether they will vote against our motion.
Mr. Laws: It is not childish, as we want to establish whether the Government are clear about the extent of the reforms that are needed. The Government's amendment uses most of the same text as our motion, although it omits the passage about the CSA having lost the confidence of the public. If the Minister believes that the agency still enjoys the confidence of the public, he is very out of touch.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The hon. Gentleman and I took part in a debate in Westminster Hall on this matter, but I was not sure from that whether his party ruled out ever scrapping the CSA. Will he clarify that now?
Mr. Laws: I should be happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the document that we produced today, which makes it clear that we have believed for some time that the CSA in its existing form should be scrapped, with its functions folded into those of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. After I have set out some of the agency's problems, I shall go into detail about
I do not want to detain you, Mr. Speaker, but I seek clarification. If the hon. Member for
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Yeovil (Mr. Laws) intends to refer to his party's document, should it not be made available in the Library?
Mr. Laws: I think that we all anticipated the nature of that point of order. I will come back to the detailed proposals later, and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity then to make his views known.
Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman refers to the report by the Work and Pensions Committee, on which I served, and I stand by that report. After reading the motion and the amendment, I want to ask the hon. Gentleman if he will support the amendment, because it agrees with the motion that the CSA has severe problems. Perhaps we should wrap up and go home.
Will we find out what has happened since the Prime Minister made his grand statement, as though it was an announcement of policy that would later emerge? We have had the Minister's comments, which have made it clear that his intention is not fundamental reform or scrapping of the agency, but putting it on a stable footing. Then we had the briefings to the newspapers about the Government's great ideathe change that will make the CSA workof tagging, which is a gimmick that nobody who is serious about dealing with the fundamental problems of the agency thinks will help to resolve them.
Those hon. Members who are serious about reform of the CSAand I include the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) among themwill know that the detailed enforcement mechanisms form a small part of the serious problems of the agency, which were addressed in the report by the Work and Pensions Committee.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab):
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman does not support the tagging idea. A constituent who was tagged recently visited my surgery and took his tag off in front of me, and his middle name was not Houdini, so there are clearly problems with tagging. Given the hon. Gentleman's emphasis on civil liberties, would it not be a more effective punishment for people who do not pay
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maintenance to publish their photographs in local newspapers, alongside the amount of maintenance that taxpayers are paying on their behalf?
Mr. Laws: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's first comment. I respect his experience in debating this issue and the commitment that he has shown to the reform of the CSA over many years. I am not entirely convinced that his proposal would work, because the low esteem in which the CSA is held by many of the people who do not pay means that they would be determined not to pay up regardless. We need to achieve a CSA that collects money, not one that focuses on a tiny number of people who are determined not to meet their obligations.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): While the hon. Gentleman is talking about extreme sanctions, can he tell us what the Liberal Democrats' policy is on the confiscation of driving licences from feckless fathers?
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