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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Laws : I shall take one more intervention, but then I must press on so that others have time to speak.

Chris Bryant : By giving way to me, the hon. Gentleman has disappointed many of his colleagues. He has made some fair points this afternoon and is right to say that all hon. Members know from their own casework the problems of the CSA, but I counsel him against using the term "scrapping the CSA". The feedback that I get from my constituency is that every time there is talk of scrapping the agency, some of the feckless parents to whom the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred suddenly think that they no longer have to pay anything or make any sort of contribution. Although some of his suggestions may be good ones, I suggest that he lay off the populist rhetoric.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman is an expert on populist rhetoric, but I shall take that as one of his more measured and constructive interventions. I accept the point that he makes. We are not suggesting that absent parents should not have an obligation to make payments. We are suggesting that we should put a Government body in charge, with the powers, ability and effectiveness to do the job an awful lot better than it has been done for the past 13 years.

There are a number of other issues that ought to be part of a reform of the Child Support Agency. It is clear that we can no longer tolerate a situation where not only does it take an enormous amount of time to make the maintenance calculations, but where these are often not implemented for lengthy periods, so massive arrears build up. There must be a determined time limit within which the maintenance deductions can start. There should also be a new statutory requirement on non-resident parents to report change of address or change of job so that they are not able to get away unnecessarily with dodging their maintenance liabilities. As we said earlier, there must be a halt to the reduction of staff numbers, which is inconsistent with the failed state of the agency. There must be a more effective enforcement arm.

I hope also that the Minister will acknowledge that when we get a statement and possibly legislation, the reform will be fundamental. I hope that he and his colleagues will seek to bring in the considerable expertise that exists in this place and on the Select Committee, as well as in outside bodies. We are discussing an incredibly detailed area. I hope the Minister will consider the idea, which was recommended by the Select Committee in 1999, of a child support advisory committee that could comment on any new measures, to make sure that we get the new child support arrangements right.
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We strongly agree with the Prime Minister that the time has come to stop patching up a system that has failed for the past 13 years. We want to see fundamental reform, not gimmickry or incremental change. We hope the Minister will give us a signal of that intent on behalf of the Government today.

4.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr.   Laws) for giving the House the opportunity to discuss a range of child support issues. I listened carefully to his speech, which I would characterise as a great many words marching across the paper in search of a new idea. I waited to hear one, but it was absent.

Let me correct the hon. Gentleman on two key parts of the argument that he advanced. First, he made great play of enforcement, yet when he was quite reasonably challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) on what his party had previously said about that, he carefully ducked the question. I remind him that his party's previous spokesperson on the issue described the existing sanctions at the agency's disposal as "draconian attacks on liberties". I therefore doubt the veracity of the hon. Gentleman's calls for greater enforcement, because those do not match what his party has hitherto said on the subject.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman set great store by staffing. I am anxious to correct the information that he gave to the House. In March 2005 the agency employed 9,784 staff. The latest headcount on 30 September 2005 was 10,027. The agency is recruiting, and on present trends it is anticipated that by March this year there could be 11,000 staff in the agency. As part of the recovery plans that are being put in place, additional staff are being recruited to tackle the problems in the agency. Far from his giving the impression that the number of staff is declining, the fact is that the figure is already several hundred higher than the March 2005 level and is still rising.

Mr. Laws: I am keen to establish the facts. The figures that I cited came from a parliamentary answer provided by the Secretary of State in the past month. If they are inaccurate or distorted, I want to hear about it, so we can all understand the real situation.

Mr. Plaskitt: I have seen almost all of the 158 parliamentary questions tabled by the hon. Gentleman on the subject in the past eight months,
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because I signed almost all the answers. I assure him that the figures that I have given him are consistent with the printed information in parliamentary answers.

Mr. Laws: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Plaskitt: No; let me make some progress.

The third part of the hon. Gentleman's pitch concerned his party's document, which sets out what he thinks his party could do with the agency. The document seems to be highly secret, because it is not in the Library, and we cannot even obtain it from the Liberal Democrat press office.

Notwithstanding those matters, I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Yeovil for giving the House the opportunity this afternoon to discuss a range of child support issues. I entirely understand his concern and that of all other hon. Members about the performance of the Child Support Agency, which is clearly unacceptable. Since the agency was set up nearly 13 years ago, it has accumulated more than £3 billion in debt. It has more than 300,000 cases awaiting an initial   maintenance assessment, and 30 per cent. of non-resident parents who are assessed to pay maintenance fail to do so. That situation cannot be allowed to persist. Although the problems facing the CSA are huge, we should not forget that the primary responsibility for non-resident parents to contribute to the upbringing of their children lies with the parents themselves.

I want to describe the circumstances in which staff in the CSA are expected to operate. Many clients come to the agency when their relationship has broken down, when they have lost their job or even when private maintenance arrangements have failed. It will never be   easy for the state to be involved in the difficult and   emotional circumstances that often surround parents when child support becomes an issue. The circumstances are often extremely fraught, and Government intervention in relationships, money or caring for children may inflame parents who are already in a tense situation, but we expect staff in the agency who sort out child support maintenance to become involved in a mixture of all three issues.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): In my constituency—I am sure this is true of many other hon. Members' constituencies, too—one unfortunate absent parent, as he is deemed, has been paying under the old system since 2003, which has caused him hardship. When I wrote to the Minister about the case, he referred me to a parliamentary answer:

Which systems and business processes require improvement, and what is the time scale? Can the Minister provide any hope for people such as my constituent, who is waiting for those business processes and who is desperate to leave the old system?

Mr. Plaskitt: The issue concerns converting cases from the old scheme to the new scheme, which has been a fundamental problem in the agency. I will go into the matter in more detail, but the summary answer to
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the   hon. Lady's question is that hundreds of thousands of cases are at issue. It is clearly sensible to contemplate convergence from the old scheme to the new scheme only when the IT is robust enough to support it. The problem has been that the system on which the agency depended for some time, which was thought to have some short-term faults, has turned out to have faults of a much more structural nature. It must of course be stable before we even contemplate the conversion of cases that are on the old system.

Let me say to the hon. Lady, and to other Members who may be tempted to intervene on the same point, that this issue is central to the analysis that the new chief executive has been carrying out, and we will have more to say about it shortly when we make our statement on the future of the agency.

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