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Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): This is related, but not directly, to the same issue. The CSA's standard response to inquiries is to say that the matter has been resolved and to provide a letter that one can send to one's constituent saying that it will be cleared up. Two or three months later, one gets a letter from the constituent saying that absolutely nothing has happened, and the correspondence, which was closed, has to be reopened. Would it help the CSA if it could deal with those cases and not extend the correspondence, and the problems facing the constituent, unnecessarily?
Mr. Plaskitt: We are all able to cite examples from our constituency case filesI can do that just as well as any other Member. I completely understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The situation is symptomatic of performance issues inside the agency that are not acceptable and clearly must improve. He cites one form of the problemcorrespondence that purports to have done something but has not, which means that the case has subsequently to be reopened. That creates one of the problems that the recovery scheme for the agency must address.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Before those interventions, my hon. Friend was beginning to set out the complexity of many of the cases that people at the CSA have to deal with. When I visited the agency in Plymouth, I learned that as many as one in 10 of those cases involve multiple partners, some with as many as five to 10 partners to try to sort out. Would my hon. Friend consider isolating those complex cases so that they can be dealt with separately from the others? That might improve the performance on the other nine out of 10 cases that we all want to be dealt with more efficiently.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and pertinent point. I, too, have seen flow charts that the agency has produced showing the extraordinary interlinking between different cases. I take on board my hon. Friend's point about separating such cases. Cases in which the administration is extremely faulty and which come to us as constituency MPs often tend to be those that relate to very complex arrangements. It is in the nature of things that we do not get to see the relatively straightforward cases that the CSA handles, which are quickly processed and stay in payment
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without much problem for the lifetime of the maintenance agreement. However, we should bear the complex cases in mind when we are contemplating how to deal with the agency and the problems that arise, of which there are far too many in such cases. My hon. Friend makes a valid point.
Mr. Plaskitt: I need to make a bit of progress, but I am happy to give way again.
Mr. Weir: I am interested in what the Minister is saying about the complexity of cases. Does not that go back to the original resourcing of the agency? Before coming to this House I was a solicitor, and I have dealt with the CSA, in both capacities, for some 13 years now. I well remember the naivety of those who set it up. They did not understand the lengths to which some absent parents would go to avoid paying anything for their childrenthe feckless parents to whom the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred. That is the root of the problem, and only by proper staffing and resources will we ever get round it.
Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman is right again to emphasise the complexity of cases and the extraordinary lengths to which some people will go to try to evade their responsibilities. We are asking the agency to deal with people who are of that frame of mind, will not face up to their responsibilities as a parent, and will go to the most extraordinary lengths to avoid doing so. That is why, as part of this debate, we have to think about the agency's enforcement powers. I will say more about that shortly.
Mr. Plaskitt: I want to make some progress, because I have hardly started yet. I promise to give way to other hon. Members in a moment.
Before I took that group of interventions, I had started to explain the difficulties with which the agency has to deal. The provision of child support is an especially difficult aspect of welfare reform. We have struggled with it in the UK for some time, even before the CSA was established. We are not alone in that. Other countries find it difficult as well.
It is worth reminding the House, especially in the light of the previous intervention, of the position before the agency was founded. It was well described in the 1990 White Paper, from which I shall quote a paragraph. It states:
"The present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective. It is based largely on discretion. The system is operated through the High and county courts, the magistrates' courts, the Court of Session and the Sheriff Courts in Scotland and the offices of the Department of Social Security. The cumulative effect is uncertainty and inconsistent decisions about how much maintenance should be paid. In a great many instances, the maintenance awarded is not paid or the payments fall into arrears and take weeks to re-establish".
Sometimes an impression is created of a golden age of child maintenance before the CSA was set up. It is worth reminding ourselves that it never existed.
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Miss Begg: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has highlighted the personal cost and the difficulty of getting money from absent parents when relationships have broken down. Has he any evidence that the culture of the Inland Revenue means that the people who would do the job under the Liberals' scheme have any understanding of that complexity in an already complex part of the benefits system, and of the human cost that could ensue from a system of faceless bureaucrats simply getting money out of people? The matter is far more complex than that.
Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is right. The matter is complex and there is a certain simplicity about the Liberal Democrats' repeated suggestion. They used to propose giving it all back to the courts but have recently switched to giving the system to the Inland Revenue. The courts found the complexity difficult to tackle and the results were unsatisfactory. The agency has found it difficult to deal with complex cases and, again, the results are not entirely satisfactory. Simply handing the process to the Inland Revenue would not remove complexity and difficulty. I cannot accept that somehow there is something about the Inland Revenue's administration that would not trip up over the complex relationships that lie at the heart of many difficult CSA cases. My hon. Friend is right: it is much more complicated than that.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I congratulate the Under-Secretary on finding the quote from the White Paper. Does he recall that, before 1990, the taxpayer paid for many more absent parents than is the case now? Getting rid of that inequity was the fundamental benefit of setting up the CSA. Sadly, there is now a different inequity. Two families in identical circumstances can pay very different amounts because of the disparity between the two schemes. The Under-Secretary suggests that he can foresee no date by which those two schemes will be rolled out together. Is he genuinely telling the House that?
Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman makes two points. He is right about the cost to the taxpayer before the agency was set up. That is one of the reasons for the previous Government's decision to introduce the agency and move away from the court-based system.
The hon. Gentleman is not entirely right about the two schemes. I understand his pointI have made the same criticism of the position before today. Two schemes are running in parallelin some ways, the position is even more complex because there are sub-divisions in the schemes. However, if he can await the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make shortly on the agency, he will find an answer to his point.
Before the agency was introduced in April 1993, there were two main routes for cases in which couples could not make their child maintenance arrangements. Maintenance was determined by the courts, which enforced it only on application to do so and with limited facility to trace non-paying parents. When the parent with care was on benefit, maintenance was secured through the then Department of Social Security's liable relative scheme. That involved benefits staff negotiating an amount of maintenance with the non-resident
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parent, who was generally paid only while the parent with care stayed on benefit. That resulted in massive inconsistency in the amounts paid, and did not support parents who wanted to return to work.
The original child support scheme introduced with the CSA was meant to address those problems. In the event, however, we had an initial formula that parents, their advisers and even agency staff just did not understand. The agency therefore hit problems from day one, but the Government's approach at the time was to introduce a whole range of legislative changes that served only to add to the complexity of the scheme, until they reached the point under the old scheme at which some cases needed up to 100 separate pieces of information to make an assessment. That had the effect of drawing staff away from enforcement and into information gathering, meanwhile leaving many more children in poverty.
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