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Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Notwithstanding what the Minister said earlier about the use of the courts, does he accept that, in complex cases in which child care orders might already be before the court, it might speed matters up if the ability to make court orders were returned to the courts while they were already dealing with other family-related issues?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am not sure whether that was, is or will be part of Liberal policy. Perhaps when we have found the secret document that no one can lay their hands on at the moment, we will discover what lies behind that comment.

The agency has been grappling with performance issues almost from day one. Indeed, initially it cost more to run the agency than it collected in maintenance. That situation was reversed only after 1997.

As well as examining matters internally, we have looked abroad to see whether we can learn anything from schemes elsewhere. The simple answer is that no one country has completely cracked the problem of creating an effective child support system. People often quote Australia as the benchmark to which we should aspire—the hon. Member for Yeovil did so earlier. However, we are not comparing like with like—indeed, the hon. Gentleman did not do so in his speech—and I   shall explain why. The Australian estimate of maintenance includes all money paid directly by non-resident parents to parents with care, whereas the UK comparison includes only the maintenance paid through the Child Support Agency. Furthermore, the Australian link to the tax system is critically dependent on the different way in which the tax system there is structured. The comparisons with Australia are not as straightforward as the hon. Gentleman might like to suggest.

Mr. Laws: I quite accept that the comparisons need to reflect the differences between the two countries. However, can the Minister cite a single child support agency in any developed country that has a worse record of collection per pound of administration than we do in Britain?
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Mr. Plaskitt: I accept that point. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to say that our CSA comes out poorly in international comparisons of the cost per unit collected. That is precisely why we are now addressing some of the fundamental issues in the agency. We have been looking carefully at the systems that operate in other countries and feeding our findings into our recent root-and-branch review of the agency's operations.

It is not my intention to downplay or minimise the problems in the agency. As many hon. Members will know, I have been a regular critic of it myself. In this debate, however, it is important that we try to maintain an overall perspective of the situation. Despite all the well documented problems, there are nevertheless signs of improvement in the agency's performance. Last year, it collected more than £600 million from non-resident parents, and nearly 400,000 parents with care received maintenance, either via the agency, or arranged by the   agency but paid directly. This equates to 529,000 children who now have maintenance as a result of the agency's intervention, and since its inception the agency has collected £4.5 billion of maintenance payments.

Over the last calendar year, 2005, case and cash compliance, accuracy, enforcement and the telephony improved. Between January and September, the number of outstanding, uncleared potential applications across both schemes fell by 8 per cent. from 362,000 to 333,000. That is still far too high, but from the trend over the year we begin to see a reduction in that number. In September, the last month for which we have accurate figures, 25 per cent. of new cases coming to the agency were cleared in less than six weeks, although the average clearance time—this is not acceptable—was 26 weeks.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am sure the Minister fairly accepts that the cases that tend to come to us are   the difficult ones, but one thing that seems to be grossly unfair is the fact that, even in those cases where   the ombudsman accepts that there has been maladministration or a claimant has been seriously let down—the worst of the worst—there seems to be no process of compensation. People can lose out really badly, and neither the parliamentary commissioner nor the independent case reviewer seems to be in any position to award decent compensation. This may involve minimal stuff such as inconvenience, but there seems to be no provision in the system for compensation to be made for losses incurred.

Mr. Plaskitt: As a matter of fact, there is the facility for compensation payments. There are payments for inconvenience—the hon. Gentleman might be thinking of those—which tend to involve small amounts, such as £100 or £200.

Tony Baldry: I am talking about real compensation.

Mr. Plaskitt: The agency can make compensation payments, some of which can be quite sizeable. We are talking about payments of thousands of pounds. If the hon. Gentleman wants more information on that, I urge him to get in touch with my Department and we will happily explain it to him.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous in giving way. While he is talking about
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improvements to the CSA, may I try to be constructive? The residence of the child may change between parents, and the new parent with residence may previously have been a feckless parent who withheld payments to the previous parent. The CSA will chase the good parent and force them to make payments to the feckless parent, but will not enable the good parent, who did not receive the money from the feckless parent, to net off the amount that they have to pay. Will he make that simple change so he can remove that injustice?

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman might describe that as a simple change, but I suspect that it would turn out to be nothing like so simple in the application. After all, what we must put at the centre of all this is the child. The objective is to ensure a flow of maintenance to support the child. Whatever changes we make to the scheme, it must be based on the central tenet that the purpose of having the agency is to ensure support for children who would otherwise be vulnerable.

Although enforcement is too low, it is improving. For example, in 2002–03, 2,300 liability orders were granted by the courts. Last year, the figure more than doubled to 5,600. In the first eight months of this year, the total was already 6,300.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Like many other hon. Members, I have constituents and their children who are living in unnecessary poverty and who rely on the CSA to collect the arrears. I am interested in what the Minister has just said because I am dealing with what is patently a straightforward case, but the father is a barrister who is leading the CSA a merry dance, thwarting at every opportunity its right to collect the money. If non-paying parents, especially those who know the law, are using the system and feel that nothing will be done to enforce their responsibility towards their children, that just adds to the CSA's difficulties. What more can be done to encourage the CSA to take action against those who are wilfully doing that and what can the courts do to help?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. She is right to say that some non-resident parents will try to play the system for all it is worth and exploit every available opportunity. Many of us have come across such instances at our advice surgeries.

The agency is now taking much more action on enforcement. I have given my hon. Friend the figures on the sharp increase in the number of orders placed before the court, but may I also point out the effectiveness of the liability orders? Let us consider the case of a non-resident parent who was self-employed—often the category who are effective at playing the system—and whose debts, accumulated over four years, had grown to nearly £9,000. When the agency went to the court to take a liability order, that was enough to make that non-resident parent pay up in full. We have plenty of examples of how stepping up action on the liability
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orders, as we are doing, has the desired effect on some of those non-resident parents who have been trying to duck the system, in some cases for quite a long time.

Mr. Weir rose—

Mr. Plaskitt: I shall make a little progress, as I have taken a lot of interventions and I know that there are Members who wish to make speeches.

While the number of complaints about the agency is too high, it has also stabilised. In September 2005, 88 per cent. of initial complaints were resolved by the agency—or a resolution plan was agreed with the client—within three weeks. That figure is up from 74 per cent. in the previous year. I am pointing out those improving trends in order to dispel the view sometimes put about that every aspect of the agency is completely beyond hope. The truth is that the problems are sizeable, and some are chronic. The performance is not what it should be. There is a platform on which to build, however, which is in large part thanks to a dedicated staff grappling with the challenges.

I hope that the House will agree that it is essential to incorporate arrangements for delivering child support in a modern welfare system.

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