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Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): This might be a good opportunity to emphasise that there is a distinction to be made between the performance of the CSA and the performance of its staff. I and other members of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited the CSA office in Hastings and were struck by the incredible dedication of its hard-working staff and the stressful nature of their work. Such people are at the front line, receiving phone calls and dealing with distressing cases involving children from broken homes. The House should recognise that when we talk about the performance of the CSA, we are talking about it as an organisation, and not about the people who work there.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Like her, I have had the opportunity to visit some CSA offices up and down the country and to talk to staff at first hand. I wanted to do that as part of our review of the agency's workings. I share her interpretation of those meetings. The staff inside the agency are being asked to do a very difficult, stressful job. They are being asked to work with a difficult system and with IT that does not always support what they are trying to achieve. As I said, they are dealing with people whose circumstances are difficult and whose lives are quite fraught. It is not a situation in which many of us would like to find ourselves on a regular, day-to-day basis, and yet the agency's staff are doing that, coping with very difficult circumstances, sticking by the agency and sharing our determination to achieve in due course a system of child maintenance in this country that works effectively. In recognition of their efforts, we should focus on fixing the problems with the agency, not only,
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crucially, in respect of the children whom we are trying to support, but in respect of those whom we ask to carry out that task on behalf of the community.
Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD) rose
Mr. Plaskitt: I will give way once more, and then I must make some progress.
Danny Alexander: I am struck that the Minister argues in the CSA's defence that its record is improving, while the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister makes clear the view that the agency is not fit for its current purpose? Which is it to be?
Mr. Plaskitt: We were doing quite well, but now the hon. Gentleman is trying to be mischievous in deliberately misinterpreting what I am saying. I moved the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and my argument is absolutely clear. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little more progress, he will realise that I fully support my right hon. Friend's amendment.
This is the point. While there have been some small signs of improvement, that is not good enough. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said,
"the task that we are asking the agency to perform is an extremely difficult one . . . we cannot discuss sensibly the Child Support Agency unless we are prepared to look urgently at the fundamental nature of the task that it performs".[Official Report, 16 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 964.]
So what are the fundamental issues? The difficulties that the CSA faces have been well documented in a range of areas, particularly backlogs and the building up of debt, and some of the information technology issues that we thought were teething problems turned out to be major defects.
It was because we recognised the deep-seated nature of the problems that the agency faced that we asked Stephen Geraghty, following his appointment as the new chief executive in April last year, to undertake a root-and-branch review of the agency's operations. He has given us an extremely thorough and candid assessment of where the agency stands at present. Armed with that, we need to take a sensible look at how we can get the agency on to a stable footing; but it is important to remember that, in child support, going for quick fixes has a long history of not succeeding. Our imperative is to improve the service delivered to CSA clients, so that children receive the maintenance that they deserve and non-compliant parents take responsibility for their children; but whatever we do in the future should not be allowed to disrupt the maintenance that already supports half a million children.
Mr. Frank Field: The hon. Gentleman says that Ministers have received that damning document from the new chief executive. Will we be able to see it before the Government present the House with their proposals for reform, or will access be restricted, as with the Liberal Democrats' reform programme?
The difference in this case is that the report we received from the chief executive has led to, or
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will shortly lead to, a statement to the House setting out in detail the Government's proposals for dealing with the CSA. That is in marked contrast with the Liberal Democrats' invisible document, which does not seem to contain any ideasalthough we do not know, because we cannot find it.
Stephen Geraghty has given us his views on how we can address the agency's operational problems, and how significant improvements can be secured for its clients. Given the difficulties that I have described, it is right for us to take a proper and considered look at his conclusionsand, as I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make a statement to the House shortly.
We need to find a solution to the agency's problems, because in many cases parents are just not facing up to their responsibilities to their children. Worse still, a significant number of parents actively avoid paying maintenance. Some go to extraordinary lengths to do so, leaving their jobs, constantly changing address or leaving the country as soon as the agency gets close. Whatever we do in the future, the fact remains that it is the overriding responsibility of non-resident parents to support their children financially. We need to revisit the fundamental questions of what we are trying to achieve and whether we have the right tools with which to do it. Where we do not have the right tools, or they are not in the right place, we need to put together a robust plan to fix the problemand that is exactly what we are doing.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing the debate at such a timely point. I also congratulate the Minister, who spoke with heartfelt honesty.
I should begin by declaring an interest. I began my professional life in Edinburgh, at the Scottish Bar, when the old system so aptly described by the Minister was in placeso I benefited financially and economically under that former system, but also in terms of being paid in arrears.
We Conservatives remain vigorously in favour of the principle that absent parents should contribute to the maintenance of their children. I want also to associate myself with the remarks of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman)the Minister was good enough to quote him during recent parliamentary questionswho said that there is no easy solution. We are not looking for easy solutions, but I was mildly surprised to discover that we did not have the benefit of in-depth solutions from the Liberal Democrats, who have called this debate, a point to which I shall return.
I want also to record my personal gratitude to the staff of my local CSA. They are always at the end of a telephone line, but in one very disturbing case they met the absent father in question at my surgery. It was appropriate for the Minister to record his appreciation of the circumstances in which CSA staff have to workan appreciation that the whole House will share. We must not lose sight of that point, because all too often they are exposed to criticism. I will not go over ground that has already been covered in this regard, but there are a number of issues that the Minister might want to
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comment on later. We remain wedded, as I said, to the principle that absent parents should contribute, but as the Minister identified, we need to improve on current practice.
The Government's amendment to the motion states that
"the Government will shortly set out its conclusions on the right way forward following the Chief Executive's review of the operation of the Child Support Agency."
We know, because the Minister was good enough to tell us, that that review has been with his Department for a matter of weeksperhaps a little over a month. It would assist today's debate if a date were put on its publication. Will it be published before the end of this month? As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, it might help if we took a two-stage approachif the House had the benefit of seeing the review before the Minister and his Department produced their proposals. Here, I will tease the Liberal Democrats by asking that their document be made available on their website. We visited it as recently as yesterday, but we were disappointed to discovergiven the spirit of open government in which the Liberal Democrats want to operate, and given that they are on record as saying that they want to be a party of governmentthat they do not want to share their proposals with us in time for this debate.
Why was the CSA's chief executive felt to be the most appropriate person, working through the heads of the Minister's Department, to conduct this review? We agree with the Minister that it was right to conduct a root-and-branch review, but we also agree with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that it should have been conducted less secretively, so that the House could have had the benefit of seeing the proposals. It should have been independent, more impartial and external to the Departmentin the long term, the Department and the House would have benefited from such an approach.
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