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Mr. Laws: The hon. Lady is making some extremely important points about airing the review. Does she agree that it would have helped if the Government had told us whether the review examined seriously other options for the agency, instead of simply improving it as it stands?
Miss McIntosh: That is not for me to say, but I should be very surprised to discover that the Department did not produce other options. There has been some talk of the Australian model, but I should point out that I do not entirely associate myself with the proposals of the hon. Member for Yeovil concerning the Inland Revenue scheme. One thing that the Revenue and the CSA share is that their computer systems have had not just teething problems, but major defects. I should be loth to switch from an agency with such problems to another with similar ones. However, there are parts of the Australian model that commend themselves to the House, and if the Government were to introduce such proposals they would enjoy a lot of support. One example is having one caseworker per couple or per family. Together with tax credits, this is the issue that arises most frequently with hon. Members, and it touches not just on families across the country but on many employers, and causes them considerable concern.
The hon. Lady should not think that there will be substantial structural reform by establishing
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caseworkers. We want to get away from a system that treats individuals as though they are receiving, and we are computing, a benefit. The non-payment of maintenance ought to be met by imposing a tax. That would be crude, but surely we want to move to a system where, for one child, there is an additional X pence on the standard rate of tax, for two children, two times X and for three children, three times X. We should not take into account any circumstances such as how far one travels to work. We do not do that when computing tax rates, nor should we do so for the failure to pay maintenance, which is about paying tax. Before the hon. Lady dismisses the Inland Revenue, she should be aware that we are asking it not to run a social service, but to impose an additional tax rate on those who refuse to pay maintenance.
Miss McIntosh: I consider myself castigated in terms of calling the person a caseworker. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. However, the CSA's quarterly summary for September 2005 states that the CSA received 5 million telephone calls and answered only 4.2 million, which is where much of the frustration arises. We often telephone on behalf of constituents, but they generally do the telephoning and it is a source of enormous frustration that there is not the same person dealing with the same family each time.
The Minister will appreciate our fundamental concern that it costs £12 million to run the enforcement unit, yet it is recovering only £8 million. This is an area that the Government will wish to address in the immediate future with their reforms. The Minister was admirably honest in explaining the administrative chaos and the failure to enforce maintenance payments. All of us will be able to speak with much more authority when we see the fruits of the chief executive's review.
Mr. Weir: My experience of enforcement suggests that the figures might be misleading. In many cases the enforcement procedure starts and the parent subject to the procedure makes a couple of payments and then stops. There seems to be a huge delay in restarting the enforcement procedure, and the parent who should be receiving the money gets no benefit from it.
Miss McIntosh: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. That may be the problem, but the Liberal Democrats have not come up with the solution. To pass the whole assessment and collection process to the Inland Revenue is flawed in one fundamental way, and that concerns the self-employed. I will take them out of the equation for the purposes of this argument, but even if an absent parent were in full-time employment, it will only be at the end of the yearparticularly if he or she is in seasonal work or there are fluctuations in incomewhen the P35, and not, we hope, the P45, is issued that the Inland Revenue will be in a position to know what that person's income is before an assessment can be made. That is a fundamental flaw that I believe cannot be overcome.
Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab):
Does the hon. Lady agree that the CSA's goals were not clear when it was set up and that there was confusion about
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who should be targeted? In my constituency, the people who do not get caught are those who are on the move all the time. Agency staff try to build a case to catch a person, only to find that the person has moved on. They have to start all over again, and that is very frustrating. One case in my area has lasted four years. That is not the norm, but when we talk about improvements we must remember where we started from. The Government have made significant improvements in the CSA, but the trouble is that such a poor start was made that they are not catching up with the problems.
Miss McIntosh: I am sure that we would all like to give some thought to what the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Mr. MacDougall) said, but the Minister was refreshingly honest about the problems to do with the assessment. He said that the computer problems were not teething problems, but resulted from fundamental defects in the system.
Collection management is another problem, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes noted. Still another is enforcement: inevitably, some people cannot pay, while others will not. At Work and Pensions questions last week, I made the point that the CSA is extremely good at chasing those absent parents who had been identified and who were making payments, but that difficulties arose when such people had to be reassessed as a result of changing circumstances. The CSA was set up with all-party support. I am not convinced that it is meeting its targets in respect of finding absent parents who do not wish to be found. I am sure that the Prime Minister and the Minister will agree that there is much room for improvement in that regard.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): My hon. Friend may be about to deal with the question of enforcement, which is the key to improving the CSA's performance. Absent parents who refuse to pay often go underground and become part of the black economy. HMRC is unlikely to be the solution to that problem, as it is unlikely to capture such people anyway.
I do not want to make a speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but a case in my constituency has gone on for six years. The sum involved is £18,000 and the person who should pay it was the cheque writer in the company for which he worked. He refused to authorise the payments, turned self-employed and then went into the black economy. Many hon. Members will be aware of similar stories. My argument is that the Minister must deal with improving the CSA's powers of enforcement.
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes his point very well. The CSA's failure, or inability, in respect of enforcement is the key problem, and the Government must tackle it. The agency's failure to enforce maintenance payments from defaulting absent parents has left parents with care unable to support their children.
There have also been administrative errors, as the Minister rightly noted. About 25 per cent. of parents with care are not getting the moneys to which they are
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entitled, and thus depend on benefits such as the absent parent payment. The Minister also mentioned the problem of uncollected payments, but other difficulties include incorrect payments and the failed audit. The independent case examiner has alerted the House to the massive increase in the number of complaints in that regard.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): Many hon. Members have set out the various complex issues that can arise in any case, but does the hon. Lady agree that the rise in the number of complaints might also result from the straightforward cases that appear to go wrong? I have constituency cases in which absent parents have made their maintenance payments diligently and on time, often for several years. However, CSA assessments have not taken account of those payments, with the result that the figure set for arrears is entirely wrong and the complaints start rolling in. Does she agree that at the heart of the problem is the fact that the CSA is failing with simple cases as well as complex ones?
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