The serious message that we want the Government to take away from this debate is that the problems with the CSA are so deep-seated that radical solutions are required when the Government introduce their programme of reform. Although the number of people coming to my constituency surgery to complain about the CSA has dropped, it is not because the CSA is working betterit is because those people have given up hope of obtaining redress.
I approach this debate with sadness and shame. I am sad that I did not persuade my side to embrace radical reform in 1998 and accept that we could not patch up the system and that all new money would be wasted. I am ashamed because when I walk around the market in my constituency, people who came to me with CSA cases when their children were young no longer talk to mein many cases, those children have left school, but their mothers have not received a penny from the CSA. I am ashamed that I have not been more effective in this place in achieving the radical reform of the CSA, because we
17 Jan 2006 : Column 737
could have brought hope to those families. After the Government announce their programme of reform, I hope that we will not have to hang our heads in shame at how the service performs, but it is only by thinking outside the box that that might become a possibility.
When the Government make their announcement, I hope that they say that they are seriously considering using the Inland Revenue rather than adopting the casework approach favoured by the Opposition of taking complicated cases with all their details over to the Inland Revenue system. If we move to an Inland Revenue system for enforcing maintenance, we must realise that it will be crude. We cannot build in all sorts of circumstances for the Revenue to take into account before it computes maintenance, because we will move from working out a benefit to working out a tax rate.
The Government should examine converting maintenance payments to x pence in addition to the standard rate of tax for each single child, 2x pence for two children, 3x pence for three children and so on, in which case we would not have to lobby the agency about special circumstances that it should take into account before our constituents pay maintenance. Such a system would be crude, but it would be more effective, because more money would be delivered. It would also allow CSA staff to get on with what I thought they would spend the vast majority of their time doing when we first debated the agencytrying to ensure that the will of this House is enforced when it comes to supporting children.
I want to say again how impressed I was by my hon. Friend the Minister's contribution, which it would pay the Opposition a huge dividend to read carefully tomorrow. From what the Minister has said, the Government have clearly moved on from the bunker mentality that they must defend the agency at all coststhe staff know that the Government are sympathetic given their task. The shame that I feel when I greet constituents who are yet to receive a penny in support is not because the staff have failed, but because this House of Commons has failed to set up an agency that at least has a chance of success, which is what I will look for when the Government introduce their big reform programme.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I am sure that I am not the only Member in the Chamber to be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. With the possible exception of newly elected Members, many of us have been here before. We have heard different Members stand up and speak on behalf of their constituents and seen different faces fielding questions at the Dispatch Box.
Sadly, however, things have not improved. The Child Support Agency is still failing in its principal aimto ensure that children whose parents do not live together are financially supported in a fair and just manner. The last time we debated the issue in this place, the CSA was failing to meet that aim. I would have liked nothing better than to come here today to congratulate the Minister, on behalf of my constituents, on achieving real progress and improvements in the system. However, the Minister will not be shocked to learn that I am unable to do so. The CSA has been a constant source of pain and misery for my constituents from the day on which I was
17 Jan 2006 : Column 738
elected in 2001 right up to my most recent surgery appointment last Friday. I would be hard pushed to say that I have noticed any real improvement in the system in the past five years. For as long as the CSA remains, hon. Members will continue to see problem cases in their surgeries and Ministers should expect to respond time and again to debates such as this.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on his excellent introductory speech. In the Liberal Democrat 10-point plan that he mentioned, it is all summed up in the first sentence, which, under the heading, "Proposed Solutions", says that we believe that the existing agency should be scrapped. There are nine more detailed points, which I am sure that the Minister will mention when winding up.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recall the cross-party support that greeted the Child Support Act 1991 and the subsequent creation of the CSA. When it was established, it was supposed to be a mechanism for fairness and justice; in reality, it has proved to be a failing organisation that is ill-suited to its task and unable to help those who need it most. The unavoidable fact is that not only is it not working as well as it should, but that for many people it has never worked well, and for others it has been a complete disaster. The figures tell their own story. In the past four years, there have been 35,000 cases of maladministration. Unpaid maintenance is running at £1.7 billion. However, I will not concentrate too much on the figures, because we will become embroiled in squabbles about their authenticity, partly because we have heard them all before. The more important reason why we must not allow quarrels over statistics to hide the real stories lies in the details of those stories of hardship and misery caused to those dependent on the CSA.
Perhaps the most extraordinary case that I have come across was that of one of my constituents, whose case is rumbling on five years after her original application. In 2000, she gave the CSA all the necessary documents. After hearing nothing for several weeks, she contacted it again, only to be told that it had no documents about her and she should send them off again. A few days later, she received a letter from the CSA returning the very documents that it had told her that it did not have and asking for more information. She phoned the Hastings office to be told that it was dealt with at Falkirk; Falkirk told her that it was being dealt with at Hastings. Such stories do little to inspire confidence in the system. Eventually, my constituent's papers were found in the Hastings office and a maintenance calculation was made, but no payments were ever forthcoming. The CSA kept on adding the missed payments on to arrears. Unsurprisingly, those payments were not made either.
Two years after the original application was made, the CSA got round to making a liability order to the sheriff's office. It took another year for a public auction of the ex-partner's office goods to be organised. At that auction, he handed over a £1,000 cheque to the CSA, but it was no surprise to hear later that it bounced.
While all this was taking place, my constituent rightly queried the exact amount of child maintenance awarded by the agency. She advised the CSA that her former husband had a variety of properties for which he received income and that he was in full-time work. Yet
17 Jan 2006 : Column 739
those figures were not included in the CSA's calculation. To this day, it appears that it never carried out proper investigations to verify the former wife's claims.
Such delays are bad enough but the case highlights two further systemic problems with the CSA that I wish to raise. First, the agency often takes the former partner's declaration of income at face value. That is often a particular problemto which the Under-Secretary referredwhen the former partner is self-employed and it is difficult to verify the profits and income independently.
I came across another case that involved a former husband who claimed that his income was £100 a week, on which the CSA calculated maintenance. Yet he had a new car, had recently been on holiday and had bought a new house. Is it possible that the CSA accepts the figures too easily and does not conduct proper investigations, which would find that no one who lives on £100 a week could have that lifestyle?
That leads to the second problem: the former partnersthe womenoften have to become detectives. Lack of action by the agency means that the parents with the care of their children must sometimes turn into private investigators. They have to prove that the income of the non-resident parent is higher than is declared, rather than the non-resident parent having to prove that their income is as low as they claim. That simply cannot be right.
Last Friday, I met a constituent, Jacqueline Peterson, to discuss her continuing problems with the CSA. Mrs. Peterson was divorced in 2003 and has had to follow up her former husband's activity. He is now remarried to a Russian internet bride, has bought a brand new hotel and a new house and runs around in a Mercedes, yet his CSA calculations are based on his income of less than £5 a week. Mrs. Peterson has been given no award. Perhaps the least that could be done is the withdrawal of his driving licence to stop him running about in his Mercedes.
In my experience, that is not an isolated incident. In too many cases, the CSA has taken the word of one parentoften the fatheras gospel and left the other, who is inevitably the mother, to chase up further details. She has to fight effectively to clear her name and is guilty until proven innocent. The CSA was not supposed to be about that. The fact that those women do not go screaming from roof tops, crane tops or Buckingham palace does not mean that they do not suffer or are any less deserving of justice for themselves and their children.
I appreciate that other hon. Members are keen to speak and I shall therefore watch the time. Let me briefly mention IT. Other hon. Members have referred to the Work and Pensions Committee report, which was fairly damning about the new computer system. The costs and the cases have been well documented. Like other hon. Members, I do not believe that the problem is due to the front-line staff. Last year, I visited the CSA call centre in Falkirk and it was clear to me that the staff are not the villains in the story. Staff turnover and sickness rates are testament to the pressures under which they operate. Unfortunately, the price of the excess pressure is paid by people who rely on the system.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 740
What is the latest position regarding staffing levels at the CSA? The Under-Secretary's figures do not compute exactly with those given in written parliamentary answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil.
Last year, I was given information about the company behind the much-maligned IT system. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will understand my concern at being told that the bottleneck of cases, which clogs up the computer system, was not caused purely by the system but by the Government's unwillingness to employ the necessary number of staff because of their fixation with reducing the number of civil servants. I was informed that IT suppliers were more than willing to take the rap for the CSA failings in order to secure far more lucrative contracts in future, including providing the IT system for the proposed identity card scheme.
Although it is right to understand why the CSA has failed and to apportion blame if necessary, that does not change the fact that the system fails those whose well-being it is supposed to safeguard. It does not matter whether the Under-Secretary decides to blame staff management or the previous Conservative Government. The harsh reality is that the CSA is riddled with failings. There is little point in giving a building a new lick of paint if the foundations have been poorly laid. The system makes life worse for people who are already in difficult circumstances. Indeed, I have heard claims that the CSA may be the biggest administrative disaster in the history of the welfare state.
The Minister will know of my party's long-standing policy to abolish the CSA and to move its assessment and enforcement functions to the Inland Revenue. Given the amount of cross-checking with the Inland Revenue that the CSA needs to dobut does not always carry outthat would seem an entirely practical and sensible solution. I accept that the situation will not be remedied overnight. However, this is a serious proposition and could provide the kind of government that this Labour Administration are so fond of. The fact is that far too many children are not getting the money that they need and deserve. Clearly, that is often the fault of the absent parent, but the Minister must nevertheless accept that, in too many casestens of thousands of themchildren are not getting the help that they need because of the direct failure of the CSA to act quickly, effectively or at all. I keep hearing about the Prime Minister's eagerness to secure a political legacy. If he is looking for ideas, might I suggest that putting the CSA out of its misery would be a good place to start?