Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I should like to remind the House that more than 600,000 children are benefiting from child maintenance payments today as a result of the Child Support Agency's work. We should not drop the agency as carelessly and indifferently as has been proposed by the Liberal Democrats. I should like to put it on the record that I have worked with many CSA officers over nearly nine years. They have visited my office in Stockton from Falkirk, and delivered in a careful and considered way to many of my constituents. They have resolved many of their problems, and it is important to remember that if   we carelessly underestimate and undermine their profession, we will reap the reward.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 741

My first real statement to the House this afternoon is about the effect of family breakdowns on children. The CSA does not cause those breakdowns, and I am well aware that it cannot mend them. I chair the all-party group on adoption and fostering and I take a keen interest in children's policy. I should like to remind the House of some of the most hideous situations that can arise when a father walks out. Children are left, suddenly and without explanation, and they do not understand why. They feel totally unloved. That situation becomes infinitely worse when the child begins to realise not only that their father has walked out—95 per cent. of non-resident parents who have walked out are men—but that he is now deliberately going to evade his responsibilities. Such situations have a marked effect on children, not only at the time but throughout their life.

Children often have to come to terms with the fact that their father is still living in the same town while claiming not to. He might actually be avoiding meeting them, yet they know that he is there. I have evidence of cases in which the father works abroad for a period of time then comes back, yet, as far as his responsibilities to his children are concerned, his family are invisible to him. This is a serious and significant problem, but we should not forget that more than 600,000 children are now being supported by the CSA.

David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrats demonstrate a touching faith in suggesting that the obligation for the non-resident parent—usually the father—to notify changes of employment and residence would have a significant effect? Does that not underestimate the ingenuity and deviousness of many non-resident parents? Does it not   also fail to recognise the nature of the economy—self-employment, agency work, casual or freelance work—in which many of them work? They often lack the kind of permanent employment that could provide the necessary links to the CSA.

Ms Taylor: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. One of the most difficult issues is that some men are capable of becoming completely invisible to those who would ensure that they fulfil their responsibilities.

I speak from experience this afternoon. We have heard it said time and again that the CSA—which, implicitly, means its officers—is totally failing. However, I suggest that it is the determinedly clever men—who know all the tricks in the book and who will evade whatever system we introduce—who are the problem. We have given the CSA's officers an impossibly difficult task to perform. The Minister spoke earlier with great care, and I was pleased to hear the cautious and careful way in which he was prepared to suggest reforms to the CSA. I want to suggest to him that the agency should separate the families in which the men are deliberately evading their responsibilities, and take them out of the system altogether. Let us then look at a system that could specifically respond to those circumstances.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 742

Alternatively, we should give the CSA investigatory powers to ensure that it can authorise surveillance to produce the evidence to stop the evasion. I want to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that such an approach is essential.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The hon. Lady says that part of the problem is the determination of some non-resident parents to evade making payments. One way of forcing such parents to pay is to issue a liability order. However, a key problem with the system is that, while a liability order is progressing and someone is paying off their arrears, they cannot be made to pay their regular monthly payments. Arrears therefore continue to build up, and further applications have to be made for liability orders. Does the hon. Lady accept that non-resident parents are not the only problem, and that these basic flaws in the system also play a part?

Ms Taylor: I agree with the hon. Lady. I would not for a minute want to stand here and say that the system had integrity. It has many problems. However, CSA officers are handling 1.4 million cases. That figure grows exponentially every year, yet everyone wants their own case to be handled immediately. The system does not have integrity, but I am delighted that my Government are reviewing it and I hope that we shall come up with solutions that all of us can live with.

It is crucial that we all speak from our own experience, and I have had nearly nine years' experience of handling problems with the CSA, in different ways at different times. I must stress to the Minister that investigatory powers and significant resources should be given to the CSA. It should have the right to pay for surveillance activity. It should have the ability to follow up leads, for example, and to access people's mobile phone records.

Many of the women I speak to have expressed their enormous distress at being hounded on their mobile phones because their former partner has their number. I   tell them to change their SIM card, but that is easy for me to say. I have an income, so I can afford to do that. Most of these women are stuck, and cannot afford the cost of changing their number. They are therefore resistant to the idea of getting rid of their phone, even though the former partners are hounding them. We ask the police to check a mobile phone's records, but they say that they need to be paid to do so. The CSA has no ability to pay the police to check mobile phone records. I want it to be able to say to the Inland Revenue, "We want this information now. We want this person to be tracked." But it does not have the power to authorise that. The Minister has stated today that there are problems of enforcement, and of course I agree with him. However, we cannot talk about enforcement in a vacuum. We must examine the way in which investigations should proceed.

Mr. Frank Field: May I make a plea to my hon. Friend, whose argument I am following carefully? Will she make a comparison between what happens in our local authorities when people do not pay their council tax and what happens with the CSA? In Wirral, people who do not pay their council tax go before the court. Even if they do not turn up, a charge is made against them, and the bailiffs are then sent in to recover the
17 Jan 2006 : Column 743
money. Why should we expect CSA staff to take on the role of bailiff? There is a service there; surely we want to embrace it.

Ms Taylor: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

I want to move on. Many people speak as though the   old system, which is extremely complex and dysfunctional, is the problem and the new system will, somewhere along the line, give us opportunities. I do not think that anyone has said that in the Chamber this afternoon. Of course, many fathers say it to me because they think they will be paying less, but the people involved in only 12 of my cases under the old system want to be on the new one. I have a multitude of new cases that remain up in the air because we are struggling to get the appropriate evidence to make the errant father pay up.

I want carefully and without naming names to outline two cases that are so valuable in terms of what I believe we need to be doing. Mrs. X was married for eight and a half years. Her husband left her; she had a son of six. The child is now 16 and she is owed £50,000 in arrears. This is an abysmal situation. The husband, Mr. X, claims to earn £22,000. The fact is that he works for an American company in Dubai and earns £52,000. He lives in a house worth £300,000 and has a mortgage for £215,000. That is evidence, but we cannot get it on   paper. Because we cannot present that evidence on paper, we cannot get that man to pay up. In two years, Mr. X will have worked it brilliantly. The child will be 18 and there will be no more responsibility. It is highly likely that the child will go to university, and it will be the taxpayer who pays.

I have another case, which I will describe to the House because I am so thrilled. It involves Mrs. Y, who took on Mr. Y with great support from the CSA. However, its investigatory powers are poor. This man claimed not to be working, but he works for an American company abroad and moves around a lot. She found out where he was living and checked on him. How she got the information I do not know, but she managed to produce concrete evidence of this person's income. She found that out; the CSA does not have the investigatory powers to do so.

Mrs. Y discovered where Mr. Y was living, produced a marriage certificate and obtained his mobile phone records. This woman should be employed by the CSA. She is one serious bit of kit.

Next Section IndexHome Page